Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Good afternoon, everyone! Let’s make a series of tiny adjustments in the direction of wellness.
Q. Distant daughter: “Nell” is 19. I dated my husband all through her middle school years but after we got married (when she was 16), she changed. Nell became nasty; there is no other word for it. I witnessed my husband ask her, in a mild tone, to take her shoes off the sofa, and she cursed at him. She was downright cruel to her stepsiblings: She has told her preteen stepsister that she eats “like a pig” and tried to hit her stepbrother when he called her “fat” in response. We wasted nine months in therapy; I still don’t understand why Nell acts like she does.
At 17, she threatened to move out and I told her I wouldn’t fight it. She left and ignored any communication from me for two years—except if she needed money. Then she promised family dinners and ignored me as soon as the check cleared. Nell has since fought with her father’s new girlfriend and moved out. Her boyfriend dumped her and she left her job. She wants to come home. I want her to come home too, but my health is poor. I can’t deal with the old Nell. I need to know she has changed or is willing to. Help.
A: Based on everything you’ve shared here, I don’t think you have any reason to believe that Nell has changed or is interested in changing. If you don’t want to have to deal with the old Nell, don’t let her move in with you. I hope I don’t sound pessimistic or dismissive—I can see you’re anxious for her and that you wish your relationship were stronger so you could offer her a place to stay and anticipate you’d both be better off for it. But if things are ever going to improve between you and Nell, I think you’ll need some indicator from her that she wants things to improve. Besides, it will be easier to talk about your relationship with freedom and appropriate distance if you’re not also living together.
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Q. How do I tell my boyfriend I’m a lesbian? I have identified as bisexual since I was 17, although I realized in my late teens that I was primarily attracted to women. When I was 21, I met a man and fell deeply in love with him. The problem is that three years later, I am now aching to be intimate with women—and I am no longer attracted to men.
I love my partner like family. He is incredibly important to me, and I don’t want to lose him. Threesomes and open relationships are out of the question for him. So how do I tell him I’m a lesbian without losing him forever? How do I make it make sense? Can I convince myself to be attracted to him again?
A: I think if you could convince yourself to be attracted to your boyfriend, you would have done so already. Your motivation to find him attractive is incredibly high: You wish you could find him attractive, you love him dearly, you’re terrified of losing him, and you view your desire for women as something between an “ache” and a “problem.” If you could have produced a renewed sense of attraction through sheer force of will, through the desire for desire, you would have. I don’t think there’s a solution to your problem that doesn’t include speaking honestly to your boyfriend about something that will probably pain him. But if you want to consider the long game and increase the possibility that someday he will welcome a familial type of relationship with you, I think you should speak to him now, as soon as you can. You don’t have to have a solution in order to broach the subject with him. You can tell him what you told me: that you love him fiercely and you hate the idea of causing him pain, but you’ve come to realize you’re no longer attracted to men and need to be honest about your lesbianism with yourself and with him.
Q. Undesirable: I’ve been with my boyfriend for more than three years now, and he has not satisfied me once to completion. He doesn’t even notice. I’ve tried giving him direction, but I can literally count on one hand how many times he’s gone down on me—and the third time he even complained that I wasn’t completely shaved. It’s not like we’re young, either. We’re both in our 30s, and if previous reports are to be believed, I’m actually pretty good at oral sex. I feel like he doesn’t take the time or effort to explore my body. I’ve gained weight since COVID-19 started, and the comment about being unshaven really sent me plummeting. I’m at the point where I don’t want to be touched by him because I feel like the implication he gave off is: Not only is my body undesirable, but he was never interested in pleasing me to begin with. We live together. I’m seriously concerned he never desired me, and am even more concerned now that I’ve gained weight.
A: I can’t help but notice you didn’t ask me a question, although I’d like to propose an answer to the one you didn’t ask: Break up with him. Breaking up with someone you live with is a hassle at best, and COVID only makes that more complicated, but don’t you think three years is long enough to spend with someone who doesn’t even notice he’s not getting you off? Who goes down on you for a halfhearted five minutes once a year and complains if your pubic hair is merely neatly trimmed? I don’t want to offer you anything in the way of a script because I don’t think incuriosity or indifference can be solved through careful communication, and I don’t want to assign you the homework of trying to persuade your boyfriend to find you attractive or to treat your body with interest and care.
Q. Pandemic lies: My partner and I are expecting a new baby soon. We are overjoyed to meet her and are hard at work preparing. That said, our doctors have repeatedly cautioned us that her immune system will be immature, and given the pandemic, we should be extremely judicious about our contacts both in the weeks before and immediately after her birth.
It’s the holidays, and we know a new baby will be an exciting development. People will want to meet her, and I am already worried about how to have these conversations. I am most worried about a specific family member who is in regular close contact with other close family members. If it weren’t for this person, I’d be very comfortable introducing the baby to our close circle. This person does not like me and I am increasingly frustrated at them lately, which doesn’t help, but they are also routinely dishonest about their activities and contacts. This person is a bit of a know-it-all and has often kept information from me because they “know their own risks better” and “didn’t trust me to not freak out.” They are also in denial about the risk profile of their many activities, giving caveats like “it was only for a second” or “everyone there was wearing a mask, except a few people who weren’t, and I don’t think they’re doing anything risky.” I don’t trust their judgment, don’t trust them to be honest, and also don’t want to argue with them over every single detail.
I don’t know how to navigate this person. I genuinely don’t know what they’d need to do to rebuild my trust after being caught in so many lies, but I do know the pressure to let them meet the baby will be intense. I will need to find a way to make that happen, if only for the sake of other family members who live with them and are exposed by proxy to their decisions. How do I create a situation where we can forge some (temporary, imperfect) trust, despite my own reservations?
A: Forget the pressure as best you can (or rather, expect the pressure will be intense and prepare yourself to resist it), and don’t try to paper over your newborn baby’s needs with a false sense of trust that you know perfectly well can’t bear weight. You and your partner (along with your pediatrician) should establish whatever standards you need to put in place before you can introduce someone to your baby, and if this relative can’t meet those standards, and/or if you don’t believe their claims to have met those standards, cheerfully say no. “Sorry, doctor’s orders” is a particularly useful conversation ender when someone won’t give up wheedling.
Q. A queer-y: I recently started dating an awesome guy after a bad breakup. He is transmasculine, which is new for me, but, other than a slight difference in sexual activity, it feels like I am dating a cis dude. He, however, comes from a very queer background. His friends, activism, community, and even his job are LGBTQ-related. Before him, I considered myself a straight woman, and I kind of still do. He will often call me queer (as a compliment) and enjoys bringing me into his world. But I am struggling with this new identity. I don’t feel queer. I don’t know if I want to be queer. Do I have to take on this new world because I’m dating this guy?
A: No, although you do have to be honest about yourself and your limits, I think. It may simply be that you two are incompatible in the long run, despite liking each other very much in other ways. He’s not wrong for wanting a partner who shares at least some sense of queerness, but you are not wrong for being straight or for bristling when someone else tells you your identity. (If he tries to get you to read The Argonauts together, it might be time to wish him the best, call it a day, and look for another awesome guy elsewhere.)
Q. Not so much grief: My grandfather died a few days ago. He favored his grandsons, so I wasn’t very close with him. I’m sad he’s gone, but I am doing pretty well, considering everything.
The thing is, I don’t really know what to say to friends. When my other grandfather died a few years ago, my friends either didn’t know what to say or tried to get me to talk, which I didn’t want to do. I’m fairly private about this kind of stuff and would prefer to talk to a few close friends and family. This week, I have a couple of calls scheduled with some friends. I’m not really up for them. I don’t want my friends to feel blown off (I won’t have time for a couple more weeks to chat again), but I don’t want the conversation to have a pall over it, or have people start talking about their dead loved ones. Plus, they’re both really empathetic and have very difficult things coming up for the next couple of weeks. I don’t want them feeling too bad and stressing out more because of me. I’m worried that if my friends find out later that I didn’t tell them, they will feel bad or think I don’t value their friendship. Should I just tell them that I’m busy? What about with other friends I might chat with later in the month—is this something I should bring up, or is it OK to stay quiet?
A: I think you are slightly overthinking this! Maybe it’s better to say I hope you are overthinking this, because if your friends are so “empathetic” that the idea of postponing a single scheduled phone call for a few weeks means they’d be overwhelmed by stress and negativity, I worry about their internal reserves. It’s perfectly fine to tell your friends you’d rather not go into details about your feelings on your grandfather’s death. Generally, you can say this: “I really appreciate everyone’s concern, but what I need the most right now is the chance to talk about something besides death and bereavement. The biggest favor you could do for me right now is let me bring the subject up if and when I feel ready, and otherwise tell me about how X is going.”
In the specific instance of the calls you have scheduled for this week, just tell them what you told me (assuming they already know of your grandfather’s death): “I know you have a lot going on in the next few weeks, and I hope everything turns out well, but I’m just not feeling up for our call on Thursday. I’m sorry to miss it, because I know that will mean a few more weeks before we can talk again. I’ll be thinking of you, and I’d love to catch up when we both have time next month.” That’s a perfectly reasonable request even without the context of a family bereavement (and in the middle of an ongoing pandemic and unemployment crisis)! I hope your friends can quickly reassure you that they’re happy to do whatever makes this time a little easier.
Q. Re: Distant daughter: There’s nothing in your letter about acknowledging her feelings about how hard it is as an adolescent to watch your parents break up and then have both of them recouple and bring new kids into the households. She sounds like a nightmare, but I bet there was a lot of cluelessness or selfishness on your part that led you to where you are. You have to start by apologizing, listening to her tell you how much pain she’s in and why, and then committing to being more respectful. Family therapy could be very helpful, as could individual therapy for both of you. But this is not her fault. You’re supposed to be the adult, and you did this to her.
A: I think that’s going too far! First—and perhaps most importantly—Nell is no longer a child. It may very well be that the letter writer handled their divorce/dating/remarriage badly with Nell, but all we know from the letter is that Nell got angry and resentful as a teenager, that the letter writer attempted therapy, and that Nell’s stepfather once asked her to take her shoes off the couch. There may very well have been more going on behind the scenes, but without that information, I’m not prepared to claim that the letter writer “did this” to Nell (did what? Make her permanently unhappy? Be responsible for Nell’s inability to get along with her father’s new partner? Fail to fulfill some need to offer her a place to live under any and all circumstances?) or that it’s all letter writer’s fault. Moreover, whatever the letter writer may have done to hurt Nell as a child—to make her feel pushed aside or ignored, or repressed, or anything else—it’s possible to discuss it honestly and openly and with honest contrition. But it doesn’t have to take place while they’re living together, and it doesn’t seem like Nell is even asking for such a conversation right now.
Q. Re: Distant daughter: Prudie, you blew this answer. Yes, Nell sounds like a nightmare. But how did things get to that point? Thirteen-year-olds are emotionally delicate, and it sounded like both parents blithely went on dating after the marriage ended; at least her mother did not try to create a harmonious, blended family. Nell is hurting, and no one has been on her side for at least six years. I don’t blame her for lashing out. Her mother should apologize and listen carefully, and the two of them need to get into therapy together (probably individually also) to work this out properly.
A: I simply can’t agree that “no one” has been on Nell’s side in the past six years—that’s an awfully big stretch from what’s contained in the letter. Nor is Nell 13 years old now. Certainly the letter writer can say to Nell: “I don’t think we should live together again. I don’t think it would be good for either of us. But if you ever want to see a family therapist together and talk about our relationship, I would be more than happy to go with you and pay the bill. I can promise I’ll listen to whatever you have to say about your childhood or how I may have hurt you, and I’ll stay open-minded and nondefensive. But when you say you want to talk or spend time together when you ask for money, and then disappear after I write a check, it hurts me and erodes the trust between us.” It may also be that the letter writer decides to continue offering Nell money—I’ll leave it to the letter writer’s judgment there—but drawing the line at living together when the letter writer is already in poor health and their relationship is so shaky to begin with seems pretty reasonable and, if anything, like it will spare their relationship further strain it may be unable to support.
Q. Re: How do I tell my partner I’m a lesbian? There is no real way to sugarcoat or lessen the impact of telling your partner you’re no longer attracted to them (and presumably are also not romantically in love with them either, even as you maintain feelings akin to familial love). There is no way not to make this not hurt for him. You owe it to both him and yourself to be open about this so that he can process his own feelings. He may respond in any number of ways, some positive and some negative. How he ends up responding to the news is probably going to go a long way toward letting you know whether there is ever going to be a chance in the future to have some form of nonromantic relationship with him. But you can’t begin to know any of this until you are honest with him about what has changed with you and how that fundamentally changes the nature of your current relationship.
Additionally, I don’t think sticking it out in the hopes that your present identification changes back to “bisexual” at some undetermined point in the future is a viable path. Even if you were able to convincingly fool your boyfriend into thinking nothing has changed (which to me does not sound really doable), you would undoubtedly be making yourself feel miserable stuck in a relationship you don’t want to be in. And I do doubt the ability to keep up this front in the long term, which will almost certainly lead to various negative changes in your behavior and may lead to the unraveling of your relationship anyway but under more contentious circumstances than they would likely be if you are honest with him now.
A: That’s the gist of it, I think! And whatever hairsplitting one may be inclined to make over “familial” love versus “romantic” love, I think it’s clear in this particular situation that the letter writer’s boyfriend would not find “I still love you romantically in some ways, but I don’t ache to be intimate with you the way I do with women, and I’m not attracted to you anymore” to be cause for meaningful compromise. He may feel hurt but resigned, or he may take a long time to recover from the pain, but I agree there’s no way to shortcut or work around the grieving process in order to fast forward to friendship.
Q. Is it all in my head? My boyfriend and I have been together for 6½ years. He went on vacation a few months ago without me (I could not get out of work), and he met a woman on the plane ride there. She is his age, had similar interests, and loves beer. He gave her his number with the intent of possibly setting her up with our mutual friend whom he was visiting on vacation. They had all hung out a few different times, and he hung out with her one on one while drinking on vacation. Now normally, I wouldn’t be peeved. But my boyfriend failed to mention her to me the whole time while he was on vacation because he said I would overreact about the whole thing. Fast-forward a week later, and they have been texting nonstop. She came out to our area, which is where her parents live, and my boyfriend made it a big deal that he didn’t want me to meet her. He felt that I had too much hostility toward her, and he didn’t want me to embarrass us. He told me that he does not find her attractive, and it’s simply a friendship. But his sneakiness with it while on vacation is what really bothered me. Why hide it if there’s nothing going on? This would be different if it wasn’t a “new” friend. I have never felt this way with his previous female friends. I have gone to therapy about this, and I feel that his behavior with her is borderline emotional cheating. I’ve confronted him about it, and for the past three months almost every argument is about this person. I understand that we all seek out connections from other people, but please tell me: Am I overreacting? Is this normal? Read what Prudie had to say.
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