Daniel 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 email@example.com.)
Readers! Ask me your questions on the voice mail of the Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.
Q. Too honest: Before meeting and marrying my wife, I had many different sexual partners, mostly casual. I’m her first. We are in our first year of marriage. During a conversation about our sex life, I mentioned that I had been more attracted to past partners than I am to my wife. She became visibly upset; in the days since, she has stopped initiating intimacy and has asked if I want an open marriage. I said no. I tried explaining that I am attracted to her—it’s just that the physical dimension of our relationship is less important to me than the emotional, intellectual, and spiritual connections we share. And, truth be told, I have had some sexual relationships in the past with an explosive chemistry that my wife and I lack. Did I overstep a boundary? I thought I was just being honest, but my wife is clearly hurt, and I don’t know how to reassure her without lying.
A: Seven hells, dude, surely you don’t need me to tell you that was a dick move. Your wife is “clearly hurt” because you hurt her; your little wide-eyed “Who, me?” routine is like slamming someone’s fingers in the door then asking why his knuckles are broken. I’ve discussed my sexual history with every partner I’ve ever had, and somehow I’ve managed to do so without ever once ranking my attraction to my current partner, so it’s hardly necessary to achieve maximal emotional disclosure. Pretending that saying “No, babe, I don’t mind that you’re not as objectively appealing to me as one of my many former bedmates, many of whom were real firecrackers, because you’re so much fun to talk to” is somehow comforting or reassuring is manipulative and disingenuous. You didn’t “overstep a boundary,” you really blew it.
Q. Drinking problem?: My husband doesn’t drink often, but when he does, it’s almost always to the point of blacking out. Maybe once per month we will attend a party, wedding, etc., and he gets totally obliterated. Besides the morning-after regret and hangover, he thinks his behavior is fine because “it’s not like I drink every day.” I, meanwhile, am humiliated by his lack of self-control and angry that I have to babysit him instead of enjoying myself. He’s a wonderful man, and we usually have no problem talking through sticky issues, but we are at an impasse. He refuses to consider why he drinks this way and gets angry (which is very unusual for him) when I suggest he drink less. Does he have a problem, or am I a wet blanket?
A: Sure, he has a problem. Nearly every time he drinks, he blacks out to the point that you have to take responsibility for his behavior, and he experiences shame and humiliation the next day. That doesn’t necessarily mean that his only option is now to abstain for the rest of his life or call himself an alcoholic, but it’s certainly fair to point out that he seems incapable of having a drink without blacking out. (If the bar he is setting himself to clear is “at least I don’t black out every day,” I think he should consider having slightly higher expectations of himself.) The frequency of his drinking sessions is not the issue; his attempt to deflect by pointing to how many days of the month he doesn’t drink is a distraction.
Ask yourself what you need to do in order to stay sane even if he doesn’t change his sporadic but unpleasant drinking habits. Do you have other options besides watching him drink himself into a stupor on these monthly binges? Can you excuse yourself and go see other friends, or take yourself out to a movie, instead of assuming sober-companion duties for the night? And don’t let your husband avoid this conversation just because he’d rather pretend his behavior doesn’t affect other people. “When you black out, you embarrass yourself, say things you don’t remember, and I have to act like your babysitter for the rest of the night. This makes me feel distant from you, humiliated, and unappreciated. Would you please consider discussing this pattern with me, knowing how much pain you’re putting me through? I’m not asking you to change your drinking habits. I’m asking you to discuss them with me, because I want to be able to talk to each other about everything.”
Q. Ex-husband and threats of suicide and then some: My ex-husband of about 10 years recently called in a drunken rant, threatening suicide. He is currently married and went off his rocker about six months ago when he suspected his current wife of cheating on him. Long story short, his sort of tamped-down alcoholism went into overdrive; he has spent time in jail for alcoholism and domestic violence and has a restraining order on him that he and his current wife routinely break, and the drinking/depression/despair cycle starts all over again. I am his only nonfamily contact (he is from overseas) in this country, and his sisters count on me to have some idea of what is going on, since it is prohibitive and difficult for them to come. Last week I got numerous weepy, howling phone calls in the middle of the night about how broke he is (“retired” from his last job), has nowhere to live, and no reason to, so he was planning to kill himself. I spent hours trying to find services to help me (found some), alerting his sisters, and trying to talk him down. Two days later, I get a breezy call—everything is all right, and he and ex-wife are once again breaking the restraining order.
Friends who have known us for years suggest I stop taking his calls. I am feeling manipulated, frustrated, and not a little angry that my limited time after work is used trying to manage these crises. On the other hand, should something really happen and I hung up or didn’t answer, I don’t know how I could live with myself. Meanwhile, I can feel myself becoming more and more disturbed and frantic as the cycle repeats itself. Any suggestions on how to do the right thing and not completely go over the edge myself in the process?
A: Your ex-husband’s mental health crises are best handled by medical professionals or the people who are currently a part of his daily life—not his ex-wife. You have connected him to emergency services, and you should stop taking his calls. You are not responsible for his destructive behavior. He is not reaching out to you for help. He is attempting to manipulate you by wielding the possibility self-harm as a threat. It is not your job to fix the fact that his sisters live in another country and want to assign you as their brother’s minder. You are uniquely poorly situated to be helpful to him, and you are not the only resource available to him, if he genuinely wants to seek help for his addiction and thoughts of self-harm. It is not cruel to refuse to participate in this pattern of sudden crisis followed by denial and violence. Tell him that you wish him the best, that you hope he seeks treatment for his alcoholism and problem with violence, but that you are not going to remain in contact with him, then block his number. This is not merely self-protection. This is, in fact, the kindest and most helpful thing you can do for your ex.
Q. Weird and gross in-law vibe: My husband’s grandparents are great and kind people who are unfortunately a little overzealous with all birthday and holiday celebrations (i.e., if they can’t celebrate a birthday with my husband, they will organize a day to celebrate three months later) and are obsessed with our 2-year-old. The problem concerns my husband’s great aunt and uncle, who live across the street and are even more obsessive. All four of them plus my father-in-law pick up my daughter once a week from day care and watch her till I get off of work around 8 p.m. They are a bumbling, loving family group. However, this evening as I was leaving, the great-uncle (no blood relation) kissed my 2-year-old daughter on lips to say goodbye. I was disgusted and practically ran out there with my mom vibes screaming danger. As the uncle tried to kiss her, my grandfather-in-law said that kissing babies on the mouth is unhygenic, which leads me to believe that this is not the first time this has happened. I don’t want to leave my child alone with him ever again. I am disgusted this was allowed to happen in the first place. This great-uncle-in-law has never had children, and for some reason (unknown to me) his family in Connecticut dislikes him intensely, though he seems like a nice old man. I am beginning to feel like I am putting my child in danger by bringing her to her great-grandparents’ house. I am considering hiring a babysitter to pick her up on those days, but if I do, I will never hear the end of it from my husband’s side of the family. How can I resolve this? Am I overreacting?
A: Before overreacting, consider simply acting. So far you have not said anything to your great-uncle about his behavior, so you do not yet know if he was attempting to cross a boundary, or if he simply didn’t realize how off-putting his lip-kissing was. (For the record, I am firmly against lip-kissing family members; I’m not about to legislate this stance, but it’s decidedly not for me and mine.) The next time you see him, simply say, “Please don’t kiss Plynthia on the lips.” There’s no reason to discuss hygiene or construct a justification for this request: Just make it. While you’re at it, ask your daughter in as neutral a tone as possible whether she enjoys spending time with her great-aunt and great-uncle, and to make it clear that she never has to kiss or be kissed by anyone, adult or child, who she doesn’t want to. If he corrects his behavior after you make a direct request, you know it was likely a well-intentioned mistake; if he does it again, you have my permission to give into those danger vibes and limit your daughter’s contact with him.
Q. Re: Drinking problem?: As the daughter of an alcoholic, some advice: Focus on the behavior and impacts rather than the label. He can argue that he’s not an alcoholic and he doesn’t have a drinking problem. It’s harder to argue how his behavior impacts you and others.
A: That’s a great and necessary distinction—thank you.
Q. Family abandoned transgender child: My child came out as trans almost two years ago, when I discovered a self-harm disorder. He now identifies as male. He’s also severely depressed, has an anxiety disorder, and is battling suicidal ideation. He asked me to keep his gender identity a secret until he was ready to come out publicly. He sees a psychologist who specializes in trans issues, and we’ve started with an endocrinologist to gather information about treatment. I love my child, and although our new journey is a hard one, I’ll do anything to support his health and happiness. We aren’t in touch with my immediate family because my mother was deliberately cruel to my son (over an unrelated issue) and because she and her husband have become vocally anti-LGBT. Last spring, my sister asked me during a shopping trip if my child was “gay or trans.” My sister is much younger than me, and I thought she might have heard from one of their mutual friends, and I didn’t want to directly lie. I tried to evade the question, but she said she could “tell” and that she loves and supports him, so I acknowledged that he is trans. She promised to keep it to herself then promptly told my entire family, who immediately disowned us.
My child and I forgave my sister for “outing” him, believing it was unintentional. However, since then, she has avoided seeing us and did not return our calls or texts. She later told us she could not “publicly” support my son because then our mother might not pay for her upcoming wedding (which she told us we could only attend if my son would attend “as a girl”). When we politely declined, both she and my mother told me that they would post security at the wedding, to make sure we could not enter. I assured her we’d be low-key and non-attention-seeking, but that my child would using his chosen name and wear a simple white shirt and black slacks (as he has done for every family holiday and school concert for years). We didn’t attend the wedding because we didn’t want to cause a scene, but I wish I had a better relationship with my sister. She does not respond to my messages, and keeps posting pictures of her wedding day on Facebook thanking our mother for “the most perfect day of [her] life.” I see now that she used my mother’s views as an excuse all along to not have us there. Is there any chance of reconciling with my sister? I do still love her, but I can’t condone her treatment of either me or my child.
A: Holy shit, no. Your sister is, straight-up and full stop, a bad person. She manipulated you into outing your own child before he was ready (I hope, by the way, that you have both apologized and tried to make amends to your son for having betrayed his trust—when someone asks you not to out him or her, you should honor that request, no matter how much someone else badgers you), outed him to the rest of the family without his consent, weaponized his gender identity in an attempt to isolate him from his family, asked you to recloset him in order to attend her wedding, hid behind your mother’s bigoted views in an attempt to disguise her own, abandoned you completely after her wedding, and admitted she was willing to forgo supporting a suicidal trans teenager in order to get her wedding sponsored. Your sister has forfeited every familial claim to your son and put him under unimaginable stress, when she outed him to the rest of your family. Before there can be reconciliation, there must be recognition of the harm done, as well as a sincere desire to make things right. You cannot reconcile with someone who has not apologized, who is not sorry for her behavior. Your sister has been deceitful, conniving, transphobic, and cruel. You should not be looking to reconcile with her; you should be trying to protect your son.
Q. Truth in sobriety: My dad, who was an alcoholic my entire life, has been in the process of trying to get sober for about 10 months. He’s had a few slip-ups along the way but is overall doing well. I’m proud of him for taking this step, and for the first time in his life actually sticking with it for longer than a month or two. Here’s the problem—as part of his process he’s been trying to make amends for things from the past, but only cops to minor things like “not being present enough” instead of major issues like driving drunk with us in the car, throwing things at my mom, and being verbally abusive to myself and my sisters. I understand he’s ashamed and these are painful things to apologize for, but I need that level of honesty to rebuild with him. I’ve tried bringing things up directly, but he tends to change the topic or navigate away from the tough stuff. I wish I could feel as close to him as I used to, but this seems to be building a wall between us.
A: If your father is making only half-hearted, self-protective feints in vaguely the same direction as honesty, I don’t know that you two are going to be able to get closer. I think you should tell him what you told me—that you’re proud of him for trying to get sober and that things seem to be significantly different this time around, that you appreciate his attempts to acknowledge the ways his drinking harmed you as a child, but that he hasn’t acknowledged nearly the level of damage he caused, and that he seems unable to listen to you when you try to tell him. Tell him you’re not interested in cataloging every single one of his shortcomings in order to make him wallow in guilt, but you will need to be honest (and he will need to be ready to receive honesty, without deflecting or changing the subject) before you can make an attempt at rebuilding an adult relationship.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks, everyone. Be kind to each other this week, and to yourselves. If you can’t manage kindness, aim for benign neglect.