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 new 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.
Mallory Ortberg: “Ah, children, you’re staring at my fingers. Would you like me to tell you the little story of right-hand, left-hand? The story of good and evil?”
Q. Godson’s deadly DWI: My nephew and godson was the driver in a single-vehicle incident over New Year’s Eve. He was driving while intoxicated, and there was a passenger in his vehicle who was killed. My godson is in serious condition but will likely pull through. He is also being charged with DWI and vehicular manslaughter. I am glad that he is alive but horrified at the loss of the passenger’s life and the destruction of his own future. I am at a loss what to say, or do, or what support I can properly offer him. I want to help him, but someone died as a result of his actions. What is the right thing to do?
A: It is incredibly difficult to love and support someone who has done something horrific, especially when someone has died as a result of his or her actions. Whatever relationship you can have with your nephew in the future must be predicated on total honesty and willingness to take responsibility and get help. For yourself, consider attending Al-Anon (or one of its secular alternatives), where you will find a great many people who have gone through something very similar.
Once he is sufficiently recovered to have a conversation, you can tell your nephew that you love him, and that because of your love for him, you do not wish him to be spared consequences for his actions, and that the best possible future for him does not involve minimizing or hiding from the fact that he has killed someone: “I love you, and you committed a great crime. If you are ready to get help for your drinking, I will support you. If you go to prison because you killed someone while driving drunk, I hope you will be able to take responsibility and not seek to escape the consequences of your actions.” If he is willing, it may be possible for you to be part of helping him make amends. This will be a lifelong process. It will not be easy, and he will never be able to bring his victim back to life; this is a painful reality, but it is best faced squarely. If he cannot or will not face what he has done, you should tell him you are not going to help him avoid responsibility.
Q. Sex issues: Like so many others, I had a rough 2016. My fiancé left me due in no small part to some sex problems. I can’t orgasm from sex at all, and I have several medical issues that lead to painful sex, meaning celibacy for several weeks or even months at a time. For our entire relationship, my fiancé told me he was OK with these things, only for him to blame them, among other things, for why he couldn’t love me. I’m ready to start dating again, but I have no idea how to bring these issues up with a potential one-night stand or potential new boyfriend. Is it better to bring it up before sex or only if it comes up? At the same time, I can’t get over the idea that I’ll never find anyone who will accept that I’ll probably have these issues for the rest of my life and accept me and love me anyways when my ex of several years couldn’t. Any advice?
A: I’m so sorry to hear about the nature of your breakup. It’s uniquely painful and disorienting to hear someone say to you, “By the way, the whole time I said I was OK with the way your body works and your sexual needs? I didn’t mean any of that, and I don’t really love you.” I think it’s always better to be honest with potential partners about your sexual needs before sleeping together, so that everyone has all the information he or she needs. Just because your last ex lied about his feelings around your medical condition doesn’t mean future sex partners are going to. I think you’ll feel a greater sense of control and safety if you’re clear early on about what works for you and what doesn’t, what you’re capable of and what you’re not. Your ex lied to you and betrayed your trust in a profoundly painful way. I don’t think that he needs to set the tone for your future relationships. I think there are people out there who are capable of supporting your position, and you may even find some who share similar medical conditions who don’t just support but also completely understand what you’re going through.
If nothing else, think of it this way: Your ex said he couldn’t love you because of your medical issues. In fact, he couldn’t love you because he was incapable of being honest, either with you or with himself. The problem lay with him, not you. You are not unlovable; he chose to do unloving things.
Q. When couple friendships go bad: My husband and I struck up a casual friendship with another couple last year. We’ve hung out every few months or so, alternating game nights at our houses or going out for dinner. We liked one another’s company well enough, but we never became close. Then New Year’s happened. We had this couple over for a small gathering, and the woman proceeded to drink too much. Throughout the course of the night, she made it apparent not only that she has thinly veiled feelings for my husband, but that she’d probably act on them if she had the chance.
As a result my husband and I have decided not to see this couple again. My husband thinks ghosting seems like the best option, but I’m not so sure. Both members of this couple have repeatedly stressed that they’d like to see us more often, and I know they’d be hurt if we ghosted them. I’ve thought about speaking to the woman privately to let her know why we’re uncomfortable, but I worry this will only make her feel terrible. I don’t think she’s a bad person, but sadly, she’s demonstrated that she can’t be trusted. I should add that her partner witnessed her behavior, but he seems unwilling to confront it head on, which makes it all the more awkward. What is the kindest way to cut this couple out of our lives?
A: It is enormously fair to say, ”The last time we got together, you got drunk and told me that you’d like to sleep with my husband, and now I’m uncomfortable around you.” This is not a situation that calls for delicacy; this is a situation that calls for clarity. Let her know what she did and how it affected you (it sounds like you are probably not interested in swinging with them); if she feels terrible, it will serve as an impetus to act differently in the future. Let this uncomfortable story serve as a blueprint for how not to find out if some of your friends are potentially interested in group sex.
Q. What do you do when a relative trashes you in public?: My cousin, who I was once close with, has taken to attacking me in a vicious way, and the last time it was in public. He is, I believe, in the beginning stages of senile dementia, a disease that runs in our family. He is 70; I am a 67-year-old woman. I decided to skip the family Christmas party because he told me so many hurtful things he thought and also the cousin who was hosting the party had said about me. Mainly, I think he is upset because his self-published book is not doing as well as he hoped, and I won three (small) magazine writing awards this year.
A: If you’re genuinely concerned that your cousin is exhibiting a total personality change indicative of early stage dementia, you should try to discuss this with his partner (if he has one) or siblings or close friends to see if he’s been to a doctor lately. In the meantime, however, you are not obligated to sit around and listen to insults.
Q. Explaining that a therapist is positive: My 14-year-old daughter has come out as transgender and might want to in the near future start a transition process. As of right now she still goes by “she”—this is still very new. My husband and I are very supportive but have had limited exposure to the transgender community, so we found a support group for her and some blogs so that she can get questions answered by a group that understands what she is going through. I also want her to see a therapist, but I don’t know how to bring it up. I do not want her to think there is anything wrong or bad about her decision. I have used therapy many times in my life, and not all of them were for crises. When my husband and I had three children very quickly, we went to couples counseling to work through how to be both parents and partners. It was a positive, not negative, time in my life. I just want her to have someone to talk to who has no one’s interest in mind other than hers. I don’t want to label her choice as negative, but I also know there could be some emotional times ahead, and I want her to have a strong support system. How should I bring this up?
A: I think you just brought it up beautifully. Every 14-year-old could benefit from therapy, and especially a 14-year-old contemplating transition in a transphobic society. I think you should say exactly what you said to me: that you yourself have benefited from therapy at numerous points in your life, that it will strengthen your family support system, that it’s not in any way a criticism of her decision to come out to you, and that you want her to be able to have someone objective and removed to talk to her whose sole focus is her health and well-being. Find a therapist who specializes in working with transgender youth, or better yet, find several and let your child choose someone to trust and open up to.
Q. Stepsister woes: My husband’s stepfather died 16 years ago, several years before we met and married. His stepfather was a loving man and good husband, and he raised my husband as his own. My husband has a stepsister who is several years older than my husband, and they were not raised together. She was not around to help care for her father throughout the cancer that took his life because she couldn’t emotionally handle it. Since their father died, his stepsister has breezed in and out of our lives, moving out of state and back again. We don’t even know where she lives most of the time, and she is usually abusing drugs or alcohol when we do see her. She regularly lashes out against my husband and mother-in-law through creepy voice mails, emails, and random Facebook messages. The rants range from her father, to being excluded from our family, to her cat that died eight years ago. She insults the family as if the pain of her father’s death was somehow greater than theirs because they have been able to move on and have fulfilling lives. We’ve never excluded her but don’t exactly welcome her because we have children and she is emotionally unstable with drug problems. We’ve asked her to seek grief counseling to no avail. The messages over this Christmas were ridiculous and upsetting. Should we cut her out of our lives? Do we respond to her mental breakdowns? (We usually don’t respond because she can’t be reasoned with and it’s futile.) She won’t help herself, and we can’t help her, so do we have to put up with her temper tantrums?
A: You don’t have much of a relationship with your husband’s stepsister, so the degree to which you can encourage her to seek help is necessarily limited. You can tell her if she’s ever willing to get help for her drug and alcohol abuse, you’ll be available to support her, but unless you believe she poses an immediate danger to herself or others and requires medical supervision, the only thing you can do for her is disengage. Delete any messages from her that don’t begin with “I’m ready to get help” and feel free to block her on social media—you’re not helping her, or yourself, by listening to further abuse.
Q. Re: Sex issues: Not having an orgasm from penetrative sex is really, really normal and NOT actually something unusual. Additionally, just to be reassuring, I have medical issues that also make sex too painful or downright impossible for long stretches at a time; my spouse has never been anything except loving and understanding. It’s not impossible or even difficult to have a satisfying and pleasurable sex life even when you can’t have penetrative sex all the time.
A: Thanks for reminding the LW she is far from alone in this!
Q. Where to put Dad’s ashes someday: My parents have been married for 30 years. Prior to them getting married, my father had another wife who died of leukemia within two years of them being wed. They had no children, and she’s not a secret from us, but my dad has never been the one to bring her up. It’s always been my mother or grandmother who have mentioned her. In my curiosity about this woman, I Googled her and wasn’t able to find anything except a link to a “Find a Grave” website, which showed her burial plot and headstone … which also has my father’s name on it and a space for him when he dies! I’ve never brought this up to him, but lately he’s made comments about how when he dies he’d like to be cremated and have his ashes scattered. Do I ask him about the plot? If so, how do I go about that? I also don’t want to hurt my mother, who is honestly amazing and understanding but still a human with feelings. And part of me feels bad thinking about my father having a headstone somewhere else, but it never being updated, seemingly forgetting completely about his former wife. What am I supposed to do?
A: Bring it up! You don’t have to surf the internet looking at old gravestones and wondering by yourself. Ask your father: “Dad, is there anything you want to do with your remains that would honor your first wife? I know we don’t talk about her much, and I’ll support whatever you’d prefer, but I wanted to ask in case you felt uncomfortable bringing her up to me.” Your mother has been married to your father for 30 years; I imagine she can handle discussing the fact that he was married once before her.