Daniel Mallory Ortberg, aka Dear Prudence, is online weekly to chat live with readers. An edited transcript of the chat is below. (Sign up below 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.)
Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Hi, everyone! Hope you’re all ready to pitch in and solve each other’s problems.
Q. Should I stay or should I go?: I’ve been married to a wonderful woman and mother of our three kids for 25 years. Our kids are all adults now and have moved away. I’ve come to realize over the last five years that I don’t love my wife. I don’t hate her—she’s my best friend. But I have zero feelings for her. She’s put on 50 pounds over the last 10 years, which is a major turnoff. We haven’t had sex in five years due to this. I want to be happy, and I don’t want to hurt her feelings. I just feel like I’m on the treadmill of life going nowhere real fast. What to do?
A: Wait, do you not love her anymore, or did she put on 50 pounds? Because those are two different things! I’m also a little unclear on how you can have “zero feelings” for someone you consider your best friend.
Let’s put aside the weight gain for the moment, which I think is a bit of a red herring, because you don’t say that if it weren’t for that, you’d be happily married. You think she’s wonderful, but the strongest feeling you can muster for her is “I don’t object to your continued existence.” You haven’t slept together in five years, you feel like you’re going nowhere, but you don’t want to hurt her feelings.
I think you are going to have to hurt them, unfortunately. You do not love your wife, you do not want to sleep with her, and you do not want to be married to her any longer. It’s a painful truth, and you should try to tell her as kindly and as sensitively as you can, but you’re not doing her any favors by pretending to have romantic feelings you no longer possess. I don’t see a lot of hope for this marriage to turn around, but maybe a jolt of honesty will help the two of you figure out if there’s any way for the two of you to work things out, or whether it’s time to part.
Q. Insensitive Christmas faux pas: I don’t like holidays, but there’s somewhat of a custom in my office of buying group presents for our boss. This year, I decided to send an email to the group asking who wants to participate. Then I did something strange last week. A man in our office was hanging stockings on everyone’s cubicle. He bothered one woman, and when he got to my cubicle I brusquely said, “I don’t want a stocking on my cube because I’m Jewish,” which is totally untrue. I have no idea why that came out of my mouth, but this isn’t the first time a pointless lie has emerged without passing through my brain. I remembered afterward that my cube-neighbor is an Orthodox Jew and knows that I’m not Jewish in any way, and she’s also in my group. I’m realizing my position on Christmas is so logically inconsistent and indefensible that I just come off looking so bad and insensitive and now I feel bad about everything. Should I apologize to my cube-neighbor?
A: This is a first for me! I’ve never been in your exact situation, but I’ve certainly told a strange, unhelpful lie just to get out of being taken by surprise before, so I feel your embarrassment keenly. I am genuinely not sure what you should do, so I’m going to open this up to the readers and see if anyone else has some helpful suggestions. How do you tell someone you lied about being Jewish? Should you say anything at all? What if no one else heard you? What say you, readers?
Q. We can’t even talk about talking about issues: My boyfriend of two years is smart, successful, attractive, and fun to be around when things are good. My problem is that every conversation I try to have about something that is bothering me in our relationship ends the same way—with him spiraling into a pattern of negative thoughts and me trying to convince him he is not a horrible person. The original issue is never resolved. No matter how nicely I try to phrase things, he sees the smallest suggestions of ways he can support me better as criticism worthy of a day’s worth of moping. Our last conversation like this was literally about trying to find a way to talk through issues without his shutting down. Is this hopeless?
A: I think so. It may be that he’s in deep emotional distress and needs help; it may be that he is emotionally manipulative and has found a way to make you feel guilty for ever criticizing him. It sounds like he might benefit enormously from therapy and possibly additional treatment from this anxiety of his, and I hope you can encourage him to seek it out. But if he’s not taking any steps to address these emotional crises and is incapable of listening to the mildest of criticism about your relationship, I don’t see much of a romantic future for the two of you.
Q. Oh, brother!: My brother recently divorced his wife of 30 years. They have two adult children who are very close to their mother. I have continued my friendship with my niece and nephew’s mother while supporting my brother and his reasons for the divorce. My brother is upset with me and says that by continuing to be friends with his ex-wife I am not supporting him. He doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. I feel I did not divorce her, and I know my niece and nephew would be very hurt if I were to ignore their mother. My brother has remarried and moved three hours away while his ex-wife lives nearby. How do I explain to him why he is wrong to expect me to turn my back on his ex-wife? If he is happily married shouldn’t he “let it go”? Why can’t I love both him and his ex-wife?
A: I think telling him what you’ve just told me—”I did not divorce your ex-wife, and I cannot ignore the mother of my niece and nephew; I love and support you, but I am not going to cut your ex out of my life just because you’ve gotten remarried” is an honest, loving response.
Q. Re: Insensitive Christmas faux pas: How hard is it to say, “I was finding him obnoxious, I said ‘I’m Jewish’ to scare him off because I get stupid under stress. I really meant no disrespect.”
A: Option the first!
Q. Re: Insensitive Christmas faux pas: I think you should just explain your intentions in person to the Orthodox friend, and in an email follow-up if you already sent one. It seems like your intention was to do something nice for the boss in the holiday season, but also make it clear that there are good reasons not to force Christian traditions on others. Your lie seems actually well-intended: You made a point without passing the blame to someone else (you didn’t say “No, because so-and-so is Jewish”), which might have made that specific person uncomfortable.
A: Option the second!
Q. Re: Insensitive Christmas faux pas: Your cubemate probably doesn’t even remember what you said. If they are upset about it, they can come to you. The bigger issue is your self-admitted lying, maybe work to get a handle on that and let this one go? It was probably pretty obvious you were making an excuse not to have something hung in your cube.
A: Option the third!
Q. Love him but hate her: My husband’s best friend got his girlfriend pregnant. I adore him and despise her. It is a mutual consensus that she manipulated and lied and cheated her way into his life, a single mother who got herself kicked out of her home and moved in with him just months after they started dating. She had no car and lost her job. She began having her daughter call him daddy within a year and bragged about all the stuff “they’re” doing on his dime. She’s a leech, and I don’t agree with her decision-making as a woman or a mother. Just a few weeks ago he was planning on breaking up with her but is now looking at marriage because she’s pregnant. Socially, I can’t stand to even face her direction. How do I support my friend when all I can think about is how awful this may turn out?
A: I’m not sure if this woman is as bad as you say; if I tilt my head and look at your description from a slightly different angle, she sounds like a single mother who lost her job and home in quick succession, found a boyfriend who makes her young daughter feel so comfortable she thinks of him as a father, and enjoys spending time together as a family. It’s certainly possible that she’s manipulative, but it sounds as if you think that her being a single mother is a character flaw on par with being a liar.
If you want to support your friend, let him know that you’re here for him no matter what he decides to do, and find a way to face her direction at social events without falling to pieces. You don’t have to like her, and you don’t have to befriend her, but you do owe her the bare minimum of a polite “Hello, how’s it going?” when you run into her at a party.
Q. Re: Christmas faux pas: Next time you find yourself in this and any other situation, know that it is OK to say “no” and not feel the need to explain. When asked why after I say no to someone, I say, “My no is a complete sentence.” Funny how rare it is we get asked, “But, why?” when we say yes.
Q. Ask for a check?: When my (now second-grade) daughter was in kindergarten, a classmate of hers tragically passed away after a sudden illness. This girl’s mother has remained heavily involved with the school community, coming to all the kids’ performances and presentations and hanging out with the moms at parent events. We love having her, but there’s currently a debate over whether or not it would be appropriate to ask her to give to the school’s parent fund. Generally we ask all current parents to pledge some small amount to support school extracurriculars. This mother doesn’t have other children attending the school (her other kids are younger), but is a part of the parent community. What do you think?
A: Don’t ask her to give money.
Q. Joining the family for Christmas: I had a stroke two years ago and can no longer drive or walk well, and I have a service dog to help me now. Since my sister hosts all the holidays at her home, a three-hour drive from me, I have not attend a family gathering in a while. And sad to say, no one comes out here to see me. My sister has decided that I will take the train halfway there, get picked up by my brother and brought to her house. But no service dog. I don’t want to go, but I do want to go. I just don’t want to be on the train without my SD. Help me find the words to say no without insulting her?
A: I’m so sorry that your family’s response to your stroke has been largely to ignore and dismiss you. I can’t imagine asking a relative to leave their medically necessary service dog at home. It doesn’t sound like anyone has life-threatening allergies, and I think you’re right not to want to attend if your dog isn’t welcome. “I’m sorry, but I can’t get around without my service dog. I’d love to spend the holidays with you, but it’s not safe for me to travel without him/her.” Here’s hoping your sister has a change of heart.
Q. Re: Should I stay or should I go?: I was the same position as the letter writer. Married to my wife 25 years, three kids (slightly younger than his). I recall being in a similar situation a few years ago (no romantic feelings, lack of interest in her sexually, etc.). I contributed to this situation; I was at least 50 percent of the problem. My recommendation would be some counseling with a focus on what you can do. I realized that I wasn’t the same young/strapping person from my late 20s. I realized that discarding a 25-year relationship (in the hopes of trading that in for something new) was risky for me and would hurt all the members of my family. I focused on rebuilding the relationship, and I’m very grateful I did. Running away is the easy way out (and very short-term focused).
A: This is a great reminder. I don’t know if the original letter writer is at all interested in working on his marriage, but if he is, this is something to bear in mind.