Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.
I came home early from work on Friday to the unexpected sound of the vacuum cleaner running in my 12-year-old son’s room. Thinking that perhaps this was a sign of the apocalypse—my son cleaning his room without major nagging on my part—I burst in there and caught him with his pants down and the hose attachment attached to his, well, you know. He froze like a deer in the headlights and, after picking my jaw up off the floor, I mumbled something stupid like “excuse me” and turned around and walked out and hid in my room. He left to go to his dad’s for the weekend shortly thereafter. He will be home tomorrow night after school and I don’t know what to say to him. Actually, do I have to say anything to him or can I just act as though this never happened and not say anything about it at all? (I much prefer option two, by the way.) What do you think?
I am sincerely hoping the Dyson company doesn’t see your letter and come up with a new line of vacuums guaranteed to suck the living daylights out of the user. First, you may want to pick up a copy of Portnoy’s Complaint. Let’s just say the liver scene should reassure you that young men have always been creative when it comes to relief. Normally, I agree with you, Mom, that backing away quickly is the right path to take when stumbling upon such an uplifting scene. But I’m actually worried about the amount of suction your son could be applying to his private parts and the potential for gunking up the machine’s filter. I think this situation calls for a man-to-man talk. I hope you have the kind of relationship where you can tell your ex about this and you both can laugh. Then your son’s father can have a good-humored talk in which he explains that there are lots of ways to accomplish his goal, but it’s a good idea to keep the household appliances out of it. —Emily Yoffe
From: “Help! I Caught My Son in a Compromising Position With the Vacuum Cleaner.” (Nov. 12, 2012)
I am 41, in a heterosexual marriage, and have a 9-year-old son. I know that my marriage is about to change: I have transitioned from knowing that I’m bisexual to being pretty sure I’m a lesbian. What’s holding me back is the disruption of everything. My husband is a good guy, and if this were happening to a friend, he would be understanding and nonjudgmental, but it’s going to affect his self-image. I’m very close to my husband’s family. Frankly, I really love my life right now, and I don’t know how I’ll recover from its loss, and if it’s worth pursuing the “love that dare not speak its name.” I read other late-in-life blogs and websites and Facebook posts, and I could get through all of what they’re bemoaning, but hurting the two people closest to me—well, how do I manage that?
Forty-one is not that late in life! You are not a few steps away from the grave, most likely; you’ve conceivably got another 40 years ahead of you and should bear in mind that life (and your relationship with your son and the father of your child) is long. The key things to stress now are honesty with your husband and figuring out what works for you. Part of what’s difficult at present is that you are faced with the prospect of giving up a life you love for a life you don’t yet know. There may be great joy and romantic fulfillment to come, but you don’t know what it will look like, and that’s a tricky prospect when you’re giving up the stable identity that has in many ways defined you for years. So! If you are reasonably convinced that you are not bisexual, and that you will not be able to be your husband’s sexual and romantic companion, you should talk about this with him in (LGBT-friendly) couples counseling. It may be you two will decide to amicably divorce and become co-parents. It may be that you two will figure out a way to redefine your partnership within the context of marriage. It may be that he will be hurt, and grieved, and angry, and you will go through a painful divorce. But if you cannot be a wife to your husband, I think it is better to go through that now rather than someday meeting a woman you cannot live without and telling him then.
There will be loss involved in this process for both of you and for your son. Do not try to go through this without hurting them: You will hurt them, and you will have to accept that reality, but you will also get through this, and they will survive and eventually thrive. You’re all about to go through a massive transition, and counseling will help, but it’s going to be difficult, and it’s going to take a while, so you’ll want to adjust your expectations accordingly. Take care of yourself, and take care of your son, and be as kind in your honesty to your husband as possible. If he needs to deal with his self-image in the wake of your coming out, he will have to do so with his own therapist, his own friends, and on his own. You cannot both end your marriage and be his primary source of comfort—that’s going to become his job. Reach out to other women who have gone through what you’re experiencing; don’t just read their blog posts but ask for support. Other people have done this and come out the other side better for it, and you can too. Good luck. —Danny M. Lavery
From: “Help! I’m a Lesbian, and I’m Scared to End My Marriage to My Husband.” (Dec. 27, 2016)
I found my late husband’s box of diaries a few months after his passing. He kept a meticulous record of our children’s growing up and various family activities, which are now a treasured memory. I was shocked and dismayed, however, to discover he also wrote of his yearning for his past girlfriend whom he dated when he was in his late teens. Every now and then his entry includes his feelings for her. He wrote that he was devastated to learn of her marriage, and how he fantasized that he was with her while making love to me. When I had our first child he wondered what his baby would look like if he had one with his ex. The ex-girlfriend is someone I know through mutual friends, and she lives in another country. I am certain they did not have any contact. But now I feel like my memories of my husband are tainted, and I am heartbroken as though he cheated on me. I also wonder what I should do with these diaries, which contain great love for our kids and description of the normal family things we did together—and also evidence of his affection for another woman. I thought we had a good marriage but now as a 30-year-old widow I guess we didn’t.
What you discovered is that your husband wrote down the thoughts most people let pass without a trace. I am sure you had a good marriage. I bet he was so happy that he was married to you, and not her. He didn’t even have to go on at length about how much he loved you in the diary because it was a self-evident fact of his life. What he used the diary for was to record the passing of events, and also to work out something deeply private, and deeply human, that he didn’t want to burden you or your happy marriage. Many, many people live alternate lives in their heads. It’s a pleasure, and price, of being human and having the capacity for such thoughts. So while he was totally devoted to the life he had with you, his diary was the place where he worked out the stuff that we all tangle with. I once got a heartbreaking letter from a woman whose mother died while she was a teen. She adored her mother, named her daughter after her, and after her father died, was clearing out the house and found her mother’s diary. It was full of worry and critique of her teenage daughter, and this now-middle-aged woman was writing to me, devastated to find her mother didn’t really love her. But that wasn’t the message of the diary! The diary was the place for a loving mother to put her fears and worries about the teenager she adored. Unfortunately, the diary of a late love is a snapshot that can never be further elucidated. Your husband is not around to reassure you that he is thrilled he married you and that the diary is tiny, tiny slice of himself. You are a young widow who has experienced a terrible loss. Even without the discovery of the diary, you should talk to a counselor who specializes in grief. That person should help you put your loss, and your husband’s private thoughts, in perspective. —EY
From: “Help! My Late Husband’s Diary Is Full of Yearning for His Ex-Girlfriend.” (April 7, 2015)
I was recently asked by a professional acquaintance to be the best man at his wedding. I’m very surprised by the request, as he and I only talk once or twice per year about work, and I do not consider him to be a personal friend. I would feel gross while pretending my way through a wedding I have zero personal investment in. But I also wonder if this person had no one else to ask. I think of how awful that must feel and wonder if going might be a random act of kindness for a relative stranger. And to a lesser extent, I worry about burning a bridge that could be useful for me professionally in the future. Can I say no? And if so, how?
I can’t imagine that being best man in a near-stranger’s wedding would somehow end up a professional stepping-stone for you. It’s certainly sad that you appear to be the closest male friend this man has, but that’s no reason to join his wedding party. He could have you on the hook for party planning and wedding talk for months if you say yes. If you’re interested in being kind to him because he seems lonely, ask him out for coffee and talk about something besides work; don’t rent a tux and pretend you two are best friends. Tell him that while you’re honored by his request, you don’t think you’re the right person for the job and wouldn’t be able to do the role justice, given your busy schedule. (If you don’t have a busy schedule, get one.) There will be other professional opportunities that won’t involve planning a bachelor party for a man you barely know. —DL
From: “Help! Someone I Hardly Know Asked Me to Be the Best Man at His Wedding.” (Jan. 14, 2016)
More from Dear Prudence
Four years ago, my sweet and loving husband, the awesome father of our three children, was struck down by brain cancer and suffered brain trauma following emergency surgery. I’ve cared for him at home, dealing with the hassles of hospitals, insurance, family drama (his parents blame me for his health issues). He will never recover and he is declining. It is like being married to a 41-year-old Alzheimer’s patient. He does not remember me, our long marriage, or our kids. I’m trying to place him in a nursing home, but there are waiting lists. About a year ago, I met a man who was genuine and kind. As the friendship grew, he began helping with my kids, even helping my husband by playing music and visiting with him. My boyfriend knows I am committed to giving my husband the care he deserves and respects that this is a package deal. Once my husband can be placed in a good facility, I will pursue divorce, while making sure he is properly cared for until he passes on. My boyfriend and I recently found out that, despite using protection, I’m pregnant. We are excited, as once I am legally able, we want to marry. My family is not happy, as in their eyes this is not appropriate, and they have been icing me out. They adored my husband, and have had little chance to get to know my boyfriend, since I live in another state. How can I smooth over my relationship with my family?