Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m looking forward to your questions.
Q. Ship Without a Pendant : I am a senior military officer in a smaller branch and have been married almost 30 years. Our children are grown; my wife is utterly miserable. She hates my calling, its protocol and social requirements, my colleagues, and my constant travel. When I return she blasts me with torrents of abuse, screams at me for trivialities, and then threatens me with divorce—but we remain married. We’ve talked separation but we have moved so much she has nowhere to go. She says she will only divorce me if she can have “the same lifestyle she has now” but that’s just impossible given the work perks I get as a flag officer. Failing that she says if I file for divorce she will “destroy” my reputation and force me to retire in disgrace. (While I’ve led an honorable life, she could throw enough mud to take me out of the running for promotion, and I am competitive for higher rank.) If I lose my wife my career will be destroyed; if I retire for my wife I believe the misery will just continue. What should I do? My personal life is a lonely disaster. We have no real friends left, not wanting to expose our failings. We sleep in separate rooms, scarcely speak privately, and smile only for the cameras. Our active official life masks the truth but not the misery.
A: Here you are, a man trained to confront and vanquish the enemy, and you go home each night to endless combat, a fight you appear to be losing. Obviously, I don’t know what’s wrong with your wife. But you might want to take a look at some of the literature on borderline personality disorder and see it that sends up any flares of recognition. Your wife is fiendishly clever, I’ll give her that. Her terms are that you can separate, as long as she enjoys the same perks she does as the wife of a high-ranking officer, which is an impossibility. Or, if you unilaterally try to end the marriage, she will destroy your career out of spite. That, of course, would have a material effect on her financial comfort, but it sounds as if she’d prefer revenge. Your wife is unstable and potentially dangerous to you, so you need to discuss your strategy with some professionals. Talk to a psychologist—one with expertise in personality disorders—and a lawyer—one with expertise in the military. You can speak to both confidentially, so don’t hold back. You need to consider all your alternatives and contingencies, and put the best plan possible in place for protecting yourself and your career. With the lawyer, figure out what dirt your wife might fling, and how to contain it. You have been living in abject misery for years, but only you can decide how much longer you can bear feeling like a hostage in your own home.
Q. Paranoid Husband: My husband is a big fan of yours. Unfortunately, every time he reads about an unhappy wife in one of your columns, he accuses me of writing it! There is usually some detail in each letter that doesn’t match our circumstances. He still thinks I’m the writer if those letters, pointing out that it would be smart to change the details in order to throw him off track. How can I convince him that I’m not writing letters to you?
A: Any woman would be an unhappy wife if her husband saw himself in every letter that started, “He’s wonderful, but [fill in horror story here].” Paranoia is debilitating to all in its circle. I am sorry if every time the column mentions an unhappy wife, you get interrogated. You say your husband is a fan, so let me have a word with him: “Husband, since you are a regular reader, I bet you can guess what’s coming next. Yes, you need help. Your wife’s actual complaint about you is that you see yourself in every bad husband described here. I know one solution would be for you to stop reading the column—but I don’t want to lose you as a reader! And I suspect you’d just find some other way to badger your wife about how she feels about you.” So, Wife, if your husband doesn’t recognize himself this time and take action, you must insist that the two of you see a neutral party (who is not an advice columnist) to air out what’s actually going on. Your husband needs to explore why he thinks you have so many problems with him and why he recognizes himself in every bad husband.
Q. I’m a Rape Baby ... Now What?: Recently, my brother and I did DNA tests from 23andMe, after which we found out that were are not, as we had always believed, brother and sister but actually half siblings. I asked my mother about it and was told that she was raped at a party, has no idea who the man was, and doesn’t want to speak about it again. From the vague story she told me, I believe that this was not a violent encounter, but more a too-drunk-to-consent situation. I am not in any way trying to invalidate her feelings, but I can’t help but think that there may be a decent guy out there who believes he had a one-night stand with a girl at a party in the early ’80s. Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or make an effort to find the man in question? Obviously, I wish to respect my mother’s wishes, but also think I have a right to know.
A: I sometimes think these genetic testing companies should just call themselves, “Who’s My Daddy?” This kind of discovery is one of the unexpected outcomes that occurs when you’re just trying to find out if you have any Native American ancestry or if you’re at increased risk for diabetes. Your mother says she was raped at a party and doesn’t want to give you the details. If she was passed out, even if the man didn’t use overt violence, he committed rape, and you can understand that your mother doesn’t want to revisit this. It could well be she can’t tell you who the “decent guy” was because she simply doesn’t know. Maybe she does, but she’s not saying. I totally agree that people are entitled to this kind of information about themselves, but as long as your mother sticks with her account, you are not getting it. Of course this news has rocked you, and what’s important now is how you process it and put it in it’s place. Lots of people say they want to know their biological origins for medical reasons. But you’ve already taken care of a lot of that with the test results. Since there’s only one possible source of information, and she’s not talking, you should let this go for now. Let your mother regain her equilibrium, and see, if over time, she seems more amenable to reopening this issue. You may also find that as time goes by, finding out about a man you never knew, and whose identity you may never know, will feel less urgent.