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.)
Q. Anonymous, Please!: My husband has been having trouble sustaining an erection for over a year now. It happens only sometimes, but lately it has been more and more frequent. I have tried to be calm, loving, supportive about it, and not to get upset. A few nights ago, though, I burst into tears and asked him why he hasn’t seen a doctor to try to get to the bottom of this. I said that I was too young (30) to live like this. He immediately agreed and made an appointment for a few days from now. Last night, it happened again, and I got upset. I feel like I can’t put on an act of loving support anymore, although I know this is supposed to be one of the most important things a wife can do in this situation. We haven’t successfully had sex in around three weeks. Since he got a clean bill of health on a recent physical, I feel that the problem is related to stress in his job, and I feel sure my reaction has multiplied the problem. Can you think of anything I can do to offset the damage I have done? I think I have really hurt his feelings and made him feel small (no pun intended), but it’s hard to just stifle all my emotions on this topic anymore.
A: It’s true that a wife bursting into tears and announcing, “I can’t live like this!” over the flaccid condition of her husband’s penis is likely to make him limp away in defeat. The good news is there’s nothing physically wrong, the bad news is that he is probably in a downward psychological spiral. Instead of enjoying sex, when he approaches you his brain just goes on autopilot with the alarming question, “What if I can’t keep it up? What if I can’t keep it up?” You two need to be able to talk about this, but the conversation should take place out of bed. Tell him you’re thrilled he’s physically fine, apologize for making a scene and compounding the problem, then tell him you’re confident you two can get your love life back on track. Surely, if you husband watches sports, he’s seen the endless ads showing that the majority of handsome, virile, middle-age men have erectile dysfunction. But there are pills to solve this! Your husband should go back to the doctor and ask for a prescription. Then you should read some books about sex and how couples restore good sexual functioning. Maybe the first few times he tries the pills you don’t have intercourse, you just enjoy each other and he gets to feel more confident about his erection. I have every confidence that soon you two will be staring at each other in that come hither way of the people in the ads, and my only suggestion is that you not soak too long in those separate bathtubs.
Dear Prudence: Sex Tape of an Ex
Q. Grumpy Old Men: Prudie, you often tell people who are concerned about strange behaviors to have the family member see a doctor for a complete work up. How do you suggest getting that person to actually see the doctor? In recent years, my dad’s temper has become unpredictable and intense; logic is out the window (a note to a burglar on the fire box that there isn’t anything of value in it so please leave it) and most recently, that he’ll no longer wear anything the color of a rival sports team (down to no blue dress shirts). If I suggested he see a doctor, he’d either laugh it off or become irate—neither option resulting in his making a doctors appt. Any ideas? I truly think there is something wrong unless all old men are this grumpy.
A: I just make the suggestions, then I leave the hard part up to the letter writers. Of course I know that saying, “This is an alarming change in behavior and your loved one needs to see a doctor,” almost certainly means the loved one says, “There’s nothing wrong with me. I’m not going to a doctor just because I refuse to wear blue like any other Red Sox fan.” My first suggestion is to call the doctor and explain what’s going on. Before people get all crazed about that violating HIPAA privacy rules, it is fine for family members to disclose their concerns to a doctor—it’s the doctor who is bound by confidentiality. Then the doctor should help you come up with a plan. It could be that instead of waiting for your father to take action, you just have to be decisive: “Dad, it’s been two years since your last checkup. You need to get your blood pressure checked and your medications adjusted, so I made an appointment for you with Dr. Martin for next Wednesday, and I will take you.” It’s also possible you could have the doctor call your father and say that her charts indicate he needs to get some basic tests and he would listen to a direct “order.” I’d love to hear from readers who have successfully managed to convince a recalcitrant loved one get a checkup.
Q. Re: Anonymous Please: Prudie, I think you misread the timeline here … I don’t think he’s even had the appointment yet (it says “a few days from NOW”). Your suggestions are good but for now this woman needs to cool it and get some perspective. A few weeks without intercourse isn’t going to kill anyone.
A: Thanks for the clarification that his last regular checkup was fine, but he’s now going to a doc for a dick check. Assuming everything also checks out, then he should get the pills and have some fun. I’m sure the wife’s desperate lament that it’s been three whole weeks and she can’t live like this! got a lot of chuckles from harried, exhausted middle-aged people.
Q. Tortured “Artist”: My wife is a successful full-time writer. As far as I can tell, she hates it. She complains about the instability, isolation, and loneliness, but she also hates the competition, fame, and media attention. She struggles with deadlines and self-motivation. She sometimes gets so caught up in her work that she can’t sleep and forgets to eat or shower. She says “I hate writing” and “I hate this so much” all the time. If it were any other job, I’d tell her to quit and find something else that makes her happy. I’d be fine with supporting her financially while she went back to school. It would be tight, but not impossible. However, several other writers (and their spouses) tell me her angst is totally normal, and just part of being an “artist.” They also emphasize how rare her level of success is, and say she’d regret “throwing it away.” Some of them even claim she’s so talented it would be a loss to the world. I like her stuff, but this seems hyperbolic. I’d rather she were happy! Prudie, since you’re also a writer who works from home, are they right? Is her misery normal? Or should I encourage her to change fields?
A: I was wondering which husband of my successful writer friends wrote this. I know they all joke about how much fun it is to live with someone in the midst of a big assignment. You left out complaints like, “Why did I ever think this story would be a good idea?” “I can’t do it, I have nothing. I don’t even have a lede.” Unfortunately for the writer’s loved ones (and the writer) this sounds pretty normal. But I don’t like the idea of this being the burden of being an “artist.” Surely there are superb teachers who carp at every pile of homework to be corrected, or successful contractors who cavil at every check-out line at Home Depot. There are parts of every job that are unpleasant. But as the great Nora Ephron said about her profession, “The hardest part about writing is writing.” Maybe it’s possible your wife would be happier as a lawyer. But I think you’d just end up wanting to move to a motel while she was preparing a brief. All this doesn’t mean that it doesn’t wear on you. So with some understanding and humor talk to your wife about this. Explain because you love her, it’s hard to hear her sounding so miserable. Say if she wants a change of profession, you will support it. But you strongly feel that this is what being a writer is, and what living with a writer means. Tell her you for your own psychological health, you have to put a limit to how much you can bear of her process. Say you will listen, but you can’t take more than 20 minutes a day of her misery mantra. After that, you can tell her she’s welcome to join you for a walk, or a TV break, but you can’t endlessly hear about the terrible price of her success.
Q. Re: Managed to convince a recalcitrant loved one get a checkup: The fact is, that at some point, the parents and children switch roles. It’s hard to recognize when this should happen, and awfully hard to carry it out. But when you spend time worrying about whether Mom or Dad will be hurt or offended by your efforts to keep them safe, then you’ve spent too much time thinking about it already. My husband treats his mother the way he did our son when our son was a toddler. Tell the parent(s) firmly what is happening, and do it. It took me a while to do that with my own parents because my mother is excellent at turning herself into a victim and my father aids and abets that on her behalf. Once I stopped feeling bad about their folie a deux, things improved immeasurably. Now I just have to persuade my sibs that our parents are the kids and vice versa.
A: I agree that being firm and confident about basic issues of health and safety is a good idea. And sometimes when dementia or other mental diminishment is involved the parent simply isn’t in a condition to make decisions about him or herself. But just because people are old does not mean they are mentally equivalent to toddlers. Every situation has to be handled individually, and goal should always be to keep the dignity of an elder adult intact.
Q. Re: For husband of tortured writer: It’d be good to encourage her to find a writers group that’ll be better equipped to deal with hearing about her feelings.
A: I’m kind of doubting struggling writers would be very sympathetic to the struggles of a writer who complains about the burdens of her celebrity.
Q. 35-Year-Old Virgin: I grew up a typical lonely nerd. I went through high school and college without dates or girlfriends, convinced that every other young man was getting them left and right. By my mid-20s, I gave up, convinced no woman could ever want me. I don’t want to spend my life alone. But what woman would want to be a 35-year-old man’s first date, let alone sleep with an “inexperienced” man? I know that women like self-confidence, but I don’t feel like I have anything to be self-confident about. So what should I do? If I keep doing what I’ve been doing, I’ll end up a lonely old man.
A: I have often wished I could put together all the people, of both sexes, who have written me a variation of your letter over the years. Yes, it would be an awkward social event with a lot of people looking at their shoes. But I would stand guard at the door and require everyone who has never flirted or been out on a date to at least have a conversation with the others in the room. I agree that most 35-year-old women want an experienced man. But there are plenty of inexperienced women your age who also feel everyone got the memo on how to interact with the opposite sex, only they were home sick that day. It could also be that someone who has so missed finding romance may be on the autistic spectrum and it would be worth it to discuss this with a physician and get an evaluation. But whatever the cause, people have to start somewhere, and I think you should go online. Search around the specialty dating websites that attract people who openly acknowledge they are inexperienced. Sign up and get comfortable with first flirting by email with women who are also hoping they don’t go through life lonely.
Emily Yoffe: Thank you all. And thank you today, and every day, to those who have served and those who continue to defend.
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