Dear Prudence

My Abusive Ex Emailed Me to Ask How I’m Handling Quarantine

I’m not sure if I should respond.

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

In 2014 I went through a really terrible divorce with an abusive man I had been with for 10 years (I’m a straight woman). My brother had to travel a great distance to help me move while my ex was away. Once I was safely out of the house, I blocked his phone number, email address, and social media accounts; the only contact we had was through mediators during the divorce. It was very difficult, but I’ve made a wonderful new life for myself. I’m proud of my career, and I own a home with a kind, respectful man who treats me the way I deserve. We’ve been following our state’s stay-at-home orders and feeling mostly OK about it—until last week, when I got an email from my ex, under a new email address. When I saw his name in my inbox, my blood ran cold.

He asked how I was doing, how my state was handling the outbreak, and what my job was like. He said that since I am “super tough” I “probably have things handled.” I’ve gotten several emails from other people checking in for the first time in a while, but none stuck with me like this. I know I could delete the email and block him again or respond very briefly without giving any identifying details. Or I could send an email letting him know that despite his best efforts, I’m living well and happier than I’ve ever been. I’m inclined to respond to every form of contact I have received during the outbreak. I think it’s not uncommon for people to reach out to those they haven’t spoken to in some time during this period. In most circumstances, this person does not deserve my attention, but in this uncertain time I feel like kindness is more important than ever. What do you think?

—“Just Thinking of You … ”

I understand the temptation to respond to your ex with kindness. But think of it this way: Your ex did not reach out to you because he wanted to offer an apology for his abuse or in a spirit of remorse and amends. He ignored it entirely and invited you into a conversation that would require you to do the same. I do not think denying reality is a necessary component of kindness. For your ex to experience real kindness from anyone, but you in particular, truth and accountability and a commitment to safety would have to come first. I think the best move is to block his email address—perhaps setting up a filter so that if he does make other attempts to contact you in the future, you can keep those messages in a separate folder that a friend can monitor for you. I’m torn as to whether it would be a good idea to send a brief response before you do, something along the lines of “Do not contact me again; I am blocking your email address,” but he may take that as justification to escalate.

The most important point is this: What’s necessary for him to lead a safe, useful, potentially good life is distance from his former victims. It is not unkind to maintain distance from the man who abused you. It is an act of profound kindness and respect toward yourself.

Help! A Former Friend Is Lying to Solicit Money for Her Nonprofit.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Jack Doyle on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a 29-year-old gay man and have been casually seeing a guy who is about 30 years older than me. We met on a dating app and found out we had a ton in common and even went to some of the same schools (although, obviously, 30 years apart). We’ve been dating for about six months now, although we haven’t seen much of one another lately, as we’re following social-distancing protocols in different places. We still talk every day or so. I really like spending time with him, but we haven’t yet had a conversation about what a long-term relationship between us might look like. Not long ago, his mother died unexpectedly, and he went back home to handle the funeral arrangements.

I’m heartbroken for him and want to be as supportive as I can, but I’m not sure of my place here. I don’t want to cause him any more stress, but I’m also not able to be physically present with him, since I’m starting a new job next week and our city is experiencing a new influx in COVID cases and deaths. I shouldn’t be traveling right now, much less attending a memorial with lots of elderly people. What is the most compassionate thing for me to do here?

—Casually Dating During Bereavement

Part of what’s so painful about social distancing protocols is that it impedes our ability to do so many of the basic ways we care for one another, like offering hugs, sitting with them and talking quietly, and holding their hand during the funeral. I think you’re right in recognizing it’s not possible, not to mention unsafe, for you to travel to be with your sort-of boyfriend right now. The good news is that it doesn’t sound like he’s hurt or upset by that fact—by which I don’t mean that he doesn’t care about you or doesn’t miss you, just that he likely already has a support system in place back home and appreciates the time you two are able to spend together, even if that’s only over the phone right now.

The best you can do right now is to let him know you’re available whenever he wants to talk and tell him that you’re thinking of him often but don’t want to crowd him. It might help to say something like: “I want to be here for you in whatever way I can, but I’m also prepared to give you space if that’s what you need. I miss you, and I wish I could be with you. Please don’t feel any pressure, but if there is something you need from me that I can do from across the country, just let me know.” Be up front about the times of day you won’t be available, since you’re starting a brand-new job, so he knows when he can and can’t expect you to pick the phone. You can save the conversation about your long-term future for once he’s returned home. But your concern and affection are obvious in this letter, and I have no doubt he feels your support.

Dear Prudence,

I feel stupid even writing this. I recently found out that I have a microperforate hymen, so while I menstruate, I’ve never been able to insert a tampon. (I always assumed I was doing something wrong, and was too embarrassed to ask anyone, even my mom.) I know I need to go to a gynecologist and have it fixed, but I’m nervous for a lot of reasons. I’m 30, and I’ve never been to a gynecologist, and I worry that showing up with a microperforate hymen will make it obvious I’ve never been to a gynecologist, when I know I should have gone long ago, as well as making it obvious that I’m a virgin (which is in part because of my microperforate hymen).

I don’t know what to do, and I feel trapped in the weirdest vicious cycle ever. I feel so anxious about this and wish I could fix it myself. I’ve always felt really private about my body. Can you please help me get over this?

—Trapped in the Waiting Room

Shame and self-recrimination are such powerful forces, particularly when it comes to seeking (or avoiding) medical care. Part of what you’ve recognized as a vicious cycle is the desire to blame yourself for your own feelings: I’m ashamed of my body, so I don’t want to see a doctor; I can’t believe I let my shame keep me from seeing a doctor for so long, which is even more shameful, there must really be something wrong with me, and so on. That sort of thing usually isn’t overcome in a day or two or simply by berating yourself until you feel more confident. As I’m sure you know, getting angry at yourself for being afraid or self-conscious doesn’t do much to reduce fear or self-consciousness—you merely end up hating yourself on two different fronts.

It may help to research gynecologists before scheduling an appointment and to look for an office that understands why patients might avoid these exams. You’re far from alone, and there are plenty of doctors who will treat you in a spirit of patience and understanding rather than hostility or intrusiveness. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists has a dedicated page of resources and FAQs for patients that you may find helpful as you prepare for your first visit. Writing down all of your questions and concerns beforehand may help, too, in case you can’t remember everything you wanted to discuss. You can also bring a friend with you, if there’s anyone you trust and feel comfortable bringing along. They can sit by your head during the exam and help you channel your attention.

All that has more to do with the practicalities of getting past that first hurdle rather than dealing with a lifetime of sexual shame, fear, and doubt. That’s a project you can approach from a number of different angles, through reading, therapy, journaling, or support groups, or by seeking out connections with other adult virgins who grapple with stigma, isolation, medical anxiety, and self-recrimination. If nothing else, I hope you know that your fears are understandable, that you can find a doctor who will help you manage a microperforate hymen easily and without condescension, and that you deserve to be treated with respect, patience, and understanding.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From Care and Feeding

My nieces and nephews live with my in-laws (their grandparents), and as a result, my husband and I have become their secondary caretakers. My 13-year-old niece, “Ellie,” has a lot of mental health issues as a result of her early years and a lot of behavioral issues that go along with them, including violence and bullying. But when she’s at our place she’s a sweetheart, as she thrives on the one-on-one attention we’re able to give her.

But one recent behavior is causing us some alarm. She stole an expensive piece of jewelry from her best friend’s house: The jewelry was discovered to be missing on a weekend she slept over, and her best friend discovered it hidden deep in Ellie’s bag. Ellie claimed that it must have fallen in there, but we’re pretty sure it was a lie.

My husband and I have suspected Ellie of stealing from our house before—only small tchotchkes, and we haven’t been able to prove that she stole them, but they have coincidentally disappeared on her weekends with us. And this isn’t the first time she’s been accused of stealing from a friend: Her grandmother previously found an expensive toy in her overnight bag after another sleepover but returned it to the friend’s parents without saying anything to Ellie.

Ellie stayed with us this past weekend, and since she’s a messy and lazy kid (and we were on a time limit) I ended up packing her belongings up before she went home. Unbeknownst to her, I had a quick look through her bags to make sure she hadn’t stolen anything from our house, but immediately felt like a horrible aunt. My husband thinks it was right of me to check, but I can’t shake the feeling that I shouldn’t have second-guessed her. I don’t want to turn a blind eye to things going missing from our house, but I also want to be able to give Ellie the benefit of the doubt. Can I find a balance here?