Dear Prudence

Once and Future Flame

How do I tell my ex and kids I want to be with the woman I had an affair with?

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg.

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
Eight years ago I had a prolonged affair with a co-worker that ended my already-deteriorating marriage. My ex-wife and I have two teenage boys who don’t yet know the affair was what brought down the final curtain on our relationship. Although my marriage was already on the rocks, I regret having an affair and realize it was the wrong way to deal with my unhappiness. I ended it, we finalized our divorce, and now my ex-wife and I have an amicable, cooperative co-parenting relationship.

Since then, I have tried dating, but have had trouble meeting anyone I care about as much as the woman I had an affair with. I am still in love with her. She now lives far away and works elsewhere, but we have reconnected, and I would love to be in a relationship with her, if it weren’t for our past and the complications it might raise for my relationship with my family. (She feels the same mix of excitement and trepidation.) We have discussed ways to see each other occasionally for now, with an eye toward eventually moving to the same place and being together. The issue that concerns me now is my relationship with my ex-wife and our children. While I don’t think either my ex or I should have any veto over each other’s romantic life, our cooperative co-parenting would be in for a bumpy ride if I were to reconnect with, and marry, this woman. I do not believe that I am entitled to keep the information about how I came to know her from my children, and I know it could be harmful to my relationship with my kids. Do you believe I should pursue this in order to be happy? Or should I avoid it, in order to preserve peace?

—Old Wounds, New Hope

This is hands down the most thoughtful, empathetic letter I have ever received from someone who is contemplating renewing a relationship with someone they once had an affair with. “Congratulations” seems like an odd response, but I do commend you for acknowledging your past wrongs and trying to move slowly and to anticipate all future emotional complications should you decide to get back together with this woman. I think you should (cautiously and carefully) reconnect with her. Your marriage is long over, a significant amount of time has passed since the affair, and you’ve tried to date others but haven’t been able to put her out of your mind. Your instinct to prioritize your children’s well-being and your amicable relationship with your ex-wife is a good one, and while there will be challenges, they should not be enough to prevent you from moving forward.

First discuss with your wife the prospect that you may be renewing your relationship with this woman, and reaffirm your commitment to raising your children together, making it clear that you’re not looking to move her into your house next week. The two of you should decide together how, and to what extent, you will tell your children the truth without going into the gory details of the end of your marriage. They already know that your marriage is over, and they’re nearing adult age, so you’ll have to decide what information you think they’re ready for and what would not be helpful for them to know yet. It may prove more difficult than you anticipated—even the most amicable of ex-spouses will feel bitterness about the situation you’re presenting her with. It’s possible that couples counseling with your ex might help you both figure out how to navigate this tricky situation as honestly and as openly as possible—just because you’re divorced doesn’t mean you aren’t partners in a very real way. Good luck.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been married for eight years to a great guy. We get along and we’re well-matched, except for this one thing: I’ve realized (discovered? decided?) that I’m asexual. It’s something that I’ve put a fair amount of thought into and not a conclusion I’ve come to lightly. My husband feels he needs a physical relationship, which is totally fair, and we’ve been seeing a therapist. After a couple of sessions, the therapist has recommended I see an endocrinologist. According to him, I should be tested for hormonal imbalances, and if it turns out I don’t have any, then my feelings “will be validated,” and if I do have an imbalance, then perhaps a new part of life will open up for me “to really enjoy.” I don’t want to be tested. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with me, and even if there is, I doubt I would treat it, as hormone therapies are expensive and fairly risky. Do I owe it to my husband to do this? I don’t want to get divorced, but I also don’t want to compromise who I believe I am. I’m really torn here.

—Perfectly Balanced

You haven’t mentioned experiencing any other physical effects of a hormone imbalance, but you have mentioned the process of making a decision, which suggests to me that you are likely not experiencing a sudden, unusual shift in sexual desire that’s connected to a medical condition. Moreover—and this is crucial—you know you wouldn’t want to address a hormonal imbalance if you found one. There is a world of difference between a sexual person who loses her usual interest in sex as the result of a significant life change or a medical issue and an asexual person. Your therapist seems to wish you were the former, but you sound very certain that you are the latter, and I trust that you know your own mind. You’re not interested in discovering whether your asexuality has a physical or medical component, which it likely doesn’t, precisely because you are not interested in trying to “fix” your asexuality. This is an important truth about you, and you should be honest about it with yourself and your husband. It may change the terms of your marriage—and divorce is one potential outcome—but don’t put yourself through an unnecessary, unhelpful barrage of tests simply because your therapist doesn’t believe your realization counts until you can prove it with a doctor’s note.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
I’ve been dating a fantastic guy for almost a month now. We feel strongly for each other and are hoping to stay together long into the future. The thing is, I met this guy on Tinder. We both wanted a serious relationship from the beginning, but I’m worried that people will see our relationship as something less than it is if I tell them how we met. We are both very serious and shy people who went on Tinder to find a partner because it caused less social anxiety. I know that we’re in the minority and that we have something worth keeping, but I doubt anyone else will make the distinction. What do I say when I’m asked how we met?

Say “We met online.” Deliver this line either neutrally or happily, not as if you are admitting a shameful secret. This is not 1991, and you did not meet on alt.nerd.obsessive; sure, Tinder is ostensibly geared toward short-term hookups, but plenty of long-term relationships start out as just that, and you don’t have to list the exact service you used to meet each other. Even if it does come out during conversation, I don’t think nearly as many people will judge you for how you met as you fear might. And those who are skeptical will have to rethink as they see your happy, healthy relationship stretch out into the long run.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
When I first went to college, I set up a joint bank account with my parents because they were helping me financially. They’ve also paid for pretty much everything else in my entire life growing up, including some pretty big medical bills from an illness I had. Fast forward 10 years, and now I am making good money, but my parents keep taking funds from my bank account. When my mom does it, she tells me about it and says she’ll try to pay me back, but my dad just takes the money. Dad doesn’t know Mom dips into my account, and Mom has no idea Dad is doing it too. I feel guilty about closing the account and starting a new one they can’t access because they’ve always been so generous to me. And I’m always happy to give them what they need, but I’m particularly annoyed with Dad for just taking money. It’s a pride thing with him. I could also deal with it if the sums were really minor, but we’re at close to $4,000 now, which is a lot of money. (But not even a fraction of what they’ve given me over the years. See why I’m so conflicted?) What can I do to a) protect my money?, b) still be helpful to my parents, and c) allow Dad to save face?

—Incredible Shrinking Bank Account

It’s wonderful that your parents supported you financially in the past, and it’s also wonderful that you want to be able to help them financially now that you’re an adult, but that doesn’t mean you should continue granting them unfettered access to your account. What if someday both your mother and your father, unbeknownst to each other, made significant withdrawals from your account right before rent was due? This system of mutual secrecy isn’t helping anyone. I think your first two priorities are excellent and that you should worry a great deal less about helping your father “save face” if it compromises the financial security of all three of you. You should tell your parents it’s time to close the joint account and then do so. You don’t have to ask for permission or input—this is a decision you have to make for your own well-being and theirs. Figure out how much money you’re willing and able to offer on a regular basis, and ask yourself if you would be comfortable offering loans and figuring out repayment plans, or if it would be easier for you to consider the money a gift. Tell them, “I’m incredibly grateful for how generously you have supported me over the years, and I want to be a resource for you when you need it. I can’t do it when all three of us have unrestricted access to my bank account, because it makes it very difficult for me to plan ahead financially when I don’t know what either of you is going to take out. I’m still happy to contribute financially when you need it, so all you ever have to do is ask, and we can figure this out together.”

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been dating and living together for over nine years now, and are deeply happy and committed. We started dating when I was just barely out of my teens, and we’ve been through some rough patches as I grew as a person. We managed to grow through those tough times together rather than apart, and I have found a much firmer sense of myself and my identity than I had when we first met.

However, part of that identity, and something that I’d only barely explored before I met my wonderful partner, is that I’m bisexual. While I had some flings with other women in my late teens, I suppose I always thought of it more as (stupidly) “a phase,” a label at which I cringe now. This is absolutely not something that I feel I need to explore now—I don’t believe that I’m missing out or that I will regret never pursuing this side of myself, as I’ve never been more loved and in love and sexually satisfied than I am with my boyfriend. It’s simply an acknowledgment that I have the capacity within myself to love regardless of gender. All that said, is this something that I need to or should mention to my boyfriend? It is part of who I am, and I don’t want to feel like it’s something secret or shameful by being left unsaid, but at the same time I don’t want to make my boyfriend upset or uncomfortable by bringing it up out of the blue because, as I said, I have no desire to pursue it and foresee my future with him by my side, so it seems like kind of a nonissue.

—Bisexual Enough?

I have answered variations of this question before and will answer this one as well, because I think it’s so important to challenge the idea that there is some sort of “bisexual critical mass” someone has to achieve in order to justify coming out. Sexual identity is not theoretical, and it is never a nonissue. It’s a part of who you are, regardless of how many people of any gender you’ve dated or slept with—and you want your boyfriend to know who you are. You’re not offering him information that will change the terms of your monogamous relationship; you’re bisexual, not polyamorous. You’re offering him information that will enable him to know and love you better as the person that you are. It’s not “out of the blue” because increased emotional intimacy should be the goal of every healthy relationship.

For what it’s worth, I believe this would still be meaningful to discuss with your partner even if you still considered your relationships with women to have been “a phase.” They weren’t, clearly, and the expression it’s just a phase has been used countless times to dismiss and demean bisexual people’s experiences, but it is worth pointing out that phases are still an important component of life and are not things to hide. Permanence is not the only way to measure significance.

* * *

Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend and I have been together on and off for six years. Our sex life for the first three years was incredible, but at that time we were both active addicts. We have both since recovered and become productive members of society. But this last three years our sex life has become nonexistent. I still want what we had, and he doesn’t even have the desire to even kiss me. Is this a sign that we were only good with each other when we were using, or is there something I’m missing?

—Won’t Kiss Me

I don’t know if this is necessarily a sign that you were only good with each other when you were using, but it’s certainly a sign that you’re not good together now. I would not encourage you to try to figure out what this says about your recovery and focus simply on what this says about your relationship. I don’t know if you and your boyfriend still love each other or even if he’s interested in changing your new sexual dynamic, but you need to figure out what is most important to you and whether the relationship is salvageable. If you (understandably) want a relationship with someone who wants to kiss you and he can’t do the kissing, you should find someone who can.

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