Dear Prudence

Emergency Release

My husband won’t sleep with me. Can I have sex with a friend?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
I have been with my husband for 10 years, but we have always been mismatched sexually. We have a good life together, I love him, and want to stay together both for his sake and our child’s. However, I need more than half-hearted sex once a year, after begging and prancing around in expensive lingerie for months. I have talked about this with my husband probably every year since we got together; I’ve cried, asked for counseling, tried to do what he wants, but I get nothing. There’s very little physical affection in our relationship, and I have to believe that this is all he’s capable of. This past summer, it became clear that a good friend and I have serious chemistry. He is in a similar situation at home, and we have discussed the idea of a mutually beneficial, strictly sexual relationship. It would allow us both some relief. I considered discussing this with my husband, but I think he would react badly. I have no desire to remain celibate for the rest of my life, which seems to be what my husband wants. This seems like a reasonable solution. It gives me hope. I realize there’s a possibility of harming those I love, but I believe it is minimal. Am I crazy?

—Sanity-Restoring Affair

If you believe the possibility of fallout is minimal here, it is only because you are delirious from years of involuntary celibacy. You want to have sex with a good friend, who is also married, and whom you’ll presumably have to see socially while also maintaining the fiction that you two aren’t having an affair. You believe your husband would react badly if you tried to find sexual satisfaction outside of your marriage, yet he’s not only refusing to have sex with you, it sounds as though he can barely bring himself to hug you. I’m sympathetic to your position, but I think the solution you’re contemplating is probably going to end quite dramatically. Your husband has watched you cry, beg, and put yourself on display for a little physical affection, and he’s not willing to give it to you himself or you believe he’d “react badly” if you tried to seek it elsewhere. It’s one thing to be honest about disparate sex drives; it’s quite another to see your partner in anguish and desperation and to respond with indifference. I don’t see how he can be a good husband, and I doubt sexlessness is your only problem. If you are determined to stay married, then you should openly propose alternative sexual arrangements, and not convince yourself that an affair would be “reasonable” when it’s likely to blow up in your face. But ultimately, I don’t think you do have a good life together, and I think you’d be better off leaving your husband, working on maintaining a cooperative co-parenting relationship, and having sex with whomever you please.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
While living abroad, I had a son who died during delivery, leading to the eventual disintegration of my relationship and my decision to move back to the U.S. Three years and countless hours of therapy later, I am single and enjoying a fabulous career. But now everyone I know is having babies. How do I handle the constant comments made by pregnant people I know about what they presume is my childless life? Things like, “Oh, you’ll understand when you get pregnant,” or “Wait till you’re 36 weeks pregnant! You won’t want to walk uptown either!” I hear this nearly every day from co-workers.

I find it unnerving and annoying—hasn’t anyone taught them not to make assumptions about other people? I feel tempted to teach them a lesson in tact, reveal my secret, and shut them up once and for all. But many of these women are on their first pregnancies, and I don’t want to frighten them (my own son’s death was a freak event, both unpreventable and unpredictable). And who wants to hear about someone else’s dead baby when they’re about to have a living one? I’ve taken to nodding and smiling, but it’s only becoming more common and it’s fraying my nerves. I avoid pregnant women now, just so I won’t have to pretend. I have accidentally slipped up a few times, too, commiserating with pregnancy-related complaints only to have them look at me quizzically. When my son died, I knew I was in for a lifetime of grief—but this is an unexpected dilemma!

—How to Talk About Babies When Yours Is Dead

One thing that might help would be to no longer think of the death of your son as your “secret.” It’s a major part of your life, and you have the right to discuss it without worrying that you are taking anything away from other people’s pregnancies. That’s not to say you need to share it with every grocery store clerk or airplane seat mate, but you say this is happening on a daily basis at work, which must make getting through the day incredibly difficult. Having to hide your pregnancy-related commiserations must also add to your psychic strain.

My one caution would be not to reveal this information to your chatty co-workers in a moment of irritation, as a form of punishment for making casual assumptions about your life. But you can absolutely share that you have been pregnant, that you had a son, and that he died while you were giving birth to him. If you don’t want to keep telling the story over and over, you could try telling one trusted friend or colleague who might then quietly spread the word. You can also let anyone know if you don’t want to answer a lot of follow-up questions, and that you’re doing well now; you don’t owe them an in-depth discussion of the workings of your innermost soul just because you’ve told them about an experience that still brings you pain.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m a 34-year-old straight woman and I’ve had two sexual partners in my life, both within the context of an exclusive relationship. With both men, I planned ahead of time to talk about STIs and birth control before having sex, but I chickened out and had sex without any type of discussion beforehand. Luckily I never got pregnant and I get tested for STIs at my annual physical and the test results have never come back positive for anything. I’m single again and dating someone. We aren’t exclusive yet, but if we get to that point, what is the least awkward way to begin a discussion about STI testing and birth control? I know it was stupid of me to skip this conversation in the past, but I can’t seem to make the words come out of my mouth to have this talk. Maybe you have some words I could borrow instead of coming up with my own!

—Let’s Talk

It’s not clear from your letter whether you had safe sex before the conversation, or had unsafe sex early in those relationships that happened to turn out OK, but it’s great that you’re looking to do things differently this time around. At the very least, I can assure you that you are capable of having this conversation, and that the absolute worst-case scenario is that you feel mildly uncomfortable for a few minutes. He’s not going to run screaming for the hills if you ask to talk about condoms. The best way to dispel awkwardness is to acknowledge it directly, before sex is imminent. “I feel a little awkward bringing this up, but I’d really like to sleep with you, and I want to talk about it first. I’ve been tested since my last partner, and I don’t have any STIs, and my preferred method of protection is [fill in the blank with your preference here]. How about you?” Once you’ve gotten those two sentences out, the worst is over, and you’ll get to have sex afterward, which should relieve the tension and then some. You’ll do great; I have every confidence in you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I recently moved into his children’s school district. There are many friendly people in this community, but I have had a surprising number of less-than-cordial encounters. I have been introduced to the wife of one of my husband’s associates no fewer than 10 times, but she always acts like she just met me. We were not invited to a graduation party of someone we know very well and who lives around the corner from us. We have attended numerous neighborhood parties where only a few of the people there make conversation. Last fall, the neighborhood planned to move an annual neighborhood picnic and I replied that I wouldn’t be able to attend if the date changed. Not one response. They changed the party anyway.

Someone recently asked me about living in my new community. I said it was nice, but it seemed like people were not all that friendly and I missed my old neighborhood. I realized that the person I was speaking to had a relative on my street and tried to backtrack a bit. But apparently I caused a stir. We have been completely ignored by neighbors at a school concert and we attended a holiday party at which only four people spoke to us. My husband and I are really nice people and have many friends so I don’t need these people in my life, but I’m completely blown away. I’m sorry if I offended anyone. However, if I heard that someone wasn’t feeling welcomed, I’d try to rectify the situation, rather than behave more unfriendly toward them. Do you have suggestions for resolving the situation?

—Not So Neighborly

I think the best course of action currently available to you is to care less about what your neighbors think, unfortunately. It would be lovely if you felt welcomed with open arms by your new community, but for whatever reason, you don’t. You have plenty of other friends, so I think you should focus on the relationships in your life that do bring you joy, and not worry about chasing the approval or goodwill of people who are possibly hospitality-challenged. It may not be that they all hate you—there’s no way to know what combination of forgetfulness, low-key rudeness, or dislike are in the mix. Be polite, say “hello” if you see someone you know, but leave it at that. Feel free to turn down any future invitations and to ignore any group emails; there is no onus on your to run yourself ragged figuring out why you aren’t clicking with a bunch of near-strangers, and I think you should treat yourself better than that. But worrying less about your neighbors doesn’t mean you need to turn a cold shoulder to them; it may be that in the end, as with many communities, the secret ingredient is time.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My girlfriend is a very friendly person who can also become petty and mean when she feels she has been hurt. The other day a former friend—who’d been condescending to her and ended their friendship—came up in conversation, and she started ranting about all the “random people” this person has slept with and got very short-tempered with a friend who tried to calm her down. I find it embarrassing that she continues to be so hot-headed about minor things. Sometimes I tell her she’s being mean and should stop, and she just gets angry at me. Is this actually an issue or am I just being controlling and need to let it go?

—Speak No Evil

It is not controlling to speak up when a loved one speaks cruelly about another person. And disparaging someone else’s sexual history falls under the category of cruelty, no matter how badly their friendship ended. It’s worrying that your girlfriend’s response to her peacemaking friend was to get even more angry, and being able to tell her when you don’t agree with her behavior is an important component of a healthy relationship. (You have a tougher task ahead of you, however, if your main reasoning is that you’re “embarrassed.”) If she snaps at you in the heat of the moment, raise the issue calmly with her again the next day. This doesn’t mean she’s not a good person, or that you have to like every aspect of her personality, but it does mean that you two should have more difficult conversations about her anger and your response to it. The key will be to have them when she is not in the midst of a rant.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I need advice on how to deal with a 71-year-old friend with rectal cancer. She has been receiving chemotherapy treatments for nearly eight months and hopes to have surgery in January. If the doctors decide not to operate, she will have less than a year to live. She lives 30 miles away, so we check in a few times a week over the phone. Sadly, with the treatments comes the “chemo brain issue. She will get upset over some part of her treatment, or a perceived slight by other friends, and will start screaming at me during our call. Later she will deny the call occurred, only to suddenly remember whatever incident made her upset and begin screaming at me again. When I ask her to stop and remind her we’ve already had this conversation, she says, “My brain is on chemo, and I remember none of this” and continues to rage. I try to be patient but recently learned from mutual friends that she never rages at them, ever. They do not call her; rather, they wait for her to call them, which is rare. My question is: Why does she only rage at me? How do I get her to stop?

—Mean Chemo

It’s impossible for either of us to speculate why you seem to be the sole target of your friend’s anger. She’s not only dealing with the side effects of chemotherapy, she’s likely dying, which is apt to bring any number of painful feelings to the surface. That’s not to say you’re obligated to get yelled at three times a week, but it’s worth bearing in mind as you figure out how to handle her. It may be kinder to occasionally let her repeat herself than to remind her that her mind isn’t working the way that it used to. It must be unbearably bewildering for her to be told in the middle of a conversation that you and her have had this exact same talk before. That said, despite what she’s going through, you’re not doing either of you any favors by staying on the line when she explodes in rage. The next time it happens, just say, “I understand you’re upset, but we can’t have a conversation if you won’t stop yelling at me. I’m going to hang up now—let’s talk later.” It won’t mean you’re a bad friend. On the contrary, it means you’re willing to go the extra mile in order to minimize her distress and confusion.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’m on the autism spectrum—basically, I have what would once have been classified as mild Asperger’s. It’s not immediately obvious and doesn’t negatively affect most areas of my life. My question is, should I disclose this in my online dating profiles? On the one hand I feel like it’s important information to any prospective partners, but on the other hand there are a lot of misconceptions out there and I’d rather not get stuck with a label instead of them getting to know me in the first place.

—Dating on the Spectrum

You have no obligation to disclose; the only question is whether you would prefer to screen potential partners who might react negatively to the information. Bear in mind that while mentioning being on the spectrum may lead some prospective neurotypical dates to prejudge you, there may also be neurodiverse dates who would be interested in going out with you because of that very information. Find whatever system works better for you over time. It’s entirely up to you.

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