Dear Prudence

My Husband and I Blew Through $3 Million. Now We’re Broke.

Prudie’s column for Dec. 20.

A hand pulls one dollar out of an otherwise empty wallet.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Allef Vinicius/Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I met working at a major tech company. He left with more than $2 million at age 36. On the outside, our life looks great. But he hasn’t worked since we got married nearly 20 years ago, and as a result, he’s blown through all our cash. I knew he was selling off stock but was unaware of the extent until a few years ago. I never expected he would not work again. Now he resents watching colleagues advance to senior roles, making good money, and working on exciting tech products. A few friends are starting to retire. That would have been us, too. But now we’re in our 50s with no savings. I’m a best-selling author, and my early books netted nearly $1 million from book sales. Today, I still hustle for editorial projects. He claims he couldn’t work all those years because he was too busy setting me up in my writing career. He has been helpful, no doubt about it. But I never asked him to forgo working for years. Now he’s deeply depressed. He keeps me up at night bemoaning how he’s a loser, and messed up his life, and I should leave him, or blaming me for it. I’m exhausted the next day but work on various projects—while he sleeps all day—and then the cycle starts again. I haven’t sold a book in years, and I know it’s partly due to the stress.

We have a second home that I inherited a few years ago. He’s pressing me to sell it so we have some cash. I really don’t want to sell it. I know we’ll blow through the cash in a couple of years, and then we’ll be in the exact same position. That house is the only asset that I have in my own name, and knowing that I have a potential place to land if we split up is all that’s keeping me sane. He refuses to get counseling. He has started to reach out to places to apply for jobs in earnest, but at his age, with a résumé gap of 18 years, I’m worried it’s too late, especially for the kind of jobs he’s after in the tech industry. He would never consider getting a “normal” job, like working retail or as a bartender, as he’d be embarrassed if his colleagues ran into him someplace. I really feel that I need some therapy, but I know we can’t afford it. I’m now seriously considering abandoning my writing career. I’ve been applying for jobs in part to get us health care, since we have to drop ours, as we can’t afford it. But since I also haven’t had a traditional job, it’s been a real challenge for me, too, and incredibly depressing. Friends tell me to leave, but I genuinely love my husband. He’s a smart guy who can do just about anything. He’d actually be great working for a company. But he doesn’t believe it. The negative voice in his head has become too strong and his ego is too fragile. What am I to do?

Since it took the two of you more than 20 years to get to this point, I don’t think you’re going to be able to figure out the way forward (and whether it’s possible to move forward together) in a single conversation. If he refuses to get counseling, go without him. If you can only afford one or two sessions, go once or twice. If he refuses to apply to realistic jobs, apply to some yourself, and let your writing serve as a part-time job. Instead of selling the house, why not rent it out? That way you’ll have at least some money coming in as you try to figure out your next move. Set up an immediate state-of-the-financial-union meeting and commit to having regular conversations about your debts, your budgets, and what you can do in the short and long term to start making money again. I understand that you don’t want to leave your husband, and I think it’s worth at least trying to figure out if you two can make changes together. I also understand that habits of 20 years don’t disappear overnight, and you two have fallen into a long-running pattern of not talking about money that’s enabled you to avoid difficult feelings. Talking about money is going to feel painful and unnatural. The more often you do it, the easier it’s going to get—besides, you’d both have to go over your finances if you did get divorced, so it’s not exactly something you can avoid either way. If, however, despite all your best attempts to talk about this, your husband refuses to participate, continues to blame you for his choices, and tries to get you to liquidate your house so he can avoid looking for work for another few years, then I think you will need to consider leaving him, not just to preserve your own financial independence, but to preserve your peace of mind.

Dear Prudence,
My husband and I are moving to the city where one of my dearest friends lives. She really wants us to move to her neighborhood (“You can walk over for barbecues! Go on morning runs together!”). I love the idea of being close, except I hate her neighborhood. It’s a bunch of huge McMansions with things like fake turrets and nonsensical designs. I get why she and her husband chose it—there’s lots of space for their big family—but you couldn’t pay me to live there. On paper, though, it makes a lot of sense: It’s close to my work, in my price range, etc., so my friend doesn’t seem to catch on to my polite demurrals (“That might be a little too much house for us” or “We’re looking in a lot of neighborhoods.”) What can I tell her besides “your house is hideous”?
—Hideous House

Unless she’s calling you every day and going through all the listings in her neighborhood, I think it’s fine to keep offering her polite-yet-accurate demurrals until you eventually find a house elsewhere. There’s a natural expiration date to this conversation, and that will be when you move into a house in a different neighborhood. In the meantime, you can stress how great it is that you two will finally be living in the same city. If you absolutely can’t stand her gentle but insistent questions, then pick a household feature or two you know her neighborhood can’t provide that are absolute necessities for you and tell her: “We’re looking for something with less than 2,000 square feet, and [your neighborhood] just doesn’t fit the bill. Tell me what you think of these two houses we’ve been looking at.”

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Dear Prudence,
My boyfriend of three years and I broke up five months ago because he wanted to open up our relationship. I wanted to too, but he didn’t communicate his desires clearly. In retrospect I think he was afraid of how I would react and didn’t ask for what he wanted. We’ve met up after the breakup, both professed our love for each other, and agreed we should take some space and time to think about what we want. I’ve reached out to him recently about reconciling, and he was sort-of positive but hung up on what our friends will think.

We have several mutual friends who have supported us both post-breakup and have said to one or both of us that getting back together would be a bad idea. One of my very close friends even told me she’d be furious if we got back together. I’m of the mind that no one outside a relationship really knows what the inside of the relationship is like and shouldn’t judge what two people decide. On the other hand, we’ve put them through a lot, and they could resent us for putting them through that for nothing. What’s your take on this? I can’t imagine not having him back in my life, but I don’t want to lose any friends over this. I can explain myself to them, but what would I say?

This is a nice twist on the usual breakup question of how to end things without hurting feelings: “How do I get back together with my ex without alienating all the friends who helped me break up with my ex?” The answer is still that you can’t. My guess is that the reason your close friend said she’d be “furious” is because she had a suspicion that you two were thinking about getting back together and wanted to make herself clear in advance. So while I agree that this decision is ultimately up to the two of you and that you should try to explain why you want to make it work a second time, you need to let go of the idea that there’s some way you can break the news to your friends that will guarantee they’ll hop on board. The key here is to spend a little time examining what you mean when you say you put your friends “through a lot.” Everyone turns to friends to get through breakups, but it sounds like you’re aware you did a little more than lean on them. Do you owe anyone an apology? Would your friends agree that your only (or at least major) problem was simply “failing to discuss the terms of an open relationship clearly enough,” or do they have more deep-seated concerns? Do you need to commit to being more supportive of your friends in the future, instead of interrupting them constantly to ride the ups and downs of your relationship roller coaster? When’s the last time you called your friends, asked them how they were doing, and really listened, without finding a way to bring the conversation back to your ex?

Figure out the answers to those questions before you break the news that you and your ex are back together—assuming you two do end up reuniting. He’s only “sort-of positive” right now.

Dear Prudence,
I just started leading a Meetup group and have been looking forward to making friends, since I work from home. One other member, “Jen,” also works from home, is divorced, and has a daughter who just started college this fall. But she monopolizes the conversation so much (and she comes every week) that some members aren’t coming anymore! She sometimes says, “I know I talk too much, so just tell me to shut up.” I don’t want to do that either, but people are starting to drop out of the group because they can’t get a word in when Jen starts on a topic. I want to be a friend to her, which she really needs, but also want to be fair to the other members and keep them coming back more than once.
—Silent Leader

Since this group is under your leadership, and Jen has already made it clear that she knows she talks a lot and welcomes constructive criticism, you’ve got every reason to say something to her, and nobody else in the group is likely to do it for you. That doesn’t mean you have to say something as curt as “Jen, shut up.” Talk to her before your next meeting: “I know you’ve said before you want someone to let you know if you’re dominating the conversation, and while I don’t feel comfortable telling you to ‘shut up’ in the middle of a discussion, I’ll let you know the next time I think you need to take a breather. I’d also appreciate it if tonight you didn’t wait for me to tell you to slow down, but let somebody else initiate the conversation, instead of speaking first. Does that work for you?” That way if you do need to say something to Jen during a group conversation, it won’t be the first time you’ve broached the subject with her, so you won’t feel quite so self-conscious saying, “Thanks, Jen. Let’s give someone else a chance to speak.”

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I know it’s not super helpful now to be like, ‘THAT WAS SO MUCH MONEY.’ ” Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss a letter in this week’s  Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I live on campus in an apartment with seven other students. One girl in particular is difficult to live with. She yells at other people over relatively tiny things and has unrealistic expectations (no college dorm will be silent at 11 p.m.). I try to remain calm but also not to aggravate her. Lately, every time I go out, she asks where I’ve been when I get home. If I say I went downtown, she’ll ask me what I did there. I once stayed elsewhere for the weekend, and when I didn’t come home Saturday night (which I usually do), she texted at 1 a.m. asking where I was. Is it just me, or is she being just a little bit invasive? I don’t want to aggravate her, but I don’t like always having to say where I was (and sometimes what I bought or why I didn’t go to the closer grocery store, etc.). Am I being too sensitive, or am I right that this is a bit overboard?
—Nosy Housemate

There’s a big difference between a casual “Hey, where’ve you been?” from a roommate you get along with and a “Where have you been? What did you buy? Why didn’t you buy it from [other location]? Are you going out again later?” from one you don’t. If you get a text from someone at 1 a.m. that you don’t feel like answering, don’t answer it! You can respond the next day at a reasonable hour. Nor do you have to have a big confrontation with her—just make it clear when you’re done answering questions. If she hits you with an inquisition right when you walk through the door, say, “I’ve been shopping. Excuse me, I’ve got to put some things away,” followed by a hasty-yet-elegant dash to your room. Other options include: “Oh, just out,” followed by pretending to receive a text message that requires your full attention; striking up an unrelated conversation with another roommate; asking your nosy housemate a question about what she’s been up to; walking in the door wearing headphones; “All over the place—traffic was nuts today”; or any vague answer that springs to mind. You can also be straightforward and say, “I’ve had a really stressful day, I need to just go zone out and be quiet for a while. Thanks.”

Dear Prudence,
One of my best and oldest friends and I are going through a low point in our relationship due to some life changes on both ends, though I think it’s ultimately salvageable. My feelings are hurt, and I need some space. Unfortunately, she overcompensates and becomes very needy when she senses something is wrong, meaning she messages me multiple times per day and will email or call me if I don’t text back. Honestly, I just need a little break from talking and think it would help our friendship to take some time apart. I’m not planning on dropping her as a friend. How can I tell her this while being as sensitive as I can to her feelings and insecurities? It seems cruel to just fade away for a while and not tell her why.
—Just Need a Break

I agree that just “taking a break” from one of your oldest friendships without warning would be unnecessarily confusing to your friend, especially knowing that she compensates for insufficient information by trying to talk to you more often. While the idea of saying, “Hey, my feelings are hurt, and I need to take a break from talking for a while” may seem like you’re deliberately activating her freak-out button, it’s also the easiest, kindest way to get what you need from her. Tell her that you’ll let her know when you’re ready to start spending time together again so that she doesn’t worry about having to check in every couple of days to see if you’ve cooled off. Once you’ve had some distance from the situation, thank her for giving you space and ask if she wants to get coffee and reconnect. My guess is that, more than anything, your friend wants to know what’s wrong and what she can do to help. If you give her something concrete to do, even if it’s something that initially goes against her inclinations, she’ll feel a sense of relief and purpose, and this will end up working well for you both.

Classic Prudie

“Several years ago my husband had an affair that resulted in a child. Although we’re still married and he has no interest in a divorce, he lives with the child and her mother. Our family has been shattered, and my children occasionally say things that let me know they still carry a tremendous burden of hurt. A major problem arises around the holidays. My husband insists on coming over for Christmas but isn’t present in any meaningful sense. He just stares straight ahead. He criticizes little things, opens gifts but never takes them with him, and refuses any offers of food. Nothing we do makes him happy, and the harder we try the unhappier he seems. What can we do to make his Christmas visit a little less awkward and perhaps even pleasant?