Dear Prudence

Schrödinger’s Closet

I’m worried my daughter’s boyfriend is gay. How do I tell her?

Girl kissing aloof boyfriend.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

Dear Prudence,
My daughter and her boyfriend are both openly bisexual. We adore him, and their relationship seems to be full of genuine affection. They are each other’s best friends, and I literally saw him step in front of a moving car to pull her to safety. All good, right? Well, he comes from a strict religious tradition. I grew up in this tradition too, so I’m familiar with it, and I know just how insidious the worldview is and how hard it is to throw off. It’s extremely homophobic: The only acceptable life is to be straight, marry, and have children, preferably while young.

Recently, I learned that they’ve never had sex. My daughter’s perfectly willing but he is not. They have been together for three years. We live in a part of the country where a lot of people pay lip service to premarital virginity. You can probably guess my worry. I think my daughter represents a road to a conventional life that he’s always envisioned. I know he wants children. I am petrified that in the future (maybe after marriage and kids) he will realize that he’s not bisexual, he’s gay, and that he has locked himself into a life that isn’t right. I’ve seen this train wreck before and it is devastating for everyone. And here I am, her parent, so everything I might say is loaded like an atomic bomb.
—Train Wreck Incoming

I understand your concerns, but I think this is something your daughter and her boyfriend are going to have to figure out for themselves. You were able to extricate yourself from the same worldview and become (it sounds like) a happy, well-adjusted adult; have some faith in this young man’s ability to do the same. You may not have made the same choices around intimacy that he has, but it’s not your place as his girlfriend’s mother to give him advice concerning his sex life. They’re not yet married—they’re not yet even engaged—so you’re getting pretty far ahead of yourself in assuming it’s only a matter of time before they’ve had several children and he’s leaving her for a man. Trust your daughter and her boyfriend to make their own decisions, even their own mistakes, and take the evidence you’ve seen that they love one another at face value. If you find that these anxieties become overwhelming, I recommend seeing a therapist who can help you deal with them without trying to control and manage your daughter’s sex life.

Dear Prudence,
A month ago, my estranged younger brother texted me to say he was separating from his wife, V, and needed a place to stay while he got his finances sorted out. Our parents live elsewhere, so I’m the only one he could turn to. I said of course and didn’t ask any questions. We stopped speaking a few years ago because of V’s behavior and her possessive nature. She’s cold and distant, and she would forbid him from attending any and all family events. I advised him to leave her, it didn’t go over well, and we hadn’t really spoken since.

Because of this history, I haven’t asked him why the relationship ended. I think he might worry that I’m trying to say, “I told you so.” He’s been avoiding me, coming home long after I’m asleep, and rushing out the door every morning. I can understand that he wants to keep his distance, but I’m worried. This was my brother’s first relationship, and V was his whole world. I’m sure he’s devastated and needs to talk. V pressured him into ending his friendships, and he doesn’t have much of a support system. How can I get him to open up to me, or at the very least, seek out a therapist?

Also, he’s currently sleeping in the spare room—which I need to start converting into a nursery. I’m four months along so we have time yet but how long do I give him? How do I gently press on how long he plans to stay here or if he needs help with money? I don’t want him to think I want to kick him out. If I weren’t pregnant and feeling the urge to nest, I wouldn’t be in such a rush.
—Would-Be Fence Mender

The first thing to do is to let your brother know you’re available if he wants to talk, and that he can rely on you to listen and be open-minded and nonjudgmental. “I know we haven’t spoken in a long time, and I’m so sorry for my part in that. I’ve missed you. I don’t know the details of your breakup, but I know this can’t be easy for you. If you ever want to talk about what happened or what you’re thinking about now, I would love for you to consider me a possible confidante. I know we’ve disagreed about your relationship in the past, but please know that I’m just here to listen and to help in any way I can. I also won’t pressure you to talk about this if you’re not ready.” Make sure he knows that, whatever he wants to share with you, his place in your home is not contingent on revealing the details of what appears to have been a damaging, isolating, possibly abusive marriage. Be clear about your timeline for converting the spare room into a nursery sometime in the next five months, keep him involved in your plans, and let him know you’re here for him over the long run, not just in the immediate aftermath of his breakup. I’m sure your support means a great deal to him, and I hope you’re able to reconnect with one another with some time and honest conversation.

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Dear Prudence,
How can I help a college-age relative understand that before he self-publishes another book—he currently has four—he desperately needs to have the manuscripts proofread and edited by someone with high-level grammar skills? The writing is cringeworthy. The theme of the books is notable, but you cannot get through to the theme because you cannot get past the incorrect punctuation, misused words, etc. The books are available for purchase online and other relatives have seen them. We are all proud of what he is doing, but not how he is doing it. I tried sending him an email in which I mentioned that such notable writers as Ernest Hemingway and Tom Wolfe thought it wise to be guided by an editor. My words might as well have been struck with a sharp red pencil.

I have a bachelor’s in journalism and have worked as a newspaper reporter, which he well knows, along with decades spent in the business world. One thing that a journalism professor said to our class was, “Don’t fall in love with your words.” I understand that it is hard to edit yourself. Once you have crafted what you just know is the most superb set of words in the English language, how could you or anyone else find a reason to cut them down or alter them in any way? I tried providing links to online proofreading and editing sites, but I think I might have offended him. I also offered to proofread future manuscripts. His only response was to ask when I plan to buy his most recent book. Do you have any suggestions as to how to help him help himself?
—A Cringing Aunt

I think you should take your nephew’s advice and stop giving him advice. He’s made it clear that it’s not welcome and that he won’t follow any of it. You’ve offered him examples of famous writers who worked with editors, provided free resources to help him seek out proofreaders, and offered your own services, all to no avail; I don’t think there’s another way you can frame your suggestion such that he’ll take it. Accept that your nephew is likely to continue self-publishing embarrassing books for the immediate future, and that it’s not your job to dissuade him from so doing, nor to encourage him. Adopt an attitude of peaceful nonengagement and focus your energies on more productive avenues, and feel free not to buy the fifth book.

Dear Prudence,
I have a friend who has been a good confidant since I was in my early 20s. I have been attracted to them in the past, but more in an intellectual than a physical way. This mostly manifested in sexual dreams when I was not satisfied sexually in my waking life. This friend is not physically affectionate with anyone. Not to sound childish, but I think they smell bad—not in terms of hygiene but, I guess, pheromones. But I think I’m in love with them. My partner and I are going through a rough patch, so I think that’s why this attraction is spiking right now. My friend also has a partner, but I feel like the two of us have a better rapport than the two of them do, which can make things awkward on a level I can’t explain. I don’t feel jealousy though. The four of us are friends.

How do I navigate this? We don’t live in the same place, so I don’t see them super often, but for a while we would email daily. We’ve never even really flirted, but I feel intensely for them and want to “be with” them—but I don’t want to touch them. Am I feeling so uncomfortable because intense feelings of love are assumed to be coupled with sexuality by society? I don’t have a box to put these feelings in.
—In Love but Not Like That

I’m not quite sure what you’re trying to navigate, so it’s a little tricky for me to offer specific advice. I’d encourage you to re-examine your own motivations and intentions here. What’s the nature of this rough patch with your current partner, and do you think it’s possible you’re halfheartedly fantasizing about “being with” your friend in order to avoid focusing on whether you want to stay in your relationship? In what ways would you want to “be with” your friend if you’re not interested in touching them? How do you imagine that conversation would go over if you were to broach the subject? It’s certainly possible to experience romantic feelings that aren’t coupled with sexual attraction, but I’m not convinced you’ve been thoroughly honest with yourself in this situation yet. You feel awkward in a way you “can’t explain” when you’re around your friend and their partner, but don’t believe you’re feeling jealous. Why are you so certain this isn’t jealousy? If you don’t see them very often and have never flirted, do you have any reason to believe they reciprocate your half-articulated feelings? It seems like you have a habit of mentally using this friend as an escape valve or potential exit strategy when things aren’t going the way you want them to in your personal life, and I worry that if you were to approach them now with your desires, it would be clear you were instrumentalizing them, rather than acknowledging a mutually obvious dynamic. Spend some time answering the question “Do I want to stay with my current partner, and if so, what do I want to change about our relationship?” before asking, “Do I want to see if my long-distance friend is interested in possibly leaving their own partner in order to start a romantically charged but likely sexless relationship with me?”

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I feel like there is some unacknowledged contempt in this letter!”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been dating for almost two years and moved in together about six months ago. While he’s a wonderful, charismatic person, he also has a drinking problem defined by daily binge drinking. The majority of our relationship before he moved in was long-distance, and while I was aware of the drinking issue, I was unprepared for the day-to-day challenges of alcoholism. A year ago, he found out that I had been unfaithful, and after some time apart, we decided to try to make it work. In that time, I’ve dedicated myself to making it up to him by cutting off friends, coming out as gay, introducing him to my family, moving him in, and doing everything I can to redeem myself. However, during our first few weeks and months living together, he still seemed distant, resentful, and uninterested in me. Small things, like mentioning a conversation with a co-worker or meeting with a friend, sent him into a jealous rage. Eventually, I started reporting every move I made to him throughout the day to build trust—but despite brief stints of contentment, we always ended up clashing again. This happened so frequently that we were asked to leave a rental property in my name, barely escaping an eviction. We moved again, and we both have great careers and I was confident that we could still make it work. But he treated me as a roommate with benefits—I would ask for a kiss or a hug or encouragement after a stressful day only to be blown off, repeatedly.

After silently dealing with his suspicion and indifference for months, I confronted him, but he told me I was being dramatic. A year after we got back together, he still views me with contempt—although he has admitted his own indiscretions since then. He won’t listen to anyone about his destructive drinking. He says he loves me but still can’t trust me. I’ve left our home—but he insists I come back daily so he can sleep better at night. Yet when I’m there, his attitude toward me remains the same. I want to get out of this cycle, but I fear I’m in too deep to see the situation clearly.
—Drunk in Love

You’ve already taken the first step toward leaving him—and you should leave him—in acknowledging that your sense of what’s normal, safe, and loving has been warped by your boyfriend’s controlling, abusive behavior, that you’re “in too deep” to recognize just how badly he treats you. But you wrote to me, and you know on some level that things are worse than you want to admit, and that’s heartening. If no one has ever told you this, I hope you can hear it now: Reporting every single move you make throughout the day to your partner does not “rebuild trust.” His demand that he be able to monitor you 24/7 has nothing to do with trust and everything to do with isolation and control. Every time you attempt to leave so that you don’t have to exist under an icy, suspicious eye, he forces you to return so that he can get to sleep—treating you less like a partner in a relationship of equals and more like a combination scapegoat-emotional punching bag–sleep aid. He’s forced you into a situation where it’s your fault that he’s unhappy (“I don’t kiss you or hug you or talk to you because a year ago you cheated on me”) and therefore it’s your obligation to do whatever he wants to feel better. (“You can’t leave because you’re the instrument of my suffering; it’s your responsibility to fix me.”) Please contact a family member or former friend, tell them what you’ve told me, and ask them for help as you make a plan to leave him. You may find Al-Anon helpful too, given that trying to manage your boyfriend’s alcoholism has been a problem for you; you’ll meet other people there who have been able to build happy, meaningful lives without feeling like it’s their job to fix someone else’s drinking. The only way out of this cycle is to get out of this relationship, and you’re going to need all the help and support you can get after he’s successfully cut you off from your friends and moved you away.

Dear Prudence,
My mom and I are very close and have been most of my life. If she witnesses something awful like an animal being hurt or killed, she tends to give all the details. A few years ago, I started dealing with my anxiety. I suffer from intrusive thoughts and images, and I’ve realized a number of these images come from her descriptions of what she’s witnessed. Over the last year, if she’s started to describe something awful, I ask her to stop and say I can’t hear it. Sometimes she takes this in stride and sometimes she gets upset, but it always stops the conversation. I feel bad because I know this must be a way for her to process what she saw, but I cannot take it. I know her boyfriend also asks her to stop when she does this, so I know she doesn’t have someone else to talk to about it. But I just can’t take the visuals—it makes me so upset. Is there a better way I should be handling this? Am I in the wrong and should I just find a better way to deal with my anxiety about these things?
—Anxious Listener

Saying, “I can’t hear this. Please, let’s talk about something else” is a completely appropriate way of handling the situation, and I don’t think you need to change that. I’m not sure how often your mother witnesses particularly gruesome animal deaths, but if it’s very important for her to work out her feelings around these awful scenes, she can write them down in a journal, see a therapist, talk to a friend or anyone else in her life besides the two people who have asked her to stop, or attend a peer-support group. If your mother periodically gets upset about your request, that’s a shame, but it’s not a sign that you’ve done something wrong or are asking her for something unreasonable. This is exactly the sort of conversational limit you should be setting as you seek for ways to manage your anxiety symptoms, and you should commend yourself for holding firm. It’s not your job to help your mother process every painful thing she witnesses, and you shouldn’t feel guilty for not being available to hear the gory details, especially when you suffer from intrusive thoughts that make it much more difficult for you to walk away from these conversations feeling equipped to handle the rest of your day.

Classic Prudie

“My son is a high school freshman, and we live in a nice neighborhood near several boys his age he’s known since first grade. The other boys are all athletes; my son is not athletic or cool. Last year a group of the boys decided to create a haunted trail for the young kids to visit on Halloween. My son asked if he could help, but the other boys said there were too many people involved already. My son was crushed.”