Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at email@example.com.)
Q. Am I a Perverted Predator?: I have a secret that sometimes upsets me: I slept with my wife for the first time when she was 16 and I was 32. We are now 29 (her) and 45 (me) and have two children. We love each other very much. But sometimes I still feel like a pervert because of how we met—through her father, a colleague of mine—and because we had sex once when she was 16 and twice when she was 17. After the third time I stayed away from her for almost a year, until long after her 18th 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?
A: 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.
Q. Husband's Affair—Discovered on Facebook: 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-plus years. The messages also refer to them meeting in secret during the day (at home when our adult son almost "caught them" in the act when he came home unexpectedly) and also in public parks for oral sex and whatever they 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?
A: 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.
Q. Step-Daughter Drama: 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 step-daughter, 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?
A: 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.
Q. Re: Am I a Perverted Predator?: As a matter of legality, the age of consent is 16 in a majority (30) of U.S. 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).
A: 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.