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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
See Dear Prudence live! Emily Yoffe will be at Washington, D.C.’s historic Sixth & I for a special Mother’s Day themed event, hosted by Slate science editor Laura Helmuth. For tickets and more information, click here.
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Paternity Test: I’ve been married just over two years, and if you had asked me two weeks ago I would’ve said my husband was near perfect. We’d been trying for almost a year to get pregnant, so I was over the moon to show him the positive test result. Then everything came crashing down when he asked me to take a paternity test for his “peace of mind.” I’ve never given him the slightest reason to doubt my fidelity (which he acknowledges) and he doesn’t have a history of being cheated on (although I am his first serious relationship). But he says he just can’t bond with our child until he knows for sure it’s his. I absolutely refuse to do a test during my pregnancy—there is a (very) small chance of miscarriage that I’m just not willing to take for a non-medical reason. He agreed to wait till the birth, but has now turned into a different person—distant and polite. I know that the next step is counseling, except I’m at the point that I’m not sure I even want to save the marriage. What sort of dad is he going to be if his love and trust for me is so conditional? Part of me is strongly tempted to say “You’re right, this child is not yours,” and just raise it myself. Am I overreacting?
A: There’s a strange mental disorder called Capgras delusion in which a person thinks a loved one has been replaced by an imposter. But you are actually living this—your husband has been replaced by a cold, hostile, accusatory lunatic. He doesn’t even have the excuse of having some kind of pregnancy-related hormonal disturbance. I don’t blame you for feeling, “Who is this stranger?” But the stranger is your husband who until this bizarre personality change was the love of your life. You need to tell him you two need counseling now, that you have never been so shaken, and that he is making you question the foundation of your marriage. If he won’t go, then you have to go by yourself. Do not make any major decisions right now. Let’s hope that long before your child is born, your husband will have returned from what turns out to be a temporary derangement.
Q. To Catch a Predator: During my senior year in high school, I had an affair with Mr. Milo, one of my teachers. I think I learned from the affair and do not feel like it harmed me unduly. Two months ago, Mr. Milo was arrested for sleeping with a junior at my alma mater. He will probably go to jail. My boyfriend knows about the affair and thinks I should come forward to show that Mr. Milo has a history of being predatory. I do not want to expose myself by revealing I slept with him. Am I morally obligated to come forward?
A: I bet Mr. Milo has a long string of students he seduced, some, like you, who think it was both wrong and thrilling. But what a teenage girl might think makes her special can actually be very destructive, and thank goodness this predator has been caught. He became a teacher so that his place of employment would supply him with an ever renewable resource of underage girls. Prison is a just punishment for such people. I think you should come forward. But you don’t have to decide all at once on how much you want to participate in the case against him. Contact the prosecutor’s office and say you would right now like to talk confidentially with them. It may be they wouldn’t need you to be a witness, but you could be very useful toward their building a case and understanding his M.O. You are lucky that you don’t feel scarred or used by your experience. But you also must be cognizant of the damage such predators do, and this is your opportunity to stop other young women from being exploited.
Q. Unsanitary Husband: My husband and I are at a divide when it comes to basic hygiene while sick. Whenever he has a cold, he will audibly suck the mucus from his nose to his throat, and then cough it up into a tissue that he keeps on hand! It totally grosses me out, but he thinks this is normal and the only way to get rid of the mucus. He refuses to take any medicine for no reason other than that he’s stubborn and wants to let his body do its job. I was raised to believe that audibly sucking mucus back into the throat is just bad manners. Surely spitting phlegm into a tissue that’s lying around is unsanitary. I was taught to go to the bathroom to flush it in the toilet, in private. Who is right?
A: You might have to check with my husband on this. I’m just recovering from a two-week siege with bronchitis and he’s put up with my hacking, hucking mess. But I agree there are limits on how gross the sick person can be, and there are few sounds more repulsive than the Gatling gun regurgitation of mucus. Sometimes, there’s nothing else the sufferer can do. But making a habit of hanging out on the couch and sounding like you’re a cat coughing up a hairball is not going to endear you to your loved ones. But if your husband won’t try to put a lid on it while in earshot of you, then you just need to leave the room—and maybe even someone has to sleep on the couch. You say your husband is too stubborn for medication, but if he had a viral illness, basically all you can do is wait for your body to heal and treat some of the symptoms. As for the tissue issue, again, sometimes the sick person has to deal quickly with what’s erupting. But afterward this germ-filled effluvia should be promptly disposed of.
Q. How Do You Know When You Have Been Assaulted?: Things have been a bit tense in my relationship lately. I take some of the blame since I have been out late a lot more than usual in the past few months with my new hobby. Well, last night I got home (late) and my boyfriend was livid. He said “You know this little hobby of yours has gone too far. Why can’t you for once do something for me?” I probably deserved it, but I shot back a sarcastic “Like what?”—at which point he jumped me. Now, I admit I didn’t exactly do anything to stop him and I certainly willingly participated, but deep down I didn’t really feel like I was comfortably complicit with the whole thing. I left in a huff this morning and we haven’t talked about it, but we have symphony tickets tonight and I have this bad feeling I might cause a scene. What should I do?
A: And here we have a textbook case in failure to communicate. You have a new, unnamed hobby that keeps you out late at night. You know this is annoying your partner, but instead of you two talking about it and coming to some understanding, you disappear and he seethes. Then you come home, you both treat each other with hostility, and he initiates revenge sex. I’m not sure what you’re asking me about this. Do you want to know if what happened qualified as a sexual assault that you should call in to the police? Or did he violate some basic understanding of your relationship and you feel you can’t continue in it? As for the former question, your acknowledge that you didn’t stop him and you “certainly willingly participated”—even if deep down you were uncomfortable. So you gave sufficient consent to keep this a private matter. Some couples enjoy these kind of anger-fueled sexual encounters, but at best you had mixed feelings about it. So get them out in the open. Yes, you have a symphony ticket—and maybe if you’re hearing the 1812 Overture it would suit the mood. But tell your boyfriend that you two need to talk before you go to the concert hall. If things are so bad between you, forgoing the symphony is a small price to pay for addressing some profound issues in your relationship. And if you have a bad feeling you may cause a scene, you certainly don’t want to steal the thunder from the timpanist.
[Update, April 21: As astute and culturally literate readers have pointed out, the dilemma presented here comes from the 1985 'Til Tuesday video for the song "Voices Carry." And indeed, in the video, Aimee Mann flips out in the audience at Carnegie Hall.]
Q. Re: To catch a predator: One thing to consider: that this poor student seeking justice may not be believed unless there’s corroboration. She may well be going through a kind of hell right now, needing someone to come forward.
A: Good point. Surely he’s preyed on more than two girls, but I agree that the letter writer—though I understand her reluctance—should consider his current victim.
Q. Mom vs. the Stepidiot: I thank the higher powers every day that my daughter Emma is in recovery from the eating disorder that almost took her life and that she has found a medication and a counselor that help her manage her clinical depression. She is 16 and has a bright future in front of her, and I worry that her stepmother Celia is interfering with her improvement. Celia obsesses about her weight constantly, even in front of Emma. Emma has asked her to not count calories in front of her or invite her to go on diets, but Celia persists. She also chastises Emma for her “negative outlook” (i.e. her depression) because she comes from a loving, well-off family and doesn’t have a “good reason” to be so unhappy. My ex-husband has talked to Celia about how her behavior hurts Emma, but she hasn’t changed. He doesn’t want to “push the issue” too much, because they have kids together, too. I’m at my wit’s end. Short of suing for sole custody, how can I protect my kids?
A: Please ask for a private meeting with your daughter’s counselor to discuss the effect Celia might be having on her. It likely is the case that your ex can’t control what his new wife says or does, particularly if she has her own weight issues. But it may be that particularly during this very delicate time of recovery, Emma just shouldn’t be hanging out with Celia. Your husband may have to arrange to see his daughter apart from his new family. In any case, the counselor needs to know what’s going on and help you all come up with a plan to keep Emma’s recovery on track.
Q. Re: Assaulted?: As a former prosecutor, I have to agree that this type of incident would be extremely difficult if not impossible to prove it a legal setting. As a former victim advocate, I also have to add that although not meeting the legal definition of rape or sexual assault these type of incidents can be profoundly upsetting. I think following your suggestions is a great start but I would add that it couldn’t hurt to seek some professional help to help you work through the feelings that can arise from these type of incidents.
A: Of course, if the letter writer continues to feel disturbed and violated, then she should talk this out. If she wants to continue in her relationship, it sounds as if as a couple they could use a neutral party to help them figure out how to respectfully work out conflicts.
Q. Wind Chime Nuisance: I’m new to my neighborhood, and my next door neighbor whom I haven’t met has a wind chime that on the most blustery nights, can keep me awake. I left a signed note (no one was home) requesting they at least take it inside after sundown, but one week later and nothing has changed. Was I out of line, and if not, how can I follow up without starting a feud?
A: I know you fear being smacked about the head with wind chimes, but you’ve got to do this in person. Instead of a disembodied note, you have to become a real person with real ears and real bags under your eyes. Ring the doorbell some evening and come armed with a box of chocolates or bottle of wine. Say you are new to the neighborhood, you wanted to introduce yourself, and you’re sorry to combine this with a request to silence the chimes late at night. You may hear from your neighbor that no one has ever complained before and everyone loves the tinkling. Stay pleasant and say that while you do appreciate the sounds, unfortunately, at 3:00 a.m. they keep you from sleeping. If the neighbor won’t cooperate, see if you can get through the night by drowning out the chimes with your own counterprogramming: a sound machine set on “waterfall.”
Q. Re: Deranged husband: This husband is holding something back—like he has been told that he couldn’t have children. That is the only logical explanation for what he’s doing. He thinks he can’t be the father—so he was stunned when the pregnancy test was positive. She needs to get him to level with her.
A: I agree there’s something going on here, but if he in fact thinks he is infertile, than the whole marriage is based on a lie because he obviously never told his wife that. And he is the actual father of this child. Yours is one theory, but there could be lots of other reasons for this sudden personality change.
Q. Icky Comments: Sometimes my husband will use racial/sexist epithets to describe other drivers in the heat of the moment. I’ve let him know (outside the car) that these are unacceptable. I coldly tell him that it’s not OK and I stop talking to him for a little bit (usually a few minutes). He always apologizes but doesn’t actually change. Anything else I can be doing? This is super frustrating, not reflective of his overall character/beliefs about other races/sexes, and definitely not something I want future children to pick up on!
A: Virtually everyone has uttered an epithet while on the road, but I agree that if every drive with your husband results in a string of racial and sexual slurs, your husband has a road rage problem. There is no way to make all other drivers rise to his own standard of perfection, so common sense means being able to shrug off most of the silly or stupid things he observes others doing. But If he gets spewingly hot-headed in response what he perceives are the mistakes of everyone else, that means he’s in danger of compounding the situation. Let say something happens and he and the other driver confront each other. Letting fly with some racial epithets could seriously escalate the situation. I think you need to say you feel endangered when he flies off the handle while behind the wheel. Your many requests to have him curb this haven’t worked, so if it happens again, you’re going to have a moratorium on driving with him until he can actually make some changes. Yes, taking two cars or cabs might be inconvenient, but refusing to go along for the hate-filled ride sounds like the only way you will really get your message across. Alternatively, maybe you get him to agree that since you can keep calm and carry on, you should be the family’s designated driver.
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