Danny M. Lavery, 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 email@example.com.)
Q. Trust: I was in a marriage for 15 years that I thought was great. We got along well and had lots of friends and two wonderful kids. My world fell apart after I learned my husband had been carrying on a five-year affair with one of my friends. We traveled with this family—our kids were the best of friends. I will admit that we were going through a rough patch in our marriage, but nothing earth-shattering that couldn’t be dealt with, or so I thought. We divorced. I couldn’t forgive him.
Seven years later and I am in a long-term relationship with a wonderful man. He loves me like no one else ever has. I trust him implicitly. But I can’t commit. I’ve told him I won’t remarry, and he’s fine with this. He wants to live together (my kids are grown and on their own), but something is holding me back. Part of me still loves my ex and the life we had, but I know I could never trust him. (He’s had several girlfriends over the years and has cheated on all of them.) But I can’t help but miss the life I used to have. I realize it’s not fair to my new man that I feel this way. (He doesn’t know.) I love him and want to have a life with him, but I want to do so without reservation or longing for what I used to have.
A: I know in cases like this one, where the betrayal was both significant and long ago, it’s customary to recommend therapy as a way to help process and release your feelings of longing and resentment toward your ex, so that you can move forward in your new relationship. And I do! Go to therapy, if you haven’t already, and talk about all the things you wish you could have done with your ex-husband, the father of your children, the person you had hoped to stay with for the rest of your life, and find a way to order, rather than ignore, those feelings in such a way that they don’t keep you from doing the things you want to do now. These are completely normal thoughts that should be shared with a trusted and neutral third party, not with the man you’re seeing now.
But I also don’t think you have to get married or even live with your current boyfriend in order to have a good life with him. I don’t think that occasionally missing your old life means you’re helplessly mired in the past; I think everyone experiences reservations about the various directions their lives could have taken and that you in particular experienced a serious “two-roads-diverged-in-a-yellow-wood” moment that would make anyone think a great deal about what might have been. Give yourself permission to experience regret and longing sometimes—don’t feel as if you have to make perfect peace with an imperfect past.
Q. Doctor’s wife gossiping about his patients: My friend “Catherine” is married to a doctor. Recently, Catherine, her husband “Bob,” and I were at a party hosted by a mutual friend. During dinner, Catherine announced that another woman in our social circle, “Jane,” had recently become Bob’s patient. Then Catherine shared some information about Jane’s medical history that Bob had told her after Jane’s last appointment. Catherine and Bob both laughed, and then he said something like, “Honey, you’re not supposed to tell people that.” Everyone was very uncomfortable. I thought about telling Jane, but figured maybe it happened just because Catherine was drunk, and so I tried to let it go. Recently at another social function, Catherine brought it up again. Should I say something to Catherine and/or Jane about this? I feel like it is a huge violation of Jane’s privacy and she’d be very upset if she knew, but I don’t want to be in the middle.
A: Catherine has disclosed private medical information in public on more than one occasion and even after being reprimanded; I think the odds are high that she will do it again. I’d go a step further and tell Bob that you’re going to tell Jane, and that what he and his wife have done is both unprofessional, unkind, and a violation of HIPAA. I’d certainly want to know if my doctor’s family members were talking about my medical history at cocktail parties; I think this is something that’s worth getting in the middle of.
Q. Sister won’t drop it.: My family disowned me when I was 17 when I came out as gay. Since then, I’ve had a son. After my husband and I got married last year, my middle sister tried to reconnect with me. She wanted to have my son and me join my family for Mother’s Day as a surprise, but my husband and I declined, believing that it would be a bad idea, especially since she didn’t want my husband to come. She spent the next two days trying to coerce us into changing our minds, harassing us and saying, among other things, that we were angry, bitter, and trying to destroy my son’s potential relationship with his grandparents as well as any attempts we had at reconciliation. She has only gotten worse since I spoke to her. I don’t want to cut her out of my life, since we’ve only began speaking to each other for less than seven months, but I don’t know how to deal with her.
A: I’m so sorry—I can only imagine your reluctance to let her go, because the prospect of a reunion with a family member, however limited, after years of estrangement can be so tantalizing. But there’s nothing in your letter that suggests your sister is capable of any of the following: good judgment, good planning, hearing the word no, respecting your husband, having a disagreement without losing her temper or resorting to emotional manipulation, or cutting her losses and moving on.
If this is how she acts when she’s trying to convince you to renew a relationship, I’m awfully concerned about how she’ll treat you (and your husband and son!) when she feels comfortable again. She’s not giving you anything to work with here! All she’s done is make demands and issue threats. Tell her that while you’d like to get to know her again as adults, that won’t be possible if she’s going to accuse you of trying to ruin your own son’s life or attempt to set up surprise Mother’s Day reunions. My guess is that her response will strengthen your decision to walk away.
Q. Sexually harassed friend: Last night we were having a discussion about sexual harassment with a friend, “Zoe,” and she told me that it had happened to her—her boss sent her explicit texts and made inappropriate remarks. She claimed to have the texts on her phone, but when I asked what she planned to do about it, she said nothing—she no longer works with him, but her field is highly competitive, he is very respected, “everybody knows about it,” and she wants to stay in the company (national media). And then she said that now that I knew, I had as much responsibility as those people who stayed silent in those scandals. (I know and sometimes work with her former boss’ boss.) Well, what should I do then? What is my responsibility? I am at a loss here.
A: In order to have responsibility in a situation, it’s customary to also have the ability to bring relevant information to appropriate parties with a material interest in knowing the truth. What could you tell this man’s bosses that would allow them to take action? You have not seen the text messages, only heard about them; he’s never sexually harassed you, you’ve never seen him sexually harass anyone, and the only person who’s told you she’s been sexually harassed has decided it’s safer not to say anything. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t committed sexual harassment, only that the information you’ve been given is not the kind that renders you professionally or personally obligated to make an accusation. You are complicit in nothing.
Q. Not going to be a guardian: I had the most disturbing conversation with my mother last week. I am in grad school and was an only child until my mother remarried and tried desperately to have a child with her new husband. Both of them were in their late 40s before my brother was born. Unfortunately, he suffered from huge amounts of physical and mental difficulties that will mean he will never be able to live as an independent adult. My mom has made it her life’s mission to make sure my brother has the best of care—except she told me that I will be the one who takes care of my brother when she and her husband pass away. I was speechless. This was not a discussion. I have been trying to get closer to my mom, and I may establish a bond with my brother since I went to live with my dad in my late teens over personal conflicts with my mother’s husband. I am not taking this on—I can’t take this on. How do I tell this to my mom without wrecking what is left of our relationship?
A: I can’t promise you that this won’t wreck your relationship with your mother, but you cannot allow her to labor under the delusion that after she and her husband are gone, you will be able to provide your brother with full-time care. Whatever the emotional fallout may be, you need to tell her you cannot and will not become your brother’s caregiver so she can make alternate arrangements in her will. Say it lovingly but firmly, and do not get drawn into an argument about what you owe anyone else. The fact that she did not ask you about the direction of your future life, but instead volunteered you as a surrogate parent, suggests to me that she is having a hard time dealing with reality. Kindly but gently introduce her to it. If she has a meltdown, she melts down; it will pass and you will all (especially your brother) be better off for your honesty now.
Q. Re: Doctor’s wife: While there is no private right of action under HIPAA (you can’t directly sue your doctor for telling his wife details of your medical visit), the office of civil rights will investigate: http://www.hhs.gov/hipaa/filing-a-complaint/what-to-expect/index.html
I would report. This is a gross violation of the doctor-patient relationship.
A: Thanks, and agreed!
Q. How to respond to “Is this your first baby”?: My 25-year-old daughter recently gave birth to a beautiful boy. During her pregnancy, we were both caught off guard by the innocent question of whether this was her first baby. She actually had a daughter at 16 who has been raised since birth by the father’s parents. A year or so later, she had another daughter who was placed for adoption. Our living circumstances during the time of both births were complex and difficult, but we made the best choices we could at the time. While the previous children are not a huge secret, we rarely speak of them for a variety of reasons, some of which are still painful and raw for even my daughter and I to talk about together, much less with anyone else even close family members. My question is: How do I respond to queries without going into detail or outright lying?
A: If it’s someone you don’t know well, go right ahead and lie; you’re under no obligation to give a complicated life history to friendly checkout clerks or people you only know from the gym. I’d also ask your daughter what she’s comfortable with you disclosing. If she’d prefer you not mention it, honor her wishes; if she’s comfortable being frank, feel free to follow her lead. When it comes to offering a simple, honest sound bite, you can simply say, “When she was younger, [Daughter] found adoptive families for her children; it was a difficult situation but we’re thrilled to meet [Baby] now.”
Q. Hard time letting go: Last year my boyfriend went on a hike on the Appalachian Trail with a friend. When he got back, I found out it was with more than his friend—there was another woman, and I found out from his male friend and not him. Is it normal to feel this betrayed? We have been together 16 years, and I have dedicated those years to building a life and raising my family. How do I get past this? Every time I try to talk to him, he goes on the defensive. I don’t want to lose him but not sure I can trust him. He just told me last week he is planning on doing another section, and I don’t know if I can handle it. Help!
A: I kept rereading this letter because the expression another woman made me think your husband had had a hiking-based affair last year, but after several passes, I’m fairly sure the issue is that she was just in attendance, not that anything happened between the two of them. The good news is that it’s absolutely normal to feel anything; I’ve wished death upon the entire world because I’ve spilled tea on my jeans in the car because I brought a mug too big for my cup holder, so you’re well within the range of acceptable human emotion. That said, I think you need to broach this topic with your boyfriend as a frustrating lack of disclosure, not as an act of betrayal tantamount to infidelity. If your partner’s lie of omission was because he prefers to avoid honest discussions, that’s cause for concern, but if he failed to mention her because you think it’s wrong or inappropriate for a man to hike with a woman who is not his partner, then I have a little more sympathy for his position.
The point is, I think, not that your boyfriend did anything wrong by hiking with a woman but that he kept this information from you in order to avoid conflict or even a slightly uncomfortable discussion. (I myself have done this on occasion, and it has always backfired.) It doesn’t mean that you can’t trust him to go on hikes in the future, or that your partnership is somehow compromised, just that you felt hurt and like you’d been kept in the dark when you found out he’d withheld information about who he was spending time with. If you try to have another conversation and he gets defensive, let him defend himself. There are worse things than having a slightly defensive argument.
Danny M. Lavery: Thanks, everyone! May all your romantic partners mow the lawn efficiently this week.