Emily Yoffe, aka Dear Prudence, is on Washingtonpost.com weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up here 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. I’m Dying, Husband Affair: I am 32 and have been married to my husband, the love of my life and best friend, for the past five years. A little over a year ago I was diagnosed with a terminal illness, and currently only have about six-to-eight months left. This has been very hard, but I am starting to come to terms with the reality of the situation. My husband has been amazingly supportive of me during this time. We have no kids, and as my health has declined, he has sat with me through endless doctor appointments, hospital stays, and sleepless nights. On bad days he even has to help me bathe, and I know this has taken a toll on him. A few weeks ago while using his iPad to watch a movie, an email came in and I discovered he has been having a affair (emotional and sexual) with a co-worker for a few months now. For several days I cried, heartbroken at the betrayal, but now I feel like my husband deserves to have someone help him and support HIM through this emotional time. I have not confronted him about the affair, and were it not for the email and my subsequent snooping, I never would have known as I have not felt him pulling away from me. Do I confront my husband and tell him I understand? That although I am hurt, I forgive him and I don’t want him to feel guilty? Or do I just keep quiet and let him continue? If our families find out after I’m gone, I’m worried they will think ill of him, and I don’t want that either.
A: I am so sorry about your prognosis and so moved by your insight and compassion. If you don’t have a therapist, please consider getting one in order to have someone neutral who can help you fully work through this and everything you are facing. But you have written to me for a reaction, and mine is that you should tell your husband. Don’t frame it as a confrontation, but as a conversation. I can see you taking his hand one night and telling him that it was by accident, but a few weeks ago you found an email to him from the woman he is seeing. Then you tell him what you told me. That of course it was painful to discover, but on further reflection you realize he needs some relief from this terrible sadness. You can assure him that he has been a rock for you. This will be a hard, tearful discussion, but it will also probably be relief of a terrible, guilt-ridden burden for him. As for your family, you are very thoughtful to consider that if after your death it ever comes out there was someone else in his life, he will turn from angel to devil. You don’t have to tell anyone else about this. But as you say your farewells to those closest to you, you can allude to it. Perhaps you can tell your family that you want them to know that life can be so difficult and complicated and that through all of it your husband has been everything you wanted. You can say you were lucky that you two never had any secrets. Thank you for this example of bravery and compassion.
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Q. Future MIL Calls Me by Wrong Name: I’ve read you for years and have always admired how you handled marrying a young widower. I am now in the same boat and having a bit of a problem these days. Early on in our relationship, my now fiancé called me by his first wife’s name twice. When I talked to him about how it upset me he took it in stride and has been very aware of not doing it again. Now, as we are quickly approaching our wedding next month, his mother constantly calls me by the first wife’s name whenever we talk about wedding details. I love my future in-laws and they love me. They tell me all the time how they are so happy my fiancé found me after a few years of a fiasco with another woman after the first wife’s death, but this is really starting to hit my self-esteem. I haven’t said anything to her or my fiancé about it, but he knows something’s up when he comes into the room after I’ve gotten off the phone with his mom and I’m stifling tears. I’m afraid the wrong name calling is going to happen on my wedding day and that I’ll completely lose it when it does. Is there any way I can gently broach this subject with my mother-in-law?
A: No one wants to be called by the wrong name, but please try to look at these slips not as insults. Grandmothers often call grandchildren by each other’s names not because they can’t remember who their grandchildren are, but because there’s a module in grandmother’s head for, “Small person I adore.” It’s not that your fiancé is playing out a version of Vertigo, or that your future in-laws truly are confusing you with their late daughter-in-law. It’s you are now filling the place in their minds for a beloved young woman who is making each of them happy. Have a sense of lightness about this. If your fiancé uses the wrong name again say something like, “I wish I could ask Courtney what she said to you when you called her by your previous girlfriend’s name.” With your in-laws simply say, “I’m Isabelle. But I know you sometimes call me Courtney because of how much you loved her.”
Q. Controlling Brother: Four years ago my mother committed suicide, leaving my younger brother in the care of my elder brother. At the time I was in law school, and my older brother was a recently married doctor with no kids. The poor boy suffered quite a lot of abuse during my mother’s depression so he really benefited from the attention they were able to give him. Now I am a married lawyer with no kids and my elder brother is a busy surgeon with three very young children and one more on the way! His wife is constantly stressed out and often snaps at her nephew for no reason, visibly upsetting him. My doctor brother is constantly exhausted and recently admitted to using drugs to keep him going during the day. All the while, little brother’s grades and behavior are slipping. I want to take him in myself, but the first time I mentioned it, my other brother said I didn’t understand “the impact raising a child would have on my life” and he didn’t want to burden me. I asked him again and he sternly said no. On top of this, he refused to accept my offer of money to send the boy to a good school because he wouldn’t be able to afford it for his daughters and he doesn’t want to treat them differently. My brother is a great father, and my little brother just adores him, but I feel like it’s my turn now! I am just a little bit irked by being relegated to the position of “uncle,” while my older brother calls the shots. I just can’t work out why he wouldn’t want my help. What should I do?
A: Your family is an accomplished one, yet struggles with a dark strain running through it. How much suffering your younger brother has endured. I agree with you that it’s time he got the love and attention you would be able to lavish on him. I know you’re a lawyer, and eventually you might have to turn to the legal system to resolve this. But right now, if conversation continually reaches a dead end, suggest to your brother that you two hire a mediator, or social worker, or counselor to help you two work out the best way to continue to raise your brother. Please don’t back down in your quest. Your sister-in-law is so overwhelmed with child-rearing duties that she can’t give your brother the kind of nurturing he needs, and because of his work duties, your brother is gone all day. There is, additionally, an extremely alarming message in your letter: Your surgeon brother uses drugs to keep him going. Now that he’s confessed to you, you must do everything in your power to see that he addresses this. His drug use is a calamity waiting to happen for his patients, himself, and his family.
Q. Re: Courtney/Isabelle, but at work: The name problem happens to me at work. A much-beloved colleague changed jobs, which I assumed recently, and now I’m referred to using the previous colleague’s name. They’ll fix it in time. I consider it a compliment.
A: Thanks for this demonstration of graciousness. But I hope you are gently correcting your colleagues.
Q. New Nanny Is Irresponsible—and I Helped Hire Her!: For several years, I worked as a nanny for three young children and had a great relationship with the family. I recently left to start my own family and helped them fill the position when a casual friend was interested. She has been working for them for a year now. I’m friends with her on Facebook and see her statuses, which include negative comments about the family and even comments saying she has gone to work “hungover/still drunk.” She has called out last minute saying she was sick leaving the family in a huge bind, when in reality she was out drinking all night. I keep in touch with the mother of the children, and she seems pretty happy with the new nanny. I don’t want to be a troublemaker, but part of me thinks I should say something because she’s so involved with the care of these young children. Should I let my former boss know what’s going on or just mind my own business?
A: How rarely I say this, but thank goodness for Facebook. You don’t have to report rumors or private conversations to your former boss. If your casual friend has not put privacy protections on her page, simply contact your former employers and let them know there’s some interesting reading material on the Internet and where to find it. If she has been sober enough at some point to figure out Facebook’s privacy rules, then take a screenshot of her proclamations about her work ethic. You obviously are concerned about the well-being of these children. You know they should not be in the care of a self-professed drunk.
Q. Re: Controlling Brother: Why doesn’t the brother offer to take the little brother over the summer break. He can come live with him full-time over the summer and Middle Child can offer to take the nieces for a weekend or two to keep things equitable between the kids. This will allow the surgeon and his wife some time to decompress and get used to the idea of the boy staying elsewhere. Once Middle Child has had him for a couple of weeks he can then raise the question (to both brothers again) about the younger one staying with him during the school year and maybe visiting the older brother during breaks.
A: I think taking younger brother for the summer is a great idea all around. Thanks for the suggestion.
Q. Relative Relationships: I was recently at a young niece’s birthday party. The guys went to the living room to watch sports, and the gals were in the kitchen. One of my sisters-in-law fixed a plate for her hubby and took it into him. My father-in-law proceeded to order me to fix a plate for my husband as well. I told him no, and that my husband has two feet, he can get it himself. My husband didn’t stick up for me. He just sat there as his dad and I went back and forth; him ordering me to do as he told, and me telling him I will not! Should I have kept the peace and just got the food?
A: If there was ever a time to simply say, “Baloney!” this was it. Your father-in-law’s demand was obnoxious, but it’s always better to respond to such incitement with a neutral tone, and if that doesn’t end, a departure from the room. Yes, your husband should have told his father to back off. But, alas, some people feel like they are being churned through a meat-grinder when they are in the position of trying to stand up to their parents. So your husband sat there like a lump while you and his father went at it. I hope that you and your husband were able to talk about why this incident was so jarring and that he acknowledges a few words to his father could have diffused the cold-cut contretemps. It’s better you didn’t go get the food. At that point you may have been tempted to give all the men in the family a pie to the face.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Talk to you next week.
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