Dear Prudence

Just Not Interested

My daughter has decided she’s asexual. Did she get it from me?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,

I am a 50-year-old married woman who’s been married for 30 years to the father of my four children. We were both raised to believe women should be modest and have no sexual urges, so we’ve always had sex on a fairly fixed schedule (every third day, no physical contact during menstruation). My husband is very attentive, makes certain that I orgasm, and has never hurt me. I never thought anything was unusual until my 20-year-old daughter came home from college deeply troubled about being “asexual.” As she confided in me and we have been reading together, I realized that I am asexual also.

Is there a gene that causes this? I have no emotional conflict because in my culture having no sexual urges is a benefit. I do not think it is appropriate to say to my daughter “Hey, I am too, and it’s fine!” but seeing her view herself as “broken” is heart-wrenching. I realize my husband and my immediate family are the only people I can touch without feeling deep revulsion. (I do not like handshakes, hugs, or even massages from paid professionals.) I understand how she feels, but at her age I knew I would have a husband and children, and she is grappling with being “odd and different” from her siblings and her peers. I love her so deeply and feel I am the cause of her misery. How do I help her?

–Guilty Mother

There is no “gene” for asexuality (something as complex as one’s sexual orientation or fundamental approach to sex isn’t caused by a single gene that might be flipped on or off), and you are not the origin of your daughter’s suffering. You are, it sounds like, uniquely situated to offer her both empathy and support, but this is not something you must “fix” on your daughter’s behalf. Your role can be to offer support, to introduce her to useful resources she might not be familiar with, and to listen, but you cannot, and should not, try to take responsibility for your daughter’s experience. Whether or not you choose to share your own experience with her is up to you; remember that when you are talking to your daughter about your own asexuality, you may be giving her more information about the inside of her parents’ marriage than she needs or wants. Which is not to say you should not discuss this with her. Let your own judgment guide you as to whether you think the information would help her.

Asexuality is not the same thing as a hormonal imbalance or a sudden change in libido, nor is it concomitant with an aversion to touch or a phobia of sex. It may help both of you to learn more about asexuality, especially from the perspective of asexual people: I’d recommend The Invisible Orientation: An Introduction to Asexuality by Julie Sondra Decker, the Asexuality Archive, and Asexual Outreach. If your daughter understands herself to be asexual, whether for a season or for her entire life, it does not necessarily follow that she will never find a partner or have children, if that’s what she wants. There are a variety of paths her life could take, and while asexuality certainly sets her apart from the mainstream, and she’s likely to experience plenty of challenges and prejudice along the way, she is in no way doomed to a life of isolation and misery.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m in my mid-20s and consistently annoyed by the way many people my age approach conflict. Over the past few years, I’ve had co-workers and friends initiate disagreements by text message or email. I hate having difficult conversations remotely. It’s stressful, and you lose all sense of body language, facial expressions, and tone. How are you supposed to resolve anything when you’re missing all that information?

A friend of mine from college, “Mariana,” is wonderful but a bit sensitive, and frequently gets upset at perceived slights. She has twice in the past three months tried to initiate difficult conversations over text and email. I have told her I don’t like that and tried to transition the conversation to in-person. Today, she texted me about another way in which I’ve recently let her down. Should I tell her outright that I don’t discuss things like that via text? Or, since she is the one who is hurt, should I use her preferred method of communication? I’m torn over whether to prioritize her comfort or mine.

–Fighting in the Digital Age

You do not have to let Mariana select the medium you two employ for resolving interpersonal conflict just because she gets mad at you more often than you get mad at her—this is not 17th-century France, and she is not the challenged party with the right to announce the field of honor under the code duello. It is perfectly appropriate for you to respond with, “Let’s not hash this out over text, but I do want to talk about this. When are you available to talk over the phone or meet in person?”

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Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend recently broke up with me after over a year and a half of dating. He said he just wasn’t ready for a committed relationship at this point in his life. We are still friends. His mom and I still talk all the time, and he’s still my best friend, so we text every day. My question is, how do I move on? We were at a point where I could envision us building a life together and we talked about it often, except toward the end when he almost stopped talking to me entirely. I’m finding it tough to give up that vision of us I had in my head and embrace our close friendship. How do you think I should handle it?

–Best Ex Forever

I get variations of this question all the time—so often that I’m prepared to make a general ruling that applies to almost all exes almost all of the time (I reserve the right to make exceptions). The answer is to not embrace your “close friendship”! That’s not to say that I don’t think exes can be good, even great friends—I’m close with some of mine, and it’s delightful—but nobody goes from being deeply in love, in full planning-a-life-together mode, to “best platonic pals with no vast, unspoken sense of loss, hurt, and longing” overnight, or even in a few months.

What the two of you have right now is not a close friendship. Your boyfriend dumped you suddenly after a period of bewildering radio silence, and he is not doing you any favors by staying in daily contact with you before you’ve been able to get over him. If you two are ever going to be friends, it’s not going to be while you’re still picking up the pieces of your shattered romantic dreams.

You know, I think, what you have to do next, which is why you wrote to me in the first place. You have to stop talking to your ex’s mom. You have to stop texting your ex every day. You’ll have to set the boundary yourself, which will feel uniquely difficult, because he’s not going to do it for you, because this relationship you two have now is only hurting you, not him. You tell him you’re not going to be able to speak for a while—a long while—so that you can focus on mourning the loss of your relationship and start to figure out a way forward. You should not think about resuming contact with him for at least a year. Any shorter, and you’re liable to think, “In another few months, I’ll get to be best friends with him again—and maybe he’ll be ready for commitment, and see how great I’ve been after our breakup, and things will just click, and we’ll get married.” Which is not at all conducive to the moving-on process! So: Tell him goodbye, defriend him on social media, delete his number, tell his mom you’re still extremely fond of her and you’d like to schedule a catching-up lunch sometime in the far-distant future, and focus on your friends who haven’t recently broken your heart.

Dear Prudence: I know I should end my friends-with-benefits relationship—but I don’t want to!

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve been with my partner/husband for 32 years, and we finally got married in 2013 after it became legally possible for us. I love him, but ever since we first met, he’s cheated on me. I found out for the first time many years ago and intended to break up with him, but he apologized profusely and told me that it was only sex and that I was more important to him than anyone else. He vowed to stop, but it’s continued for years. Every time it’s the same story. I realize now he will never stop. I want to separate, but he swears he wants us to stay together. The real issue is that I’m 65 years old and now disabled. I rely on his job for insurance and financial assistance. This is all I have left and life would be much harder without it. I can’t tell you how much I’ve agonized over this. I’m tired of the cheating and the resulting fights. But I feel stuck!

–Ready to Leave

You’ve been dealing with the same cheating cycle for well over three decades, and I think you’re right when you say your husband is unlikely ever to change. That said, your financial concerns are very real and practical, and I don’t want to encourage you to risk your own health and safety. Take your time, gather as much information as you can about your options, and plan your exit from this relationship carefully. The good news is that, as your husband’s legal spouse, you may be entitled to rehabilitative alimony once you file for divorce. Many divorce attorneys offer free initial consultations, and in some states you may be able to petition the court to require that your soon-to-be-ex helps pay your legal fees. You can also contact your local Legal Aid and, since you’re over 65, your local elder affairs department, for further assistance. If you have friends or family who would be willing to offer material or financial support in the event that you left your husband, call on them, too.

I don’t want to offer you a naïvely optimistic vision of the future. Divorce is almost always hard, and it’s particularly difficult for the financially dependent party. But divorce is also possible, and I think that whatever the next phase of your life looks like, you would prefer to deal with the unknown than go through another 10 or 20 years of the same old song and dance with your perpetually unfaithful husband.

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Dear Prudence,

I have a friend who loves to tell work stories. This would not be a problem if she were an actress or website developer, but she’s a marriage, family, and child therapist and she talks about her clients. I’m not a fellow therapist, and she’s not asking me for assistance helping people resolve their problems. These stories are told purely for entertainment. She claims this is not a violation of confidentiality because I “don’t know them.” Frankly, I’m horrified! She is betraying her clients by telling me their personal details. Worse, years ago I saw a therapist for a short while and believed that what I shared would never be revealed to anyone, not just to people who “don’t know” me. Now I thoroughly regret ever going and would never, ever recommend therapy to anyone. Do all therapists blab like this? Am I being oversensitive, or is she being unethical? Most importantly, how do I make her stop?

–Heard Enough

Licensed therapists are bound by a professional code of ethics. It may be true that your friend is not out-and-out violating the letter of the law as long as she is careful not to include names or other identifying details, but she is expected to “respect and guard the confidences of each individual client.” If she is not violating the letter of the law, she is certainly not honoring its spirit. Even when consulting with a colleague about an individual case, “information may be shared only to the extent necessary to achieve the purposes of the consultation”—not trotted out over weekend brunch for the entertainment of others. When your friend gossips about her clients, revealing highly personal and potentially embarrassing information—even if she does not use their names or identifying details—she undermines public confidence in therapists as a group, and creates the impression that therapists privately find their clients ridiculous, good only to provide fodder for cocktail-party chatter of the “Can you believe it?” variety.

Dr. Stephen Behnke of the American Psychological Association has this to say about therapeutic confidentiality: “Gossip about patients is destructive because it exploits the willingness of patients to share intimate aspects of their lives and their psyches with us, which is why gossip is troubling from an ethical perspective. Only by accident will a patient ever benefit from being gossiped about; almost by definition the purpose of gossip about patients is entertainment or prurient interest.”

All of which is to say: An ethical therapist (and hopefully most practicing MFT therapists fall under that umbrella) does not offer up even anonymous information about their clients in casual, social conversation. Your friend’s bad behavior is a reflection on her, not on the profession in general; the odds are excellent that the therapist you saw years ago took your issues seriously and kept your sessions in the strictest confidence. Tell your friend that you have no interest in hearing any of the details of her clients’ personal lives, that you don’t approve of her trotting them out for entertainment, and that if she can’t think of something else to discuss, then maybe you two don’t have much to talk about.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a 48-year-old gay bear who recently started dating a 29-year-old guy. We met through friends about a year ago, began having regular cuddle sessions, and finally started a relationship. He is funny, smart, sexy, and caring. He’s emotionally mature and financially secure, and he’s as crazy about me as I am about him. We’re falling in love, and it’s wonderful.

The confusing part is that he doesn’t normally go for bears and his sexual and relationship experiences have been very narrow. Our sexual encounters start and end well, but he isn’t interested in expanding the menu on foreplay. He’s physically attentive in everyday situations, a champion cuddler, and a decent kisser. We both enjoy giving and receiving when it comes to the act itself, but he’s not willing to do much in between. He doesn’t enjoy giving oral (but loves receiving it), and doesn’t look at or touch the more intimate parts of my body very much. I’m constantly wondering whether his lack of engagement in foreplay is because I’m not his type, his lack of experience with guys like me, or both. I’ve asked about it, and he says I’m beautiful, he just doesn’t enjoy doing those things. I love this guy, but I need to feel physically attractive, and I want our sex life to be mutually fulfilling. I can’t imagine going without receiving oral sex and other great foreplay indefinitely. How do I engage him on the topic (again) without sounding neurotic or sleazy?

–Insecure and Frustrated

If it is sleazy to ask one’s partner for foreplay or physical attention, then just about everyone in a long-term relationship is an irredeemable sleazebag. I’m not sure how important it is to figure out why this guy you’re “falling in love with” isn’t interested in reciprocating when it comes to oral sex, or paying you physical attention outside of the bare minimum required to get you to finish. Either he’s lazy, or he’s selfish, or he’s not as attracted to you as you are to him, or a combination of all three. He’s very aware that you’d like him to do those things, but that hasn’t proved sufficient motivation for him to try.

If it’s merely a case of nerves brought on by lack of experience (which I’m inclined to doubt—even if he’d never been with a man who looked like you before, there’s nothing so fundamentally different about a bearish guy from other types of men that you would prove a bewildering mystery to him), then the next time you two are messing around, tell him you’d like to do something different this time, and then show him exactly how you’d like to be touched. If he’s receptive, then maybe you can find your way to a more mutually satisfying sex life! If he’s uninterested, or half-hearted, or continues to say that he “just doesn’t enjoy” going down on or touching you, then I think you have enough information to figure out whether things are going to work out between you.

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