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 email@example.com.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I wish everyone could see the perfect cherry blossom right outside my window. Washington does cherry blossoms right!
Q. Bedtime Blackmail: My wife has imposed a “bedtime” on me with the strangest possible punishment. Last month she decided I was spending too much time on the computer and not enough time with her. So she declared that if I am not in bed before midnight, then we don’t get to have sex. The kicker? She starts without me—and if I’m even a minute late then I’m not “allowed” to touch her as she masturbates. Her exact words were “I’m having an orgasm with or without you, so if you want to join in you need to show up on time.” On the one hand I feel like this is sexual blackmail and want to refuse her on principle. On the other, I recognize I have been ignoring her in favor of addictive computer games and I wasn’t responsive to her previous “non-blackmail” requests to join her before 2 or 3 a.m. To bed or not to bed? That is the question!
A: Do you want to have sex with your wife? Then act like an adult, get off the computer, and join her in bed at the perfectly reasonable hour of midnight. Your acknowledged addiction to computer games means you aren’t a companion or sex partner to her. You can’t be much of an employee, either, if you are getting no sleep. Your wife isn’t nagging you, she’s simply taking matters into her own hands. She’s not punishing you, you’ve been punishing her by making perfectly clear her company is utterly secondary to your game addiction. Grow up and get to bed.
Q. Covering Up a Half Sister: I found out a month ago that I have a younger half sister, the product of a long-ago affair of my dad’s. Per my mom’s insistence, she and my dad never had a relationship with her. I never imagined I could be so disappointed in my parents or be so mad at them. When I confronted them, they told me I couldn’t understand the pain “this reminder” caused them, that her mom was impossible, that women could choose to give their kids up for adoption and how was this different? I cannot get over how they abandoned this child and feel no remorse over it. We can’t stop arguing about the decision. I just don’t know how to respect them anymore.
A: I agree with you that human beings are not “reminders.” If a spouse cheats and has a child by another person (and if the child is not placed for adoption), if the marriage is to go on, that child should be recognized by the family as a new member. If this reminder is too painful for the cheated-upon spouse, then the marriage should end. That’s not what your parents did, which now leaves you having discovered this unknown half sibling. You sound like an adult yourself, so recognize that arguing with your parents over this is useless. They will not change their minds about that long-ago decision—it’s too devastating to think they did the wrong thing by a child. So what you have to figure out is whether you want to reach out and try to get to know this half sister. If you do, please first explore all the implications of bringing to light this long-hidden family secret.
Q. What’s in a Name?: We are foster parents to a 2-year-old boy, and there’s a good possibility that he won’t be going home. If he needs a permanent home, we want to provide that. This seems so petty, but we hate his name. It’s a mashup, difficult to spell and pronounce. Are we wrong to consider changing his name? He’s getting a fresh start, so is this the time for a fresh name?
A: If you’re going to become parents of your foster child, you surely will be in touch with professionals to help guide you. This is something to discuss with them. But if you do adopt your foster son, he will definitely be getting your last name, right? So it might make sense at that point to give him a new first name. If you do that, my suggestion would be to make his current first name his middle name. His origins will never be a secret, and as he grows, he will want to understand his past and not feel this is an ugly or verboten subject.
Q. My Wife Shares Too Much: Am I crazy to be hurt that my new wife told me about a dream? It was about a man I’ve had severe jealousy issues with. She was seeing him, a downstairs neighbor, just before we became a couple. She assured me the dream was quite innocuous. But in it he asked her to marry him. I’ve made it clear to her that any mention of him causes me anxiety. We’ve argued several times about it. There is no confusion between us about this. I once resorted to prescription drugs to help me cope. I think telling me about this dream was unnecessarily hurtful. A person can’t control their dreams, but she should have kept this to herself. She seems incredibly tone-deaf about this. Do I have reason to be upset?
A: You are insanely jealous, so your wife just sounds insane to say, “Last night I dreamed Brock gave me the most beautiful engagement ring and I was so thrilled he proposed.” I’m glad you’ve identified your jealousy as a form of anxiety. If you have an anxiety disorder, you don’t want to be popping pills simply because the sight of a neighbor sends you into sweats. You want to get global help on dealing with this debilitating condition through both medication and therapy. You should probably ask your wife to join you in this therapy. I’m glad you recognize dreams are just fleeting figments, but there’s something odd about a wife who would articulate one that she surely knows will send her new husband into a swivet.
Q. Re: What’s in a Name?: I have friends who adopted their foster children. One of the boys changed his first name at that time. He was 2 when he was taken from his parents, and he didn’t like his name because of the bad memories. My friends let him have a say in his new name, and everyone was happy. He loved that he was getting a complete fresh start with his new family.
A: Beautiful, thank you.
Q. Dad’s Seething Jealousy: My mom left my dad for my now stepdad. Despite this, I have a good relationship with my stepdad. He’s wonderful to my mom and my little brothers. Recently I posted a picture of my stepdad and me to my Facebook. My dad, who’s understandably hurting, told me that by posting that picture I’d become a toxic presence in his life. We’ve never had an easy relationship, but he’s become increasingly jealous of the time my brothers and I spend with our stepdad. I’ll block him from seeing such pictures in the future, but he’s asked me to keep all traces of my stepdad off of my social media regardless. Is this request reasonable?
A: You are mature enough to have perspective on your father’s inner life. Too bad he’s not mature enough to have the same perspective on yours. You have been lucky enough to get a wonderful stepfather. After a marriage with children ends, if the ex-spouse remarries, a psychologically healthy person wants the new stepparent to be a positive presence in their children’s lives. Your father struck out at you in an ugly and completely unwarranted way, so I’m getting why your mother looked for greener pastures. Limited though he may be, this man is your father, and you want to have a good relationship with him. But you cannot allow yourself to be bullied by him. Blocking him is the right way to go. But don’t give into his demands that you stop enjoying your stepfather’s company. Your father needs to recognize behaving cruelly will only end up with you not enjoying his company.
Q. A Huge Lie: Decades ago my wife and I had a baby while working in an impoverished country. The baby died shortly after birth while my wife was in critical condition. The baby’s death came after multiple pregnancy losses including two late-term and I couldn’t tell her about this. The doctor at the hospital had some links to a local orphanage and after hearing my plight I informally “adopted” an abandoned infant and told my wife the baby was ours. This baby also died from an illness when he was a few months old. We have since remained childless as my wife refused to try for another baby afterward and remains deeply affected by his passing. She never knew and I couldn’t bring myself to confess. As I approach my last years I am burdened by this knowledge and wonder if I should tell her. I don’t know whether it would help her grief or make it worse.
A: You two have suffered enough for several lifetimes. I do not see any purpose in revealing the full story to your wife. It won’t ease her grief; it will only cause more pain and could undermine your marriage in ways you can’t foresee. There are some secrets that are cruel to keep, but this is not one. In desperate and dire circumstance you did what you thought was right. Please be at peace with this and don’t burden your wife.
Q. Re: What’s in a Name?: I wonder if that “ugly name” is one that has an ethnic dimension different from the parents’ background (e.g. if they are white and he is black). If that is so, I think they should think twice about changing it and consider the message they’re sending about his culture.
A: This is something that needs to be handled sensitively and thought through carefully before proceeding.
Q. Re: Covering Up a Half Sister: I disagree. Many years ago, my husband had an affair, which I found out about. I told him that if she was pregnant, and if we were about to work through everything and remain married, that child would not be in my home. I told him he could have a relationship with the child but I would not and I would not be expected to. As it turned out, she was not pregnant and we did work things out. However, if there had been a child, I would not have been a willing stepparent under those circumstances. I feel that the spouse who was cheated on has a great say in how things progress forward if the marriage is to possibly recover.
A: Of course the cheated-upon spouse has a great deal to say about how a marriage recovers from an affair. But if the affair results in a child, that child must be acknowledged. To be worked out are the circumstances of how the out-of-wedlock child is (or isn’t) incorporated into the existing family. But pretending the child doesn't exist is despicable. And I surely hope the father in this case at least met his financial obligations to his younger daughter.
Q. Re: What’s in a Name? (Original Letter Writer): The issue is not race/ethnicity—it’s just that he has a very unusual name that’s difficult to pronounce and to spell. I foresee kids teasing him and teachers fumbling with this name. He'll know all about his heritage (in age-appropriate stages), and we hope to keep him in contact with his birth family if they're in a healthy place.
A: Thanks for the clarification. Keep in mind there are a lot more unusual names today than in the days of Dick and Jane, and people just learn the unusual name, or bestow nicknames. But it’s also reasonable to explore a first and last name change, while considering keeping the original first name as a middle name.