Help! My Husband Sought Casual Sex Before He Died. How Do I Honor Him Now?

Advice on manners and morals.
Aug. 9 2012 3:45 AM

Betrayal From Beyond

I just found out my husband sought casual sex before he died. How do I mourn him now?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photograph by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
Several years ago, after accepting that I'd be alone forever, I met a wonderful man. He was kind, compassionate, intelligent, hilarious, and widely respected. We were true soul mates. Shortly after we married he was diagnosed with a terminal illness. He fought bravely for several years while I gladly worked full time, cared for him, and basically took care of everything so that he could focus on his health and the things he enjoyed. He recently lost his battle. While searching for information on some loose ends, I stumbled across email responses he had sent to singles and couples seeking casual sexual encounters. The three instances I found were a few months after we'd met and were falling in love, shortly after we'd declared our love, and earlier this year, after we'd been "happily married" for some time. I am destroyed. I’m now grieving for the relationship I thought we had and the man I thought he was. I gave everything I had to him, and now I want to flush his ashes down the toilet. I am very close to his family, and my family loved him. We still have to plan his memorial. I can't stand the thought of planning, attending, or acting sad at his memorial. I don't want to keep his last name. I don’t want to see his family. I don't want to scatter his ashes in places he loved. I don't want to tell our families what he did and destroy their vision of him. But I don't think it's fair that I bear the brunt of this pain alone and live behind the facade of grieving widow.

—Betrayed Widow

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Dear Betrayed,
The box in the attic. The papers in the back of the drawer. The unlabeled videotape. The odd email string. This is the detritus that’s sometimes left behind that can upend how the living remember the dead. Certainly it’s infuriating that your husband, probably out of oversight and certainly not out of malice, didn’t scrub his email so that you couldn’t stumble on this loose end. But here you are, unable to confront him, unable to leave him, and having to wonder if everything was a lie. I don’t think it was. Let’s take what you’ve found. It’s three emails spaced over several years. From your description, it’s not clear whether these encounters actually took place. Yes, you have evidence of interaction, but it doesn’t appear you have confirmation of consummation. But let’s assume the worse case. Sure, it’s possible you’re only seeing a sample of his extracurriculars, but you might be seeing the extent of it. If so, then your husband had three casual sexual encounters after he knew you. Two took place early in your courtship, and one was as he was facing death. Maybe before he met you these kinds of activities were his prediliction, but he reined that in because of his love for you. The final episode (if it even took place) could have been a last bit of sexual bravado for a dying man. I understand you feel bitter and betrayed, and he did hide an unappealing aspect of himself. But none of that cancels out what you had or makes it a lie. You’re in shock and you should not handle this alone, nor do I think you should spill this to those who are also mourning. Please consider seeing a therapist who specializes in grief. Talking this through in confidence with a neutral person will allow you to work out this complicated loss. That should allow you to plan the memorial, and know that when you hear the many people there attesting that you were the love of his life, feel secure that they are telling the truth.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
My son has been attending the same summer camp since he was a small boy. He is now 16, and this was his first year working as a counselor. He was not particularly happy with his job and had some trouble with his bunkmates. But he has enjoyed being there and seeing his old friends. I am now on my way to pick him up after getting a call from the camp director. Apparently he had masturbated into something and was carrying it around. According to my son, it was on a dare. I have no disagreement that what he did was inappropriate. The camp is putting out the story that he was unhappy with his job. My daughter, who is working there, knows he did not quit, as do a few of the adults. My husband and I differ on how to deal with this. My husband feels that having to leave camp was a huge blow and that we don't need to punish him at home. I feel differently. What do you think?

—Disappointed Mom

Dear Mom,
We can all agree that teenage boys can be jerk-offs, and this episode is exhibit A. I spent many summers at camp, so I know about such hijinks as short-sheeting the bed and putting frogs down people’s backs. But I missed the one about carrying a container of semen all day. Your son sounds quite immature. It seems that he wanted to hang around with his friends but wasn’t ready for the responsibility of being a counselor. He also lacked the judgment to resist some nasty person’s dare. And someone must have disliked him enough to rat him out—unless the container your son was carrying was labeled, “My Ejaculate.” You and your husband should have a sense of whether to be concerned that your son’s social relationships are going awry and he’s not keeping pace with his peers’ development. If that’s the case, you two need to get him some intervention. But if you conclude he’s just a 16-year-old doofus, I agree with your husband that the humiliating end to your son’s summer seems like fitting punishment. Sure, your husband needs to sit down with him and have a thorough discussion about the lessons learned. (Aside from “Stay out of the Tupperware.”) This conversation should make clear that your son understands he’s responsible for his own behavior and he’s able to reflect on being drawn in by others' bad judgment. But there doesn’t seem to be anything to be gained by beating this to death.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I love my fiancée, Janet, but I have concerns about the way she treats my 8-year-old daughter, Carly. The three of us recently went to a local water park. I gave in and allowed Janet to pay, but I was concerned because Janet gives gifts with strings attached. When Carly refused to go on any of the “scary” water slides, Janet complained bitterly and said she wasn’t getting value for her money. I’m concerned that Carly is more mature and honest about her own feelings than Janet is. Carly told me, "Daddy, I'm terrified of heights, I don't want to go, and if you make me it'll be really cruel of you.” Janet was unmoved and continued to sulk and make snide comments. Because we can’t have children, Janet wants us to adopt after we marry, but I’m reluctant to bring any more children into the picture until Janet has resolved her issues. What should I do?

—Al Bundy in Training

Dear Al,
So Janet must be really great in bed. Or maybe she’s on the Forbes 400. I’m trying to come up with a reason you fail to mention that would explain why you are engaged to this jealous, manipulative, punitive woman. But even if she’s done things in bed you’ve never gotten anyone else to go along with or she has an enviable bank account, that shouldn’t be enough for you to consider marrying someone who bullies your child. I get an unfortunate number of letters from people like your daughter who describe childhoods in which their father married a woman who resented them. The stepmother, true to fairy tale form, did everything she could to make the children’s lives miserable and estrange them from their father. The fathers, knowing the hell to pay by standing up to the new wife, became passive jerks. Blessedly, you haven’t yet married Janet. You are both able to see her character with great clarity and admire your daughter’s wisdom and strength. Break it off with the fiancée and vow the honor your obligation to your little girl by finding a partner who will enhance all of your lives.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence,
I graduated from college three years ago and was lucky to get into a government volunteer program that gave me fantastic training. The program also had financial awards that allowed me to pay off my college loans. Meanwhile, my friends are still struggling, working job to job. Recently, I got a great job offer, and while I was waiting for the paperwork, I told a friend. During a monthly group get-together she blurted out that I had no more debt and a good job. The next day on Facebook a friend accused me of lying. Others urged that if I have ever owed anyone money (which I haven’t), they should get it back. I'm livid. The friend who announced my information offered to tell everyone she was joking, that there was no job and I that I still had loans. I worked hard to get where I am, but now I feel ashamed about my success. Should I go along with lying to them to keep the peace?

—Feeling Guilty

Dear Guilty,
What a discouraging commentary on our times that a group of recent college graduates would be shocked and jealous to think that one among them could now be debt-free and launched on a career. I share columnist Robert Samuelson's worries that your generation will live economically stunted lives. But you should not feel guilty about your good fortune, nor should your friends mock you. Since you understand their anxieties, just ignore the jibes. Feel free to remind them that the best friend of the underemployed person is someone with a good job who will recommend them for openings.

—Prudie

More Dear Prudence Columns

Past Imperfect: I want to bury my wretched childhood, but the new in-laws insist on a rehash.” Posted Aug. 18, 2011.
Fibber McGee Comes Clean: Prudie advises an elderly man consumed with shame over his chronic lies.” Posted Aug. 11, 2011.
Take My Wife, Please: I convinced her to bed another man, and now I'm insanely jealous.” Posted Aug. 4, 2011.
A Minor Flaw: I'm dating a man who was charged with soliciting a teen for sex; I wish I'd never discovered this!” Posted July 28, 2011.

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

The Nudist Next Door: Dear Prudence advises a reader whose new neighbor needs better curtains—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Sept. 6, 2011.
Type "R" for Revenge: Dear Prudence advises a woman who got her cheating ex fired by sending a nasty email—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Aug. 29, 2011.
Sexy Cougar or Dangerous Predator?: Dear Prudence offers advice about a May-December encounter that the victim deems harmless—during a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Aug. 8, 2011.
Baby Blues: Dear Prudence advises a woman who regrets adopting a child—in a live chat at Washingtonpost.com.” Posted Aug. 1, 2011.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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