Dear Prudence

My Wife Is Dying. Does That Mean I Have to Be Lonely?

Prudie’s column for Nov. 8.

A man holds his head in his hand and looks sad.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Bruno Aguirre on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
My wife has a serious medical condition that will eventually take her life. In addition to the stress of being a caregiver for her and our child and working full time, I also find myself increasingly lonely. She may live for years with this condition, though not fully as herself. Already I am more a caregiver than a husband. Sex ended a year and a half ago. I find myself wanting to be with someone but fearing it may never happen. I didn’t date that much before we married, and even if I could give myself permission to be with someone while she is still alive, it would get complicated with family and friends who would see it as not honoring our vows. I’m currently middle-aged, but I may be old by the time my wife dies. Am I doomed to years essentially alone with no prospects of sex or companionship?
—Lonely Caregiver

I can’t promise you that you would have sexual prospects even if you did give yourself permission to date. The constraints of knowing your friends and family might be on the alert and consider it infidelity are serious ones, especially if you live in a relatively small town with little room for privacy. But you have more options than trying to date in secret or resigning yourself to isolation and full-time caregiving, and you can absolutely seek out companions, support, and friendship as you care for your wife and child. Organizations such as the Family Caregiver Alliance offer in-person support groups. The AARP offers resources, both online and in-person, for caregivers struggling to balance their own lives and looking for others going through the same. The most important thing for you to do, I think, is to develop a long-term caregiving plan that builds in rest and time off for you, so that you don’t reach total burnout and feel like your only option to preserve your own health and sanity is to run for the hills. Ask for help, both from professional organizations and your own friends. Talk to other family caregivers about their experiences—you may find you experience tremendous relief simply from talking to someone else who’s going through the same thing. But that’s going to be the most meaningful next step, rather than trying to clandestinely arrange a date while worrying about your family finding out.

Dear Prudence,
Our parents died when my sister was 18. I am eight years older than her and took up a parental role. I am tired of it. My sister has failed to graduate college, find a permanent job, or bother to think of anyone but herself for the past five years. Over the last three months, my sister has called me crying that her roommates have stiffed her on rent and she is going to be evicted. I finally got fed up and tracked down the roommates and contacted them. My sister was lying to me—her roommates had been paying rent and sent me bank statements to prove it. She spent the money on concerts. I confronted my sister and told her she was a liar and a thief and I was glad our parents were dead rather than see what she has become. She called me a bitch. We haven’t spoken since. Now she is calling me again for money, crying she is going to be homeless. It is true this time because one of the roommates gave me a heads up they are leaving the apartment. I don’t feel guilty, and then I feel guilty about not feeling guilty. I am tired. My sister is 22. I don’t know what to do, but this has to stop. Can you help me?
—Sister, Not Mother

You can, and should, find ways to set limits with your sister without resorting to throwing your parents’ death in her face, which is both desirable and (relatively) easily achievable. That’s something you are, and ought to be, responsible for. But you’re not responsible for bailing your sister out of an easily foreseeable crisis. Leases end, roommates move out, and your sister sounds like a pretty resourceful person (at least when it comes to avoiding doing things she doesn’t want to do). You can apologize for bringing up your parents’ death while also holding firm to your commitment not to lend her any more money. It doesn’t sound like your sister has meaningfully changed her relationship to work or money in the past few months, so any money you gave her would likely vanish in a short amount of time and be followed by another demand. But if the conversation deteriorates and you find yourself frustrated to the point where you’re tempted to again say something cruel and borderline unforgivable, just cut it short: “I don’t think it’s going to help the situation if we keep trading insults. I’m not giving you any more money. If you want to talk again about any other topic, I’m around.”

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Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are unsure if we want children. If we do (and it is a big if), it is still several years away. It feels like all my friends are currently having children, and it is impacting our social life quite a bit. While I am happy to do kid-friendly items every once in a while, I prefer to keep my outings adults-only. How do I deal with this moving forward? Do I just need to find a whole new group of friends who are childless until we start our own family? I admit that now I’ve seen how much my friends have to give up to have families, I am not sure I want to.
—No Time for Toddlers

It’s true that having children is a pretty time- and energy-intensive enterprise, especially when they’re young, and if you and your husband are on the fence about having them yourselves, you should pay very careful attention to your own doubts and err on the side of caution. But if you care about your friends with kids, you should at least try to find a compromise. That might mean having slightly fewer adults-only outings than you might like. But if these are meaningful friendships you want to preserve, then it’s worth making it through those baby-and-toddler years. You can also, of course, make time for new, childless or child-free friends, but that doesn’t mean you have to abandon the old ones in order to do it. If you ditch all of your friends with kids for childless ones now and then decide to have kids a few years down the road, you’re going to find yourself in much the same predicament, but reversed.

Dear Prudence,
My in-laws have become obsessed with conspiracy theories, almost all of which are rooted in anti-Semitic paranoia. Despite being the kind of progressives who traveled to New York to canvass for Cynthia Nixon, both of them have internalized all the dog-whistle boogeymen about “international bankers,” “globalists,” and especially the Rothschilds. They deny they are actually anti-Semitic and, I think, sincerely believe their own rationalizations. But they definitely believe dark forces are conspiring—and those dark forces almost always have a Jewish name. My wife recognizes her parents’ views are problematic but struggles with how to respond to it. Her brother and sister (and their spouses) don’t share our concern and are in denial about their otherwise tolerant parents’ abhorrent beliefs. About three years ago, when my small business did some work for a much larger company owned by a locally prominent civic leader, my father-in-law explained to me during a family dinner that my client was “definitely Mossad” because he was Jewish and traveled a lot for business. It’s an absurd and offensive assertion, and I was doubly upset because it was personal. I lost my temper. My mother-in-law accused me of “bullying” them over their beliefs and started to cry at the dinner table. My siblings-in-law wanted me to apologize and be “open-minded and more respectful to all beliefs.” I refused. Since then, my in-laws and I have settled into an uneasy peace where they limit their baiting to subtle, passive-aggressive asides (“It’s just suspicious that Christine Blasey Ford’s allegations came through Sen. Feinstein’s office.”) that I choose to ignore even if it means leaving the room to avoid the conversation. That has avoided further blowups.

After the Pittsburgh shooting, I don’t know if I can, or should, continue to hold my tongue. I realize my wife is in a no-win situation, and I don’t want her to feel like she needs to choose between her husband and her parents. At the same time, our son will be 6 years old next month—old enough to understand what grown-ups are talking about. He shouldn’t be exposed to anti-Semitic bigotry, and he shouldn’t be led to think that such beliefs are normal or OK. I’d like my brothers- and sisters-in-law to join us in the united front that conspiracy-theory fever dreams are forbidden topics at family events, but as I say, they refuse to acknowledge the problem. Do you have any suggestions or strategies for convincing my siblings-in-law that this needs to happen?
—“Accidental” Anti-Semites

If your in-laws’ version of “subtle” anti-Semitic asides includes claiming that Ford’s sexual assault claim against Brett Kavanaugh was a Jewish conspiracy, then I shudder to think what their nonsubtle attacks look like. Weaponizing the language of tolerance and bullying in order to keep you from objecting to assertions like “This man travels a lot and is Jewish, so he must be a Mossad agent” is manipulative, dark, and deeply disturbing. This is not a whimsical peccadillo to be written off against the backdrop of an otherwise progressive outlook. This is anti-Semitism at its most virulent and dehumanizing, and you’re right to want to oppose it clearly, in addition to not wanting to expose your child to it. I’d like to offer an important point of clarification, however: Your wife is not in a no-win situation; she is in a difficult situation. Opposing anti-Semitism, even if it comes from one’s own parents, and even if it fractures the family relationship, is not a loss. It would be a good, true, and courageous act. But you need to think a little bigger.

Avoiding blowups is an insufficient goal. Saying, “Let’s get all the kids in the family to agree that Mom and Dad should be quiet about their anti-Semitism at the dinner table” is an insufficient response. You and your wife need to make it clear both to her parents and her siblings that these conspiracy theories are baseless, bigoted, and lead to violence—as we’ve all-too-recently seen—and that you will no longer countenance them. If that means leaving the dinner table entirely, or even permanently, then that’s what you need to do. Whether her siblings join you or not, whether her parents listen or not, you need to do the right thing and call out anti-Semitism for what it is: a dangerous and hateful prejudice.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Unless you start Logan’s Running your friend group, it seems like doing some expectation management is a good call.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
My stepfather physically and sexually abused me from age 11 until I was 14. I escaped to live with my father after confessing to my mother. She refused to believe me and called me a “little slut.” The night before I left, I begged my 12-year-old sister to come with me. She refused to leave our mother. I ended up losing contact with both my mother and sister after I left. After a decade, my sister contacted me out of the blue to rage at me. According to her, as soon as I left, my stepfather turned his attentions on her. This is my fault. I abandoned her. She is still is in contact with our mother and stepfather. I am having nightmares over this. I can’t sleep or eat and can’t tell anyone in my life. Our biological father was not a good man, but I had a roof over my head and food in my mouth. I was able to get into college and get a good job. I don’t know what to do. I am drowning in guilt. How do I do this? What do I do? I feel so helpless.
—Abuse Aftereffects

That sounds unimaginably painful. The only person responsible for abusing you and your sister is your stepfather. You were a 14-year-old with few options and no allies who was trying to save your own life. You were failed not only by the man who abused you but your own mother, who blamed you for your abuse. If your sister is still in touch with your stepfather and mother, it may be that she feels like she can’t hold them accountable for their own actions. You live farther away and are less likely to retaliate. She’s lashing out at the nearest safe target. Knowing that might not make it feel any easier, but it’s true nonetheless.

You don’t have to do anything right now. I don’t think it’s a good idea to try to reason with your sister, who seems to be unable to hear truth because of the amount of pain that she’s in (not to mention the toll it would take on you to try to get her to listen). I hope there is at least one person in your life you can talk to about this. If there isn’t, I hope you can find a therapist, because you shouldn’t have to deal with the resurgence of years of trauma and betrayal by yourself. If you can’t for whatever reason, you can always call the National Sexual Assault Hotline. Right now your only job is to take care of yourself, because it’s unbearably painful to deal with this form of survivor’s guilt. You did not do anything wrong by getting away, by going to college, by building a healthy and stable life for yourself. There is nothing you could have done differently as a 14-year-old victim of abuse who was neither believed nor helped by the adults in your life. Be as kind to yourself as you possibly can and hope that someday your sister is able to do the same.

Dear Prudence,
I’m a junior in college, and I’ve just lost all of my friends. Last year “Evan,” part of my former friend group, asked me out. I said no, and he became increasingly mean. He cursed at me because I cooked our friends dinner one night and used onions, which he hates (I knew he hated them, but I spaced out and forgot). Another night we all went out to dinner, and Evan was short on cash, so I spotted him. When I asked him to pay my back in front of our friends, he cursed at me for embarrassing him. Our friends (four other men and women) would admit in private that Evan was out of line, but they never interfered. They hoped we’d work things out between the two of us. I explained to them how badly Evan scared me when he flipped out and asked them to stand up to him when he lost his temper. For reasons I’m not sure I’ll ever understand, they wouldn’t. I walked away from those friendships. I’m starting to make new friends, but I feel like I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m not a transfer student, so I should have good friends by now. I don’t know how to explain what happened to new friends. I’m also not sure what to tell mutual friends who ask me why I don’t hang out with Evan and our gang anymore—or even worse, don’t know I’m not friends with them anymore. Do I owe anyone answers? And what do I say if people ask?
—No Good Answer

Good for you for walking away from that creep Evan and his cowardly band of enablers. I hope the new friends you make can cobble together something resembling a spine. My guess is that unless your college is very small, no one is going to ask you too many questions about why you seem to have so much free time as a junior. It’s not that unusual in college for people to drift from one social circle to the next, or even to find themselves with a completely new group of friends halfway through, so I don’t think your sudden freedom will raise any eyebrows. If people mistakenly assume you’re still close with your former friends, you can either correct them without going into detail—“Actually, I don’t see them much anymore”—or, if you trust them, say something like, “We’re not friends. Evan asked me out and wouldn’t take no for an answer. He later screamed at me in front of other people, and the rest of them weren’t willing to stand up for me.” But you certainly don’t owe anyone answers. If you’d rather keep the details to yourself, you aren’t under any obligation to share your story even if someone asks. Good luck making better friends than the kind you used to have.

Classic Prudie

“My partner and I, who are in a gay relationship, are close friends with a lesbian couple. ‘Mary’ and ‘Jean’ desperately want a baby, and after some discussion my partner decided to donate his sperm. Mary and Jane have now asked whether Jane can conceive a baby with my partner the old-fashioned way. My partner and Jane used to date in their 20s, so it won’t be anything new. I totally trust my partner, but this is just too much for me. Am I being too old-fashioned?