Dear Prudence: Should a dying husband confess infidelity?

Advice on manners and morals.
June 27 2011 3:35 PM

All Dogs Go to Heaven

Dear Prudence advises a dying husband on whether to confess his infidelity—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.

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Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat with readers about their romantic, family, financial, and workplace problems. An edited transcript of this week's chat is below. (Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week; click here to sign up. Read Prudie's Slate columns here.)

Emily Yoffe: Good afternoon. I look forward to your questions.

Q. Affair: About six months ago my doctor gave me two more years to live. I started using that time to make peace with my family, especially my wife, as we've had a turbulent marriage. Things have been going well so far and our marriage is probably the best it's ever been. What I am wondering now is if I should tell my wife that I've had an affair for eight years with another woman. It ended a couple of years ago and we're not even in contact anymore. But there is always a chance that my wife will find out. I don't want her besieged with unanswered questions or anger she can't express after I'm gone. I am also worried that if she were to discover the affair after my demise, she will feel as though the last good years of our marriage were a sham. But on the other hand, I don't want to spend the last year or two we have together dealing with this revelation. What is your take on all this? And yes, I know I'm a total jerk, among other things you can't publish publicly. Please spare me the judgment and give me some advice here.

A: Since you say your marriage was turbulent perhaps your wife knows on some level that you weren't entirely faithful throughout the course of it. You have both received shocking and painful news and are now dedicated to making the best of what time you have left. I hope that will be some considerable amount, and since the affair is well and long over, I agree that in this delicate period of rapprochement, you don't want to spend it dealing with the fallout of a past affair.

This doesn't mean you never tell your wife, but it may be something you decide to do later. Perhaps there will be a time when you can say to her that rededicating yourself to your marriage has been the sweetest time of your life. That you want her to know what her love and support has meant to you, and that you are sorry you weren't always the husband you should have been. She might say, "It doesn't matter now, I don't even want to talk about the past." Or she might want to know what you mean, or you might feel the need to explain you feel guilty about the past and don't want it to shadow your present. But even if you tell her, being honest in this circumstance doesn't necessarily require you to reveal with whom or for how long. You can just explain you don't want her to ever think that there was dishonesty in your last years together, but that she should know this time together has been real and true.

Dear Prudence: Imaginary Romance

Q. Right to Sleep in the Morning: I need advice on how to handle a problem that has been occurring throughout my 30-year marriage! Basically, my husband and I have very different sleeping habits. I go to bed, get 8 hours, and get up. My husband goes to bed, gets five-six hours and then catnaps throughout the day. The problem is that when he gets up at 5 or 6 a.m., he likes to return to bed with a cup of coffee, the dog, some reading material ... and I can't sleep through it. An electronic reader has been helpful and he does try to be quiet, but it ruins my last hours of sleep and I feel lousy for the day. He thinks I am the problem because I can't return to sleep. Today he did it again and then got really mad at me about it. He says he is exiled from his own bed. Who "gets the bed," the person who is trying to sleep or the person who wishes to lie down for coffee and a book? What is the solution, as there is no extra bedroom?

A: About 29 or so years ago I would have started thrashing around in my sleep, "accidentally" knocking the cup of coffee onto my husband's chest, and saying, "Oh, dear, I was having such a violent dream. I hope the coffee didn't burn you." If you two don't have one, invest in a wonderful invention called a "couch." While on it your husband can surround himself with newspapers, dog, and doze or read in perfect contentment. The bed is for sleeping.

Q. Teenage Daughter Dealing With Depression: I have a fantastic teenage daughter who is always cheerful and pleasant at home. The other day I got a phone call from her friend (who moved to another state last year) saying she was very worried about my daughter. It turns out that my daughter has no friends at school and has been feeling depressed. I had absolutely no idea because she looks so happy at home. The friend asked me not to say anything to my daughter because obviously she wasn't supposed to tell, but she felt I needed to know. I am grateful for this information but now have no idea how to approach it with my daughter. I tried to start a discussion about her school life and she brushed me off, obviously unwilling to talk. I don't want to force a conversation with her but I feel like I need to intervene somehow. I will appreciate your advice here because I'm at a loss as to what to do. Thank you.

A: Go back to your friend and say that obviously her news has shaken you and you must do something, but for the sake of honest discussion, you want to be able to tell your daughter why you are bringing up your concerns. Ask your friend to either release you from the confidence, or contact your daughter directly and tell her a mother has to know if a daughter is depressed. Then you should tell your daughter that you don't want her to feel she has to put on a happy face to reassure you if she is feeling miserable inside. Say part of being a teenager is believing no one has ever felt the way she feels and there's nothing to do done, but fortunately, that's not true. Tell her if she's feeling so terribly sad, you want to talk to her about this, and maybe you both will agree that she should find a professional to help her sort through her feelings, because she should never feel she is battling this alone.

Q. Commute Troubles: I ride the same bus to and from work every day. Lately, this older man has been overly friendly to me. I say hello and make pleasant small talk. One day, he sat next to me and was basically trying to sneak a feel while I was half-asleep. I didn't know what to do so I put my lunch box between us. Since then, he's been trying to touch me in passing—like touching my hand or arm when leaving the bus. He does it so quickly and when he gets off the bus so that I can't really say anything so far. It's gotten to the point where I am very grossed out and I feel violated. Help!

A: If he's on the bus every day, first of all tell the bus driver what's going on. There may be some protocol the driver needs to follow in cases like this. Then, the next time he comes to sit next to you, say in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, "Don't ever sit next to me again or I will call the police."

Q. Depressed Daughter: Or maybe the daughter wants to leave her school problems at school and enjoy a happy home life. I went through most of high school depressed and without many meaningful friendships. The only way it would have been worse is if I'd been forced to talk to my parents about it.

A: But the daughter has confided in the mother's friend, which means she's looking for help. Some readers are saying to leave the friend out of the discussion so it's not seen as a betrayal. I totally understand that perspective. The mother could say, "Let's talk about what's going on at school. I've noticed you don't spend much time with friends," may work. But it's also possible the teenager told the mother's friend because she didn't know how to "let down" her mother that the happy face she was presenting at home wasn't the whole story.

Q. Depressed Daughter—It's HER Friend, Not an Adult: It's a friend of the DAUGHTER who told the mother, not one of the mother's adult friends.

A: Thanks—got to watch the speed reading! Ignore previous advice! And obviously the daughter has at least one friend. In this case, the mother will know if the daughter actually spends time with friends or spends all her time alone. It also could be that the daughter was confessing a bout of unhappiness that has passed. This friend could be someone who is letting the mother know the daughter is more troubled that she appears, or she could be melodramatizing regular teenage angst. In this case, the mother—who has a good relationship with her daughter—should be more persistent. In the end, the mother might need to say she heard from this friend because there may be some strange back story there.

Q. Wedding Invitation After a Death: I was hoping you could resolve a small debate I am having with my aunt about a wedding invitation. Last fall, my parents received a "save the date" card to an out-of-town wedding from the daughter of a family friend who was getting married in May of this year. Unfortunately, my mother was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer and passed away in March of this year. The wedding came and went, with no invitation ever being sent to my dad. Here is the debate: I feel that regardless of what happened with my mom and her illness, the couple should have sent an official invitation to the wedding since they sent the "save the date" card. My aunt thinks that they didn't have to send the invitation because they knew what our family was going through with the loss of my mom. I can see this both ways but ultimately feel that it should be my father's decision to attend or decline. This is really trivial in regards to how we are all still feeling, but I would still like your expert opinion. Thanks.

A: Your aunt is surely right that the invitation didn't come because the friends felt it would be in bad taste to ask your father to come celebrate while he was in mourning. But you are more right that they should have sent the invitation anyway and let your father decide. It should have been sent with a note to your father saying something like, "We are heartbroken at the loss of your beloved Cynthia. We understand how difficult this time is for you, Harry, but if you are up to it, we would be so happy to have you join us at Victoria's wedding. If you can't make it, we will all get together as soon as we can arrange it."

Q. In Vitro Dad: My wife is pregnant, via IVF. Our first child is an IVF baby. I love her very much. But I didn't want to go that route again. I gave in to my wife and now our next child is coming. Sometimes, I feel like conceiving in this manner is a personal failing. We have not told many that we are pregnant. My wife wants to keep the means of pregnancy a secret, but I feel like telling people it was IVF, every time I hear a word of congratulations. Please give me the right perspective.

A: Dad, there is so much misperspective in your letter I don't know where to begin. Please let go of the idea of "giving in" to your wife about using fertility treatments. If you never wanted children at all, that is something you two needed to clarify before you started reproducing. But if your concern is over the means of production, stop being ridiculous. No one signs up for IVF unless they're unable to have success the old-fashioned way. This technology is a blessing that has allowed you to be parents. Once you are parents it doesn't matter if your children came via the missionary position, a Petri dish, an adoption agency, or the stork. They're your kids. How you conceived them is so profoundly no one else's business that you are embarrassing yourself and your friends by wanting to blurt it out. Please concentrate on being the best husband and father you can be, and get help if you remain obsessed about the assistance you've gotten from people in lab coats.

Q. Baltimore, Md.: I've been with my boyfriend for 4.5 years. I've been ready to get married for well over a year. A year ago we had a discussion and he said he thought he wanted to get married but just wasn't ready yet. Fast forward a year in which we attempted counseling together, worked through a pre-marriage book to work on communication, and he is still "not ready yet" and can't give me an answer as to why he's not ready, when he might be, or what he's doing to come up with an answer to these questions. I believe he loves me but he has issues from his parents' divorce that he's not willing/able to work through. We're in our early 30s, and I want to have children. At this point giving more time for him to "get there" just doesn't seem fair to me. What can I do?

A: You can be patient and respect his timetable and "issues," which of course might mean that you end up having issues of your own—like your need to keep the air conditioning on high because of your hot flashes. The guy may love you (you don't sound positive), but he has made it clear every way possible he's not going to marry you. I get a variation of your heartbreaking letter all the time: man with endless horizon for childbearing stringing along a woman whose eggs are about to expire. It's a terrible dilemma to wonder if you have enough time to find someone else who will want children with you, or you should continue to throw your lot in with the guy who just might come around. I say don't go through life passively waiting for others to want you. Tell him you're moving on.

Q. Daycare Provider Passed Away: This is so awkward, I'm finding it hard to actually write. We found out this weekend that our daycare provider passed away. Since my husband was planning to quit his job in the fall when one of our large debts would be paid off, he has instead decided to put his notice in now since finding good, affordable care in our area requires months of advance searching. Here is the awkward part. We have a large deposit, plus a week's advance pay, with the provider who has passed, and money is about to get extremely tight. Since this was home care, how long should we wait, and how do we ask her husband for a refund? We loved their family dearly and I wish we could afford to just leave it alone, but we really can't. Please let me know how to proceed in this awful situation.

A: You write a note about what she meant. You bring a casserole. You attend her funeral. Then wait about three weeks and mail him a letter saying you would give anything not to be having to write this, but you know he must be closing up the business and unfortunately you need your deposit and advance payment returned. Enclose the paperwork to make it easier for him. And reiterate how much his wife meant to all of you.

Q. Lying to a Dying Woman: My mother has a terminal illness and does not have much time left. She said it is her final wish to have an elaborate Buddhist funeral after she dies. I gave her a noncommittal answer but she continues to press this point. This is something that is significantly meaningful for her, yet I see it as a complete waste of money. We had a huge ritualistic funeral for my father (mainly for my mother's benefit) and all of us siblings still feel resentful for spending so much money that could have gone towards the living (my daughter's college fund, for instance). Will it be a terrible thing to do to tell my mother what she wants to hear, and have a more modest funeral after she passes? I believe it's entirely possible to say a respectful goodbye without all the Buddhist rituals that she wants.

A: A sad theme is emerging in this chat. Many people get satisfaction from planning their own funeral. But when you plan something designed to make your loved ones miserable and broke, there seems to be a lack of recognition that you actually won't be there to enjoy the production.

However, terminally ill people need to get cut a lot of slack. Could you possibly say to your mother, "We want to honor you the way you want and will do our very best." Then when the time comes, honor her in the way you can afford.

Q. Crazy Cat Mom: My mom has six cats and does not give them proper veterinary care. This weekend my fiance and I stopped by several times to pet-sit for her and are very concerned about one cat in particular who is nearly bald and just sat in her litter box crying. Apparently she has been bald for quite some time and my mom believes that this is because she "got one flea bite and just went crazy pulling her hair out." I do know that my mom has been trying to get rid of the fleas with at-home methods and baths, but these do not seem to be working so we brought over some of our cat's heavy duty flea and tick medicine, though we still feel that she needs to be checked out by a professional or given up for adoption. We've looked up several low-cost veterinary clinics and shelters that she could bring the cat to— or we could even do it—but aren't sure how to present this to her as she gets very nasty when she feels she is being criticized. Do you have any advice for how we can get through to her before it's too late? We're stuck between trying to talk to her or sending an email listing all of the resources we found.

A : Your mother may get nasty, but you can't let her outbursts get in the way of helping suffering animals. I hope the cats she has are spayed and neutered, or else your crazy cat mother is on the way to becoming a crazy cat hoarder. The cat you saw is in a medical crisis, so you should feel free to scoop it out of the litter box and get it the care it needs. Please monitor the situation with the animals. In the worst case, you may have to call animal control to have the pets she can't care for taken away.

Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone, and sorry for what were some technical glitches that interrupted the chat. (And I apologize for the mental glitch that had me misread who the friend was in the depressed teen letter.) Have a good July 4th and talk to you Tuesday July 5th.

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