I am at rock bottom. I love my husband more than anything in this world, but I cheated on him. I kissed another man—twice. He wants a divorce. I want to spend the rest of my life with him, but things between us have been frayed for some time now. For the past six months, every conversation we have had has been filled with irritation and defensiveness. It doesn’t seem like he likes me at all. We both have been preoccupied with our phones and no longer communicate at all. He doesn’t seem interested in me and I have often wondered if he wanted to leave me. The only time he seems happy with me is when I do my chores and contribute to the housework. He is very stressed and overwhelmed, but we both work full-time and I do my best to help around the house.
He has a wonderful daughter whom I love dearly. There has always been pressure on me to be her full-on mother, and I think those expectations are stressful for both of us. He never seems satisfied with my level of contribution or participation, and as a result, my relationship with his daughter can feel strained. I have communicated that I want to be a trusted adult she can have fun with and am his backup support when he needs me. I want to cook for her, take her shopping, and watch movies. He needs me to be her June Cleaver.
My husband is a wonderful person, but we both come from traumatic backgrounds. While he doesn’t have a drinking problem, he is a bad drinker, and all of his trauma comes out in a way that is upsetting to me. I have expressed my discomfort with his drinking many times over the years and he brushes me off. I felt alone, unliked, and unwanted, and I looked to someone else to remind me that I am a person worth talking to. My husband and I only talk about chores and money. We are capable of so much more, and there is a real, profound love between us. I made a huge mistake in kissing someone else, and I feel disgusted that I could hurt him like this. I would never do this again. He has agreed to counseling, but every day he changes his mind and says he wants a divorce. He wants to talk to the man I kissed, and I agreed—but actually I think that would be unwise and unhelpful. I want to prove to him that I love him and am committed to rebuilding our marriage. Prudence, he trusts you and listens to your podcast/reads your column regularly—what do I do?
—Desperate for Forgiveness
I’m sorry to hear that your husband is a regular reader of the column, given how little that’s seemed to help him in his personal life. You say that he’s a “wonderful person,” but no evidence for that made it into your letter. He doesn’t seem to like you, you two have barely spoken except about chores in six months, he’s not satisfied with your performance as a wonderful stepmother but expects you to act like a Stepford parent to his daughter (even though neither you nor she want that from one another), he constantly makes you feel inadequate, he abuses alcohol and dismisses your concerns around it, he threatens to divorce you on a daily basis, he jerks you around when it comes to going to couples counseling, and instead of dealing with any of these issues, he wants to meet the man you kissed twice, as if that man could possibly have any answers or information useful to him.
Frankly, I’m amazed you only kissed this guy twice. You must have extraordinary willpower, because anyone in the marriage you’ve described, no matter how much they loved their partner, would be looking frantically for a self-destruct button just to change something. I think your faith that the two of you are capable of so much more is misplaced. Your husband isn’t interested in developing more with you, and you can’t fix this marriage without his participation. I don’t think you should feel disgusted with yourself. Yes, kissing someone else went against the terms of your marriage, but your marriage is unbearable. The only time your husband is happy with you is when you’re doing chores. That’s grim. I think you should go to a counselor by yourself and figure out how to get the support you need as you pursue a divorce, rather than waiting to find out when your husband will make good on his threat to file first.
Last winter my daughter came to the conclusion that her career was stalled in her city, so she moved back in with us, and is working three jobs until she could get a place of her own. This seemed like a solid plan, and we support her in this decision. A couple of months ago, her partner joined her. Our daughter’s partner graduated from college a year ago and has been living in her parents’ house before moving into ours. She rarely leaves their shared bedroom, although my daughter tells us she is applying for jobs online. Polite, direct questioning prompts her to leave the room and angers my daughter. They are planning on moving into a place of their own, possibly as soon as next month, and I’m concerned. The fact that my daughter is pretty obviously going to be supporting both of them seems like a foolish plan, but there doesn’t seem to be much we can do about it, apart from expressing our concerns to her. My concern is that her partner’s behavior looks to me like a mental health issue, and I feel as though my wife and I should be doing something to encourage her to seek help. As I see it she is a household member, and we have some duty to help her. Should we stay out of it?
It’s one thing to ask questions of your daughter about her plans to support herself and her partner after moving out of your house; that’s a reasonable sort of conversation to have with her. But given how her partner has responded to your “direct” questions in the past (I’m curious about just how you phrased those questions), I don’t think there’s anything to be gained from asking said partner if she thinks she’s depressed or by telling her she must have a mental health issue. The best outcome for all involved is for the two of them to move out sooner rather than later so that you can get more distance from your daughter’s potential mistakes—which, at this point, sound like pretty standard mid-20s issues. Don’t offer unsolicited advice to your daughter, who will likely chafe at it, but ask her as nonjudgmentally as possible about her goals, financial plan, and whether or not she thinks her partner needs support. If she’s not inclined to share things with you, and doesn’t ask for help, then I think you should back off and enjoy the peace and quiet once the two of them move out.
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In the past year I have gotten into distance running, and it has turned my life around. I’m a happier person and am no longer plagued by anxiety attacks. I’ve also gotten a lot leaner. At first it was fun when people would ask if I’d lost weight, but I’ve had something happen over and over that I don’t know how to respond to: A friend will say loudly in front of other people that I look anorexic, or ask if I’m addicted to drugs. It’s usually framed like a joke, but often I can tell the friend is genuinely worried. While I appreciate the concern, I can only imagine that if someone was anorexic or struggling with drug addiction, blurting it out at the dinner table would not be the right way to talk to them about it. Furthermore, I don’t have an eating disorder and I’m not addicted to drugs—but when I say that, people say “Hmm” and nod as though they don’t believe me. It makes me feel embarrassed and self-conscious about my body. There are a couple of people I see regularly who use these lines as their opener every time we have a conversation. Because these disorders are associated with being thin, they think they are paying me a compliment in a twisted sort of way, but I wonder how I can politely let them know that I would rather we don’t talk about what I look like at all.
—Running Out of Patience
This sort of joke/not-a-joke is invasive and unhelpful even when heard only once; the fact that some of your friends are making the same comment every time they see you sounds exhausting. For those repeat offenders, don’t worry too much about being polite. Just be direct: “You’ve made the same joke about anorexia and drug addiction every time we’ve had a conversation over the last few months. I don’t like it when you make jokes about my body, and I don’t want you to do it again. Please stop.” If they try to justify themselves with “It’s actually a compliment,” respond with, “It’s not important to me whether or not you intend it as a compliment. I don’t experience it as one. It makes me feel self-conscious and judged, and now that you know how I feel about it, I expect you to stop.”
A year ago, I was referred to my therapist by a friend, Anna, who had been seeing her for years. So far, the therapist has been helpful in encouraging me to speak up about things that are bothering me, and she’s the first person I’ve spoken to about several intense traumas. Working with her for the past year has been a life-changing experience, and seeing her is one of the best parts of my week. I wasn’t terribly close with Anna, but I am starting to get very close with a former friend of hers, Sammy. Sammy sometimes complains about Anna: She thinks Anna is selfish, and demands too much of people, and often blames the therapist for Anna’s behavior.
My therapist often says that I can ask more out of the people in my life and encourages me to be more open with my friends about my feelings, which seems like a good thing. But now I’m worried that I may start becoming selfish or too demanding if I keep seeing her. I’ll admit that I have gotten more distant from a few people in my life in the last year—including some family members—in part because of conversations with my therapist that revealed they haven’t been supportive in the ways that I want them to be. While my therapist frames this as evidence that I’m standing up for my needs, I’m now worried this is evidence that I’m doing the same thing Anna did to her friends. I don’t agree she was as selfish as Sammy makes her out to be, but I can see that Sammy was deeply hurt her actions, and I hate the idea that I would do the same thing to the people in my life. I have access to other therapists, but I really don’t want to start over. Plus, the idea that a person who I’ve always seen as extremely helpful could actually be doing harm brings up a lot of anxiety for me. Is Sammy right to blame Anna’s behavior on this therapist? Should I be wary about whether this therapist is really going to be all that helpful in the end? Or should I trust the experience I’ve had with her so far?
It’s hard to make a call on whether your therapist is encouraging you to set healthy boundaries or to treat everyone as if they exist only to serve you and your needs, in part because that sort of thing can be subjective, and in part because you don’t give many details about the sort of support you’ve wanted from your friends and family members, why they haven’t delivered, and whether you’ve ever talked to them honestly about your feelings and expectations. I don’t know what Sammy and Anna’s relationship was like, but I do think it’s odd that Sammy has spent so much time confiding in you about Anna’s shortcomings. It makes me wonder whether Sammy ever told Anna any of these things, or merely vented about her to other people who could not possibly have helped the situation.
There’s no reason you have to keep talking to Sammy about Anna and your therapist just because it’s a pet obsession of hers; ask if you two can talk about something else the next time you get together. If she kicks at that, it might be a sign that she’s the one with unreasonable expectations. Moreover, you don’t have to worry that you’ll inevitably turn into a steamroller if you keep seeing this therapist, because you’re still an adult with agency and the ability to self-correct. You don’t have to do something your therapist says if it doesn’t sit right with you, or you might try something out at her suggestion, decide it doesn’t work for you, and abandon it. She’s your therapist, not your life coordinator, and she doesn’t have magical insights into your secret desires that you could never access without her. She’s there to help you reflect, not give you instructions.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“Get your own therapist, Sammy!”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
I am in my 40s and successful by any measure, but a nightmare from my past has come out. At 16, I gave up a baby girl. She was the product of years of sexual abuse by my half-brother. I tried to commit suicide when I found out I was pregnant. I failed, and the authorities got involved. My mother blamed me for all of it, and I haven’t spoken to her since. I would have had an abortion if that had been possible. I feel nothing for this girl maternally but I wouldn’t push my past onto anyone. Even though the adoption was closed, she was able to find me and wants to know about her birth. What do I owe her? My mother and half-brother are both alive, to the best of my knowledge. I wouldn’t send a serial killer into their arms, let alone a child. I don’t want a relationship. I am not this girl’s mother in any way, but I owe her something. What do I tell her? I have told no one in my current life about my past. You are the only one I can tell.
—What Do I Owe Her?
You do not need to tell her anything, and in fact I’m inclined to think you shouldn’t have any further communication with her. I don’t often give people that advice, but I don’t think this information would do this girl any good, and it sounds like it would cause you a great deal of additional pain. You don’t have to explain or justify your decision not to speak with her, and if it would make you feel easier, you can block her number or decline to answer her emails and carry on with your life, knowing that what you are doing is the kindest and easiest thing for everyone. This may be sad or puzzling for her, of course, but she’ll have her own friends and family to discuss her feelings with. If the thought of saying nothing feels impossible to you, you can send her a brief note giving her a general sense of the circumstances of her birth and making it clear you’re not available for further contact: “I hope you’re well, and that your family has been good to you. I was very young when I gave birth to you, and was not in a position of safety or able to make my own decisions, although I have a good life now. I wish you well, and hope you can understand that it’s for the best we don’t meet or go into further detail about my family history.”
My chiropractor has asked me out twice now. I am not interested, and I will no longer be treated by him since I don’t want his hands on me. Even though I paid in advance for a series of sessions, I have let the office staff know I’ll be stopping the treatment early without telling them why. The problem is what to say about him. He is the junior chiropractor in his office, not from this country, working for a senior chiropractor. This job is his work visa to be here, so reporting him could have severe consequences. Maybe he just doesn’t know that it’s not acceptable to proposition patients in this country? But on the other hand, if he continues, he’ll probably cost the senior chiropractor more clients. Also, I pre-paid for a number of sessions and since I did not give a reason for leaving, I think I have to eat that cost.
—Keep It Professional
I can’t think of any reason for you not to say, “I’m cutting my sessions short because my chiropractor has propositioned me twice now, and I’m no longer comfortable being treated by him. I’d like the remainder of my sessions refunded and an assurance that your office will not let this habit continue.” You don’t know what disciplinary methods are available to the senior chiropractors, and it’s not incumbent upon you to preserve someone else’s career or reputation when they have hit on you at work. On the other hand, it was incumbent on the senior members of this office to impress upon all new hires, international or local, the policy on treating patients with respect and professional distance, and reminding them not to ask out patients (especially after said patient has already said “No” once). If you’re truly concerned that his immigration status could be threatened as a result of registering a complaint (which is not guaranteed) and would prefer instead simply to withdraw, tell him directly that you’re leaving because of his repeated propositions and find another treatment facility. Don’t worry about whether they’ll lose clients, or whether this man will be reprimanded or experience more severe consequences; those things are outside of your control. Worry only about getting your money back for services you can no longer receive from this business and finding someone else you can trust.
“My husband and I have resolved to be more open about our sexual desires, which has really revitalized our relationship. We often dress up during sex, which is really fun, but recently he confessed a desire that gave me pause. He wants me to dress up as a casual acquaintance of ours. He wants to call me her name and for me to wear a very particular kind of clothing she wears. I’m not sure what to think. It’s kind of gross, and also suggests he’d rather be sleeping with her. Then again, maybe I should be glad he’s not and he’s making do with what he’s got (me). What should I do?”