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. And tell me that yesterday was the last day I’ll have to scrape snow off the windshield until next winter.
Q. Cold Feet: Two weeks ago I left on a short vacation to visit a friend across the country. I said goodbye to my amazing fiancé with tears in my eyes even though I was only going to be gone for six days. We’re in our late 20s, have been together for four years and have always had a strong, loving relationship. When I reached my friend’s apartment, I met her roommate “Josh” who turned my world upside down. I have never given another man a second look during my relationship, but Josh and I had such an instant connection, it was unsettling. We spent hours talking, sharing stories, and getting to know each other’s backgrounds. While my fiancé and I have lots in common, there are issues that we have compromised on (number of children, religion, saving vs. spending). Josh and I, however, seemed to be in sync on every issue we addressed. Nothing physical happened, but I left the trip feeling sad that I was leaving Josh! I am absolutely dumbfounded by these feelings. I obviously don’t know Josh well enough to know that we would work out as a couple, but he introduced a doubt in my relationship that I can’t seem to shake. I still love my fiancé, but now I’m questioning if our foundation is strong enough for a marriage … which is supposed to happen in six months! What should I do?
A: I don’t know you or Josh, but I can assure you that if you two became a couple you would also find issues on which you would have to compromise. The alluring stranger you’ve only known for a few days is the one with whom you’ve never had to fight over credit card debt, or messiness, or how many kids you want. I, however, can’t tell if Josh helped put in relief some deep, fundamental problems in your relationship. Or if Josh just reminded you that you’re still young and settled on a life partner awfully early in the game. Or if Josh is it and you’ll regret forever not pursuing a possible relationship. You need to accept that every so often even for the happiest couples a Josh comes along to make one wonder, “What if.” So you have some deep thinking to do. Maybe after a few more weeks at home the thoughts of Josh will fade away and you’ll have your answer. Maybe this encounter will have made you realize you’ve been fooling yourself. What you do is not do anything rash, and instead use both your rational and emotional minds to explore what is the best decision about your future.
Q. Help!: My boyfriend and I are in a loving, dedicated relationship. He is such an amazing guy and all of my friends and family say he is one of a kind. The other day, though, I discovered some bizarre videos on his cellphone. He catches the subway for work and he has been surreptitiously recording women’s legs. There are no faces or other intimate body parts—just legs. At first I thought it was an accidental recording but there are five or more videos. I don’t know what to do. Is this illegal, recording women’s legs? Is this a deal-breaker? I love him so much I wonder if I should just pretend I haven’t seen it.
A: If only he lived in Massachusetts for that brief period before the Legislature closed the loophole in the law that allowed Massachusetts perverts to take upskirt photos. Your beloved apparently is skirting illegality by limiting himself to leg videos. I’m no lawyer (please chime in defense or criminal experts), but my understanding is that there is no expectation of privacy about one’s exposed limbs. However, your boyfriend is exposing himself to being declared a creep because anyone who realizes he’s filming her is going to be appalled. Sure, there’s nothing wrong with a man enjoying a woman’s lovely legs. And maybe your boyfriend has what’s on the whole a basically harmless fetish. But he’s not limiting himself to looking at legs on the street and online, he’s gathering his own cache, which is worrisome. (And I’m betting he’s got more than five of these videos stashed away.) I don’t see how you can pretend to ignore what you’ve discovered. Let’s face it, neither do you—you know you’ll never think of your boyfriend the same way and that you need to find out what’s going on. So tell him you saw the videos and ask what’s up with that. His response will help you sort out just how one of a kind he is.
Q. Divorce: I am divorced from a man who was abusive to me for the majority of our marriage. We have two children together—the older, a girl, is 11 years old. I left my husband when she was old enough to know about the horrible way he was treating us, so she has many strong, negative opinions about him. I never badmouth my ex-husband to the kids at all, but I also do not tell her to stop saying negative things about her father when she expresses them. I have had people tell me how horrible it is that I let her speak so poorly of him and that I shouldn’t encourage it. I don’t encourage it, but I don’t dissuade it either. Am I wrong for this? My ex-husband physically abused me for years and the last time it happened I ended up in the hospital (which my daughter saw). Should I be forcing her to speak to her father on the phone when she doesn’t want to and stop calling him a “jerk”?
A: Your daughter knows the truth, so it would be much worse for her if you were to paper this over and encourage her to think and say, “Oh, Daddy is a good man who just sometimes got a little too angry.” Sadly, he is more than a jerk, he’s a criminal. I hope that if you ended up in the hospital because he assaulted you, that he was arrested and did time. In any case, kids who have been through this kind of trauma would benefit from seeing a therapist to help them air their feelings and come to terms with what it means to have such a father. If she doesn’t want to speak to him, that should be her choice, but again, a neutral third party will help her sort this out so that she doesn’t feel so torn over loyalty to you, etc. She also needs a way to talk to other people about why her father is not in her life. This can be anything from, “We don’t see our dad,” to telling some form of the truth to those she is closest with. Good for you for getting out of this marriage and stopping the abuse. But this is something that will echo through the years for all of you, and having outside support should make a big difference.
Q. To Tell or Not to Tell?: Six years ago I was sexually assaulted. It did not lead to rape because I screamed loudly enough that I was heard by others, which gave me time to run away—but the assault itself was traumatic enough that it took some good therapy before sex could be fun, not painful and terrifying. I was still in college and the man who eventually became my boyfriend after that incident was, thankfully, understanding of my slow healing process. But I always felt that a part of our relationship was built on his “taking care of me” at that time. We broke up amicably post-college and I am now, at 25, seeing someone with whom I am deeply in love and can see building a life with. We’ve been together just under a year and I am wondering if I should tell him about the assault. It is a permanent part of my past and informed who I became, but I am totally over the trauma and I enjoy sex with my current partner more than I ever thought possible. On the one hand, perhaps this is something one should share with one’s potential life partner? On the other hand, I don’t want him to start seeing me as a victim, or for this knowledge to somehow change his willingness to experiment sexually with me (i.e. I don’t want this to cloud what he is comfortable trying—I’m so proud of how far I’ve come sexually). Should I tell him? If so, how?
A: Good for you for getting help and healing. It’s really important for other victims to hear this. What you just told me, you should tell him. He knows you as a sexually confident, expressive woman, so there’s no reason that should change. You are presenting this story as something significant that happened to you, but not as the central thing to have happened to you. There will be no lack of opportunities for this to come up, a story in the news, for example, that prompts you to say, “When I was in college, I was sexually assaulted …” You will be telling your boyfriend something a partner should know about you, but you will also be doing it after having established a free and open sexual relationship. I think letting him know will lift off you a burden of secrecy you shouldn’t have to carry.
Q. Re: For “Divorce”: PLEASE don’t force a relationship with her father if she doesn’t want one! My father is a criminal, but I was raised by my mom who not only wanted me to keep up a relationship with him, she rationalized that he was “caught up” in bad things and portrayed him as a victim (which I think she needed to do to justify why she married such a bad guy, even though she had the good sense to divorce him). I spent years being made to spend time with someone who not only didn’t love me, but whom I didn’t love back. It wasn’t until my mid-20s that I finally sought out therapy for the first time and realized forcing this relationship did more harm than good. I wish my mom had had the insight you did. Be strong! Your daughter is lucky to have you.
A: Thanks for this. Too often I get letters about one parent demonizing another. But when a parent really is a toxic, dangerous person, it is no favor to pretend he’s just a misunderstood guy.
Q. Neighbors: I am a happily married father of three. Last summer we moved to a new town and neighbor kids started coming over to play with our two oldest children. (Our previous neighborhood had no kids our children’s age.) My two oldest (boys aged 6 and 3) have made a lot of new friends. “Katie” a 6-year-old from two houses over has taken to calling me “Dad.” She lives with her mother and grandmother and almost never sees her actual father. My wife has spoken to Katie’s mom briefly once, but I have never met her or Katie’s grandmother. How should I respond to Katie calling me “Dad?” Katie is a very sweet girl and I would feel bad telling her not to call me that especially since she doesn’t have a father figure in her life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t want my children calling another adult dad or mom. Also, I’m worried it might be hurtful to my own children to let someone else call me that. What should I do?
A: This is such a sad story. I agree that as much as Katie might want you for a father, she has to understand she can have fun with you, and look up to you, but that calling you “Dad” won’t make it so. Next time she does it, when you get a chance to unobtrusively pull her aside, you can say you are so glad she spends time at your house and you enjoy being with her, but that the neighborhood kids call you Mr. Williams, or Ron, or however it is done at your house or on your block. Since you are in a neighborhood of young families, you should start getting to know them. Some weekend when Katie is playing at your house, invite her mother to stay for a cup of coffee. Or have the whole family over for spaghetti some Sunday night. This will help you understand their family dynamic better. And if you feel Katie is too clingy or needy, the connection will give you an opening to discuss your concerns.
Q. Re: Cold feet: My now husband and I met several years ago during similar circumstances to your encounter with Josh. He was engaged but couldn’t deny the instant, strong connection we had that he had honestly never felt before. Leaving that weekend, neither one of us knew whether a relationship between us would work out long term, but he had a big decision to make; he could stay in a relationship that was safe but that he knew was not hitting on all cylinders, or he could take a chance that someone (me or another woman) out there would be a better fit for him. He made his decision not based on the idea that the two of us would be perfect for each other, but because he knew that it would be wrong to cheat himself and his fiancé out of the chance to marry someone without any doubts as they walked down the aisle. Best of luck—it’s a scary and tough decision!
A: Thanks for your story. And I wish I could also offer one—because there are many—from someone who was tempted, stayed with the original partner, and is forever grateful about that decision.
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