Dear Prudence

My Dad Died. My Family Is Moving On, but I Can’t.

Prudie’s column for Jan. 10.

Woman listening to angry voicemail from her mother
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,
My father died of a heart attack four years ago when I was 16. I miss him every day; he was my champion, my cheerleader, and my best friend. My mom and younger brothers have moved on. My brothers were only 6 and 8 when he died. My mom’s new guy is fine—he makes my mom laugh, and he is good with my brothers. I hate him, and I know this is not rational or right. I am trying to deal with it with the limited counseling at my school. I haven’t been home since I started college. I see my family when we visit my maternal grandparents in another state. I can deal with the boyfriend in that element. I can make small talk and smile over the kitchen table. Not my home. He is already “remodeling” and has gotten rid of my father’s garden to put in a new pool. Everyone else loves it.

Over Christmas, I laid low and ignored my phone. My mom left me a horrible voicemail where she announced her engagement and told me how I was making everyone miserable and that I needed to decide if I want to be part of this family. She told me Dad would hate me for the way I am acting. Maybe she can forget him, but I can’t, and I don’t know what to do. I spent the entire day crying. I don’t know how to respond to this. Help me, please.
—Still Heartbroken

I’m so sorry, both for the loss of your father and the lingering grief that’s causing you so much pain years later. I’m glad that you’re seeing a counselor at school, even if it’s only sporadically, and hope that you continue to do so. It’s understandable that you’ve avoided visiting home if you know you’re not capable of making small talk with your mom’s new boyfriend, and you’re not doing anything wrong by feeling unable to warm to him. Your mother was also wrong to make claims about what your father would think of how you’re acting now. That’s unnecessary and hurtful, and she would have been better off saying that she has been hurt by the way you’re acting—which is still true and important without leveraging your own grief against you.

But I do think it’s wrong to claim that your mother or younger brothers have forgotten your father because they’ve also found a place for her fiancé in their lives. If someone is making your mother laugh, if someone is helping her raise your brothers and showing them kindness and support, then that’s a good thing, even if that goodness is inextricably linked with tragedy. You’re likely not going to be able to heal this rift overnight. Everyone involved is hurting and feels threatened in one way or another. But there are ways for you and your mother to take small steps toward each other. You can tell her that you’re sorry for the ways in which your absence has hurt her, that you don’t expect her to stay in a permanent state of mourning, and that you don’t think she’s disrespecting your father by finding love again. You can also be honest about what you are and aren’t capable of: “Even though I want to be happy for you, my own grief is unpredictable and overwhelming, and sometimes it’s just too hard for me to see the house I associate with Dad look different. I’m working on that with a therapist.” Offer her something that seems manageable and achievable in the meantime, whether that be a lunch with the two of them, a 10-minute phone call, a handwritten card congratulating them on their engagement. Even if you don’t feel congratulatory, it’s worth doing. The goal is not to get yourself to feel perfectly happy, content, and uncomplicated at the sight of your mother and her new partner. The goal is to find ways to accept that a widow and a child process loss differently, to honor your own grief without making unfair demands on the grief of others, to recognize that finding happiness and romance is not the same thing as forgetting, and to find an appropriate outlet for the rest of your grief. It’s a difficult and long-term project, and I wish you all the luck in the world.

Dear Prudence,
My husband of many years quit drinking 20 years ago. About seven years ago, he became addicted to cough medicine. He got sober again. Now, three times in the past year, I’ve caught him using again. I feel betrayed and lied to, although he says he never promised not to. We had plans to retire in four years and enjoy our lives together, but now I don’t know what to do. I understand the economic realities of divorce on middle-aged women, but I don’t feel I can live my life wondering when the next time I’ll catch him using is. I am at a loss for how to proceed.
—Relapse Carousel

It’s agonizing to learn that your partner has been repeatedly relapsing, and hearing, “Well, technically, I never actually promised to stay sober the last time I got sober” has to be maddening. It’s also not the get-out-of-consequences-free card your husband seems to think it is. I can understand why you’re reluctant to consider leaving after a marriage of many years, but you need to think about what you need to make the next stage of your life happy and healthy, regardless of whether your husband ever stays sober. That will involve at least investigating how you would navigate a divorce without impoverishing yourself. Speak to both a lawyer and a financial planner. Make sure you have recent bank and credit card statements, copies of your most recent tax returns, deeds for any car loans or properties (if you own property), and start tracking your expenses and planning for how they’re likely to change once one of you moves out. You may also want to open a separate bank account your husband doesn’t have access to. None of this means you have to leave him, but it will go a long way toward making you feel like you have options and you’re not just staying out of fear. Consider visiting a few Al-Anon meetings so you can talk to other people who have been married to active alcoholics. Invest in your own hobbies, your own interests, and your own friendships so that you have something to fill your time outside of work besides nervously checking the medicine cabinet. Encourage him to get help, but don’t base your plans for the future on the assumption that he will.

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Dear Prudence,
My ex-husband and I reconciled and were living together with our two children for the past seven years. I recently found out he was cheating on me with a co-worker. He’d already admitted he slept with her but said he wanted to work on our relationship. I learned he was still seeing her, and he basically defended it when I confronted him and told me he wasn’t talking about it anymore. I couldn’t take it and left the house we’d just purchased together. We all ended up in court (stay-away orders). When the judge asked the co-worker if she was in a relationship with my husband, she said yes. When my husband was asked, he hesitated but answered yes. I was crushed because he kept insisting this young lady was just a friend. It’s been almost two months since I left. I miss him terribly and want to reconcile, at least as friends. He’s not speaking to me, although I’ve extended an olive branch and let him know that I miss him. I think about him every day and don’t know how I’m ever going to get over him. Does he still love me? He always said no one could take my place. How could he let this happen?
—I Can’t Recover

The question you should be asking yourself here is not, “Does my ex-husband still love me?” The question you should be asking yourself is, “Has my ex-husband credibly demonstrated the desire or ability to be in an honest, monogamous relationship with me?” Because, you know, maybe he does love you! But based on what you’ve described here, his version of love is selfish, thoughtless, dishonest, chaotic, and unpredictable. (Also, he may not love you at all; he may simply have seen you as convenient and easy to have around and was willing to feed you whatever lies would keep you in the relationship.) The key is in your last sentence: How could he let this happen? He didn’t “let” anything happen. This young woman didn’t happen to him; she’s not a meteor or an act of God. He decided to sleep with her, he decided to pursue her, he decided to lie to you when you asked him about it, and he decided to drag you into court and humiliate you in public. I can understand that you’ve married him, had children with him, bought a house with him—you’ve invested a lot of yourself in this relationship, and admitting that he hasn’t really reciprocated would feel like you were disrespecting your own life, your own future. But to turn away from reality in order to justify decisions you made years ago—or even just to satisfy the hungry, hurt corner of your heart that says, “He wouldn’t really do this to me if he knew how much pain it would cause me, and if only I could reach the real part of him that loves me and explain myself, he’d act right”—won’t work. I don’t know what getting over him is going to look like, but I can tell you that it’s only been two months, and it makes perfect sense that you’re feeling like you’re still in the worst of it. Give yourself more time to get some distance from this relationship. Focus on your children, on your work, on your friendships. Give yourself time to enjoy a life where you’re not constantly worried your partner is sneaking away to be with someone else. Let yourself grieve, but don’t let your grief pick up the phone and call him.

Dear Prudence,
I’m a 28-year-old woman in a committed, long-term relationship, which is also an open relationship. I cohabit with my partner, and we’re very happy. We opened things up about a year ago, and it’s been working really well. Recently, I worked with a man on a project, and I was very attracted to him, and I believe it might have been mutual. Now that the project is finished, I’d like to ask him out. The thing is that he knows I live with my partner but doesn’t know it’s an open relationship. Ideally, I would like to tell him this to be very clear about what I’m offering, and I would totally respect if he wasn’t into that—I’d love to keep him as a friend even if nothing further ever happened between us.

I don’t really know how to phrase this information or when to tell him. It’s the first time since my partner and I opened the relationship that I’ve wanted to pursue someone in this particular way. I also think, but can’t be sure, that the man I’m attracted to only recently found out I had a partner, and I’m now also worried that he’ll think I deceived him in some way or will interpret our flirtations to mean that I’m in the habit of cheating. I was on the lookout for an organic moment to slip into the conversation that I’m in an open relationship, but one never arose, as it’s not something I’m in the habit of blurting out, and I don’t let it become common knowledge, as it’s tiring to explain over and over. I think I just need a script for this and probably to tell him before or at the same time as asking him out. It’s scary, though. I have literally no idea how he’ll react.
—Would-Be Ethical Slut

If you have “literally no idea” how this guy would react to the news that you’re in an open relationship and interested in him, and if there’s any chance you two might have to work together in the future, I think you should enjoy this for what it was—a light flirtation with a cute, interesting guy—and look for dates elsewhere. If this were someone you had met through friends or just out in the world, the risk would be way lower, and I would encourage you to say, “I’ve had a lot of fun getting to know you, and I’d love to go out sometime. I’m in an open relationship, which may or may not be your thing. If it is, I’d love to get a drink; if not, that’s fine too.” If your industry is at all conservative, or if you have any reason to think it might be embarrassing for you if he were to share the details of your open relationship with any colleagues or mutual friends, I think you should err on the side of self-preservation and just let him know that you hope to stay friends. It may be that as you two continue your friendship, you might feel more comfortable weeks or months from now dropping a hint to suss out whether he’d be interested. But this is sensitive information, it could affect your professional reputation, and you don’t know what his reaction is likely to be. You should look out for yourself and say nothing more revealing than “Let’s stay in touch,” at least for now.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“There are worse things than having periodic crushes on people you encounter at work and just sort of releasing them back into the world.”

Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,
I’m dating a 50-year-old woman who recently booked a vacation with her girlfriend and lied about it being an “all women” trip. She’s also claimed several parties she’s gone to were “all girl” as well. When she goes out, she refuses to stay in contact. She says she doesn’t want to be accountable to me. I don’t like being left out. I’m 60 and have lots of energy. I ask her to go dancing, but she says she doesn’t like the way I dance. She says she can still get younger guys, and it’s my belief that she loves the attention of other men and isn’t ready to commit. She has never been married, never had kids, and never lived with anyone. I’m starting to lose it. I want more. She says she wants more but acts like she doesn’t. I feel like I should be able to handle her, but even writing this I feel like we just have different priorities. Tell me where I can change?
—Overly Independent Girlfriend

You have all the facts necessary to make an informed decision! I don’t know if you’ve been so possessive in the past that she’s felt pressured to lie to you about the nature of these outings or if she’s just generally a little self-absorbed and careless with the truth. But although she’s told little lies about the nature of the attendees at some of her trips, it sounds like she’s been generally honest about what she wants: to go on trips without you, to go dancing with her friends alone, to not get married or move in together, and to enjoy the attentions of various interested men. If your response to that is to say you feel like you should be able to “handle” her, you are setting yourself up for frustration and failure. Either take her actions at face value and try to enjoy having a girlfriend who’s fairly independent or find someone who wants to go dancing with you.

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Dear Prudence,
My best friend is always early, to the point of rudeness. We’ll make dinner plans and she’ll arrive half an hour early, or I’ll invite her to a party and she’ll show up at my door an hour before any other guests arrive, forcing me to entertain her while I’m trying to get ready. She says it stems from anxiety about having always been late to things in her teenage years when other people had to drive her, which makes sense, but is there any kind way to say that sometimes being too early is just as bad (if not worse) than being late?
—Annoying Early Bird

While it’s great that your friend is aware of the roots of her chronic earliness, it sounds like she’s trying to use that as an excuse for never changing her behavior. “I’m early because I’m anxious” is a great start, but it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to change your plans to accommodate her anxiety. The next time you make plans, let her know that you won’t be able to entertain her if she shows up an hour early, and stick to it, even if that means answering the door with, “Hey! Like I said, I’m not available yet, so come back in an hour. Talk to you then,” then closing the door. You’re not being unkind, and you’re not berating her for having anxiety; you’re simply sticking to your agreed-upon plans to get together at 7, not 6. If she gets to a restaurant early, she can bring a book or stare at her phone (a glorious pastime!) or take a walk around the block. Whatever she does to fill that time isn’t your problem to solve.

Classic Prudie

“One of my co-workers has a lovely baby boy, and for the last 10 months or so we’ve all been treated to the rather unlovely sound of her pumping milk in the middle of the office. We have a mother’s room down the hallway, but apparently this is ‘inconvenient’ and she feels she can be more productive if she pumps at her desk. She pumps every couple of hours for about 20 minutes straight, and the sound is highly distracting for visitors and co-workers alike. Do we need to toughen up and be more supportive, or should this young lady be more considerate?