Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. No snip, no sex!: I have a condition called polycystic ovary syndrome, which comes with highly irregular periods (among other symptoms). Despite that, my husband and I have two wonderful children, and I felt that our family was complete after my second C-section. During that operation, I had a tubal ligation. I know that feminine sterilization is not 100 percent effective and can become less effective as time passes. I constantly worry that I am pregnant again when my period is late (and it always is—thanks, PCOS). I have put my body through two pregnancies and two C-sections, and both were very risky for my health. The thought of having another child causes panic attacks.
To decrease my odds of getting pregnant again, I have asked my husband, repeatedly, to have a vasectomy. Hormonal birth control had horrible side effects for me, and he hates using condoms. I have rationally talked to him about how another pregnancy could endanger my health, our future, and our finances. I have explained that this procedure is simple, common, and has a very short recovery window (as opposed to a hysterectomy). He refuses to even talk about why he doesn’t want one. I can’t stomach having sex with him until he’s on board with this. It’s all anxiety and no fun. A sex embargo doesn’t seem fair to him, but him putting all of the reproductive responsibility—and sucky side effects—on me also doesn’t seem fair. I’m not sure where to go from here.
A: You’re at a difficult moment here, and I’m not sure what options are available to you without your husband at least being willing to talk to you about why he doesn’t want to have a vasectomy. I don’t think you should try to pressure yourself into having sex right now if it fills you with anxiety and dread. That’s not a “sex embargo”—sex isn’t a good that you manufacture for your husband as his wife—that’s you trying to deal honestly with your feelings of isolation and confusion. I think the thing that’s going to have to change is his willingness to talk honestly about sex, contraception, and his feelings with you. A therapist may help you in the meantime, even if he’s not willing to accompany you at first. If anyone reading has had a similar impasse in their marriage and found anything particularly helpful, please share what’s worked for you.
Q. My family won’t stop addressing me by my old name: I absolutely hated my name growing up. It was in the top 10 names the year I was born, so I was one of many girls with that name in my grade. It didn’t suit me at all. It was picked out by my mother, who abandoned me when I was a toddler, because it was a derivative of her name. I legally changed it almost immediately after my 18th birthday.
It’s been over a decade, and most of my family members still refer to me by my former name, and even address mail and public Facebook posts with it. They often complain that it’s just “too hard” to switch but have no problem using my recently married cousins’ new last names. Some insist they are trying, while others will only use my name in a loud, sarcastic tone. Recently, my aunt called my work for a family emergency requesting me by my old name, and when they couldn’t figure out who she was referring to, they made an announcement over the intercom. This lead to a lot of uncomfortable conversations with my boss and co-workers about why I changed my name, why I chose this one, how my parents feel about it, etc. One co-worker now jokingly calls me by my birth name.
I’m not transgender, so I don’t feel I have a right to claim this is traumatic, but it feels horrible and invasive. I’ve had a lot of conversations with my family, but they do not take it seriously. Since that incident, I have been in the mindset to stop talking to them entirely until they can address me properly, but they’re likely to make me feel guilty for it. What do I do?
A: This is sheer perversity. They’ve already demonstrated they’re perfectly capable of remembering someone’s new name if they approve of the reasons for choosing one (like a woman taking a man’s name upon marriage). You’ve dealt for over a decade with a group of people who have communicated to you, in public and in private, “You don’t have a right to change your name unless we agree with your reasons for making the change. What you want is ridiculous and cumbersome, we will never try in good faith to call you by the name you’ve had for 10 years now, and will whenever possible draw attention to how ridiculous we find you.” There’s no need to feel like you don’t have a right to feel distressed about this simply because you’re not transgender—this is a real and serious problem for you.
Since you’ve already tried repeatedly to convince them to no avail, I think you should follow your instinct and take a pause on speaking to them until or unless they’re willing to knock off this unkind name game. Of course they’ll probably try to guilt you into talking to them again, but since they’re already trying to make you feel guilty now, I think it’s worth doing. “I’ve tried explaining this to you. I’ve tried asking you. I’ve seen you call others by their new married names absolutely seamlessly. What I’m asking for isn’t difficult or burdensome. You don’t even have to like my name, I’m only asking that you offer me the basic courtesy of using it. If you can’t, then there’s no basis on which we can have a conversation. Please let me know when and if you’re willing to stop fighting me on this, because I’m not going to have another argument with you about the subject.”
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Q. Children and grandchildren: When I was in college, I had a brief affair with a married woman. A decade later, I found out I had fathered a child with her. This almost broke up my marriage. That child, who I’ve never been close to, has had an unfortunate life. As a result of poor parenting by his mother, her husband, and later her second husband, he was allowed to drop out of high school. He is in poor health and has been unable to work physically demanding jobs. He hasn’t finished high school, even with my financial support for education. He has lived a poverty/social services life.
Now his unemployed girlfriend is pregnant. I am so upset. They’re bringing a new life into the world when they’ve never worked at more than minimum wage, they aren’t married, they’re uneducated (my wife and I have graduate degrees, and our kids are high-IQ), his health is poor, and so on. I don’t know how to explain to my wife or young kids that there will be a new family member. I am truly ashamed of this part of my life, but this isn’t just about me—I don’t want them serving as role models for our kids. And most of all, I’m concerned about the life of poverty this nascent family is setting themselves up for. A lot to unpack here, I know, but I’d appreciate your thoughts.
A: I’m curious if some of your powerfully disapproving response has anything to do with your own regret over your past. You say that you’re ashamed about this part of your past, but it doesn’t sound like the shame has to do with your affair and being in the kind of position where you would not know if you fathered a child with someone you were having possibly child-producing sex with. It sounds like the shame has more to do with being associated with the wrong kind of people—people without high IQs, people without a lot of money, people without good health.
Your son has had a difficult life for many reasons, and you were not in a position to help or guide him. That doesn’t mean you have to spend the rest of your life wearing a hair shirt, but your letter carries a lot of implicit judgment of your child’s mother and her two husbands, yet you yourself were not present in his life in any meaningful way. I don’t think you have to worry about your own children seeing their half-sibling have a child of his own and thinking, “I really want to emulate his life,” so your concern about a “bad example” is misplaced. The right to have children is not exclusive to the wealthy, the able-bodied, or the stylishly educated. Ask your son if there is anything you can do to help him welcome this new life into the world. As for the rest, I think it will be helpful to talk with a therapist (or a journal), and keep it to yourself.
Q. Not carrying on the family name: I had a hysterectomy in my early 20s, almost a decade ago. I have made peace with this. My sister routinely brings this up in arguments or when she needs to curry favor with our parents. She talks about how she is going to be the one to give them grandchildren, or carry on the family name, whenever we disagree on something and she wants them to take her side. My parents generally don’t fall for this, but they don’t tell her to stop either. They claim I’m oversensitive. To be clear, she is absolutely not joking and legitimately thinks this is a fair argument. How can I address this matter with my sister and parents?
A: “We’re not talking about the possibility of future grandchildren, we’re talking about [the issue at hand]. Please don’t use the fact that I’ve had a hysterectomy against me when we’re arguing about something wholly unconnected. It’s unnecessary and unkind.”
Q. Workplace sharing about suicide attempts: I have a work friend who recently attempted suicide. He’s in treatment and says he’s doing much better, which is fantastic. However, for over a month now, he’s been posting multiple times a day on social media with things related to his suicide attempt and the plans he’d had for other attempts, things like “I was going to wait to do it until after I saw this band, but the treatment is working and seeing them was still great!” Today I noticed he’d added a long comment in our off-topic chat channel at work, inviting people to ask him about the attempt if they wanted to understand suicidal ideation in light of a recent celebrity death.
I think his intentions are good, but especially in the professional context, I found the post inappropriate and it made me uncomfortable. Am I wrong? Is there anything I can or should say to him, or to HR, about my discomfort? The fact that he’s still talking about it as much as he is makes me a little concerned that the treatment isn’t going as well as he says. I also can’t shake the hunch that some of it is attention-seeking.
A: When it comes to the posts he makes on social media, if you’re not required to follow him for work, I think your best option is simply to check his account less often, or mute him if necessary. The comment in your off-topic but still work-related chat channel falls into a different category, but the rest of it seems like something where the best solution is for you to simply focus on your own work, and make sure that you’re kind and supportive when you see him in person. When he says things like, “I’m glad I’m alive and able to see this band,” even though it makes you uncomfortable, I think he’s trying to express gratitude that he’s been able to receive treatment and support after a very recent suicide attempt. I don’t think he’s being unnecessarily dramatic, or trying to disrupt your work relationship. It’s only been a month, and if the most he’s said in a (sort of) work-related channel is that he’s available to talk about suicidal ideation in light of some recent high-profile news, then I don’t think you have cause to speak to him or to HR.
Q: Re: No snip, no sex!: A no sex embargo isn’t the answer: It’s time your hubby stepped up to birth control being his responsibility as well. And if he hates condoms and won’t even discuss vasectomy, well, there is plenty of fun to have in the bedroom without intercourse. After one planned child, and after having dealt with birth control for the more than 15 years we’d spent together, I told my hubby the ball was in his court. It took him years to decide he hated condoms enough to have a vasectomy, and I never pressured him after that original declaration. All good now and totally worth it—even he regrets not doing it sooner.
A: I’m glad you two were able to find ways to be intimate that did not put undue pressure on you to provide a certain type of sex given your husband’s reluctance to participate fully in your shared reproductive responsibilities! I hope that’s helpful to the letter writer as well.
Q. Lack of support: I’m friends with a group of moms who meet weekly and share a group text. I recently shared with this group that I have been having regular panic attacks, but I am finding that there is support for everyone here but me. For instance, one of the ladies is having fertility struggles, and people will text in the group asking about how appointments went, etc. Similar things happen for everyone else, even for more small things like being nervous about traveling alone with kids. I participate in checking up and cheering for accomplishments—I genuinely care about their lives and their struggles. I also feel like I am always the first to offer physical support—babysitting, rides, etc. But recently, after having shared a few things that have been difficult to disclose, I am still not receiving anything from anyone. I feel really isolated. I have gone back through our texts, and not once does anyone ask me about how I’m doing.
What should I do? I almost feel as though I’m being unreasonable or paranoid, thinking maybe no one likes me but everyone is unwilling to say so. Am I alone here? Do they all just not want to talk to me?
A: I’m so sorry that you’ve been feeling alone and unsupported in this. If you’ve only ever spoken about your panic attacks in a group text thread, I think it’s worth checking in with your friends individually, in person or over the phone, to let them know you could really use their support. Hopefully their lack of response in the group chat had more to do with not being sure of what the “right” thing to say is about dealing with panic attacks rather than a lack of interest in your well-being. You might even bring it up at the weekly meeting and say, “I’m having a really hard time with this, and I would love it we could check in about this more regularly. I could use your support.”
Q. Lonely husband: My wife and I have been together for 14 years, married for 10, and we have two young children. The first few years I couldn’t keep her off of me, but as our relationship aged, she changed and was less and less affectionate. I can understand that—it happens to most relationships. I try my best to show her affection, but I always feel that she would rather me not give her attention. I’m not saying I’m the perfect husband, but I do my fair share around the house. I do all of the yardwork, the cleaning and laundry, and 90 percent of the cooking. I help with the kids. I work about 50 hours a week while my wife works about 35 hours. I truly don’t ask for much other than her love and affection. I give her back massages weekly and rub her feet when she asks. The only time she is even interested in me is after she gets a massage.
I’m starting to feel used, like I’m truly not good enough for her. I have brought this to her attention, and she says she is sorry and will work on it, but after a few days she is back to her old ways. I’m not asking for us to be like we were when were younger, but I would like her to try to really show that she loves me in all the ways I try to show her. Am I wasting my time? Why can’t she want me like I want her?
A: I think the conversation you two need to have at this point should be about why she’s feeling so physically distant, rather than trying to extract or furnish promises about how she’ll touch you in the future. It doesn’t sound like she’s feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and underappreciated around the house, although I’m not surprised that with two young children you’re having trouble connecting right now. But this doesn’t appear to be solely, or even primarily, about sex as much as it is about nonsexual physical intimacy and being touched with affection. I can’t promise you that if you two have a frank, open conversation about what you want from one another and what you’re avoiding that you’re going to immediately get the old physical nature of your relationship back. But I do think it will go a long way toward making a change if you ask her, “I know I’ve talked to you about how much I miss the affectionate, tactile nature of our relationship. You’ve said you’re sorry and that you want to do things differently, but I don’t want this to be a one-sided conversation. I want to know and understand what’s going on with you. Have you noticed this change too? Is there something going on that you feel like you can’t talk to me about? If you’ve been holding something back because you’re worried about my reaction, I want you to feel like you can tell me about it, in part because it already seems clear that there’s something going on, so at least the cat is out of the bag there. I’d love to understand what you’re thinking and feeling, because I want to get through this together—not trying to guess what the other one wants.”
Q. Bringing up a pre-transition past: I went to an all-girls high school. One of my classmates has since transitioned to male. When we were in school together, he was a very charismatic person who was involved in a lot of activities. We have a reunion coming up and naturally there will be a lot of reminiscing and probably picture sharing via social media as well as at the event. My question is how can I share our positive memories from the time prior to his transition in a way that honors who he is now? He’s an integral part of a lot of our memories of that time in our life, but I don’t want to post pictures that he may find painful or glaringly inconsistent with his true identity. We are not close enough for me to feel comfortable asking him directly out of the blue. Regardless, the school will no doubt have photos of their own, and they’re not the most progressive institution. Is there a good way to demonstrate support or to proactively ensure he is included in the reminiscing in a loving and sensitive way?
A: I know you say you’re not especially close with your former classmate, but if you’re planning on seeing one another at the reunion, I don’t think it’s out of line to get in touch and ask if he has any preferences. This can be the sort of situation where an individual’s mileage may vary widely! If he’s not planning on attending the reunion, then your best bet may be simply to avoid posting pictures that he’s in, but if he’s said anything on social media or to mutual friends about wanting to go and catch up, then I think it’s fairly safe to get in touch, tell him how much you’re looking forward to getting together and how highly you thought of him in school, and to ask if he has any particular preferences when it comes to talking about (or sharing pictures of) the past. If he doesn’t respond, then don’t press further or try to get in touch with the school on his behalf.
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Thanks for the help, everyone! I’ll see you next week.
Vintage Dear Prudence
I have been with my husband for 10 years, but we have always been mismatched sexually. We have a good life together, I love him, and want to stay together both for his sake and our child’s. However, I need more than half-hearted sex once a year, after begging and prancing around in expensive lingerie for months. I have talked about this with my husband probably every year since we got together; I’ve cried, asked for counseling, tried to do what he wants, but I get nothing. There’s very little physical affection in our relationship, and I have to believe that this is all he’s capable of. This past summer, it became clear that a good friend and I have serious chemistry. He is in a similar situation at home, and we have discussed the idea of a mutually beneficial, strictly sexual relationship. It would allow us both some relief. I considered discussing this with my husband, but I think he would react badly. I have no desire to remain celibate for the rest of my life, which seems to be what my husband wants. This seems like a reasonable solution. It gives me hope. I realize there’s a possibility of harming those I love, but I believe it is minimal. Am I crazy?
And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.
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