Dear Prudence

My Fiancé Wants to Pay Off My Debt. Should I Let Him?

Prudie’s column for July 18.

Photo illustration of an engaged couple next to cash.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Scott Webb on Unsplash and Pepi Stojanovski on Unsplash.

Dear Prudence,

I’m engaged to a loving man. Before we met, I incurred significant debt going through a divorce and becoming a single parent. I wasn’t a reckless spender, but living below the poverty line for years with a young child while experiencing medical emergencies is very expensive. I no longer live in poverty, and I am confident in my budgeting skills. My fiancé has offered to wipe out this debt, and he has the financial means to do so easily. Part of me jumps at the thought of a fresh start, where I can save money each month instead of throwing it at years of debt and high interest. The other part sees this as completely unfair to him. I incurred this debt before he ever knew me, and it feels like it should be my burden alone. He sees it as a major point of stress in my life and an easy fix to a less stressful future for both of us.

—Take a Handout?

I think you should accept your fiancé’s offer, although I’m not sure I’d call it a handout. If you find it really hard to swallow, the two of you might benefit from a few appointments with a therapist, a financial counselor, or both—someone who can help you articulate some of the assumptions and value judgments you’ve made about money and what constitutes fairness in a relationship. Sharing one’s burdens is a pretty significant part of marriage! That’s not to say every married couple will approach individual debt in the exact same way, but your fiancé cares about you, and that includes the version of you that existed (and struggled) before you met him. He didn’t fall for you because you were debt-free. This debt isn’t a surprise to him, so I don’t think you have to worry about things being “unfair” for him. (Were things fair for you when you suffered serious financial setbacks merely for getting divorced or had to get by as a single parent? Is medical debt fair to anyone? If we’re going to start having a conversation around debt and fairness, we don’t need to start with you.)

This offer benefits everybody—your fiancé because he can easily afford the expense and he gets to see you relax, you because you can start actually saving your money instead of worrying about old urgent care bills. That doesn’t mean you have to rush to accept it if you want to have a serious conversation first, but you should schedule a time to talk through everything you’re worried or anxious about, with accepting his help being an eventual goal of yours. This is a generous offer, freely given, by someone who’s not going to be hurt if you say yes. Let yourself say yes.

Dear Prudence,

In January my husband went to a bachelor party in New Orleans with a group of guys, only some of whom he knew well. I wasn’t worried, because I trusted the guys I knew. When my husband came back, he said they all went to a strip club and that some of the guys (who all had wives or serious girlfriends) were unfaithful, although he claimed not to have “done anything.” About three weeks later, I found out he got a private dance and touched a woman. I was so hurt. I was a wreck for months, not just because of what happened, but because he lied to me—I found out from one of the other guys’ girlfriends. I had a hard time sleeping and concentrating at work and am only now starting to feel more like myself. The problem is that one of the other guys in the group just got engaged and they’re all planning to go to New Orleans again. When he told us over the weekend, my husband enthusiastically replied that he would go! I wanted to punch him in the face.

We were in front of a group of people and I gave him a very stern “no” look, but he just kept pleading with me. It felt like a punch to the stomach. I kept wondering how any man who claimed to love me would be willing to put me through that kind of pain over again. We haven’t talked about it since. I don’t even know what to say. How do I convince him he shouldn’t want to hurt me again? Is it worth convincing him, or is my marriage over?

—Bachelor Party Woes

“How do I convince him he shouldn’t want to hurt me again?” is a terribly sad sentence to read. What’s difficult to admit in this situation is just how badly you still are hurt, because no one wants to think that their partner doesn’t really care about their feelings. If only you could explain yourself differently, or ask for what you want in a nicer way, then your husband would want to prioritize your feelings, make sure you felt wanted, tell you the truth, etc. It might feel like giving up the last bit of safety, because you can cling to the idea that he just doesn’t get how hurt you are instead of knowing exactly how hurt you are but still hoping to find out how much he can get away with again. I can understand why you’ve been avoiding having this conversation, because the last time you two communicated about it in any way, you tried to save face in public by glaring daggers at him, while he took advantage of your silence in order to say yes. But you have to have this conversation. Even if all that happens is you reiterate how badly he hurt you on the last trip and he reiterates that he wants to go and doesn’t care how it affects you, at least you’ll get some clarity about what you can expect from him in the future (and whether you want to stick around for it).

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Dear Prudence,

I am the middle sister of three siblings from a devout Christian family. Last year, my older sister came out to me as nonbinary, and I was immediately supportive. Despite their strong biblical beliefs, my parents are logical, intelligent, and loving people who have often surprised me with their liberal reactions to things that challenge them. My sister has begun accusing our parents of childhood wrongdoings but is often very cryptic because she isn’t ready to come out to them. I can see my parents’ confusion, surprise, and shock at some of the things she says to them, but they always try to understand and love her very much.

I would never invalidate her trauma, but I have a very different memory of our childhood. Our parents weren’t perfect, but I feel that all of us were loved and supported, and we weren’t limited as to what we could achieve. Gender identity was not something that my parents considered in the ’80s and ’90s, and while gender roles were not challenged, they always fostered our individual interests. I played basketball, my brother baked, etc. I know I don’t know her pain, but I feel many of the specific examples that my sister cites could have been the normal higher expectations of an oldest sibling, or internal insecurities, not a result of my parents’ actions. I love my sister very much and try to be a supportive listener and source of unconditional love. She is going through a lot and has to figure things out on her own timeline, but I often think our parents can’t possibly begin to understand how she’s feeling, unless she tells them what is actually going on. I worry that in the meantime she will cause them a lot of pain. I know it’s not my place to interfere in their relationship or to disclose things that are hers to disclose, but is there anything I can do?

—Sibling Communication

It’s not surprising (or even a problem) that you two have different memories of your respective childhoods. Birth order, temperament, eventual relationship to gender identity, etc., all play a huge role in how different people might experience similar events. That doesn’t mean she’s exaggerating what she went through or that you missed something. What felt to you like a mostly appropriate balance of basketball and baking might have felt confining or restrictive to your sister. Mostly, it will help you not to worry about what you can assign to “normal higher expectations” or internal insecurities or your parents’ actions. A lot of that, for your sister, will be inextricably bound up together. When I look back at my own childhood, I can’t imagine how I might remove my internal emotional experience from the conversations I had or the things I experienced.

Your sister and your parents may go through a difficult period for the next few months or even years. I can understand why it feels like you, with your knowledge of and empathy for both parties, are uniquely qualified to solve it. But there isn’t a universal explanation of what actually happened in your childhoods that you can offer that will satisfy everyone. She’ll have to figure out how to talk to your parents about it, they’ll have a chance to listen and respond and possibly offer an apology for missing or neglecting or repressing something, and so on. The most you can do is gently encourage her to raise the issue directly with them that thus far she’s only hinted at. But don’t do more than encourage. If she decides not to come out to them for a while, that’s her call to make, even if you think it’s a mistake. It will help you to take an emotional step back every once in a while, to remind yourself that you can listen with an open mind without necessarily agreeing to every one of your sister’s interpretations of events, and to trust that your parents can survive some pain or conflict or uncertainty as they review how they raised their children. A big part of parenting, I think, is working to identify the mistakes you made, and it’s certainly not the children’s job to fix.

Dear Prudence,

I said yes to attending a close friend’s hen party but was then later asked to stump up for an Airbnb and flights to Paris from our home in the U.K. This weekend trip is now costing me a lot to go to one of the busiest cities in the world. It’s also a total secret from the bride, who has no idea where we’re going. All of this would have been stressful regardless, but it’s also happening a week before I submit my Ph.D. thesis and three weeks before my own wedding. (I decided not to have a hen party of my own.) I feel like a fool for saying yes to an expensive holiday to a place I don’t care to visit. I know I have no one to blame but myself, but I’m getting to an age when a lot of friends are getting married. What can I do next time I’m asked to attend a hen party I don’t want to go to? It’s usually someone I’m very close to, and I really don’t want to make anyone feel awkward by saying, “I haven’t got enough money, and even if I did I would not want to go on this trip.” But I haven’t got enough money, and I do not want to go on this trip, and I’m expecting that this issue will arise again in the near future.

The fact that a lot of bachelorette parties these days seem to involve a multiday trip provides invitees with an easy out: “I’m so sorry, but I won’t be able to make that trip. Thank you so much for inviting me, and I can’t wait to see you at the wedding” is a perfectly polite response. (A simple single evening will likely be harder to get out of.) If you feel pressured to embellish it a little, you can make some noise about not being able to get the time off work, or my favorite: “I’m afraid it’s not in the budget.” So much more genteel-sounding than “I can’t afford it,” plus it makes you sound like you have a board of directors overseeing your discretionary spending—paradoxically making you seem even richer and more important by refusing to spend money. Let’s imagine a worst-case outcome, where one of your normally sane, gracious friends pushes for an explanation: “I’m so sorry, but so many friends are getting married this year that I simply haven’t been able to budget for multiple weekend trips in a row.” But that’s it! You don’t have to offer your regrets with any additional embroidery or explanations, and if they’re your close friends, they’ll understand.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It may just be for a while that your older sister is mad at your parents for reasons that you kind of understand and kind of disagree with.”

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 a 43-year-old woman with no biological kids of my own. I wanted them but faced many obstacles (poverty, health problems, a reluctant partner, a troubled stepson) that kept me from having any. In retrospect, I could have probably made it happen, but I didn’t, and that’s just how things are. This makes me sad, but I’ve made my peace with it—for the most part. Some of my friends and people in my family seem to assume that I never wanted kids. So I get comments like “You love sleeping in on the weekends? It’s a good thing you never wanted kids!” that are innocuous enough but still knock the breath out of me.

Recently, my sister was venting about our parents and said, “It’s telling that neither of us ever wanted kids of our own!” Well, I did, and it hurts me that people might think that my lack of biological children is a commentary on my (mostly happy) childhood. I didn’t say anything at the time, but I’m wondering what I could have said that wouldn’t have derailed the conversation or invited a reexamination of what could have been. Do I need to tell people they’ve got me all wrong? Or are these sorts of comments just one more thing I should make my peace with?

—Childless by Circumstance

Absolutely you should say something! Especially to your sister, whom you are presumably going to continue having in-depth, emotionally intimate conversations with, and who might very well say something like this again unless you correct her. You can always add, “I don’t want to dwell on it or spend a lot of time wondering what might have been” if you’re worried that’s going to be the immediate follow-up, but by all means share this with the people you’re close to. “I did want to have children. I didn’t for a number of reasons, and while I don’t regret my life, I would have loved to have had kids of my own very much.”

Dear Prudence,

I have a friend who has become more and more unreliable over time. In the past, we’ve split the cost of gym memberships or co-op responsibilities. But now my friend’s flaky behavior has made it harder for me to enjoy those services. They’ll take an inordinate amount of time (two to three weeks, and they don’t work irregular hours) to respond to my messages when I try to coordinate our schedules for important deadlines, leaving me scrambling at the last minute. We live within short walking distance of each other. This is a regular pattern for my friend and a major source of stress for me. I love my friend, but I don’t think we’re compatible as administrative partners. I’m worried that they’ll feel judged if I say, “This arrangement really doesn’t work for me, so I’m going to sign up for [supposedly uncomplicated thing] on my own next time.” Is there a way for me to end this facet of our relationship without blowing up the whole thing?

—Buddy With the Bathwater

The script you’ve proposed here is eminently reasonable and perfectly polite, so either you’re overthinking this or your friend has a history of overreacting to mild criticism. If it’s the former, great! Say what you need to say, sign up for your own co-op memberships or fun runs or whatever, and make plans to meet up for drinks. If it’s the latter, and your friend feels judged by “this arrangement doesn’t work for me,” it won’t be because you’ve spoken too strongly. Surely at least part of your hope is that they feel judged enough to become, say, 25 percent less scattered about returning your texts. But if telling your friend that you’re going to get a separate gym membership is likely going to cause a blowup, that’s not a sign that you should couch your news more carefully, but that your friend needs to get used to disappointment.

Classic Prudie

I am the middle of three boys, and we are all in our 20s. Our parents separated shortly after my younger brother was born, and eventually they went through a bitter divorce. Recently, my father, brothers, and I went to a camping-style family wedding together. The facilities were spartan and we all ended up in a communal shower. I’m sure this was the first time all four of us were naked together, and it was certainly the first time I’d seen my younger brother naked since he was little. In the shower, there was a definite “one of these things is not like the other” moment. While my older brother, dad, and myself have fairly similar, if modest, endowments, my younger brother’s male parts were noticeably different (and “better”) than ours in almost every way possible: size, shape, even complexion (!). It was like seeing a great white whale breaching alongside dolphins. None of us look strikingly like our parents, but we are clearly brothers, except for this newly discovered alien appendage on my younger brother. At the reception, my older brother brought this up to me immediately, and we worked out the theory that mom had an affair that gave rise to my baby brother, and his decidedly different genitalia, and the divorce. I don’t think full brothers could have such variation, and the fact that my younger brother’s package is a definite upgrade plays into the theory that maybe mom was shopping around for a better deal. We’d really like to get to the bottom of this, but we’re not sure how to broach this already difficult topic with either parent when our only evidence consists of this sensitive observation.