Dear Prudence

I Told My Partner About My Sexual Assault. He Told Me to “Get Over It.”

Prudie’s column for Oct. 11.

A woman curled up in an armchair, with the Supreme Court building in the background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Dmitry Schemelev on Unsplash and Claire Anderson on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
My partner and I (we’re engaged but not married) are both middle-aged and divorced from our first spouses, with teenage children. As is the case for many women, these past few weeks have brought back memories of an assault I experienced as a teenager. While mine wasn’t as traumatic as some, it was traumatic enough. I never told anyone at the time and just recently started sharing my memories with others, including my partner. I’ve been very upset and angry about the Kavanaugh nomination, and what he is alleged to have done reminds me of what I experienced, as we are around the same age and grew up in the same kind of atmosphere. My partner, who is otherwise a good and decent man, reacted to my anger by saying I needed to get over it and stop talking about it. Then he suggested that I might need some therapy. Then he basically said that he had a history of trying to help “troubled” women and he couldn’t fall into that pattern again. For the record, I am not “troubled.” I am a pretty well-adjusted person with a good job, no substance abuse or anger issues, and two wonderful children, and most people would describe me as pretty level-headed. I’m thinking this might be a deal breaker.
—Am I Overreacting?

It’s one thing to recommend therapy to a partner in addition to being supportive and available to listen to them. It’s quite another to say, “You either need to shut up about this or find a therapist, because I don’t care.” It’s also pretty wild that he would tell you that you need to stop talking about your assault, given that you’ve kept it bottled up for decades and have only recently been able to share it with a few people you thought you could trust. If he equates talking about your sexual assault with being “troubled,” and thinks the fact that you want to talk about your experience is a sign that you’re about to enter into a pattern he “can’t fall into” again, then I think he’s giving you a pretty clear sign of what you can expect if you stay with him. He may have been good and decent in the past, but if he’s not capable of listening, empathy, love, or support when you want to talk about something like sexual trauma, then his goodness and decency have no real foundation. I’m so sorry that he’s revealed his character during a time when you’re already under extreme stress. You’re right to consider this a deal breaker, and you deserve better.

Dear Prudence,
I recently finished grad school and found a great job. I did well in school but also suffered from long-term verbal abuse and bullying by a faculty member who seemed to dislike my independence. We had to interact on a weekly basis for more than a year, which took a toll on my mental health. I had night terrors, anxiety attacks, and episodes of depression. I’m glad to be on the other side of it, and my job has a very welcoming environment, but I struggle to discuss my school experience in a neutral way. It comes up frequently because I’m still new in my field. How do I make “normal” conversation without either oversharing or throwing myself back into an anxiety attack?
—The Cost of Education

If it’s someone you don’t know very well but might have to interact with regularly and you’d like to keep the conversation moving, something nondescript that gestures broadly in the direction of truth might work best, like “I had trouble finding a good adviser, which often made life difficult, but I’m proud of the work I did there,” before moving on. It helps that you like your job now, because it’ll be easy to change the subject to how welcoming the environment is or how much you appreciate your current supervisor. When it comes to co-workers you’re getting to know better, you don’t have to be quite so vague: “One of the biggest challenges in graduating was dealing with a faculty member who went out of their way to try to punish and berate me for being independent. It took a real toll on me to have to deal with them every week.” If you have a supervisor you’ll be meeting with regularly and you’re at all concerned that some of these feelings might resurface during even a pleasant and professional check-in session, it may help to disclose a condensed version of your experience so that the two of you can find productive ways to communicate with one another that take your history into account. I don’t know if you’ve been able to see a therapist about the effects that relationship has had on your mental health, but if you’ve got the time and the money to see one, it may help to know you have a nonprofessional outlet for talking about this too.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband went into therapy to deal with some longstanding issues and rapidly became severely depressed. He stuck with therapy but refused medication. I felt alone, isolated, and helpless. Of course, our sex life vanished. He encouraged me to follow my own hobbies, as he wasn’t really up to social engagement. So I did. And in one group, I ran into “Max,” who I also work with. We ended up spending time together, and then one weekend when my husband was away on business, I slept with him. It happened again a few weeks later, again when my husband was away. I appreciated the intimacy, but I have no desire to be with Max.

Fast forward to now, a month later. Max has just told me he has herpes. I went to the doctor and got tested, and I have it too. Max is the only person I’ve ever slept with other than my husband, so I definitely got it from him. I was devastated and broke down at the doctor’s office. I felt I had to tell my husband about the STI. The doctor said I didn’t have to, as many people have it, and it is frequently symptomless, so he might never know. I don’t know what to do. Should I tell him and risk a divorce? Can I keep it to myself?
—Friends With Consequences

My guess is that you appreciated that Max called you and told you about his diagnosis rather than hoping you never developed symptoms. I think you should extend the same courage, honesty, and compassion toward your husband and tell him, even as you fear that he will be hurt and angry, or that he may want to file for divorce. It is true that you do not have to, that your doctor will not break confidentiality, and that Max seems unlikely to try to tell your husband. If you keep this a secret, your husband might never develop symptoms and therefore never know. And yet you would, I think, feel anxious and guilty and afraid that he might be on the verge of developing symptoms and asking questions, and that might damage your relationship more in the long run.

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been with my boyfriend for a little over a year. We’re really good about resolving disagreements fairly and without judgment. Except for one thing. About four months ago I decided to start fostering at-risk kittens. My boyfriend is allergic to cats. We discussed it for several months until one day I ended up with five fosters in my household. I have made every effort to clean (and hired professionals to help deep-clean), but obviously if you’re allergic to pet dander, there is only so much you can do. He’s actually helped a lot with them, so I don’t blame him for hitting a breaking point. But I’m reluctant to push them away, because I made a commitment to care for them until they’re adopted. He takes this to mean I’m trying to weasel my way out of giving them up, which is not the case at all. I just don’t see the point in promising to care for something and then giving up halfway through. We’ve got two adopted out so far, so I don’t quite understand his logic and he doesn’t understand mine.
—Boyfriend Versus Cats

I don’t think this is so much a matter of logic as it is of physical reality: Your boyfriend is allergic to cats. He has compromised as much as he can, but after an extended time with multiple cats in the house, he’s no longer able to do so without risking his health. It sounds like you live together, so it’s not like he can just avoid your home until the rest of the kittens are gone. As long as the kittens are being cared for by someone attentive and loving, they are not going to experience any long-term harm just because that particular caregiver isn’t you. Since you were only ever planning on caring for them until they were adopted by someone else, I don’t think there’s any reason for you to insist on keeping them in the house for the next few weeks or months until a permanent home can be found for them. Saying “I didn’t accurately take into account the seriousness of my boyfriend’s allergy before I agreed to foster these cats, and I’m afraid it won’t be possible for me to continue fostering them, but I’d be happy to help try to find replacements, and I’m sorry for the inconvenience” is not giving up; it’s acknowledging reality. In the future, try to find ways to help cats that don’t involve bringing them into the home you share with your boyfriend, who sounds like he has been more than gracious in trying to meet you halfway.

Dear Prudence,
I recently moved in with my boyfriend of a year and a half. We are both in our early 30s and have a ton of fun together. He’s a great person with one big flaw. We were making exactly the same amount of money, but I recently got a promotion that has me making considerably more than him. I noticed he was having trouble making ends meet, so I offered to pay for more of the rent. I thought that would solve the problem, but I just learned that this month’s rent check bounced because he didn’t have enough in his account. I found this out from our landlord because he tried to keep it from me. This is the second time something like this has happened. I feel like I’m being lied to and I can’t trust him with money matters. I’ve asked him several times to be more transparent about money, but the financial shadiness persists. I want to work through this. Any advice?
—Boyfriend’s Money Management

You are being lied to, and you can’t trust your boyfriend with money matters. You’ve tried giving him money, and that didn’t work. You’ve tried asking him to be honest with you about his budget, and that didn’t work. You’ve repeated the request several times, and that hasn’t worked either. You cannot work through a problem you’re having with your boyfriend without your boyfriend’s participation, and you don’t have that. If on the one hand you have a lot of fun together, and on the other hand within the first few months of living together he’s revealed himself to be not only financially insolvent but willing to risk your living situation by letting your rent check bounce without telling you, then continued to lie to you afterwards, I think you should appreciate the year and a half of fun you got to have with him, start looking for another place to live, and don’t throw more good money after bad.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“This is why we move in together! This is the exact thing you want to find out.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I recently moved back to our small hometown. I’m going back to school for my master’s degree, we recently bought a house, and he has a fulfilling job that he loves. We had a small wedding we mostly paid for ourselves, and it was amazing. My mom bought our simple rings, and we paid her back. I love my ring, but back in my hometown, apparently everyone can afford big diamonds. My husband wanted to buy a ring like that, but when we priced it at the jeweler, I said no. A friend of mine recently shared that she and others buy fake rings. I wouldn’t care, except I have had people ask if “that” was my wedding ring. I know I shouldn’t care, but I do—enough to feel the need to write to you. A big diamond ring doesn’t mean anything, but I feel like it does now in my social and professional life here.
—Does Size Matter?

I’m not normally one for the “they’re just jealous!” redirect (sometimes they are not just jealous!), but I do think if a significant part of your hometown’s population buys fake diamond rings and keeps it a sort of secret, seeing a couple who is more interested in their marriage than in their wedding, is clearly happily in love, and gets by just fine with simple wedding bands, there’s at least some reason to believe they’re mostly feeling insecure about their own choices when faced with yours. I think the best response to “Is that your wedding ring?” is a cheerful, “Yes! We wanted to find something simple so that we could save our money to buy a house. Is that yours? It’s lovely.”

Classic Prudie

“Three months ago, the woman who was having an affair with my husband died suddenly. I found out about the affair only two days after her funeral. I thought she was simply a co-worker and I was wondering why my husband was so disturbed and emotional. He quit his job, saying it was too traumatic to go to work. She was in the early weeks of pregnancy when she died and my husband doesn’t know whether he or her husband was the father. So, on top of everything, he’s also grieving for a baby which may or may not have been his. I find it extremely difficult to be emotionally supportive when he wakes up at 3 a.m. crying and trembling—yet I don’t have the heart to yell at him like I want to. He says she’s dead, so there’s no reason for me to feel jealous or threatened, and asks for my understanding as he grieves. We’ve barely talked these last weeks because I don’t know how to respond to my husband when he cries and says he misses her and wishes she were here, then also how much he loves me and that he never intended to leave me. Do I need to give him time to mourn the loss of his mistress?”