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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. It’s just text: I’m a married man, and I have been sexting with my wife’s aunt for about a year now. We have never sent pictures or done any type of video chat—it’s all been hot and heavy texts. She wants to start video chatting, but I am totally against it. I feel like texting is not cheating because it’s just text and not sex. But as soon as pictures and videos and live sessions start, then I am cheating on my wife.
My question for you is, am I already cheating just by texting? I’m sure my wife would think so, but in my heart of hearts I disagree, yet I do think videos and live sessions would be crossing the line. Have I crossed that line already? Should I just do it?
A: You are very much cheating on your wife. With her aunt. And there are reams of written evidence to that effect. You have definitely crossed that line, and you’ve crossed it in a monumentally unwise fashion. I’m not sure what good you think it will do to disagree in your “heart of hearts]” when—not if—your wife finds out. But I don’t say that in order to bolster your desire for an excuse to find an “oh, fuck it” moment and just go for it. Your response to “Yes, you’ve been betraying your wife in a deeply intimate and brutal fashion that will absolutely break her heart” should not be “Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound, might as well see if I can get some nudes out of it,” but instead, “How can I try to rearrange my ethical commitments and stop cheating on my wife with one of her relatives?”
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Q. My boyfriend doesn’t understand: I divorced my husband who cheated on me. Previously, I’d basically trusted that man with my life, followed his every word, and even essentially isolated myself from friends because he’d become jealous if I spoke to anyone. I told my current boyfriend these things and now whenever we argue he asks, “Why can’t you just agree with me like you did with your ex?” He doesn’t seem to understand why that’s hurtful. He doesn’t seem to understand that I’m trying to not live out the same mistakes—he only sees it as me treating him more badly than I treated a person who did me wrong. What can I do?
A: You can break up with him. If your current boyfriend has heard about your jealous, controlling, demanding ex who wanted you to base your life around pleasing him, and thinks, “Wow, that sounds great—sign me up for that,” then he’s not someone worth dating. I don’t think it’s a problem of “understanding.” Your boyfriend isn’t confused or naïve, and he doesn’t need someone to patiently explain to him why controlling and isolating your partner until they don’t have any friends and obey your every command is bad. He wants to control and isolate you. He thinks that sounds like a good relationship. It doesn’t. His values and desires are in direct opposition to yours, and you deserve better.
Q. What are you working on? It feels silly to complain about this, but I get very stressed out when people ask me about my job. I don’t mind explaining my general job description when I’m meeting people, but I can’t stand talking about the specifics of exactly what I’m doing with my significant others and friends when they ask about what I’m working on. I know they’re showing interest and that’s a good thing, but it feels like a huge mental exertion to explain my work because then I need to tell them about this other thing for context, and then teach them about this other thing otherwise the first thing is meaningless, and so on. I’m able to talk in detail about my work to people in my industry because they know what I mean when I say, “I did XYZ today.” But with others, it just feels way too stressful to try to provide enough information so they actually understand. It’s a fairly technical job but not rocket science or anything. I’m not trying to say others can’t understand, just that they don’t understand unless I take on (what feels like) the heavy burden of teaching them. I just want to talk about work at work with people who get it, and talk about other things in my off time. What do I do here? My significant other gets frustrated and sad and says they have no idea how I spend my day.
A: I don’t want to discount the technical aspect of your work; if you say it’s difficult to summarize without context, I’ll take you at your word without assuming you’re treating other people with condescension or unnecessary exposition. And since it doesn’t sound like any of your friends have a problem with the way you keep your personal and professional lives pretty separate, you have my permission to continue to avoid talking about work with them. But if it’s causing trouble with your partner, I wonder if there’s room to meet in the middle, since it sounds like he feels shut out of even a general sense of how you spend your day at work. Are there ways to partially summarize your days that don’t necessarily go into technical detail? I’m thinking of things like “Well, once a week we have an all-hands meeting that lasts a few hours where everyone updates our supervisor on the status of our projects” or “Today I mostly researched twistiness for the big Twizzler account” or “Gavin and I had a really long back-and-forth email chain about whether we should futz with the Germinator or leave the current settings in place for another week” or even “I really like working with Gavin because he has a great eye for detail, but sometimes we disagree strongly about Germinator settings—I think he has a tendency to sacrifice accuracy for expediency.”
I agree that it’s reasonable to want to leave work at the office for the most part. But I also think it’s reasonable for your partner to want at least some insight about what you do at least five days a week, and that there’s grounds for compromise here.
Q. Teen love: My daughter had just started a relationship with a boy in her high school at the beginning of the virus. Their relationship has deepened, and since they are in the same grade and share the same classes, they have been allowed to spend time together to work on assignments and have social time together. They are allowed to stay at each other’s houses for a week at a time to keep them away from as much exposure to the virus as possible. I once found them in the same bed and addressed this but was told that they are having “safe” sex. I expressed my discomfort with this, but the boy’s parents and the teens are comfortable with this arrangement. How do I handle this constructively?
A: You’re entitled to set rules in your own home about overnight guests. Even if this boy’s parents are fine with it, if you don’t want to house your daughter’s boyfriend every other week for a week at a time—which is a pretty tall order in terms of food and laundry, without getting into the question of sex!—you don’t have to. Beyond that, I think it’s important to have a conversation with your daughter about what you two can ask and expect from each other. If she’s having safe sex and you don’t approve, you can’t and shouldn’t try to force her to stop, but you can set rules you consider reasonable, like not having him spend the night, or spending all his visits in her bedroom with the door closed. There’s a wide range of reasonable options in between “he can only come over if you two are sitting 3 feet apart and I’m watching you like a hawk” and “let’s give him a spare set of keys and you put a scrunchie on the doorknob if you want me to leave and give you privacy.”
Beyond that, I’d encourage you to prioritize your relationship with your daughter even though you two disagree on the subject of sex. You don’t have to like the fact that she’s sleeping with her boyfriend, but it’s important to make clear a few things: that you care about her no matter what, that while you do have the right as her parent to set house rules it doesn’t mean you want to override her autonomy, and that she can always come to you if she has questions or needs help.
Q. BDSM vs. vanilla: My husband and I are in our 60s and have been married for over 15 years. We are still deeply in love. We got married knowing that he had experimented with and was interested in BDSM, and that I hadn’t and wasn’t. We have had a fulfilling sex life. Once in a rare while, he will initiate bondage play (I will come into the bedroom to find him tied spread-eagle to the bedposts) and we will incorporate that into our lovemaking.
Now he wants to step things up. He wants me to use nipple clamps on him and do other things that must be painful. I know he’s intrigued by electrosex as well. I find those sorts of things cringeworthy. I don’t think I can bring myself to hurt him, which is what he seems to want. I certainly wouldn’t enjoy causing him pain. I know we both value our monogamous relationship greatly, and I want him to enjoy our lovemaking as much as I do. What can we do to solve this dilemma?
A: You have multiple options available to you. One is for your husband to accept that your limits include occasionally participating in bondage but not actively causing him pain because this is not only a turnoff for you but something you find emotionally fraught. Another is for you two to discuss whether occasional pain play (without sexual contact) that he seeks out with others, whether professional or amateur, is something you could incorporate into your otherwise-monogamous arrangement, and if so, what other boundaries or limits you might want to set up in order to safeguard your relationship.
Or you two might schedule a training session (remote or in person, at some later date when it’s safe to do so) with someone who runs kink workshops—not someone who would be interacting with your husband directly but who would walk you through possible tips and techniques so you could get a sense of what kind of pleasure your husband experiences through pain. I want to stress, of course, that this is simply an option, not something you “have” to do in order to say, “No, I’m really uncomfortable with causing you pain, and I don’t want to ‘give it a try.’ ” You have every right not to explore something that alienates you just because your partner enjoys it. But if you think it might help to get a sense of what your husband feels in those moments so you have a real-life counterexample to the mental image of hurting him in the same way that stubbing your toe pointlessly hurts, then you can give that a go. Or you two can schedule a session with a sex therapist, not in the interest of planning or trying anything new but simply so you can dedicate time to discussing your sex life together. The most important thing to bear in mind here is that you can try things you’re not sure about but you absolutely should not force yourself to do something you dislike or find distressing. The fact that you two are deeply in love and have a wonderful, satisfying sex life is wonderful and should count for a lot here. Even if you two simply conclude this is a part of your life that’s simply and unfortunately incompatible, there are still a lot of good things to celebrate.
Q. Can I ask my therapist to be friends? I’m currently in therapy (and not for the first time) with someone whom I really click with. She is very professional and respectful of the fact that my therapy time is valuable and expensive, but we do joke around and have little side chats during sessions. I found myself thinking that if it weren’t for the circumstances, we’d probably be good friends. Maybe she’s just so much of a professional that everyone feels this way, but I’ve never had this thought about any of the mental health professionals I’ve seen before. I’m pretty sure we just clicked as people, which is absolutely wonderful, therapeutically speaking. Would it be a bad idea to ask if she wants to talk socially when we agree we’ve reached my goals for therapy? Or is the inherent power imbalance always going to be a problem? Alternatively, should I just bring it up in therapy and explore it with her?
A: I don’t think you should bring this up in the hopes that your therapist will “explore it” with you in the sense that you two can start planning to become friends at X future date while you work together. That doesn’t mean you can’t acknowledge within your sessions your genuine warmth toward your therapist or your feeling that you two would make good friends in another context—you certainly can! There’s nothing wrong with those feelings, and your therapist should be well-equipped to discuss them. But you shouldn’t expect her to “plan” a friendship with you while also treating you, even if you’re confident you two will reach your goals at some near date. The APA, for example, discusses “multiple relationships” in its ethics code thusly: “A psychologist refrains from entering into a multiple relationship if the multiple relationship could reasonably be expected to impair the psychologist’s objectivity, competence, or effectiveness in performing his or her functions as a psychologist, or otherwise risks exploitation or harm to the person with whom the professional relationship exists.”
The American Counseling Association, while slightly less strict on the matter, has similar guidelines: “Counselors consider the risks and benefits of extending current counseling relationships beyond conventional parameters. Examples include attending a client’s formal ceremony (e.g., a wedding/commitment ceremony or graduation), purchasing a service or product provided by a client (excepting unrestricted bartering), and visiting a client’s ill family member in the hospital. In extending these boundaries, counselors take appropriate professional precautions such as informed consent, consultation, supervision, and documentation to ensure that judgment is not impaired and no harm occurs. … If counselors extend boundaries as described in A.6.a. and A.6.b., they must officially document, prior to the interaction (when feasible), the rationale for such an interaction, the potential benefit, and anticipated consequences for the client or former client and other individuals significantly involved with the client or former client. … When counselors change a role from the original or most recent contracted relationship, they obtain informed consent from the client and explain the client’s right to refuse services related to the change. … Counselors avoid entering into nonprofessional relationships with former clients, their romantic partners, or their family members when the interaction is potentially harmful to the client. This applies to both in-person and electronic interactions or relationships.”
Again, this doesn’t mean that, even if you two stop working together, your therapist is going to have to cross the street if she sees you in public or you’ll have to think of her as a robot. But one of the reasons that close friendships with former clients is discouraged is because this could make it impossible for your therapist to work with you if someday you went through a difficult period and wanted to return to treatment. The connection you experience with her is real; you don’t have to convince yourself you’re imagining things if you feel a moment of camaraderie or shared warmth. And you’re allowed to discuss your feelings in therapy without self-censoring. But it’s important to keep your expectations realistic and to understand that her first priority has to be her professional code of ethics.
Q. Blessed out: The CEO of my (decidedly nonreligious) nonprofit is married to an employee. The employee is lovely, if a bit taciturn; I get the sense she doesn’t want to broadcast that she’s married to the CEO. However, she constantly sends emails that sign off with “Be Blessed.” It’s really annoying. Not a single other person in our 500-person organization includes anything religious in their communication; to the contrary, diversity and inclusion are a big deal, and people are pretty careful to be respectful of all cultures. I’m worried that a complaint would backfire on me if the HR folks tell our CEO what happened. But I get annoyed every time I see this signoff … which is multiple times per day. Should I say something or just try to ignore it?
A: I don’t have an immediately strong sense of what to recommend here. “Be Blessed” is vague enough that it could very likely carry more open-ended spiritual or even cultural overtones than something explicitly religious like “Blessed in [specific deity’s name].” It’s not the most professional signoff, to be sure, but in your case I might be inclined to let it go. That said, you’re getting emails from her multiple times a day, and for all the possible vagueness, the religious and spiritual connotations of “Be Blessed” certainly do exist. If the CEO of your company actually tried to override your HR department for saying something as innocuous as “Employees should refrain from spiritual and religious language in work emails,” I should hope they’d fail. And if they went so far as to try to punish you for complaining about religious language at work because the employee in question was their wife, I think they’d be opening themselves up to a lot of trouble.
But since you say she’s otherwise “lovely,” I think the first move is to speak to her directly, letting her know that you’d prefer she find an alternate email signoff, since the spiritual and religious overtones of this one make you uncomfortable. If that doesn’t work, you can absolutely go to HR. You can even go to HR first if your primary concern is anonymity and to make sure there’s a paper trail in case of future retaliation. But I do hope, if you do raise the issue, that she gracefully complies. It’s hardly a burden to ask someone to stick to something like “Sincerely,” “Best,” or even just their name as a signoff on work emails.
Q. Overemotional reaction to good news: Yesterday, our 18-year-old next-door neighbor dropped off a package that had been wrongly delivered. We were chatting (maintaining a good social distance), and she mentioned that she received the full ride college scholarship she was hoping for in the fall. I started sobbing (mainly due to a slight change in hormones because I’m 36 weeks pregnant) and tried to not alarm her by saying cheesy stuff you read on graduation cards. She seemed concerned. Luckily, my husband heard the crying, came to the door, and allowed this girl to escape. I feel embarrassed about my overreaction because she’s been such a good babysitter and dogsitter for us, and our relationship has always been nonemotional. I’m not sure if I should apologize or just pretend it didn’t happen. My husband thinks this isn’t a big deal and that a short “Sorry, I am a little more emotional than I realize. Congratulations again!” text would be plenty. What do you think?
A: I think a brief text is a great idea. I might elaborate on your husband’s script a bit and say: “I’m sorry if I bewildered you yesterday—I’ve been having some sometimes-outsize emotional responses to good news, and I felt poignant and wistful over a milestone like graduation, especially since we’re getting ready to have a baby soon. Congratulations again, and I’m sorry if I seemed upset.” But I don’t think you’ve done anything terrible, and I’m sure you’ll continue to have a friendly, neighborly relationship with her. Cut yourself a break. Things are really intense right now! Crying unexpectedly at a milestone that reminds you of the passage of time, of kids growing up, and of how strange it is to try to celebrate something when you can’t see most of the people you care about in person makes a lot of sense to me.
Q. Re: My boyfriend doesn’t understand: Oh, I wish I could whisk you away from your boyfriend. If he doesn’t understand the difference between a healthy relationship and an abusive one, he needs to become an ex too. Instead of respecting the pain that you went through, he wants to USE IT to his advantage. He wants you to treat him like you treated your abuser, which is, in itself, abusive! Get some distance from this guy.
A: I’m in total agreement here. The only thing I’m wary of is using language like “understanding,” which I want the letter writer to move away from. As long as this gets framed as some kind of “misunderstanding,” as if hasn’t had healthy relationships “explained” to him sufficiently, then I worry there’s room for the letter writer to convince herself it’s incumbent upon them to explain why he shouldn’t want to abuse them. To be clear, I don’t think you’re suggesting that in the least; it’s just a word that popped up in the letter and I want to take a moment to explain why it’s not the right word here.
Q. Re: What are you working on? I too have a job that involves work that ranges from technical to just plain obscure. I also get very caught up in thinking people need to understand my whole job in order for me to talk about my day. But most people don’t need to know what highly industry-specific piece of equipment I worked on or what technique I learned, so I just say I fixed something and learned some new procedures today. Plenty of people also are just making conversation, so even if you mention something totally foreign, they’ll smile and nod.
A: I think that’s really useful: fixing something, updating a particular process, or even saying “I disagreed with a co-worker today and here’s how we’re hashing it out” all seem like reasonable ways to describe your work without getting into anything technical. My read on that letter wasn’t that the partner in question is trying to push for exhausting detail so much as a general impression of what the letter writer’s life looks like at work: if the work is mostly independent, if they’re working with a team, if they like one aspect of it more than another, and so on. When it comes to cocktail-party-level conversation along the lines of “And what do you do?” or “How was work this week?” I think the letter writer has a lot more latitude and can either come up with a basic, boring script that discourages further questions or even just says, “Oh, I’m so excited to talk about anything besides my job tonight—have you been reading anything good lately?”
Q. Re: Teen love: Your teenager just started dating this kid a couple months ago and now they’re spending alternate weeks at each other’s houses, functionally living together? I wouldn’t be as concerned about the sex, as long as they have information about and access to effective birth control, but I *would* be worried about a teenager with a brand-new boyfriend 24/7—that’s when isolation and control can take root, and even if they don’t, I know I’d still want my kid to have some kind of a life that didn’t involve her boyfriend. Make sure there is plenty of time she is living in your house without her boyfriend there.
A: I think that’s an excellent point. Wanting your kid to have time away from her high school boyfriend, even if she’s not able to fill up that time in the way she would normally with other friends and extracurriculars and work, is pretty healthy and appropriate. And it will help to make it clear that you’re not trying to ban them from seeing each other (which would only make him seem more alluring) but that, as her parent, you want to make sure she focuses at least some of her time and energy on reading, catching up with friends, doing chores, spending time with you, going for walks, and developing her own life.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks so much, everyone! See you back here next week.
From How to Do It
Q. I caught my girlfriend getting pleasured by her dog: I saw my girlfriend of six months being orally pleasured by her neutered male dog. She doesn’t know I saw her. I don’t know what to make of this. We both come from fairly conservative backgrounds and have limited sexual experience. I can’t imagine discussing this with her. But I can’t get the image out of my head. I really like this woman, and one side of me wants to say it’s no big deal, just another way to masturbate. But this is bestiality, right? Isn’t it technically illegal, or at least immoral? I keep wondering what she’s thinking while we have sex, and my appetite for oral is nil now. This is sad because we had been communicating well about sex (a first for me). I can’t talk about it with friends like I usually world. So I ask you, how weird is this? What would you do? Read what Rich Juzwiak had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.