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 look forward to your questions.
Q. My Boyfriend’s Stuffed Animal Collection: My boyfriend has about two dozen stuffed animals. They are, apparently, the survivors of a childhood collection once numbering over 100. When asked, he can explain the individual reason for each one he saved. (Invariably it was a gift from so-and-so, a group of people that includes family and friends but no exes). Most of them are kept on a shelf in his closet, but one has a place of honor on his bed. Part of me feels like it shouldn’t be any big deal—after all, I went to college with a teddy bear, who currently resides on my nightstand. But part of me keeps fixating on the fact that he’s a man in his 20s with two dozen stuffed animals, which is hardly the norm. Is this a cause for concern, or should I let it go?
A: In Japan there is a disturbing trend for disaffected young men to fall in love with a pillow printed with their favorite anime character and announce the pillow is their girlfriend. So thank goodness your boyfriend does not have such a relationship with any of his little friends. Men have been told that women do not want testosterone-addled brutes in their lives (OK, maybe the success of Fifty Shades sends some mixed messages), and you don’t get much less brutish than a stuffed animal collection. It’s a good sign that the group is only 20 percent of what it once was and that with one exception they live in the closet. You yourself have gone through life with a special teddy bear (do you bring him to your boyfriend’s for a sleepover with his special friend?), so you’re right, you should be more accepting. If this is the only thing that bothers you about a great guy, then you need to look at your own sexist beliefs.
Q. I Was Molested, but I Don’t Want Help: I was molested by a trusted family friend for nearly two years. It ended when I was 13, and I’m in my mid-30s now. A few weeks ago, a family my wife and I are close with experienced the same thing with one of their children. Since then my wife, who has been aware of my history for years, has been pushing me to go to a therapist to discuss my own abuse, which I’ve never done. The thing is, I don’t feel like I need to do that. It doesn’t occupy my thoughts, I don’t feel damaged, and my wife and I have a happy marriage. I think dredging it all up again would be exhausting, and expensive, with little to no benefit that I can determine. She’s convinced that everyone who has been abused requires years of therapy to get over it. Last night she became so insistent that we actually fought about it. Am I wrong to resist? Should I put myself through therapy because it’s “what people do”? I realize talk therapy benefits many, many victims, but I don’t think I’m one of them. I don’t seem to be getting through to her. What should I do?
A: You went through a crushing experience and came out intact. Some people are blessed with such resilience, and it’s important for people to hear stories such as yours. Victims need to know that a terrible violation does not have to write the script for the rest of their lives. There certainly are patterns of response to such abuse, and many—if not most—who have suffered it will be helped by the support of professionals. But each person has to be seen as an individual, and it is damaging to force someone into a model that doesn’t fit. You don’t say your wife is noting that you haven’t coped as well as you think—that she points out, for example, that you need to drink heavily before having sex. She just has a blanket belief that someone who has been sexually abused is damaged in a specific way and requires a certain kind of medical attention. She is so unwilling to take your case on its merits that she is bullying you about this. That has to stop. You make a very important point that dredging up the past is not cost-free. For some people, examining the past and feeling a sense of control over their memories will be liberating. But there is also pain in such examination. You sound perfectly justified in not wanting to experience it. So if your wife won’t hear your explanation of this, you need to tell her she should see someone to deal with her anger about this, because her harping on this feels like a violation to you.
Q. I Wanted a Divorce ... Now He Has Cancer: My husband and I should never have married. We are both 27 and have been married a little over five years. We met at a young age, and because we came from seriously religious backgrounds (we are no longer religious), we married quickly, but have no kids. Months into my marriage, I had realized I made a huge mistake. Our relationship depresses me. I want a life of happiness and even a little excitement—even if it’s as a single woman. I was planning on asking for a divorce, but he just dropped the bomb that he’s got cancer. He’s healthy and has a good chance of survival; it’s not like it’s terminal and I can wait it out either (awful thought, I know). I still want to leave, but it seems cruel and I can’t imagine what our friends and family will think. What can I do?
A: You can hold on to your long-term goal of leaving, but I think that you will not be able to live with yourself if you leave right now. You do have a moral obligation to see him through the worst. I hope his treatment is swift and effective—and not just for your sake. When he’s recovered sufficiently, recognize that when you do go, you will get brickbats and opprobrium from your nearest and dearest. There’s no way to avoid this, and you will have to have some prepared remarks along the lines of this being a wrenching decision that had nothing to do with your husband’s illness and leave it at that. If your husband secretly feels as you do about your marriage, it may be that he can help you by explaining to people your decision to split is about having married too young. Please find a counselor. You need someone to help guide you through the tough times to come.
Q. Name Change: I’m in my early 40s and heading toward a major career change. I’ve always hated my first name and would like to change it. How can I notify people of this change without them thinking I’ve lost my mind—or maybe the question is how can I care less about what others think?
A: Women routinely change their last names and no one thinks they’ve lost their minds. You’re just changing your first name. You’re right that a break in your career is a good time to do it because you will have a group of people who will know you by nothing but your new moniker, or Monica. With everyone else you just say, “I’ve gone through life being a Gertrude who felt like a Monica, and now I’m going to become Monica.” But you must give people who have known you for four decades some leeway in making this switch. Keep your patience and good humor as you remind them, “Gertrude is no more, but Monica is fine, thanks.”
Q. Re: I Wanted a Divorce ... Now He Has Cancer: My best friend from college was getting ready to break up with her longtime boyfriend when he was in a terrible accident that left him paralyzed from the waist down. She was over him, but stayed together another year to help him through it. Eventually they broke up, but I know that he was grateful for her help, and I think she grew a lot as a person and became a stronger person for her next relationship. He went on to find a great girl and he is getting ready to propose to her (!), and my friend went on to have plenty of fun adventures, and ended up meeting a great guy. You’re still young, you can do anything for a year.
A: Thanks for this tough story with a wonderful ending.
Q. Re: Stuffed Animals: While I agree with your advice, I would advise the letter writer to be careful. I once had a boyfriend who kept around a dozen stuffed animals. He said they were his friends in times of need and his confidants in times of indecision. It turns out they were also his lovers in times of loneliness. Obviously, I broke up with him!
A: I really don’t want to know how you found this out. Thanks for this disturbing warning.
Q. Marrying Young?: I am 19 years old. I started liking my boyfriend when I was 8 years old. We started dating when I was 15. He’s a grade ahead of me, and went to a college out of state, but we stayed together long-distance for the duration of it. Now I’m at the same college, and we want to live together. However, we really want to get married before we do. Is it insane to marry this young? We are an excellent couple, and I definitely think we will get married in a few years anyway. So why wait?
A: Because you’re 19 years old and you don’t in fact know how you’ll feel in a few years. It’s true there are many happy lifelong childhood sweethearts. There are also many childhood sweethearts who turn 30 and desperately wish they had explored their freedom and other people. I suggest you don’t even live together. If you do end up married, your college years will be a chance to live on your own, or with other people. It’s important that you have a chance to explore the world without always feeling part of a couple. If you do marry, these experiences will help make your marriage stronger.