Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Afternoon, everyone! Let’s get through this.
Q. Dead cat: I live in an area with coyotes. My cat is a natural escape artist. The rule in my house is “close the front door before you exit the screened-in porch.”
My brother is dating “Lily.” Lily has previously voiced the opinion that keeping indoor cats is borderline abusive. I told her I don’t like dead songbirds. This was one conversation months ago. I was out of town, so I asked my brother to feed my cat. I got a call that my cat had “escaped” because the front door wasn’t completely shut. I drove straight home. We couldn’t find my cat anywhere. We put up fliers, left my cat’s bed out in the garage. I was worried sick. Then my neighbor found what was left of the body. I was shaking when I got the collar and the box. My brother and Lily were there. I remembered the previous conversation and asked Lily if she deliberately let my cat outside. It must have surprised her because she didn’t remember to lie—“It was only supposed to be for a moment.”
My brother had to get between us—yes, I was screaming at her and might have hit her, but she killed my cat! Lily started sobbing and I told my brother I never wanted to see this bitch again. I am keeping to my word, and it is killing me because my brother is sticking by Lily like Velcro—it was a “mistake,” Lily is “sorry,” and I need to let this go. My cat was my baby. I rescued him as a kitten and fed him formula from an eye dropper. My brother and I escaped foster care together. Help.
A: I often preach caution and care during really volatile moments, and I find myself feeling a bit hypocritical here. If I were in your position, I would not be inclined to take what sounds like a secondhand apology as sufficient redress for deliberately letting my cat outside to get attacked by coyotes. I’d be furious. (I’m glad you didn’t hit Lily, though, and I think you should not be in the same room with her again unless you feel confident that you won’t hit her, regardless of the provocation.)
I take the “mistake” line to mean that Lily didn’t intend for your cat to get killed by coyotes, which I’m sure is true; if I were to hazard a guess, I’d say she hoped he would stroll around a while, enjoy himself, then come back in, and you’d say, “I guess he was always meant to be an outdoor cat—thanks for the valuable lesson.” But it still resulted in the unavoidable and early death of your cat, and not all mistakes can be repaired with a one-time apology and a demand for instant forgiveness. It sounds like your brother is trying to rush you through “getting over” the death of your cat because it’s inconvenient for him to have the two of you at odds, and I think you’re right to resist that. You can’t make him break up with Lily, no matter how much pain you feel, but you can take all the distance from her that you need. It wasn’t a mistake; she let your cat outside on purpose.
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Q. My wife’s new desire to be submissive: My wife and I have been together for 10 years. We have a healthy relationship, though we struggle occasionally, like most couples. We go to counseling a few times a year, either just to talk with a professional or to discuss a specific issue. We are both good communicators for the most part. We have one son, a toddler. When we found out we were pregnant, we discussed with each other the effect it would have on our sex life, which was not that great at the time anyway. A few months ago, I told her that I felt we had a good opportunity to reshape what we thought our sex life should be. She said she had always been interested in being submissive, and now the thought of it really turned her on. To my surprise, the power dynamic in the bedroom was a huge turn-on.
However, she has since started trying to move that dynamic out of the bedroom. She tells me how she wants to “serve me” (her words) more—cooking me food, bringing me meals, ironing my clothes, etc. She described it as foreplay for her. But if I get up at 7 on a Saturday and make myself a coffee, and she gets up at 7:30 and realizes I’m already enjoying a cup, she gets upset that I’m not committing to the new power dynamic. I like to cook, I like to buy groceries, and sometimes if I do that, she gets annoyed because I’m not letting her serve me. But I don’t want to be served all the time! I’m willing to do it because she likes it, even though it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. But I grew up in a religious household where the wife served the husband, and I hated seeing my mom subservient while my dad just lounged around. How do I get my wife to relax and see that she doesn’t have to be my servant in order for her to be happy?
A: The good news is that you can set your sights on a slightly less ambitious goal. You don’t need to get your wife to “relax” or feel differently. You can just say, “I’m not comfortable with expanding this dynamic beyond sex,” and talk about what limits and restrictions you need. Your wife wants a lot right now, which is perfectly fine, but you have more options beyond either “say yes to whatever she wants to do, even if it makes me uncomfortable” or “convince her that she shouldn’t want the things that she wants.” Maybe you’ll be prepared to extend this dynamic outside of the bedroom on special occasions for a predetermined amount of time, but it’s perfectly reasonable to object to the idea of a 24/7 dynamic, and to insist on clear boundaries.
If that annoys your wife, talk it over. She’s entitled to be annoyed if she doesn’t get what she wants, but she’ll also survive being annoyed, and any dynamic that’s not sustainable for the both of you isn’t going to be sustainable in the long run. Maybe rope your couples counselor into the conversation for a few sessions while you figure out what you both need to keep this going; you may end up writing out some ground rules, although you’re not required to come up with a contract.
Further, your wife isn’t confused (“You don’t have to be my servant in order to be happy”). It sounds more like she’s thrilled by the resurgence of excitement and intensity in your sex life, and she wants to feel that good all the time, and she’s got a little bit of tunnel vision as a result. But you’re as much a part of this dynamic as she is, and you have every right to say, “I’m not happy with the idea of being served at every meal, so we’re going to have to find a compromise.”
Q. Ring: My mother died when I was a child, I am 25 now. Her engagement ring was my paternal grandmother’s. I’d always adored the story of how after my father proposed, my grandmother took off her ring and gave it to my mother, saying she was part of the family now (my parents were poor then). I don’t have any siblings or cousins, so I assumed the ring would be mine.
I learned last week my father proposed to his girlfriend and used the family ring to do so. I know I didn’t act perfectly rational (I saw it on her finger, grabbed her hand, and told her to take it off, that it belonged to my mother and me), but I never thought my father could be so cold to me. He marched me out of the house and told me that how I was acting was inexcusable, that I wasn’t a child, he gets to be happy again, and I wasn’t even dating anyone so what did I want with an engagement ring? I yelled that I couldn’t believe he was picking some woman over his only child. He told me to leave. He later left a voicemail that he was willing to forgive and forget, but only if I apologize to his fiancée. We haven’t spoken since.
I feel completely abandoned. My father and I have butted heads before (he hated that I went to art school), but never like this. I was neutral about his girlfriend before this, but now I am wondering what she has done to my father. What do I do?
A: Apologize, I’m afraid. You didn’t just act in a way that wasn’t “perfectly rational”—you forcibly grabbed a woman’s hand and tried to steal her engagement ring because you’d silently assumed years ago that someone was going to give that ring to you, even though no one ever promised it to you and it doesn’t sound like you ever asked for it directly. You behaved quite badly indeed, and now you owe both your father and his fiancée a sincere apology. He’s not “choosing ‘some woman’ over his only child.” He’s getting engaged to someone he wants to marry, and seems to be behaving quite calmly in the face of serious provocation. As for his fiancée, she hasn’t “done” anything to your father. She’s accepted his proposal. That’s not brainwashing, an evil scheme to hurt you, or a betrayal, and you need to stop acting like it is.
Q. To tell before the wedding? A friend of mine is getting married next month. I hooked up with her brother a few times before the pandemic, but he moved in with his parents out of state about a year ago and I haven’t seen him since. The problem is, I just found out I have herpes. He’s the only person I have had sex with in the past couple of years. He had been tested between the last time he had sex and when we got together, so I’m worried that I’ve had this for a while and exposed him to it (we had unprotected sex).
He’s a hypochondriac. I want to tell him before the next time we have sex. We’re both in the wedding. We get really, really flirty when we drink so I can’t think of a good excuse to turn him down the night of the wedding. I think he’ll get suspicious. I don’t want a relationship with him, so I’m not worried that he won’t want to date me; I’m just worried this might somehow ruin my friend’s wedding day. I’d like to think he’d be an adult about it and not ruin the wedding if I tell him now, but I’m not sure he will. Do you have any advice on what I should do?
A: I hope you can ease up a little on yourself—herpes is an incredibly common STD, and while it’s not curable, there are effective and widely available treatments to minimize outbreaks and reduce the possibility of transmission.
I think the wedding is something of a red herring here. What matters is that you’ve just learned you might possibly have exposed a past sexual partner to herpes, and he ought to get tested again. That’s how you should frame it, not try to postpone the conversation based on how likely you think it is you two will have sex again in the future. (For what it’s worth, you don’t need an excuse to turn someone down, even if you’re flirting with them or you’ve had sex in the past.) Get in touch with him now, let him know that you’ve just been diagnosed, and encourage him to get tested. Don’t treat it like a horrible, shocking confession, but don’t put the call off either, if only because I think it’ll make you feel better once you’ve had it.
Q. Should I reach out and apologize? I was very cruel to a boy in my eighth grade class whom many perceived as gay, mostly because I was desperately trying to hide my own gayness (which makes it worse in some ways). The older I get, the more I have wanted to reach out to him on social media and apologize, but it’s been 20 years since we’ve had any form of contact.
Should I reach out to him and apologize, or let sleeping dogs lie? Perhaps it raises something for him that he’s put to rest. He might never have thought of it again, but I also know how traumatizing these experiences can be even into adulthood.
A: It’s difficult to say, I’m afraid! He may not remember your cruelty in the same way you do, he may welcome an apology, he may never want to hear from you again—there are a number of possibilities here, and it’s difficult to predict in advance what his reaction might be. Rather than dropping an unsolicited apology in his lap, I think you should first try to discern whether he wants to hear an apology at all. Sometimes people who wish to apologize (especially to someone they’re no longer in touch with, and whose feelings about the situation they can only guess) treat that apology as an unalloyed good, rather than as a possible intrusion that can often cause unnecessary and additional pain. If you’re able to get in touch with him, I’d suggest asking first if he’s interested in hearing an apology. Something like: “This is ____ from middle school. I don’t know if you want to hear from me, but if you’re available and interested in hearing an apology for how I treated you, I believe I owe you one. If you don’t want that, please feel free to disregard this message, and I won’t contact you again.”
Consider how you’ll want to handle the situation if you don’t get a response, or if the answer is no. You may not be able to mend fences with this particular person, but there are other ways you can try to enact a “living amends”—donating money or volunteering your time to organizations that support LGBTQ kids, treating people (especially the ones who remind you of the things you don’t like about yourself) with respect. If you do get a response, prepare to listen to what he may have to say with an open and nondefensive mind. This isn’t a perfectly controlled interaction where you’ll either deliver an apology that’s immediately and unquestioningly accepted or you’ll be entirely shut down. He may have questions for you, or specific feelings/consequences of your bullying that he wants to share; ask yourself as honestly as you can if you’re prepared to handle that. If you don’t think you can, better to leave him alone.
I hope it goes well and he proves receptive. But if it doesn’t—if you can’t get a hold of him, or if he doesn’t want to hear you out—I hope you can seek out your own forms of support. You can honestly acknowledge your own past cruelty as a child without saying, “That’s the truest thing about who I am, and unless or until I can get him to forgive me, I’ll never be able to think of myself in any other way.” Good luck.
Q. Sickly sweet strawberry: I adore my boyfriend of 12 years, however he has one habit that drives me bonkers. He applies strawberry lip balm every 30 minutes, and it covers more than his lips so he ends up looking perpetually greasy and gross. He always smells like fake strawberries and it’s a real turn-off. He won’t stop applying it when I ask nicely and I’m afraid it’s an addiction. How can I live with this?
A: Understanding that you probably don’t want to end a 12-year relationship over Chapstick, I wonder if he’s using the Vaseline-like kind that’s really glossy and strong-smelling, and whether you might be able to persuade him to give something like Burt’s Bees a try (or any other lines that don’t include petrolatum).
Q. Re: Dead cat: I want to start by repeating your last line: It wasn’t a mistake. It was on purpose. And beyond that, it doesn’t seem that Lily is actually sorry. I think the letter writer needs to have a serious think about whether their relationship with their brother can survive this. Not that their brother is responsible for Lily’s behavior, but their brother’s response to her “mistake” would be a deal-breaker for me, and I’m very close to my siblings.
So I’d like to offer permission to the letter writer, if they feel they need it, to not just take space from Lily but from the brother as well. You are entitled to grieve over your cat and to never forgive Lily for her deliberate actions that led to your cat’s entirely avoidable death. And you are entitled to not forgive your brother for trying to justify Lily’s actions and bulldoze your grief. If your brother tries to force continued contact or closeness, don’t let him guilt you. He chose Lily over you when he decided not to support you in this moment.
If it were me, I’d also be curious to know whether he knew she was letting the cat out in the moment. Because if I found out my brother colluded with her in deliberately endangering my cat, even if nothing bad had happened, that would absolutely be a relationship ender without a meaningful apology and possibly family therapy. I’m so sorry for your loss.
A: I appreciate that return to the letter writer’s relationship with her brother, especially because the very last line of the letter (“We escaped foster care together”) speaks to a fear that they’ll lose him if they don’t pretend to be OK with how their cat died, and how painful such a loss would be. For the “Ring” letter, I counseled the letter writer not to take her father’s actions as a referendum on their relationship (and I usually counsel letter writers not to take things as referendums more broadly), and while I won’t go so far as to say to this letter writer, “No, take this as a referendum,” I do think they have good reason to take it very seriously. Their brother is trying to rush them through forgiveness when he and his girlfriend have barely even acknowledged the extent of the damage they’ve caused, and in so doing are seriously threatening the possibility of repair.
Q. Confused colleague: I’m a bisexual woman in my early 30s. About a year and a half ago, I met a woman at work and we really hit it off. It never occurred to me she might be attracted to women also. Colleagues told me she’d never dated and was not interested in doing so. As we spent more time together, things took a turn for the physical. It started with snuggling up on the couch for TV marathons, and then she started coming over most days after work to cuddle with me on my bed. We never had sex, but we were very physical with one another. I could tell it turned her on, but tried to be respectful of her boundaries, as I knew she was inexperienced and possibly conflicted. Then she suddenly withdrew. As soon as I tried talking to her and asking if the sudden distance was the result of our sexually charged interactions, she both vehemently denied it and simultaneously made up excuses to not spend time alone together anymore. She also said that, for her, it was more friendly than physical. She came over one more time (at her insistence), and we fooled around again. Then she withdrew again.
I’m fine with just hanging out in a friendly fashion, as she has become important to me, but I want her to acknowledge that she was either into me or led me to believe she was. Surely friends do not spend hours with their hands under each other’s shirts? I just need her to say so for closure, because I really did like her. Am I being selfish? Part of it is that I can’t really talk to anyone about this, as she was adamant our colleagues would not be told of this (which I guess was part of the thrill at first), so no one really understands why things are suddenly so awkward between her and me. I feel like a teenager again, though I’m in my 30s! Read what Prudie had to say.