Dear Prudence answers readers' questions live at Washingtonpost.com.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Sept. 30 2009 11:37 AM

Seeking Sexual Healing

Prudie counsels a woman for whom sex is painful—and other advice seekers.

Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. Next week's chat will take place Monday at 1 p.m. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.) 

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone!

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Anchorage, Alaska: What should I do about neighbors that copy nearly everything I do? Here are a couple of examples: My husband is (and theirs are) in the military, deployed overseas. I decorated my home for his homecoming. They went out and found the exact same decorations. I got a couch of a particular color (which is not part of today's current color trends) and coordinating curtains. One got the same-shade couch; the other got the same exact curtains. (Mind you, they do not match anything in her living room.) I bought a recliner for my husband to enjoy during his furlough. They all bought recliners for their husbands. I took in a foster child; they all now are investigating taking in a foster child. It is getting to the place that I do not want to let them visit my home. How do I get this to stop? (My first thought is to decorate with some hideous decor, invite them all to see it, let them copy it, and then never let them in the house to visit again after redecorating. However, this isn't very plausible, since our husbands work together and our kids play together.)

Emily Yoffe: There's a lot of research these days on the power of social contagion:  that if all your friends get fat, you are more likely to get fat, too; and that out-of-wedlock childbirths spread through society like a virus. Either your friends sound particularly susceptible to this, or you are an unusually compelling person, or both. As far as their exterior and interior decoration is concerned, just ignore it. If you're their personal Architectural Digest, it just means you have good taste, and so what if they also have a recliner? If they are going to help a child in need because of your good example, then you should be pleased. And since you all are doing your best to cope with husbands who are overseas in the military and raising children on your own for the time being, concentrate on their good qualities (or the many things of yours they don't copy) because surely it would be better to support one another during this difficult time than risk a falling out over their admiration of your style.

India: I am a 27-year-old woman, married for three years. We have a loving and affectionate relationship, except that I hate having sex. It's painful and does not give me any pleasure at all. I try to cooperate once in a while so that my husband is not deprived, but I grit my teeth while doing so. My husband has been patient so far and does not put any pressure on me, but I fear that this is going to take a toll on our marriage in the future. We may also want to start trying for a child soon, and I am wondering how that will work. Is this normal? If not, what can I do to make things better?

Emily Yoffe: Your husband needs to get an award from the Patient Men of America Society. As you and he have probably figured out, it is not normal for sex to be so painful that you have to grit your teeth while enduring it. Make an appointment today with your gynecologist and describe what is going on. Do not be embarrassed! There are many treatable medical conditions that can cause painful intercourse. Just think of how different your life and your marriage will be when sex becomes pleasurable.

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Toronto, Canada: Do you have any advice for when you're sick but need to get stuff done at work? I have a pretty bad case of the sniffles and would love to stay home. But I also have a fair amount of work to do.

When do I draw the line between dragging my sorry butt to work and staying home so as to not infect my co-workers (but letting work pile up)?

Emily Yoffe: Feeling swinish? If you are, these days with everyone paranoid about H1N1, they are all hoping co-workers who appear to be shedding virus would stay home and merely infect their loved ones. If you can have someone get to your computer and forward you what you need to work on, do so. You could also make a brief appearance and pick up what you'll need. Your colleagues will be grateful that they can say to each other, "Who was that surgically masked worker?"

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Washington, D.C.: I am a very young, terminally ill person. I am in my late 20s and will not live to 30. I will die largely painlessly and will have all of my physical and mental abilities intact until the very end. My spouse and family are spending as much time as possible with me. I think that's as much as anyone can ask for a death. I have accepted this and simply want to live the rest of life with as much joy as I can. I'm happier now than I can remember being at any other time in my life, and my relationships with people who are close to me have improved as a result of my new attitude. The problem is other people. My more casual acquaintances, friends of friends, fellow workers, and neighbors often ask me how I am doing. If they ask once, I say that I am feeling well and enjoying my normal activities. However, if they press further and ask about the future of my treatment or my prognosis, I tell them the truth—that I am dying. People often look vastly uncomfortable when I tell them this and will refuse to meet my eyes. Or, alternatively, they will refuse to accept this as truth and argue that anything can change, and medical advances, blah, blah, blah. Further encounters are awkward and short. Am I rude to tell people this? I feel that since I am the dying one, I should be able to live my (short) life honestly and openly.

Emily Yoffe: I am so sorry for your prognosis, and admire the grace with which you are facing this. If you are talking to people who don't know about your condition, you needn't even mention it to them. But if you are being pressed by those who know about your diagnosis, you need a way to make the conversation as comfortable for you and them as possible. Since they aren't in your inner circle, it may be easier if you tell them the truth but not say it in such a raw way. To the follow-ups, you could try, "I'm getting the best care available, but unfortunately there's no cure. So what's happening with you and your family?" To the people who suggest that a breakthrough is just around the corner, you can say, "It's true you never know what can happen. I do know my medical team is keeping abreast of everything available. So tell me if there any good movies out there."

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Detroit: I am a 21-year-old college student, and I am so stressed out! My parents pushed me into pre-med two and a half years ago. I failed out partially due to poor time management skills, lack of comprehension of the material, and making some poor relationship choices. I was extremely depressed and even suicidal at one point. (My parents thought my suicidal tendencies were funny and stupid not sad and scary.) But now I'm in college again (living at home now) this semester. I am a terrible science student, but my controlling parents still insist that I become a doctor (it doesn't seem possible right now, but I have no choice in this matter since they're the ones paying. I live under their roof, we've had many fights over this issue and I always lost) and continue with my biology major. I struggle just to get Cs (and, yes, I have gone to tutoring, studied long hours, and done everything in my power to do well with little avail). Now my problem is that everybody is insisting that student life is "the best life." They constantly tell me to enjoy this time while it lasts because these are the "best years of [my] life." It really hurts when people say this, because it belittles all of the hardship and pain I've been through, and it makes me wonder: Well if this is the best life gets, then I don't have much to look forward to! What do I say (and what should I think) when people tell me that student life is so great and that my real problems will start when I begin a career (hopefully)?

Emily Yoffe: I think we can all be glad that medical school requirements tend to weed out people with little aptitude for or interest in being a doctor. You're an adult, so you have to start recognizing that if your parents are so enamored of a medical career, they had their own chance in life to have one, and that no one—even if they're paying the education bills—gets to hijack someone else's life. Instead of concentrating on what you don't like at college, start thinking about what you do. Talk to your adviser right away and say the sciences aren't for you and that you need to find a major that will excite you and give you the opportunity to excel. Then start the difficult process of instructing your parents that their pressure for you to be a doctor has resulted in your being so unhappy that you need to see a doctor. Tell them you want to be a content, competent [fill in the blank] not a miserable failure of a pre-med student.

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re: painful sex: I developed the same problem and learned it was a condition called "vulvular vestibulitis," which is apparently quite common and badly understood. My OB suggested several treatment options, but since I was getting ready to attempt conceiving my first child, she told me to wait until after we had our baby to try surgery, since childbirth sometimes causes this condition to improve. Well, in my case this is exactly what happened, and after my first child was born, sex became wonderful again. I just wanted to post that there is hope, and this condition really can improve.

Emily Yoffe: This might or might not be what's wrong with the letter writer, but thank you for letting her know she is not alone and that there likely are treatments for her. She should also look online for resources and support groups for other women facing her problem.

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Tired of Being Questioned: It seems like my boyfriend has a different idea of intimacy than I do. If I'm in another room, he asks, "Where are you?" or "What are you doing?" If I mention I'm going to run an errand, he asks what it is. If I then say it's something I have to pick up for work, he asks what is the thing and why do I have to do that. If he makes a suggestion to me about how I can get something done and I agree it's a good idea, he then asks me over and over why I am not doing it right this minute and keeps giving me many reasons why I should after I have said that I don't feel like doing it right now. If I ask him how his day was, though, he just says, "Fine." I feel like I'm being interrogated and controlled. Whenever I say so, he gets mad and says he thinks it's a tragedy that I'm assuming such horrible things about him. I thought I wanted to marry this man, but I am at wits' end. He refuses to see a counselor, saying that we don't need it and can work out our issues on our own. Where do I go from here?

Emily Yoffe:

Boyfriend: Where are you going?
You (carrying all your worldly possessions): Out.
Boyfriend: Where?
You (shutting door): Of this relationship.

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New York: My in-laws must never have noticed that their 3-year-old granddaughter wears only solid colors/repeated patterns because they bring us clothes with garish designs (rhinestone pony saying "Daddy's Little Girl," anyone?) and send us packages from the Disney store on a regular basis—in 3-plus years, a total of maybe 250 pieces of unworn clothing. It's partially my fault. I've never come out and said stop it, this stuff is horrendous, but I have come to accept that they shop for themselves, not the recipient. I also think that's dad's job, but he gave up trying to get them to stop unnecessary shopping decades ago. Some become pajamas, the rest I regift/donate. If they ever noticed their presents go unworn (unlikely, considering how many doubles we've received), they've never let on.

I'm pregnant with No. 2 and think it might finally be the right time to say please stop. Problem: They are taking us to Disneyland this week. Do I dress the kid in head-to-toe Disney for the trip? It'll just encourage them, but it seems if any place is appropriate to wear this junk ...

Emily Yoffe: Talk about social contagion—that must be the only explanation for toddler hooker-ware or the mass acquiescence at turning our kids into walking billboards. You can tell your in-laws that you so appreciate their generosity, but that you've noticed many kids look like advertisements for huge corporations, so you've decided that you don't want your children to dress in clothes with characters from TV shows, etc., on them. Your in-laws will probably think you're crazy and will continue to send you the same-style clothing. So just keep donating and regifting—plenty of people like it.

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re: Detroit: My parents did the same thing to me—forced me to go to a certain school and major in a particular subject. I also failed out and was depressed and suicidal (which they also did not take seriously).

After beginning talk therapy, I realized that I could try to make things work on my own. I moved out, went back to school, and worked my butt off not only in class but also at work to help support myself. Sure, it was hard, but in the end, I chose what I wanted to do. ... I'm still paying off the student loans, but guess what: I even went back for another degree and now I love my job and have a really great life.

It's possible to make your life your own. The first step is always the hardest, but no matter how difficult that step appears, what you're dealing with right now is even harder.

Emily Yoffe: Thank you for this roadmap—and story with a happy ending. As long as the parents are paying for school now, the miserable college student should take advantage of all the counseling opportunities available there. How awful when parents can't see their children as individuals, but only as projections of their own desires.

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San Francisco, CA: After four years of dating, my boyfriend and I have decided to move in together. Unfortunately, I have a cat and want cats in my future (and have had them since we met); my boyfriend does not.

Neither of us is willing to budge on this one. My boyfriend restores furniture and homes, and thus his house and the things in it mean a lot to him. He has said that my bringing a cat into the house would signify that I didn't care about his happiness. (Never mind that I have addressed every single issue he had with the cat; I literally made a list—nails, hair, litter—and found viable solutions to each, but it has made no difference at all.)

But I am a writer, home several days a week, and cats are no small part of my happiness; in fact, my boyfriend benefits from the cats by proxy, without realizing it.

At the moment, I only have a single cat, but he will not negotiate at all. He will not live with her. And I don't want a future without pets. What should we do?

Emily Yoffe: Although I know the practice is frowned upon, if it means that you would be able to have a cat and continue your relationship, and your cat is strictly an indoor one, have you considered de-clawing it? (Please, cat people, I am a cat person, so you don't have to tell me this is a barbaric suggestion.) If even that wouldn't convince him, you simply have to decide if having him in your life is worth having cats out of it. If someone is allergic, then that is an understandable non-negotiable. But your boyfriend's intransigence on this subject is rather incomprehensible since it is purrfectly (sorry) possible to live with cats and beautiful things. And I would wonder about a boyfriend who is so unwilling to bend on something so important to you.

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New York Toddler: To the New York mom, what a fun mom/daughter in-law you must be. You know what, most girls LIKE rhinestone ponies and Disney princesses, which I have a hard time seeing as "hooker clothes." You know, these people, i.e., your daughter's grandparents, are just trying to be nice. How about you "approach" it that way. Geez.

P.S. Obviously inappropriate is WAY different from "solids and repeating patterns."

Emily Yoffe: If you look around, there is a pernicious trend to dress up little girls in trashy-looking clothes styles with suggestive statements—or deliberately obnoxious ones—printed on them. Also, it is perfectly reasonable for parents to want to dress their kids the way they like. Sure, if the child is begging to wear the Disney princess clothes the grandparents send, the mother should be flexible. But if Mom generally can't stand the clothes the grandparents send, it's worth it to make a suggestion to them, then forget about it.

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Washington, D.C.: I had to weigh in on the pre-med student who is having a rough time. Pre-med is hard enough for people who want to do it; being forced to do it sounds like a special kind of torture. I know an acquaintance who also expected his son to become pre-med. According to mutual friends, his son was miserable but since his dad was also a doctor felt he was letting his dad down.

Unfortunately, his son committed suicide in his second year of med school, and his father never recovered. Words to the wise ...

Emily Yoffe: What a horrifying story. To the pre-med student who doesn't want to be one, I hope you have a decent enough relationship with your parents that you can show this letter to them. If you don't, all the more reason to get out from under their oppression.

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Wabasha, Minn.: My niece and I have had a falling out. I found her having chats with my ex-husband on Facebook about recipes. I drew to her attention that he has abandoned his sons ages 13 and 15, who are still in the home. He has not had ANY communication with them since around last Christmas (no calls, no e-mails, no visitations). He sent not so much as a card for what was each of their golden birthdays this year. This is despite every opportunity for it on my part. This niece is my oldest sister's daughter, and we used to be very close. Despite all my begging, she refuses to cut him from her "friend" list. Don't you think I have a right to think her disloyal and unsympathetic?

Emily Yoffe: Facebook is now rivaling Christmas and weddings as the source of most tension among family members. I wonder if society will one day decide en masse that they no longer wish to know every time one of their acquaintances has a random thought, or if their niece is swapping recipes with their rotten ex. You cannot control that your niece thinks your ex's chocolate chip cookies are the best. So instead of trying to control her, control yourself and defriend her.

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San Francisco, CA: The truth is, I have considered all the options (one of the many friends I sought advice from recommended Soft paws as an alternative to nail clipping or declawing).

But my boyfriend just won't hear them. He says he'll compromise about anything else, but not the cat. But breaking up over a cat is insane, isn't it?

Emily Yoffe: It is kind of insane, I agree. But over the four years you have been together, surely he's had to spend the night with you and Fluffy—she hasn't kneaded her way even a little into his heart? Compromise is easy when there are easy solutions. But what kind of compromise is "Give away the cat you love because I hate cats?" If you can see getting rid of Fluffy and being happy together and not resenting him, then why break up? But it sounds as if you can't see that future. And the larger question is, where is this relationship going? If you don't want marriage and kids, maybe your turtlelike pace is fine (and maybe that's a compromise pet!). If you do, you have to wonder whether you'll ever get there.

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To San Francisco: Give up the cat. Get a beagle. Soon your boyfriend will be begging you to bring the cat back instead!

Emily Yoffe: As the owner of two cats and one beagle, truer words were never spoken.

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Boston: My husband's boss is getting married soon, and we are wondering about proper gift etiquette. Ms. Boss had a small, private wedding ceremony about a month ago to which my husband was invited and gifts were given. She is having a second larger wedding ceremony in a couple of months to which my husband is also invited. Is he off the hook for the second wedding gift, or is it appropriate to give a gift for every ceremony attended?

Emily Yoffe: If she's marrying someone else, then I suppose you could consider a second wedding gift. If she's not marrying someone else, what in the world is she up to? She's married! Stop with the weddings! One wedding gift per couple, no matter how many ceremonies they have, is all that's needed.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.

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