Dear Prudence

Family First

I caught my fiancé with his sister.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Sam Breach

Get Dear Prudence delivered to your inbox each week by signing up in the box below. Please send your questions for publication to (Questions may be edited.)

Got a burning question for Prudie? She’ll be online here on Slate to chat with readers each Monday at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the live discussion.

Readers! Ask me your questions on the voicemail of the upcoming Dear Prudence podcast. Just leave a message at 401-371-DEAR (3327), and you may hear your question answered on a future episode of the show. 

Dear Prudence,
I recently caught my fiancé and his sister together and broke up with him. I’d always gotten a strange feeling about their closeness, but I didn’t believe it until I saw with my own eyes. To my family and friends, it seems like I woke up one morning and decided not to get married. Everyone is pushing me to work things out with my fiancé. Initially, I wanted to keep what I saw between them and me. If I tell people they have an incestuous relationship, it would probably destroy their lives. I know they’re barely functioning and terrified I will tell people about them. I’m worried I will seem spiteful if I tell even a few trusted loved ones the real reason I called off the wedding. At the same time, I’m heartbroken too and don’t know how much longer I can handle lectures about “letting a good man get away.” Should I stay quiet or speak up?

—Too Close for Comfort

If you are this Reddit poster, two months later, then first: congrats on getting out, though I’m sorry you had to find out that way. (If you are not the same person, then: a reminder that anything that has happened to someone can and will also happen to someone else.) I can’t imagine how crushed and bewildered you must feel right now, and I hope very much you’re able to see a counselor about the emotional trauma you’ve experienced. I understand your reluctance to bring your fiancé’s relationship with his sister to light, if nothing else because it would be exhausting and overwhelming for you to deal with the subsequent aftermath and embarrassing questions. (I’m also sorry so many of your friends would lecture you about letting a good man “get away” just because you decided not to get married.) If pressed, I think you should tell people that your fiancé was unfaithful and you couldn’t go ahead with the wedding; this contains enough of the truth that people will understand and won’t press for further explanation but spares you all from the fallout that would result from dropping the bomb you hold in your hands.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I moved across the country for his work. I hated the area. I became socially isolated, depressed, and venomous in my marriage. I recognized my part in a stressful relationship, sought therapy, found a new job. Our relationship did not improve. I asked if there was another woman. He said, “No.” A week later he came home one night, got drunk, and fell asleep on the couch with a death grip on his phone. I broke the cardinal rule of privacy and found out I was right: He was having an affair with someone at work. I packed up and left for a week. It was awful. I came back on the condition that he was not going to maintain any kind of personal relationship with that woman. Four months later, and of course they are “friends” now. My position is that with friends like that, who needs enemies; she’s on my permanent black-ball list. His position is that he is not doing anything wrong. There’s got to be a better compromise than “stop talking to her or we are getting divorced.”

—Looking for a Compromise

I don’t believe that there is much of a compromise to be found between “stop having an affair” and “continue having an affair,” because, of course, your husband is almost certainly continuing his affair. He didn’t originally confess his affair to you; you found out about it. After you tried to leave, he broke the only promise he made to you about staying in contact with her. Now that you’re protesting his “friendship” with his ex, he’s digging in his heels and insisting he’s in the clear. He’s great at getting you to compromise, but it doesn’t sound like he has much interest in doing any compromising himself. (For what it’s worth, while I’m still against spouses going through their partner’s phones, I realize you had been pushed to the limit by his refusal to discuss the problems in your marriage.)

At no point in this process has your husband pursued honesty. He has always had to be blackmailed into it. He has made no gesture to you that would give me hope he would listen to your concerns and keep his promises in the future. Based on his past behavior, it seems extremely likely that he will continue to come home late, maintain whatever type of relationship he chooses with the woman he cheated with, and do exactly as he pleases without compromise until you decide to leave for good.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are both freelancers in creative fields of work and do well financially. We save a little more now that we’re older and we never want for anything. My husband has always made more money more consistently than I do, and with his salary, we are more than comfortable. I am in a field that pays generously but sporadically. Last night, I picked a fight I probably shouldn’t have—it doesn’t matter what it was about. At one point I said, “My feelings are hurt when you talk to me like this.” And he responded with, “Your feelings don’t matter, because I pay for everything.” I was dumbfounded. We went to bed angry, and, honestly, I’m so shocked these words came out of his mouth that I don’t even think I can look at him. What can I do or say here? Should I just keep my mouth shut? Do I have any ground in which to stand—because, as he said, right now, he is paying for most things. I feel like a 1950s housewife all of a sudden and am questioning everything about my marriage.

—Paying for Everything

The good news is that there is no minimum income requirement for feelings. Everyone gets to have feelings regardless of how much money they contribute to the household, and there’s no financial threshold where your feelings suddenly start to matter more. What your husband said was vicious and cruel, and even though loving people can say vicious and cruel things in the heat of the moment, the fact that he didn’t apologize for it in the morning is concerning. It makes me worry this is something he thinks he had a right to say. By no means should you keep your mouth shut. Making more money doesn’t buy your husband the right to shut down arguments by belittling your sense of worth. Have a conversation about his remark (not about the original fight) and insist on getting an apology—if one isn’t immediately forthcoming, the topic of conversation just got much bigger.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
A few years ago, I met and fell in love with a man I thought was my soul mate. Last September, we finally decided to make our relationship official and, at first, everything was wonderful. However, my boyfriend had trust issues from being cheated on. He constantly expected to know where I was and who I was with, and got very upset when I forgot to say where I was going. Things really blew up when I was out at the mall with friends and invited an old co-worker (who worked in the building and had once been interested in me) to come say hi. When explaining this to my boyfriend, I said that the friend “showed up” rather than that I invited him. I apologized profusely for the error when asked about it, but my boyfriend saw this incident as a huge breach of trust that he couldn’t get past, and two months later ended our relationship because of it. I did everything I could think of to show that I was still deserving of trust, and it wasn’t enough. As much as the logical side of me knows he overreacted and that I didn’t do anything improper with my old co-worker, I can’t get past the feelings of guilt and the thought that I ruined the best thing that’s ever happened to me. I still hurt him and broke his trust, which I never wanted to do. How do I move past losing the person I thought was the love of my life and feeling like a failure?

—Guilty Over His Trust Issues

You say you lost the love of your life; I say you escaped from a trap. The moment you said “he constantly expected to know where I was and who I was with,” my heart was in my throat. Attempts at control and surveillance are hallmarks of an abusive relationship, and the fact that your ex-boyfriend demanded to know your every move and blew up when you went somewhere without telling him is an enormous red flag. Whatever his previous girlfriends did is no excuse. You’re lucky you got out when you did.

But there’s something deeper I want to address. That you felt like you had to apologize to your boyfriend for meeting up with friends at the mall is so twisted, as if he were your parole officer. I think it was no accident you said your friend “showed up” rather than acknowledging that you invited him; I think you instinctively blurred the truth because you knew your boyfriend to be suspicious and tyrannical. You shouldn’t have felt ashamed about what you did in the first place. Meeting up with friends is a completely unremarkable thing to do, and if your boyfriend couldn’t process the fact that you once spent an hour or two in public with a group of people who included a co-worker who once had a crush on you, you are better off without him. You were only with this man for a few months and he tried to make you wear a hairshirt for seeing your friends at the mall; I shudder to think what he would have tried to keep you from doing in six months, a year, two years from now. I’m glad you at least understand that your boyfriend overreacted (what an understatement), and I hope in time you’ll see that the “best thing that’s ever happened” to you would not make you feel guilty for leaving the house or seeing your friends. The best thing that’s ever happened to you would make you feel free and expansive and joyful, not guilty and isolated.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
Recently, I found myself attracted to a friend and colleague in my grad program. I asked her out a couple of months ago and she said no—she likes me as a friend but thinks we’re too different for anything deeper (I’m introverted, and she’s a social butterfly). We’re still friends and I have a lot of fun with her, but our interactions are superficial and mostly in the context of our mutual friend group. I keep thinking that I’d love to spend more time with her and be closer platonic friends, but I’m not sure how to ask for that without seeming like I won’t take “no” for an answer. We’re in year two of an eight-year program, so we’re going to be in each others’ lives regardless, for better or worse. Is it worth the risk to try and ask for something more—and, if so, how?

—Looking for More

It’s not worth the risk. You asked her out and she said no. Now you’re looking to see if there’s a side entrance to a relationship with her, and I don’t think there is. Your colleague has already turned down your request to get to know one another better. If you two are ever going to become closer friends, it won’t be because just a few months after she turned down your request for a date you tried to negotiate, “Well, how about just becoming very intimate friends, then?” The only way to seem like you’re capable of taking “No” for an answer is to take “No” for an answer.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have a co-worker who is hard of hearing. One day, her headphones got disconnected from her iPod, revealing that she was listening to some very misogynistic and violent-sounding rap music. I asked her why she listened to this music, and she said that while she knows the lyrics might be offensive to those who can hear them, the rhythm and bass sound good and she enjoys listening to it anyway. She is very sweet and very open-minded, and I worry that if other people find out that she listens to this music, they might think she is not these things. Should I say something more?

—Hard to Listen to

No. The music she listens to on her headphones is not a line-for-line endorsement of every sentiment expressed therein; I thought we settled this with Tipper Gore back in the ’80s. It’s the year 20 and 16; I don’t think people will stop thinking of your co-worker as a good person if they ever found out she listens to rap. (Many people do; it’s a very popular genre.) Put your own headphones on and don’t worry about hers.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My sister is locked in a bitter custody battle with her ex-husband. Both of them are good parents, but they hate each other. My sister and her new husband recently invited our uncle to move in with them. After our dad left us, our uncle helped raise us. He molested me, but because my sister was too old for his tastes, he showered her with gifts and praise. Neither my mom nor my sister believed me, and it caused our family endless tension. My nieces are currently too young for my uncle, and he is not interested in boys, so my nephew is safe. I want to call CPS, but this will give my former brother-in-law a lot of ammunition in his case for full custody. I want to protect my nieces and nephew, but I don’t want to strip my sister of her kids. Am I doing the right thing?

Call CPS right now. You must do everything you can to spare your nieces and nephew the torment you experienced as a child. If your sister’s ex-husband is, as you say, a good parent, your sister’s children should live with him. Your sister knows your uncle molested you and chose not only to disavow your pain but invited him to move in with her and her children. Regardless of their age or sex, no children are safe with that man in the house. He sounds like a master manipulator (that he calculatedly showered your sister with gifts and affection as an inoculation against later accusations makes my blood boil) and a predator. Call CPS or the police immediately; your sister cannot provide a safe environment for her children and should not be their primary caregiver.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I have been seriously dating a wonderful man for a year. He currently has a stable job and spends responsibly. But he has about $70K worth of credit card debt from a tumultuous period in his life a few years ago after his divorce where he spent recklessly. Since I have known him, he’s said that he wants to sell his car and see a financial counselor, which is free through his employer, but he’s done neither. He has also said he wants to get a second job to pay off his debt, but he hasn’t applied for anything yet. I worry his inaction is a red flag. We talk openly, but I’ve never told him how concerned I am about this and that I need to see him take action. What should I do?

—Procrastinating Boyfriend

Please believe me when I say the following utterly without condescension: Tell him how concerned you are about this and that you need to see him take action. You have done yourself the favor of including your own answer in your question. Do so kindly—it’s not uncommon for someone to respond to what feels like an overwhelming amount of debt with inaction not out of laziness but from fear and paralysis—but tell him you’re worried about his nonresponse and want to see him make progress, however small, in addressing his debt. He has plenty of options and it will be good for the both of you to discuss them honestly. Don’t make the mistake of sweeping financial concerns under the rug before they become yours, as they inevitably will.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on her Facebook page!

More Dear Prudence Columns

The Right to Say I Don’t: The law finally allows me to marry my boyfriend—only he doesn’t want to.”
No Direction: My husband’s spent our entire marriage writing a screenplay, and I’m fed up.”
Gut Shot: We just found out the midwives helping my wife give birth are rabid anti-vaccinationists.”
Nude Blues: My wife is always naked—and now she’s turning our children into nudists, too.”

More Dear Prudence Chat Transcripts

Inside Job: Prudie advises a woman who fears she’s tempting her husband by employing a hot live-in nanny.”
Twins in Bed: Prudie counsels a parent whose son and daughter may be a little too close.”
My Condolences, Marry Me: Prudie counsels a woman impatient to pursue a recent widower.”
Crime at the Ballet: Prudie advises a parent sworn to secrecy about a daughter’s predatory dance instructor.”