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 firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.
Q. Sex, STDs, and a 40-Year-Old Virgin: My boyfriend and I have been dating for just over two years. I contracted genital herpes when I was about 20 years old. I am now in my early 40s. I’m divorced, having been with my ex-husband for almost 20 years. He never caught the STD. None of my previous partners, to my knowledge, have contracted herpes. My current boyfriend is a virgin. This is the longest relationship he has ever been in. He had never had sex of any kind before me. I perform oral sex on him, but due to my STD, he will not reciprocate. Intercourse is out of the question. While he has gotten better about touching me, he does still thoroughly scrub his hands afterward. It makes me feel like he should be wearing a hazmat suit before coming near me. We have talked about this. While I feel his fear is irrational (I have not had an outbreak since I was in my early 20s) he feels it’s founded. I’ve offered to go on suppression therapy, and of course use condoms, but to no avail. Am I to be celibate for the rest of my life if we remain together? I need some help in finding a new way to discuss this with him. He is a great guy—kind, sweet, loving in every other way.
A: Don’t get too close when you discuss this because he’s probably terrified you’ll give him a cold sore. You are not a person to him—you are a vector for the herpes virus. If one person has herpes, it’s only fair to inform a potential sexual partner of this fact, then that person can decide whether to proceed. But your having herpes is probably great news for your boyfriend because it gives him a built-in excuse to never have sex with you. It’s not by accident that he’s a 40-year-old virgin. Frankly, I don’t understand why you want to have intercourse with this guy. There’s not much appeal to inept, hasty, fearful sex. Of course you know the answer to your own question about whether, after two years, this is doomed to be a celibate relationship. The discussion you need to have is with yourself about why you’d consider staying.
Dear Prudence: The Happy Hooker
Q. Family Dysfunction: I have recently achieved a lifelong goal. My first book will be published sometime this year. The problem is that I feel alone in my success. My husband, my friends, and my parents are happy and have been supportive, but the rest of my family has ignored it to the point of rudeness. I don’t expect them to jump up and down and have a party, but a simple “congrats” would have been nice. My extended family has meant everything to me, and I have done all I can to keep in touch and be supportive of all they do. I’m often quiet about my successes in my life, but this is the one thing I chose to share. I feel terrible and lost. This really hurts. Looking back, sadly, this seems to be the norm. Should I let them know how much they have hurt me, or is this one I should just let go?
A: I hope this isn’t a self-help book about letting go of slights and unrealistic expectations. Congratulations on your book, and speaking for book authors everywhere, get used to realizing that hardly anyone else is going to care. You mention your book is scheduled to be published “sometime” this year. Normally the hoopla—what there is of it—doesn’t start until there’s an actual volume that can be procured. You need a serious expectation adjustment. Start assuming no one is interested in your accomplishment and you will sell no books. Then if anyone buys one, you’ll be thrilled.
Q. Do I Go Apologize?: Years ago, I dated an amazing girl, “Allie.” We dated for seven years (through mid-high school to young adult), and we were engaged to get married. A few months before our wedding, I cheated on her with a co-worker. I came clean to my then-fiancée, after feeling very heavy guilt. Despite the long relationship and great friendship, we agreed to call the wedding off and go our separate ways. During the relationship, her father and I were very close friends—we golfed together, and I really admired and respected him. He’s the kind of father and man I hope to someday become. Naturally, he was very angry and distraught after my infidelity unfolded. I haven’t seen or spoken to him since and have only heard stories. Fast forward several years, I’m now married to an incredible woman who is the polar opposite of Allie, and we have a beautiful 2-year-old daughter. I’m completely faithful and committed to my wife and daughter, yet I still feel great remorse and guilt over the way things ended with Allie and how I disrespected her and her family, especially the relationship I had with her father. I repeatedly have a dream and feeling that I should go apologize to her father face to face, as I know he wouldn’t read a letter if I sent it. Do I go and apologize and attempt to make amends? Or just let it be?
A: You were set to marry your high school sweetheart when you realized you felt as if you’d gotten trapped way too young. So instead of addressing that directly, you cheated. That was a weaselly but effective way of getting out of the wrong relationship. Sure, the ensuing breakup was painful, but that one was between you and Allie, not her father, your golfing buddy. I hope by this point everyone shares the perspective that it all worked out for the best. There are no amends for you to make to these people. You are a decent person, so you feel terrible about how you handled your relationship with Allie. So you need to find a way to forgive yourself without involving her family.
Q. Hugging Doctor: I have been going to the same general practitioner doctor for quite a while. He is kind and attentive. He has a great staff, and his office is very close to home. Overall, I’m very happy with his treatment. However, a couple of years ago he started greeting me with a hug. Not a bear hug, just a lean-in-pat-on-the-back type. This does not normally bother me, but he’s my doctor, and I want to keep a professional doctor-patient relationship. He is also seeing sick people all day, and I’m a little creeped out at the germ factor. I have tried pre-empting the hug by saying, “I’m not a hugger,” or extending out my hand for a handshake, but he just ignores it and goes in for the hug. I was recently in the office with my husband who had been injured, and he didn’t hug or shake my husband’s hand but hugged me. He hugs whether I am sick or well, and he comes in for the hug at the beginning and the end of the appointment. I don’t want to change doctors, but what can I say to him to make him stop without offending him?
A: Since you’ve told him this makes you uncomfortable and he just did it again—interesting the hugs are only for female patients—write him a letter. Say that you appreciate his excellent care and how well-run his office is, but say that you feel you must reiterate your discomfort with the hugs you get at the beginning and end of an appointment. Write that you’ve mentioned it before, but it hasn’t stopped and now you feel the need to put this request in writing. Then if the hugs continue, find yourself another practitioner.
Q. Re: Family Dysfunction: My expectations about my book are low. I’m not quitting my day job by any means. I’m not sitting around having a temper tantrum about this one small thing, though I realize it sounds that way. When I’ve made mistakes, they have all been vocal about it. Things that happened 10 years ago still pop up. Yet, the positive is ignored. I guess I have a lot to think about in regard to my family and why I so badly need their approval.
A: There are many books already on the market that explore excessive approval-seeking. Look at some, then work on your Amazon author’s page and concentrate on attracting readers outside your family circle.
Q. Boyfriend Can’t Keep His Hands to Himself: I recently started dating a guy who is absolutely great. Early on, I invited him to hang out with me and my friends, just to see if they’d hit it off, and they did—fabulously—which I took to be a good sign. I’ve started hanging out with his friends more over the past month, and I’ve noticed something that really bothers me: Whenever he interacts with female friends, he touches them a lot. And I don’t just mean pats on the back or shoulders; I mean he touches their leg, rubs their back (even the small of their back!), puts his hand on their waist, etc. This is sometimes in addition to jokey flirtation and innuendo (initiated by both parties). I’m affectionate with partners, but I’m characteristically unflirtatious with friends, so maybe I just don’t get it, but it seems over the top to me. He told me that one of his acquaintances propositioned him recently—clearly she didn’t think the touching meant nothing! I completely trust him, and I don’t think he would ever cheat on me, but I’m a jealous person by nature and can’t just shut that off—so I’m worried that he’s touchy-feely by nature and that likewise his behavior is never really going to change. Should I bother addressing this with him?
A: You’ve concluded that the new guy you’re dating, who loves to rub his female friends and exchange jokey sexual banter—which apparently gets misunderstood because one of these women wanted to take him up on the innuendo—would never cheat. I’m not sure why you’re so sure of this, especially since you say you’re a naturally jealous person. Flirting can be fun, but it has to be within mutually understood bounds, and what your boyfriend considers appropriate seems creepy to you. So talk about it with him. Say you’re not asking him to tie his hands behind his back, but since he’s told you one recipient misunderstood him, ask him to tone it down. Then see what happens. And I have a question for you: By any chance is your boyfriend a doctor?
Q. A New Twist on Dividing Holidays Between Families: My boyfriend and I live a major distance away from most of my family. We do not have much money to spare, so my parents pay for me to come visit a few times a year. We are now at the point in our relationship where it feels wrong to spend holidays apart. On the one hand, pooling our own resources, we could probably only afford to visit once every two to three years. On the other hand, it also wouldn’t be appropriate to ask my parents to pay for my boyfriend to come with me. Complicating the matter is the fact that my parents hate my boyfriend, who they blame for the fact that I live so far away, but they are extremely passive-aggressive about it. What is the right way to handle the situation?
A: Split the visits between holiday and nonholiday times. So spend Thanksgiving with your boyfriend, but see your parents for Christmas, or vice versa. Or visit for a long weekend in the summer. You also need to address the fact that your family won’t accept your boyfriend. Next time you visit, explain you are in a serious relationship and you two are partners. Say that if you parents can’t accept that, then the distance that separates you will not just be physical.
Q. Half-Sister Reminds Me of Her Abusive Father: I was sexually abused by my stepfather from the time I was in kindergarten until I was in seventh grade, at which point I told my mother about the abuse and my stepfather committed suicide. During that time, my mother became pregnant with my younger sister. I’m 24 now, married to a wonderful man and, for the most part, have healed from the abuse. However, there are certain triggers that take me back and cause me pain. My sister is now 18. Two years ago my mother told her that my stepfather had sexually abused me as a child. She felt horrible that it had happened but obviously doesn’t know the extent. A while back she posted a picture of us and her father on Facebook and tagged me in it. I untagged myself. My brother told her that it hurts me to see those pictures and so she hadn’t done it in a while. Recently however, she posted another picture of her as a baby with her father. I would like to come up with a tactful way to ask her to cease posting these photos or to at least block me from being able to see them. Do you have any advice on what I can say to get her to stop?
A: Oh, the damage and the trauma sick people can inflict. I think you should just use Facebook technology yourself to corral your sister so that you aren’t seeing her posts instead of asking her to protect you. If the most effective thing is for you to defriend her, then do so. You might want to explain to her you’re taking this step because you recognize that she’s entitled to post her own family photos, but any involving her father are too painful for you to see.
Q. Mom’s Hiding Something: My mom is over 60 and, for the last few years, has had her health greatly decline. She refuses to quit smoking, lose weight, and follow other doctor’s orders. My brother and I have talked to her about our worries but she brushes us off. Now I think something is seriously wrong with her and she’s hiding it from my family. She keeps having dizzy spells, hides pills in her purse, and goes on “errands” (which involve most of the day and have her return home exhausted and drawn). I’ve tried asking around but she becomes furious and refuses to talk with me for days. She tells me to keep my nose out of her business. I’m so worried about her and I want to help (or at least know). How do I even broach this with her without a fight?
A: You and your brother could contact her doctor—if she has one—and then have an intervention in which you make an appointment for her and take her for a checkup. But unless she is found to be incompetent—and it doesn’t sound as if she is—if she prefers to fall apart, there’s not much you can do. Of course it’s painful to see someone you love go down the tubes. But some people’s urge toward self-destruction can’t be stopped. Do what you reasonably can, then accept you can’t let her bad decisions about herself ruin your life.
Q. Crafting Obsession: My sister and I live close to each other and get together with our kids a few times a week. We have a pretty good relationship overall, but lately one thing has come up that is becoming increasingly hard to deal with. While she was always crafty, it seems as though the combination of Pinterest has made her almost obsessed with crafts and presentation. At a recent birthday party, my brother-in-law told me that his wife was up until 2 every night that week and 4 the day before the event. It is clear this is taking a toll on both of them. I work part time and spend the remainder of my week with my 3-year-old and 5-year-old doing normal mom stuff that does include homemade meals and some DIY projects, but I’m certainly not up until 2. I would like to bring this up to my sister, but I’m not sure how to be tactful and concerned instead of pushy and unhelpful.
A: How crafty of your brother-in-law to drop this information in the hopes that you might be able to do something about your sister’s alarmingly obsessive behavior over decorations. Just be straightforward. Tell your sister that the craft stuff she does is amazing, but her husband told you how late she stays up putting these projects together. Say you understand that when you’re into a project it’s hard to let go, but you’re concerned that she’s making herself exhausted. Then drop it. Sometimes some outside perspective, even if it’s unwanted, can percolate. Then in a very low-key way, try to keep tabs on this. You’re a long way from having to claw the hot-glue gun out of her hands.
Q. Re: Mom’s Hiding Something: I think you skipped over the LW’s real concern, which is that her mother is seeing a doctor and is being treated for something serious but that her mother won’t discuss it.
A: If the daughter feels the mother is getting adequate care, then she just has to back off. Yes, it’s sad if the mother is ill and won’t share this with her daughter, but that’s the mother’s choice to make.
Q. Touchy-Feely Conductor: I’m a woman who sings in a large, independent choir (not affiliated with any house of worship) that is conducted by a very talented, professional, married conductor. Like many people in the music profession, he is rather touchy-feely, hugging people (both men and women). The first time he hugged me, I didn’t want to make a public fuss, but afterward I told him privately that I don’t hug married men. (I’m single; I’m also aware that he has a reputation of being a ladies’ man.) He seemed to understand, but more recently he has done things during breaks in rehearsal that cross my personal boundary line, such as rubbing my back and stroking my face when he talks to me. I’ve been trying to avoid being anywhere near him and haven’t wanted to discuss this with him because I realize A) his touching just might possibly not be intended sexually (and might be more of a power thing), and B) his wife, who is also in the choir, watches him like a hawk. I don’t want to quit the choir, so should I just put up and shut up? My resentment is building, and I don’t want to blow up.
A: Whether men you don’t want touching you are doing it for power, or sex, or because they like it even if you don’t, they’ve got to stop. Instead of skulking around, have a normal relationship with the director. If he touches you again, say rather loudly, “I’ve asked you before not to touch me. So please stop.” If you have to find another choir, do so.
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