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Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Q. She doesn’t have it: My friend is telling everyone her grandmother has COVID-19. It isn’t true. My sister is a nurse at the hospital where her grandmother is admitted, and when I said it was such a shame about so-and-so’s grandmother, my sister asked what I was talking about. My friend’s grandmother is in her 90s and has several other health issues that are catching up with her, but she does not have COVID-19. My friend seems to be enjoying the added curiosity that comes when she tells people this since we don’t have many cases in our area and most people within our circle don’t know anyone who’s been affected. She’s also dispensing misinformation when people ask questions since she doesn’t really know what happens when someone has COVID.
I find this very bizarre and inappropriate, not to mention disrespectful to people who are suffering from the disease. I want to confront her, but I’d be outing my sister for breaching confidentiality (sort of—she didn’t tell me any actual diagnoses) and the grandmother really is dying, even though it’s not from COVID. Should I just drop it?
A: You can and should say something if your friend says something you know to be untrue about COVID symptoms or treatment—by all means offer a correction if you know she’s mistaken. But you’re right that you shouldn’t disclose private medical information just because your sister accidentally revealed it to you.
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Q. My husband, whom I’ve been with for 21 years, wants an open marriage: I met my husband at age 15. We were inseparable from the start. He followed me to college and we lived together. We got engaged and had a baby and a fairytale wedding. Four kids later, he said that it’s not who he is. He wanted to open our relationship. We tried this last year and it ended in separation. I came back on a promise of monogamy, and now he wants to try it again.
I’m a passionate person, and I get jealous. Why should I have to share after this many years, and after the first try failed? I offered threesomes, or to find other swingers, but he wants lasting friendships with these women, and sex. He’s also unwilling to compromise. I’m a proud woman. Being asked to make all the changes to who I am feels so unfair! What do I do? He’s my very best friend. We go to the gym daily, we share interests in music, we laugh, and we have great (frequent) sex. Why am I not enough?
A: “Why am I not enough?” is a losing question. It puts an impossible amount of pressure on you, and it doesn’t truly address your core incompatibility. Your husband wants to have multiple partners, and he wants emotional, physical, romantic connections with all of them. That’s not an indictment of your worth. It sounds like your husband re-wooed you by promising to be monogamous and then changed his tune once you’d reinvested in your relationship, which is a manipulative and underhanded way to try to get what he wants. Please don’t try to convince yourself that if only you went to the gym more often, had sex with him more often, offered up threesomes as a compromise, or had more fun with him that he would suddenly start to value monogamy in the way that you do. I realize you don’t want to leave him, that you’ve been together for more than two decades, and that you raised kids together. But you also know that he’s unwilling to compromise, that he’s willing to pay lip service to monogamy in order to get you to stay (so he can try to change your mind later), and that you two fundamentally don’t want the same thing. If he wants an open relationship, he should be honest and straightforward and willing to take “No” for an answer gracefully. Please don’t try to jump through endless hoops in the hopes that he’ll stop wanting to be with other women. It’s not a question of whether you’re “enough” to hold his attention, but whether you’re willing to be with someone who, at best, considers monogamy something to chafe against and endure.
Q. Reluctant babysitters: My husband and I don’t have kids, but we have a nice house with a pool, arcade machines, and several dogs. We like having our nieces and nephews over but expect them to be able to behave and listen to our rules. My brother “John” is dating “Joanna.” She has two elementary-age boys and lets them run wild. Back in January, the boys came over with the rest of the kids and proceeded to wreck an expensive replica (my husband collects movie memorabilia) which they were repeatedly told not to touch. They also tried to throw our elderly dog into the pool (we told them to leave our dog alone). My husband yelled at the boys and told them not to move from the couch until their mother came to get them. Joanna did not apologize and got angry at us when we told her the boys’ behavior was unacceptable. She told us we don’t get to tell her how to raise her kids, and I told her then they are not welcome back at our home. John got very angry with us over this.
Since then, I have talked to my brother but have avoided talking about Joanna. They are still dating. Now that summer’s here and the local day camps are still closed, my husband and I have offered to have some kids over at our house. Everyone plans to pay our oldest nieces to watch their cousins. My husband and I both work from home. John has asked that “his boys” be included since Joanna is in a child care bind. My husband and I don’t want to ruffle any more feathers, but we are not having those boys back in our house unless we know their behavior has changed and, more importantly, Joanna’s has too. How do we have this conversation without a repeat of January?
A: If you can’t fundamentally agree on rules and discipline with the boys’ mother, you definitely shouldn’t agree to act as their caretakers, even if your oldest nieces will be the “official” babysitters. (It doesn’t sound like they’re adults, and since the place is yours, the ultimate responsibility would lie with you anyway.) I’m afraid that you’d be setting yourself up for multiple repeats of the January blowup if you did. You can say no politely, but if it does “ruffle” your brother’s feathers, I think it’s necessary; the alternative is a lot worse than feather-ruffling. You’ll have to be direct with John, I’m afraid: “I appreciate that Joanna’s in a bind, but things went pretty badly the last time we tried to babysit. I’m not willing to take responsibility for any kids if their parents and I can’t agree about basic house rules. I’m sorry, but it’s not going to work.”
Q. It’s OK! I am a trans woman. I don’t pass all the time and am increasingly unsure if I want to. (That is complicated and my therapist and I are working on it.) The problem is my partner (whom I met after I was “Susan”) is really supportive. I know, it doesn’t sound like a problem. However, she won’t let me decide for myself how to address any micro- or macroaggressions I encounter. Usually this just makes me prickly—some days I don’t want to educate the guy in the deli, even if it might help other trans women—but occasionally she really crosses a line. For example, a co-worker I haven’t seen in a while misgendered me in a coffee shop. They didn’t know about my transition, had no idea I use she/her pronouns, and are generally respectful and kind. I briefly corrected them, they said “sorry,” and I was good to go. My girlfriend started a whole debate in the middle of the shop about respect and my “struggle,” and I was horrified. She wrapped up with “Sorry isn’t good enough,” but sometimes it is!
How do you have a conversation with someone by starting with “Don’t be quite so supportive”? What are the boundaries? I find I struggle to articulate them to myself beyond “See that? Not that.” She has occasionally been a bit condescending about this being my first relationship since coming out, and I think this conversation will add another stroke to that tally.
A: It will help to acknowledge that what she’s doing isn’t supportive at all. It’s rude, combative, unnecessary, and unwelcome—pretty much the opposite of what support looks like. Bolstering her own rudeness by demanding you call it supportive because you’ve only recently come out is even worse. Telling you that you don’t have a right to determine how you’ll address occasional, nonmalicious misgendering is not supportive! Telling you that you have to defer to her because she’s been out longer than you have is not supportive, either.
You can start this conversation not with “Don’t be quite so supportive,” but with: “I have the right to decide how and when to correct people who misgender me. When you start fights with well-meaning strangers or distant colleagues on my behalf, despite knowing that’s not what I want, you’re not supporting me. You’re making my life more difficult and creating additional work for me, and you need to stop.” If she doubles down, or insists that she has the right to make these decisions for you, it might be worth considering whether this is a relationship you want to stay in.
Q. Surrogate: My husband and I have two children. I was the surrogate for my sister once. I have been blessed with easy pregnancies. My husband’s stepsister approached us about being a surrogate for her. They haven’t been close since they were teenagers, when his father married her mother. She attended our wedding, but otherwise we haven’t spoken to her in years. The conversation was extremely uncomfortable. We declined. That was last year. My sister and her husband have asked us if we would be willing to try again. They are offering a large amount of money. My husband and I have decided that we don’t want any more kids and could use the money to pay off our house or as a retirement nest egg. My husband talked to his brother about the topic and somehow it got back to his stepsister. She left a manic voicemail on my phone and blasted us on social media. It was unhinged. She later deleted the posts but my husband and I have decided to cut her out of our lives. She sent a gift for our daughter’s birthday and we sent it back with a note to never contact us again. My husband’s stepmother has always acted like a true grandmother to our children. She has intervened in the situation and thinks we are “overreacting” and that we don’t understand the hurt we caused. At this point, I snapped and said her daughter needs professional help. I don’t owe her my womb. My husband backed me up but the conversation has left a chill in our relationship with our in-laws. Even my father-in-law will barely return calls to his son. This hurts my husband deeply. We don’t know how to repair this and it makes me furious that his stepsister’s selfishness is poisoning our family. What do we do?
A: You and your husband can mourn this loss together and tend to each other’s hurts. But what could you repair in this situation? You could apologize for not carrying a child for his step-sister, I suppose, but why would you want to apologize for that? You have every right to decide not to act as a surrogate for someone else; anyone who attempts to press that issue or try to manipulate someone else into taking on something as intimate, taxing, and challenging as carrying a child for them is behaving very badly indeed. Sending a present and deleting old, angry social media posts is not the same thing as an apology; your husband’s stepsister has never acknowledged what she did wrong nor tried to make real amends for it. Your husband’s parents are trying to make him feel responsible for his stepsister’s pain, but he simply isn’t. Her pain is her own, and she does not have the right to lash out at others because of it. The only repair work that lies before you is to give his parents time and space to collect themselves and offer an apology of their own. You cannot do any other work on their behalf. You have not done anything wrong, or behaved insensitively, or taken away something that belonged to someone else.
Q. Gratitude: “Courtney” and I have been friends for about 20 years. Our girls grew up together. Courtney raised two lovely girls and one greedy one, “Jane.” Due to family illnesses, my husband and I did not attend the weddings of Jane’s sisters. We sent them large checks and got lovely thank-yous. Jane canceled her wedding very early over COVID-19 concerns but didn’t have a virtual wedding. She got married with no fanfare. My husband and I sent her a card. On social media, Jane tagged us in a post about how “heartbroken” she was about the turnout to her wedding compared with her sisters’. Not even the “extra” family who would take her sisters and her to the beach every year cared to give her a gift in celebration of her union. That is us. Jane is educated, has a job, and has been with her husband for several years. My own daughter commented on the post with “wow, greedy much, Jane?” Jane deleted the post. I have been at odds with Courtney over this situation. She thinks her daughter might have been “out of line” but that mine was trying to “shame” hers. I told her Jane should be ashamed of her behavior and outright avarice. She got married and didn’t have a wedding. Her sisters did and they invited us. My husband and I understand the cost of weddings and wanted to help out. In no world are wedding presents expected when there is no wedding. We didn’t even find out until a week after the fact because Jane didn’t post about it. Courtney is no longer talking to me and Jane has continued vomiting on social media. Her sisters have both privately apologized to me and told me they are embarrassed of their sister. And honestly, it is tacky to demand money from people. Am I doomed to lose my friendship here? I love Courtney but Jane has no shame.
A: It’s crucial, I think, not to take on your daughter’s battles as your own. If Courtney’s daughter is upset with Jane for something she said on social media, well, they’re two adults who can fight or ignore each other as they like. If Courtney is angry with your daughter over the same issue, then she can speak to your daughter directly and doesn’t have to go through you. I realize you can’t just turn off your sense of protectiveness toward your own kid, but you do not need to have this argument by proxy, nor can you promise a friend that you’ll discipline your adult daughter on her behalf. (The same is true in reverse, of course.) If you haven’t already, unfollow Jane on social media, and if someone else tries to tell you something she’s saying there, politely bow out of the conversation.
When it comes to the original issue, I think it probably would have been nice to send a gift, especially if you had planned on attending the wedding before it was canceled. (It’s not quite clear to me whether you were, or would have been invited, or what stage the wedding planning was at when the in-person event was called off.) But at this point it doesn’t seem like you’re interested in continuing a friendship with Jane, so that’s probably moot. If you are interested in preserving your friendship with Courtney, I’d suggest you give her a little time to breathe before reaching out. You can tell her you’re sorry Jane had to call off the party due to the pandemic and that you don’t want to try to litigate your children’s fights with each other. If Courtney’s willing to let Jane handle her own problems, and vice versa, you might be able to find a way forward.
Q. Want vs. need in a marriage: Since even before we got married, my husband has been fixated on the idea of wanting vs. needing each other. He claims to “need” me, and I feel great pressure to say I “need” him too. The truth is that I don’t. I love him very much, but I am much more independent than him, and I am content to seek out activities with other friends or by myself if he can’t or doesn’t want to join me. I am not especially sad when he travels for work—I see it as an opportunity to order delivery from places we don’t ordinarily go to together, watch what I want on TV, and generally enjoy some alone time. I want him as my partner and I want to spend time with him, but it would never occur to me to describe how I feel about him as a “need” if he weren’t so stuck on the categories. To me, my attitude seems a healthier way to approach any relationship, but he finds it offensive. Does this make me a terrible or unloving wife?
A: It can be lovely to feel needed by your partner! But demanding or pressuring that your partner say “I need you” year after year, when that partner is loving, present, emotionally engaged, and caring, doesn’t strike me as very healthy either. If he’s an otherwise great husband and it’s just this one thing that you’re stuck on, I wonder if it might help to try to define your terms. Ask him what he means when he says that he needs you and what it means to him to feel needed. If it’s something along the lines of “I couldn’t function without you and I want you to be equally dependent upon me,” then that’s worth disagreeing over, and even fighting about. If it’s more like “You’re part of the foundation of my life, and I’d be devastated to lose you, and I don’t take you for granted,” then you might have more in common than you think. But to answer your basic question: No, it’s not terrible or unloving to enjoy occasional time apart from your spouse or to be a generally independent person. That’s not something you need to disavow or apologize for, wherever else this conversation may take you.
Q. The one that got away: I’m a gay guy who had a summer romance with “Steven” two years ago. He was in his late 20s and just coming out. He was also raised in a Mormon background, which likely made things more difficult. When we met, he was out to his friends, family, and his church, and he seemed to be comfortable with himself. On our first date, he told me he was still a virgin and had never held hands or kissed anyone. To me, this wasn’t a big deal, and I really liked him. We went on a few dates, held hands, and kissed. It didn’t escalate too much beyond that. When I stayed the night at his house, we had a makeout session then just fell asleep. The next morning, he told me he couldn’t keep pursuing this with me because he felt like the night before was too much for him and it’s unfair for me to date someone who’s going to hold back. I was sad about it but was able to move forward especially since I moved back to my home state after a few months.
But lately, I’ve been thinking about him nonstop. Even before the pandemic started, I’ve been wanting to reach out. So I did. I simply texted him and told him that the time we had together meant a lot to me and I still cared about him. He responded in a pretty positive way. He said it was good to hear from me, that I was important in his coming-out process, and that he still feels fondly of me and the times we had together. So here’s my question: Do you think it’s naïve of me to reach out to him again? Should I attempt to see if he would want to pick up where we left off? I’ve asked friends and they say it should be fine since we’re still on good terms. But we’re not in the same state anymore. Even if we were, we would still be in a pandemic and wouldn’t be able to see each other. But it’s been two years, and I wonder if he’s more comfortable with himself now. Should I attempt to FaceTime him? Do you think if we were still in the same state, there would be any hope? Should I try to make another attempt or should I let him go completely?
A: I think his response to your last text was pretty definitive. It was kind, it was warm, and it sounds like a brushoff. “I remember you fondly as an important part of my coming-out process” is pretty far from “I still wonder about what might have been.” That doesn’t mean you can’t give it a shot—just that I think you should be prepared to hear “No.” If you feel really strongly, I’d recommend saying something like this: “I really loved our time together and would be thrilled to date again, even though we’re not in the same state anymore. If you’d ever be interested in trying again, please let me know. If not, I wish you the best.”
Q. Re: Reluctant babysitters: If Joanna wants child care for her kids, then she has to cede reasonable authority to the babysitters and cannot chastise or second-guess them for decisions they make in the moment to protect the safety of the other people. This is what you do when you have your kids in other people’s charge. I write this as someone who sent her child to day care starting at three months. I did have issues with one day care center when it didn’t get toddler biting under control and ignored the advice of experienced child psychologists and education specialists. But otherwise, if you send your kids into someone else’s care, they have to abide by the rules of the establishment.
A: Yes, what Joanna appears to be suggesting (obviously this is indirect) is some version of “Take care of my kids—but I don’t trust you and don’t think the rules you have in your home are reasonable,” which is just a recipe for disaster.
Q. Re: Reluctant babysitters: Write out a set of rules that will apply to all kids. First concern would be very strict rules about using the pool. You or your husband will have to supervise any pool time. Another rule could be “leave dogs alone.” Even the sweetest dog may hit a limit and nip a kid. You may want to move more valuable things to rooms that become strictly off-limits. Don’t single out Joanna and her kids. Make it very clear these rules apply to all kids and that violations have consequences up to and including being banned from “camp.”
A: I want to include this as a possible compromise, even though it wouldn’t be my first choice in the letter writer’s position. But if the letter writer wants to draw up such a list and give Joanna and the brother an opportunity to reject it, it might prove helpful when it comes to preserving the relationship with the brother in the long run. I do think, in that case, it would also be crucial to agree upon reasonable, age-appropriate consequences—depending on how long the kids are staying on a daily basis, you can’t say, “Sit on the couch until your mother picks you up,” if that means they’ll be stuck on a couch for hours.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone. See you next week!
From How to Do It
Q. I’m about ready to give up on ever having an orgasm: I’m a 24-year-old woman who has been masturbating and having sex since age 16 and have never had an orgasm. Despite trying different methods and vibrators, multiple sexual partners over the years, experimenting with women when I felt I might be attracted to them, and checking with a gynecologist and my doctor to make sure there was no physical cause, I have still not orgasmed. I brought this up with a therapist a couple years ago, and we talked about it for about six months before I quit because I felt it wasn’t helping. I have a strong sense that the cause is biological/physical rather than mental, because I’m a very sexually open person who has no past sexual trauma and wasn’t raised to feel shame about sex. The internet is full of advice for women who can’t orgasm with their partners, but there’s very little for women who can’t orgasm at all. I’m terrified that this is the rest of my life and I will never be able to have a relationship in which I’m truly satisfied. Read what Stoya had to say.
Danny M. Lavery’s new book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You, is out now.
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