Dear Prudence

Help! How Should We Tell Our 13-Year-Old That We’re Getting a Divorce?

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 1 of this week’s live chat.

Sad teen girl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

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

Daniel Mallory Ortberg: Another week, another chat! Let’s get to it.

Q. Breaking the news: I asked my husband for a divorce about two weeks ago. He wasn’t completely surprised, but he thought I would wait until our daughter graduated high school. She is 13 and I just can’t wait that long; I have been too unhappy with my uncommunicative spouse. We are going to tell her together soon, but I am so scared of how she will react. My husband and I do not argue in front of her, and we parent well together, so I am worried she won’t understand why we would divorce when we don’t “fight.” I want to explain things in a way a 13-year-old will understand without blaming anyone. What should I say?

A: I think it’s likely that your daughter is going to react badly, at least in the sense that she will not say, “Ah well, you two are better off separately and it’s all for the best.” She’s 13 and her parents are getting divorced; it’s going to be hard for her, and it’s not going to get better right away. Bear in mind that there’s only so much you can do to cushion the blow, and that she’ll likely require extra support and attention for a while.

Beyond that, I’m stumped—has anyone who’s had to explain an upcoming divorce to a child around this age got some advice to share? Things you said that helped, things you wish you’d said? Or hadn’t said?

Q. A nice girl: My boyfriend is lovely in many ways. He is kind and thoughtful, and I feel safe and happy when we’re together. But recently, there have been red flags. He took me aside and told me I was “too sweet” to know what Grindr is, which I had been talking about with a mutual friend in front of him. When he comes home, if I’m playing rock music, he asks me if I’m angry. When I say I’m not, he asks me, “Why are you listening to angry music then?” These are little things, but I feel like he is correcting me. When pressed, he’s bewildered and tells me “of course” I can talk about whatever I want to with friends, “of course” I can listen to whatever music I like.

The final straw was this past weekend. We were at a party, and a friend jokingly asked him to describe me in three words. He said, “A nice girl.” Am I completely crazy and overreacting, or is this weird?

A: I’ve been getting the “Am I overreacting?” question a lot lately, usually by someone who hasn’t in fact reacted at all, and could therefore hardly be said to have overreacted. The question seems most often to actually be, “Is it all right not to like something my partner does, even if I love my partner?” You can of course dislike this tendency in your partner to ascribe sweetness/niceness/periodic ignorance to you. You haven’t overreacted because so far all you’ve done is feel irritated—a perfectly reasonable way to feel in a relationship! If you feel like you need permission to not like this treatment, you have it, without reserve. If you think you need additional justification in order to talk to your partner about it, I think you have plenty! You can say to him, “You may not mean it this way, but when you say I’m ‘too sweet’ to know about a very well-known dating app, or act surprised that I’m listening to rock music, it feels like you expect me to be demure and ignorant of a pretty wide swath of human experience, and I don’t like it. Can we talk about this?”

You’ve described this pattern alternately as either “weird” or a “red flag,” and I think it probably falls somewhere in the middle, at least based on what we’ve seen so far. Depending on how your boyfriend responds to this conversation, you may decide that you two can move forward and learn more about one another (and he can knock it off), or you may learn that he wants the sort of girlfriend you have no interest in being. Either way, you have every right to have an opinion about the way that he treats you.

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Q. Squashing my co-worker crush: I recently developed a crush on a married co-worker. I immediately felt guilty and resolved never to say anything about it to him. Unfortunately, I didn’t have to, because he has since confessed to having feelings for me, and to being aware of my feelings due to how reserved I had become around him. I expressed my discomfort with the situation and told him that I wanted his marriage to be happy and long-lasting. I gently suggested that he and his wife pursue counseling together.

While I feel that this was the appropriate response to the situation, I am overwhelmed with guilt and shame. I feel as though I’ve become an additional cause of his unhappiness at home, however unwittingly. Meanwhile, he has expressed that he wants our friendship to continue with the knowledge that nothing will ever come of our mutual attraction. While this seems perfectly reasonable on a logical level, I feel ashamed every time we chat. Is it worth cutting off contact for the sake of my conscience?

A: I don’t think that your co-worker’s suggestion—Now that we’ve both confessed our attraction to one another, let’s continue spending time together and being friends outside of our professional relationship—is reasonable or logical. I think it’s at worst an attempt to steer closer to a Whoops, we slept together moment, and at best a plan that will make it difficult for you to feel comfortable and distraction-free at work. It’s worth, if not entirely cutting off contact, at least keeping your interactions strictly professional for the sake of your peace of mind and job security. No one can go from “I’m secretly attracted to you, even though it’s wrong” to “I feel entirely neutral about our sexual-tension-free friendship” overnight, and his suggestion that you two just stay friends while quietly burning for one another is so naïve that I’m inclined to think he doesn’t really believe it’s possible.

Q. New to poly relationships: I have been in a relationship with a poly guy for about six months. I have only ever been in monogamous relationships until now. My partner was upfront about this from the start, and there is enough about him that is interesting that I decided to give it a shot. You never know until you try, right?

Over time, I have realized that, while there is still a lot about him that is interesting, there are certain things in our relationship he won’t be able to offer (no major deal-breakers, but also not minor things). I’ve decided to see how I feel about seeing multiple people myself, to try to get those needs met elsewhere. Does the idea of meeting all my needs by putting puzzle pieces together make sense as a reason to get involved with multiple people? If so, when do I bring up that I’m in an open relationship? Do I even need to at all, if there are no discussions about exclusivity? On one hand, I don’t want to mislead anyone. On the other, the poly guy is still new enough that I don’t know how long it will last—plus being poly isn’t a core part of my identity, and I don’t know that I will continue to be poly after this current guy is gone. How do I go about this?

A: I’m not sure that approaching poly dating with the mindset of I’m not getting all of my needs met by my current boyfriend, so I’m looking for others to fill in the gaps is a good one. Of course it’s great to appreciate the different qualities different people bring to the table, but I don’t think it will be good for you, or the people you date, to consider them as someone who can fill in the gaps of your pre-existing relationship until it adds up to one whole boyfriend. That doesn’t mean you can’t give dating other people a try, just that I think you should re-evaluate your expectations. If you’re giving “poly dating” a shot, I think it makes sense to be fairly upfront about the fact, even if you ultimately decide it’s not for you, or your current relationship ends sooner than you expected. You don’t have to make it a core part of your identity in order to talk about what you’re doing—tell the people you’d like to date that you’re giving an open relationship a shot for the first time, that you’re not sure this is going to be your long-term approach to dating, but it’s where you’re at now.

Q. Small talk, big deal: For my whole life, I’ve hated small talk. I despise conversations while standing in the Starbucks line, waiting for a child in the pickup area, or gathering to watch a sporting event. My husband is great at it and makes great connections with people he meets. I don’t think I’m being rude, I’m just genuinely not interested in talking with people I will never see again. It zaps my energy and leaves me feeling drained. Is this actually a problem?

A: No! Let your husband enjoy chatting with strangers, and feel free to watch the game or place your order in peace and quiet. You two are just different—one of you isn’t right at the expense of the other.

Q. Hugged by students: I am a female university instructor who teaches undergraduate courses. At the end of the term, I sometimes have female students come up and hug me at the end of class. I recognize that it comes from a good place, as the hugs are usually accompanied by a “thank you for the course.” I now also have a student who I will be working with on a project who hugged me goodbye after a working lunch. I am a new instructor, so I am relatively close to the students in age. I feel that the hugging blurs the line between instructor and friend (they are probably not hugging their other professors), and I am not sure how best to respond in the moment or what to do with this student. Any advice?

A: I think it’s a great idea to adopt a no-hugging policy in order to keep that line distinct! A step back, an outstretched hand, and a “Thanks, but I don’t hug” is perfectly polite, professional, and appropriate. When it comes to the student you’ll be working with more closely who’s already hugged you, just say, the next time you two are wrapping up a meeting, “I don’t want to hug students I’m working with, but I’m looking forward to hearing more about your thoughts on this project. See you next week.”

Q. Re: Breaking the news: There’s no easy way to do this. Your child will be upset and will feel—temporarily—that her world is falling apart. All you can do is tell her you both love her very much, and then put a plan and routine in place that provides stability and predictability. The worst part for the kid is the fear of the unknown. If you and your husband are able to co-parent and stay nice to each other around your kid, it should get better.

I know my daughter enjoys getting twice the amount of one-on-one attention she used to get when we were stressed and unhappy. She’s now a very happy kid and would probably tell you her family life is better now than when her parents were together. So despite having a really tough year ahead of you, don’t give up hope, it’s likely that over time things will work out just fine.

A: That’s a helpful place to start—not so that the letter writer will give in to despair or feel resigned to believing their child will be permanently destroyed by the news, but because unreasonable expectations, like Maybe there’s a way to deliver this news that will prevent my child from experiencing distress or unhappiness, can get in the way of meaningful conversations. I’m glad to hear that your family is doing better since your divorce!

Q. Ridiculed roommates: I am in my mid-30s and live with my best friends and my cousin. I own the house, they pay the utilities, and we split costs for major repairs. We all work, pay our taxes, and volunteer extensively, but once our living situation comes up with outside people, it gets picked apart and questioned. I am getting tired of it. I am tired of getting looked down on for not fitting into the suburban model of stress, kids, and never seeing anyone but my spouse.
My cousin suffers from serious anxiety, and one of my friends has mobility issues. They have their own lives, though. They are not “broken,” and I am not “sacrificing my life” by letting them live with me. None of us want kids. We all get along and have successfully lived together for more than a decade. I need a script to deal with the Judging Judies and Moralizing Myrtles in my life.

A: Your living situation sounds wonderful. I’m a little surprised to think that so many people you meet think it’s unusual for an adult in their mid-30s to have roommates that it’s a constant problem for you. I’m wondering if this moralizing and picking apart only comes after they find out how you all split costs—information that’s none of their business. If you find that other people want to put their oars in after you give them details about who pays for what in your household, don’t tell them. It’s no one else’s business, and if it could potentially cause your friends and cousin embarrassment for other people to know they don’t pay rent, you shouldn’t share that information with others. Beyond that, if anyone tries to tell you how you should or shouldn’t feel about your housemates, end the conversation with this: “I’m really happy with my living arrangement, and I’m not looking for advice on the subject. Let’s talk about something else.”

Q. Re: Breaking the news: I was the child in this scenario, many years ago when my parents broke up. I’m also a stepparent to two kids who have managed wonderfully since their parents separated. I chalk this up to a few items: Both kids knew that the reason for the breakup was the relationship between the parents, and not at all due to them. We made efforts for them to understand that both parents love them, but that the parents are happier living apart. Now they are 14 and 12, both parents are remarried, and the kids are the first ones to say that they are happy that both their parents are now in happy relationships.

A: I think it’s also going to be helpful for the parents in question to figure out a relatively brief description of the issue that doesn’t go into unnecessary and painful detail, but that also doesn’t make things sound so easy and straightforward that it raises the question, Well, if you two are such great friends, why don’t you just stay together? A family counselor might help them figure out how to frame this to their daughter.

Q. SAHM sham: Before my husband and I got married, we had an extensive discussion in which we agreed that I would be a stay-at-home mom and home-school our future children.
We are now pregnant with our first child. However, when I asked him to read over the resignation letter I was going to submit to my work, he started asking me why I was quitting. He wanted to know why my work wasn’t giving maternity leave and told me I should return to work after the baby was born. He makes enough to support all three of us, so I don’t understand his change of heart. I was so excited to start this next chapter of my life, and now I’m not sure what to do.

A: I think you should keep talking to your husband. “I’m surprised by your reaction to my quitting, and I want to talk about our expectations. It’s always been my understanding that I would be a stay-at-home mother when our children were born, and that you wanted this too. Now it seems like you feel differently. What’s on your mind? Are you anxious about money? Worried about something else? What can we do in order to prepare for the arrival of this child and make sure we’re on the same page?”

Q. Update—“Uncle” in love: There were no prior designs on the part of our friend toward our daughter, I assure you. We honestly believe he was truly troubled by his feelings. We only blame him for not cutting off contact with her once he realized what was happening. And for that, we cannot allow him contact with her (her wishes as well). She will determine when or if any further contact is made between them, and she agrees that it is fine for Dad to follow up once a month or so to check on our friend’s health and welfare. Following us cutting our friend out of our lives, my husband received a suicide note in the mail at work. Our friend sent them to his family members as well, before trying to kill himself. My husband eventually found him alive, but unwell at his parents’ house. We passed along word that we do not wish him harm and that we sincerely hope he gets professional help. We have not told our daughter about this development, as we believe she would incorrectly blame herself in some way. Thank you for the advice and support.

A: How awful, and how sad. I’m glad to hear that your friend is with his family, and I hope he’s receiving the help he needs to get better. I’m glad that you’re prioritizing your daughter’s well-being right now and think you’re right that this information could not possibly do her any good.
The limited but caring contact your husband is willing to have with this man is deeply kind and I hope proves helpful to them both.

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