Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online 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, everyone. I’m looking forward to your questions.
Q. Ship Without a Pendant : I am a senior military officer in a smaller branch and have been married almost 30 years. Our children are grown; my wife is utterly miserable. She hates my calling, its protocol and social requirements, my colleagues, and my constant travel. When I return she blasts me with torrents of abuse, screams at me for trivialities, and then threatens me with divorce—but we remain married. We’ve talked separation but we have moved so much she has nowhere to go. She says she will only divorce me if she can have “the same lifestyle she has now” but that’s just impossible given the work perks I get as a flag officer. Failing that she says if I file for divorce she will “destroy” my reputation and force me to retire in disgrace. (While I’ve led an honorable life, she could throw enough mud to take me out of the running for promotion, and I am competitive for higher rank.) If I lose my wife my career will be destroyed; if I retire for my wife I believe the misery will just continue. What should I do? My personal life is a lonely disaster. We have no real friends left, not wanting to expose our failings. We sleep in separate rooms, scarcely speak privately, and smile only for the cameras. Our active official life masks the truth but not the misery.
A: Here you are, a man trained to confront and vanquish the enemy, and you go home each night to endless combat, a fight you appear to be losing. Obviously, I don’t know what’s wrong with your wife. But you might want to take a look at some of the literature on borderline personality disorder and see if that sends up any flares of recognition. Your wife is fiendishly clever, I’ll give her that. Her terms are that you can separate, as long as she enjoys the same perks she does as the wife of a high-ranking officer, which is an impossibility. Or, if you unilaterally try to end the marriage, she will destroy your career out of spite. That, of course, would have a material effect on her financial comfort, but it sounds as if she’d prefer revenge. Your wife is unstable and potentially dangerous to you, so you need to discuss your strategy with some professionals. Talk to a psychologist—one with expertise in personality disorders—and a lawyer—one with expertise in the military. You can speak to both confidentially, so don’t hold back. You need to consider all your alternatives and contingencies, and put the best plan possible in place for protecting yourself and your career. With the lawyer, figure out what dirt your wife might fling, and how to contain it. You have been living in abject misery for years, but only you can decide how much longer you can bear feeling like a hostage in your own home.
Q. Paranoid Husband: My husband is a big fan of yours. Unfortunately, every time he reads about an unhappy wife in one of your columns, he accuses me of writing it! There is usually some detail in each letter that doesn’t match our circumstances. He still thinks I’m the writer if those letters, pointing out that it would be smart to change the details in order to throw him off track. How can I convince him that I’m not writing letters to you?
A: Any woman would be an unhappy wife if her husband saw himself in every letter that started, “He’s wonderful, but [fill in horror story here].” Paranoia is debilitating to all in its circle. I am sorry if every time the column mentions an unhappy wife, you get interrogated. You say your husband is a fan, so let me have a word with him: “Husband, since you are a regular reader, I bet you can guess what’s coming next. Yes, you need help. Your wife’s actual complaint about you is that you see yourself in every bad husband described here. I know one solution would be for you to stop reading the column—but I don’t want to lose you as a reader! And I suspect you’d just find some other way to badger your wife about how she feels about you.” So, Wife, if your husband doesn’t recognize himself this time and take action, you must insist that the two of you see a neutral party (who is not an advice columnist) to air out what’s actually going on. Your husband needs to explore why he thinks you have so many problems with him and why he recognizes himself in every bad husband.
Q. I’m a Rape Baby … Now What?: Recently, my brother and I did DNA tests from 23andMe, after which we found out that were are not, as we had always believed, brother and sister but actually half siblings. I asked my mother about it and was told that she was raped at a party, has no idea who the man was, and doesn’t want to speak about it again. From the vague story she told me, I believe that this was not a violent encounter, but more a too-drunk-to-consent situation. I am not in any way trying to invalidate her feelings, but I can’t help but think that there may be a decent guy out there who believes he had a one-night stand with a girl at a party in the early ’80s. Should I let sleeping dogs lie, or make an effort to find the man in question? Obviously, I wish to respect my mother’s wishes, but also think I have a right to know.
A: I sometimes think these genetic testing companies should just call themselves, “Who’s My Daddy?” This kind of discovery is one of the unexpected outcomes that occurs when you’re just trying to find out if you have any Native American ancestry or if you’re at increased risk for diabetes. Your mother says she was raped at a party and doesn’t want to give you the details. If she was passed out, even if the man didn’t use overt violence, he committed rape, and you can understand that your mother doesn’t want to revisit this. It could well be she can’t tell you who the “decent guy” was because she simply doesn’t know. Maybe she does, but she’s not saying. I totally agree that people are entitled to this kind of information about themselves, but as long as your mother sticks with her account, you are not getting it. Of course this news has rocked you, and what’s important now is how you process it and put it in it’s place. Lots of people say they want to know their biological origins for medical reasons. But you’ve already taken care of a lot of that with the test results. Since there’s only one possible source of information, and she’s not talking, you should let this go for now. Let your mother regain her equilibrium, and see, if over time, she seems more amenable to reopening this issue. You may also find that as time goes by, finding out about a man you never knew, and whose identity you may never know, will feel less urgent.
Q. Re: Ship Without a Pendant: The LW needs to talk to a chaplain. Even if the LW isn’t religious, the chaplain will have resources for marriage counseling and help through the military, and believe me, military chaplains have seen and helped a lot of badly broken marriages. The LW should use the resources at hand as well as outside help.
A: Thanks, good suggestion.
Q. Thank You Notes: What’s the deal with people not sending thank you notes these days? I have sent gifts to several wedding couples recently (relatives, stepsiblings, kids of good friends), and not one of them has responded with a word of thanks, written or verbal. This p—-s me off to the point that I want to call them up and tell them what incredibly bad manners they have. Do us gift-givers just suck it up, or is there some way to seek our revenge?
A: During graduation season I was thinking that if I were to give a commencement address it would open with: “Write thank you notes.” Often people dismiss this obligation as some fusty leftover from an oppressively formal time. It’s not. Thank you notes touch on some basic and universal human issues of respect and reciprocity. It is maddening to go out of your way to do something generous for someone and not have your efforts acknowledged. The young graduates who write their thanks to people who interview them or help them in their job search will absolutely stand out from the crowd. As for your young marrieds, don’t compound their rudeness with your own by reaming them out. If you have sent a gift that was not acknowledged, it’s perfectly fine to inquire of the recipients whether it arrived. Things do get lost, after all. If that doesn’t prompt a thank you, then consider it a financial boon. For couples who can’t express appreciation for a wedding gift, feel free to skip sending something for the baby shower.
Q. Too Many Ex-Boyfriends: I am post-grad who like many others, has dated a few people in my social group. I recently met and fell in love with a man I plan to marry (via online dating) and introduced him to my social group at a large party. One of the guys I dated briefly was there and my man was very upset. He says he doesn’t like being around guys I slept with. I think he should just get over it but he says I need to stop going to places where my “past is around.” What say you?
A: I say hold off on the wedding planning. It sounds as if you have gotten engaged really quickly if your friends are only now meeting your fiancé. There are people who consider being virgins when they marry to be an important value. Presumably, you and your fiancé are not among these people. Yet he wants you to strike from your social group anyone who may have had previous intimate knowledge of you. Let’s say you had been married before and had had a child with your ex. I assume the father of your kid would not be verboten because he reminded your new love that you had loved someone else. Extreme jealousy is highly destructive to a relationship. Your boyfriend is exhibiting a bad case of it, which should put your planning for the future on pause.
Q. Re: Ship without a pendant: I second going to the chaplain. I would also note that you have complete confidentiality when talking to chaplains. So you can feel safe to tell them anything. I have served as a JAG in the military and I would also pass along a piece of advice that I’ve given everyone from E-1 to flag officers—if you think your wife is going to throw mud at you, tell your superior officer about the possibility. It’s embarrassing, but my experience is that your superiors will take it better if they have a heads up from you than if they hear from her out of the blue. It might not solve the issue but it could help with damage control.
A: Thanks for this insight, especially about pre-emptively warning his superiors. Obviously, he only wants to do that if he’s sure his wife is going to war.
Q. #HotGirlProblems: I started a new job several months ago. Almost immediately, I picked up on the repeated appearance of a certain co-worker whenever I go to lunch. This might sound like a coincidence, but we work downtown in a major city and I always leave the building to go to lunch. I go at different times of day (and not on the hour) and sit in different plazas and food courts but I see him sitting in the background more often than not. It is creepy. I didn’t tell anyone about this because I don’t want to seem paranoid or like I’m flattering myself about having a “stalker.” But today I walked to a new location 10 minutes away from work and he walked right in front of me and waved! I waved back but it was pretty unnerving and I can’t pretend this isn’t happening. We never talk at work and are never involved in any of the same projects. We just see each other in the hallway. Is this an unsolvable problem? Is it even a problem? I am married and he can see that.
A: You need to do some more reconnaissance before you take any action. I hope you have made a couple of friends at work you can you tell this to. Don’t be melodramatic, just say that this has seemed to be a really odd pattern, and ask their help. Start going out to lunch with these friends and then all of you can track if this guy shows up. If not, go back to eating solo and see what happens. Usually, if someone at work is doing something that is making you uncomfortable, it’s best to deal directly with that person. But this is so odd and undefinable, that I don’t see how you say, “You seem to be stalking me at lunch. Am I mistaken?” After all, he can totally deny it, and you really can’t say he’s not allowed to eat at the same plazas you are. If you discover that indeed there is a pattern, this is the kind of thing that you can take to HR. Say you want to speak confidentially about this, you aren’t sure what to do, and you need to get this on the record and get some professional advice.
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