Dear Prudence

Don’t Want to Be Starting Something

My husband never initiates sex with me.

The backs of a hugging couple.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been happily married for nearly 10 years. We have three kids and full-time jobs. Even back when we were dating, my now-spouse never really initiated sex. Since the first kid came along, we have less alone time, unless we have an overnight getaway and hire sitters. At some point, I realized that we only have sex when I initiate it. We’ve talked about it a dozen times over the last few years, again at my initiation. I’ve explained that I don’t mind initiating sometimes, but I don’t want to do it all the time because it makes me feel that I’m not desired. He says he doesn’t want to risk “pressuring” me. I said that’s not an issue, but nothing’s changed. The last time we spoke about it, a year ago, I said I want to see a therapist about it, but he refused and said he thought we could figure it out.

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Now he waits for a signal of interest from me before initiating, which still feels like I’m effectively initiating. If I don’t get things started, we can go months without sex. (Yes, sadly, I tested that theory.) We’ve also tried the “designated nights of the week” approach, and again, if I “signaled” on those nights, we had sex; if not, he let the night pass without a word.

So I gave up. Now we have sex about once a month, because that’s about all I can muster in terms of initiating. When we do have sex, it is good, and we often joke that “we should do it more often.” But I want him to take the lead occasionally. Should I initiate yet another talk, and do it differently? I don’t know what else to do.
—Spouse Never Initiates Sex

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It may be that you might find some use in seeing a therapist even if your husband doesn’t want to go with you! I think at this point you know that the kind of talks you have been having are limited in their effectiveness. That doesn’t mean “not talking about it” is the best strategy—just that you should attempt to name certain dynamics that you’ve previously left unchallenged and unacknowledged. For whatever reason (I think we can safely dispense with the idea that he is worried about “pressuring” you, given how clear you’ve made it over the years that you do not feel pressured), your spouse does not want to initiate sex without a clear sign from you and would prefer not to have sex at all than do so. He may simply not enjoy initiating sex! Often people assume, especially in a heterosexual relationship, that men naturally “ought” to initiate sex, but I’m not sure that’s a useful expectation. That doesn’t mean he doesn’t find you attractive or that he doesn’t enjoy having sex with you, but he does seem unwilling to meet you halfway on the matter. There is a lot of good here—you two have three young children but are still having sex at least once a month; your conversations about sex, while not where you’d like them to be, are relatively nondefensive and open; and you both enjoy sex when you do have it together. If you can find a way to honestly discuss your attraction to each other and your mutual desire for physical intimacy, rather than running secret tests on him and feeling bad about yourself afterward, you may be able to find other ways to receive affirmation in your physical attractiveness and not feel like signaling your interest in sex is an act of concession or failure.

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Dear Prudence,
Last spring I began formally identifying as nonbinary. Since coming out to myself, I’ve come out to my husband and two close friends, which went fine—great, even. I’m now finding myself wanting to come out to my larger group of friends, considering I’m making some changes in how I present and would prefer to use gender-neutral pronouns, but I’m having trouble feeling justified in doing so. I don’t currently plan to change my name, start hormone replacement therapy, or undergo surgery. My friends are open-minded and loving, and I’m sure if I were to come out as binary trans they would be happy and supportive. But I don’t know how they’ll react when presented with something less “cut and dried” than a binary transition. I still have a lot of internalized doubt and fear about my identity, and it’s making it really difficult to move forward with the people I’m close to. (I should go to therapy for this, but I’m not sure where to start or what I would talk about if I got there.) Do you have any advice on how to broach this subject with my friends? This is devastatingly important to me, so how can I convince myself that it’s “worth” bringing up with them?
—Trans Enough to Come Out?

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Rather than trying to convince yourself that this news “merits” a coming-out conversation, I think it might help to remind yourself that friends talk about all manner of things throughout the course of a day or week— from serious topics like family dynamics or personal fears to what they had for lunch today. This doesn’t have to be the most important conversation of your life to be important to you. I think you should start by telling your friends what you’ve told me: “I’ve been thinking a lot about my gender identity this year, and I’ve wanted to talk to you about it, but I’ve felt self-conscious and anxious about your response.” You can decide how much you feel ready to share with your larger social circle, whether you want to discuss specific aspects of your presentation or your internal process or if you’d simply rather offer an update: “Hey, I’m nonbinary, and I’m planning on using gender-neutral pronouns from now on.” You can also enlist your husband or one of the close friends to volunteer that information on your behalf if you’d prefer not to have all of these conversations yourself. But the solution to your problem is in your last sentence—“This is devastatingly important to me” means that it’s worth bringing up with your friends.

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The one thing I would caution you against is leveraging your own identity against a hypothetical version of yourself that’s “binary trans” to determine which one is more complicated or challenging. I don’t think that was your intention, but there’s no need to imply that binary trans people have a “cut and dried” identity or experience to work through your own anxieties about coming out.

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Dear Prudence,
My best friend Kit recently started to date Larry, a man with a history of domestic violence. I lived near him when he put his then-girlfriend in the hospital. I told Kit about this, but she said that he’s changed and deserves a second chance. After I saw Larry yell at Kit’s 8-year-old son, I told the boy’s father about the situation. Kit and her ex have had custodial disputes since they broke up, and now her ex has taken her back to court.

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I’ve admitted that I was the one who told her ex, and now everyone is furious with me. Our friends agree Kit made a bad choice in boyfriends, but they say that if she loses her son she’s less likely to leave Larry. At the time I thought it was the best decision, but now I wonder if I jumped the gun? I don’t think Larry has ever hurt Kit’s son, but I didn’t want to wait until he did. This is a man who beat his ex with a chair. If he did lose his temper with a little boy, he might have killed him. On the other hand, did I make Kit more likely to be a victim?
—Did I Overstep?

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I don’t think you can, or should, make yourself responsible for what does or doesn’t happen to Kit. You had excellent reason to believe that Larry has not, in fact, changed, given the severity of the violence he inflicted on his last girlfriend and the fact that he yelled at an 8-year-old in front of you. It’s true that people can change, and it’s also true that people often deserve a second chance, but that doesn’t mean that you should ignore obvious signs of out-of-control anger, nor does it mean that Larry is a different person just because he’s not currently physically abusing anyone else. Let’s look at what you did right: First, you attempted to speak directly to Kit about your concerns. Only when she deflected your specific concern about how Larry was treating her son with a general claim that he had “changed” did you share what you’d seen with the boy’s father. While it might have been preferable to speak with Kit again first, I can understand why you felt this was information he needed to know, and I don’t think you were under any obligation to keep it between the two of you. It may be that you lose her friendship over this, which would undoubtedly be painful, but that doesn’t mean you have pushed her further into an abusive relationship. Make it clear that you care for her, that you’re sorry she’s hurting, and that you’re always available if she wants to speak. That’s all you can do for now.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a child born of rape. I didn’t find out until I was 21 and pregnant, wondering why I had a blood type that could not have come from the parents who raised me. All my mother told me at the time was that she was raped when she was 16 and became pregnant. She elected to keep me and later met my dad, who adopted me. She was hysterical while telling me, so I didn’t feel I could ask anything else. I submitted my DNA to a database hoping to receive medical information from potential relatives, without success.

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My parents are homophobic, racist, passive-aggressively mean people. I don’t know if they were always like this, but it’s only gotten worse with time. I have distanced myself from them, and my son refuses to acknowledge them. I am concerned that someday they will reveal the circumstances of my birth in the form of a nasty comment directed toward me in front of my kids. I feel like I need to tell my kids before they find out from my parents, but I don’t want to burden them either. I don’t want them to wonder, as I do, what parts of me came from a rapist or whether I look like him. Do you have any advice on how to make it easier? My kids are young adults in their early 20s but still kind of naïve.
—To Tell or Not

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If nothing else, I hope you know that you don’t need to tell your children anything and that telling them about this part of your life, while painful, does not mean that you are burdening them. It sounds like you have excellent reasons for not speaking to your parents at all—along with their virulent racism, homophobia, and cruelty, there’s the fact that you suspect they might use the circumstances of your birth to insult and humiliate you in front of your children. If the only thing keeping you in even limited contact with them right now is a sense of obligation, I hope you can give yourself permission to distance yourself further, should that feel right for you. That said, I understand your desire to avoid a potentially disastrous accidental revelation, and if you decide to tell your children, I think you can do so without fearing that you will make them see you differently. It may help to plan ahead and think about what kind of conversation you’d like to have with them. Do you want simply to communicate what you know? Do you want to encourage them to talk about how they feel with you? Do you want to encourage questions, or would that feel overwhelming? Tailor the information you share with them to the kind of conversation you feel prepared to have. Make it clear that you love them, that you want them to know this about you, that you’re aware it may come as a surprise, but that you don’t need anything from them beyond their continued love and support. I don’t think your children are likely to speculate, as you have, about whether you have any “connection” to the man who raped your mother—they’ve known you and loved you their entire lives, and I don’t think they’ll see you any differently once they know more about something you had no part in and no control over. If anything, you may feel less shame or responsibility for having shared it. But if you decide not to share this with them, I think that’s more than fine. You don’t owe this information to anyone. Even if your parents ever did decide to use it against you, it would in no way be your fault for not having anticipated their cruelty and gotten out in front of it.

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More Dear Prudence

A Stranger Exposed Himself to Me in Public. My Husband Says It’s No Big Deal.
I’m Failing at the Job I Always Wanted. What Does That Say About Me?
My Dentist Kissed Me Twice on the Forehead.
My Boyfriend Funds His Art by Romancing His Wealthy Patron, and I’m Jealous.
How Do I Get Him to Pay More Child Support if His Income Is “Not Exactly Legal”?

Dear Prudence,
My son recently became engaged to “Mary,” a girl my whole family thoroughly likes. I haven’t met her parents, but I know they make a modest living. My son told me they plan to have a small wedding at her parents’ church, with a cake and hors d’oeuvres reception afterward. Frankly, it sounds lovely. We are rich, and my three daughters all wanted and received elaborate, expensive weddings. Now they are telling me that it’s “not fair” that Mary doesn’t get the same and want me to offer to pay for it. I can afford it and wouldn’t mind, but surely she and her parents would be offended. My daughters say I’m too old-fashioned, and anyone would be thrilled to have an expensive wedding paid for by someone else. She’s a sweet girl and what you might think of as low maintenance, and she certainly would never ask. What do you think?
—Pinterest-Perfect Wedding

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This is a charmingly distinct wedding question! I don’t often hear about siblings advocating for more money on one another’s behalf, nor from parents who are eager to spend more on their children’s weddings. If you’re worried about appearing rude or overbearing, why not talk to your son first? Tell him you don’t want to encourage him to have a big, splashy wedding if that’s not what he and Mary want, and that you don’t want to offend his future in-laws, but that you’d be happy to pay for part of the wedding and that he and Mary can feel free to consider your support as an option. You can also tell your daughters that while you appreciate their suggestion, from now on you’ll speak to your son directly about what he and his fiancée want for their wedding.

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Dear Prudence,
My sister-in-law is a mess. She is a drug addict who started running away at 16 and only resurfaces in her parents’ life when she has a child she wants to unload on them. For more than a decade she has put them through a carousel of arrests and convictions, attempts at rehab, and giving birth to drug-addicted children. My husband and I adopted her daughter after the state took away her parental rights. I ended up dropping out of my graduate program to concentrate on her/our daughter’s care. Now she is a healthy, happy 4-year-old, but her 10-year-old brother has a host of health and development problems as a result of his mother’s drug use. My in-laws are raising him.

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Now my sister-in-law has surfaced again for the first time in several years. She got caught using a stolen credit card and is facing a series of parole violations. She’s also pregnant again. My in-laws are broke and nearing retirement, with a 10-year-old to raise; they cannot take on an infant, and neither can I. They want us to take this baby. I won’t. I can’t. I love our daughter, but this isn’t the life I wanted. I want to have a baby myself, and I know if we take this second child on, that will not happen. Our daughter has a lot of difficult issues to deal with already. My refusal is breaking my family’s heart. I hear my husband on the phone weeping while talking to his parents. They have good memories of the girl my sister-in-law used to be, but I can only resent her. How do we get through this?
—Can’t Parent Again

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This is such a painful situation, and I wish I could offer you advice that would make everything better, but I think there’s a limit to how much you can do to help. If you’re clear about what you are not capable of doing, namely parenting another of your sister-in-law’s children—and it sounds like you are clear—then the best thing you can do is be as up-front as possible about your boundaries. The grief your husband and his parents feel is very real, and you can offer them compassion, sympathy, and understanding, but you cannot make it go away for them. I know you’re already stretched to your limits and might not have the money or time to see a therapist right now, but if any of you has the ability to see one even for a few weeks, it might be helpful to have an outlet. There’s a child in great need at the moment, but you didn’t create the situation, and you’re not solely responsible for addressing it. As a family, your husband and his parents will have to make some difficult decisions. You can support and listen to them, but if you know that you’re not able to raise another of your sister-in-law’s children from infancy, then the best thing you can do is make that clear so that they can make other arrangements.

“I’m struck by the limits of this speech as I write this!”

Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

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