Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below to get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week. Read Prudie’s Slate columns here. Send questions to Prudence at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Q. My Husband Did a Disappearing Act: Six weeks ago my husband of almost three years took off. I came home from work to find him standing in the kitchen with a suitcase, saying that it was nothing personal but he needed to get away for a while, and then he left. I didn’t hear from him or see him for five weeks. I was hurt but I was also frantic with worry. I thought we were very happy, and this came completely out of the blue. He didn’t go to work (they said he’d taken a leave of absence), hadn’t spoken to any of our friends about this, and his parents claimed he wasn’t in touch with them. He came back last Thursday. He refuses to answer any questions about where he was and what he was doing. He is also a little angry with me for “involving” our friends and family in “his” personal business. I am torn between thinking that he was having some kind of crisis and thinking that he’s spent the last five and half weeks with another woman. Now that he’s home, he seems to want me to forget this ever happened and pick up right where we left off. I have told him that he needs to tell me where he’s been and what he’s done, or he can leave again. He says he’s not talking about it anymore and is not going anywhere. What should I do?
A: Unless he can introduce you to his CIA case officer, who explains you can’t be privy to the details of his mission, you have a huge problem. What he did is a gross violation. Maybe he was shacked up with someone else, maybe he was involved in some kind of crooked enterprise, maybe he was going cold turkey. But whatever was happening, what he did, and his attitude toward you, are inexcusable. He reappears and is pissed that you tried to find out where your husband was? This is the kind of thing that makes people reassess the words husband and wife. There’s no way you can just pick up and go on, wondering if any day may be the next day you come home and he’s holding his suitcase telling you “it’s nothing personal”—nice touch, that! If he won’t tell you what was going on, and won’t go to a counselor with you, then go by yourself. You tell him he has put your marriage in jeopardy, you’re not simply going to pretend this didn’t happen, and you have to do some serious thinking about your future.
Q. Children’s Accusations: My husband’s sister has been dating a man for about a year. She has an 8-year-old son. This man has a daughter who is 7, and he shares custody with her mother. About 11 months ago, his daughter accused my nephew of touching her inappropriately. My sister-in-law and her boyfriend didn’t believe her, and nothing ever came of that accusation. About six months after that, this girl again accused my nephew of touching her, and her mother called Child Protective Services. After an investigation, they determined that nothing had happened, and my nephew was cleared of any wrongdoing. This was when my husband and I first found out about everything, and we begged her to get away from this man, his daughter, and the entire situation. She told us that she would, but that hasn’t happened. She’s still allowing her son and her boyfriend’s daughter to spend time together, and now she and her boyfriend are talking about moving in together. My husband and I are beside ourselves—we cannot understand this at all. Are we crazy? Or should we keep trying to convince her that her focus needs to be about protecting her son?
A: Let’s stipulate the facts are just as you describe and that while this little girl has accused your nephew of touching her inappropriately, the accusation is not true. That means something is up with this child, and someone needs to get to the bottom of it. It could be someone else is touching her but she’s been warned not to ever say who. It could also be that in the course of having inappropriate touching explained to her, she was given alarming information and misunderstood it. However, your nephew has now twice been accused by the same girl, he has been investigated by the government, and I strongly agree with you that this is a very dangerous situation for him. Let’s assume he is not doing anything wrong. If this little girl is confused, or troubled in some way, he could become her target again, to devastating effect. If a third accusation arises, that might not go so well for him. There are juveniles on the sex offender registry, and your sister-in-law has to be cognizant of the jeopardy her son potentially faces. I think both you and your husband should sit down with her and present her with research about what could happen. Yes, she may be in love with her boyfriend, but her first obligation is to protect her child.
Q. Don’t Like Listening to Sister Beat Down Her Husband: My sister, much as my mother does, likes to tear down her husband both to his face and to me in conversations. It makes me feel icky, and I try to change the subject. This isn’t “He won’t put his socks in the hamper and it’s annoying” that I’m talking about here. I’m married, so I get that no matter how much you love your spouse, they can grate on you. I just don’t like to tear down my husband publicly, and if we have issues, I discuss them with him and/or a therapist. Is there a nice way to deflect this sort of conversation? If she really needs to talk something out, I listen, and I’ve suggested therapy, but I think she just wants to bitch.
A: You can say to her something like this: “When you talk about Jeff, you sound exactly like Mom talking about Dad [or your stepfather, if that’s the case]. I never understood why Mom stayed in a marriage that made her so unhappy, and if you are so unhappy with Jeff, you should either get couples counseling or divorce him. He seems like a good guy to me, and you chose him. But maybe he’s the horrible person you paint him as being. If so, do something about it, instead of complaining endlessly, because I don’t want to hear it anymore.”
Q. Stressed-Out Student: I’m a high school student going into my junior year. This year I applied for and was accepted into a public boarding school for high-ability students. I’ll be living there most of the year with the normal breaks and extended weekends every six weeks so I can see my family. My parents are amicably divorced, and I currently stay with my father every other weekend. The trouble is, my father still expects me to come home every other week despite my moving two hours away. While I love my dad, I don’t love his house and planned to come home only on breaks. Plus, I will be incredibly busy once I start at my new school. How do I explain to my dad that while I want to spend time with him, I don’t plan on coming home as often as he would like?
A: Congratulations, this sounds like a great opportunity. You tell your father forthrightly that given the distances involved, and the load of work you will have, you simply can’t go back and forth every other weekend. You sit down with him with the school calendar, and you two together mark off the times you’ll be able to visit him (while obviously taking into account when you’ll visit your mother). You say that you hope he’ll be able to come up during the term some weekends so that you two could go out to dinner on a Saturday night, for example. You also tell him that Skype and Facetime were invented for people like you, and you look forward to taking advantage of the technology that will allow you to stay in regular touch.
Q. Re: Children’s Accusations: Prudie, I was a little surprised by your reply to this LW. Though in general I do agree with you (and her), it seems very clear from the letter that the SIL in question does not want to leave her boyfriend. In reading the letter, I just thought, “And why/how exactly is this your problem to solve?” LW may want to suggest that SIL get some counseling or extra support, but after that, she’ll have to leave it alone. I don’t think that telling SIL for the 101st time that she has to leave her boyfriend and put her child first is going to work this time.
A: Likely the conversation won’t work. But they aren’t living together yet, and I think it’s important to make one more try at the sister-in-law seeing just how dangerous this is for her son. No matter how much this couple loves each other, they have two kids, and either one has been making false accusations or one has been touching the other inappropriately. That means that the children simply can’t spend time together, let alone live in the same house.
Q. Should I Let My Foster Child Call Me Mommy?: I have legal guardianship of a child whose mother (a single mom) became permanently incapacitated following an accident. I regularly take the little girl to see her mom, who lives with her own parents needing full-time care. Recently the child started calling me Mommy—I sense that her real mom is hurt by this, although she refrains from saying anything directly to me or her daughter. I don’t know what is the right thing to do here. I don’t want her to feel like she doesn’t belong in our family but I also don’t want to cause pain for her mother.
A: How about if you are “Mommy Natalie” and her biological mother is “Mommy Susan”? It is natural that her little girl would want to call you Mommy, and I hope you let her do it. But you can also explain to her that some people have two mommies—she’s one of them—and her biological mom really wants to be called “Mommy,” too. What a heartbreaking situation, and how lucky your little girl is that you are in her life.
Q. Re: Children’s Accusations: How about approaching this from a different standpoint and trying to figure out what had prompted these accusations in the first place? It might be that the girl is simply rebelling against her father’s new relationship by making up accusations aimed at distancing him from the new girlfriend and her son. Maybe it’s something that could be addressed with a family therapist.
A: I agree the mother of the girl has to try to figure out what is going on. I also stand by my judgment that this is a dangerously volatile situation and the parents’ obligation is to look out for the long-term interests of their children.
Q. Names: When I married 10 years ago, I kept my name. Most family members accepted my decision, but some still refer to me, write to me, and introduce me by my husband’s name. Any suggestions how to react to this situation?
A: You don’t say how many family members or how old they are. When I finally got engaged, my grandmother was so excited that she proclaimed, “It’s a miracle!” I didn’t change my name, but for the rest of her life when she wrote to me, or introduced me to her friends, she used my husband’s last name. She died about 15 years ago, and I miss her. I assume the interactions you have with your recalcitrant family members are limited, and that these relatives are not introducing you to potential employers, etc., where the name issue would be more relevant. But when they do introduce you, feel free to interject, “Actually, I go by Huma Abedin, not Weiner.” Of course, people should be called by the name they choose. But you’ve presumably been shrugging this off for 10 years, and if the family members who do this are older, this will eventually take care of itself.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone.