ON THIS EPISODE OF UNWONK, WE LEARN WHAT HAPPENS WHEN YOUR PARTNER DUMPS ALL OF YOUR STUFF ON THE LAWN LIKE A MOVIE CLICHE. AND WE TALK TO ATTORNEY AND WRITER JAY WILLIS ABOUT WHETHER IT’S OK TO BREAK UP WITH SOMEONE AT A RESTAURANT.
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Please enjoy the links to additional information relating to the questions on this episode - for people new to our show, these quotes and links may not make much sense until you actually listen to the episode:
"People don't throw your bags out of windows because of lies; they throw them out because of the truth." - Russell Brand
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UNWONK PODCAST - EPISODE 24: DUMPED
HI, FRIEND. THIS IS A ROUGH TRANSCRIPT OF THIS EPISODE OF UNWONK. WHAT'S THAT MEAN? IT MEANS THAT WE'RE JUST PASTING THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT FOR THE SHOW PLUS UNVETTED TRANSCRIPTS OF ANY INTERVIEWS. SO, YOU'RE LIKELY TO SEE CONTENT THAT MAYBE DIDN'T MAKE THE FINAL CUT, MAYBE NOT SEE SOME CONTENT THAT WAS IN THE EPISODE BUT NOT THE ORIGINAL SCRIPT, AND RUN ACROSS A FEW TYPOS.
As with everything on Unwonk, the transcript below is for general informational purposes only - this is not legal advice - if you need to have a legal question answered, please seek legit legal representation.
On this episode of Unwonk, we learn what happens when your partner dumps all of your stuff on the lawn like a movie cliche; and we talk to attorney and writer Jay Willis about whether it’s OK to break up with someone at a restaurant.
This is Unwonk. We respond to your legal questions with relevant and useful information. If you would like to submit a question, please visit our site at Unwonk.com.
When you’re there, you can also find where to follow us on twitter, facebook, and all the social things. And make sure to tell your friends about us. But, just good things. To make this even easier, click on one of the social share buttons under the episode player at unwonk.com/dumped.
You can also check out our ask a lawyer column in Deadspin by clicking on the banner at our site or going to Unwonk.com/deadspin.
Even though the general information on this podcast is provided by actual attorneys, you’d be an idiot to think it is actual legal advice, and you’d also be the type of person who dumps someone by Instagram Story.
And now, our first question:
My boyfriend and I lived together for three years in a house that I own. Things had been kind of rocky between us for the last year. What capped it off was when I told him that I’d like for my father to move into the guest room while he recovers from major surgery - it would be a two month stay. He freaked out, things escalated quickly, and he ended up tossing half of my things onto the lawn like you see in the movies when a spouse gets caught cheating. Except I didn’t do that - I just said I wanted my dad to move in with us for a couple of months. Anyway, I get back from an early shift the next morning and start cleaning up the lawn - but it turns out my boyfriend had the locks changed. So I go to stay at my sister’s place. In the meantime, I get a fine from the homeowner’s association because there’s clothes and furniture all over my lawn, and my boyfriend has stolen my house. I eventually got back in a week later and he moved out. What could I have done differently?
“Jennifer” - Not my real name [location not disclosed]
Sometimes, we receive questions that sound plausible but are not totally realistic. This one sounded like one of those. And, Jennifer, you called it out: It’s the old cliche of someone throwing their mate’s belongings out on the lawn. It gives a glimmer of - and forgive me for using this legal term - bullshit to an otherwise credible question.
However, after doing some research, this isn’t just a Hollywood trope. The vengeful act of sprinkling the yard with a lover’s belongings has a well earned place in reality, and many legal cases.
In fact, on its own, throwing someone’s things onto the lawn as a single act, doesn’t usually have much significance on its own. Well, from a relationship perspective, obviously, coming home to find your underpants in a jumbled mess on the shrubs and your prized Patrick Nagel print collection being beaten down by the sprinklers is going to strike home. BUT, from a legal perspective, this is often one thing in a pattern of actions that is usually used to show abuse and cruel treatment.
Here’s a quote from a Massachusetts appellate case from the 1970s: “The wife’s numerous telephone calls to her husband at work, her threats to speak to his employer, her quarreling with him over money, and her throwing his clothes out on the lawn … were all facts which the judge could have found were part of a pattern of behavior which was reasonably likely to cause harm to the husband.” So, it’s a thing.
It’s not just a lawn, either. If you don’t have a lawn and live in an apartment building, when things are going out the window, it’s actually an act of defenestration. Usually, the word defenestration is reserved for throwing a person out a window, but that also applies to things. Did you know the word defenestration has been around since 1618. It’s going to be 400 years old in two years. Show it some respect and use it once and awhile, alright.
And this act goes back further than our lifetimes. Let’s talk about the divorce case of Genevieve Stewart and Alfred Stewart. Genevieve and Alfred, and I’m quoting the court, were married in Butte, Montana and “seem to have dwelt happily together for a period of one week. Since that time, according to the testimony, their married life has been one continuous quarrel. [He] says it is [her] fault, while [she says that he] is to blame.”
This was a couple whose reality was moving place to place, chasing the next dream of not riches, but just a stable economic life. They had no children. They had no substantial assets. What they had, was a firey connection that transcended the ages. Arguing all the time. After getting married in Montanta, they moved to Salt Lake City, where they fought. A lot. That’s where, during one argument, Genevieve threw Albert’s clothes out of an upstairs window, which inspired him to gather up those clothes and head East for a couple of months. But he returned.
They then up and moved to Los Angeles, where he went to work for a street car company. He finally lost his job on account of a strike, and, owing to the difficulty of finding other employment in Los Angeles, he left LA in search for work. He ended up in the San Francisco Bay Area and sent Genevieve a letter to join him, to which she didn’t reply. He sent another, and she wrote back a letter with this:
The reason that you did not get an answer is, I did not write one. The night before you left here you asked if I was going to Bakersfield with you. No one with good judgment would leave a good paying work and leave nearly a week’s pay behind. If you care about coming to LA for the winter you will have to consult my wishes, as your time is up for getting up and leaving anytime you like with twenty-four hours’ notice and come back till the mood moves again. I have lived with you for fourteen years, and have nothing but rent receipts to show.
The court then notes: “She later refused to join him at Oakland, Cal., for the reason, as she asserted, that the fogs of San Francisco Bay would impair her health. This, if true, was a legitimate reason.”
I love the court’s theoretical approach here. IF TRUE. IF it’s the case that fog is going to kill you, then, yes, that’s bad. Fog, that well known sapper of energy, airborne, weaponized humidity. Dastardly, dangerous, toxic, fog.
Ok, so I actually tried researching whether fog is bad for you. You know research isn’t going well when one of the top search results is from the garbage dump of human knowledge: Yahoo Answers. Just out of curiousity, I clicked on the link. The question was: “Is inhaling fog bad for you? Weather? My couch told me once that if you inhale fog is bad for you lungs .. but i can;t find any reference on the internet ?any ideaS?” I’m going to be chartibable in thinking that the person meant to write “spouse” and not “couch.” Though, on Yahoo answers, it’s anyone’s guess. The top answer to the question was this: “Is the fog mixed with pollution? Is it acidic? Sulphur and heavy metals from an industrial source? Then it is bad.” Yes, the best answer on whether fog is bad for you, is whether it contains bad things. Much like determining if water is bad for you by searching for arsenic within it.
Another quick aside: As we’ve seen on prior episodes, domestic relationship cases in the 1800s and early 1900s aren’t always giving the benefit of the doubt to the woman in the case.
Alright, back to the story. Alfred moved on to Oregon, and this case was him filing for divorce because his wife abandoned him.
That doesn’t mean she spared the reality of their relationship: She says that he was a “nagger” and a faultfinder; brutally passionate; that he was a drinking man; that “he was sober so little that I didn’t know whether I was living with a man or a whisky bottle”; and that he was a very jealous man. Referring to their married life at the time of their parting at Los Angeles, she testified: “He was surely making life miserable. It wasn’t exactly that he was mean to me at this time, but simply because he wasn’t working and was in the house. Well, he got on my nerves, I expect.”
Like a lot of these cases, it’s not close to possible to find out the truth. Clearly, these two had a lot of history together. Why didn't Genevieve obediently follow her husband wherever he was chasing cash at the time? Sounds like she had a good job in LA. Why was she resistant to divorcing him, though, after he moved on? Not like there were any assets to fight over. Maybe, just maybe, the existence of their angry history - the drunken fights, quarreling in the streets, and tossing clothes out the window - was enough to hold onto as the normal.
Even in 1926, when this case was decided. Genevieve and Alfred were married in 1906. 20 years. 20 years. No kids. No money. Just Genevieve and Alfred. In a very public memorial.
Anyway, Jennifer. I’m glad that’s not you and your boyfriend. [EX...boyfriend]
So, back to your question. What could you have done differently? I’m assuming you’re asking this from a legal perspective and not a relationship perspective. That said, as you saw in the legal background of this, tossing a partner’s things onto the lawn is generally one of many factors, or just the tip of the crazy iceberg.
Let’s start with the dynamic. You had a boyfriend move into a house that you own. That makes him your boyfriend, roommate, and depending on what state or locality you live in, a legal occupant or tenant. That last bit - the occupant/tenant thing - gives the person certain rights under law.
Here’s how I would have addressed the whole thing:
There’s a freak-out. Get home. Stuff’s on lawn. Locks are changed.
Now, here’s a weird scenario: As a landlord, you cannot resort to “self help” when it comes to tenants. This means, that you can’t just go change the locks when things go south. Tenant stops paying rent? You can’t just go change the locks.
So, what happens if you’re the landlord and the tenant has changed the locks to your house?
Going to be honest here -> Not even sure where to find a case on this.
However, it’s your home, and you’re locked out.
You have a few options here. Calling the police, that’s certainly an option - if you have a history of freakouts with this person, probably not a bad idea. Calling a locksmith, in this case, I think it’s justified.
The stuff on the lawn? Look, homeowners associations are horrible. We’ve actually got an episode in the works on homeowners associations based on the disproportionately large amounts of emails we get about homeowners associations. If you have any more, submit them at unwonk.com.
So, the locks are changed, but at least drag that stuff to the garage or dump it over the fence to your neatly manicured backyard where your nosy HOA reps can’t see it.
Back to calling the locksmith: If you want to do it right, call/text your boyfriend that you’re changing the locks back to your house, and you’re leaving a key in [INSERT SECRET LOCATION HERE]. You absolutely do not at this point want to be seen blocking access to the house to a tenant or occupant.
Now, if there’s any negotiations about getting back in the house with your partner, try and record that or at least have a witness there. Remember: Getting your stuff dumped on the lawn doesn’t happen in a vacuum. There’s always more to the story.
Other things? You know what a pre-nup is? You should, because we talked in-depth about them four episodes ago. Take a step back from this relationship stuff. I strongly recommend that roommates have a roommate or cohabitation agreement among them payment of rent, payment of utilities, noise, food sharing, and, now that I think about it, treatment of one another’s property and changing of the locks.
I know that asking someone to move in is exciting, another toe in the water, testing out where this is going. So, willingness to enter into some kind of legal agreement about living together can demonstrate some foreshadowing and reveal character. That’s just me, though.
If you’re in doubt in any situation, call a lawyer before taking action. If you feel threatened, for example, you may need a restraining order. If you feel like you’re the one that needs to lock someone out, talk to your counsel before doing so if you’re a roommate/landlord. There’s not a lot you can do to completely protect yourself against someone going off the rails - reality generally crushes any legal construction you can make. But at least you can take a few actions to protect yourself from a fundamental level.
Hopefully your father recovered nicely and you’re dating someone less throwy with your things. Just remember, though, that while the passion of a boyfriend or girlfriend may pass, the anger of a scorned homeowner’s association is forever.
And now, our next question:
Dear Unwonk Podcast,
Last week, my girlfriend of two years booked a table at a really nice restaurant for what I thought was going to be a romantic evening. After we sat down and gave the waiter our orders, she launched into a speech along the lines of it's-not-you-it's-me and broke up with me. I think she wasn't expecting it to affect her too much but it did - she started crying, made a bit of a scene, and left the restaurant right before our food arrived at the table. I was actually surprisingly OK. I asked the waiter if I could send her meal back. He said no, and insisted on including it in the check - saying that I was responsible for it since I was at the table. Was I legally responsible for paying for her meal? What about my meal, since she's the one who booked the table?
Another break up question. This one could go a few different ways. You know what. I think I’m going to enlist the help of another attorney to walk through it.
Joining us now is contributor to GQ and practicing lawyer, Jay Willis. Jay, thanks for joining us.
[TRANSCRIPT OF INTERVIEW COMING SOON]
You can find some of Jay’s work at GQ and follow him on twitter at @farragutwest.
Alright, anonymous, so that was all clear, right? You can follow Jay’s advice, my advice, or something in between. Just remember, though, that if you sue an ex-girlfriend to cover the meal you had to pay when she dumped you and walked out, you might - just might - come off a little petty, cheap, vindictive, angry, sad, alone, desperate for attention. BUT, you might not. I don’t know. I’m just some guy
Thanks for listening to this episode of Unwonk.
And thank you again to Jay Willis. You can find him at GQ, and he’s on twitter at @farragutwest.
Speaking of websites, please visit our site at Unwonk.com to ask your questions, and for lots of bonus material about the topics on today’s episode. You can also find us on twitter, and facebook, and you tell everyone you know to listen and subscribe, which we make easy to do with the share buttons under the episode player at unwonk.com/dumped.
On the next episode, we learn:
- About the world record holder of most marriages. Spoiler, his name was Glynn Wolfe and he lived in California.
- Why, in Iowa, if you break up at a restaurant, you are required by law to leave an autographed photo on the wall.
- 8 more horrible ways I ended relationships in my 20s.