Advice from Slate's 'Dear Prudence'

May 13, 2013

Need help getting along with partners, relatives, coworkers... and people in general? Ask Prudence! Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence takes your questions on manners, morals and more.

Good afternoon. Let's get to it.

Dear Prudence, A few months ago, my husband uncovered an affair I was having with an old flame. He moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, but in the time since, I was able to convince him that I am truly repentant and to give our marriage another chance for the sake of our children. The problem I have now is that he says that if we are to stay married, he wants it to be an open marriage. I've tried to tell him that Iâ've gotten that out of my system and I don't want to be with anybody other than him, but he says there just isn't any way he can ever trust me again, he doesn't feel an obligation to be faithful to me anymore, and at least this way we're being honest about it. Prudie, it makes me ill to think about him being with another woman. I just want things to go back to how they used to be. How can I convince him that we need to be completely committed to each other in order for this to work? -Missing what we had

I assume you were the little girl who wouldn't let anyone else play with your toys, but you insisted on hogging everyone else's.  I agree that couples can have various understandings about fidelity, but the key is being in agreement. It's perfectly understandable that the betrayed partner in a formerly monogamous relationship might want to step out him or herself. But this kind of score settling is unlikely to heal the breach. But you have some nerve demanding that "things go back to how they used to be." You strayed and only got religion upon being discovered. It sounds as if without the affair being revealed you would have been perfectly happy with a seemingly placid marriage and a reignighted flame on the side.  Whatever happens, things will never be just as they used to be, and that is the first lesson you need to truly absorb.  Especially when there are children involved, I don't think the dissolution of a marriage should be the natural consequence of a single instance of infidelity.  But you seem to want no consequences for your actions. It could be that you and your husband should simply be separated for a while -- without the threat of  divorce hanging over your heads -- to see how each of you feel about this new status. While you do that, I will naturally recommend couples counseling. It sounds as if you both need a third party to help you communicate and to hold a mirror up to the consequences of each of your actions.

Each Mother's Day I am expected to prepare and serve a special breakfast. Plan and pay for an activity centered around what "mom" enjoys and provide cards and gifts for my wife. We have a young child and have had gone through the same thing each of the four years. My problem? We are lesbian couple. I'm a mom too. She is the birth mother, but how do I explain to my wife that I want the special day too. It's not like I am celebrated on Father's Day. One year it was so bad that when the restaurant offered each of us a free dessert with dinner, she claimed mine too and asked for it in a to-go box.

I think Mother's Day is mostly a manufactured force march (and as I made dinner last night, I found how much my husband agrees with this) and is best downplayed. But for you this holiday exposes an ugly crack in the foundation of your relationship that must be addressed. If your wife is not on board that biology aside, you two are every bit equals as mothers, there is an ugly undertone of you being a second-class parent. I admire you for not resorting to the classic pie in the face when your wife claimed your dessert. But now that Mother's Day is over, you two need to have a private discussion in which you say that the Mother's Day dynamic is terribly undermining to your relationship and your sense of being full partners in the raising of your child.

Dear Prudence, My mother had a brief relationship with my biological father, they were never romantically involved after my birth. When I was about six months old, my father was incarcerated for life due to a violent crime. My mother explained this to me with varying degrees of detail throughout my childhood. Although it sounds like the beginning of my life was rocky, my mother provided my with a wonderful childhood and eventually remarried when I was 12. I have a fantastic relationship with my stepfather (who adopted me at age 15). However, this is a detail of my life that I do not wish to be common knowledge. My fiance is aware of this element of my past, but we have not told the rest of his family. His aunt loves genealogy and has pressed me for more details of my origin. I gave her my stepfather, but she asked me point blank for my bio fathers information. My fiance sent an email to his aunt, explaining that I never knew my bio father and am very close to my stepfather. However, I suspect she is the type of person who will take it upon herself to find this information on her own. I also suspect she will let his whole family know about this, something that I do not particularly want and I know my mother does not want. Should we tell his parents the truth and ask them to keep this as quiet as can be? Or should we just keep quiet and deal with this if it becomes an issue?  

I am really sick of the blood lust that animates some people's sense of family. Your stepfather adopted you, so he is your father, period. If your fiance's nosy aunt wants to look up his ancestry, she has his name and is free to click away. You do not need to provide her with any information about your "real" father. It doesn't sound as if your fiance's parents have inquired as to the whereabouts of your bio dad, so it's just fine that you don't bring this up. If aunty keeps pushing, just tell her it's wonderful she has such an engaging hobby, but it's not yours and you can't help her. I understand that you do not want to share the details of your biological father's life, but I hope you don't carry this as your own burden of shame.

Dear Prudie - My friend committed suicide last Thursday night. Because of that, and circumstances surrounding that suicide (I saw his body before the police got there, I was among the first to hear about it), I suffered a severe panic attack. (I suffer from a panic disorder.) I had to be sedated. I told my boyfriend of four months ("Kevin") what was going on so he wouldn't worry when he couldn't get ahold of me. He responded by asking me whether this would become a regular thing, and then told me that he didn't know if he could be with me if it would. Prudie, I doubt this is going to become a regular thing, as there were some pretty severe extenuating circumstances behind it; but at the same time, I can see his point. A recent boyfriend should not have to see me through this kind of thing. I'm not really sure it's right to stay with someone under these circumstances. Should I work this out on my own? Should I stay with him? I do care about him a lot, but I don't know if this is really the best time.

I'm so sorry for this loss and your trauma. However,  painful as it is, it's useful that Kevin's character was exposed in such a stark way so early in your relationship.  You walked in on a death scene. You don't need to suffer from panic attacks in order to have one under those circumstances. If a boyfriend of even only four months can't come to your side to help you through such a dire experience, now's a good time to explain to him that the "regular thing" is going to be that you two no longer see each other.

Dear Prudie, I've been living with a roommate (someone I knew only through other friends) for about six months now and I've been noticing that from time to time, some of my food seems to go missing. It's not a lot, just  enough for me to notice. A cup of cereal here or there, some milk, handfuls of pretzels or chips, a couple of slices of bread, an occasional piece of fruit. I just seem to go through food faster than I used to when I lived alone. I've never caught my roommate stealing food, but I can't come up with any other explanation. I have a longer commute than he does, so he spends a couple of hours alone in the apartment almost every day. Short of catching him red-handed, I guess I can't really prove that I know he's stealing, but I'm pretty positive and I don't like that he's taking food without asking permission. We occasionally offer each other a beer, or offer to share leftovers if we have them when we're making dinner, but we agreed when we moved in together that we would be buying our food separately, and I certainly never agreed that we could just take food from each other's shelves in the pantry. Other than this, we get along pretty well, but this is really starting to get on my nerves. What can I do about it?

I suppose roommates can have this kind of punctilious agreement that everything, down to the condiments, is separate. But it's really hard if you've run out of your own bread not to take a slice of an available loaf when you want a piece of toast for breakfast. Either you need to say to your roommate that you need a strict agreement that food is sacrosanct, or (my suggestion) you say that you understand that occasionally dipping into staples is almost irresistable and that you should each contribute to a fund to make these available for both of you. Surely something around $20 a month should cover the noshing.

I am 76 years old, retired and living in a resort community along the sourthern coast. I have one son who lives about ten hours away by car. I have made the trip several times each year over the nine years of my retirement. Over the past three years, I have learned that my son is an alcoholic. I have personally had to call 911 twice after finding him in a dangerous stupor in his home. I have seen him through two DUI trials and helped him get to out-patient rehab stints. After a recent crisis, I strongly encouraged him to enter a 30 day in-patient program. His response was to cut off all communication with me. Is there anything I can do to reconnect with the son I love? 

Tragically, as I learn over and over again, some people cannot be helped or saved. Once  their loved ones have tried  everything possible then it's time to  accept this painful truth. Your son obviously needs more than outpatient care, so if there are other family members available, perhaps all of you can do an intervention with the purpose of getting him into an in-patient treatment program.  Perhaps, too, there are other friends or family members nearer by who can check in on your son. After two DUI trials, I'm concerned that he's might still be on the road. If these others find he's drinking and driving, the prosecutor's office should be contacted to tell them your son is violating the terms of his probation (which I hope he's on). At least some jail time would require him to sober up and minimize the danger he presents to innocent people.

This can't be a legit question. Didn't Hax get the same question from the standpoint of the fiance's aunt?

I am a Carolyn Hax fan and reader, but somehow I missed that she got this exact same question from the supposed aunt's perspective. In Carolyn's version the aunt had already uncovered the incarceration and wanted to know if she should tell others. (Carolyn slapped down the aunt for pressing on this and told her to keep quiet -- I agree.) So either someone is seeing if they can get both of us to bite, or two people on opposite sides of an issue have written to separate advice columnists.

The LW should make it a Mother's Day weekend, one day she gets to be celebrated and the other day her wife gets to be celebrated. That should even it out without taking away from a potentially fun tradition.

Yes, that's one good solution. But what is disturbing is that the biological mother has so thoroughly claimed the day as hers. If the other Mom has to explain she's a mother too, the issue goes beyond each woman getting her own Mother's Day dessert.

I need help about my son's extremely obese fiancee. I might need advice on how to get over my own discomfort and how to address rude comments from family. My son is engaged to a girl who was a little more heavy than "chubby," when they met, but who has in the last two years gained another 150 pounds. She makes me uncomfortable because she eats the most unhealthiest of diets -- fried foods and sugar, basically. My son battled weight issues as a teen but fought hard and lost it all and kept it off for eightyears. I'm upset that her influence is also causing him to gain weight. I know there are tons of weight issues here ... I am not too thin, and most of my family members are heavy. Other family members make comments to me about how she will break their furniture, whether she is one of those people who ride carts at WalMart, how they don't invite them over because she eats too much. Really bad stuff. Is it even in my place to suggest she gets help? I feel terrible for feeling this way.

A weight gain of 150 pounds in two years is extremely alarming and if your son's fiance were drinking excessively or behaving in other obviously destructive ways you would say something to him. So say something. Explain you love Audrey, but she is endangering her health, and you are worried about their future together. Then even if she can't shut her mouth, you have to shut yours. If your son is old enough to marry, he's old enough to make his own decisions about whom to marry and what to eat, even if they are poor ones. As for family members, just shake your head and say that all of you should be sympathetic about how hard it is not to overindulge.

Dear Prudence, For Mother's Day, I decided to treat my mom to a weekend of gambling, as she has always enjoyed this, and she hadn't been to a casino in a long time. I checked it out with her ahead of time, made the reservations, drove us there, etc, and we spent two nights in Reno. While at the actual casino, we  sometimes drifted apart and did our separate things. I was quite lucky, and won a slot machine payout of over $1000. It was nice, as it basically paid me back for the weekend, and left me a bit of extra money. My mom lost several hundred dollars. The problem is that now she expects me to pay for her losses. In her words, "What's the big deal, you won anyway?" She feels that since I hosted for this trip, I somehow"owe"her for her losses because I won. I have no intention of paying her back for the money she lost, and she can certainly afford it. But now she is furious with me. Help! Did I do something wrong?

At least you can hope your mother is not going to kneecap you for not paying what she thinks is a gambling debt.  It would be one thing if your mother had handed you a silver dollar and said, "Please play this for me." It's another if lady luck shown on you this Mother's Day and not on her. You comped her for her celebration, so she should be grateful that she had so much fun and that her lossses were relatively minimal. Accept your entire windfall as payment for being such a thoughful child.

My husband and I recently opened our marriage to be polyamorous (more deep bonds with other people than the "running around" some consider open marriage). As Ive told a couple female friends, I've lost them as friends. My boyfriend and I have a wonderful relationship, and he gets along well with my husband and our children, so I can see a time where he may end up meeting my very Christian father. Dad already hears me speak of my friend Roger often, but I wouldn't be surprised if he picks up on the actual nature of our relationship. He'd be seriously floored and adverse. Losing friends was bad enough, I do not want to go through this with my father. Can I keep it that we are 'friends' even if eyebrows start to raise?

Now that gay marriage has become so normalized (even if not everyone understands that on Mother's Day both moms deserve to be celebrated) I expect polyamorist to start coming out of the closet.  I understand polyamory is different from polygamy, and doesn't share the latter's  rigid and noxious views that men run the show and are the only ones allowed multiple partners. I basically feel adults are entitled to make the personal arrangements that please them as long as that doesn't hurt others, but my concern is what it means to the children. I don't get the impression that you've seriously thought through the affect of this on them since you are so unsure about how to present yourself as a newly constituted family. You've learned that blurting out your good news has not engendered congratulations and inquiries about how your friends can get rogered with their own Roger. So letting your father in on your secret doesn't seem necessary or beneficial. I think you three adults need to do a lot more thinking about your arrangement and its effects on everyone involved, and right now I don't see the need to make your private lives public.

Emily, The LW clearly said s/he suffers from a panic disorder. Why is it a character flaw of the boyfriend's if he admits he may not be able to be in a long-term relationship with a person who suffers from a panic disorder?

Because she just saw her dead friend and any decent person would in the aftermath of that be kind and supportive.  Yes, people with medical or psychological conditions should also tell their partner about such things. So this is a lesson for both of them to think through as they find new loves.

Over the weekend my wife suffered a miscarriage. She started miscarrying while we were eating dinner with my children from my first marriage, who live with us every weekend. My kids, 9 and 12, did not know about the pregnancy, but did see their stepmother hunched over and in pain. They know she's sick, and after I dropped them off at their mom's house, I've only called them once and sent them a few emails (all to let them know my wife will be physically okay). My ex-wife has been texting me all weekend about what is up and what she should tell the kids. Earlier this morning she texted to ask if my wife suffered a miscarriage. I appreciate my ex-wife's concern but am currently very shaken and heartbroken. We need some space from her, and we don't think we have to tell her if my wife had a miscarriage. Is there a polite way to ask for some space? My wife and I are also unsure if we should tell the kids about the miscarriage, but whether we do or not, we don't think my ex-wife should be a part of that conversation.

Your children were present for something disturbing and they are entitled to a simple and direct explanation of what happened. Not explaining is only going to feed their worry.  You should either see your kids, or at the least get them both on the phone, then  explain what a miscarriage is, say that their stepmother is fine. You can say you know it was upsetting for them to go through this and say that you and their stepmother are both sad right now. You may not want your ex-wife to be part of any conversation about this, but you are sharing the raising of two children, so treating this news straightforwardly will benefit all of you.

I live in Utah where Genealogy is culturally a Very Big Thing. And I have my share of nosy family who are into it. With the tools available to the Aunt, the letter writer needs to worry about when, not if, information is discovered and decide how she wants to work with it. Would there be any hope of dropping a hint to the aunt that she is sensitive about the information and would prefer not to have it shared? If not, she just needs to decide how to respond when Aunt Blabber shares with everyone.

I don't think the letter writer really does need to worry.  This chat's producer, Bethonie Butler, did some sleuthing and discovered that both the letter writer to Carolyn Hax and me is the same person.  The original letter was sent months ago, so this is a very patient hoaxer.

My wife took 3 months maternity leave when our daughter was born. When she returned to work, I began my own three month paternity leave. It's wonderful and my daughter is thrilling, but my problem is my friends. Until a few weeks ago, I took them for normal people with a basically modern view of gender roles, but they have been mean and judgmental about this, calling me "whipped" and saying I shouldn't "let" my wife read any more books like "Lean In." (Really.) This weekend, three of them got together and told me that I should be angry at my wife for forcing me to give up on a job I love. No one is giving up on anything! This is just the way we are dealing with the fact that we BOTH love our jobs, and we love each other, and we love our daughter. We know we won't always be able to split everything exactly 50/50, but we're coming at it with a 50/50 mindset. In the long term, I'm sure I'll make friends with more open-minded people, but in the short term,  I'm home alone all day with a 15 week old baby, and I really could use the support of some friends! What do I do?

As disturbing as this is, it's actually beneficial for you to find out your friends are such troglodytes so you can dump them and find some people who live in the 21st century. You hardly needs male friends who act as some kind of insane Greek chorus demeaning you for wanting to spend time with your daughter and be a partner to your wife. Your daughter did you a great favor with the timing of her birth because parents and children are going to spilling outdoors everywhere. This is a good time for you to look for groups -- at your place of worship if you have one, at the Y, through a community center -- of new fathers and mothers who want to get together and share this wonderful experience.

My husband and I moved away from our hometown almost 15 years ago. We left behind all our immediate family (both sides) and as a result have gone back to our hometown for "vacations" throughout the years. We now have two kids that are a bit older (3/8) and would like to start doing more of our own vacations. My husband is going to have a milestone birthday this winter and I'd like to take our family on a tropical vacation to celebrate. The problem? We won't be able to return to our hometown for our typical "summer' vacation as I'd like to save money. My own parents are OK with this, but my mil is not happy. She was planning on us coming and is distraught we won't be able to make it. I invited her to come here instead (we live in a vacation destination state) but she is unwilling to travel and seemed resentful when she mentioned us taking a "winter vacation" someplace warm. How do I fix this? For the record my parents visit annually but my husband's family will not travel here despite having more freedom of time and financial resources. Thoughts?

It's perfectly fair that not every vacation for the next decade plus consists of a return to your hometown. But you have to recognize that keeping children connected to their extended families also has a value that's equal to sun and surf.  If your in-laws are physically and financially capable of visiting, then your husband should talk to his parents and try to convince them it would be a great change up if your children got to show his parents your hometown. It could be that your in-laws  are uncomfortable with the idea of bunking in your house, so he should say that there are great accomodations nearby if they prefer to have more  privacy. And if they won't come, and your family can't afford two big trips in a year, your husband can always suggest that his parents underwrite your summer visit to your parents' town.

Dear Prudence, I have been married to my husband for 21 years and six years ago he shared with me that he is attracted to men. Due to religious reasons, he does not want to pursue living a gay lifestyle. He says that he has never been unfaithful to me in the physical sense. Over the past six years, we have tried to make things work and I was sworn to secrecy and could only discuss the situation with a few people that he had to approve of. Now, we are now getting a divorce and he still says that he isn't gay and is telling people that "we just drifted apart." When our friends hear that, I come across as the wife who just wouldn't try hard enough to save the marriage, because he doesn't want to get divorced. What people don't understand is what it has been like for me the past six years: living in his closet and how hard I really have worked, through marriage counseling, and individual therapy. He still doesn't want people to know about his same sex attraction. My question is: what is my obligation to honor his wish to stay in the closet? Do I need to keep his secret? Signed, Str8 Spouse

I don't know why the burden of "drifted apart" falls so hard on you. If you were to say the equivalent, "We just couldn't make it work anymore," that's plenty ambiguous and says to the questioners that their desire for salacious details will go unrewarded. However, your ex husband does not get to dictate your life story. If you want to tell your friends what you've been through (with the knowledge that they will be very likely to tell their friends) then that is your decision. For guidance and the perspective of others who have been there, contact the Straight Spouse Network.

I have been dating a wonderful man for about four months now. He is a model boyfriend 90% of the time, but its that 10% that concerns me. He binge drinks and when he does his personality changes significantly. He goes from being a kind-hearted caring man, to someone that ignores me for long periods of time, is nasty, and blames me for everything. All his friends are huge drinkers. He does not drink daily, but tells me that once he starts he cannot stop. It happens at least four times a month. He apologizes and seems truly sincere and sad, and then it just keeps happening. He refuses to admit he has a problem. I want to give him an ultimatum, but everyone advises against it. I cannot deal with the drinking, but I truly love the rest of him. Is it wrong to give the ultimatum? I've given him several chances to "control" the drinking and each time he fails. I have told him I think he's an alcoholic he does not agree. Are you aware of any good free resources for binge drinkers, it seems most cater to alcoholics? It is very easy to just tell me to walk away, and that's what all of my friends think, but when you are in the situation, its just not that black and white.

However you want to define his problem his relationship with alcohol is toxic not just to him, but to you. In the four months you've been together, by your count you've witnessed at least 16 episodes where he is an abusive drunk. Forget the ultimatums, he's chosen the bottle, and you need to walk.  This situation is actually plenty black and white, and the longer you hang in there during episodes the greater your danger of ending up black and blue.

A cautionary tale: A friend went through this with several other couples. It all ended badly and everyone ended up getting divorced. It was painful and expensive for all involved (including the children). I think it was fun for everyone in the beginning, but over time, it caused a lot of stresses in everyone's marriage and other relationships. I'm not saying this will happen with your situation, but please think through your decisions carefully.

I agree that upending an existing marital arrangement is fraught with all sorts of potential emotional perils.

Eeek! I thought the chat was anonynous. There goes my will to submit anything. Or do you just know that it is the same IP address or something but not the actual person?

People who submit questions are  anonymous! Bethonie found that the IP addresses were identical, that's all we know.  Whether you write in to the chat or to the Dear Prudence inbox ( we zealously guard people's privacy. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.

Thanks, everyone. Have a good week and be grateful Mother's Day is over!

In This Chat
Emily Yoffe
Emily Yoffe -- a.k.a. Slate's advice columnist Dear Prudence, offers advice on manners, morals and more. She is also Slate's Human Guinea Pig, a contributor to the XX Factor blog, and the author of What the Dog Did: Tales From a Formerly Reluctant Dog Owner.

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