Dear Prudence

Help! My Wife No Longer Likes Sex After Her Mastectomy. So I Cheated. With a Man.

She’s not homophobic, but the fact that I’ve strayed outside of marriage would be painful for her.

A hand holding a camera.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we will be diving into the Dear Prudie archives and sharing a selection of classic letters with our readers.

Dear Prudence,

I’m a 50-year-old professional man. I married my college sweetheart and we’ve been happily married for almost 30 years. We have two grown children who are doing well. About four years ago, my wife had breast cancer, a mastectomy, and chemotherapy. It was traumatic and after her treatment she told me that she was no longer interested in sex. I figured the experience, understandably, might make her shy away from intimacy for a while. I’ve said that I still love her more than anyone in the world, and that she’s beautiful to me, which is true. From time to time, I’ve told her that I miss intimacy with her. She’s thanked me for the compliment, but it hasn’t gone any further than that. One of my hobbies is photography, and sometimes I’ve been asked to take pictures of rock bands. Three weeks ago I was at a club and a twentysomething man walked up to me. He said, “This band has a large gay following. Are you gay?” I said, “No. I’m married. I’m just here to take photos.” He said, “Well, I think you’re hot. If you’re bi-curious, my apartment is nearby.” Nothing like that had ever happened to me before. He was young, and handsome. I thought, “Why the hell not?” We went to his place and had (safe) sex. I’d never had sex with a man before. I found it to be interesting and enjoyable, but not something I’d been longing for all of my life. What I did find that I longed for was the passion. Three times that night, he said, “You are such a sexy man.” No one had ever said that to me before and I keep hearing those words in my head. Since then, I’ve had a bunch of conflicted feelings. I feel sad about betraying my wife. I also keep scanning crowds to see if I can find that guy again. I don’t think that it’s the sex that I want, so much as the passion and appreciation. I would like to find some way to explain my feelings to my wife, but I can’t tell her about the one-night stand. She’s not homophobic, but the fact that I’ve strayed outside of marriage would be painful for her. Your thoughts?

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I think you need to stop looking for the young stranger, and instead focus on your wife. No, I don’t think you should tell her about your recent encounter. But that intoxicating and confusing episode should propel you to address the loneliness in your marriage. Your wife indeed went through a painful and frightening experience that seems to have left her with a sense of disconnection from her body. Treatment also could have pushed her into an abrupt and difficult menopause. All of this could mean she both feels unattractive and uninterested in sex. But that doesn’t mean it’s fair for her to unilaterally announce (while both of you were only in your 40s!) that your sex life has ended with no chance for discussion or reconsideration. Your wife must have contemplated that her closing the door on intimacy would have a profound effect on you. Surely, you never thought the result would be that you go off to have anonymous sex with a handsome young man. It doesn’t sound as if this is a readjustment of your sexual orientation—I’m betting you also would have gone off with an alluring woman—but instead about the desperate longing of a man who’s been in sexual purgatory.

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So talk to your wife. You can tell her you understand that sex after cancer treatment can be a complicated issue. But for both of your sakes you want to reconnect physically and emotionally. Say that you are happy to go with her to a therapist if that would help. Advise that her gynecologist can address some of her physical issues, which are discussed here. Suggest she may benefit from talking about all of this with a support group of others who have been there. Let her know you’re happy to go slow, but that you want to celebrate each other’s bodies and you think there can be an even more profound connection because of your joy at still having each other. Then see how she responds and give her some time. If she again says she appreciates that you still find her attractive, but that the sexual chapter of your lives is forever closed, then she has changed the terms of your marriage. At that point you have to decide what your union means to you. Maybe you tell your wife you’re going to consider having discreet affairs. Maybe you don’t say anything but just go ahead and do it. Or maybe you decide you can’t stay in a sexless marriage. Sex with strangers is fraught with peril, but you are entitled to acknowledge your needs and get them met. —Emily Yoffe

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From: Help! My Wife No Longer Likes Sex After Her Mastectomy. So I Cheated. With a Man. (Sept. 12, 2013)

Dear Prudence,

I have wonderful parents who often watch my 5-year-old and 2-year-old daughters. My parents live at the beach and have taken the kids for overnights, and even for a week. They have become close friends with a nearby couple their age, who also have grown children and a grandson. The problem is that my husband and I are totally creeped out by the man. My oldest daughter has come home from trips to my parents’ house with a “present” from this man: a seashell, a feather, a rock. Once when I was dropping my girls off, I stayed awhile and “Fred” and “Wilma” stopped by and brought a present. It was a sand dollar in a box elaborately decorated with fancy ribbon. I had a pit in my stomach the whole way home and I realized what bothered me about Fred’s gestures. They seem innocuous but are too adult in their presentation; he only brings gifts when my husband and I aren’t scheduled to be there; and he singles out my older daughter and doesn’t bring presents for my younger one. It feels like he is grooming her to trust him, and my mommy-warning sirens are screaming. I have no proof or even a suspicion of impropriety on this man’s part, but the girls are set to stay with my parents for a long weekend and we want to be certain that my folks won’t be socializing with Fred and Wilma. We don’t want to insult their friendship, but how do we explain that their friends are creepy and we don’t want them near our kids?

I would never say any parent should ignore a gut feeling about her child’s safety. But from your description of this situation, my gut feeling is that you have overactive mommy bowels. If you see every friendly man as a potential predator, you’re going to convey unnecessary fear and anxiety to your children. Let’s parse your indictment—which you acknowledge lacks a scintilla of evidence of wrongdoing. On its face, there’s nothing creepy about a retired couple who perhaps don’t get to see as much of their grandchild as they’d like taking a shine to a grandchild of friends. Perhaps you don’t run into Fred and Wilma when you’re visiting because they know you’re coming and don’t want to horn in on your time with your parents. Maybe Fred comes up with token gifts for your 5-year-old because she’s so delighted by them, and she’s verbally responsive in a way a 2-year-old can’t be. I’m guessing that the menacing wrapping of the sand dollar (cue the soundtrack by Bernard Herrmann) was actually done by Wilma. Not because she’s craftily in league with her molester husband, but because she’s a grandmother who enjoys crafts and happy looks on children’s faces.

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Fred reminds me of my own grandfather, who loved small children. Nothing made him happier than to have one of his many grandchildren sleep over, and I have wonderful memories of him roughhousing with me when I was little. Once, on a break from college, I was visiting my grandparents’ apartment and there was a knock at the door. The sheepish woman from across the hall said she didn’t want to intrude, but her daughter, about 4 years old, insisted on seeing if her favorite neighbor was home. She ran to my grandfather, jumped into his arms, and he swung her around the way he had once swung me. I’m aware of this description of my grandfather taking on a sinister air in light of your letter—and I was one of the children he adored and who adored him! If your internal organs will be in a twist unless you say something to your parents, then you have to speak. Banning Fred and Wilma from your children’s presence could potentially ruin your parents’ friendship, and I don’t think you’ve made a case it’s necessary. But go ahead and tell your parents that you know you sound paranoid, but Fred’s interest in your child makes you uneasy. Insist that your parents agree your children will never be alone with anyone else or out of their sight. —EY

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From: Help! A Man Keeps Giving Presents to My 5-Year-Old Daughter. (June 7, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

Two months ago, after posting a picture to my Facebook in which I said I “felt beautiful,” I started getting email messages from someone I didn’t know that were vicious and cruel. I am chubby, and my harasser wanted to tell me, as nastily as possible, that I was deluding myself for thinking I could be beautiful. Not knowing who was writing to me, I made my Facebook profile more private. But recently a friend suggested that I compare the IP addresses of my harasser to the IP addresses of emails from people I know. To my shock, I discovered my harasser has the same IP address as my best friend’s boyfriend, Adam. Adam lives alone, and based on the times the messages were sent I do not believe another person sent those messages from his computer. Adam has always been kind to me, and until my discovery I thought he was my friend. His behavior makes no sense, and I don’t know what to say to him or to my best friend. What should I do?

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I find myself hoping that Adam has a tendency to lose count of his drinks. It’s no excuse, but if late at night the Mr. Hyde side of Adam seeks to express itself, then at least there’s a proximate cause for his venom. But if Adam just likes to vent his free-floating hatred under the guise of a false identity, he is a major creep. Just to make sure you weren’t going off on a digital tangent, I spoke to some people on Slate’s technology team and they said that identifying an IP address can help point you toward a suspect, but keep in mind your evidence is not conclusive. They also suggested that you do as broad a search as possible of the IP addresses of your correspondents to make sure you’ve turned up a singular match between your tormenter and your friend’s boyfriend. If you remain convinced, I think you should first talk to Adam, then tell your friend. Don’t call a solo meeting with him—you want an easy way out if things get even weirder—but next time you’re at a social event together, pull him aside and say you’d like a word. Explain that recently you were getting a series of abusive email messages. So you did some investigating and were disturbed to find that the IP address of your new correspondent was the same as his email. Then fall silent and let him respond. If he indeed is the culprit, let’s hope that he owns up, abjectly apologizes, and says it will never happen again. If so, tell him that obviously you have some thinking to do about your friendship with him, and this also complicates your friendship with your best friend. Say you are going to tell her, but you will let her hear it first directly from him. If he denies knowing anything about it, then say while you think the evidence is strong, you accept that it remains a mystery. Add that you’re going to let your friend know about your conversation. When you tell her, acknowledge that this is putting her in a difficult situation and that there is an element of doubt, but that you felt you needed to say something. Take comfort that Robert Louis Stevenson had some pungent observations about the (possible) Adams of the world: “I learned to recognise the thorough and primitive duality of man; I saw that, of the two natures that contended in the field of my consciousness, even if I could rightly be said to be either, it was only because I was radically both.” —EY

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From: Help! An Anonymous Emailer Is Trying to Shred My Self-Esteem—and I Think I Know Who It Is. (Aug. 14, 2014)

Dear Prudence,

My father is 65 years old and in outstanding health. He has a small real estate empire of 30 or so multifamily residential homes. He built the business himself and runs it as a one-man band. Toilet clogged? My old man fixes it so as not to have to pay someone else. The legal structure of my dad’s business is a jumble. Some homes are owned by him and my stepmother, others are held by an LLC he formed. He also has unwritten deals with half a dozen friends and family members. My mother lives in another state in a house owned by my father and possibly his wife. My father is a generous and caring person, but is disorganized and his “office” is a bunch of piles of paper in his basement. Recently, my sister and brother-in-law quit their jobs and sold their house to relocate with their two small children to work in and maybe take over this business. My father has no will or succession plan and if he were to die or become incapacitated he would leave behind a complicated legal mess. My sister and I would have to work with our stepmom, with whom neither of us are close. I find it cruel, irresponsible, and selfish for my dad not to create an estate plan. I am well-off financially, have no direct interest in his estate, and live far away, although I speak to my father regularly. My dad keeps promising me that he will take care of this but he never does. I’ve brought this up so much that he’s tuning me out. What’s the most effective way to persuade him to address the issue?

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Form a family book club and make the opening selection Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. There you could read about the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the dispute over an inheritance that goes on for so long the entire estate is consumed in legal fees. For advice on your situation I turned to an expert, attorney A. Stephen McDaniel, former president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. This gave McDaniel a chance to repeat the mantra of estate planners everywhere: Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. As you are aware, your father’s inability to address the inevitable will leave his heirs with an unholy mess. If he dies intestate, he will have designated the state legislature to decide what happens to the “empire” he built. Though laws vary among states, McDaniel said likely the business will be divided among your father’s wife and children, and probably your stepmother will be named executor. She has a built-in conflict of interest as regards you and your sister—not to mention your mother, her husband’s previous wife, who might find her living situation rather precarious. McDaniel said that figuring out who inherits multiple parcels of land of different value is so complicated that the whole enterprise might have to be sold. If that happens, let’s hope it’s in a rising market.

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McDaniel says that he believes children are not entitled to inherit from their parents, but conversely they don’t deserve to be handed a posthumous calamity that will generate legal bills and emotional strife. Instead of continuing to nag your father about this, I think you should take action. Tell him you’re going to interview some estate planners in his area (you can start with the NAEPC referral list), and when you’ve identified one or two you like, tell your father you’re coming for a visit and during it you want to go with him to the lawyers’ offices to get the process started. Stay long enough to see that he retains a firm and either help your father gather the appropriate paperwork to bring to the attorney, or see that he hires someone who can assist. Yes, this will take some time out of your life. But you know if you don’t do this now, when your father is gone you will be consumed with sorting out the needs of family members who aren’t independent like you and whose worlds have just collapsed.—EY

From: Help! My Father Refuses to Make a Will. (Sept. 5, 2013)

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