Dear Prudence

No Direction

My husband’s spent our entire marriage writing a screenplay, and I’m fed up.

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I have been married for six years and together for 10. He was a creative director with a good income when we got engaged but once we got married we decided he would work on finishing his movie script. He hasn’t worked since and the script has little chance of ever making money. I was diagnosed with infertility five years ago and we have not had success with treatment or private adoption. I have my master’s degree and a good job. But with one income, and living in a high cost area, we are always struggling and can’t even afford health insurance. I love my husband, he understands me and encourages me to be creative, fun, inspired, and authentic. I married him because he is fearless in his artistry and living with him makes me feel as if everything is ahead of us. However, I have considered leaving him for all the obvious reasons: his having no real work ethic and my feeling used. Recently things were terrible at work because of a merger, and I was coming home crying. To my shock my husband suggested he put the script away, we move out of state to be near his family where the cost of living is lower, he find a job, and we could adopt. I was thrilled! We started looking, and I have been offered a good job with fewer hours, great benefits, but significantly less pay. He hasn’t found anything although he’s not looking hard. Then things calmed down at my current job and I may have an opportunity for exciting advancement. I have to accept or deny the job offer very soon and I don’t know what to do.

—An Anchor or a Beautiful Balloon?

Dear Anchor,
I think anchor and balloon are too limited a dichotomy to describe your husband. I see him as a pair of cement shoes, and if you stay with him, you will eventually drown in your tears. Thank you for this important corrective to the notion that all those with a passion should chuck the dull 9 to 5 and follow their muse. We read stories of people who sell their novel for a million bucks, or turn a cupcake recipe into an empire. Of course, it doesn’t make sense to write a profile of the guy whose been noodling over a script for more than half a decade and is a hopeless leech. If your husband had a story in him, he would have gotten up early, stayed up late, and spent weekends writing it, while still employed. A goal of five pages a week would have produced a script in less than a year. It’s notable that upon marrying you, and locking in your income, he took to the couch with the remote and hasn’t been motivated since. You say he’s a fearless artist; I say he’s made an art of being a bum. You now have an opportunity at your current job you can’t pass up—and it had better come with good health insurance and more money. You’re going to need the cash because when you file for divorce, you’ll have to settle up with your husband. You say he makes you feel everything is still ahead of you. If you stay with him, I can promise that what’s ahead is more wasted years like those already behind.


Dear Prudence,
My normally lovably crazy family has become truly unhinged. My 68-year-old father recently reconnected with his high school girlfriend, and now she’s moving in with him and my father says they may get married soon. My mother, who initiated a divorce from my father 12 years ago, is 62 and recently single. And though she has sworn never to remarry and has spent years bad-mouthing my father, suddenly she says she regrets the divorce, sees my father “as the man she married all those years ago,” and wants him back. As if this news was not shocking enough, she calls me constantly asking for “words of wisdom” on the situation, of which I have none. Most upsettingly, she has vowed to ruin any upcoming family gatherings by being overtly rude to my dad’s new girlfriend. I am someone who does not handle embarrassment or conflict well, and I am now basically dreading any future encounters with my parents (whom I love and have otherwise wonderful relationships with). How do I stay on good terms with both my parents without appearing to choose sides, and how do I handle uncomfortable family gatherings without collapsing into a crying heap?

—Wanting to Hide

Dear Wanting,
Indeed your father is the man she married all those years ago. He’s also the guy she divorced all those years later. Now that someone else has found the goods she happily discarded to be a vintage treasure, your mother wants to assert ownership rights. She has as little claim on your father as she does any strategic sense. Her plan for convincing her longtime ex to desire her again is to make herself as repellent as possible. You may hate conflict, but apparently your mother loves it, so go ahead and give her some. Print out the following and read it to her the next time she asks for your pearls of insight: “Mom, stop acting like a jackass. You divorced dad, and now that he’s happy your plan is to ruin every family gathering in retaliation. Good going, Mom. You’re going to make everyone loathe being with you, including me.” If that doesn’t snap her to attention, and she carries out her plan, pull your father and his rediscovered girlfriend aside and say you hope they can rise above your mother’s silly behavior, and you’re glad they found each other again. To prepare you for the next gathering, binge-watch Arrested Development, then look upon your family as a variation of the Bluths and see the whole thing as an extended sitcom.


Dear Prudence,
I have been married to a wonderful woman for 36 years. Two years ago, at age 58, I left a very secure well-paying job for a business opportunity that didn’t work out. Now at 60, I am rekindling my former career in sales. The problem is that after 30 years I know my tank is empty, and I will never make the type of money I once did. My wife is incredibly selfless, has never spent on herself, but adores our antique house and pictures us living there for the rest of our lives. After eight years of college tuitions, our daughter’s wedding, and some other large outflows, our bank account is tapped, and my earnings outlook dim. Downsizing would make total financial sense, but I know my wife will be crushed if we have to sell. We have some retirement money, but not enough if we start taking it now. I am racked with guilt for putting us in this situation. Besides our family, this house is her life.

—Sick with worry

Dear Sick,
Let’s say your wife had a stroke and she could no longer negotiate the stairs or keep up an old house. Let’s say you got Alzheimer’s and to get you the care you needed, it was necessary to sell your place. In either case, events would force you to move. Fortunately, you two can make a rational, considered decision about your finances without the pressure of life-altering illness. Your house is a thing—yes, a thing imbued with memory and meaning, but it shouldn’t hold hostage your ability to retire comfortably. You’re right that restarting a sales career at 60 is perilous. You should be counting down toward retirement; instead like so many people you are facing the prospect of outliving your money. So you two need to make hard-headed decisions about how to avoid disaster. Perhaps your home could help pay for itself and you could rent out your basement. If not, selling your home and moving someplace more affordable could give you a financial and psychological cushion. You say for your wife her family and her home are her life, so I get the impression she doesn’t work. In a way your letter is a kind of bookend to the first letter. Not that your wife is a bum, but your situation does illustrate that it’s in everyone’s interest to be able to contribute economically because you never know what might happen. If she’s fit enough maybe she could walk dogs, babysit, care for an elderly person, or get a retail job. If she were able to earn even $15,000 to $20,000 a year, it would help ease your final years. Although it will be tempting to take Social Security early, the longer you put off collecting it, the bigger the payout will be when you need it the most. And let your tale be a warning to people who tap into their savings to pay for their children’s storybook weddings. Unless you can blithely afford the catering bill, the story takes a dark turn when the champagne toasts result in Mom and Dad being tapped out. Stop trying to protect your wife from reality. If she is the wonderful partner you claim she is, she should know where you two stand, and she should share the burden you’re now carrying alone.


Dear Prudence,
I am a single man in my late 50s. I was married twice for a total of 25 years, during which time I was always faithful. In addition to my marriages, both before and after, I’ve had a normal and healthy sex life. I started seeing a lovely woman a few months ago, and we agreed, given that we are both adults with sexual histories, that it would be appropriate if we each got tested for STDs. It turns out that somewhere along the line I have been exposed to both Herpes 1 and 2 (oral and genital), although I have never in my life been symptomatic. I obviously have no idea when or with whom I might have been exposed to either of these viruses. My lady friend and I are dealing with this news responsibly. Here’s my question: Do I have an ethical obligation to inform my previous partners? Do they have a right to know, even if knowing wouldn’t necessarily change anything that they do now or in the future? It would make for a series of very uncomfortable conversations with these ladies. I’ve thought about sending them each an anonymous letter suggesting that they get tested, but that seems more like avoiding any unpleasantness for me. Your thoughts would be welcome.

—Shoulda Been More Careful

Dear Shoulda,
I’ve written many times that people with herpes have an obligation to future sex partners. But given the mystery of when you contracted it, I don’t think you have a retrospective duty. The good news is that no previous partner had ever said you gave her a lifetime memento. You may be one of those people mentioned in this medical article who had perhaps an initial unnoticed outbreak of genital herpes many years ago, and your body has suppressed the virus ever since. So not only can you put away your little black book, there doesn’t appear to any moral or medical reason to send an anonymous letter (“To Whom It May Concern: You may or may not have contracted an incurable STD from me, not that I’m going to tell you who I am …”). As for Herpes 1, the vast majority of people have antibodies to it, even if many don’t get cold sores. Feel free to kiss with abandon.


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