Mallory Ortberg, 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.)
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Q. Cheating husband?: My husband has been texting his ex-wife rather extensively for some time and he has been hiding it from me. I would not be surprised if this has lasted our whole relationship. I accidentally found a text message to her very early on in our relationship when he asked me to read a text on his phone. I asked him about it right away and he said they were still friends and he didn’t want to stop talking to her. I let it go but have had a hard time trusting him. I have gone through his phone on numerous occasions (I know this is really bad of me) and I have found flirty texts to both his ex-wife and his other long-term ex girlfriend. I confronted him each time and he would apologize and say they were just friends. Pretty soon every time I checked his phone I never found anything but I also had a gut feeling that he started deleting them since I had found them so many times. He keeps his phone glued to him most of the time. Yesterday morning he left his phone on the table and even though I haven’t looked in a long time curiosity got the better of me and I looked. There was a Facebook message from his ex-girlfriend. I stewed about it all day and then last night I told him I was thinking about how he texts his exes and told him that I felt like it was cheating. I told him it hurt me badly and I asked him when the last time he had texted either of them. He said he couldn’t remember the last time he talked to his ex-girlfriend but he had recent contact from his ex-wife. He also told me that he isn’t cheating but he will withhold information from me if he thinks it will upset me. This set the red flags off. This morning I logged onto our mobile phone website and discovered all of the times he has texted his ex-wife in the last 90 days. It was a lot. I plan on talking to him about it tonight when he gets home. My question is, should I call his ex-wife and ask about the nature of the texts before he gets home? I want to know if they were just friendly or sexual. Either way I am upset but if they are sexual I will be more so. I don’t plan on yelling at her or telling anyone else. I just want to know.
A: By no means should you call either of your husband’s exes about this. He made it clear to you at the beginning of your relationship that he maintained a friendship with both his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend, and you claimed to “let it go.” You say some of the texts have been flirtatious, which may be true, but separate from that is the fact that you clearly do not want him to have any contact with his exes at all, which is not something he’s ever agreed to do. The message from his ex-girlfriend you’re currently stewing over did not, by your account, contain anything inappropriate—it was the fact that his ex-girlfriend was speaking to him at all that’s upset you. Asking him to unilaterally end his friendships with his exes may not be a reasonable request. What you can ask for is to figure out better ways for the two of you to communicate, for him to reassure you that he’s committed to you and your marriage, and for you to find ways to deal with your own insecurities that don’t involve violating his privacy.
Right now you two are in a deeply unpleasant cycle where he feels he has to hide his friendships with his exes from you, you periodically go through his phone, feel guilty about doing so (although not guilty enough to stop), and he retaliates by deleting his text messages and spending more time talking to people who aren’t you, including his exes. Neither of you trusts the other, which doesn’t make for a happy marriage. I’d encourage you to go to counseling—together if your husband is amenable, separately if he isn’t—to figure out how, at the very least, you can develop more effective communication strategies than going through your husband’s phone when he’s out of the room.
Q. Unhelpful friend after breakup: After three years my boyfriend broke up with me. It was sudden, completely unexpected, and the reason for the breakup seems to have less to do with the relationship and more to do with his current mental state. I am constantly fluctuating between hurt, sadness, anger, and confusion. My friends have been the best. I cannot imagined having a more supportive network. However, one of my friends has decided to rail on my ex constantly talking about how awful he was, etc. He was not awful. I spent three years of my life with this person and I love him. When I try to tell my friend this she says I’m “just making excuses” or “you are better than him anyway.” I find this all unhelpful. It does not make me feel better or help me make sense of the situation. I know she thinks she is helping me by painting by ex as a villain but I just want her to back down a bit and maybe even talk to me about other things. I cannot seem to get her to understand this. Please help.
A: “I’m not going to discuss my ex with you again. I know you think constantly criticizing him is helping me, but I can assure you that it isn’t; I’m not going to move on from this breakup by pretending that there was nothing good about the relationship. If you need to talk about him, please do it with someone else, otherwise we won’t be able to continue this conversation.” Repeat as necessary, and be willing to hang up the phone or walk away to back up your promise.
Q. Really dislike friend’s new beau: A few months after one of my best friends “Rachel” and my husband’s friend “Dan” broke up, Rachel entered a serious relationship with an old flame, “Barry.” This guy rubs me entirely the wrong way. Their former liaisons took place while he was cheating on a long-term girlfriend, whom he continued to date for years afterward. People change, so I’ve tried to give him a fair chance, but he makes it hard. He’s got a jealous streak, jokingly uses certain words in offensive ways, and got so drunk at an event that he knocked over a bunch of expensive equipment and was kicked out. Rachel is totally smitten by this guy, and while I don’t get it, it’s none of my business who she loves and I would never volunteer my feelings to her unless asked, and even then I’d tread very lightly. I’m also keeping my mouth shut among mutual friends since I wouldn’t want that to get back to her. I’m polite to him, but I’ve kept her somewhat at arm’s length recently to avoid hanging out with him. I believe the two of them and some of our friends are starting to notice. Normally this would be OK but the thing is, I’m the one who originally set Rachel and Dan up together, and Dan is still our roommate and great friend. I worry that Rachel and our friend group might think that I just dislike Barry in comparison to Dan. I don’t know what my friends’ true opinions of Barry are, but from what I can tell they all seem to like him just fine. I really don’t want to come off as a jerk who’s taking sides, I just don’t want to be around Stanley very often. Am I doing the right thing, or should I explain myself to anyone?
A: You do not have to explain anything to anyone. You are polite but not close with your friend’s new boyfriend, and if any third party assumes it’s because you prefer her old boyfriend to this one, that’s hardly a stain on your character. Stay the course, and let Barry’s behavior speak for itself.
Q. Guilty secret: I know a secret I wish I didn’t. My sister has been unhappy with her long-term boyfriend for a while. He is older than her, has a stable job, goes to church, but isn’t “exciting anymore.” She has been messing around with an unsavory type behind his back and I get to hear all about it. I have told her to break up with her boyfriend if she was unhappy, that sleeping around behind his back is sleazy, and she gets mad and hangs up on me. But she keeps confiding in me. Only now it is more seriously because she is pregnant now. This guy performed a vanishing act on her so she panicked and slept with her boyfriend to cover it up. She plans to have the baby and lie to her boyfriend. I told her this was an awful lie and she needs to come clean with her boyfriend. She has ignored me totally. I see on Facebook that they have announced their engagement and the pregnancy. Her boyfriend and his family 100 percent on board with this. I live in a different state and only have met his guy once. Our parents don’t know the truth; I am the only lucky recipient of this knowledge. I don’t know what to do. I feel that ethically I should tell him but it would completely destroy my relationship with my sister. She only works part-time and there is no way she will be able to raise a baby by herself. I hate knowing this. What should I do?
A: Your sister has destroyed your relationship with her by forcing you to become involved in keeping a destructive secret from her boyfriend. Nothing you do at this point could destroy your relationship, because she’s already set it on fire by putting you in this position. Tell her that if she’s not going to tell her boyfriend the truth, that you will, because he deserves to know everything. If nothing else, he has the right to know that he should be getting tested, since his partner has been having unprotected sex with both him and someone else. It is not your job to help protect her from the consequences of her actions. Your ethical obligation is to your sister’s boyfriend—who is being deceived—not to your sister, regardless of how she behaves, merely because you two are related.
Q. My best friend is marrying a jerk: I’m in the middle of a pretty clichéd predicament, but I’m really at a loss for what to do. My best friend is marrying a total jerk and she’s asked me to be her maid of honor. Well, not so much asked as it’s “unspoken” because she was my MOH and I’ve just yet to receive an official request. I’ve spent the past couple of days searching for advice on how to handle it. On the one hand, I feel I should support her by being in the wedding and resist the urge to give my two cents, but another part of me feels like it would be disingenuous (not to mention down right difficult) to have to feign supportiveness for this union in word and deed for the upcoming months. I think she probably senses deep down that a lot of her friends don’t like her husband-to-be, but is in denial about it. What say you?
A: It’s worth noting that you have not yet been asked to be your friend’s maid of honor, but you’re already significantly distressed at the mere possibility of having serve as one. That says something about just how difficult putting on an act may be for you, should you accept. If you do act as her maid of honor, and she marries this guy, it’s not as if you’ll be seeing any less of him. Can you see yourself keeping up a polite facade not just during the lead-up to the wedding, but for the rest of their marriage, however long that may be? If you truly think you can (even if that means spending somewhat less time with your friend as a married woman than you did when she was single), and if your friend’s fiancé is merely not to your liking and not abusive or controlling, then by all means, consider the prospect.
If you can’t, you have two other options. One is declining the offer when and if it comes by being frank with your friend and telling her that you can’t support her marriage because you think her husband-to-be is a jerk, and accept the fact that this will likely be a friendship-ending conversation. The other is declining with a blow-easing fiction: Tell her you don’t have the time to take on a commitment like maid of honor, but that you’ll be happy to attend the ceremony—accepting, once again, that she may pull back from your friendship regardless of the reason you give for declining.
Q. Visiting dying people: I have been with my boyfriend for a year and a half. We’ve met each others’ immediate families and I met parts of his extended family at the holidays. His aunt was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer a few months ago. She was supposed to have surgery last week, but when they started the surgery, they realized the cancer had spread farther than they thought and stopped the operation.
I have met this aunt twice. My boyfriend doesn’t particularly like her. Her kids don’t like her. Her sister doesn’t like her. But he expects me to go with him to visit her in the next few days. Is this a reasonable request? This is a woman who’s just had her body opened up and is coming to terms with the fact that she’s going to die much sooner than she expected. I think she should have space and time to adjust, and that it would be strange for a nonrelative to visit. I think that dying is private, not something to be shared with someone you’ve briefly met. My boyfriend says that if the situation were reversed, I would expect him to come with me to visit my dying relatives. But I’ve lost aunts and uncles and would not have wanted someone else going with me when I had my last visits with them.
A: I don’t think you should spend time worrying about what you would do if the situation were reversed; the situation isn’t reversed, and it sounds like your boyfriend would like you to accompany him. There’s nothing wrong with taking bedside visits to the unpleasant and dying on a case-by-case basis. You don’t have to bring him with you when you visit sick relatives, but if he’d like you to come with him, you should consider going—it’s okay for you to prefer privacy and for him to prefer companionship when visiting sick relatives. Don’t think of this as a time when you’ll be forced to feign closeness with a woman you don’t know. Think of it as an opportunity to support your boyfriend during a difficult time, as he finds a way to say goodbye to someone who’s been a part of his life, but he doesn’t feel especially warm towards. You might not be in the room when he’s saying his goodbyes, but if it would provide him with comfort to know that you were nearby, consider going with him.
Q. Jehovah’s Witness sitter: I recently found out a woman who occasionally watches my son is a Jehovah’s Witness. I don’t know many, but I feel somewhat concerned. She has watched him overnight before and has asked that I allow her to take him to church with her if I cannot get him by a certain time. I never had a problem with this until I found out she was a Jehovah’s Witness. She is great, as well as her family. They treat my very young son like family and he loves to be with them. She often asks that I don’t pay her for watching my son as I am a single mom. I love her and don’t want her to stop watching my son. Would it be OK if the next time she asks I tell her no?
A: Yes, it’s fine to decline your babysitter’s request to take your child to religious services. You’re his mother, you get decide what religious training, if any, your son undergoes in childhood. Since your son loves this woman and she takes good care of him, continue your child care arrangement as long as it’s convenient for both of you, but feel enormously free to say “No” if she asks to take him to church.
Mallory Ortberg: “Jeeves, bring me my whangee, my yellowest shoes, and the old green Homburg. I’m going into the Park to do pastoral dances.” See you back here next week.