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I have a friend, or maybe I had a friend, who I saw at least once a week all summer, but who I have only seen a few times since the school year started. At first I chalked this up to being busy: I’m a teacher; she is the mother of two middle schoolers and is going through a divorce. Whenever I see her (we share a hobby) she no longer initiates conversation and offers minimal replies to my questions. She doesn’t reply to text messages about getting together or asking how she’s doing, although she does eventually respond to logistical questions. She seems to speak to other people normally and responds to our mutual friends in a way she no longer does to me. I feel singled out, and I’m not sure what’s changed between us. I finally wrote her an email saying I miss our friendship and that if I’ve done anything to offend her, I’d like to know what it was so I can make amends. She never wrote back, and I know the healthy thing to do is let it go and accept that she doesn’t want to be friends anymore. But I don’t know what letting go looks like, given that we share a small, tight-knit group of friends, and I still feel hurt and confused by her sudden change in behavior.
—Haunted After Being Ghosted
Uncertainty and ambiguity can make an already difficult situation all the more painful. Knowing a friend has ghosted you, and coming to terms with the fact that, for whatever reason, they’re not going to tell you why things have changed, can be maddening. You’re right, though, in realizing that the answer to “But I’ve got to find out why or I’ll lose it” is not, and can never be, “I’m going to keep pushing until I get a satisfying answer.” Letting it go, in this context, does not mean that you feel great every time you run into her with mutual friends, and feel total lightness and neutrality when you say, “Great to see you, gotta run” while gliding past her in a new peacoat that screams I’m Doing Great, the Loss of Our Friendship Hasn’t Bewildered Me or Crushed My Heart in Any Way. It means you keep feeling hurt and confused, probably for a long while, and it will take a certain amount of effort to keep yourself from trying to pump your mutual friends for information or sending another follow-up email. That’s to be expected. You won’t get over this in a few weeks or even a few months. You may often feel a pang, even years from now, when you think of her or run into her unexpectedly. All that “letting go” has to look like is respecting the fact that, for whatever reason, she doesn’t want to talk right now, and finding an appropriate time and place to let out your grief, confusion, and frustration on your own.
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I’m trying to recover from a bad breakup. It happened quickly and without warning. I had already purchased Christmas gifts for my then-boyfriend and some of his family members. I’m struggling to decide if I’m obligated to give these gifts to them or send them back. Giving them to him wouldn’t help with my healing process, but his family was incredibly kind to me. What should I do?
No, you are not obligated to give a present to your ex. It would not help you get over him, and he likely wouldn’t welcome it, given that he just ended your relationship. And as kind as his family may have been, I don’t think it will do you any good to put yourself in the position of giving them presents and revisiting your breakup just a few weeks after the fact. It’d be one thing if you two had been together for years and you considered his family your own, but unless your relationship was unique, the odds are that you are not going to be spending a lot more time with them now that you’re no longer dating your ex. Return the gifts, or find someone else who might enjoy them, and focus on getting through the holidays.
I’m unsure about what to do with my current relationship. I’m 23, he’s 28, and we’ve been dating for about five months. He’s an incredibly sweet, fun-loving, and compassionate guy, so I have nothing negative to say about his character. However, there are a few reasons why I don’t see us having a real future together.
He doesn’t want kids and never has, whereas I’ve always wanted to be a mom. The last time the subject came up, he said he would “let our relationship grow until I genuinely want to have children with you,” but that for now, the thought of having kids scares him. He has a history of depression, and sometimes hypochondria. For the past few months, he’s been experiencing a lot of symptoms that he thinks could be indicative of multiple sclerosis, cancer, or other diseases, and it’s been causing him a lot of stress. I’ve tried my best to be supportive—after all, some of the symptoms could be cause for concern—but after several visits to the doctor, he has acknowledged his hypochondria and resolved to treat it. I respect him a lot for that.
I’m ashamed to say this, but I often find myself fantasizing about past lovers. I know that to a certain degree this is normal, but I feel like I’ve gone way past normal at this point. It’s probably around 80 percent of the time. He frequently tells me how much he loves me, and how much he wants to be with me. I love him too, but when he said that he wants to “spend the rest of [his] life with” me, I told him that it was too early for such a profound statement.
—Stay or Go
Break up with him. It’s wonderful that you respect his recent decision to take better care of his mental health and seek help for his hypochondria, and it’s great that you don’t have anything negative to say about his character, but neither of those are reasons to stay in a relationship with him. He doesn’t want kids, and you do. Presumably you don’t want kids with someone who says “I’m willing to force myself to want them for your sake, if you can get me to love you enough in the future”—you’d like to have kids with someone who actually wants to have kids. Moreover, you’re not enjoying the sex the two of you have together (or at the very least, you’re finding yourself fantasizing to a degree you’re not comfortable with and in a way you haven’t done in previous relationships), and you’re feeling rushed into a form of emotional intimacy and commitment that you’re not ready for. Those are fantastic reasons to break up with someone.
I don’t think you’re unsure at all. You seem pretty clear that you don’t see a future with this guy. Implicit in your letter are two fears: One, that if you break up with him as he’s dealing with a possible health crisis, that makes you a bad person; and two, that he’ll try to talk you out of breaking up with him by minimizing your incompatibility and emphasizing how much he loves you. When it comes to the first fear, I think you can absolve yourself of any guilt. What’s not working in your relationship has nothing to do with his health status, and he’s already seeing a doctor and seeking further treatment—you’re hardly leaving him to languish. When it comes to the second, I think you’re right to anticipate at least the possibility of emotional manipulation when you break up with him. Remind yourself that breaking up does not have to pass by a unanimous vote, and that it’s not a referendum on how much he loves you. It’s simply a question of, “Is this relationship working for me?” Based on your letter, the answer seems like a pretty clear no.
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I’m really struggling with the idea of telling my parents about my girlfriend. They’ve known I’m bisexual for about five years, but it wasn’t by choice, as my mother cyberstalked and subsequently outed me. They’re very homophobic and self-righteous, and after that breach of trust, I’ve taken the stance that they don’t have a right to know about my romantic life. I haven’t cut them off completely, though, and I don’t think I want to, but my good old Catholic guilt complex is making me feel like I can’t tell the rest of my extended family about my relationship, or consider proposing to her, before I tell my parents. That prospect scares me: I’m afraid they’ll yell about my selfishness or tell me I’m going to hell, that they’ll try to manipulate me with suicide threats, that their negative views will taint my relationship and make me second-guess myself, or that my mom might try to take her anger out on my sister, who still lives with them.
I’ve set deadlines for myself to tell them multiple times and have always chickened out. It’s easy to keep a secret since I live halfway across the country and we don’t talk often. But we’ve been dating more than two years and I know that this is weighing on my girlfriend. My sister is the only relative who knows about her, and I go home for the holidays by myself. The last time I went home I was so anxious that it made me physically ill. I know I need to get my butt to therapy because this is a lot, but in the short term, I’ve set my next deadline for after my sister finally moves out of my parents’ house mid-December. Prudie, how do I screw my courage together and actually tell them this time? Would it be horrible of me to just make a Facebook announcement and turn off my phone?
—Coming Out Again
I can feel the panic and pressure you’ve been dealing with for years radiating off the screen. You’ve been almost as hard on yourself as your family has been on you, and it seems like you’ve unintentionally internalized a lot of your parents’ ideas. You seem to think that coming out about your relationship on Facebook in a way that would maximize efficiency and minimize the opportunity for a homophobic backlash is “horrible”—like you’d be getting away with something, or somehow avoiding a more painful conversation that you think you should be having with them instead. I don’t think that’s the case. You do not have to engage with manipulative threats of suicide, the promise of hell, or violent homophobia, whether it comes from your parents or from anyone else. That’s not something you have to meet with grace or understanding, or patiently endure, or calmly offer counterarguments against. They’re not trying to have a conversation with you—they’re trying to abuse you back into the closet using whatever tools they can find. I’m glad to hear you’re planning on starting therapy soon, and I hope it proves helpful as you continue to find ways to set boundaries with your parents—Huge boundaries! Firm boundaries! Boundaries that can be seen from space!—and you have my full permission and approval to come out on Facebook, and subsequently delete or ignore abusive messages.
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My husband and I have been together for over a decade, and we both have children from our first marriages. He has a son who is now 14 and lives with his mother in another state. My husband’s relationship with his first wife is extremely strained, and they don’t speak. I know that a few months into the move his son contemplated suicide, and I reached out to my stepson’s mother back in August to try to bridge the gap between them. Things have been changing for the better. My husband and his ex still don’t talk, but I’m hoping that will change soon, and in the meantime I still talk to her for their son’s sake.
Now that we’re communicating with his son more via the phone, his social media profiles have been automatically “suggested” to me as a contact. Everything I have seen so far is “gay” this and “gay” that, and as I looked further I noticed that he has a few gay friends. I’m wondering if I should ask my husband’s first wife if she is aware of his social media. On one of his profile pics there is a quote which states, “I don’t want to live.” But I don’t know how to ask. I’m not even sure if she knows. I don’t know if I should leave it alone because I don’t want to offend anyone, or not be able to communicate with my husband’s son anymore. Please help!
Please don’t run the risk of outing your husband’s vulnerable young son to his parents. What you’re doing right now—offering your support from a distance, communicating regularly with your stepson’s mother, doing your best to establish a rapport between your husband and his ex—is helpful, compassionate, and the most you can do in your current situation. Your stepson can talk to his parents about being gay when and if he’s ready; having that conversation on his behalf, especially when you know he’s struggling with suicidal thoughts, would be counterproductive. The question to ask yourself is, “Have I learned anything from this accidental social media connection that could help my husband’s son?” Your husband and his ex-wife both already know their son is struggling with depression, so there’s no new information there. Outing a young, vulnerable teenager without his knowledge or consent will not help him either. Keep doing what you’re doing. You can certainly ask your husband’s ex-wife how her son is doing and encourage her to make sure he’s receiving adequate support and treatment for his depression, but beyond that, you haven’t learned anything that you have an obligation to disclose.
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My brother and his wife have been married over 10 years and have a son, 9, and a daughter, 7. Over the last five years my sister-in-law has become, in my opinion, obsessed with her looks. She’s a stay-at-home parent in name only who spends hours (and sometimes overnight trips) at the gym every day, constantly enters beauty pageants/fitness competitions, and seems to spend close to no time with her children. At best she ignores them and at worst she treats them with contempt. My brother is paying for several of her plastic surgery procedures. Even when she is at home, she listens to music with her earbuds in so it is very difficult for any of them to initiate an interaction with her. My brother works full time and takes care of the children and the household—paying bills, laundry, cooking, cleaning, yardwork, helping with homework, getting the kids to and from their activities, etc. It has become obvious to my husband and I, as well as others in our family, that the kids need attention and are suffering. I have repeatedly expressed my concerns to my brother and told him that no matter what he decides I am here for them. He is not willing to make moves toward a divorce or go to counseling. He says if he divorces her, he will have “failed.”
At Thanksgiving, I was saying goodbye to my niece and nephew while my brother was saying goodbye to relatives in the other room. My sister-in-law was sitting nearby. During this exchange, my niece told me, loudly, “Auntie, I love you more than I love my mom,” then looked very pointedly at her mom and hugged me again. It was obviously a very awkward moment. I said something to the effect of, “Now, now, I’m sure you don’t mean that.” My sister-in-law feigned surprise and then just laughed. I realize a holiday dinner with a house full of people is not the appropriate time to ask my 7-year-old niece about her feelings. I still feel bad. I feel like I failed my niece by contradicting her feelings, and I also feel like I unwittingly condoned my sister-in-law’s behavior. Is there something else I could have said or done in that moment?
I’m afraid this may be another unfortunate instance where you, the letter writer, are doing as much as you possibly can in the interest of furthering the greatest possible good, and that doesn’t really fix the situation. You can’t do much more than you already have to encourage your brother to consider counseling or addressing the problems in his marriage. What you can do, in the meantime, is to continue to spend time with your niece and nephew and offer them as much love and support as you can. That doesn’t mean you’re single-handedly responsible for making up for the fact that their mother treats them with indifference and contempt, while their father is so overwhelmed by working full time and keeping the household running that he can’t attend to their emotional needs. But these kids need all the love and attention they can get right now, and they’re already close to you, which puts you in a position where you can at least be helpful.
Beyond that, don’t beat yourself up too much for trying to defuse the situation over Thanksgiving. How terribly sad that your sister-in-law’s only response to hearing what was obviously a plea for affection was to laugh and do nothing. If you want to bring it up with your brother and reiterate that you don’t think your niece was just joking around, but that she was desperately trying to get her mom’s attention, and encourage him once again to seek counseling either singly or as a couple, I think you should. Whether or not he chooses to take your advice or continues to bury his head in the sand is ultimately up to him.
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