Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

Mar 11, 2013

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

I know we officially have a few more weeks, but the crocuses and daffodils are saying spring, spring, spring!

I have a secret that sometimes upsets me: I slept with my wife for the first time when she was sixteen and I was thirty-two. We are now twenty-nine (her) and forty-five (me) and have two children. We love each other very much. But sometimes I still feel like a pervert because I of how we met - through her father, a colleague of mine - and because we had sex once when she was sixteen and twice when she was seventeen. After the third time I stayed away from her for almost a year, until long after her eighteenth birthday. Then we started dating. My wife always points out that she wanted to have sex just as much as me and initiated all three encounters; she says that our relationship is healthy and that we are equals and that she has never been negatively impacted by our decision to have sex, so why should I angst over this? Should I let go of my baggage, or am I right in feeling somewhat perverted?

In another era, it was common for a teenage girl to be matched with an already established man. This kind of thing is still standard in many parts of the world. But today we look at adult men having sex with minors through a different moral and legal lens. However, you and your wife are long-time spouses, you are raising two children,  and you have a delightful relationship.  Your wife repeatedly asserts that things got their sexual start through her own agency.  If you had had a pattern of sexual encounters with underage girls, or were expressing an interest in them now, that would be an entirely different story. But there is no point in undermining the foundations of a thriving marriage because you are uncomfortable with its origin. Lots of happy couples have "how we got together" stories that aren't entirely respectable.  Your wife's parents are not agitating to bring a statutory rape charge against their son-in-law and father of their grandchildren. You have a story with a happy ending, so don't sully it by obsessing destructively on  its start.

Dear Prudence, I plan to be married soon. My fiance and I don't want a big to-do, but would like to mark the occasion with a small ceremony and invite immediate family and a few close friends. This is a second marriage for both of us. My ex-husband and I remained civil to one another for the sake of our children. Once the hurt of our failed marriage had healed we developed a friendship based on mutual interests and shared history. My fiance and my ex get along well, and we occasionally socialize with him and his significant other. My ex is a judge, and as such is able to perform weddings. My fiance and I talked it over and would like to ask him to marry us. We haven't asked him yet and aren't sure he will agree, but we want to extend the invitation. Problem is, when I mentioned our plan to my sisters they had a fit. They said it would be tacky and would make other family members uncomfortable to have my ex marry us. Prudie, I know it's an unusual situation, but it is also something we'd really like to do. I would like to know your take on the situation. Are our plans just too "out there?"

I'm all for formers getting along, especially when there are children involved. I'm also for intimate, low-key wedding ceremonies, especially when they are the second time around. But even if I disagree with your sisters throwing a fit, I agree with their point that  it will take away from the sweetness of the moment if your loved ones are thinking that when your officiant gets to, "By the powers vested in me," he might add, "it is with great relief that I say thank goodness she's yours and not mine." You do not want the moment that you two are being joined to be accompanied by mass eye-rolling and elbows to the ribs by those in attendance.  It's fine  if you ex and his girlfriend attend the ceremony, but surely you and your fiance can find a mutually agreeable person to preside over your wedding who does not also have carnal knowledge of either of you.

Yesterday, my girlfriend and I were engaged in a mix of fun, an argument, and horseplay. She did something that upset me and without thinking I hit her on her back with the palm of my hand much harder than I intended to. I immediately apologized but she broke up with me later that day. I think she was right to do so. I'm writing you not for advice on how to win her back (I have to assume she's gone for good), but how to begin to regain my self-esteem. I feel awful about what I did and I want to be both introspective and proactive. I am going to use my school's counseling service and am considering volunteering for a domestic violence center. Are there any other resources I should be aware of?

You and your girfriend were both voluntarily having tussle that was both sexy and angry, and you gave her a slap to the back. When you say it was harder than you intended I wonder if you left a giant hand-sized bruise, or if this slap landed more robustly than your other wrestling moves.  Only you know if you really intended to hurt her out of anger or if it's hard to calculate the line when a man and a woman are choosing to work out a disagreement in a physical way. But I will take you at your word that the force was more than you intended and was done in a very specific context. In that case, the lesson for you is to be particularly aware of limits when you're skirting the edge of them. Frankly, I think you should be careful about going and essentially reporting yourself for domestic abuse in such an ambiguous situation. The consequences of unburdening yourself could be most unpleasant.   I also think you should get back in touch with your girlfriend, apologize again, and say you see the whole sexy-angry encounter as a mistake that resulted in a terrible miscalculation on your part. Say that even if she continues to conclude the relationship is over, you hope she can accept what happened truly wasn't intentional and you'll always regret it.

I got my husband's Facebook password while looking over his shoulder and logged in to find that he's been exchanging extremely graphic fantasy/sexual messages with a female friend for three months (682 messages) I was shocked since he acts like he's such a loving husband to the outside world - to me, not so much. We've been married 30+ years. The messages also refer to them meeting in secret during the day (at home when adult son almost "caught them" in the act when he came home unexpectedly) and also in public parks for oral sex and whatever then can do together. I'm sick to my stomach. I copied 13 pages of messages and mailed them to sex-pot's husband with a note of apology that I was ruining his life/opening his eyes. Haven't confronted husband yet - figure he'll get word when the mail gets delivered next week. In the meantime, I'm calling a lawyer. Should I have told the husband?

Yes, you should have told the husband -- your husband. It's unfortunate that your first move was to wade into someone else's marriage instead of dealing with your own.  You have no idea of the situation  of your husband's partner in lust. Maybe her husband will be grateful for the information. Maybe they have an open marriage. Maybe there are all sorts of complications in their lives you just aren't privy to.  But I do take you at your word that your marriage is irretrievably broken and that a lawyer is the right next step.  Mark Zuckerberg has said that his invention will make the world better because  it removes barriers between people. But I bet back in his Harvard dorm room, he didn't have this kind of thing in mind.

Dear Prudence, Two years ago my husband's personality drastically changed overnight. Months later after showing him one of your columns to see a doctor, it turns out he had a minor stroke at the age of forty. He did not notice the change however, I was concerned because his short-term memory was very limited, common sense was gone and he was no longer affectionate or attentive with me. The first year was really hard, I helped him stay on top of his job and I wrote extensive notes so he wouldn't forget to feed our kids or forget to drop them off at daycare on his way into work.  Fast forward to present day, his memory has slightly improved, I check his emails just once per day to make sure he took care of all of his work obligations and he has turned into a really fantastic and fun father. My problem is he still is not affectionate with me. I really miss that aspect of our relationship and I do schedule date nights with a babysitter several times a month and overnights with the grandparents a couple times a month. I have to ask him to hold my hand, kiss or hug me and we are basically celibate. I have tried talking about it with him however, he thinks he's very affectionate. I feel like this is a memory issue and I've asked him to return to the doctor. I love my husband but I'm starting to feel desperate for attention! How do I handle this situation?

I'm so sorry for this situation, and am grateful for this confirmation that drastic personality changes call for an immediate medical evaluation.  You have made an heroic effort to keep your husband functioning and this must be incredibly draining. I hope you have a lot of emotional support yourself and have the opportunity for respite from dealing with your own life and managing your husband's.  One hallmark of brain damage is that people lose an awareness of how they are behaving.  Your husband needs more rehabilitation. Fortunately, we now recognize how plastic the brain is, and as your husband is still young, the potential for further healing is there. But he needs therapy. Since you're such a good organizer start doing research to find the kind of rehabilitation center that works on healing the whole person.  Having couples therapy with a counselor schooled in the physical and psychological consequences of stroke could make a huge difference in your lives.

For the first LW. As a matter of legality, the age of consent is 16 in a majority (30) of US states and all of Canada. So even though your wife was a minor at 16, she was legally able to consent to sex and you were not committing a crime (assuming you were in one of those locations).

Let's hope he was in one of those states because I agree it would help psychologically to feel that the law recognized his now-wife was legally able to consent. Several other writers are pointing out that as his children are growing, maybe he is worrying that they will be looking for an inappropriately older partner.  If that's the case, a few sessions with a therapist to deal with this could offer big relief.

My husband of 5 years likes to drink (a lot of) wine daily. When he drinks, he becomes a different person who is dense, often incoherent and even mean. He has never believed my report on this change and thinks I'm exaggerating. Toward the end of last year, an incident happened where he was left with irrefutable evidence of his outrageous behavior (sexual text messages to a colleague that he didnt remember sending) and he was incredibly embarrassed and humiliated. I was hurt and upset. He decided to seriously cut back on his drinking and asked if I would go to a marriage counselor with him. The first two months of this year have been glorious! I had forgotten how much fun and interesting he could be when he wasn't drinking and we've found some good ways to work on communication and trust and meeting each other's needs with the counselor's help. Well, his drinking is starting to pick up. The first time, I ignored it. The second time, I said something and he got truly angry. The third time, I went to my room. I do not want to police his behavior, but I also am not willing to go back to our old way of life. What can I do?

You're married to an alcoholic.  He is unwilling to recognize this because the most he's capable of doing is "cutting back" on his ruinous behavior.  Even if he won't go to Alcoholics Anonymous, you should go to Al-Anon for support from other people who have an alcoholic in their lives.  If you are married to an alcoholic who won't put down the bottle, then I don't see many options except leaving.

My wife and I are expecting our first child later this year. Like any new parents, the subject of names is a touchy one. My brother-in-law and his wife have a nearly two year old - the first grandchild in the family and accordingly doted over - and are not currently pregnant. When they were discussing naming their first child, my BIL's wife staked a 'claim' to two names, one for a boy and one for a girl. My wife and I both happen to really like the other 'claimed' name. My wife thinks we are forbidden for using it, though, because my SIL 'claimed' it over two years ago. I think that's ridiculous, that my wife shouldnt worry about it, and even if my SIL was upset she needs to get over it. What are your thoughts?

A woman drinking excessively during her pregnancy is a touchy issue. What parents decide to name their child is not, even if they announce their baby will be  Chartreuse Ivy.  So your in-laws "staked a claim" to a name. I assume they didn't file this claim at the same federal office that deals with mineral rights.  If you like a name and they like a name, then if they go on to have another child of the appropriate  sex, they are free to  "reuse" the name.  Just be sure you haven't landed on this name because it allows you to give a needle to a disliked relative. You don't want your child saddled with a name that carries any bad feelings.

I work in a small bungalow on a studio lot in LA. Three of us have desks out in the open in the main area. Our P.A. is young and a bit quirky, but enthusiastic, eager to learn and has a great attitude. I adore him, but, he has one hugely annoying habit: he is the loudest eater I have ever encountered. He chomps, slurps and smacks his way through every meal.  We often eat lunches at our desks while working, as we're on a tight schedule. His eating is so distracting, I had to pick up my laptop and carry it outside at one point so I could concentrate on finishing my work.  Is it ever okay to tell somebody that they eat too loudly? How can I do it kindly and politely?  

If you have to leave the room because of the volume of a young colleague's eating, then you will be doing him a huge favor by discussing this with him (but not over a meal). You say he's "quirky" which could mean he lacks certain social skills, but since he's eager to advance, you have to tell him that he has a habit he's probably not aware of he needs to address. Explain he is a really loud eater and he needs to tone it way down. Since you're in the movie or TV business, you could suggest that he tape himself eating and listen and watch what he does. He could also find an etiquette consultant who could give him a few sessions on table manners.  To put him at ease, be calm and unembarrassed. In years to come, he'll probably look back with gratitude that you were willing to have a difficult conversation that helped his career. 

I'm a 19 year old college freshman who just had her first kiss, and other things, this weekend. I had been extremely anxious to get this out of the way. The guy was extremely sweet, attractive, and intelligent, and actually wanted a relationship with me. I felt no chemistry, however, and quickly ended it. The physical encounter we had (not sex) triggered a depression in me, and now I keep flashing back and feeling disgusted. I do not think this is normal, especially for someone my age. Is there something wrong with me? Should I try to date other people right now?

I can see being eager to have this experience and hoping it would be transcendent. But there's something wrong if you were simply anxious to get it over with. That kind of attitude tends not to lead to a lot of chemistry. Since you have no sexual experience,  it's realistic to expect your first encounters will feel awkward and self-conscious. But disgusted and depressed is not a normal reaction. I'm wondering if you have had some sexual trauma in your past, or you were raised in a sexually punitive environment. Put off dating for now, and since you are at college, take advantage of the free counseling available to you and discuss your reactions with a therapist.

Dear Prudence, I have been with my husband for eight years, married two. I have two sons and he has a son and a daughter. A couple of years ago, during a nasty custody dispute with his ex wife, his daughter accused my son of molesting her. They are the same age.  The time frame and circumstances claimed were impossible, and after investigations by CPS and the police the accusations were found to be false. Despite this, the judge ordered full custody of the daughter to her mother due to the daughter insisting she didn't feel safe with us. The son is with us just under half the time. I had felt bad for my stepdaughter, thinking she was forced to claim abuse by her mother -- since then she has insisted that the abuse actually happened, and has made several other accusations during conversations with my husband. Most are obviously false, flat out lies about things she says we did or conditions in our home. I now have no desire to ever see her again, but want to support my husband in having a relationship with his daughter. I fear the future. If she decides to one day be in our lives again, how do I balance supporting their relationship while dealing with my anger?  

What a dreadful situation, one that's emotionally scarring for everyone. I can understand  your loathing for this girl. Had her accusations not been found to be false the consequences for your son would have been ruinous. But good for you that you also pity her. As you say, either she was egged on by her mother, or she is mentally unbalanced, or both.  Since she is continuing with her claims, I think you and your husband should talk to a lawyer about how to protect yourselves.  It could be that if your husband is seeing her alone, he might be the next one to be accused. So talk to someone with expertise  about how he can have visitation with his daughter while making sure the situation is safe.  Once you've done that, you may feel sufficient safeguards are in place so that you worry less about the future. Dwelling on dreadful cases that haven't happened is so disabling. If you can't let go of your worry, then a counselor should help you sort through your feelings and give you some strategies for letting go.

My husband was an emotionally (and, on three occasions, physically) abusive man. He hid his abusive behavior from everyone but our children and me. I recently managed to save up enough money to divorce him and move far away. Then he died; a drunk driver T-boned his car. His family and his friends are grief-stricken and assume I am too. His mother comes over to help with the kids but inevitably breaks down and wants to talk about my husband and how wonderful he was. My children had a very strained volatile relationship with their father, and now they feel pressured to pretend like he was a loving father. My thirteen-year-old son told me he's not sad his dad died, and, as awful as it sounds, I don't blame him. How should I respond to others' legitimate grief over the man they thought they knew? I feel fraudulent posing as his wife when I couldn't wait to leave him. I didn't want him to die, but if I'm being honest, his death doesn't make me sad either.

Since you divorced your husband and moved far away, people should know that your sense of loss is going to be different from someone whose loving husband just died. To the expressions of grief you can respond with anodyne statements. "It was a shocking loss." "I know how much you miss your son/friend/brother."  With your former mother-in-law you have a difficult balancing act. You want her in her grandchildren's lives, but you cannot grieve with her.  Try saying something like, "Of course I understand you're in agony. But discussing Brandon is just too painful for me, so I'm sorry I can't do it." Despite your relief at your ex's death, I think you should tread carefully with the children because they will have raw and complicated feelings to sort through.  You can listen attentively to them and let them know it's okay to express these complicated feelings without saying that you, too, are glad he's dead.  You can acknowledge that their father had good some qualities that sadly were often overwhelmed by his bad ones, and that he did cause all of you a lot of pain. You can explain that in  such circumstances you understand that among their many feelings is a sense of relief.

The letter writer said she had saved up enough so she could divorce her husband and move far away, not that she had initiated any of those proceedings.

Ah, thanks for clarifying my misreading.  Yes, this complicates things, but I will then reiterate my initial advice. For herself and her children, she simply should not put on false theatrics about being the devastated widow. She can acknowledge the grief of the other person and say it's too painful for her to have conversations about her ex. She should limit things with her mother-in-law.  She was planning to move, which she should probably put on hold at least temporarily because her kids are going through enough disruption. But eventually she may decide starting over somewhere else is still a good idea.

My father passed away almost four years ago and my mother found a new "companion" very soon after. I was happy for her, especially because I live several hundred miles away and am not able to visit very often and did not want her to be lonely. My mother and "Bob" never married, but lived together in my mother's apartment at an independent living center. My mother never changed her will to provide anything for "Bob" after her passing. Unfortunately my mother passed away three months ago. I am the executor of my mom's estate, which is to be liquidated and split between my sister and me. I was recently quite shocked when "Bob's" children contacted me to inquire about how I planned to accommodate Bob's living requirements since my mother's apartment has been returned to the facility for resale. To be honest, I had no plans to provide for Bob going forward at all. If my mother had a very small estate and had she wished to provide for him, she clearly could have because she updated all her formal documents (wills, powers of attorney, etc.) after Bob was in the picture. I met Bob on only a couple of occasions and have never met his daughters. Am I missing something, or is Bob's family on its own to provide him a place to live?

Get a lawyer.  You're right you mother apparently pointedly did not provide for Bob, but an attorney can advise you of the legal implications of your mother allowing him to be a tenant in her home.  Since you have no personal or emotional ties to Bob,  have your lawyer communicate with his family about the nature of the law. 

Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week.

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Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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