Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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. Friend in Trouble: I’m very worried about my friend “Ted.” He works two full-time jobs at literally all hours—sometimes all day, sometimes all night, but always 12 to 16 hours per day. His wife does not work and stays home with their young son. She is a warm and friendly person when I am with her, but I have been shocked to hear her scream at Ted on the other end of his cellphone. When I saw Ted recently, he was a shadow of the gentle and funny person I have known since we were kids—exhausted, emaciated, and almost silent when his wife is around, which is all the time. He and his wife have fallen out with his family and the other friends he had before his marriage, and I don’t think he has anyone in his life right now other than his wife. Is there anything I can do for him?
A: From your description, Ted is being abused. Both male and female victims of domestic abuse often hide what’s going on, but there is often a special sense of shame and embarrassment among male victims. It sounds as if his wife utterly controls him and verbally (and possibly physically) abuses him. Isolating your victim from friends and family is a classic abuser move. I think you should contact the National Domestic Violence Hotline and get some advice about how to help your friend. It likely will not be easy to get him to recognize his situation and extract himself, but once you’ve called the hotline, you need to meet with Ted alone, tell him your concerns, and give him some resources.
Q. Are Sexless Marriages Doomed?: There is so much discussion of “sexless” marriages in the media today, and I have noted the strong emphasis you place on sexual compatibility in your column. My wife and I rarely have sex, perhaps once every six to eight weeks, which I believe qualifies as a “sexless” marriage. My wife doesn’t have a strong sex drive. I have always found sex to be awkward. I have a bit of a mental block—although I understand it on a biological level, I still don’t like the idea of sticking my body part inside another body. We have two kids, are in our late 30s, have a great relationship, and rarely fight. Most nights we watch TV together. I fear becoming platonic buddies, but on the other hand, I fear getting stressed-out about something that is not a problem. Should I be worried?
A: You worry about just becoming platonic buddies, but there is no platonic ideal of a marriage. What matters is what works for the two partners. I am an advocate of married people having sex (generally with each other). And I do get many letters from people in marriages that have turned sexless against their will. But you two seem to be compatible in your sexual expression. Neither of you is driven by your desire, and you do keep up a sexual connection, though tenuous. I think it’s important not to let that go—but so what if you happen to come together on an infrequent schedule that pleases you both?
Q. Difficult Mother: My mother has been a difficult person for as long as I can remember, causing many uncomfortable situations for my wife and me. Part of the problem is that she refuses to acknowledge any wrongdoing on her part and she twists the details of any story to cast her in a better light and plays the victim. I’m not sure if she’s actually lying because she seems to genuinely believe her false version of events. A huge problem for my family is the bitterness that she has carried for 20-plus years after my father left her for another woman. (My stepmother is very good to us and our children.) She’s the scorned woman. We recently discovered that she actually had an affair many years ago. Part of me wants to reveal this knowledge and expose her hypocrisy, but I should probably keep my mouth shut. Right?
A: Yes, mouth shut. There’s something wrong with your mother. You can make amateur diagnoses, but there likely will never be a professional one because why would she need help when she knows the problem is not her, but everyone else? When you’re dealing with someone who incessantly lies in order to make herself look like a victim, what you do is limit the time you have to deal with her. Your revealing her hypocrisy will not result in your mother having a revelation about her own role in her troubled relationships. It will just demonstrate to her that her own son is evil.
Q. Re: Friend in Trouble: The abused husband “Ted” whom the letter writer describes was me 15 years ago. My then-wife insisted on staying at home with our children while I worked two jobs, becoming so exhausted I got into a serious car crash, yet she berated me for not earning enough. Eventually she escalated to physical violence, including giving me a black eye once. She isolated me from friends and family, and yet I would not take the first step to leave the marriage until she forced my hand. Bravo on your excellent advice.
A: Thanks for writing, and I’m sorry about what you went through. It is important for friends observing this pattern to try to get the victim to recognize the danger.
Q. Unexpected Two Under 2: My wife and I tried for years to get pregnant, and welcomed a wondrous baby girl late last year. We always thought we’d likely have only one, not least of all because of our difficulties and that by the time we were ready for another we might be too old. Well, we recently discovered she is pregnant (despite using protection!) while our first is not yet 1 year old. In addition, my wife is still working while starting graduate school (which the arrival of the first delayed), so the timing is a little ... inconvenient. We are, by this point, excited by the surprise but terrified by all that comes with having two under 2. I’ve always been pretty open about our fertility issues, but how can I be open about this being a surprise, and about our fears, without sounding like we don’t want the baby?
A: Congratulations! Of course your news is not only unexpected but overwhelming. But you do not owe explanations to others about your reproductive choices (or accidents). Nor do you have to tell everyone about your fears and concerns. Just spread the happy news (when you’re ready to spread it). If you act as if this is wonderful—which it is—others should respond accordingly. You can also be lighthearted with people who knew your struggles: “We got off to a slow start but we seem to have gotten the hang of this pregnancy thing.” You should also feel free to talk to those close to you and whom you trust about your understandable fears. Reach out to people who have also had children in quick sequence who can give you solid advice (and extra car seats) and be a source of encouragement about making it all work.
Q. Re: Are Sexless Marriages Doomed?: I could have written this almost exactly. Neither my husband nor I has a huge sex drive, but we have the most amazing relationship. Since we are both on the same wavelength regarding sex, it’s really not an issue. I’m happy to know that there are others in the same situation.
A: I assure you that whatever you are not into sexually, or are into sexually, there are others in the same situation.
Q. My Stepmother’s Rejection: My mom died a little over two years ago. She was my best friend, and I don’t know if I will ever stop reeling. My dad married 13 months after she died. It was sudden, and I didn’t know my stepmother at all. Over the past year, I’ve tried to befriend my stepmom, hoping she would become a sort of second mother. I have since learned that she has no such interest. I used to call her or stop by the house to talk, but she has told me this is intrusive. I have invited her to do things with me (manicures, museums, hikes, wineries), but she always turns me down. I’m 21 and I find myself experiencing a new grief, that my dad didn’t even marry someone who would want to be my friend. What should I do?
A: You lost your mother very young, and that’s terrible. This loss is compounded by the apparent emotional loss of your father, and the gaining of an evil stepmother. It’s awful that the woman your father quickly married did not fully embrace the life she was entering. She gained a grief-stricken stepdaughter. Of course your father’s new wife could never replace your mother. But a stepmother can become a loving and stalwart presence in a young adult’s life. Shame on your father for marrying such a dreadful woman. But here you are, and the issue now is your father. I hope you still get to spend time with him. If she also objects to him seeing you alone, she really is a monster. But unless he’s under house arrest, you have to make plans to go out with your father on a regular basis. When you initiate this, explain to him that it’s been terribly painful to discover that “Magda” doesn’t want to have a relationship with you. Tell him that you now accept this, but you don’t want to give up on having a relationship with him.
Q. Matrimonial Bliss?: I got married to a man I adore two years ago. My mom saw our relationship and wanted the same thing. She met a man, “Kevin,” and they were engaged within two weeks and married four months later. All of her kids were begging her to go to premarital counseling (he didn’t want to), do some credit counseling (he has half a dozen maxed-out cards), and wait to have a wedding until all her kids could show up (she intentionally scheduled the wedding while some of us kids were working, several states away). Now, she frequently calls in a state of panic because they’ve had yet another screaming argument where Kevin’s stomped out and threatened to never come back. Is there something helpful and useful I can say, rather than “I told you so”? When they aren’t fighting, he’s whisking her away for the weekends (on her dime, of course) and buying her large bouquets of flowers.
A: Again, Mom is a troubled person who’s not interested in finding the source of her troubles, addressing them, and making things better. Some people just like to create chaos and are motivated to make sure life is a churning mess. Your mother sounds like one of those people, so what you do is refuse to become part of the whirlwind. When she calls after a fight with Kevin, you say, “That sounds bad. You’ve got some thinking to do about whether this relationship is healthy. But Mom, I’ve got to go. Talk to you later.” You don’t say that you’re worried he’s endangering her, so just don’t engage. You were raised by such a mother but blessedly didn’t inherit her proclivities. Concentrate on your own good choices and happy life.
Q. Re: My Stepmother’s Rejection: I was in almost the same boat 30 years ago. My mother died when I was 19. Two years later my father married a family friend whose husband had died shortly after my mother. She turned out to be a nasty, selfish woman who constantly tried to make my father choose between us. My siblings and I always backed off, because we didn’t think my father should be put in that position. We managed to have a good relationship with him while keeping a very superficial relationship with her. My father died five months ago, and we’ve had very little contact with her since. Once we get the items she has promised us, we will have no contact with her at all. My advice is to stay as close to your father as you can, and lower your expectations of her so that you won’t be disappointed. I hope you have siblings that you can be close to. If not, there’s nothing wrong with considering your close friends to be your real family.
A: Sad but wise advice. Thank you.