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

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
Nov. 2 2009 3:10 PM

The Closeted Groom

Prudie dispenses advice about a fiancé who has a bisexual past—and counsels 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. A transcript of this week's chat is below. (Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon, everyone. I look forward to your questions.

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London, U.K.: A very dear friend of mine seems to be going through a sexual identity crisis. He has dabbled in cross-dressing, sexual relationships with other men, and has even experimented a bit with female hormones. I want to be a supportive friend, especially since his family may or may not accept his sexuality, but there is a catch. He has a girlfriend, who seems to be completely in the dark about all of his "extracurricular" activities. I've mentioned my discomfort with this state of affairs, but this only elicits vague promises that he will have an honest conversation about this with her "one day." Lately, he has assured me that he is done with "that life" and that he is perfectly happy with his girlfriend. But I'm so afraid that he's turning his back on his own sexuality and settling for a life of miserable conformity. Now that he and his girlfriend are getting married, the stakes are even higher. Please, Prudie, what should I do? Should I tell the girl what I know about her fiancé? We live quite far apart, so a face-to-face chat is impossible. I hate the thought of devastating this sweet girl, but I'm also consumed with guilt at the thought of keeping her in the dark. Is action a moral imperative, or an unforgivable interference in another person's life?

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Emily Yoffe: If your friend was taking estrogen and his girlfriend didn't notice that they could swap bras, then either she is hopelessly thick or willfully ignorant. It's generally the safest course to stay out of other people's intimate affairs. But your friend has confided important, personal information to you along with the fact that he hasn't shared it with his fiancée. I agree that knowing your future husband is bisexual, a cross-dresser, and has explored becoming transgendered is the kind of information people tend to wish they had before they go and have a couple of kids with a guy. I suggest you tell your friend that your knowing and his girlfriend not knowing of his sexual exploration is weighing heavily on you. Tell him you don't want to interfere in their relationship, but unless he tells her, you feel obligated to fill her in.

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The Bedroom, USA: I am in a loving relationship with a woman and we're going on two years. My only issue is that our libidos don't match. She is fine having sex once a week while my ideal would be everyday, once, twice and maybe three times. We talked about it, and decided to try for once a day. That lasted a few weeks, and then petered to 2-3 times a week. I've been looking online for suggestions, but all I get is advice to keep it in my pants and get over it, but she is my physical ideal, I love her deeply, and it's pretty much asking the impossible for me to quell my sex drive. Two other things, because she works a lot, I pretty much take care of dinner, the pets and cleaning. She gets massages to take care of the stress. Plus she's on anti-depressants AND the pill, which I know can't help. I know that the easy thing is to call me a horn dog and to cherish what I do have, but it's literally driving me up the wall. What can I do to help us figure this out? Because the chances of me finding a woman this wonderful with the same sex drive looks pretty small.

Emily Yoffe: Horndog, if your ideal is three times a day, it's no surprise that your girlfriend's attempt to accommodate your libido petered out. You're right, it would be hard to find a woman willing to quit her job (unless she is a sex worker) to provide thrice daily relief to her boyfriend. That said, the pill can be a libido killer for some, and maybe your girlfriend would be more interested if she tried another form of birth control. Since, however, she works long hours, and you're at home alone a lot, you should take care of your own needs before she gets home, then you two will have a better chance to enjoy each other's company before you jump her.

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Mobile, Ala.: Recently my children (ages 4 and 2) have been invited to birthday parties for their friends. My children get very excited about going shopping to pick out a gift for their friend(s). They spend quite some time picking out the perfect present. We go to the party and the kids have a wonderful time playing with everyone. Then the time comes around to have pizza and cake then play time is over. The Birthday child never opens their gifts at the party anymore.

Even though my children had a great time playing with their friends, they always ask me why so-and-so didn't open their present they picked out for them? Did they not like it? Lately the parents haven't even sent any thank you cards to at least acknowledge that the children actually did open their present.

Has there been some sort of etiquette change that I have not been aware of? Has this become a common occurrence among parents to not let their kid open the presents at their birthday parties?

I've had a few discussions with some friends about this and some say they believe it's a personal preference as some people might think it's rude to open gifts in front of others. I say I think it's rude to not open them at the party. Please help clear up the question.

Emily Yoffe: In my childhood the main event of the party was ripping open the presents and having everyone "play" with them until they were smashed to bits. Somewhere along the line that changed because when my (now-13-year-old) daughter started going to birthday parties, I was surprised that the presents were stacked pristinely in a corner of the room and then later we received a thank you note. Why this shift occurred, I don't know. Of course, at your own party, you are free to let the birthday child open the gifts, but I think it's a good idea to get the kids in the habit of writing a thank you note—even if it's a scribble on the card. And the yes, there's something remiss when you bring a gift even for a toddler and you later don't get an acknowledgment that the gift is being enjoyed.

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Lillington, N.C.: I have two daughters, ages 3 and 6. My husband's mother has recently moved to the same town as us. Last weekend, she requested my children to come to her house and visit for a few hours. When she came to pick them up, I told her that if they misbehaved, please tell me when they get home and I will deal with them. When she later brought them home, she told me that she'd had to put my 6-year-old on time out and slap my 3-year-old's hands away from something. It didn't sound too extreme so I took it in stride.

The next morning, I was getting my 6-year-old ready for church and talking about her visit yesterday. She said she didn't like being spanked by everybody there. When I asked her who, she said Grandma and a man she didn't know. I called my mother in law to ask her about this and she said yes, she had "popped" my child and her daughter's boyfriend (whom I've only met twice) had also. I told her I am not comfortable with her disciplining my kids and had not given her permission. She then told me I was out of line and that she was the grandmother. I also requested that she inform me of who would be at the house in the future. She became very hot-tempered and said I was a stupid girl, would not bow down to my stupid rules, didn't appreciate me interrogating the kids, and then hung up on me. She later came by when I wasn't home to try to coerce my husband (her son) to side with her.

I am unsure how to deal with this situation and starting to worry about the family I've married into.

Emily Yoffe: Is this your first clue that your mother-in-law is a maniac? If so, it's a pretty big one, and based on the visit, you need to make sure your in-laws are not alone with the kids. Smacking both your children—and letting a virtual stranger in on the violence—is more than a warning that she's not trustworthy, it's a screaming alarm. Do your best to keep your cool when discussing this with your husband. Say that you understand she's his mother, but she has put your children in harm's way and from now on all the visits will be supervised.

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Columbus, Ohio: I am a freelance book critic for some local papers, and while my audience isn't exceptionally large, I do receive quite a bit of praise and respect for my reviews from my readers. That said, my sister's husband just published a book and immediately gave me a copy to read. My sister edited the book, which surprised me, given that she barely passed any of her English classes in high school. Regardless, I was excited to read it.

As I read the book, I realized that it's one of the worst books I've ever read! Not only does he ramble at times, it seems as though my BIL kept a thesaurus next to him and not only abused every adverb that could come to mind, but he used the words that didn't fit the intended context ("poignant smell" rather than "pungent smell"). It's a book where the author is trying to use every word known to man to sound more credible, but instead comes off sounding like a buffoon!

The story itself is fantastic. The writing, however, is atrocious. I commended him on his book, deeply impressed by the story and plot itself; I did not tell him that it was the most frustrating read I've had in a while.

My problem is this: my sister and her husband now want me to write some reviews! I'm torn. Do I write an honest review, telling everyone that the writing is horrible and getting to the story is like swimming in quicksand? Or, do I lie and write that it's a fantastic book? I'd hate to look foolish, but I don't want to hurt my sister and her husband's feelings either. What's the best way to approach this?

Emily Yoffe: Doesn't Marcel Proust open Remembrance of Things Past with the poignant smell of madeleine dissolved in tea? And if you peruse the best-seller list, it's filled with tightly plotted, atrociously written books. So your brother-in-law has pulled off quite an accomplishment. However, whether you liked the book or not, you are not in a position to review it because it would be a total conflict of interest. However, you should help get the book in the hands of some fellow critics, who perhaps will enjoy their swim through the quicksand of his prose.

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Philadelphia, Penn.: How do I move past "accidental infidelity?" My husband of 14 years and I have had a wonderful relationship, and he's my best friend and great father. A couple of months ago, after working a late shift, he went out for drinks with some work colleagues. Everyone decided to leave, and one of his female coworkers asked him over for another drink. He didn't want to come home to an empty house (we were all asleep) and was enjoying blowing off steam after a bad shift. She was someone he never thought of "that way," but they were talking about work and she suddenly kissed him. He responded, and things went from A to Z very quickly. He doesn't know why he did it (other than it was surprising and flattering), but felt immediately remorseful. He confessed to me and is full of self-loathing, disgust, and is determined to make it up to me. It turns out she has numerous personal problems (which led to her being fired from her job, so there's no contact anymore) and had feelings for him for some time, but he was oblivious. I want to forgive him, but I'm so hurt and disappointed, and the forgetting seems next to impossible. He's not a bad man but just had a weak moment. Still, I'm so angry. How can I move past this?

Emily Yoffe: It would have been very easy for your husband to just keep the sordid evening to himself, so it says something very good about your marriage that he couldn't. Of course you are deeply wounded, but the fact that this one night out of 14 years should help you put this aside. Your husband wasn't "hiking the Appalachian trail" or cavorting with prostitutes, or banging every female in the office, unlike a few recent public figures. If you feel it would help, maybe you alone, or the two of you together, should go for a few sessions with a counselor. But keeping in mind that this is just a blip in an otherwise wonderful marriage should slowly help you move on.

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Dallas, Tex.: I just don't like my husband anymore. When is it OK to end it? He's not a bad guy. When it's just the two of us, things are mostly fine; but we don't live life in a bubble. I cringe when I watch him interact with friends and acquaintances; and apparently it's gotten to a point where I occasionally fail to mask my disgust with his blowhard, self-aggrandizing discourse (subtle gestures for the moment, but I fear they might get worse). His unfair treatment (not abusive!!) of our son makes me angry because I end up in a position of having to support disciplines I think are unwarranted and overly harsh (like 6 weeks' grounding for 1 week of poor grades in one class where he was actually doing the work and trying). Sigh. To make matters worse, he seems perfectly content with me—surprising, since I'm certainly no picnic myself.

I always thought divorce should be reserved for when a marriage was truly untenable—abuse or infidelity, etc. But what if it's just not good? When it's been years since one of the spouses felt anything resembling happiness for more than a minute and a half? How bad does it have to be for it to be OK to walk away?

Emily Yoffe: I always wonder when I get letters like this how you failed to notice that you were marrying a rigid, self-aggrandizing blowhard from the get-go. Obviously something prompted you to marry this man and have a child with him. However, before you blow up your marriage, it sounds worth it to work on it. Or at least work on the parenting part, which will continue no matter whether you stay together or not. His harsh, punitive treatment of your son sounds awful. At the least your husband needs some parenting classes, or perhaps the two of you could find some workshops to attend together on how to be supportive parents. Try to improve this aspect of your marriage before you explore getting out.

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Re: Horndog: I'm a female with similar libido to the horn dog. I've had to do just what he dreads: deal with the fact that very few people have that sort of sex drive. I go to the gym a lot and spend more time thinking about my hobbies and interests that don't involve my partner. It's not the best solution, but it has been an issue in many of my relationships and I finally had to give up hope.

Emily Yoffe: If only I could get Mr. Horndog and Ms. Horndog together. It sounds as if that would make all four partners very happy.

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Shrinking: I've always been chubby. I've lost quite a bit of weight recently, to the point where I am no longer chubby and actually on the thin side. I've been getting many complements on my weight loss.

The problem is, I've lost the weight not through diet and exercise, but because of several negative emotional events in the past year. I am seeking help, but am actually unhappy with the way I look.

Saying "thanks!" when people compliment me on the weight loss seems disingenuous, and it often prompts questions as to my weight loss "secret." How can I respond to congratulations on my weight loss, when it's not something to be celebrated?

Emily Yoffe: Surely you don't want to get into the psychological reasons for the weight loss in casual social situations. I hope you are talking about what's going on with those closest to you. But for people who think they're making a pleasant remark, just stick with, "Thank you."

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Bakersfield, Calif.: My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost three years (he is 43 and I am 34) . He is a very sweet, dependable, caring man. We see each other five to six times a week but don't live together. My question is, after nearly three years of being together, is it weird that I haven't really met any of his friends?

Believe me, it's not that I want to hang out with these guys but I have never met any of them. When he very rarely does get together with these friends, he does so without ever even inviting me. When asked about it, he says that they just talk about stupid stuff and drink too much beer and he doesn't want me to think any less of him or his friends for being immature. What gives?

Emily Yoffe: Yes, it's weird that after three years of intense, exclusive dating you have no idea about your boyfriend's social life outside of your interaction with him. Tell him since your lives are so intertwined you want to integrate the parts of them better and suggest having a casual get-together—a barbecue perhaps—for some of his friends. Say you understand that his friends may be role models for a Judd Apatow movie, but it won't make you think less of him. (I'm assuming they aren't so immature that you need to childproof your house and have strategic receptacles for vomit.) Tell him the reality can't be as bad as the sense you have now of being cut out from an important part of his life.

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Atlanta: My friend's husband, after almost 10 years of marriage and one child, has confessed to her that he always thought he should be a woman.

She is a strong person, and is handling the whole situation well. But he uprooted his family, made several 'family' decisions (becoming religious to see if he could 'do' it—to see if it would 'help'), and now, well, eventually he will be a woman and they will be divorced.

She says that now a lot of their fights, disagreements, stuff that happened makes more sense to her, but she certainly wouldn't have planned for this to happen to her.

Please try to discuss this with your friend. Perhaps this is the life he wants, but he is lying to himself, or perhaps what he was doing was playing around and is now 'done' with it.

BUT he needs counseling ... and before he gets married. if he is in any way unsure, well, eventually this stuff will all come out. And at that point (10 years later?)—well, it will cause that much more pain.

Please explain this to your friend...

Emily Yoffe: This is exactly why I think in this situation the person who knows about his friend's transgender proclivities needs to tell the fiancée. If this 10-years-later scenario can be avoided, it should be.

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Syracuse, NY: I apologize for asking yet another mother-in-law question, it is such a cliché, but here goes.

My mother-in-law is a very nice person who loves my kids and is extremely generous with her time and her resources. The only problem is that she has a temper. About once or twice a year, she has a complete explosion over something that usually seems trivial to those around her. She will scream, yell, denigrate, curse, and poke her finger in your face or your chest. It is really unsettling. My husband (only child) is used to this because it has happened all of his life. He says it has gotten better since he is a married adult. When I have said that I do not like to be treated like this, she has made fun of me and asked sarcastically if my family never fights. She clearly thinks that these outbursts are totally normal even though she is the only one that ever has them in the family. By way of history, she is the child of an alcoholic.

Do I recommend counseling? For me, for her, for my husband? She has promised never to have one of these outbursts in front of the kids but the possibility scares me. Do I just ignore it and take it as the price of being part of a (generally) great family?

Emily Yoffe: You're not going to get her into counseling, and you don't need counseling to be able to deal with an annual outburst from your M-I-L. When she goes off, just say, "Barbara, I don't care to be spoken to like this, so we'll get together when you've calmed down." Then leave! That way she won't have an opportunity to make fun of you for not being able to take it. Do the same thing if she goes off on the kids. You can explain to the children later that sometimes grown-ups act in ways that just aren't right, but it only happens occasionally, and you know she loves them.

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The Suburbs: I live in a family-friendly neighborhood with probably 15 tweeners in a half-block radius of my house. Great kids, very nice to my 3-year-old. My side yard is the largest open area around and has become the site of neighborhood football games. I work from home and the 2-3 hours of incessant afternoon screaming drives me crazy and is so exciting for my kid that she won't nap. I have asked them a few times to go elsewhere during nap time but they just move 20 feet away into the street and are back on the lawn in an hour. I don't want to become the neighborhood crank and would like my house to remain eggless. I've considered planting trees (a fence is too expensive). Is that too passive aggressive? Will escalating this to the parents create more problems/not actually fix anything anyway? I'm counting the minutes till sundown every night, hoping for the first snowfall to come early, and considering buying each of these kids an Xbox!

Emily Yoffe: Your neighborhood sounds like an old-fashioned ideal in many ways. However, just because you have a big yard doesn't mean that you have to accept the wear and tear on your concentration, your child's nap, or your turf. Call a couple of the players parents and say that you adore their kids, but explain your situation and say you need the game to find a new venue. You can even offer to host a playoff over a given weekend—which your daughter would adore. But simply asking for your property to be respected shouldn't result in it covered with eggs.

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Bethesda, Md.: My boss, who is a professionally powerful and capable woman, is constantly deprecating herself in ways that make everyone feel uncomfortable and awkward (e.g. complaining she's too fat, in a bad marriage, a poor mother etc). I know that it makes subordinates unsure how to respond and gives her mostly male peers a reason to marginalize her (which seems to be exactly what she fears most). Any ideas on how to deal with her?

Emily Yoffe: If you have a good and open relationship with the boss, the next time you hear her make one of these remarks you could go to her later privately and bring it up. Say that she is a great person to work for, and a wonderful role model of what a powerful and capable woman is, so you hate to hear her put herself down in front of people. Say she may not even be aware she does it, but while it's humanizing to hear her foibles, too much of it is also undermining, and people—especially men—don't know how to respond. As with the letter writer with the bisexual, cross-dressing friend, sure it's always easier to say nothing. But in this case, it sounds as if a positively worded conversation could benefit everyone.

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Chicago: My department is closing down and a lot of my coworkers are leaving the company. As a result, we are having a lot farewell parties for our departing employees. My job has a lot cliques and oftentimes, the person organizing the party purposely excludes certain staff from the engagement, which causes a lot of tension around the office. I am caught in between feigning I did not know anything about the party, but I feel guilty about lying since I know their feelings were hurt. Is this appropriate for our departing staff to exclude others? If so, what comforting words can I say to the others that were not invited?

Emily Yoffe: If the farewell is an office sponsored event then obviously everyone in the department or other appropriate unit should be invited. And since your department is shutting down, it seemed appropriate for the company to have one event for all of those who are leaving. But if it is a private farewell at someone's home, then it is nice to make the invitation as broad as possible, but the party takes on a different tenor. If you're asked about one of these events there's no need to lie—just say it was a bittersweet event with a small group.

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Bethesda, Md.: I've been with my boyfriend for about six months now and we're considering having sex for the first time. (We're only 17.) The thing is, I'm a virgin and I'm really, really nervous about it. Is that just normal or is it a sign that I'm not ready to have sex? He's a great guy and I know he'll understand either way, but I don't want to let him down.

Emily Yoffe: It's normal, and it also could be a sign that you're not ready for sex. I think it's the latter because you give the reason for deciding to go ahead as, "Not wanting to let him down." The reason for going ahead is that you are sure it's the right thing for you. Plus you've only been with him for six months—not that long to make such a momentous decision. Since you say he's a great guy who'll understand either way, put that to the test and tell him you're too young and not ready.

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D.C.: I am a single woman in my late 30s. I'm attractive and extroverted and hate the dreaded question: "Oh, how on earth can someone like you be single?" The people that ask would hate my answer: Because I look at all of my married friends and secretly thank god every day that I don't have their lives. Not one of them has the marriage I would want. I would MUCH rather be single than be with someone that I am not head over heels in love with. I don't want kids, so there's no biological clock complicating matters. It's always my married friends that act mystified by my single status. I've been biting my tongue, but there's one woman that just won't let it go, like there's something wrong with me for not asking to be set up with all of her husband's friends. I'm tempted to tell her the truth—her husband is a distant jerk that has no time for her or the kids, all of his friends are overgrown 40-year old frat boys looking for a porn star to marry and clean house, and I love going home and not having to answer to anyone. I date plenty, but I choose to keep it casual (generally with much younger men). I will continue to keep my thoughts to myself, but is it so terribly wrong to enjoy being single? My single friends seem so miserable that I'm starting to think I am the weird one.

Emily Yoffe: There doesn't seem to be any reason to inform your friends about what immature drips they're married to in order to get across you're happy with your life and you don't need their help. Tell them definitively, and succinctly, your situation is perfect for you and you want to close the dating bureau once and for all.

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Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. I wish you a week of compatible sex drives and well-mannered mothers-in-law.