Dear Prudence

My Daughter Is Dating Her Sister’s Ex

Prudie’s column for March 7.

Two sisters in a disagreement.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Galina Zhigalova/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

I have two daughters, 27-year-old “Lilah” and 20-year-old “Lisa.” Lilah dated “Andrew,” 29, for four years. She was gutted when he broke up with her last year. Lisa recently confessed that she ran into Andrew at a bar, they reconnected, and they’re falling in love. Lisa wants help telling Lilah about their romance. She thinks there’s a chance that Lilah could be happy for them. I’ve tried to explain to Lisa how and why Lilah will be deeply hurt by this, but Lisa (in part due to immaturity) thinks love “should be given a chance.” I don’t know what to do. Lisa has always looked up to Lilah, and maybe this is her trying to emulate her older sister? I am pretty grossed out by Andrew, and I worry about the fallout to my family.

—Mister vs. Sister

Lisa’s starry-eyed optimism that her sister is going to be happy for the two of them really highlights her relative youth and inexperience next to her nearly decade-older boyfriend. You’re right to be put off by Andrew’s behavior—trading in one sister for a younger model and then leaving her to tell the family about it—but your best move, as the girls’ parent, is to tread cautiously and play the long game.

Explain to Lisa that you can’t keep a secret from Lilah that you know will hurt her, so you want to give her and Andrew the chance to tell her sister before you do. If Lilah finds out you’ve known for a long time and kept it from her, she’s likely to feel like her whole family has been conspiring against her, and I want her to be able to rely on your support when she gets the news. Then you’re just going to have to let Lilah be hurt and angry. This was a serious, long-term relationship that ended recently, and now he’s dating her sister, so she’s going to be upset. You don’t have to pretend to approve of Andrew’s behavior to keep Lisa’s illusions intact, but you also don’t have to go out of your way to try to convince her that he’s not the great guy she thinks he is; time will likely do that for you. Nor do you have to choose sides between your daughters, but you should avoid acting as a go-between. Stick to encouraging both of them to talk to each other about how they’re feeling (when they’re in a relatively calm frame of mind, that is, and not itching for a fight). This is unlikely to blow over in a few weeks or months, but if they fight clean and you wait long enough, you may have reason to hope that a few years from now the three of you will be able to talk about it without immediate bitterness or pain. (Hopefully Andrew won’t be there.)

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Dear Prudence,

My husband, “Tom,” threw me out of the house after the results of a paternity test said he wasn’t the biological father of our newborn child. Tom is the only man I’ve slept with in almost 16 years; I knew the test results were wrong. I was really hurt when he asked for one, since I’ve never been unfaithful. Tom had an emotional affair around the time our child was conceived, though, and because we weren’t having sex that often, he doubted he was the father. I thought a paternity test would put his fears to rest. Before throwing our baby and me out, Tom raged at us. The things he said to me will haunt me for the rest of my life, and when I comforted our sobbing baby, he became truly unhinged. I convinced Tom to get several more paternity tests, and they all confirmed he’s the biological father. Tom is repentant and wants me to move back home. I want a divorce. Tom is upset I can’t see things from his point of view: He made a horrible mistake, but at the time he had “every reason” to believe I’d cheated on him. I’m exhausted and heartbroken. I will do all I can to ensure Tom and our baby have a relationship. But I don’t want to be his wife. Am I making a mistake?

—Bogus Paternity Test

Every once in a while, when you get anxious over the fact that you left your ex, you can check your concerns by saying, “I’m no longer with my ex-husband, who ordered a paternity test after having an emotional affair while I was pregnant and threw me and our sobbing baby out of the house.” Just imagine saying that to a relatively together stranger. Sounds reasonable, right? I imagine 999 out of 1,000 people would say something like, “Wow. That makes a lot of sense to me. Also, do you need anything, like a hug or a cookie?” Tom seems to think that if only you understood why he said those things, you would automatically have to forgive him and want to continue to live as his partner and share intimacies and vulnerabilities with him for the rest of your life. That’s not actually the case! It’s possible to understand where someone was coming from, extend maximal compassion and sympathy, and still decide that your romantic relationship is no longer viable. Your goal of trying to make sure your soon-to-be-ex is able to visit your child often and of possibly being able to develop a civil co-parenting relationship is excellent. I also think you made the right call in ending your marriage.

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Dear Prudence,

My very close friend has a chronic degenerative illness. They’re quite private about their diagnosis and don’t tell people unless they “need to know.” Lately they’ve been doing well, but it’s always something they need to be mindful of. Last year my aunt was diagnosed with the same condition. My aunt is deteriorating very quickly (this illness progresses at different rates in different people). Often I won’t find out how badly she’s doing until I hear from someone who bumped into her how surprised they were by how frail she is. I’m scared of losing her. I want to talk to my friend about this—they’re the person I usually go to when things get tough—but I don’t want to be unkind or unfair by talking about the worst-case scenario for the illness they have. In some ways, I feel like they’re the only person I know who understands the roller coaster of ups and downs that goes along with this illness. Is it selfish to go to them for support in this? I haven’t said anything for months, and I know if my aunt dies, I’ll be devastated. Her condition isn’t a sure death sentence, but things won’t get better from here.

—Aunt Dying of Friend’s Illness

You should turn to one of your other friends for primary support here. You know your friend is private when it comes to their diagnosis, and I can’t imagine they have the time or the energy to walk you through your grief about a family member possibly dying of the very same illness. Just because your friend understands the ups and downs doesn’t mean they’re ready to hear about someone else dying of the condition they’re trying to deal with right now. You should line up someone (or a couple of someones) else first to whom you can go to share your pain and fear with; then, after you feel like you’ve been able to address some of it, you can ask your friend if they’re available to hear some news about a family member of yours who’s sick. Make it clear that if they’re not up for it, you understand and that you won’t press the issue.

In the meantime, do as much as you can to spend meaningful time with your aunt and offer her whatever help you’re able to provide—to take her to appointments, to run errands for her, to help keep her house clean. If she’s too far away for you to help her out in person, send flowers or some little gift you think she’d like, catch up over the phone, write her a letter, or have a meal delivered. That may go a long way toward alleviating some of your fear and uncertainty right now.

Dear Prudence,

I’m estranged from my adult children, “Alice” and “Noah.” I divorced their abusive father when they were toddlers. I couldn’t afford a lawyer, and my ex got full custody. I fought for years to see my kids, but their father said I abandoned them. When I eventually remarried and had two more children, they believed I had replaced them. Nothing could be further from the truth; I ache for them always. When they were in their early 20s, I told Alice and Noah about their father’s abuse. They accused me of being a manipulative liar, and we didn’t speak for years. Now Alice is pregnant and has reached out to me: If I admit that I lied about the abuse and go to counseling with her and Noah, I could maybe be a part of my grandchild’s life. Having a relationship with my older children is my wildest dream. I thought I’d do anything to re-establish contact. But my ex didn’t just push me when he was angry; he threw me into walls, punched me in the head, and came close to choking me. I don’t know if I can lie and say that never happened. Am I being selfish? A mother should do anything for her kids, right?

—Kids Want to Erase My Abuse

I can’t tell you how much my heart aches for you. I’m so sorry for all that you’ve been through, and I can’t imagine how painful it is right now to consider pretending you were never abused, all in the hopes that you’ll be able to meet your grandchild. I think you should tell your daughter you’re more than willing to see a counselor together but that you can’t lie about what happened to you. If she’d be able to meet you on those terms, you might be able to develop a new kind of relationship. But no, this definitely does not fall under the umbrella of “doing anything for your kids,” especially when the kids in question are all grown up, totally safe, and dangling the possibility (your daughter only said you could “maybe” be a part of your grandchild’s life if you were willing to lie to her) of reconnection in order to get you to let their father off the hook. And you’d have to prop up the lie every time you saw your children. That’s not a “one and done” kind of lie, and I think you’d eventually collapse under the weight of taking responsibility for your ex’s abuse. You’re not being selfish, but you are being put in an unbearably difficult situation. Please see that counselor even if your children decide not to go with you.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“This will not be something you can stop, and it will be bad.”

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

Dear Prudence,

I was dating a transgender guy for a while (I’m a trans guy too), until we broke up, and now she has gone back to using female pronouns and her birth name in order to be accepted by her evangelical family. Before that, they’d been estranged for a year and a half. I respect her choice and use those pronouns for her, but I have a problem with her returning to a group of people who threw her out when she needed them the most, just for being trans. Whenever she used to tell stories of how they treated her (sometimes as if they were funny anecdotes), it sounded controlling and abusive, but she got upset with me for saying so. I don’t feel like I can be honest with her, and I’m beginning to regret being her friend. Her behavior seems really self-destructive, even though she tries to put a positive spin on it. She’s an evangelical, and I’m an atheist, and she claims that it’s just our different worldviews, but I seriously doubt that. Am I nuts? What should I do?

—Regretting Friendship With Ex

Based on your letter, your ex sounds like she’s probably on the young side, and I’m inclined to cut her some slack. I’ve known a lot of people in similar situations, and over time, usually they’re able to let go of their families’ expectations and go on to lead the kind of lives that feel the most meaningful and worthwhile to them. It can also be pretty overwhelming trying to come out in an evangelical context. Sometimes you have to do it a few times before it sticks. But none of that means you’re obligated to continue a friendship with your ex if you’re not getting anything out of it! You can wish her all the best in navigating finding a life that works for her and also figuring out what kind of relationship she wants with her family without getting an obligatory catch-up brunch every weekend. If you feel up to maintaining a bare-minimum, low-effort type of contact with her—the occasional texting session every few months or so—it might help to keep a line of contact open if and when she ever decides she wants to come out again. But if you need a little permission to step back and not force yourself to stay besties with your ex, you certainly have it.

Dear Prudence,

My middle-aged husband is unable to hold a full-time job because of depression problems related to traumatic childhood abuse. He is making progress in treatment. The good news is that I earn enough to support us both, and he is great at being a house husband. He walks dogs, runs errands, washes laundry and dishes, does repairs, and even brings me my morning coffee in bed. My problem is that when people ask that classic line, “What does he do for a living?” every reply leads down Awkward Street. We don’t have kids, so the expectation is that he should be out of the house. He’s not retired and not physically disabled, and I don’t want to embarrass him by blowing the whistle on his mental health. My remaining honest replies are, “None of your business” (harsh), “He’s my assistant” (“Like at an office or something?”), “Unemployed” (“What field? I’ve got leads!”), and “Taking a break” (“Oh, so you’re spoiling him!”). You’re good at scripts, so what’s my line?

—Explaining My Husband’s Depression-Related Unemployment

“He keeps house for us” has a sort of charming, retro flair to it (a flair that “house husband,” for some reason, doesn’t). “He’s at home full-time” also gets the point across while sort of parroting office talk, which might satisfy curious questioners. It’s a content-free answer that sounds like you’re going into detail.

If you’re talking to someone you’ll likely never see again and you just want to end that line of questioning, you can say, “He works from home,” which is strictly true but obviously misleading. But your best bet is to briefly describe what he does, which is keeping house, and then if anyone tries to reply with a cutesy little follow-up like, “Oh, so you’re spoiling him” (or “I wish I could do that” in a way that implies “but of course I couldn’t”), you can blandly observe, “Oh, what an odd thing to say!” and then change the subject.

Classic Prudie

“My stepchildren’s mom died suddenly not long ago. They are 11 and 13, and now live with my husband and I; we have always lived nearby their mom’s house. I recently discovered I was pregnant but have not told anyone—for over a week—because I’m not sure whether it would be fair to have the baby. My stepchildren obviously need unending amounts of love, support, and stability as my husband and I help them navigate their grief. A newborn would be a major disruption. But at the same time I want this baby so much. My husband and I had begun to try before his ex-wife died. Part of me is scared he will ask me to abort the baby. Another part thinks that’s the only fair thing to do. What advice can you offer?