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.)
See Emily live! She will be talking to Slate editor David Plotz and taking questions at Sixth and I in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 11. For tickets and more information, click here.
Q. Exposing an Affair: My husband had an affair. After I discovered the affair and my husband ended it, I wanted to let the other woman’s husband know about the affair. I joined an online forum where people experiencing infidelity can offer one another support. Everyone on the site recommends telling the affair partner’s spouse: They say the other spouse has a right to know and that it helps destroy the secrecy that makes affairs appealing. I agreed with that. But my husband said the other woman’s husband is abusive and would almost certainly hurt her if the affair came to light. I feel like he’s defending his affair partner by telling me not to expose the affair. The potential for abuse is the only thing keeping me from contacting the other husband, and sometimes I think the abuse is a cover story to keep me from telling him. I just discovered I have an STD, which my husband gave me. We are supposed to tell all of our sexual partners—for me, it’s only my husband—about the STD. I feel now more than ever that the other man has a right to know. What should I do?
A: Let’s sort out the public health aspect first. If your husband contracted an STD from his lover, then that’s a pre-existing condition in her marriage, and you don’t need to inform her spouse. I don’t know whether the abuse story is factual or not, but I have to disagree with the conclusion of your support group that the right thing to do is reveal all to your counterparty. It would be one thing if your husband had an affair with a friend, you were now cutting the couple out of your lives, and you wanted the husband to understand why. But you don’t know these people and you don’t owe them anything. Messing around with the other couple will only get you looking at externals. You need to be focused on your marriage, your husband’s efforts to repair your trust, and why things went off track.
Dear Prudence: Uneven Sexual Ledger
Q. Hopefully Happy Question: I have recently met the most wonderful man. After crossing paths a few times, we began dating, and have been practically inseparable for the past three months. I don’t think I’m idealizing him—he’s not perfect, but his faults seem so minor and innocuous. We don’t agree on everything, but share basic values, and are very affectionate and romantic. We are in our late 30s and would like to have children. He says I am the best thing that ever happened to him and would get married tomorrow if I said OK. How can I balance due diligence and seizing the day? My parents got engaged after only three months and are divorced now. How do I know when I’ve waited long enough to discover a horrible deal-breaker that may (hopefully) never come?
A: I got married after four months and next year will be our 20th anniversary. That said, it’s obviously better not to rush things. But when you’re in your late 30s and want children, you just don’t have time to be leisurely about this. I like the fact that you say he’s wonderful but you don’t say he’s perfect and you don’t agree about everything. I understand in that rush of first love being inseparable, but if you’re doing your due diligence, it’s important not to make a world of just you two, but to spend time with each other’s friends and even family if they are nearby. Look back on your past relationships. If you tended to fall hard then discover awful things, be aware of this pattern. Get an accounting of his romantic past. It’s helpful if you can have your first fight and see what that reveals, but obviously you don’t want to go picking one! This kind of whirlwind requires being mature enough to honestly balance heart, gut, and mind. Fingers crossed for you that this works out.
Q. Matron of Honor Refusal: My sister has recently got engaged to a man I’ve never met. I’m happy for her as she sounds happy. She has now asked me to be her matron of honor and with my understanding of the responsibilities, I feel I cannot properly fill the duties. When I was getting married, she showed up hung over to my shower, canceled my bachelorette party the day of as “she had to work,” only to find out she went to be with her boyfriend, and purposely told me a later time for a bridesmaid dress appointment so she had her dress picked out by the time I got there. I know it’s silly to hold a grudge and yet when we spoke about it, she said we are not close and she had no interest meeting me halfway in making an effort in our relationship. Now she has asked me to stand up in her wedding and I feel like I cannot perform the duties, give a speech about a man I don’t know, and all that being in a bridal party entails. Can I nicely explain to her that I appreciate the gesture but cannot fulfill this role in her wedding?
A: In this case your sister’s inconsiderateness turns out to be considerate. When you talked to her about feeling abandoned during your wedding preparations she stated she had no interest in nurturing your relationship. That’s pretty much a “Get Out of the Wedding Free” card. Before you say no, however, look into your heart and at your past with your sister. If stepping up for her now would be a healing thing, then consider doing it, but go in with clear guidelines about the time and money you will be able to expend. If you know that agreeing will only mean manipulation and unpleasantness, then decline. If you don’t accept the honor, make sure it doesn’t sound like a tit for tat. You can tell your sister you are thrilled for her, can’t wait to meet the guy, and look forward to the wedding. You can say you would be happy to help organize a shower, for example. But explain that since you know your schedule and you know what the duties of matron of honor entail, she needs to find someone who really has the time to carry them out.
Q. Issues With Boyfriend’s Mom: My boyfriend of six years and I are getting married in two months. He is a wonderful person whom I feel deeply in love with, but in the past week we’ve reached an impasse that may cause us to call the whole thing off. When his parents were visiting last week, I got into a terrible argument with his mother, in which I (admittedly) screamed and acted irrationally. I feel that she never gives us enough personal space, is hypercritical of me, and gets upset often over minor things that don’t seem like a big deal, and my frustrations with her came to a head. I’ve apologized and been trying to resolve things with her since the argument, but unsuccessfully. We just don’t seem to see eye-to-eye on anything, which is a deal-breaker for my (hopefully) future husband. He doesn’t want to get married unless we’re getting along. Also, he thinks I’m completely in the wrong, while I think we are both to blame for the argument that happened, and it bothers me that he can’t see my side. What can we do to get past this?
A: And here’s an example of how two people can know each other forever, then find out maybe they are ill-matched. As you know, it’s never a good idea to totally lose it, especially with one’s impending mother-in-law. I can’t adjudicate the blow-up. Maybe she really lays into you, your boyfriend doesn’t defend you, it was too much and you just snapped. If it’s not your fantasy that she treats you badly (and forget the defense “She treats everyone this way”) then I don’t understand why your fiancé is unable to see his mother’s role in this. I also don’t like the sound of your boyfriend standing on Olympus demanding everything be perfect and that fixing it is on you. You’ve invested a lot of time in this relationship, so if you two can’t get over this impasse, see a counselor to help you clarify whether you want to spend the rest of your lives together or you want out.
Q. Re: Hopefully happy question: Are his finances transparent? I certainly would be sure.
A: Good one! Yes, they should know what’s in each other’s bank accounts, their respective credit scores, etc. That may seem mercenary, but I’ve heard from too many people blindsided by finding a new spouse comes with a six-figure financial hole.
Q. Mentally Ill SIL Wants to Get Married: My husband and I recently discovered that his sister is engaged to be married. In most cases this would be good news, but my sister-in-law is mentally ill and so is her fiancé. They are both in their 40s and apparently met in a day-time therapy hospital for adults. The very positive part of this is that we have never seen her happier. Previous to meeting her fiancé, my SIL was usually very silent and withdrawn whenever we saw her. Now, she is a bit more social and seems healthier. When she was in college, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia. Even on medication, she has never been able to live on her own, and will never be competent enough to do so. I have not yet met her fiancé, but from what another family member has said, he is also not well enough to ever live on his own. He currently lives in a halfway house for the mentally ill. His family lives in another state. We don’t want to break them up, but if they married, they’d become a very serious emotional and financial burden on the whole family. I don’t know if they’ve really thought it through. So, do you know if there’s a way to prevent them from marrying without violating their rights? Since neither is competent, can they actually enter into a legally binding contract together? I feel like an awful person for asking.
A: I hope both your sister and her fiancé have case workers. If not, they need them. Once they have professionals involved in their care, all the issues raised by a potential marriage can be discussed. You simply assume their marriage will create a burden for the rest of the family. But I’m not clear why that’s the case. Yes, it could complicate the benefits they receive and their living situation, so that is why they need professional guidance, maybe even the counsel of a lawyer. It could be that weighing everything, what might be best for these two is not a legal marriage but some kind of commitment ceremony that they felt recognized their relationship. Instead of approaching this as a likely disaster, take the tack that it’s good news that these two have found each other and all of you who love them want to help support their relationship in the way that most benefits them.
Q. “Recovering” Alcoholic Brother-in-Law: At a recent family wedding, my brother-in-law made a total fool of himself. He is supposed to be a recovering alcoholic, but there was no recovery involved during this event. He started drinking the minute he arrived and took bottles with him when he left. Worst of all, his wife (my sister) gave him permission to drink! What in the world was she thinking? I want to say something to sis about enabling her husband, but my own husband says I should leave well enough alone, that it won’t do any good and will only increase family tensions. Prudie, what would you do in my shoes? Would you speak to my sister? And if so, what would you say to make her see that her husband needs help and she is only making things worse?
A: First of all, your brother-in-law wasn’t drinking because your sister gave “permission.” She may be the worst kind of enabler, but the decision to put glass to mouth was solely his. I’m not sure I understand what your husband’s “well enough alone” means because what you describe is sick. You saw alarming behavior by your brother-in-law and I think you’re right to address your concerns to your sister. Approaching this with the attitude of, “Sis, I’m astounded at your denial and enabling,” will not get you very far. Stay low-key, concerned, and factual. You tell her that it was upsetting to see that Jerry is off the wagon and that he was out of control at the wedding. Say you’re concerned about his health, her life, the potential for a driving catastrophe, and all the other bad things that can happen when an alcoholic drinks again. You can say if she needs support, you’d be happy to go to an Al Anon meeting with her. If she tells you to buzz off, then you’ve done what you could. And if you’re together with them again and Jerry’s drunk, make sure he doesn’t get behind the wheel.
Q. Dating Again, Post-Divorce: I’m several months divorced after a long, painful marriage to a fundamentally decent, loving man who could not overcome his demons and addictions—at least not with me. After therapy and Al Anon, I am very ready to move on with my life and start dating again. Recently, three suitors have expressed interest. Two could easily be just fine “for now” casual reintroductions to the world of dating. One fellow I have known for decades to be a wonderful man and someone with whom I can see (now that I’m single) that I have promising physical, emotional, and intellectual chemistry (and butterflies! At 40! I’m delighted but it’s just as scary as it is euphoric). Here’s the “but”—he owns the condo I’m leasing for at least the next year. Friends have mixed feedback. Most say go for it and play things out slowly—that we’re mature adults and it will be fine. But I’m extremely torn. Any sage advice? Stern warnings? Here’s hoping you will weigh in!
A: You’re 40 and have quickly attracted three appealing suitors, so you don’t need much advice. Sure, go for it—carefully. If things end badly, all you have to do is send the rent checks on time then clear out when the lease is up. I’m hopeful this potential romance won’t end up as a tenant-landlord dispute.
Emily Yoffe: Thanks, everyone. Have a good rest of August. I’ll be back the Tuesday after Labor Day, Sept. 3 at noon.
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