Danny M. Lavery, 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.)
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Danny M. Lavery: “What air is this I breathe? What soil lies beneath my weary frame? Surely I have returned to Earth.” Let’s chat!
Q. Late-in-life lesbian: I am 41, in a heterosexual marriage, and have a 9-year-old son. I know that my marriage is about to change: I have transitioned from knowing that I’m bisexual to being pretty sure I’m a lesbian. What’s holding me back is the disruption of everything. My husband is a good guy, and if this were happening to a friend, he would be understanding and nonjudgmental, but it’s going to affect his self-image. I’m very close to my husband’s family. Frankly, I really love my life right now, and I don’t know how I’ll recover from its loss, and if it’s worth pursuing the “love that dare not speak its name.” I read other late-in-life blogs and websites and Facebook posts, and I could get through all of what they’re bemoaning, but hurting the two people closest to me—well, how do I manage that?
A: Forty-one is not that late in life! You are not a few steps away from the grave, most likely; you’ve conceivably got another 40 years ahead of you and should bear in mind that life (and your relationship with your son and the father of your child) is long. The key things to stress now are honesty with your husband and figuring out what works for you. Part of what’s difficult at present is that you are faced with the prospect of giving up a life you love for a life you don’t yet know. There may be great joy and romantic fulfillment to come, but you don’t know what it will look like, and that’s a tricky prospect when you’re giving up the stable identity that has in many ways defined you for years. So! If you are reasonably convinced that you are not bisexual, and that you will not be able to be your husband’s sexual and romantic companion, you should talk about this with him in (LGBT-friendly) couples counseling. It may be you two will decide to amicably divorce and become co-parents. It may be that you two will figure out a way to redefine your partnership within the context of marriage. It may be that he will be hurt, and grieved, and angry, and you will go through a painful divorce. But if you cannot be a wife to your husband, I think it is better to go through that now rather than someday meeting a woman you cannot live without and telling him then.
There will be loss involved in this process for both of you and for your son. Do not try to go through this without hurting them: You will hurt them, and you will have to accept that reality, but you will also get through this, and they will survive and eventually thrive. You’re all about to go through a massive transition, and counseling will help, but it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to take a while, so you’ll want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Take care of yourself, and take care of your son, and be as kind in your honesty to your husband as possible. If he needs to deal with his self-image in the wake of your coming out, he will have to do so with his own therapist, his own friends, and on his own. You cannot both end your marriage and be his primary source of comfort—that’s going to become his job. Reach out to other women who have gone through what you’re experiencing; don’t just read their blog posts but ask for support. Other people have done this and come out the other side better for it, and you can too. Good luck.
Q. How to skirt the “sister question”: As a young professional who travels a lot, I’ve increasingly been meeting more and more new people and regularly engaging in obligatory small talk. Almost inevitably, I’m asked, “Do you have any siblings?” and my affirmative response indicating I have a sister is usually followed by, “What does your sister do? Is she married? Does she have kids?” What my sister “does” is drugs and drink into oblivion. She’s still legally married to the biological father of two of her children but long separated, and although she has four children, none of them live with her (they live with other family members); in fact, she has minimal contact with them. The anonymity of this forum allows me to share these details, but otherwise I am incredibly uncomfortable sharing this information with others. (Not to mention my sister’s issues are really no one else’s business but hers and, to some degree, my family’s.) On the other hand, I do not want to outright lie that I do not have a sister or that she is happily married to Prince Charming and is a dutiful mother to her children. So how do I handle innocent questions about my sibling’s life, knowing full well such answers are full of personal and sad details I’d rather not share?
A: “I have a sister, but we’re not close, and I don’t know what she’s up to these days. What about you?” Any follow-up questions—which hopefully you won’t get many of if your conversational partners know how to take a cue—can be met with friendly but persistent deflection: “We don’t talk much, so I really couldn’t say,” or “It’s a bit personal, so let’s discuss something else,” or “She struggles with addiction, and I haven’t heard from her in a long time, but I hope she’s well” will all redirect the conversation, depending on how honest you’re interested in being with the question-asker.
Q. Too soon?: Last week, my fiancé abruptly left me. He woke me up in the morning, announced that he had been planning his departure for two weeks, packed his bags, and left. At first, it was extremely shocking and painful for me. However, after a few days of reflection, I’ve realized I was in denial about the more unpleasant aspects of our relationship. He had been consistently unfaithful for the first few months we were together, and I never really got over it. Additionally, we hadn’t had sex for about seven months. He was definitely not the man for me, and we ended our relationship more as best friends and roommates sharing assets than as partners.
My question is: Is it too soon to start casually dating? We broke up about a week ago, and I already feel ready to start moving on. On the one hand, I feel callous and cold for beginning to get over things so quickly. On the other, we hadn’t been sexual in months, and if I’m being honest with himself, I fell out of love with him more than six months ago. An old fling reached out, and I’d like to grab a drink with him. Am I being too self-centered?
A: It is not self-centered to want to get a drink with an old boyfriend; get the drink and have a nice time. Feel free to spend some time over the coming weeks and months doing some self-searching. Ask yourself how you can recognize signs that a relationship is falling apart sooner in the future, and think about what you do and don’t want in a partner. But you can do those things and casually date at the same time. You’re not looking to move in with a brand-new boyfriend; you’re talking about the occasional drink or meal with someone interesting, and there’s no reason you should have to sequester yourself to mourn a relationship that ended a long time before anyone left.
Q. Aunt isolating herself after grandparents’ deaths: A little over a year ago, both of my elderly grandparents died within a few days of each other. My family hurt, grieved, and tried to move forward—except for my aunt. Her parents were her whole life. Since my grandparents’ deaths, she’s pulled away and blames my dad for not helping more when they were alive. My aunt never got married or had children, while my dad had a wife and two kids to take care of. Admittedly, my dad is terrible with expressing his feelings, but he doesn’t deserve her wrath. I love my aunt, but she refuses to talk to a grief counselor and seems more content with feeding her anger than addressing her sadness. She is starting to refuse contact with family, and I’m growing more and more scared for her. What should I do?
A: Before you do anything, be aware of the limits facing you. You cannot stop your aunt from blaming your father for not organizing his life around their parents the way she did, you can’t force her out of isolation, and you can’t make her go to therapy. With those hard limits in mind, figure out how to approach this conversation if you think she’s likely to listen to you. You can tell her that you love her, that you understand the magnitude of her loss and her great love for her parents, and that it’s been painful for you to watch her pull away from the rest of the family since their deaths. You can encourage her to talk about her loss and her anger, and you can put in a plug for grief counseling, and that’s about it. If she seems receptive to any of these things, so much the better; if she gets defensive or stops taking your calls too, you’ll have to let her. The best thing you can do is make it clear that you love her, that you want her to be happy and healthy, and to accept that the most you can do is make suggestions to her. If she chooses not to take them, all you can do is be patient and hope that with time she might reconsider what you told her.
Q. The other woman: I am a 27-year-old woman. About three years ago, I messed up. I got entangled with a 50-year-old married man in an emotional affair for about three months. It got physical once, but thankfully we did not engage in actual sex. I always thought I was a moral person. Infidelity is seen as the biggest crime in our society besides murder, so I feel like I don’t deserve to be forgiven. I am currently focusing on living in the present, but my daily life is a spiral into shame, depression, suicidal guilt, and fear of my terrible secret being discovered. Do you have any advice for how I can move on?
A: I’m recommending therapy a lot today, and I think you should seek professional help for dealing with suicidal levels of guilt. For what it’s worth, infidelity is not even close to murder in terms of crime or even wrongdoing, and it is possible to be a good person who regrets having had an affair. You ended things with him and have not repeated the action, and you should not spend the rest of your life hating yourself for having gotten involved with a married man. You were fairly young at the time, and he was much older and married. That’s not to say you weren’t responsible for your own actions, only that he was the one who violated his own marriage vows. This is worth bearing in mind as you process your own guilt. You did the right thing in ending your relationship with him three years ago, and you deserve to move on with your life without thinking you are somehow unworthy of forgiveness.
Q. Shy girl: I am very worried about my niece. She is 9 and acts more like a 3-year-old. She clings to her mother and hides her face when introduced to people. She doesn’t make eye contact and has to be coaxed to greet various relatives. I haven’t seen her in two years, and over the holidays she warmed up to my girls, but when they went to play with the neighborhood kids she hung back despite calls to join in. She ended up sitting under a tree playing ponies with my kindergartener. This continued over the entire week. My sister talks about her difficulties with the school, but I think my niece has something going on with her. She is a smart, sweet girl, but her utter lack of socialization worries me. Do I bring this up to my sister?
A: I think the key part of your letter was “I haven’t seen her in two years.” You don’t have a day-to-day relationship with this child, and a week’s observation over the holidays (a notoriously stressful time) doesn’t justify an intervention with your sister. If you’d genuinely like to be helpful to your sister and get to know your niece better, I’d encourage you to spend more time with both of them. If they normally live far away, try Skyping and visiting more often—not with the ultimate goal of “collecting” enough information to tell your sister you think her daughter needs diagnostic testing but with the goal of having a relationship with this “smart, sweet girl.” It may be that she receives some sort of medical diagnosis someday, or it may be that she is a particularly shy and sensitive kid—playing ponies with younger children under a tree doesn’t sound like behavior that merits intervention, although it is of course possible she has internal emotional needs that are not currently being met. The best way for you to figure out how to be helpful to your sister and her daughter is to get to know them both better.
Q. Carabiner keys, not lesbian: I am a fortysomething woman who has been in a happy monogamous marriage with the same man for 20 years. While my sexual identity has not always been ramrod straight, I am heterosexual and not questioning that. I recently read an Outward article by Christina Cauterucci and understood I have been doing things that other women use to identify themselves as lesbian. I have always carried my keys on a carabiner hung from my belt loop. My hair and fingernails are short. We own not one but two Subaru station wagons, and I work in a male-dominated field. I fit a stereotype in many ways, yet I am not gay. Is this a problem? Suddenly, at 40, I’m self-conscious about my appearance and specifically what other people, I guess particularly LGBTQ people, think about how I’m presenting myself. I don’t think I’m often mistaken for a lesbian, although, honestly, I’m not sure I’d notice. Anyone who spends time with me will meet my husband and kids. Mostly I don’t want to come off as pretending to be someone I’m not, similar to how I’d never wear a costume from another culture. Can keys be cultural appropriation? And can I keep the carabiner?
A: This is one of the most charming questions I’ve gotten in a while. Butch (mostly) straight women are a gift and a joy and a great addition to the mix. Lots of women wear their fingernails short to signal their availability to other women, but lots of women just like having their fingernails short with no sexual correlation. You are not pretending to own a Subaru in order to mislead queer women; you genuinely enjoy owning a Subaru. You are part of the rich tapestry that makes life interesting, not some interloper into “butch culture.” Please keep the carabiner.