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 email@example.com.)
Q. Husband Wants an Open Marriage: A few months ago, my husband uncovered an affair I was having with an old flame. He moved out and initiated divorce proceedings, but in the time since, I was able to convince him that I am truly repentant and to give our marriage another chance for the sake of our children. The problem I have now is that he says that if we are to stay married, he wants it to be an open marriage. I’ve tried to tell him that I’ve gotten that out of my system and I don’t want to be with anybody other than him, but he says there just isn’t any way he can ever trust me again, he doesn’t feel an obligation to be faithful to me anymore, and at least this way we’re being honest about it. Prudie, it makes me ill to think about him being with another woman. I just want things to go back to how they used to be. How can I convince him that we need to be completely committed to each other in order for this to work?
A: I assume you were the little girl who wouldn’t let anyone else play with your toys, but you insisted on hogging everyone else’s. I agree that couples can have various understandings about fidelity, but the key is being in agreement. It’s perfectly understandable that the betrayed partner in a formerly monogamous relationship might want to step out him or herself. But this kind of score-settling is unlikely to heal the breach. But you have some nerve demanding that “things go back to how they used to be.” You strayed and only found religion upon being discovered. It sounds as if without the affair being revealed you would have been perfectly happy with a seemingly placid marriage and a reignited flame on the side. Whatever happens, things will never be just as they used to be, and that is the first lesson you need to truly absorb. Especially when there are children involved, I don’t think the dissolution of a marriage should be the natural consequence of a single instance of infidelity. But you seem to want no consequences for your actions. It could be that you and your husband should simply be separated for a while—without the threat of divorce hanging over your heads—to see how each of you feel about this new status. While you do that, I will naturally recommend couples counseling. It sounds as if you both need a third party to help you communicate and to hold a mirror up to the consequences of each of your actions.
Dear Prudence Live in New York: Who Opens Prudie’s Letters?
Q. Genealogy: My mother had a brief relationship with my biological father; they were never romantically involved after my birth. When I was about 6 months old, my father was incarcerated for life due to a violent crime. My mother explained this to me with varying degrees of detail throughout my childhood. Although it sounds like the beginning of my life was rocky, my mother provided my with a wonderful childhood and eventually remarried when I was 12. I have a fantastic relationship with my stepfather (who adopted me at age 15). However, this is a detail of my life that I do not wish to be common knowledge. My fiancé is aware of this element of my past, but we have not told the rest of his family. His aunt loves genealogy and has pressed me for more details of my origin. I gave her my stepfather, but she asked me point blank for my bio fathers information. My fiancé sent an email to his aunt, explaining that I never knew my bio father and am very close to my stepfather. However, I suspect she is the type of person who will take it upon herself to find this information on her own. I also suspect she will let his whole family know about this, something that I do not particularly want and I know my mother does not want. Should we tell his parents the truth and ask them to keep this as quiet as can be? Or should we just keep quiet and deal with this if it becomes an issue?
A: I am really sick of the blood lust that animates some people’s sense of family. Your stepfather adopted you, so he is your father, period. If your fiancé’s nosy aunt wants to look up his ancestry, she has his name and is free to click away. You do not need to provide her with any information about your “real” father. It doesn’t sound as if your fiancé’s parents have inquired as to the whereabouts of your bio dad, so it’s just fine that you don’t bring this up. If auntie keeps pushing, just tell her it’s wonderful she has such an engaging hobby, but it’s not yours and you can’t help her. I understand that you do not want to share the details of your biological father’s life, but I hope you don’t carry this as your own burden of shame.
Q. A Father’s Heartbreak: I am 76 years old, retired, and living in a resort community along the southern coast. I have one son who lives about 10 hours away by car. I have made the trip several times each year over the nine years of my retirement. Over the past three years, I have learned that my son is an alcoholic. I have personally had to call 911 twice after finding him in a dangerous stupor in his home. I have seen him through two DUI trials and helped him get to outpatient rehab stints. After a recent crisis, I strongly encouraged him to enter a 30-day inpatient program. His response was to cut off all communication with me. Is there anything I can do to reconnect with the son I love?
A: Tragically, as I learn over and over again, some people cannot be helped or saved. Once their loved ones have tried everything possible then it’s time to accept this painful truth. Your son obviously needs more than outpatient care, so if there are other family members available, perhaps all of you can do an intervention with the purpose of getting him into an inpatient treatment program. Perhaps, too, there are other friends or family members nearer by who can check in on your son. After two DUI trials, I’m concerned that he might still be on the road. If these others find he’s drinking and driving, the prosecutor’s office should be contacted to tell them your son is violating the terms of his probation (which I hope he’s on). At least some jail time would require him to sober up and minimize the danger he presents to innocent people.
Q. Re: Genealogy: This can’t be a legit question. Didn’t Hax get the same question from the standpoint of the fiancé’s aunt?
A: I am a Carolyn Hax fan and reader, but somehow I missed that she got this exact same question from the supposed aunt’s perspective. In Carolyn’s version the aunt had already uncovered the incarceration and wanted to know if she should tell others. (Carolyn slapped down the aunt for pressing on this and told her to keep quiet—I agree.) So either someone is seeing if they can get both of us to bite, or two people on opposite sides of an issue have written to separate advice columnists.
Q. Blended Families: Over the weekend my wife suffered a miscarriage. She started miscarrying while we were eating dinner with my children from my first marriage, who live with us every weekend. My kids, 9 and 12, did not know about the pregnancy, but did see their stepmother hunched over and in pain. They know she’s sick, and after I dropped them off at their mom’s house, I’ve only called them once and sent them a few emails (all to let them know my wife will be physically OK). My ex-wife has been texting me all weekend about what is up and what she should tell the kids. Earlier this morning she texted to ask if my wife suffered a miscarriage. I appreciate my ex-wife’s concern but am currently very shaken and heartbroken. We need some space from her, and we don’t think we have to tell her if my wife had a miscarriage. Is there a polite way to ask for some space? My wife and I are also unsure if we should tell the kids about the miscarriage, but whether we do or not, we don’t think my ex-wife should be a part of that conversation.
A: Your children were present for something disturbing and they are entitled to a simple and direct explanation of what happened. Not explaining is only going to feed their worry. You should either see your kids, or at the least get them both on the phone, then explain what a miscarriage is, say that their stepmother is fine. You can say you know it was upsetting for them to go through this and say that you and their stepmother are both sad right now. You may not want your ex-wife to be part of any conversation about this, but you are sharing the raising of two children, so treating this news straightforwardly will benefit all of you.
Q. Re: Genealogy: I live in Utah, where genealogy is culturally a Very Big Thing. And I have my share of nosy family who are into it. With the tools available to the aunt, the letter writer needs to worry about when, not if, information is discovered and decide how she wants to work with it. Would there be any hope of dropping a hint to the aunt that she is sensitive about the information and would prefer not to have it shared? If not, she just needs to decide how to respond when Aunt Blabber shares with everyone.
A: I don’t think the letter writer really does need to worry. This chat’s producer, Bethonie Butler, did some sleuthing and discovered that both the letter writer to Carolyn Hax and me is the same person. The original letter was sent months ago, so this is a very patient hoaxer.
Q. Husband Is Gay and Still in the Closet: I have been married to my husband for 21 years, and six years ago he shared with me that he is attracted to men. Due to religious reasons, he does not want to pursue living a gay lifestyle. He says that he has never been unfaithful to me in the physical sense. Over the past six years, we have tried to make things work and I was sworn to secrecy and could only discuss the situation with a few people that he had to approve of. Now, we are now getting a divorce and he still says that he isn’t gay and is telling people that “we just drifted apart.” When our friends hear that, I come across as the wife who just wouldn’t try hard enough to save the marriage, because he doesn’t want to get divorced. What people don’t understand is what it has been like for me the past six years: living in his closet and how hard I really have worked, through marriage counseling, and individual therapy. He still doesn’t want people to know about his same-sex attraction. My question is: What is my obligation to honor his wish to stay in the closet? Do I need to keep his secret?
A: I don’t know why the burden of “drifted apart” falls so hard on you. If you were to say the equivalent, “We just couldn’t make it work anymore,” that’s plenty ambiguous and says to the questioners that their desire for salacious details will go unrewarded. However, your ex-husband does not get to dictate your life story. If you want to tell your friends what you’ve been through (with the knowledge that they will be very likely to tell their friends) then that is your decision. For guidance and the perspective of others who have been there, contact the Straight Spouse Network.
Dear Prudence: Her Lying Eyes
Q. Re: Sleuthing?: Eeek! I thought the chat was anonymous. There goes my will to submit anything. Or do you just know that it is the same IP address or something but not the actual person?
A: People who submit questions are anonymous! Bethonie found that the IP addresses were identical, that’s all we know. Whether you write in to the chat or to the Dear Prudence inbox (firstname.lastname@example.org) we zealously guard people’s privacy. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify.
Q. Paternity Leave and Old Friends: My wife took three months of maternity leave when our daughter was born. When she returned to work, I began my own three-month paternity leave. It’s wonderful and my daughter is thrilling, but my problem is my friends. Until a few weeks ago, I took them for normal people with a basically modern view of gender roles, but they have been mean and judgmental about this, calling me “whipped” and saying I shouldn’t “let” my wife read any more books like Lean In. (Really.) This weekend, three of them got together and told me that I should be angry at my wife for forcing me to give up on a job I love. No one is giving up on anything! This is just the way we are dealing with the fact that we BOTH love our jobs, and we love each other, and we love our daughter. We know we won’t always be able to split everything exactly 50/50, but we’re coming at it with a 50/50 mindset. In the long term, I’m sure I’ll make friends with more open-minded people, but in the short term, I’m home alone all day with a 15-week-old baby, and I really could use the support of some friends! What do I do?
A: As disturbing as this is, it’s actually beneficial for you to find out your friends are such troglodytes so you can dump them and find some people who live in the 21st century. You hardly need male friends who act as some kind of insane Greek chorus demeaning you for wanting to spend time with your daughter and be a partner to your wife. Your daughter did you a great favor with the timing of her birth because parents and children are going to spilling outdoors everywhere. This is a good time for you to look for groups—at your place of worship if you have one, at the Y, through a community center—of new fathers and mothers who want to get together and share this wonderful experience.
Q. Prescription Drug Abuse: My young son and I moved in with my fiancée a few months ago. She has two teenage boys. It has been a tough year for her, her mom passed away in September. She has a high-stress job. Once or twice a month she acts really weird—tired, slurring words, repeating herself, not making sense. I couldn’t figure out if she was drinking or misusing a prescription drug. She has abused alcohol in the past. Whenever I asked what was going on she would get defensive and says that she had spent the day crying, and it emotionally exhausted her. This last incident she admitted taking a Xanax. I suspect that is what is the source for her “weirdness.” She can function in her job that is about it. At home nothing gets accomplished, even when she is not using the prescription drug. She works herself to exhaustion to forget about her mom, and when she can’t work anymore, she stays at home crying. I got her to go see a counselor, who she loved, to help her cope with the passing of her mom. Though she has only gone once in six weeks. She keeps working. How can I be a support to her?
A: Your primary obligation is to your son. Since you’ve moved in, you’ve discovered your fiancée is abusing prescription drugs, which is very concerning given her previous history of addiction. You should be concerned for her, and her sons, and do everything to support this family. Given that your fiancée is in extremis, that might mean a conversation about her boys living with their father for the time being, if that’s at all possible. You need to insist that your girlfriend get back to the therapist and I think you should say that you want to go to the next session with her because you’re worried about her emotional state. While there address with the therapist the issue of the Xanax. Additionally, the marriage needs to be put on hold and you need to seriously consider re-establishing your own domicile until your fiancée is in a sustained, healthy state.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a good week and be grateful Mother’s Day is over!
Our commenting guidelines can be found here.