Dear Prudence

My Husband Won’t Take His Mask Off—Even for Sex

We’re both vaccinated now. When will this stop?

A sleeping man wears a face mask.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by shironosov/iStock/Getty Images Plus

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. This week, Torie Bosch is filling in as Prudie. Jenée Desmond-Harris takes over on June 3.

Dear Prudence,

I have been married to a great guy for five and a half years. He is handsome, sexy, funny, and kind. It’s true that he has always been a little “prissy” about illnesses, but I never thought it was a real problem. However, during the pandemic, his terror about getting sick has reached new levels. For the last year, he has refused to take off his face mask, even when we are at home—just the two of us. This is true even now that he is fully vaccinated for the virus. He wears it to sleep, to do most of his bathroom activities, and, yes, even during lovemaking. To eat, he pulls it up to expose his mouth, and then quickly pulls it back down between bites. While he does not insist that I do the same, I can tell it bothers him that I don’t—especially because I have now started going maskless outside, per the CDC guidelines, and plan on restaurant dining inside soon for a girls’ night out.

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When I have tried to present him with the science, he says, “Scientists don’t fully understand the virus yet,” or, “I know it probably isn’t necessary, but wearing it doesn’t bother me, so if there’s even a small chance that it can protect us, I’d rather be on the safe side. What’s the harm?”

I disagree that there’s no harm. I want to see my beautiful husband’s face again. I want to kiss him on the lips romantically, like we used to, and not through a piece of fabric. (He does not change his mask very often and it is often smelly and soiled.) And I don’t want to feel judged by him for my own behavior, which I consider reasonable.

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This is making me depressed and concerned about our future together. I have asked him when he plans to stop masking, and all he says is “When it is safe for everyone.” What if this becomes a permanent part of him? My mother, who is very conservative, thinks that I should move out. But I don’t think I’m ready for that step yet. What I want is my husband back. How can I get through to him?

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—Maskless and Alone

Dear Maskless and Alone,

I suspect your mother and I would agree on almost nothing COVID-related except the fact that your husband’s behavior is alarming. “What’s the harm?” is such an insidious phrase. It’s not a question; it’s a statement of “leave me alone.” But there is lots of harm in leaving him alone—harm to his mental health, to yours, and to your relationship.

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You need to sit down with him at a time free of heightened emotions—so not right after sex (I am impressed—is that the word?—that you are still sleeping with him!). Tell him all about the harm here: His behavior is alienating you and is certainly not offering him any real protection against disease. Give him three options. First, he can make an appointment with his physician to talk about effective protective measures. If he does this, he has to commit to following the doctor’s recommendations, and you have to be present so he can’t lie to you about what happens there. Hopefully, his doctor will say he has to do option No. 2: start seeing a therapist. If he chooses this, he has to commit to at least six sessions (or some other number that feels right to you). Finally, he can decide—because it would be his decision if he doesn’t take another action—to call an end to the relationship. I know you want your husband back, but he isn’t that husband right now, and he needs to understand just how serious this is. To be clear, you have to mean it when you say that the relationship has to end if he doesn’t make progress, but I think that would be the right move.

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If he goes with one of the first two options, you should promise to do the legwork: finding him a therapist, making appointments, etc. Your husband is in the middle of a long-running crisis and that is the worst time to have to navigate our completely patient-unfriendly mental health care system.

Once he has committed to some sort of treatment, see if you can get him to promise to change his mask every day until he feels secure going without it. If you don’t have enough at home, there are lots of deeply discounted masks available now. But I don’t want you to lead with the demand to change his mask every day, because that could open the door to negotiations around behavior—and what you need here is to address the problem itself. I will be thinking about you!

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Dear Prudence,

My parents’ social media habits are giving me severe secondhand embarrassment. I’m a queer Black woman in my mid-20s. I have a Facebook account pretty much only because I work in media and need to keep up with what my clients and potential clients are doing. I treat it like LinkedIn—I post very little aside from sharing business events and industry-relevant news. My parents (who are white and adopted me at a young age) requested to be my friends, and I accepted, because I originally didn’t think it was a big deal. But my parents post incredibly racist, homophobic, and xenophobic content, visible for the whole world to see. They’re huge Trump supporters, as well as COVID-hoaxers and anti-maskers. They provided me with a good education and otherwise decent upbringing, but after moving away, it still took a lot of emotional work to undo the kind of trauma of being the Black child of parents like that, and no matter what I say to them, they have never changed their toxic views. Aside from the immense frustration and trauma it brings me personally, I’m also afraid their posts will reflect badly on me if clients or potential clients click through my friends list. I know I can’t reason with my parents. Can I just remove them from my Facebook and hope they don’t notice?

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—Sins of the Father

Dear Sins,

Remove them! If they refuse to listen to you and the nicest thing you can say about them is that they gave you “a good education and otherwise decent upbringing,” I don’t think it’s the worst thing in the world if they notice. I don’t mean that to sound dismissive—upsetting the stasis of a precarious relationship is no small move. But this isn’t about secondhand embarrassment. It’s about them not taking your trauma seriously online or off, and you don’t need them on Facebook (or maybe in your life) if they can’t even try to do that. I wish you had better parents and hope that you have a chosen family that supports you.

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Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here, or call the Dear Prudence podcast voicemail at 401-371-3327 to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Dear Prudence,

My sweet husband (together about 15 years, both in our 40s, no kids by choice) has been struggling with anxiety for a while now, mainly due to a toxic and difficult work environment, from what he says, though it’s bleeding into his daily life and even at home lately. He started seeing a psychiatrist about six months ago, on his own initiative. This doctor has only really offered antidepressants so far and a mild anti-anxiety drug that he’s still taking but doesn’t really seem to help much. He’s tried a few different SSRIs and SNRIs now, with various side effects (some quite scary), so the doctor just keeps having him try different ones. None of the antidepressants have helped at all, and only make him feel worse, which seems to be just making him feel more and more helpless and like he’ll never feel better.

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I’m trying my best to be supportive but have my own history of mental health issues in the past, so it’s sometimes difficult for me to sincerely encourage him to keep trying them. I’ve mostly tried to keep my opinions to myself and to try to be supportive, in case they did help him.

From what I’ve been reading, it sounds like cognitive behavioral therapy can be as, or sometimes even more, effective than medication, and I have also had very good results from it, so much that I am no longer medicated and doing well (which he is aware of). I would really like for him to give therapy a chance, but he doesn’t believe that “just talking” would help and brushes me off whenever I bring it up. One time a few months ago, he agreed to go if I helped him make an appointment, but when I found someone I thought would be a good fit, he backed out and said he’d changed his mind, because he thought it wouldn’t work and would be a waste of time and money. Is there any way to talk him into giving therapy a shot that I’m missing? I’m at my wits’ end and just want my sweet, happy, carefree husband back.

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—How to Help

Dear How to Help,

Argh, I’m so frustrated for you! Medication alone is clearly not working for him. It’s time to revisit the conversation you had back when he let you make an appointment for him: It’s been a few months and he still isn’t better, so you need (yes, need!) him to try therapy again. You might remind him that his depression, his hijacked brain, doesn’t want him to get better, and that’s the voice insisting therapy is useless. He needs to fight back against it. He thinks he’s being logical, but he isn’t. (I stole that framing from my therapist, who said it after I went on a long monologue about why I was the worst person in the world. It was one of those wonderful, rare therapy moments when something clicked.)

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Have you shared any of your reading about CBT with him? If he wants to depend on medication to make him feel better, then perhaps he’s science-minded and seeing the literature would help him understand. (It’s also worth noting that CBT may not be a miracle cure for him, either—but again, he’s tried the medication-only route and it isn’t getting him where he needs to be, so it’s time to mix it up.) And perhaps you could encourage him to talk to his psychiatrist about it? I don’t hang out with a ton of psychiatrists, but in my experience, they usually strongly believe that therapy has to accompany medication.

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I wish you and the first letter writer could become best friends and support each other.

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Dear Prudence,

I live in a small, progressive town in a progressive state. We have our challenges like all communities, but until recently I didn’t believe racism was a big issue. It’s not something you see or hear about ever. One of our elected officials is a Black man. He has great vision and has done amazing things for our community. Recently, the town received threatening, racist voicemails directed at this leader. The perpetrator was arrested and jailed. Guns were confiscated from his home. How do we show our support for this leader and his family in our community? Are personal, private expressions of support and sympathy enough?

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—Not in My Town

Dear Not in My Town,

No, they are not enough. I suspect your Black neighbors wouldn’t agree that race wasn’t “a big issue” in your community before this. You write that racism is “not something you see or hear about ever”—but the general second-person pronoun is wrong there. It was something you specifically didn’t see or hear about ever, but I would guess you weren’t looking or listening very hard. The best way to show support is to be vocal, in public, about why this is outrageous. Donate to his next campaign. And commit to keeping your head from returning into the sand. There is a real danger here that you might let yourself think “Well, we had that one gun-toting racist guy who threatened a beloved official, but he was arrested, so the system works.”

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Dear Prudence,

Did I make the right decision by ghosting a clingy friend? I’m a 46-year-old woman who’s a teacher and worked with a 32-year-old female educational assistant. We became friends for a couple of years, then she moved to the U.S. when her husband got his dream job. (I’m Canadian.)

Our texts dropped off as to be expected, but we never lost touch. A year later, she suddenly wanted to talk more. A lot more. Said she was lonely, hadn’t made any new friends, missed me. But the texts kept getting more frequent, and if I didn’t respond right away, she would ask: “Are you mad at me? Did I do something wrong?”

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When I tried to establish boundaries by saying I was busy, don’t enjoy talking online for hours (especially after schools moved to remote learning during the pandemic), she would say, “I’m trying to be a better friend to you. Why won’t you let me?” and would want to schedule something else. I felt she wasn’t listening to me, and when I firmly cut things short, she would act hurt and text these long apologies that seemed fishing for reassurance. It was exhausting, and I realized I didn’t enjoy our friendship anymore. After I tried to tell her in December I was very busy with work, family, etc., and probably wouldn’t be online over the holidays, she responded with several needy texts. I deleted and blocked her number, except for one forum that I cannot. She’s still begging me to give her another chance. What do I do?

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—Ex-Friend of a Stage 5 Clinger

Dear Ex-Friend,

You made the right decision. You clearly and compassionately explained to her the conditions under which you could be her friend—namely, that she understand and respect that you have other obligations in your life and can’t be there for her endlessly—and she rejected the terms. I think you could send her one final, firm message that you have a lot going on in your life right now but wish her the best. (I wouldn’t get into how her behavior was wrong, because she will just try to relitigate it.) But even that isn’t really necessary. Also, what’s with the forum that won’t let you block her? That’s a basic online safety feature.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m currently redoing my office/bedroom. After years of trying to pull my space together, I’ve finally come up with a cohesive design. The problem is a gift I got from my aunt. She is a wonderful painter and painted me a gorgeous scene. I’ve always loved the picture, but it no longer goes with my design choices. On top of that, she asked me for some photos for inspiration, didn’t like any of them, and chose something she liked better. I’ve always liked the photo so much that I kind of ignored the fact that the subject isn’t something I would have chosen as a piece of art. I’m feeling conflicted because it is an absolutely gorgeous picture that my aunt spent so much time on. I know she feels demoralized that her other nieces and nephews don’t seem to like the art gifts she makes for them. I hate to make her feel bad. She rarely comes to my apartment and almost never comes into my room, so she may never notice. Am I overthinking?

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—Artful Reorganization

Dear Artful,

I admit I’m a little unclear on the merits of a cohesive design when it comes at the cost of a picture you’ve always loved painted by an aunt you care for. But it’s not my space or your aunt’s—it’s yours. Just do the traditional thing: Put it away in a closet and hang it up when you know she’s coming over. If she comes over unexpectedly, ends up in your room, and says something about it, just say cheerfully, “I have too many pieces of wall art and not enough wall, so I’m trying to rotate them in and out. It’s fun to mix things up regularly.”

Classic Prudie

A few months ago, in order to spice up our sex lives, I persuaded my wife of four years to try swinging. I searched online and found an ordinary-looking couple I thought would suit us to begin with. We met, had dinner, went to a hotel, and swapped partners. I was surprised and dismayed when the other man, who is older, somewhat overweight, and balding, undressed. He was way larger than me, and for two hours I had to watch him work my wife into multiple fits, screams, and moans. I cannot get that night out of my mind. Sometimes I feel I could just punch my wife in the face. I cannot see how I could possibly be content in my marriage ever again. Is there a way I can overcome this?

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