Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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.)
Mallory Ortberg: We’ve got some live ones today, friends. Let’s dive in!
Q. My wife insists on telling men she is bisexual: I am a woman in a relationship with another woman. We have been together for four years, married for one. Recently, I have noticed that oftentimes when people (and especially men) refer to her as a lesbian or us as a lesbian couple, she insists on correcting them: “Actually, I’m bisexual.” We end up having conversations with friends like, “Jenny, as a lesbian, what do you think of Hillary Clinton?” “Actually, I’m bisexual.” She says that she doesn’t want her bisexual identity erased and that there is nothing wrong with her wanting people to have a correct understanding of her sexuality. I think it’s weird that she mostly does this with men. It seems to me like she is putting it out there so she can in some sense remain an object of desire to these men. Plus, she married a woman—she should get used to people assuming she is in a lesbian relationship. Which of us is right in this situation?
A: Oh, I’m afraid I’m not going to be able to give you the answer you want. I’m sorry! If your wife briefly corrects someone with “Actually, I’m bisexual” during conversation, it hardly sounds like attempting to remain an object of desire to me. If she went around saying, “Actually, I’m still very interested in men, particularly you, you massive dose of sexual charisma,” you might have a case, but she doesn’t. She tells people, including men, that she’s bisexual because she’s bisexual. She’s not orchestrating a stealth future-cheating campaign. Imagine if your wife had red hair, and people occasionally and mistakenly referred to her as a brunette. You wouldn’t panic if she told them, “Actually, my hair’s red.” You wouldn’t wonder what it might mean. It’s a piece of morally neutral information.
Your wife says, “Actually, I’m bisexual,” and you hear, “I’m only half in love with my wife and hoping to keep my options open while I look for a heterosexual exit.” But all that she’s saying is that she’s bisexual. That’s it. You’re adding a lot of assumptions, fears, and insecurities to the mix. She’s in a relationship with a lesbian, but that doesn’t mean she’s in a lesbian relationship. She’s bisexual, and that’s important to her. Nothing you’ve told me suggests she neglects you or flirts with men in order to stoke your jealousy. I think you need to figure out why you feel so threatened by the fact that you married a bisexual woman. Were you hoping she’d change her mind or get over it? Why is it so important to you that she let other people assume she’s a lesbian? She’s with you. She married you. She’s out. She’s your wife. Nothing about your identity or your relationship is threatened by her sexuality in any way; it’s time for you to let go of this.
Q. Picky picky: I have an anxiety disorder called trichotillomania that makes me constantly want to pick at my skin, hair, and fingernails. I take medication and attend therapy, but I still pluck at my hair for an hour or so per night at home. The main problem is when I’m at work. If I’m stuck in a meeting, or in court, or anything particularly boring, I try to take notes or keep my hands busy, but eventually I will start picking at my cuticles, at split ends, at bumps on my arms. Nobody has ever mentioned it to me, but I know it’s unprofessional and probably gross. Should I say something to co-workers or keep picking in silence?
A: You’re doing your best to address your condition by taking medication and going to counseling, and no one at work has suggested he or she has noticed your periodic hair-twirling or nail-biting, so I don’t think you need to beat yourself up for being “gross.” If you haven’t considered awareness training/habit-reversal therapy, you might find it helpful—it involves observing the cue, routine, and reward for repetitive behavior, and changing only the routine with a “competing response.” You’re right to want to minimize your compulsive physical behavior in the workplace before it bothers your co-workers, but I hope very much you can also give yourself credit for the work you’re already doing.
Q. Wrong name in bed: My husband and I have developed a habit of occasionally having a date night where we’ll both get fairly drunk and have sex. We’ve done this a number of times, and both of us seem to enjoy the change from our normal routine. However, the last time we did this, he accidentally called me the wrong name. To make matters even worse, the name he said was his mother’s name (she has a pretty unique name that I haven’t encountered elsewhere). I didn’t say anything at the time, and my husband didn’t seem to realize what he’d said, but I can’t stop thinking about it. For the record, I don’t think there’s anything going on between him and his mother, but I don’t know what to do about this. Do I bring it up and risk uncovering an affair, or worse, that he thinks about his mom during sex? Or do I just try to forget about this instance?
A: Oh, my God. If you didn’t say anything at the time (why didn’t you say anything at the time? Did you just … keep having sex with him?), I would file this under the category of “bizarre things that happened once” and do my best to forget it. If his relationship with his mother is otherwise normal and he was drunk, you can try to chalk it up to a weird fit of word association. If you ever accidentally called your teacher “Mom” in the second grade, you wanted the rest of the class to move on as quickly as possible. You didn’t actually think the teacher was your mother (or want her to be), but you wanted to forget about it with all possible speed. I wish hasty forgetfulness for you.
Q. Terrified of pregnancy: I’ve been in a happy marriage for five years. My husband has always said he wants a football team of kids, but I’m terrified of pregnancy. I’m not sure what it is exactly. All of it kind of grosses me out, and I’m having a really hard time trying to get excited about starting a family. He’s been ready since the wedding, but I suggested we wait a couple of years (which has turned into five), and now he’s starting to suggest we start this portion of our lives. How on earth do I get over this pregnancy phobia?
A: I don’t know. I truly don’t. It depends on what your goal is, I think. Do you want to have children and wish to overcome your fear of pregnancy? Do you want to avoid pregnancy altogether and have children via adoption or fostering? Do you want neither to get pregnant nor to have children? I gather from your letter that you have a strong aversion to pregnancy and that your husband is eager to become a father, but I don’t know whether you want to be a parent. If you want to get over this phobia because you deeply desire to have children, that’s all well and good, but if you think you need to grit your teeth and get pregnant because it’s what your husband wants, you need to have a long-overdue, honest discussion with him. Don’t push yourself into doing something you don’t want to do for your husband’s sake, and don’t withhold information he deserves to know because you’re afraid of disappointing him. Hold nothing back. You’re “terrified,” you’re “grossed out,” and you’re not excited about starting a family—don’t try to downplay your reluctance or make it seem milder than it really is. If your husband is raring to produce a football team’s worth of progeny and you’re sobbing in the bathroom at the very idea of pregnancy, you two need to figure out if you’re compatible in the long term.
Q. Re: Picky picky: The trichotillomania person should wear gloves in meetings and tell her co-workers she has a problem with her extremities getting cold. Gloves work at home, too.
A: That’s a helpful, quick-fix suggestion—thanks!
Q. Fiancé once dated my ex?: My fiancé and I have been engaged for 15 months and are planning on getting married this December. I randomly found out from a friend that at one point my fiancé went on a few dates and was romantic with my ex of two years. Granted this “high school” relationship ended about 12 years ago, and their encounter was about nine years ago, but I still can’t get over the fact that they were seeing each other. Should I bring it up to my fiancé, who, may I add, is aware of my previous relationship but has not said anything?
A: Let’s look at the alternative: You say nothing; resent your fiancé for never having mentioned the brief, long-ago fling with one of your exes; and continue to build it up as a betrayal in your mind until your insecurity and resentment start to leak out into your relationship in a hundred tiny ways. That is, to my mind, suboptimal. So bring it up. Acknowledge that it was a long time ago and sounded both brief and casual, but explain that it makes you feel insecure and you find yourself dwelling on it. Allow your fiancé to reassure you. If you turn it into a forbidden topic, you’ll make yourself miserable; if you talk about it, it will return to its rightful size as a distant footnote in your fiancé’s history.
Q. Anti-vaxxer co-worker: I have an issue with a co-worker. Right before I left work on maternity leave, this co-worker cornered me (literally) and lectured me, complete with finger-pointing, about the dangers of vaccinations and how I feed my baby. He also told me I was killing my baby and not giving him a chance to thrive because I was drinking a Dr. Pepper (I had been at work for 12 hours that day and desperately needed some caffeine). I am dreading returning to work now because I know he will ask me if I am vaccinating my son (I am) and if I am breast-feeding (I am supplementing with formula because of my crazy work schedule). I don’t want another lecture, and it is hard not to feel guilty when someone says you are killing your baby—not to mention it is no one’s business but my own. Personally, I believe that putting my child at risk for polio is far more dangerous than me drinking a Dr. Pepper. How can I tell him to back off and still be nice about it?
A: Why on earth would you want to be nice about it? This man is a boor and a busybody and trying to unload crackpot medical conspiracy theories into your uterus. Tell him you’re not interested in medical advice. If he tries to comment on your soda habits or the health of your new child, tell him, “I’d prefer that we keep our conversations work-related from now on. I don’t appreciate hearing I’m ‘killing my child’ from you. I’ll speak to HR if I have to, but I’d rather you kept your comments to yourself.” Adopt a zero-tolerance policy with his asinine remarks. If he does it again, report him to HR and your boss. I promise you that no company wants an employee running around telling his pregnant co-workers they’re soda-murderers unchecked. You’ll be doing the company a favor.
Q. Trapped: I am a physician with a stressful career and two tweens. My husband hasn’t worked in a few years. He tells me he’s looking for a job, and I’ve suggested going back to school or finding a job completely out of his field, but he gets annoyed if I ask him how he spent his day. He busies himself with projects around the house, but he is slower than molasses with getting things done, so I really don’t know what he does all day. I still do the laundry, bills, cleaning, and cooking (he has recently started making a simple meal now and then, which I appreciate). We have a lawn service, so he doesn’t even have to mow. I have lost respect for him and can’t bring myself to have sex with him (it’s been more than a year). When I try to talk to him, he makes me feel like an unhappy person who cannot be pleased. He refuses marriage therapy because he says he will be made out to be the bad guy and thinks we can work it out together, but he never talks. I won’t leave him because I can’t stand what it would do to our kids, and I don’t know how I would take care of them with my long work hours (he at least is home when they are and can take them to evening activities). I also worry how he would support himself, but I am so resentful every time I head out the door to work. When I see him sitting on the couch with a cup of coffee watching the news, I want to scream.
A: Are your kids happy now? With a mother who can barely suppress a scream of rage every time she walks through the door and a father who’s so defensive and resistant to change he refuses to talk about his marriage with his own wife? What exactly do you think you’re preserving for them? The picture you’ve painted for me sounds awfully bleak—your husband stone-mouthed and miserable; you overwhelmed, overworked, filled with contempt and barely concealed disgust; your lawn perfectly trimmed. What an unhappy home. I think if you and your husband formally divorce—you are already divorced in every meaningful way—the primary feeling your children will experience is relief.