Dear Prudence

Sapphic Secret

My wife doesn’t really enjoy sex. I suspect she might be a lesbian.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
My wife and I have been together for about four years, married for two. We have a good relationship, and I would say are generally a happy couple. Over the last year our physical relationship has been on the decline. We have talked about it, and she will agree to “make an effort,” but that will only last a week before things go back to the way they were. We’re both young, but we only have sex about once a month. Even when we do have sex, it feels like she is just not into it. But afterward she denies there’s a problem.

I know when she was in college she had a serious relationship with a woman for a year or two. She doesn’t talk about it much, just told me that something was “off” and that she wasn’t into women. I just can’t get it out of my mind that she might be a lesbian. I am having a hard time thinking about how to ask her this, or if I even should. What do you think and how should I approach this? I have this fear that 20 years down the road she is just going to say, “We need a divorce, I’m a lesbian.”

—Afraid She’s Gay

I don’t think the problem is that your wife is a lesbian, although she might be, I suppose. Anyone might be; we’re all subject to Schrödinger’s lesbian. She dated a woman once, and things didn’t work out between them, in no small part because she realized she didn’t want to be with women at all (which is a necessary precondition for lesbianism). I suspect your real fear about the reason behind your dwindling sex life is the possibility that your wife is not attracted to you. If she were a lesbian, you could at least feel it wasn’t personal, but you’re getting ahead of yourself by imagining she’d only leave you someday to be with women. You and your wife do need to start a conversation together, but I don’t think you need to speculate about her sexual orientation in order to get to the heart of your issues.

What you need to talk about is the fact that your sex life has dropped off dramatically, that she hasn’t seemed willing to tell you what, if anything, has changed for her, that you haven’t made any real progress in rediscovering a physical connection, and that you’re feeling insecure, unwanted, and uncertain about her attraction to you. You should also consider proposing to see a counselor together. Maybe your wife has something she’s holding back from you. Maybe she’s perfectly happy with the state of your sex life, and you’ll have to hash out your respective needs and how you can meet one another’s. Whatever’s going on, you should make it clear when you talk to her that this isn’t just a matter of wanting to have more sex: that this has been difficult for you in your marriage. You’re afraid that her apparent loss of interest in sex with you means there’s something significant she’s not revealing. That’s the conversation you need to have—not “Are you sure you’re not gay?”

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Last year I got married. My uncle, who is an alcoholic, got drunk and assaulted his then girlfriend during the reception. Neither my wife nor I have spoken to him since. He now lives with my aging grandparents as he cannot support himself due to his drinking. I called my grandparents before the holidays to let them know that my wife and I would not visit them as long as my uncle was there. They got upset and defended him at every point in the conversation, ultimately hanging up on me after saying they would no longer be in contact. My grandparents have serious health issues and may not have much longer to live. On the one hand I want to reconcile before they pass (we’ve been close my whole life), but how do I get past their inability to see their son’s wrongdoing and how it affects others?

—Uncle Alcoholic

You can’t force your grandparents to stop enabling your uncle, and you shouldn’t back down from your decision not to see them while he’s there. That doesn’t mean you can’t let them know you love them, that you miss them, and that you’d like to talk on the phone or spend time together without your uncle’s presence or discussing him at all. But your uncle assaulted a woman at your wedding—that’s not a minor infraction to overlook—and there’s no sign he’s willing to change. You set an appropriate limit with your grandparents, and they responded by cutting off contact. That doesn’t mean you should completely abandon the prospect reaching out to them before they die, but if their condition for continuing your relationship is to pretend your uncle is not culpable for his crimes, that’s not a condition you ought to meet.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am a divorced mother of a wonderful 2-year-old son. His dad and I share custody and have a low-conflict co-parenting relationship. This last year I was lucky enough to meet a wonderful man whom I love very much, and who is very good to me and my son. As the three of us have begun spending more time together as a little unit, people (servers at restaurants, sales associates, etc.) have assumed that my boyfriend is my son’s dad and refer to him as such. My boyfriend approached me about it and asked how I would prefer to respond to these well-meaning strangers, but I don’t know how to handle it either! Even at this young age, my son knows his father as his “dad” and my boyfriend by his first name, and I don’t want him to be confused. Any thoughts?

—New to the Blended Family

Congratulations on having a low-conflict co-parenting relationship with your ex-husband! (It’s nice to be reminded that such relationships exist, as this column generally traffics in the more high-conflict ones.) If the people making these assumptions are mostly service professionals you interact with briefly and then are not likely to see again, I don’t think it’s worth mentioning, mostly because “We’d like a booth, thanks, but James here isn’t Prurient’s father, with whom I have a low-conflict co-parenting relationship” is more than a little awkward. If there’s a regular restaurant you visit together, however, it might be worth offering a quick correction. But I wouldn’t worry about one-off slips. You and your boyfriend are clear with your son about who his father is, and as long as you two are on-message, he’ll be able to shrug off the occasional confusion from car salesmen and concessionaires—and soon may start correcting them on his own accord.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I feel totally trapped. Six years ago, after raising two successful children and finalizing an amicable divorce, I married a man with a troubled 17-year-old child. I didn’t marry my husband until his son was out of the house, but he’s continued to be a problem—calling constantly for money and dealing drugs. He went to prison for nine months after getting his girlfriend pregnant (who also has a drug problem), and it was the most peace any of us had ever had. My husband has tried to keep the worst away from me, but it causes him a lot of stress. We now have temporary custody of their 4-year-old (her family has too much criminal history to qualify). We are the boy’s only alternative to foster care, and I have serious doubts his parents will be able to get their acts together within a year, which is the current limit for reunification.

Our life before this consisted of lots of traveling, going out to dinner, and doing what we wanted after having raised our own kids and working hard. I’ve decided that I want to stay, in no small part because I don’t have any friends, which I realized after my first divorce, and would be devastatingly alone if I left. I love my husband and hope to get our life back after this detour. This child is a good kid, but he is difficult and has been through a lot: He doesn’t sleep well, he’s very obstinate, and I find myself resentful that I’m in this terrible place. My husband apologizes and says I don’t have to stay, and I recognize he has no choice. He can’t send his grandson into foster care. I feel like I have no good choice. I hate the boy’s parents for putting me in this situation, and I don’t know what to do to make this work and to stop being so angry. This little boy doesn’t deserve more screwed-up people around him and I was a great mom once. I just don’t know if I can do it again.


I’m so sorry for the situation you’re in. It’s clear that you want to do better for your husband’s grandson, and you understand that your anger and resentment aren’t helping any of you, and I want to commend you for that level of self-awareness. Though you are aware that your husband’s young grandson is not at fault (nor is he being “difficult” on purpose), and might be better off with your help, this was not a life you expected to enter into six years ago, and this is a significant and understandable shock to your system. But ultimately you’ll have to answer for yourself whether you’re willing and able to stay in your marriage if it means helping to raise another child for the next 14 years. This may very well not be a “detour” but the new order of your husband’s life. If the answer is no, as it seems to be, it may be better for you to leave now, before your resentments build and begin to negatively affect him. If the main reason keeping you in your marriage now is a fear of loneliness, that’s not a very healthy foundation for a relationship.

But regardless of whether you stay or go, I think you should do two things right away: seek counseling for dealing with these intense, overwhelming feelings of resentment, and spend at least a few hours every week cultivating a social life outside of your husband and grandson, whether reconnecting with old friends you’ve lost touch with or developing new interests that get you out of the house and in new social situations. It may be that attending to your own emotional well-being will give you the clarity you need for the difficult decision ahead of you.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Six months ago I decided to end a five-year relationship with my ex-girlfriend (we still have a mortgage together). Recently I’ve been thinking I’ve made a massive mistake. We split up because I felt slightly aimless within the relationship and that the “spark” had gone, after much trying to rekindle it. I also felt that I needed some space (I’m 27 and we’d been together since my second year of university so it was my only fully adult relationship). Is there any way I can broach this discussion without causing my ex pain? It’s possible (even likely) that she’s moved on entirely. I love her deeply so I don’t want to cause her undue stress. Is there any way of doing this respectfully? Or should I accept that this is it, and that I need to let things go for good?

—Wanting to Reconnect

There’s nothing inherently wrong with wanting to get back together, but I’d encourage you to get your house in order before calling up your ex and asking to reconnect. What’s changed in the last six months? What’s to prevent you from feeling aimless and de-sparked again in the future, and checking out again as a result? If your answer to those questions are “nothing much, except I’ve felt lonely” and “I’m not sure,” reconsider burdening your ex with that conversation. It could be that you’ve realized some profound truths about yourself, or it could be that you’re still experiencing the nervousness and self-doubt that often follow ending a long-term relationship, and long for the security and stability you had with your ex-girlfriend, rather than your ex-girlfriend herself. So do some internal research first, and if after that you still think you made a mistake, give her a call. Make it clear you know this is a long shot, and that you’ll respect any answer she gives you. Good luck either way.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I am a woman who this year married my wonderful wife. We have two children—one together and one from her previous relationship. Because of the way that we had our younger child, I will have to adopt him, and we are just starting the process. My wife would like me to adopt my stepson as well. While I’m flattered, I’m worried about what legal and interpersonal issues this might raise. It would sever ties with his biological father, who he hasn’t seen since he was 2 (he’s 7 now). But when he finds out about the adoption, I’m guessing he will fight for parental rights in order to keep me from having any, and it will end up a huge mess. At the same time, her son is aware that I am adopting his little brother and I don’t want him to feel left out of the family. He has said that he wishes that I was his real mom too, which makes me really want to go ahead with it. But what if we end up having to share custody because we opened a huge can of worms?

—Worried Stepmom

Your first step should be to consult a good family lawyer. If your wife’s ex hasn’t attempted to see his son in over five years (especially if he also hasn’t provided child support), it’s possible that his parental rights could be terminated on the grounds of abandonment, although this may vary depending on what state you live in. Regardless, it’s clear that your son’s biological father has not been willing or able to be any sort of parent. Consult a lawyer, find out how difficult your wife’s ex could possibly make the adoption process, and proceed with your son’s best interests at heart. It’s understandable not to want a lengthy court battle. But if you ultimately decide it’s better not to pursue legal adoption at present, you could hold a private, unofficial ceremony with you, your wife, and your son to commemorate your relationship with him, to affirm that you are his real mom, and that you’re all part of the same family.

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