Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com 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.)
Q. Am I a Perverted Predator?: I have a secret that sometimes upsets me: I slept with my wife for the first time when she was 16 and I was 32. We are now 29 (her) and 45 (me) and have two children. We love each other very much. But sometimes I still feel like a pervert because of how we met—through her father, a colleague of mine—and because we had sex once when she was 16 and twice when she was 17. After the third time I stayed away from her for almost a year, until long after her 18th birthday. Then we started dating. My wife always points out that she wanted to have sex just as much as me and initiated all three encounters; she says that our relationship is healthy and that we are equals and that she has never been negatively impacted by our decision to have sex, so why should I angst over this? Should I let go of my baggage, or am I right in feeling somewhat perverted?
A: In another era, it was common for a teenage girl to be matched with an already established man. This kind of thing is still standard in many parts of the world. But today we look at adult men having sex with minors through a different moral and legal lens. However, you and your wife are long-time spouses, you are raising two children, and you have a delightful relationship. Your wife repeatedly asserts that things got their sexual start through her own agency. If you had had a pattern of sexual encounters with underage girls, or were expressing an interest in them now, that would be an entirely different story. But there is no point in undermining the foundations of a thriving marriage because you are uncomfortable with its origin. Lots of happy couples have “how we got together” stories that aren’t entirely respectable. Your wife’s parents are not agitating to bring a statutory rape charge against their son-in-law and father of their grandchildren. You have a story with a happy ending, so don’t sully it by obsessing destructively on its start.
Q. Husband’s Affair—Discovered on Facebook: I got my husband’s Facebook password while looking over his shoulder and logged in to find that he’s been exchanging extremely graphic fantasy/sexual messages with a female friend for three months (682 messages). I was shocked since he acts like he’s such a loving husband to the outside world—to me, not so much. We’ve been married 30-plus years. The messages also refer to them meeting in secret during the day (at home when our adult son almost “caught them” in the act when he came home unexpectedly) and also in public parks for oral sex and whatever they can do together. I’m sick to my stomach. I copied 13 pages of messages and mailed them to sex-pot’s husband with a note of apology that I was ruining his life/opening his eyes. Haven’t confronted husband yet—figure he’ll get word when the mail gets delivered next week. In the meantime, I’m calling a lawyer. Should I have told the husband?
A: Yes, you should have told the husband—your husband. It’s unfortunate that your first move was to wade into someone else’s marriage instead of dealing with your own. You have no idea of the situation of your husband’s partner in lust. Maybe her husband will be grateful for the information. Maybe they have an open marriage. Maybe there are all sorts of complications in their lives you just aren’t privy to. But I do take you at your word that your marriage is irretrievably broken and that a lawyer is the right next step. Mark Zuckerberg has said that his invention will make the world better because it removes barriers between people. But I bet back in his Harvard dorm room, he didn’t have this kind of thing in mind.
Q. Step-Daughter Drama: I have been with my husband for eight years, married two. I have two sons and he has a son and a daughter. A couple of years ago, during a nasty custody dispute with his ex-wife, his daughter accused my son of molesting her. They are the same age. The time frame and circumstances claimed were impossible, and after investigations by CPS and the police the accusations were found to be false. Despite this, the judge ordered full custody of the daughter to her mother due to the daughter insisting she didn’t feel safe with us. The son is with us just under half the time. I had felt bad for my step-daughter, thinking she was forced to claim abuse by her mother—since then she has insisted that the abuse actually happened, and has made several other accusations during conversations with my husband. Most are obviously false, flat out lies about things she says we did or conditions in our home. I now have no desire to ever see her again, but want to support my husband in having a relationship with his daughter. I fear the future. If she decides to one day be in our lives again, how do I balance supporting their relationship while dealing with my anger?
A: What a dreadful situation, one that’s emotionally scarring for everyone. I can understand your loathing for this girl. Had her accusations not been found to be false the consequences for your son would have been ruinous. But good for you that you also pity her. As you say, either she was egged on by her mother, or she is mentally unbalanced, or both. Since she is continuing with her claims, I think you and your husband should talk to a lawyer about how to protect yourselves. It could be that if your husband is seeing her alone, he might be the next one to be accused. So talk to someone with expertise about how he can have visitation with his daughter while making sure the situation is safe. Once you’ve done that, you may feel sufficient safeguards are in place so that you worry less about the future. Dwelling on dreadful cases that haven’t happened is so disabling. If you can’t let go of your worry, then a counselor should help you sort through your feelings and give you some strategies for letting go.
Q. Re: Am I a Perverted Predator?: As a matter of legality, the age of consent is 16 in a majority (30) of U.S. states and all of Canada. So even though your wife was a minor at 16, she was legally able to consent to sex and you were not committing a crime (assuming you were in one of those locations).
A: Let’s hope he was in one of those states because I agree it would help psychologically to feel that the law recognized his now-wife was legally able to consent. Several other writers are pointing out that as his children are growing, maybe he is worrying that they will be looking for an inappropriately older partner. If that’s the case, a few sessions with a therapist to deal with this could offer big relief.
Q. Loud Eater: I work in a small bungalow on a studio lot in L.A. Three of us have desks out in the open in the main area. Our P.A. is young and a bit quirky, but enthusiastic, eager to learn, and has a great attitude. I adore him, but, he has one hugely annoying habit: He is the loudest eater I have ever encountered. He chomps, slurps, and smacks his way through every meal. We often eat lunches at our desks while working, as we’re on a tight schedule. His eating is so distracting, I had to pick up my laptop and carry it outside at one point so I could concentrate on finishing my work. Is it ever okay to tell somebody that they eat too loudly? How can I do it kindly and politely?
A: If you have to leave the room because of the volume of a young colleague’s eating, then you will be doing him a huge favor by discussing this with him (but not over a meal). You say he’s “quirky” which could mean he lacks certain social skills, but since he’s eager to advance, you have to tell him that he has a habit he’s probably not aware of he needs to address. Explain he is a really loud eater and he needs to tone it way down. Since you’re in the movie or TV business, you could suggest that he tape himself eating and listen and watch what he does. He could also find an etiquette consultant who could give him a few sessions on table manners. To put him at ease, be calm and unembarrassed. In years to come, he’ll probably look back with gratitude that you were willing to have a difficult conversation that helped his career.
Q. Abusive Husband’s Death: My husband was an emotionally (and, on three occasions, physically) abusive man. He hid his abusive behavior from everyone but our children and me. I recently managed to save up enough money to divorce him and move far away. Then he died; a drunk driver T-boned his car. His family and his friends are grief-stricken and assume I am too. His mother comes over to help with the kids but inevitably breaks down and wants to talk about my husband and how wonderful he was. My children had a very strained volatile relationship with their father, and now they feel pressured to pretend like he was a loving father. My 13-year-old son told me he’s not sad his dad died, and, as awful as it sounds, I don’t blame him. How should I respond to others’ legitimate grief over the man they thought they knew? I feel fraudulent posing as his wife when I couldn’t wait to leave him. I didn’t want him to die, but if I’m being honest, his death doesn’t make me sad either.
A: Since you divorced your husband and moved far away, people should know that your sense of loss is going to be different from someone whose loving husband just died. To the expressions of grief you can respond with anodyne statements. “It was a shocking loss.” “I know how much you miss your son/friend/brother.” With your former mother-in-law you have a difficult balancing act. You want her in her grandchildren’s lives, but you cannot grieve with her. Try saying something like, “Of course I understand you’re in agony. But discussing Brandon is just too painful for me, so I’m sorry I can’t do it.” Despite your relief at your ex’s death, I think you should tread carefully with the children because they will have raw and complicated feelings to sort through. You can listen attentively to them and let them know it’s okay to express these complicated feelings without saying that you, too, are glad he’s dead. You can acknowledge that their father had some good qualities that sadly were often overwhelmed by his bad ones, and that he did cause all of you a lot of pain. You can explain that in such circumstances you understand that among their many feelings is a sense of relief.
Q. Re: Abusive Husband’s Death: The letter writer said she had saved up enough so she could divorce her husband and move far away, not that she had initiated any of those proceedings.
A: Ah, thanks for clarifying my misreading. Yes, this complicates things, but I will then reiterate my initial advice. For herself and her children, she simply should not put on false theatrics about being the devastated widow. She can acknowledge the grief of the other person and say it’s too painful for her to have conversations about her ex. She should limit things with her mother-in-law. She was planning to move, which she should probably put on hold at least temporarily because her kids are going through enough disruption. But eventually she may decide starting over somewhere else is still a good idea.
Q. Looking a Gift Cruise in the Mouth: My in-laws announced late last summer that for a Christmas gift they were taking everyone in the family on a cruise in 2013. I’m not crazy about cruises but would be a good sport and go since they were paying for it. Turns out they are only paying the costs of the cruise cabin. We are having to pay flights/transfers/tips/additional cruise costs/required shore trips. By the time this is all said and done, this will most likely be my husband’s and my only vacation this year. How do I keep a jovial attitude whilst spending all this additional money on a trip I don’t even want to go on?
A: You and your husband have to decide if you want to do this trip. If it fills you both with dread, then you’re adults and entitled to disregard the royal decree of his parents. But if he feels this will likely be the only time his entire family gets to all be together in such an extended fashion, his parents are getting older, and the fun parts of the trip will balance out the expense, then you make peace with the fact that being in a family means you don’t always get your own way. There are worse things in life than having someone pay for your cabin on a cruise ship. As long as the ship’s engine doesn’t die mid-voyage, or the passengers don’t get norovirus, you’ll be able to consider the trip a success.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks everyone. Talk to you next week.
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