Dear Prudence

Help! Why Do My Girlfriends Always Think I’m Still in Love With My Ex-Wife?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

Man in foreground smiling, same man with woman in background.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Thinkstock.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat. 

Q. Stay over: My ex-wife married a good man immediately after our divorce. Our marriage dissolved under the stress of my career and a need for constant moves. Honestly, we get along better now than we did during most of our marriage. I don’t own my own place, as it would be a waste with me relocating as often as I do. When I see my kids, I usually ended up staying at my ex’s. Our youngest has mobility issues, and it is easier to bring all the children together (mine and my ex’s new kids) than to parcel out separate child care. This arrangement has worked out for the last seven years. Last year, I watched the kids for a week while my ex and her husband went to Hawaii.

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My question is: How do I explain this situation to the women I date and make it clear I am doing it for my kids and not because I am still in love with my ex? My last three semiserious relationships dissolved over this issue. Either women express their discomfort and try to lessen the amount of time I see my kids, or they refuse to have anything to do with my family (but expect me to jump through hoops for their families). I am tired of playing games. I put all my cards on the table in the beginning of courtship. I guess I just scream “fixer-upper” to women, because they always change their minds as soon as we get to the serious stage.

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I am not looking to start a second family at the expense of my first, and my career still means I travel a lot. I am fairly attractive, in shape, and I make very good money. I don’t cheat, and I know how to unload a dishwasher. I keep getting reassured that I am “a catch,” but I can’t seem to keep a relationship going for more than a year. I am only in my mid-40s. What am I doing wrong here?

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A: I don’t think you’re doing something wrong here. If anything, I think you’re lucky to get out of these relationships after only a year. Any woman who wants you to spend less time with your children is not the woman for you, and I’m glad you’ve drawn the line and refused to get more seriously involved with anyone who’s trying to cut your kids out of your life. The failure of these relationships isn’t an ill omen; it means that your priorities are in the right order.

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Your living arrangement is certainly unique, but it sounds like it’s working for you, and you’re so often away from town that your travel schedule would always be an issue in any new romantic relationship, regardless of whether you shared a home with your ex when you were with your kids. Just because you’re not in a long-term committed relationship doesn’t mean you need to change your approach. A person can be honest, attractive, open, and “do all the right things” and still not end up with one—that’s one of the challenges of dating, I’m afraid. Keep doing what you’re doing, enjoy what you have, and best of luck to you in finding women who aren’t looking to chisel you away from your children.

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Q. Chronic cancelers: I have a friend I’ve known for more than a decade who frequently cancels plans at the last minute, even after having booked the get-together a few weeks in advance. I know we’re all busy, but isn’t the point of scheduling in advance to book other appointments around ones you’ve already made? It would be one thing if the cancellations were one-off events, e.g., a true emergency or a last-minute client engagement they couldn’t say no to, but it’s happened on multiple occasions for less than legitimate reasons.

This happened again recently, and I called her on it. I told her that if she wants to get together, she’ll have be the one to initiate. Am I being overly sensitive, or am I rightly assuming she only wants this friendship on her terms?

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A: Your grievance is absolutely legitimate, but I think your approach was flawed. Maybe you’ve brought it up with her in the past and don’t mention it in your letter, but it sounds like for about a decade your approach was to swallow your complaints when your friend canceled at the last minute, until one day you’d had too much and gave her an ultimatum. If the only times you’ve discussed this habit with her are “never” and then “once, when I got extremely frustrated and told her she was now responsible for making sure we saw each other,” then you haven’t really had an honest conversation about it.

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You don’t have to take back anything you’ve said; I think it’s perfectly appropriate to have identified the problem and said that you don’t want to bear the brunt of establishing plans that she’s likely to cancel on a flimsy pretext, but you should revisit the topic and say it’s been bothering you for years and you wish you’d spoken up sooner. My guess is that since she’s been doing it for years and you’ve never objected, she probably assumed that you two were on such intimate terms that you could periodically reschedule or postpone plans without standing on ceremony. She’s obviously wrong, of course, so you should make it clear how you actually feel about last-minute cancellations, ask her to work on this, and tell her that you want to get together again—after she’s consulted her calendar and made sure she’s actually, absolutely free to see you. If you go through all that and she keeps canceling, then you can safely draw the conclusion that she only wants friendship on her terms.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie:

• send questions for publication to prudence@slate.com. (Questions may be edited.)

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• join the live chat Mondays at noon. Submit your questions and comments here before or during the discussion.

• call the voicemail of the Dear Prudence podcast at 401-371-DEAR (3327) to hear your question answered on a future episode of the show.

Q. Tension with my mother-in-law: My father-in-law, who was more of a father to me than my real dad, passed away this year. My mother-in-law, “B,” created an arbitrary rule for the attendees of the funeral that made it so that only my friends were not allowed to attend. This crushed me, as I found myself alone, with no one to comfort me, although my husband and B had all their closest friends there for them. I couldn’t even mourn his loss. Months later, I finally expressed my hurt to B. Her response was to throw a fit like a child, saying she did nothing wrong, then give me a disingenuous “apology” before literally slamming a door in my face. She believes this was a satisfactory apology and is pretending like everything is OK.

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I should mention that I quit my job, as my father-in-law asked of me on his deathbed, so that I could take care of B and handle any issues that arose following his death. He asked B to promise to help us financially if we were in need during this one-year period, a promise she broke as soon as we were trapped in a 12-month lease on top of our mortgage. This has left my husband and I struggling financially. We have drained our savings and are now living paycheck to paycheck. B has shown she has zero interest in mending the tear she’s caused between us, nor in helping us financially (as she promised), and is still expecting my husband and I to do everything for her.

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Mother’s Day is coming soon, and despite how hurt I am, I also can’t bear the thought of her being alone on her first Mother’s Day without her husband and with her only child angry with her. Do I suck it up and tell her I forgive her, even if it’s a lie? Do I confront her again? Should I just give up on her and try to return to work? I have no clue what to do, but I can’t let things continue the way they are.

A: There’s so much here, and I don’t think I’ll be able to get at everything in the first pass. Readers with any similar experiences, please weigh in. When it comes to something like the seating at the funeral, I think since it’s already over and there’s nothing to be done to fix it, it’s best to leave that in the past. As for continuing to honor your father-in-law’s request that you quit your job in order to become a full-time caretaker for your mother-in-law—I certainly don’t think you’re under any moral obligation to do so. You don’t say that she suffers from any medical condition that requires ’round-the-clock care, and she’s clearly well-off if her husband asked her to provide for you financially after his death. Simply because she “expects” you to do everything for her does not mean that you should, especially if she’s competent and able to manage her own affairs.

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I think you can go back to work without necessarily “giving up on her” entirely, however. You’re right in thinking that extracting any sort of apology from her is unlikely in the extreme, certainly now and possibly ever. Your only two options are not immediate estrangement or maintaining the status quo. If you can see your way to spending a few hours with her on Mother’s Day, sharing a meal and making sure she’s not alone, that doesn’t mean you have to also agree with her perspective on your last argument or sign up to acting as permanent handyman/social director/companion to her.

Q. Friends with doctor: I just found out my doctor of 20 years is leaving her practice. I think she is smart and funny and very interesting. I have known her for a very long time, and in my appointments we get along very well. Is there any way I can ask if she would like to stay in touch? I think we have things in common, including an odd, quirky sense of humor. Does this go against any rules? Is it just creepy?

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A: It’s not against the rules if the patient asks the doctor out after they stop seeing one another in a professional context. It may help if you first distinguish whether you want to become friends and spend time together in a nonprofessional context or ask her out on a date. The tone of your letter suggests the latter as a possibility, and if that’s the case, I think you should ask for a date if that’s what you want. If I’m misreading you and you genuinely just want to become friends, then that’s fine too; there’s nothing inherently creepy about wanting to make a previously professional relationship into a social one, especially if you’ve enjoyed one another’s company for years.

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Q. Widowed sister-in-law moving on: My husband’s brother “Tom” recently passed away after a short battle with cancer. Tom’s wife, “Linda,” recently began dating his lifelong best friend. Tom passed away only 45 days ago. Our family found out via Facebook. We feel hurt and betrayed that Linda has moved on so quickly after Tom’s death. I feel that, although she has a right to be happy, this is too soon. How do we navigate our anger and hurt?

A: It may help your husband to distinguish the things he ought to discuss with Linda from the things he oughtn’t. (Unless you were especially close with Linda and Tom, I don’t know that you need to say too much of anything, given that she’s not your direct relative.) It would be appropriate, although it may feel fraught and painful, to say something like, “I can’t know what it’s been like to be widowed, and I want you to be happy, but it was hard for me to learn that you were in a new relationship from Facebook.” Your husband should think through what he wants. Does he need a little time before he’s ready to discuss her new relationship? Does he want to hear about how she’s been doing and what joy, comfort, and understanding she may have found with her husband’s close friend? Is it possible that Linda could both be happy to be dating this man while also grieving her husband’s recent death—that she is not “moving on” in the sense that she’s already totally at peace with her bereavement?

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Q. Re: Tension with my mother-in-law: You do not get to decide the invitees to a funeral unless you are the closest next of kin. Also, your father-in-law used you. He made you make a deathbed promise to take care of his wife. If he really wanted you to be financially supported, he would have made allowances in the will for that.

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A: That part hadn’t occurred to me, but of course you’re right. I don’t mean to suggest that the father-in-law wasn’t a good person or didn’t care for the letter writer, but making someone promise to financially support someone else after you’ve died is an odd, roundabout choice when you have the option of simply leaving them money in your will. I agree that it’s best to let the funeral invitations go and that the letter writer does not have to think of this deathbed promise as morally binding.

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Q. Chastity belt for a serial monogamist: Though mostly unattached throughout college, I’ve had four significant relationships in the eight years since, with single intervals of, at most, about three and a half months. For the record, I do have standards! I’ve learned a great deal about what I’m looking for, and the list is far longer than just, “has a pulse.” I also don’t do this out of loneliness, but it always seems to happen. Luckily, each relationship has been a big improvement upon the last. And yet, here I am.

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My boyfriend of over two and a half years dumped me in late February. Somehow, I already feel over it and happy on my own. I don’t know what about me screams, “Available: Fantastic Men Only” when (and only when) I’m not looking for one, but Mr. Awesome has heard the call! We’ve quickly fallen flat on our faces, like I’ve experienced before. I very much want to enter a solid relationship with this man. Must I really be single for X time to do so?

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I feel I know what I want and who I am. I also know that being emotionally attached and being my own person aren’t mutually exclusive. Is serial monogamy really so bad? Is this why my relationships failed? Have I simply not found the right person, or should I get a chastity belt and put the key in a time-locking safe?

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A: Prepare yourself for some rapid-fire bromides: Most relationships fail, so unless yours have ended in ways that felt particularly dramatic or unbearable, there’s nothing unique about being an adult with a number of exes. Finding comfort, peace, and joy while single is an important part of being alive, but no one is required to spend X amount of time unpartnered in order to truly know themselves. If you like this guy and you feel ready to date again, you should date him.

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Q. Softening the blow: My husband and I have made the decision to move back to his native Europe to be closer to his terminally ill mother. I am in a job where our tiny department of three is constantly overworked. I have been here only a year, and my boss heavily relies upon me and trusts me. We have a good relationship, but in this high-stress environment she has taken it really hard when other people have left. How can I approach her with my intentions in the most considerate way? I am giving five weeks’ notice instead of the usual two to help with the impact of my departure.

A: Giving five weeks’ notice is considerate! There’s not much more you can do to soften the blow, I’m afraid, and there’s not much more you should do, either. Giving notice, like dumping somebody, can be done as kindly as possible, and it’s still going to hurt, because ultimately the dumpee doesn’t want to be dumped, and the boss doesn’t want you to quit, but that’s exactly what’s happening. I’m sorry your boss is under a lot of pressure and has a hard time when employees move on, but that’s part of business.

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You can recommend possible replacements if you’re aware of someone qualified who might be interested, you can write thorough and detailed transition notes for your successor, you can offer to take on some freelance long-distance work on a contract basis after your formal departure (if it’s possible and you’re interested), and you can move to Europe. The real problem is not that you’re quitting. The real problem is that your department is chronically understaffed and unable to absorb regular turnover. That’s not a problem you can fix, and therefore it’s not one you should worry about.

Q. Re: Pregnant and resentful: I wanted to comment about the pregnant woman whose mother is also pregnant. My mom was pregnant with me at the same time my sister was pregnant with her daughter. While I know my sister loved me, she also resented me because, as she once said, her kids did not get the attention and money they deserved from their grandparents because I was born. She also had her tubes tied because she did not want to have “a mistake like me.” As an adult, I understand this is who she is, but as a child this really hurt. I hope the new mom/big sister is able to come to terms with the situation before she says or does something to emotionally hurt her new sibling.

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A: I’m so sorry that your sister said something so cruel to you. I don’t think the letter writer sounds like the kind of person who would speak with such deliberate malice toward her as-yet-unborn sibling, but I agree that she should do everything in her power to appropriately work through her jealousies and anxieties in order to prevent any sort of accidental blow-up. I hope when you say you can understand who your sister is as an adult, you don’t mean that you think she said something appropriate or understandable, merely that you’ve accepted the reality of her unkindness and have established some sort of distance from her—there’s no excuse for the things she’s said to you, especially given that she said them when you were still a child.

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Ortberg: Thanks, everyone! See you next week.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

Discuss this column with Dear Prudence on his Facebook page!

Vintage Dear Prudence

I was driving and hit a 5-year-old child. I was not charged, as there was no speed or alcohol involved—he ran out onto the road while his mother was momentarily distracted.
He was left with severe and permanent disabilities. I was a couple of days away from starting a new job but couldn’t work because I was in so much shock. I get panic attacks at the thought of driving and it’s difficult to even be around children. I was diagnosed with PTSD, and I know I need help, but I have no insurance and can’t afford it. I was told I need to sue the parents of the child to get a payout from their insurance, which would then pay for my treatment. On one hand, I desperately want some kind of psychological treatment. But the thought of suing the parents at the worst time of their life—that seems like pure evil. What would you do in my situation?

And find even more letters in the Dear Prudie archive.

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