Dear Prudence in 2013 was a vast catalog of the human condition, its foibles and desires and generosities. Whittling the hundreds of letters down to a few standouts was no easy task, but we managed to come up with a list of 12 favorites. They are variously funny and sad, outrageous and odd, serious and trivial—and all nearly impossible to forget. Please post in the comments any great ones we left out.
1. The Last Thing You Want to See on Craigslist (March 14)
In the summer of 2011 my wife and I purchased a top-of-the-line Jopen vibrator. We used it a few times and were just beginning to really integrate it into our sex lives when my wife died suddenly of a heart attack. (The vibrator had nothing to do with that.) Now, more than a year later, I’ve begun to date again. I’ve met a woman with an open mind, and I’m thinking she might be interested in using the vibrator. But I’m not sure how, or whether, to suggest it. Is it creepy to offer a dead woman’s vibrator to someone else? And if so what else can I do with it? Sell it on Craigslist? It’s an expensive piece of equipment, barely used, and it should be employed (and loved) once again. All of my wife’s other major possessions found wonderful new homes with dear friends of hers. But then again, a vibrator’s got a different—well, vibe about it. Sell it, toss it, or share it?
Talk about a buzz kill. I can’t even imagine raising the idea of asking your new squeeze to party with a vibrator “loved” by your late wife. Even if you’ve cleaned it off with Antibacterial Toy Cleaning Spray, this suggestion is going to cause unnecessary friction. I understand there is a piece of equipment, one permanently attached to you, that has been washed and used again with your new love. But paradoxically, intimate inanimate objects can feel more personal, and sharing certain ones would likely make anyone shudder. If just before her death your wife had bought a $140 Philips Sonicare HX6932/10 electric toothbrush, offering it to your girlfriend would make her gag. The Vanity by Jopen is also $140, comes in magenta, and its motor is apparently so powerful that when the user comes she’s probably magenta herself. But imagine trying to explain to your girlfriend that your wife only had a short time to enjoy her Jopen before her heart gave out—unrelated to the use of this equipment. There’s the rub: you don’t actually want to have that conversation. As for selling it on Craigslist, yes it’s possible that could find the vibrator a new home. But I would not want to meet the kind of person who would ring my bell in order to get a used vibrator. I understand you consider your Jopen investment-grade, but sometimes expenses just can’t be recouped.
2. Father of the Bride Not Included (Aug. 6)
Q. Wedding: I am 27 years old and engaged to an amazing guy. When I was a little girl, my dad was involved in a really bad accident and was burned over a large portion of his body. He lost part of one limb and has some serious disfigurement. He has been a great dad and I never think about it. A few weeks ago, my fiancé started acting strange when we talked about the wedding. I asked him what was up and he avoided the question. Then his mom called me out of the blue and told me that she didn’t think that my dad should come to the wedding. She thinks that he will upset the guests and “traumatize” any children who might be there. She is suggesting that we have a private family ceremony before the big blowout. I got upset and my mom asked why. When I told her, she said that she and my dad understand, which only makes me feel worse. Maybe my future MIL has a point, but I would really rather disinvite HER than my dad.
A: Your fiancé is not so amazing if in response to his mother’s outrageous, sickening request he didn’t immediately say to her, “Mom, Elise’s dad is a great person. That he has overcome a terrible trauma makes me admire him even more. You need to permanently drop this. He’ll not only be there, he’ll walk her down the aisle, and I don’t want to hear another negative word about him.” Instead, he has weaseled around, and presumably didn’t tell his mother not to make her despicable request to you—he surely knew what she was up to and didn’t even have the courage to warn you. Instead of responding to his mother, you need to talk this through with you fiancé. He should be the one to respond to his mother about this, and it’s not too late for him to make clear she is totally out of line. How he handles this will tell you if he’s worthy of becoming a member of your family. And I hope you tell your parents that if they are not both at the wedding and treated as guests of honor, you won’t be there, either.
3. It’s Probably Safe to Say He’s Not Sorry (Feb. 26)
Q. My Husband Is Mourning His Dead Mistress: Three months ago, the woman who was having an affair with my husband died suddenly from an accident. I found out about the affair only two days after her funeral. I thought she was simply a co-worker and I was wondering why my husband was so disturbed and emotional. He quit his job, saying it was too traumatic to go to work. She was in the early weeks of pregnancy when she died and my husband doesn’t know whether he or her husband was the father. So, on top of everything, he’s also grieving for a baby which may or may not have been his. I find it extremely difficult to be emotionally supportive when he wakes up at 3 a.m. crying and trembling—yet I don’t have the heart to yell at him like I want to. He says she’s dead, so there’s no reason for me to feel jealous or threatened, and asks for my understanding as he grieves. We’ve barely talked these last weeks because I don’t know how to respond to my husband when he cries and says he misses her and wishes she were here, then also how much he loves me and that he never intended to leave me. I asked him to visit a marriage therapist together and he said he’s “not ready” to work on our marriage, and thinks he needs to see a grief therapist instead. Do I need to give him time to mourn the loss of his mistress? Or should I demand he focus on our marriage?
A: You cannot impose a schedule on someone else’s grief. So I think you should let your husband fully experience his—alone. If you are being asked to be an understanding source of solace while he mourns the loss of his mistress, a woman who was possibly the mother of his child, then that is an emotional burden that’s simply outside the bounds of what one spouse can ask of another. He’s told you flat out he can’t work on his marriage because he’s too torn up about the death of the woman he loved. So I think you should tell him to move out while you each figure out what you want out of your marriage and life. In addition, I hope he is independently wealthy, or has fantastically in-demand professional skills, because quitting his job over her death indicates he’s gone off the deep end. I can’t imagine how he’s going to explain that departure to potential employers. Of course you’re reeling over these events, so if he won’t see a counselor with you, consider going alone. And you’ve left us all wondering: Does the grieving widower have any idea what his wife was up to?
4. Hey, if It’s Good Enough for Royalty … (Aug. 19)
Q. Possible Cousin Marriage: Over 20 years ago I had an affair with a married woman who became pregnant with my child. She reconciled with her husband and they raised the boy as their own. I have not had any contact with my biological son, at the husband’s request. No one in my family knows I have a secret son. Two weeks ago I found out my niece (my sister’s daughter) is engaged, and the groom to be is none other than my biological son! Prudie, I am livid that my son’s mother and her husband did not stop this relationship in its early stages. “No, Bobby, you can’t date that girl because she’s you’re biological cousin” is all it would have taken. I contacted the woman and she swore she didn’t know our son was marrying my niece since my niece has a different last name. I asked her what she planned to do to stop the wedding and she said she’s doing nothing! Our son doesn’t know anything and according to her, cousin marriage is harmless! Prudie, how do I bring this up with my niece and her parents? I have never had any contact with my son and I don’t think I should approach him about it. He doesn’t know his father is not his biological father. I don’t want my niece to live in incest because of my past mistake, Please help.
A: This is an opportunity to repeat my frequent reassurance to fathers: Dads, a statistically significant percentage of you actually have sired the children you think are yours. There’s no reason to doubt the mother of the groom when she says she didn’t realize the bride was related to you, especially if there’s been no big family gathering to celebrate the impending nuptials. You think you have a simple, easy way for the mother of the groom to stop the romance by saying, “Bobby, your father is not your father, and your fiancée is your cousin!” But if you think this through, explaining all this will entirely upend his family, and now yours, and at this late date in the wedding planning you can understand that the parents want to stick with their original plan to keep quiet about Bobby’s biology. I do think that people are entitled to know their origins and keeping these secrets has the potential for blowing up, as you are now seeing. But as it stands only three people know you’re the biological father of the boy, and while it may take all your will power, I think it should remain that way. Cousin marriage is common in much of the world and I think the remaining laws against it in this country should be repealed. Yes, there is an elevated risk of passing on genetic disorders, but it absolute terms it is very small. Two young people are in love and planning to make a life together. I think you should let that be.
5. Sophie’s Hypothetical Choice (Aug. 8)
My girlfriend and I are having a disagreement. I posed to her the following hypothetical situation: Would you rescue from fire and certain destruction the last surviving copy on earth of the complete works of Shakespeare or a single puppy? My girlfriend says that she would rescue the puppy because the puppy is a fellow living being. She is highly educated and claims to have great respect for Shakespeare. But I think my girlfriend’s choice is the wrong one. I would rescue the Shakespeare, not just because of the aesthetic enjoyment we get from his work but also because of all the moral insight it provides us (including possibly the insight that enables the concept of animal rights in the first place). We’ve argued a lot about this. I cannot take her answer seriously, but I find it rather disturbing nonetheless. She never rejected the hypothetical question out of hand or said that the two things aren’t even comparable. She says that preserving a living conscious thing is more valuable than preserving Shakespeare. My girlfriend loves animals, especially her poodle, and is a die-hard vegetarian. I am, on the other hand, obsessed with Shakespeare and rather neutral toward animals. What is the best way for us to defuse this situation?
I assume during your fights you say to your girlfriend, “I shall laugh myself to death at this puppy-headed monster!” And she replies to you, “Thou callest me a dog before thou hast cause. But since I am a dog, beware my fangs.” Since you fancy yourself a Shakespeare scholar, perhaps you are aware of the Bard’s propensity for having his characters fall into psychological traps of their own making. Well, here you are, having set up your girlfriend with a trick choice. In your mind her only acceptable answers were either you were a fool to come up with this game, or that she’d save the Shakespeare. Instead she chose the puppy, which now has you raging like Lear on the moors. If you want to imagine idiotic hypotheticals here’s mine: You save both folios and puppy, only to find later that the dog ate the entire works of Shakespeare. I hope you are coming to understand that harping on this has brought your relationship to the point that you might as well cry “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war. So to defuse this situation I suggest you apologize. Start with this quote from Dogberry in Much Ado About Nothing: “Remember that I am an ass.” Let’s just hope things haven’t gone so far that she replies, “I do desire we may be better strangers.”
6. The Love of a Good Woman (April 9)
Q. I’m Dying, Husband Affair: I am 32 and have been married to my husband, the love of my life and best friend, for the past five years. A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and currently only have about six-to-eight months left. This has been very hard, but I am starting to come to terms with the reality of the situation. My husband has been amazingly supportive of me during this time. We have no kids, and as my health has declined, he has sat with me through endless doctor appointments, hospital stays, and sleepless nights. On bad days he even has to help me bathe, and I know this has taken a toll on him. A few weeks ago while using his iPad to watch a movie, an email came in and I discovered he has been having a affair (emotional and sexual) with a co-worker for a few months now. For several days I cried, heartbroken at the betrayal, but now I feel like my husband deserves to have someone help him and support HIM through this emotional time. I have not confronted him about the affair, and were it not for the email and my subsequent snooping, I never would have known as I have not felt him pulling away from me. Do I confront my husband and tell him I understand? That although I am hurt, I forgive him and I don’t want him to feel guilty? Or do I just keep quiet and let him continue? If our families find out after I’m gone, I’m worried they will think ill of him, and I don’t want that either.
A: I am so sorry about your prognosis and so moved by your insight and compassion. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider getting one in order to have someone neutral who can help you fully work through this and everything you are facing. But you have written to me for a reaction, and mine is that you should tell your husband. Don’t frame it as a confrontation, but as a conversation. I can see you taking his hand one night and telling him that it was by accident, but a few weeks ago you found an email to him from the woman he is seeing. Then you tell him what you told me. That of course it was painful to discover, but on further reflection you realize he needs some relief from this terrible sadness. You can assure him that he has been a rock for you. This will be a hard, tearful discussion, but it will also probably be relief of a terrible, guilt-ridden burden for him. As for your family, you are very thoughtful to consider that if after your death it ever comes out there was someone else in his life, he will turn from angel to devil. You don’t have to tell anyone else about this. But as you say your farewells to those closest to you, you can allude to it. Perhaps you can tell your family that you want them to know that life can be so difficult and complicated and that through all of it your husband has been everything you wanted. You can say you were lucky that you two never had any secrets. Thank you for this example of bravery and compassion.
7. Only Happy When It Rains (April 11)
I’m a man in his mid-40s who has been happily married for 10 years. I particularly enjoy my wife’s dry, some would say sarcastic, sense of humor. Her wit not only attracted me to her as a partner, but it was one of the things that got me through a difficult time in my career, enabling me to see the humor in absurd and uncomfortable situations. About 18 months ago my wife’s mother passed away suddenly and my wife began seeing a counselor. After a few appointments, the counselor prescribed an antidepressant medication, Paxil, and my wife’s has been taking it ever since. As a result, my wife’s personality has changed. Not dramatically, but enough so that she has become a glass-half-full, constantly cheerful type of person. I have no idea if this is common or perhaps if she was always depressed and her dark humor existed for her to deal with it. I’m glad she’s happy now but I thought we were happy before and frankly, I miss my old wife! The new rainbows-and-sunshine person I’m living with gives me a headache and I find myself less attracted to her. I feel like a jerk and don’t know what to do. Help!
I’ll get back to you with an answer in a few weeks, because now that my husband has seen your question I assume he’ll start slipping Paxil into my half-empty coffee cup hoping for a similar change in my disposition. I have had many letters from people desperate to get their annoying loved ones on some kind of medication to take the edge off of jagged personalities. But I’ve never received such a cri de coeur from someone who wants the old sarcastic, unmedicated person back. But as an old, sarcastic, unmedicated person myself I appreciate hearing that not everyone wants a partner who has the buoyant outlook of SpongeBob SquarePants. You’re right, however, that telling your spouse her new cheerfulness has you wanting to get into bed, alone, and pull the covers over your head, is going to be a difficult, even baffling conversation. It’s best if you first broach this in the context of just checking in with her about the grief that propelled her to the therapist’s office. If she’s feeling more acceptance about her mother’s death, you can ask if the therapy has moved on from that to deal with other aspects of her life. This will give you the opportunity to talk about whether she feels the medication is still necessary and why. Depending on how that goes, you can say that you miss the sarcastic take she had on life. Tell her you don’t want to interfere with the treatment plan she has arrived at with her therapist, but as far as you’re concerned, her personality never needed any tweaking.
8. “The Mannequin Maneuver” (June 6)
I’m a woman in my 50s who started masturbating when I was about 12 and have ever since. As a young girl, I discovered my orgasms were much more intense and a lot faster (just a few minutes) and easier if I had my legs straight out on the bed with muscles tensed. The problem is that now I have to do that to be able to come. I hate it and am embarrassed about it. My lovers have never expressed a problem with this—to the contrary—but I am still deeply ashamed. I have tried to climax in other ways but it took a really long time and I needed a vibrator to finish. I fear my current lover will get tired and bored with my “patented method.” I told a close girlfriend about this last year and she blurted out, “Ewww: mannequin!” which was a kick in the gut. But should I just get over my shame, and if so, how?
When you’ve let your lovers in on your supposedly shameful secret that you must stick your legs straight out in order to have a Mount Pinatubo–intensity orgasm, to a man they’ve responded, “I can work with that.” Over the decades you’ve worn a powerful groove between body and mind that is a shortcut to ecstasy. This is not a cause for despair but celebration. Just because you have a “patented method” does not mean you’re a dull lover. You can engage in all sorts of gymnastics, but at some point during the session, you will feel the urge for your legs to stiffen. By your own account, no one has ever softened in response. The only negative I see is that it’s your personal method and not universally applicable. The world would be a happier place if the countless women who never reliably get off could solve this frustration with a session of mannequin legs.
9. Alfredo, Straight From the Pump (July 25)
I am a new mother of a lovely 4-month-old baby girl. My husband has been curious about my lactation, and I allowed him to taste some (from a bottle that I pumped). Now, he wants more. He thinks this sweet, fatty milk product would be perfect for a creamy mushroom pasta sauce. This disgusts me. Turning breast milk into food for adults feels a bit like making margaritas from my sweat. My husband argues that since we have plenty of supply and it wouldn’t hurt the baby, I should just let him try it and get over my repulsion. Am I being unreasonable?
Your husband sounds insane. I cannot imagine using breast milk for anything but lobster bisque. Take heart that your husband is not the only one with culinary designs on his wife’s lactation. A New York chef made breast-milk cheese (“strangely soft, bouncy” according to critic Gael Greene). However, it’s no longer in production, not just because of weaning, but because the health department rendered a negative verdict. Tell your husband you’ll stick to your breasts’ providing dinner service exclusively for the kid, but you’d love to have his creamy mushroom pasta. Say that he can find the necessary ingredients in the dairy aisle.
10. The Cruelest Confiscation (June 13)
My husband and I are at odds over our younger daughter and her “blankie.” My mother bought it for me when I was born and it’s been loved so much for so long that it’s completely see-through. I passed it to both of my girls, but only the younger has been attached to it. My daughter is almost 6 years old and my husband says she’s much too old to be carrying around a “rag.” He also has a problem with her referring to blankie as “him” because it’s an inanimate object. My youngest talks with blankie and when she has tea parties she will “feed” blankie. (I was a similarly imaginative child.) My husband wanted to burn blankie or throw it away, but I got him to agree not to by saying I would make a bear and use blankie as stuffing. Blankie has been hidden from her for two weeks. Our daughter cries sometimes at night because she wants to cuddle with blankie, or she will say “I’m afraid blankie is going to die.” I want her to have the blanket back, but my husband is adamant. Is there some way I can convince my husband that loving “blankie” is still OK no matter what our daughter’s age?
Please tell me your husband has some other redeeming qualities because as a father he is not only a wet blanket but cruel, punitive, and bizarrely literal. Over the years people (or their loved ones) who were embarrassed or concerned about their security objects, from blankets to stuffed animals, have written in asking whether their continued attachment was abnormal. When I’ve run these I’ve always been flooded with lovely replies from people who continue to have a special place of affection for an article that helped get them through some hard times, including being in a bomb attack in Iraq. In the psychological parlance things like blankie are transitional objects, and their use is perfectly normal and healthy. Given the paucity of blankies at executive committee meetings, most people make the transition and let them go. But giving up blankie could be years down the road for your still 5-year-old daughter—and if she holds onto this shred of assurance over the long haul, that’s fine, too. Your husband’s objection that your daughter calls blankie “he” because it’s inanimate makes me wonder if you’ve married someone who lacks the capacity to understand the minds of others, particularly children. I’m disturbed that in response to his daughter’s tears, your husband wants to incinerate this little piece of cloth. As far as blankie is concerned, you should tell your husband point blank that blankie is yours, and he’s not to get rid of it. But this conflict is not really about a threadbare piece of cloth; instead it’s about your husband’s capacity to be a compassionate and loving father. To address that, start by telling your husband that this issue has made you realize you two need to go to parenting classes together. As a start, hearing from a neutral party that your daughter’s attachment is typical might mollify your husband on this subject. Whether your little girl eventually consigns blankie to a special private place (highly likely) or continues to keep him within reach (possible, but less so), ask your husband this question: What’s it to you?
11. Too Close for Comfort … (Jan. 17)
My brother and I are having a physical relationship. Our parents are admirable people who took good care of us, but are distant and aloof, and I think that my brother and I turned to each other for warmth and emotional support. He’s two years older and looked out for me in high school, and I shared with him what girls are like, which made him more confident socially. After he went away to college, I chose a college in the same city as his, so we continued to see a lot of each other. I’m now a senior and he’s a graduate student. About three months ago we were sitting on my couch watching a sad movie and when it was over we turned to each other, exchanged a look, and started kissing. Now we lie on the bed, clothed, and kiss and talk and hold each other. When I’m with him I feel loved and cared for. We have not had sex because there’s a psychological barrier that neither of us wants to cross. I go on dates with other men, but I never feel the emotional connection that I feel with my brother. I needed to talk to someone about this so I went to a counselor at the student health service and in the first session she practically ordered me not to see him for three months. I left in tears and haven’t gone back. We want to lead normal lives and have families. We both know intellectually that we shouldn’t be doing this, but we don’t feel the wrongness of it. Must we stop this immediately, or may we let it continue and hope we grow out of it?
—No Sibling Rivalry
Since you’re both in your 20s, the trend appears to be going the opposite way of outgrowing your closeness. You say you don’t want to cross the ultimate line, but you continue to slow dance to the edge of it. If one day Jack’s resolve breaks, you, Jill, are likely to come tumbling after. You profess you two want normal lives, but if you violate this taboo you may never get there. If you do have an affair, or something pretty close, and you vow to forever keep this secret, you each will spend decades hoping your sibling stays silent. But if one or the other feels this is something a future romantic partner should know, don’t be surprised if upon hearing your confession your new love quickly backs away. I know I more or less gave a pass recently to a pair of middle-aged incestuous gay twins, but they had long ago made a physical and emotional commitment to each other, and were asking me about whether they should let their family know. I think even those two men would advise you two to stop the rubbing and get yourselves disentangled emotionally. Your therapist should have had the training not to be so shocked by your revelation that she ended up barking orders. Go back to the counseling office, say your first therapist was not a good fit, and you’d like to talk to someone else about a pressing emotional issue. A good therapist should be able to hear you out, understand your situation, and help guide you out of it. For a window into how strange things like this can get if they go too far, read Jeffrey Eugenides’ wonderful novel Middlesex.
12. Just Be Glad She Doesn’t Use a Whistle (July 2)
Q. My Girlfriend the Sex Coach: My GF and I recently started having sex. I’m not sure the best way to explain it, so I’m going to just give you some examples of things she says during sex. “You’re doing great!” “Your technique and fundamentals are really good.” (While going down on her:) “Yes! Keep going! You can do it!” “Wow! That’s good. You must have been practicing!” Mind you, let me reiterate, these are things she is saying WHILE we are having sex. Yes, in the middle of the act, she keeps saying all these words of encouragement. What is she, my coach? I’m just so flabbergasted by this, I don’t even know what to say to her. She doesn’t even really talk dirty, she just will shout all these words of encouragement. I really have to dig deep in my mind for really dirty thoughts to stay in the mood because to me it is so ridiculous that I just want to burst out laughing sometimes. What is this all about?
A: At least she hasn’t said, “And you stuck your landing!” I’m wondering if your girlfriend is an aficionado of the show Girls, because one of the most cringe-worthy scenes was when Marnie and Charlie got back together, and upon having sex again Marnie discovered Charlie’s being with other women had improved his technique, and she shouted out commentary almost identical to what you’re describing. Your problem is, one, that the rule-book of how to have a good relationship says you should bring it up gently when you’re not in bed. You tell your girlfriend how happy you are with her, how wonderful it is that you’ve become intimate, blah, blah, blah. But that her commentary during sex, while meant to be encouraging, is really distracting and you’d appreciate if she’d stop. But what I really would hope is that you simply flop away, laugh hysterically, and say, “Marnie, there’s no way I can score unless you stop coaching from the sidelines.”
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