Dear Prudence

Bad Seed

My daughter calls my wife and her kids racist names. I still love her, but I’m at the end of my rope.

Mallory Ortberg
Mallory Ortberg

Sam Breach

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Dear Prudence,
Years ago, while my wife and I were separated, I foolishly slept with “Molly,” who became pregnant with my daughter “Ally.” I reconciled with my wife, and ultimately we won custody of Ally when she was 9, after Molly went through a series of boyfriends and made repeated sexual overtures toward me. My wife has been incredible, but Molly’s influence has been strong. After completing her court-ordered therapy, Molly filed for custody when Ally was 13, and two years later Ally went to live with her permanently. Ally went from respectful and sweet to insubordinate and cruel. Finally, she used racial epithets against my wife and stepdaughters, and I threw her out of the house. She did the same thing when my wife and I came to her high school graduation. Molly looked so proud of her.

Ally is now 21. I haven’t spoken to her beyond a phone call on Christmas and her birthday unless she needs money. My wife openly grieves for the little girl that we lost, and my stepdaughters refuse to acknowledge Ally. I can’t blame them. I blame myself for not fighting harder, but what is done is done. At what point do I give up? Ally is sweet until she doesn’t get what she wants. The last time it was because I wouldn’t bail her drug-using boyfriend from jail; before that, it was when I wouldn’t buy her another car after she wrecked hers. I am tired and have no desire to do this dance for the next 20 years. I am at the end of my rope. For the record, I always paid my child support, while Molly didn’t pay a dime when Ally lived with me. I love my daughter, but I also love my wife and stepdaughters. I would give anything to have the Ally who I raised back, but that is an impossibility now. I don’t know what to do.

—Do I Give Up?

I think there’s a significant difference between “giving up” and living in a state of hopeful acceptance. What you’re facing is the latter. You can love Ally and also mourn the loss of the person you’d hoped she would become. You can hope that she eventually makes better choices and refuse to financially enable her present bad decisions. You can, and should, defend your wife and other children from racist attack, even if the attack comes from your own daughter. You have done the right thing in supporting their decision not to interact with her and to limit your own interactions with her until and unless she is capable of having a conversation with you that does not revolve around demanding money to bail her out of crises she’s created herself. She’s an adult now, and whatever mistakes you or her mother made during her childhood, while they’ll always be a part of her story, aren’t what’s causing her behavior. She’s making choices, and I think the classic Serenity Prayer might serve you well as you try to find peace and set boundaries—to seek serenity for the things you cannot change, the courage to change the things that you can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

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Dear Prudence,
I’m 31 and was with my ex-husband, Charlie, for 12 years. In May he told me he’d fallen in love with his co-worker and asked me for a divorce. I thought our marriage could be saved and tried to persuade Charlie to reconcile, but he was utterly done with me. I upset him by not accepting the end of our marriage, and he told me in no uncertain terms that we’d never really loved each other, that our marriage was a lie, and that his co-worker was his true love. I know he finds my heartbreak pathetic. I wish I could hate him, but I just miss him. I know our marriage is over and will move on, but I’m struggling to accept that our entire marriage was a fraud. I love Charlie, and he convinced me (and our friends and families) that he felt the same. How do you mourn the end of a relationship when the other person tells you that you imagined the whole thing?

—Was My Marriage a Lie?

I don’t think it’s necessary for you to hate your husband (although if it helps, after what he said to you, I’m perfectly willing to hate him on your behalf) in order to move ahead with your life. I also don’t think you should rush into moving on or setting a timeline for when you’re supposed to “get over” such a tremendous betrayal as the one you’ve experienced. The fact that you weren’t cheerfully resigned at the prospect of your husband leaving you is entirely understandable, and the fact that he was “upset” in no way explains or justifies the cruel, demeaning things he said to you. Whether he perpetrated a 12-year fraud or is now simply attempting to defend his betrayal by pretending he never cared for you (and thus doesn’t need to examine his own bad behavior), the fact remains that you did love him, and for 12 years you were in a very real marriage with him. He can’t retcon your entire marriage just so he doesn’t have to feel bad about having an affair.

Your mourning process will almost certainly be a long one. That’s not to say you don’t have good days ahead of you or that you’re doomed to grieve your ex forever, but you do not require his validation to feel sad (or whatever other things you feel!) about the end of your marriage. What you experienced—your love, your commitment, your active participation in that partnership—was not fraudulent, and therefore neither was your marriage. Give yourself permission to treat your marriage, and its end, as real things, even if he claims to believe otherwise.

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Dear Prudence,
In order to teach our young kids about money, when we started giving them an allowance, we had them place 10 percent into investments we managed on their behalf. This has gone well for our older son—better than we could have ever guessed, thanks to some amazingly lucky investments. Our banker has suggested that by the time our son reaches adulthood, the fund could be greater than anything we imagined when we created it. Our problem is what to do about our younger son, who is unlikely to see the same return on his investments. We have unwittingly created a situation of extreme inequality among our kids.

Since my older son is a minor and the account is in my name, I am able to transfer some of the value to our other son’s account. Part of me thinks this is fair, since the investment plan wasn’t initiated by either of our children, so I can’t tell my younger son that his brother deserves the money due to his own wise planning. Our older son had luck and timing on his side, and nothing else. Should I divide the money in the name of equal treatment?

—Money Management

Absolutely you should. How fortunate for both of your children that you have been so lucky and that you are committed to providing for both of their financial futures. You are not taking money your older son has put aside in his piggy bank over the years; you’re attempting to maintain the financial parity you established all those years ago when you saved the same percentage of their allowance. I mean this in all sincerity: Congratulations on having such a wonderful problem with such a clear-cut solution.

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Dear Prudence: My fiancé has been postponing our marriage for five years.

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Dear Prudence,
I’ve very quickly become close with a married friend in a troubled relationship. I’ve been responsible in how I’ve behaved, but I have feelings for him. He hasn’t made a move, and I don’t think he would, but our dynamic feels like if he weren’t married we would absolutely be moving toward being together already. So I’m trying to figure out: What are my obligations? I care deeply about our friendship and don’t want to ruin it or pull away from it.

—Is It an Emotional Affair?

If your goal is to avoid both pulling away from this friendship and progressing further down the path to an emotional affair, I’m afraid I’m not going to be much help, because I’m not sure those two aims are compatible. The problem with something as messy and ambiguous as an emotional affair is that there are layers of plausible deniability that both participants use to deny their own desires and intentions in favor of a narrative of accident. The good news is that you seem aware that you’re on the verge of something complicated and painful, and at least a part of you wants to make sure you don’t tip over the edge. I think that’s a wise impulse.

I’d encourage you to reframe your thinking in terms of opportunity rather than obligation. There’s a popular response, in situations like this one, that goes something along these lines: “I’m not the person in a relationship, I have no marriage vows to honor or break, and I can therefore do as I like without further self-scrutiny.” While this is technically true, it belies the fact that your friend is married to a real person with real feelings, and whatever you decide to do next, pretending that she does not factor into the equation is an attempt to evade reality. Ask yourself instead: What would I like to get out of this situation? How do I want to conduct myself? What are my values, and how can I honor them? If you want to tell your friend you have feelings for him and that if he ever finds himself single again, you’d like to try dating, then you are free to do that. If you decide that you want to remain friends without encouraging further flirtation, you can decline to participate in loaded conversations before they start and focus your romantic energies elsewhere. If you decide you want to see how close you can get to the line before you cross it, you’re free to do that too. I don’t hear from a lot of people who end up in happy, healthy, long-term relationships that began as ambiguous, undeclared emotional affairs, but you’re free to give that a try, if you think it’s worth it. You are not under any obligation, but I think it’s better to actively decide what you want to pursue or avoid, rather than what you’re willing to accidentally on purpose stumble into.

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Dear Prudence,
I recently moved into a shared house with three roommates I hadn’t known before. All three are friendly guys, but one in particular is a talker. I set a timer on my phone, and he talked at me for 35 minutes without me saying a single word, just smiling and nodding along. This happens several times a week. Since I spend significant time in the kitchen and living room, how do I set proper boundaries to avoid these extensive monologues? He’s a kind person—he just gives me no room to have a human conversation. Should I interrupt his never-ending orations, keep grinning and bearing it, or find some middle ground?

—Chatty Roommate

Good Lord, please interrupt this guy, both for your sake and for his betterment. There is no reason why you should be setting timers and internally clucking at his inability to take a hint. Next time he launches into another soliloquy, say something. Don’t wait for him to pause or pick up on your lack of interest, because that clearly doesn’t work with him. Kindly but firmly say, “Please slow down for a minute—this is overwhelming, and I’m not getting a chance to get a word in edgewise.” It may be that he simply doesn’t have great social skills and will benefit from hearing from you when he’s going on too long. If he tries to fire the monologue machine back up after a mere pause, there’s nothing wrong with saying, “I’m sorry, I can’t talk right now” and focusing your attention on a book or whatever you’re cooking or whatever’s on TV. You’re worried about finding a middle ground when so far you’ve tried exactly nothing. As long as you’re not rude or dismissive, it’s completely appropriate to let people know when they’re taking up all the conversational room.

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Dear Prudence,
I am a divorced mother who’s now back in college. My divorce was nearly three years ago and one of the best decisions I have ever made. I recently learned that my ex-husband (and the father of my children) has been seeing a woman. I think that’s great, and I want him to be happy. The problem is that she is a fellow student in one of my classes. When I realized the connection, I started bawling on the way home from class. I hope so much that she doesn’t know who I am—but even more than that I am beside myself with sadness, and I don’t know why. I still care deeply for my ex, but I’m currently in the best relationship of my life with a wonderful man. Why am I sad? Why does knowing who she is bother me so much? How do I heal and continue? My marriage was abusive and tumultuous, and I’m so happy with my new relationship, so how is this even an issue?

—Unwilling Classmate

You say you don’t understand why this makes you sad, that you want your ex to be happy, but you also say that you were in an abusive marriage. I don’t think it’s at all surprising or wrong that this news brings up powerful feelings of sadness and anxiety for you. Presumably you still have to interact with your ex to some degree because you have children together, so it’s understandable if you’ve pushed yourself toward wanting to be happy for him for the sake of getting along. That doesn’t mean everything is dead and buried between you or that you’re totally fine with the fact that you were once locked in an abusive marriage just because you have a boyfriend who treats you well now—it means you’ve been willing to make certain tradeoffs to preserve a peaceful family dynamic. You should give yourself permission to cry, to feel upset, to limit your contact with your classmate, and to grieve in private. Healing is a wonderful goal, but healing does not mean racing your way out of sadness.

You’re doing everything right: You’re going back to school, you’re looking after yourself, you’re enjoying your current relationship, and now, in addition to all of those things, you get to feel sad because your marriage was painful, and it ended, and you have to be reminded of things that once caused you pain, and to worry about whether your husband is abusing this woman too. I encourage you to see a therapist about some of these feelings and to consider whether you might ever feel able to warn your husband’s new girlfriend about his abusive history, if you believe her to be in any danger. If that feels too overwhelming to contemplate, focus on getting through this class with your equanimity intact and taking care of yourself.

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