Dear Prudence

An Affair to Remember

My husband was married when we met—and I’m still ashamed.

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 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,

When I was young, I had an affair with my boss. We fell in love, got married, and, 25 years later, are still happily together. When our affair began, we were both in unhappy relationships. Ending mine was simple—my boyfriend and I shared only a mortgage and a cat. My husband, however, was married with two young children. He and his wife had been fighting for years, and it was clear the marriage was going to end eventually. However, I didn’t know that at the time, and I only went ahead with the affair because I didn’t think about the repercussions. I’ve tried to be a good stepmother to the two girls. I’ve had a cordial relationship with their mother since their divorce, and when the girls were younger, I took my cues from their mother about attending “family” events. I figured my job was to be a loving and responsible friend to the girls, and not necessarily a mother. Of course, it wasn’t always easy, but things generally went well and the girls (women, now) and I are close. My husband and I have a daughter together, and she has grown into a fine young woman, too, who is close with her older sisters.

The thing is, I cannot think back on my life without shame. Even after all these years, I’m ashamed of my behavior. At one point, when the two girls were in their early teens, I called their mom and apologized for the pain I had caused her. She accepted my apology with grace, but I still don’t feel good about myself. When I have talked with my husband about this, he says that I didn’t end their marriage because it was already in tatters and that his ex-wife, remarried for 15 years now, is far happier than she would have been had they stayed together. They were incompatible in ways that could not be surmounted by sheer attraction or couples counseling. I hear this, and I believe him, but I know that what I did was morally wrong, even if everyone is happy now. I would give anything to have not done what I did, although I would not want to give up my husband or the life we’ve had together. How can I ever explain myself to our daughters? Is it possible to find peace when you’ve behaved badly?


Shame can be a useful and powerful motivating force. It’s not always productive, and there’s nothing beneficial about wallowing in it, but there are times when it can spur personal growth. In your case, you need to find an appropriate, healthy outlet for your shame, and that outlet can’t be your stepdaughters or your husband’s ex-wife. It would be inappropriate and thoughtless to place the burden of alleviating your conflicted feelings about your own past behavior on them. This is a problem best explored in therapy, with someone who can help you identify your regrets, your self-loathing, ways in which you’ve meaningfully changed, and ways in which you can continue to grow.

It’s worth asking yourself why you’re taking so much of this shame onto yourself, when your husband was the person cheating on his spouse, not to mention having an affair with a subordinate at work. That’s not to say you have to retcon what’s been a largely happy marriage, but in terms of responsibility and power dynamics, he has a great deal more to contemplate than you do.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I am a bisexual female and a college student, currently in a rather unconventional relationship. This past spring I asked out a girl I knew, and she agreed. She’s cute, funny, and talented, and I was thrilled when she agreed to be my girlfriend. The timing was rather unfortunate; we started seeing each other right before I went home for the summer. Now we’re in the awkward position of having technically been together for months, but only a few weeks of that time was spent with us in the same city.

The unconventional part is this: My girlfriend is asexual, which is fine with me, and also possibly aromantic. I initiated the romantic aspect of our relationship, and she went along with it, but she admits that she does not have romantic feelings for me and is not sure if she’s even capable of having romantic feelings. We have very open communication, and I’ve told her that I’m willing to go along with our relationship as it is for now but that I am not willing to carry this into perpetuity without some romantic feeling coming from her. She has also given me her blessing to end our relationship if I meet someone else, or for any other reason. Which brings me to my question: Am I crazy for carrying on as things are now? Sometimes I think I must be. Our relationship as it is now will not make me happy in the long term. If we do continue, how much time should I give this, knowing my girlfriend may never return my romantic feelings, and may never know that she will never return my romantic feelings? Am I unfairly putting pressure on my girlfriend by staying with her?

—An Unconventional Relationship

I’ll say this: I have yet to hear from a letter writer who got into a relationship hoping their partner would fundamentally change their approach to romance and emotional connection, and everything worked out just as they had hoped. I’ve only had this job for two years, so it’s possible that such a person exists and I simply haven’t heard from them yet, but it doesn’t seem very common, and it doesn’t seem like a strategy with much of a long-term success rate. You say that your girlfriend is willing to “go along” with your relationship for now, but that she does not believe her feelings likely to change, and that you would be unhappy in the long run with the status quo. With those parameters in place, I think you have sufficient information to decide to end your romantic relationship. She is not likely to spontaneously develop a romantic orientation just because you want her to, and you are only setting yourself up for frustration if you keep dating her, all the while scrutinizing her for signs of a romantic awakening. If you can see your way to accepting her as she is right now, and not how you wish she might someday be, then it may be that you can continue seeing one another for a while. If you can’t, then you two would be better off as friends.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

My fiancé has a married female friend he plays video games with every day, and it’s causing problems for us. About six months ago my mom died; it’s been difficult, but my fiancé has been supportive. About two months after her death, I was using our shared computer and his chat history with his friend popped up automatically. I saw my name on it and got curious, so I read what they were saying at the moment. It wasn’t good. This woman was saying terrible things about me, questioning how I was grieving my mother, and attacking my family in general. She told my fiancé to get out of his relationship with me, that I wasn’t good for him.

Obviously he didn’t listen to her, and we’re still together, and I’ve been trying not to be any of those bad things she said about me. But I’m upset not just with her but also with my fiancé for not defending me. I finally talked to him about it, and he acted like it wasn’t a big deal. He was upset that I didn’t bring this up sooner, which I can understand, but he didn’t even remember what she said about me. All he said about his friendship with her was “We have a tumultuous relationship.” But I’ve never talked about him like that to any of my friends, nor would I ever. He didn’t apologize for failing to defend me, and then said we’re in a codependent relationship and that he only proposed to me because it was the thing that was expected of him. I’m torn. I love him, but I’m hurt. He says he loves me and wants to be with me, but I can’t reconcile that with the other things he’s said. It’s like his friend can do no wrong, and I feel so alone. I just want to talk to my mom, but I can’t.

—Feeling Alone

Leaving aside the profound emotional betrayal you’ve discovered, as well as the fact that he feels no regret for encouraging someone else to disparage the way you’ve been grieving your recently deceased mother, the fact that he admitted to proposing only because it was “expected of him” tells you everything you need to know about this man. He is asking you to marry him with the understanding that his heart is not really in it. His protestations of love are not borne out by his behavior. He has failed to defend you, to act in your best interests, to prioritize your feelings, to acknowledge and apologize for his behavior, and to change his relationship to this woman in any way. The upside to this situation is that he has revealed his true character before you married him. Of course it will be painful to end this relationship, both because you have loved this man and because you’ve already suffered a great loss this year, but it will be so much better than the future you can expect with him—one where he encourages his friends to make cruel and disparaging remarks about you, minimizes your feelings, and tells you he’s only with you to keep up appearances, right before claiming to love you. You deserve better.

* * *

Dear Prudence: How do I convince my friends that my boyfriend isn’t a stalker?

Hear more Prudie at

* * *

Dear Prudence,

I am a 24-year-old who was in a three-year relationship with someone I loved very much. When I was with her, I felt loved, seen, and connected. There was a breeze behind me year-round, and wonderful, life-affirming moments abounded. However, two years ago, that relationship ended as a result of miscommunication, mutual recrimination, and unhealthy codependency. I haven’t talked to my ex in a year and don’t want to get back together; we’ve both moved on and are different people now.

However, the amazing feeling of being in that relationship still haunts me. Whenever I go on dates with new people, I haven’t been able to connect with them the way I did with her. We clicked right away and very quickly developed strong feelings for one another. After we broke up, my ex said our relationship wasn’t special and discounted its intensity as a simple rush of young love. I don’t think that’s right, but am I in the wrong here? Should I try to forget the emotional connection and freedom that I felt with her (because, as she implied, it’s not something I’ll feel again)? And if not, how do I successfully put that past feeling aside and not immediately discount the possible connections with new people because those first interactions don’t feel the same way? I’ve been to therapy before and am going back soon, but is there anything else you would recommend?

—Trying to Move On

It’s particularly difficult, in my experience, to come to terms with the emotional reality that two people can have experienced the same relationship in entirely different ways. The fact that your ex-girlfriend seeks to minimize or dismiss the intensity of your relationship due to “young love” is her business. It may or may not be her way of coping with the way you two broke up, but regardless of what’s motivating her characterization, you’re not obligated to take it as gospel. It is decidedly untrue that everyone experiences maximal relational potency in their first serious relationship, then suffers from diminishing returns in each subsequent relationship.

As for the problem of not clicking with new people, while you shouldn’t necessarily be expecting thunderbolts and fireworks on every first date, in general I think it’s a good idea to pay attention to your emotional response upon meeting someone. If your strongest reaction to a prospective partner is “They seem fine, their behavior is unobjectionable,” then that’s a very good reason not to go on a second date. You’re not necessarily doing anything wrong just because you haven’t yet met someone you feel strongly about. There are a lot of wonderful people in the world who, for one reason or another, you’re not going to fall in love with. Keep an open mind, keep going on dates, and look for someone who catches your interest. It might not happen in the exact same way you met your last girlfriend, but you can, and will, feel intensely about someone else again.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

Next month I will be going to visit my grandparents with my husband and son. We will be flying and won’t have our vehicle with us. We had planned on renting a car, but my grandparents keep saying we don’t need to. But I’m terrified of riding with them. My grandmother has been involved in several serious accidents in recent years. And the last few times I rode with my grandfather he almost drove into oncoming traffic more than once. Is there a polite way of explaining that we’d be more comfortable renting a car?

—Nervous Passenger

This is of course a sensitive subject that will bring up issues of independence and insecurity for your grandparents, but your first priority should be safety, not sparing anybody’s feelings. The odds of a fatal car crash increase with age. Rent a car, and tell your grandparents that you are doing so because you are concerned about their numerous accidents and increasingly distracted driving. By no means should you get into the car with either of them behind the wheel, even if they get upset or try to argue with you. Tell them that you’ve noticed their accidents and near misses. Ask them if they’re concerned about their driving, and how you could help them maintain independence if they scale back (for example, by staying off freeways and only driving during daylight hours). The Clearinghouse for Older Road User Safety has a number of tips about starting this conversation respectfully but firmly. Be as polite and compassionate as you can, but politeness is not the highest possible good in this scenario. Don’t let your grandparents harm themselves or others because you were too reluctant to offend them.

* * *

Dear Prudence,

When I was a kid, I was sexually abused and bullied by an older cousin who has since moved away and hasn’t kept in touch. I’ve seen her once or twice in the past 15 years, and each time I’ve seen her, she’s commented on how fat and ugly she finds me. I’ve only told my sister and my husband about the abuse. I got married this summer, and I opted to not invite this cousin to my wedding. About a month before my wedding, I got a text from her congratulating me on my engagement (I had been engaged for about a year at that point). She’s never had my number, so she must have asked someone for it. I said thank you and didn’t continue the conversation. Then her mom contacted my mom to ask why she wasn’t invited to the wedding when the rest of their family was and if I was mad at her. The abusive cousin also contacted my other cousins to see if they were invited and then badmouthed me to all of them for not inviting her.

Now she sends me messages about once or twice a week. I never respond to her, but she continues to text me about random things. I’m not interested in staying in touch with her, and it’s not good for my recovery for her to keep contacting me. Can I just block her number, or do I finally have to confront her about the horrible things she did to me?

—Don’t Give Out My Damn Number!

Block her number, and feel free to do whatever you feel you have to in order to prioritize your continued safety and well-being. If that means limiting your contact with that side of the family, or making it clear that you’re not going to justify or explain your lack of a relationship with your former abuser, then go ahead and do that too. You don’t owe her anything.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on her Facebook page!

More Dear Prudence

Dark Auras: Prudie counsels a woman whose husband would rather listen to his “psychic” mother’s advice than risk offending her.

Doggone It: Prudie advises a father on how to responsibly care for a family dog that nobody wants to keep.

Driving Me Crazy: I love my husband, but I fear for my life when he drives.

Home Sweet Heat: Prudie advises a married couple who can’t agree on whether to keep a gun in their house for self-defense.

Helping After Harvey: Prudie counsels a Houston native whose girlfriend is reluctant to support flood victims who may have voted for Trump.

Found and Lost: I finally met my biological father, but my mom wants me to forget him.

Hold One’s Peace: Prudie counsels a letter writer whose sister seems intent on marrying her lying, unfaithful, thieving fiancé.

Deathbed Affair: Prudie advises a woman whose husband is sleeping with his best friend’s wife—while his friend is dying.