Dear Prudence

I’m Afraid My Husband Will Kill Himself if I Leave Him

Prudie’s column for March 14.

Woman and depressed man.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by JackF/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Sasha Freemind/Upsplash

Dear Prudence

When I met my husband 10 years ago, he was adventurous and lighthearted, and he had hobbies and friends. There were red flags, such as his drinking and lack of employment, but I was young and had just come out of a terrible relationship, so I ignored them. In the 10 years since, he has become morose, depressed, consistently unemployed, with no friends and no hobbies and no interests at all. He is the most miserable person I’ve ever known and is constantly angry at everything and everyone. He refuses to do anything to help himself, either to be more employable, learn new skills, get therapy, or do anything outside of the house except go to the bar (several times a month—it’s the only time we go out). He refuses to see how his own patterns of behavior have contributed to his problems. His answer to everything is a “fresh start,” which means me upending my career and him starting over again in a new place. But he blames his difficulty finding a job on all of the times we’ve moved! And he blames my career for the fact that we’ve moved so much! I’ve sacrificed pretty much everything to try to make him happy. I’m stuck in a midlevel managerial position because I’ve turned down every opportunity that would have raised me higher, because all of them would have required time away from home. He says I’m “never home,” but every minute I’m not at work, I’m with him, and I already leave work early most days so he’s alone less. I still love him, but I don’t like him much anymore, I don’t enjoy being around him, and thinking of my life being like this for years to come makes me incredibly depressed. But I feel like I can’t leave because he literally has no one else. He says that if it weren’t for me, he’d “already be dead,” which is not flattering—it’s horrifying. He refuses to consider couples’ counseling. The only way I get through each day is telling myself, “It’s NOT my problem,” almost a mantra, when he goes on another of his rants about how my career has ruined his life, how his family has ruined his life, how life has ruined his life. He says that he’s depressed and that he needs help, but the only help he wants is for someone to give him the perfect job that he thinks will magically make everything OK. His last job, which actually was a great job, he quit after a month. I don’t know what to do. How do I leave knowing that he very well might end up killing himself, or so he says?

—Mrs. Miserable

Your husband is grossly misusing the language of depression to control you, and leveraging the threat of suicide to keep a partner from leaving is an age-old abusive tactic. I think you know that you need to leave, that you are not the treatment for depression, and that blaming and manipulating you is not the result of depression but a choice your husband makes on a daily basis in order to get what he wants. He has made it incredibly clear that he doesn’t want help and that whatever “help” he may need is not the sort of support and treatment someone suffering from depression needs. He’s convinced you that you are solely responsible not only for his health and happiness but for his continued existence. He got the job he claimed he needed to be well and immediately flung it away. He is not in need of something he’s not getting—he’s fundamentally untrustworthy. Your daily mantra is the only truth in your household: This is not your problem.

My main concern is that your husband will escalate his threats when you leave him, and I encourage you to develop a plan where you can set up all the emotional and financial support you’ll need before making your next move. See a therapist without him so that you can figure out how to address your own guilt and anxiety when you leave and he claims you’re killing him. You’re not. He’s the one trying to suck the life and energy out of you, and he’s doing it deliberately, consciously, and with full knowledge of what he’s doing. This isn’t depression. It’s abuse.

Dear Prudence,

I recently discovered my husband of 20-plus years has been hiding a high level of drinking from me. I happened to notice a liquor store purchase while checking our online bank statement, something I rarely do. I usually only drink if we are out, and I had no memory of drinking anything at home or seeing him drink anything at home. According to the bank statement, he was drinking about four large bottles of vodka a month. When I confronted him, he immediately confessed. I asked him how long it had been going on, and he said he thinks it started “getting more frequent” after the kids were born. That was 15 years ago! He hid the bottles in his office and then just drank in secret. All those years while I was agonizing over the right ways to raise our kids and fretting over an increasingly long list of unfinished household projects, he was drinking.

I told him we are now a dry household and that he had to stop drinking immediately and completely if he wanted to continue to live with me and the kids. It appears that he has done so. (It’s been about two weeks.) I also required that he see a therapist. The appointment has been made. Problem solved, right? But I can’t get past the duplicity. I am shattered that he hid this from me. I find myself fantasizing about talking to a divorce lawyer. Plus, I don’t really know if you can just stop drinking one day because your wife told you to. What if he’s now drinking when he drives home from work? He was apparently a pretty high-functioning drinker; he never slurred words or acted drunk. He made a comment about it helping him sleep. But maybe a bottle a week isn’t that much? Maybe this is just something that people do? Prudie, I am floundering around without a compass here, and I need some perspective on this situation from you.

—Floundering and Flabbergasted

Problem definitely not solved! I cannot imagine a scenario in which a couple acknowledges for the first time in 15 years that one partner has been hiding a serious, secret drinking problem but declaring it “solved” once said partner agreed to knock it off and go see a therapist. That’s the absolute bare minimum of beginning to scrape the surface of the problem. It’s nowhere near solving anything, so I think your expectation that you should be over it already is totally unrealistic.

You ask if this is something “people do,” so let’s take a rough estimate: Assuming those “large bottles” of vodka are handles, your husband was putting away something in the neighborhood of 30 to 45 drinks a week. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention define a “heavy drinker” as a man who has 15 drinks (or more) a week. The CDC doesn’t offer any numbers on how many people are heavy drinkers, but my guess is you wouldn’t suddenly be OK with this if a lot of other men also drank like your husband. It’s a medically relevant amount of alcohol, and your husband should probably talk to his doctor about how it may be affecting his health.

Your husband may be drinking substantially less (or even more) than what I’ve outlined here, but the point is that your husband drinks a lot, he’s hidden it from you for years, and you two are just barely starting to come to terms with it. Whether or not he comes to understand himself as an alcoholic, whether he tries to get sober through some sort of recovery program or just tries to cut back, you’re still allowed to be hurt and betrayed. You’re still allowed to feel angry when you look back at all of the years he was checked out while you were struggling to raise your children. You do not have to downplay how serious his drinking has been just because he’s been “high-functioning.” You have the right to ask difficult, painful questions, like whether he’s been in the habit of driving after drinking. Even if he stops drinking forever, you may still decide to leave him; his on-the-wagon status doesn’t mean you’re not allowed to have your own feelings or make your own decisions. If at some point you realize you can’t see yourself trusting him again—if the only married future you can picture is one of suspicion and paranoia, where you have to keep tabs on him and smell his breath every time he comes home—divorce may be best for both of you.

Whatever happens next, the conversation between the two of you shouldn’t end at “Well, promise you’ll stop now” and “OK, I’ll stop.” You have every reason to ask a lot of questions, air your concerns and frustrations, and ask for what you need right now. I’d recommend checking out a support group for partners of alcoholics (whether your husband considers himself one or not isn’t really the point; you’re looking to talk to people who care about someone with a drinking problem) so you can get a sense of what other people have done in your situation and hopefully feel less alone.

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Dear Prudence,

My boyfriend is father to a wonderful 8-year-old who, after finding out Michael Jackson used to hang out with the Beatles, became obsessed. He’s an excellent moonwalker and has memorized all of Michael Jackson’s albums. He’s also precocious and always on the lookout to learn more about his new hero. So we are worried that some big talks are ahead with the latest documentary. My boyfriend is uncertain about how to talk with his son about Jackson’s history; neither of us are perfectly comfortable with the “separating the art from the artist” approach, but we’re at a loss for an age-appropriate way to have this discussion.

—Boyfriend’s 8-Year-Old Is an MJ Fan

One important thing to stress with your boyfriend’s son is that he hasn’t done anything wrong in liking Michael Jackson’s music and that he’s not “in trouble,” nor are you going to take any of the music away from him. But 8-year-olds should have a general working knowledge of their own bodies and their own right to privacy and know that they can talk to their parents if any other adults attempt to touch them inappropriately or otherwise harm them. Your boyfriend should be prepared to have more than just a vague “sometimes people do bad things” conversation with his son. If he needs more specific guidance on exactly what to say, he should ask his son’s pediatrician for age-appropriate terms, but generally speaking, I’m of the opinion that kids should be given non-euphemistic language about their bodies and what sexual abuse is. That doesn’t mean he has to go into excessive detail, but knowledge is power when it comes to something like sexual exploitation. When it comes to this musician in particular, your boyfriend can explain that a number of men have come forward to say that Michael Jackson abused them as children and that many fans of his music are re-evaluating their relationship to his legacy and music as a result. He might even ask his son what he thinks would be appropriate and how he might want to think about playing or discussing Michael Jackson’s music in public. Give him the opportunity to feel like he’s not just being told to stop enjoying something he used to love but being invited to consider serious ethical and artistic questions.

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I are employees at the same small school. His superior left a few months ago, and my husband inherited his duties. He requested a raise from our new director but was denied. We all just received our new contracts for the next school year and were told all increases were 2 percent or lower for all staff. My husband’s increase was exactly 2 percent. Mine was 5 percent. I don’t know what to do, as I signed and turned in the contract before doing the math. We have completely new staff in our business office and HR, so I believe the 5 percent was meant for him and they mixed us up, since we have the same last name. The only reason I’m hesitant to say anything is that, since I make more than him to start with, a 5 percent increase in my salary is more than a 5 percent increase in his, and we could use the money. (Who couldn’t?) Ethically, I should tell someone, right? Does it make me a terrible person that I haven’t yet?

—Contract Discrepancies

I don’t think this is necessarily an error, and it certainly doesn’t fall into the same ethical category for me as, say, quietly pocketing an extra $10,000 over an obvious clerical mistake in your paycheck. You received a modest raise after reviewing and counterreviewing your yearly contract. It certainly wouldn’t be the first time management had told employees that there’s a cap on raises while actually preparing to make one or more exceptions. The real question is what your husband should do about his own situation. Depending on how much extra work he’s having to do in the absence of the supervisor, he should either revisit the question of a raise or ask for confirmation on when they can hire a replacement so he’s not doing two jobs for the price of one indefinitely.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Certainly I would feel no obligation to draw it to anyone’s attention.”
Daniel Mallory Ortberg and Nicole Cliffe discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

Two years ago, my father had a massive stroke that transformed him from a strong and opinionated person to someone struggling profoundly. Last year, my mother was diagnosed with cancer and was dead within three months. My father was in no shape to be able to care for her, so that job fell to me while my younger brother helped look after Dad. It’s been just over a year since her death, but I find dealing with my dad increasingly difficult. I was recently offered a new job and moved several hours away, although I made sure my dad is being well taken care of. He’s getting much better physically, and my brother still lives nearby.

Our only contact nowadays is when I call or visit. He never initiates contact, but as soon as I call, he starts crying and descends into self-pity. I have to spend hours psyching myself up before I call, and it’s like talking to a stranger. I dread every Sunday, but at the same time, my dad’s siblings act like I have abandoned him. I used to attend a support group for grieving relatives but haven’t found a new one yet since I moved. I hate that we’ve lost our closeness and feel like I’ve lost both parents. I’m also sick of feeling like my grief doesn’t matter as much as my dad’s; my brother’s not very talkative so I can’t get much from him. What can I do till I find a new group or counseling to reduce my stress and anxiety over this?

—Conflicted Father’s Girl

I hope that you can prioritize finding a new group as soon as possible, because I want you to be able to talk about the ugly, messy, painful parts of your grief with people who aren’t your immediate family members or someone you’re trying to care for—even if that care is long-distance. I also hope you can limit the time and energy you dedicate to managing your father’s siblings’ feelings about where you live and work, because he has not asked you to give up your career to care for him full time—nor do you need to. You’ve been through an unbelievably painful two years, and you can’t undo how this stroke has affected your father or the people who love him, even if you quit your job tomorrow and moved back in with him. In the meantime, it might help to set a time limit to those Sunday phone calls and be sure to have something relaxing and restorative planned for afterward. At the very least, you can arrange to call a friend after you’ve spoken with your father so you can debrief and decompress with someone you trust.

Dear Prudence,

The godmother to my 2-year-old daughter is a very dear friend. She is exceptional, loving, intelligent, brave, and funny. However, I am concerned about one thing. Since having children, I’ve become hyperaware of how sexualized a lot of toys aimed at girls are. I grew up playing with Barbies and ’80s-era She-Ra, and it didn’t ultimately do me any harm, but it definitely instilled in me certain patriarchal ideas that have been hard to shake even in adulthood. I’m trying to avoid that with my daughter, but her godmother is a huge comic book fan, particularly Wonder Woman. She often gives her Wonder Woman toys, most of which are fine, but recently she gave her a book that I just don’t like—one page is dedicated to ogling Wonder Woman’s legs, even though it’s a board book aimed at toddlers. I know this has not crossed our friend’s mind. I also know that my daughter doesn’t seem to notice—she loves superhero everything, spends half her time dressed as Spider-Man or Batman, and adores her godmother. So am I being silly? I can’t single-handedly stop the patriarchy from influencing my daughter’s life, and I wouldn’t want to risk damaging this relationship or making her godmother uncomfortable about giving my daughter gifts. On the other hand, I’m not really ready to invite these messages into my home.

—Fairy Godmother, Fairly Worried

When it comes to this particular book, you’re well within your rights to leave it on the shelf in favor of other board books. My guess is that you have plenty of other options, especially if you have friends who love buying books for your daughter. It doesn’t presently rise to the level of intervention, to my mind, but if your daughter’s godmother continues to offer comic book–style presents, you can always ask her to save those for a few years in the future. I’d take this opportunity to discuss this issue more broadly with your friend, since as your daughter’s godmother, she would, I’d hope, want her to collaborate with you in raising a little girl in a sexist society. It’s worth telling her, “Sometimes I feel overwhelmed by the ways having a daughter reminds me of all the hypergendered messaging I got when I was a little girl in the ’80s, and I’m worried I’m not going to be able to protect her from early sexualization and sexist messaging.” Your friend should find such a sentiment easy to understand and would probably be eager to help you figure out ways you can both look out for your daughter and also process some of your own unresolved feelings about your own childhood. It’s absolutely true that you won’t be able to keep your daughter from picking up sexist stereotypes, but that doesn’t mean your only option is to just get over it, either.

Classic Prudie

“I am a freshman at college. My roommate is pretty great—except for one thing. I’m pretty sure she ‘takes care of herself’ after we turn out the lights and she thinks I’m asleep. The motions and noises she makes are consistent with this theory. I have no problem with her doing that, but it makes me uncomfortable that she does it while I’m in the room. I’m also absolutely mortified about possibly discussing this with her. They did not cover this in freshman orientation, so I’m counting on you for some insight.”