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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Oct. 12 2009 2:47 PM

Girlfriend Keeps STD a Secret

Prudie counsels a woman concerned about her pal's sins of omission—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. Prudie is taking next week off, so the next chat will take place Monday, Oct. 26, at 1 p.m. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.) 

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I hope I'm ready in case any of you have questions about discoveries on this Christopher Columbus Day.

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Annapolis, Md.: I have recently found out from a very good friend of mine that she has herpes. She's had it for many years. She is sexually active and very attractive. She has a history of many relationships.

The problem is that she does not tell her boyfriends that she has herpes. I sometimes get introduced to her partners and feel sorry for them. My friend does not tell them about her condition because, in the past, when she has told them (usually after they exhibited symptoms of herpes themselves), they no longer want to have anything to do with her. She wants very much to get married and feels that, after she is married, she will tell her new husband when the time is right.

Her excuse for this is that the "major" part of the population already has herpes and just doesn't know it. My respect for her as a friend has been weakened ever since she confided this to me.

Here is my question: The next time she introduces me to a new boyfriend, should I give him the news that his new girl is herpes positive ... or just stay out of it?

Emily Yoffe: Speaking of discoveries, I guess discovering that the woman you've been sleeping with harbors an incurable sexually transmitted disease counts. It's true that many people have herpes, though not the "major" part of the population, an oversight your girlfriend sounds as if she is single-handedly trying to correct. She also seems not to have put together that it's difficult to maintain a relationship with someone who you've just caused to be covered with genital blisters. So before she gets married, she might want to rethink her attitude about disclosure. But I'm afraid it's not your place to disclose this to her sexual partners (and readers—do you disagree?). You should, however, have a serious discussion with her about how her deceit is only going to harm people she cares about and make it impossible for her to find a true and lasting relationship.

Vermont: Is there an absence of teenage (17 ½-year-old, specifically) common sense these days? My stepson just stayed over this weekend and brought a friend; the friend was sick with a cold. My stepson lives five hours away, and my husband meets his ex-wife at a halfway point. What was the best thing to do: Send the boy back with his ex? Let him come anyway and leave his snotty tissues all over the house (like he did) until prompted to throw them away? We are appalled his own parents did not think to tell him to stay home. I am willing to overlook the lack of household things that went undone until we asked my stepson and his friend to do them (make their beds, re-fill the ice-cube trays, put toilet paper on the holder if they leave a single sheet ...), but this somehow took the cake. Are my husband and I being unreasonable?

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Emily Yoffe: Your stepson should not have brought a sniffling friend. But maybe he saw the friend as an emotional shield he needed to deploy to get through a weekend with his father and stepmother. If your stepson lives five hours away, he obviously doesn't have the comfortable sense that your house is his house. This is surely reinforced by the fact that you are still seething on Monday about having to replace a toilet paper roll on Saturday. Let's say this child wasn't your stepson who occasionally visits but your own son who was there all the time—blowing his nose, going to the bathroom, leaving his blankets on the end of the bed. Then you'd have to decide what issues are really worth tangling with a teenager over, and which, for your sanity and his, you ignore or take care of yourself. (I know, you will never get back that precious minute of your life you spent putting in that toilet-paper roll.) And if you think a teenager who leaves an unmade bed and empty toilet paper holder "takes the cake," then you should be very grateful you have a stepson who causes you so little grief.

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Wilmington, Del.: A year ago, when I was out of town, a former co-worker's son was killed in a car accident. By the time I got back, the funeral was over. I meant to write her but never did. (There was a lot going in my own life, but I know that is no excuse.) How can I write her after a year? I think of her often and wonder how she's coping.

Emily Yoffe: You write to her. You can say that she has been much on your mind the past year, and particularly now with the anniversary of her son's death. Include some memories about her son and their relationship. Say that you think of her, and him, often and that your heart remains heavy because of his loss. Add at the end that you apologize for not being in touch, and you want to rectify that. Then follow up the note with a call or e-mail to see if she would like to get together. Many people who have suffered terrible losses talk about the pain they feel when everyone else has moved on and expects them to. But no one fully recovers from the kind of loss your friend suffered.

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Baltimore: I have a bad situation with my husband and my sister. Recently, my sister wrote an e-mail that was meant for my eyes only which ended up being seen by my husband. In the e-mail, my sister pretty much insulted every member of my husband's family and, sadly, though I'm ashamed to say it, my sister and I have made a lot of these comments about my in-laws to each other before.

My husband was livid after reading the e-mail and is really angry at my sister (and me, to an extent, although he isn't sure that I had insulted his family also). I'm really sad at everything that has happened. I love my sister and husband dearly, and I really wanted them to get along with each other. My sister has apologized multiple times but my husband just doesn't want to hear it and doesn't want her visiting us (as well as our 6-month-old son) anymore. I want us all to be close again. Is there any way for me to rectify this situation? Will it just blow over by itself?

Emily Yoffe: This e-mail meant for you ended up "being seen" by your husband. So it's not as if your sister accidentally sent it to him, but that he accidentally (?) came across it? I think you have to make the case that even in a marriage people are entitled to their privacy, and that you need to know you and your sister can e-mail, blow off steam, and say things that you wouldn't want other people to hear but which have therapeutic value. Frankly, everyone's in-laws (including your husband's) are ridiculous to some degree, if only because every person is ridiculous to some degree. There must be something in the Constitution about the right to blab in private about your in-laws. Your sister has apologized, so you need to impress upon your husband that no harm was actually done to his parents, but he is now inflicting harm on you and your child by turning this into a grudge.

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Re: Stepson: I am mightily confused. This boy is this woman's stepson. Her husband picked him up. Presumably that means her husband is the father? Yet "we" are appalled that "his own parents" didn't keep him home. Poor, poor child.

Emily Yoffe: Thank you for pointing that out. I agree it's Dad and stepmother who are appalling.

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Big City, US: We need advice on a strange co-worker. He constantly drums his hands on his desk during the workday. I don't mean the occasional tap-tap that we all do once in a while. This is an all-out drum solo that occurs 20-plus times during the day, progressively getting louder and more intense as his "song" goes on. He breaks into rhythm randomly, like when he gets off the phone or when he's bored. This cacophony is happening more and more often throughout the day and is totally disrupting, especially when there are three of us sitting, essentially, desk-to-desk (no cubes here). Everyone has their quirks, but he's also incredibly forgetful, can't follow through with tasks, and works weird hours. (We're a 9-to-5 workplace, but I came in to find him sleeping on the floor one morning.) We're beginning to think there's something else going on here.

Emily Yoffe: Thank you for the opportunity to cite this wonderful quotation from George Washington: "In the presence of others sing not to yourself in a humming voice, nor drum with your fingers or feet." The father of our country anticipated the tortures of cubicle-land. (Maybe the Continental Congress was our founding cubicle.) In any case, you can pass on this quotation with a smile and tell your co-worker that his drumming is painfully distracting and he needs to end the Phil Collins imitations. If that doesn't work, then it's time to notify the boss. However, hasn't the boss noticed that in between drum solos your co-worker is either absent or unproductive?

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re: "his own parents": I believe that was referring to the stepson's friend's parents.

Emily Yoffe: OK, that may be, but it's confusing because she mentions sending him back to the "ex." However, the rant was directed at the unprecedented teenage behavior of both the stepson and his friend.

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For Annapolis: I would urge your friend to educate herself about herpes and discuss it with a potential sexual partner before going forward with any relationship. It's true 25 percent of the population has genital herpes and most don't know it, but even with condoms she risks exposing her partners. She's most likely terribly afraid that no one will want to be with her if they know. Remind her that any man worth marrying will take the time to weigh the risks and talk to her about it. I'm proof of that—I have herpes and have been married several years to a wonderful man who was willing to have this tough conversation before we jumped into bed the first time.

Emily Yoffe: This is the rational, adult approach to this problem. And thank you for showing people can do it this way and still find a loving, uninfected partner. Let's hope Herpes Mary will come to this conclusion, fast.

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Williamsburg, Va.: I am a 22-year-old lesbian who recently became engaged to my partner of a year. About six months ago, I came out to my entire extended family. The responses ranged, but generally everyone is supportive or at least tolerant now. The problem is, I have one uncle who refuses to be at a family function if my partner and I are present. We have always been a very close family and with the upcoming holidays, no one knows what to do. What is worse is I can tell my mother is very stressed and reluctant to have to deal with her brother, and generally feels like the outcast of the family now. Should I skip the family holidays and hang out with my partner's family instead? Should I try to speak to my uncle for my mother? How do I handle the inevitable situation of seeing him face to face after learning of his tantrum about the holidays?

Emily Yoffe: I hope your family makes it clear that your uncle's decision to exclude himself from the family holidays is his unfortunate choice to make, but that the rest of your family is not going to ban you because of the happy news that you have gotten engaged. I hope they tell him he will be more than welcome to attend but that the rest of them won't be coerced into barring you and your partner because of his narrow-mindedness. Sure, you can speak to your uncle. Say you've heard about his holiday stance and that it saddened you, and that you hope that's not his final position. But don't you be bullied into not showing. And if you do see him, just wish him much happiness this holiday season.

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re: Herpes Question: If I were sleeping with someone who had herpes and did not tell me, I would be overjoyed if her friend had the guts to tell me. A relationship founded on that kind of lie is already over to me anyway; it says a lot about her character that she would lie about that.

After her friend does that once or twice, she will likely start to be more forthcoming with her partners or cut ties with this friend. Either way, her friend—and at least one person—will be spared this woman's grief.

Emily Yoffe: Your point of view does more for public health. The herpes letter is also a good lesson that people can't assume a new sexual partner is going to bring up such issues and they should initiate a sexual health discussion themselves. Of course, if the carrier would then lie about it, she really is unredeemable.

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Re: Stepson: The last poster has it wrong. The sick boy was the stepson's friend, not the stepson, so it's perfectly reasonable to ask why the sick friend's parents did not make the friend stay home.

Emily Yoffe: OK, reading the letter again, yes, readers are right to correct me that the stepmother thinks bringing a friend with a cold is perhaps worse than not telling your partner you have herpes. However, I still believe the son brought the friend because he needed help to get through another tense weekend with his tightly wound stepmother. This kid came, he sniffled, and he left. Probably everyone will live.

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New York, N.Y.: So, I have a problem that is cropping up repeatedly and bothering me, and I'm not sure how seriously to take this.

I've been dating this really amazing man for nearly a year, and we get along famously. I also have a best friend, "D," whom, over the past year, ESPECIALLY when she is between love interests, is almost brazenly open about her infatuation with my boyfriend.

She is the type to often hide behind jokes, so most of the time it's easy enough to ignore/blow off her comments in a social setting, because, hey, maybe she's just clumsily trying to get a laugh ("Have you met X's boyfriend, aka my future husband?").

But she just broke up with a guy, and last weekend got pretty drunk and proceeded to tell my boyfriend that he looks like he'd be reeeally good in bed, and that's he's just the cutest, etc.

He graciously changed the subject or ignored her commentary, but when he left to get me a drink, D turned to me and said, "Do you think he knows that I love him? He knows, doesn't he. I REALLY like him."

It's as if she forgot he and I are a COUPLE. I told her it was pretty obvious how she felt, and left it at that.

Now that she's her sober self, I'm debating whether or not to bring this up. On the one hand, it all seems moot: I trust my boyfriend and my judgment in choosing him, and I'm hardly worried that he's more than flattered/slightly creeped-out by her behavior.

On the other hand, I feel like D is totally disrespecting me. Do you think this is worth addressing, and how do I go about doing that without coming off as a presumptuous drama queen? FWIW, my boyfriend thinks she needs therapy.

Emily Yoffe: You are worrying about sounding like a presumptuous drama queen because your "best friend" likes to throw herself at your boyfriend and announce to the world that she's actually the one who's right for him? You are long overdue for a forthright conversation with her explaining the jokes aren't funny, and her behavior crosses the line and makes everyone uncomfortable. If she doesn't shape up, you need to relegate her to the heap of former BFFs.

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Detroit: We are friends with two good people who are very forgiving of "bad" people; specifically, one friend's brother is now a convicted child molester (three years ago, he molested his own 13-year-old stepdaughter, spent time in jail, and is now a registered offender); and another (no longer mutual) friend tried to sleep with someone else's wife (while she was sleeping in her own bed—he walked in through the garage and admitted he had no invitation for his advances).

We have cut off contact with these predators, but our friends have not. An important birthday is happening for OUR friends, and of course, they've invited the Not Good Folks. Do we grit our teeth and ignore Bad Men Partying, or do we make polite excuses and stay away? The friendship with the forgiving folks is multiple decades in duration. Obviously, if we go, our children won't be out of site for a second, but still—how does one cope with (registered) sexual predators in a social situation?

Emily Yoffe: This letter is in contrast to the one in which the homophobic uncle wants to ban his lesbian niece from family gatherings. You raise the point that here is behavior that crosses legal and moral lines, and which is grounds for removing people from social events. As for the guy who tried to sleep with someone else's wife—was that an attempted sexual assault or was he just a creep dropping by hoping to get lucky? In any case, if he were the only miscreant at the party, then you could just avoid him. Of course, it's your friends' choice to invite the child molester now that he's out of jail, but it's your choice not to socialize with him. So you have to decide if his presence is too disturbing to you. If so, it would be easiest to say you unfortunately won't be able to attend. You have to weigh the effect on the friendship to say you simply wouldn't feel comfortable having your children at the same event with their brother.

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State College, Pa.: Yesterday would have been my three-year anniversary with my ex boyfriend. We broke up almost six months ago, but I can't help thinking about "what might have been," especially since we had been discussing marriage and kids. Every time I think about it, though, I feel grateful that we didn't let it get that far. In hindsight, we had a very unhealthy relationship, and both of us enabled the not-so-great qualities in each other.

The thing is, most of my obsessing has less to do with missing him and more to do with wanting to apologize for all of the mean (and, at times, emotionally abusive) things that I said during our relationship. In the end, he lied to and stole from me, so my friends don't think I'm at fault at all, but I can't help feeling guilty about how I treated him. We haven't had any contact since the split (he deleted his Facebook, changed his phone number, etc.), but I recently found out that he works only a few blocks away. Should I apologize to him? Or should I focus on forgiving myself?

Emily Yoffe: It sounds as if behind your regrets is a hope that he's feeling you've both learned from your mistakes, and that if you get in touch with him you'll get a chance to belatedly celebrate that third anniversary. However, it also sounds as if you're two people who simply should not be together—and given his actions, he really doesn't want to be with you. It's good you're not stewing in thoughts of how you were mistreated but are recognizing how your own behavior made your relationship a fiasco. So honor that by continuing your self-examination and bringing this insight and self-restraint to your next relationship while you let this one remain dead.

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My friend's sister refuses to leave her house without her dogs: My friend's sister "Marlene" lives in Providence. She refuses to leave her house for any reason whatsoever without bringing her three little dogs with her. The dogs travel in a baby carriage and have been sneaked into restaurants, museums—you name it. Marlene does not see anything wrong with her behavior and becomes instantly hostile and defensive when told that it is not always appropriate to bring dogs along. She refuses therapy and medication outright, and her husband enables the behavior. How can we get her to see that she is destroying her relationships with her family and friends by always putting the dogs first?

Emily Yoffe: Part of the issue here is that she would rather be with Boopsie, Poopsie, and Buster than the rest of you, so it's clear what she's going to say if you say unless she leaves the dogs at home, your relationship with her is going to the dogs. True dog maniacs actually think the rest of you are sad for spending so much time with bipeds. So accept that when you get together, either she comes pushing the doggie stroller or she doesn't come at all.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Happy Columbus Day, and I'll talk to you in two weeks.

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