S1: Dear Prudence Dear Prudence Gifford zero prudence if it is your prudence HERE PRETTY. DO. YOU.
S2: Think that I should contact him again. Help help. Thank you. Thank you.
S3: Hello and welcome to another mini episode of Dear Prudence. I’m your host Daniel Mallory or Burke and this show is for you. Plus subscribers. This week my guest is Elizabeth Freeman a professor of English at the University of California Davis specializing in among other things gender slash sexuality studies.
S1: And now here’s our first letter.
S4: OK so we’re moving on to a problem that I find a little sweet and I feel at least optimistic about how we can help. It reminded me of like the old French versions of Beauty And The Beast the one with her sisters you know.
S3: So the subject of this one is just doubts Dear Prudence. I married a widower after he lost his wife of 30 years. They were both dear friends of mine for a decade before she got sick. I know a large part of our courtship was our mutual reminiscing. My new stepchildren have told me that they’re glad their father chose me because I knew and loved their mother. I moved into my husband’s house and didn’t change much beyond a few coats of paint to match my furniture. My friend had exquisite taste and I can’t imagine taking 30 years of life off the walls. My sisters visited us. I wish they hadn’t. All they spoke about was how haunted the house was by the first wife how I was a second hand replacement and many uglier remarks. Some of that seeped into me. I used to love listening to my husband talk to his children about how their mother was love of his life. My parents never had that I never had that. I lost my baby while my husband was sleeping with his mistress. We’d been married for less than two years at the time. My new husband is devoted and kind. I feel ill about these old ghosts coming up and tainting my marriage. I can’t get my sister’s words out of my head. Both have been divorced several times. I tried to defend myself to them but I don’t know how to defend myself against my past.
S5: Please help. This is not the plot of Rebecca is it. It’s its own host. It does feel like a movie.
S3: If if she were her own sisters got it and it would be the plot of Rebecca. Yeah I mean maybe when you have a little more distance read or watch Rebecca because it’s delightful. But I think you’re kind of too close to the yes situation right now.
S4: It sounds really painful to have sisters who brought those doubts into your head awful like just classic like fairy tale means step sister behavior. I do think that the letter writer has correctly identified where this is coming from when she says both of them have been divorced several times over. Like none of this was said out of a spirit of compassion or love. None of this was like hey I’m worried that your husband doesn’t seem to be treating you well and like leaves you for hours every day to lock himself up in the West Wing and stare at a portrait of his wife that would at least feel like they were motivated by love for you concerned about your welfare.
S6: So I think you can just assume they said that because they don’t like that you have a devoted and kind husband and they want you to feel bad about it or even that they don’t like that you’re a big enough person not to erase the presence of your friend. Oh yeah. You know that that you actually are a capacious enough to preserve this person’s walls you know décor that you that you are okay with and even love listening to your husband talk about how much he loved your mother and that takes a very big person to not be to not be feel overshadowed by that past. And it seems like your sisters kind of turned that that largeness of soul that you have into something small and shriveled and that I feel really bad about that in my I want to tell you maybe take a break from those sisters maybe not have them over for dinner.
S7: You certainly don’t invite them over anytime soon. Did you get the sense that the letter writer had shared any of this with her husband or that any of this had been set in his presence or that it was all sort of like they waited until he was out of the room and then they started like whispering poison into her ear.
S6: Yeah it’s interesting it did.
S8: It didn’t sound like he was there to to hear it.
S6: The sort of moment I can’t get my sister’s words out of my head you know it doesn’t. It sounds like they spoke to to the letter writer separately. Yeah.
S4: Because I would maybe share some of this with him. If you’re worried about like maybe he’ll never want to talk to them again you can maybe hold back some of the worst things that they said but I think I would I would share that with him just in the sense of like I want you to know why I’m having a hard time dealing with my sisters right now. Not in the sense that like I need you to reassure me everything is okay. Although I do hope that he will also stress how much he loves you and cares for you. But you know he should just as your partner in life he should want to bind up your wounds when you were hurt.
S6: It might help to hear him say you know tap my help to have him be able to say oh I I want to make sure all this is okay are you. Are you two haunted. Or so you know. It might be questions you could ask yourself in relation to him that are much easier to ask than it then because you’re sisters. Clearly they didn’t make you have doubts they did make you wonder. And I think if a conversation with your husband might make you be able to ask those same questions and in a way that feels much less toxic. Yeah and then I think also it might be healing to hear your husband remind you of how much how devoted you have been to the memory of this person you both love. Yeah you know that might that might kind of help you to get past the sisters.
S4: I think too. I often hear from somebody who’s married to someone who’s been married before and the way that the question about love often gets framed is like either do I just totally always be the bigger person and let that person be exactly as they are or how do I ask for some of that dead person’s love to be moved over to me. And I think there’s another way too which is it’s also really okay for you to say after you’ve shared all this with him. I would love to go do something that’s just about the two of us and whether that’s like look for some art for the walls. Again without like redecorating the whole house or planning a trip together or some sort of activity that you both enjoy that doesn’t have roots in the past but to just say something that I need right now is affirmation of the relationship that we’re in together and I want to take away from the past and I don’t want to suddenly start doubting things that I knew to be true before but I just need a little extra love and attention right now.
S6: Let’s go get some frozen yogurt or what have you and that you use that fragrant mind and all the letters.
S3: That was a I don’t I was just thinking specifically of Charlotte and Harry getting frozen yogurt and Sex in the city and you know that was a second marriage. She had previously been married. Duckie from Twin Peaks. Not on Rebecca all the time. Exactly. Even the second Mrs. De Winter gets to end up having a weird sad hotel life afterwards. Spoilers for Daphne Timorese Rebecca. Sorry if you still working on that. Oh boy howdy. This next one is long. I tried to edit it down but you know when you get a letter from someone maybe not because you don’t I don’t really get a lot of letters asking me for advice.
S4: Like from students you know like when somebody is just in the same level of like urgency as they were whenever the problem first revealed itself to them they’re trying to write about it and they’re just like they can’t catch their breath and they just like and you need this to gel and you need this one and oh fuck that happened too. And so just I feel like the length of this letter really clues you into this letter writers level of frustration.
S3: Yes. So you get to read it. I do. Hey. The subject is veto. Dear Prudence. My wife and I have been married for 12 years and have two children. Sex was always the last item on the list for my wife and after the birth of our second child she admitted in counseling that if she could have had children without sex she would have and if she never had sex again she’d be fine. She wasn’t willing to go see a doctor about it continuing counseling was a waste of time energy and money. I love my wife and I love our kids but we’re both barely in our 30s. The word divorce finally spooked my wife into giving me a hall pass with the stipulation that I couldn’t sleep with someone we knew couldn’t sleep with someone in our town and she didn’t want to hear anything about it for a year. Nothing happened until I met Laura. Laura is an older woman who works in the main office of my company. She is sexy and vivacious and wants no more for me than a physical relationship and some laughs. We see each other at maybe twice a month when I drive into the city. I’m happier than I’ve been in years. It’s easier to focus on my family and I even have started taking up date nights with my wife that actually ended up backfiring. My wife got suspicious and started saying things like you seem to be in a good mood now and you’re working out more conversation she blindsided me and asked if I was seeing anyone. I just answered without thinking. Nothing came of that for a while. Then my wife started calling me out of the blue if I had to go into the city and trying to track my movements. We finally had a fight and she pulled out the veto card. Her reasoning was that she had met everyone in the main office at the Christmas party last year so I was in violation of our agreement. I hit the roof and we ended up screaming at each other. I asked if we were going to have sex again in our marriage and she told me she wasn’t quote ready for that again. I told her that she’s been breaking the vows she made to me from the day we got married. She started to cry and said that our family matters and our children mattered. I said it was this or she could file for divorce. I ended up spending the night at a motel. This freaked out the kids my date my wife and I spent days trying to sue them and have fallen back into our old roles. Neither of us are bringing up what happened. It’s now been months. I’m still seeing Laura. I don’t know what to do. I don’t want a divorce. I do love my wife. I love our children and maybe I’m awful but I do need sex. This isn’t the life I imagined when we got married you two certainly know how to have it out when you do fight.
S4: That is just like a classic barn burner of a fight. I feel like I need to go lie down after this one myself.
S6: It’s really hard to know where to start. I mean I guess I want to start with maybe I’m awful but I do need sex. I don’t think that it’s awful to need sex and I don’t think that means that the person you want it from has to give it to you. But I do. I don’t. I want to start with sort of. There’s nothing ignoble about the wish to have a sex life and to express yourself sexually.
S4: I’m so glad that you said that because I do think sometimes when I hear from couples who are at this level of like a standoff the framing sometimes becomes Will I want sex and I don’t think I should apologize for that which is true but then it can kind of turn into and if you won’t give it to me then we are now only bound by the laws of what is fair. Like it’s no longer about communicating compromise honestly and openly identifying what we’re both afraid of what we both want to avoid what we both want to stress. It’s just about you are cutting me off from my sex life. Therefore I am entitled to go do anything within reason. Under this following rubric and I think that can really like you could be quote unquote right about this as much as you want but if ultimately you know your spouse isn’t feeling at all heard a respected you’re going to end up in a situation like this where you’re like well by the letter of the law I’m not doing anything wrong but you and your wife are like terrified to talk to each other again about this cause you’re going to end up screaming at each other. So I just think there’s something a little bit more important than simple who is the most fair here. Yeah. Which is hard because I think if you’re at the point of the marriage where you’re just like I just want to win and I want my spouse to admit that I have won. I’m not getting that can feel like giving up.
S6: It sounds very it’s that the writer says we tried to couples counseling and it didn’t work right. It was a waste of time. It was a waste of energy and I wonder a lot about that. Like maybe wrong therapist right. Wrong time to try to do this and maybe maybe now is a better time because I think if you don’t want a divorce and you do love your wife and you do love your children then there has to be a way through and that way through with this person and that way through doesn’t necessarily have to end up as a standard monogamous you know marital couple relationship it could end up as an open marriage or it could end up as you know in a sexual platonic co parenting household. There’s a number different forms it could take but they sort of have to be consensual. Yeah right.
S4: Yeah. And I think I like that idea because the idea of asking your wife if she would be willing to try counseling again not to like quote unquote fix her sex drive but to say like right now we have a situation where it only works if neither of us acknowledge what’s going on. And the last time we talked about it we both like flipped out. And so to say like underneath my sense of like what I’ve been wrong like how I’ve been wronged what I care about is this like I care about our marriage. I care about you I care about our kids. I know that that’s true. I want to be able to find ways to talk about this situation where if you are feeling jealous or lonely or scared or threatened you can share that with me in a way that’s not about trying to control my movements and I can hear that without getting immediately defensive. And as if you’re trying to do those things and I think a counselor would be super super helpful because we are trying to navigate a dynamic in our relationship that we’ve never done before. And if that’s your goal going in I think you might learn some things about each other including again. I don’t say that. I don’t mean like oh you have to learn this because then maybe you could fix it but like you know that your wife wished she could have had kids love sex and if she never had it again she’d be OK as you don’t wanna go see a doctor. Do you have any more of a sense of like what’s going on there.
S6: Yeah. I mean it’s not awful to need sex but it’s also not awful to to to not want to have sex. They’re very different reasons why people might not only think knowing more like it sounds like she feels in some ways accused or that she feels defensive and you feel you know bereft or like you’re not getting what you need. And some other there has to be a conversation where she can say here are some of the things that stopped me from liking sex. Yeah. You know and here are the some of the things that I’m afraid over that don’t work well for me or that I haven’t tried because I think they’re yucky. But you know I mean that’s just kind of what therapy a good therapist can kind of get you there. Right.
S4: And again like this is not so that you can figure out what the problem is that you can fix it. There’s a lot of reasons why somebody might not like sex. It could be simply that she doesn’t have much of a libido and that’s just not how she experiences like love and intimacy. There could be trauma. There could be you know there could be like physical pain that does stem from a medical issue but it’s become so associated with sex itself that she doesn’t want to get it treated. So I think mostly I would just be curious because it’s like there’s a pretty big part of my partner’s life is this lack of interest or pain response when it comes to sex. And I want to like non defensively and non accusatory really learn a little bit more about why that is because it’s not just like she broke a promise. I get to go do what I want it’s like my wife doesn’t like sex and I want to know a little bit more about why that is. And I will be allowed to make my own decisions. I can choose whether or not I want to stay in a relationship with her. I can choose whether or not I want to articulate and defend my sexual relationships outside of this marriage. I can take her thoughts and feelings into account. I can disagree with her without screaming. I can disagree with her without saying I’m going to leave you and you’ve been breaking your vows like you don’t have to go to that level in order to ask for or to take what you want and when they say take what you want I mean like pursue the life that you want.
S6: Not like grab somebody that you have to have sex with me because it’s I mean what’s at the heart of this letter for me around the sex stuff that’s really painful is it’s terrible to have a partner who rejects you you know who you feel like doesn’t want you but it’s also terrible to have a partner who you feel like wants sex and you’re sort of incidental to that. You know I think there has to be a way to meet each other around these questions. They may not result in a sex life with this with with your wife. I don’t think they will. But they but they will they will they should result in respectful. Yeah. Creation of of a world for your children and you know some other things that you seem to both care about and to reduce bitterness I think here.
S4: Letter writer your fear is my wife doesn’t care about me as a sexual person she’s indifferent to the ways in which I feel pent up unattractive unwanted isolated when I’m not having sex with my partner and that just doesn’t mean anything to her. That’s your fear is that you’re like sexual persona is worthless to her. And I think her fear is that unless I’m providing sex my husband doesn’t care about my feelings or my boundaries. Again that doesn’t mean she’s been always behaving in a way that I would have encouraged her to behave. But I think we can kind of both agree at this point you’ve both lashed out at each other and I think yeah her fear is that since she’s not having sex with you anymore you don’t care about her and both of those fears make sense to me. And I think you can both because you do want to stay in this marriage you can both come together and say what’s hard for you about this. How can we talk about this differently without promising. Don’t worry I’ll stop seeing Laura or insisting I’ll see her no matter what you want. Like no one’s gonna take Laura away from you unless Laura decides to stop dating you. You can. You don’t have to cling to her like a toy someone’s going to take away you get to make a choice. You can even make that choice if your wife dislikes it. You just don’t have to be cruel about it.
S5: And good luck. I feel for you both. He said squiggly.
S3: I also feel like I’m like you’ve had a cold. I also just love the way that this letter writer describes Laura like she’s older vivacious and she likes a few laughs like she just to me she sounds like Catherine Zeta Jones in Chicago. No. I went out for some ice. Give me the keys to the car lover I feel like change in wigs.
S9: That’s our mini episode of Dear Prudence for this week. Our producers felt circus. Our theme music was composed by Robin Hilton as always. If you want me to answer your question call me and leave a message at 4 0 1 3 7 1 dear. That’s typically 2 7 and you might hear your answer on that episode of the show. You don’t have to use your real name or location and at your request we can even alter the sound of your voice. Keep it short 30 seconds a minute tops. Thanks for listening.