Dear Prudence

My Fiancé’s Ex-Wife Keeps Showing Up in Our Lives

Prudie’s column for Aug. 10.

Photo illustration of a woman sneaking up behind a couple.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Wavebreakmedia Ltd/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Khosrork/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

My partner and I just got engaged after three years together. He has been divorced from his wife for 18 years, and they have two adult sons together. In the beginning, I was a little peeved because while they do not have much of a relationship, they still take their boys out to dinner on their birthdays and other special occasions. Last summer, we went to my partner’s hometown to meet his family for the first time. His ex let us know that she would be going at the same time and staying with his sisters and visiting his mother. I was bewildered and irritated by her timing but thought I would be gracious when we ran into each other. We have since spent some time together, at Christmas and Easter. I actually like her but have heard enough of her version of their marriage to know that she is stuck on this narrative that he did her wrong and really screwed up their family by leaving. My goal is to forge a friendly relationship because I love their boys, who are also close with my adult children.

However, I just learned that she is going to be in his hometown again soon, at the same time as us, when we go back to celebrate our engagement. I feel like my desire to be nonconfrontational and nonterritorial has kept me from setting boundaries. She has also asked me to encourage my partner to continue to pay tuition for one of their sons, who gets failing grades in college and is, frankly, a spoiled brat. My partner has always been a very involved father and pays for everything. The last time we spoke I told her that I would not interject myself in their relationship but would always support the needs of the boys and their relationship with their dad. I also told her she was speaking to the wrong person about college tuition, as my kids all graduated with honors, have had no father in their lives and very little in the way of financial support from me for university, not by choice, but because I struggled for years to regain my footing and career after my divorce. Can you advise me?

—No More Shared Vacations

It’s important to differentiate here between appropriate personal boundaries you have every right to set, like telling her you won’t carry messages between her and your partner about their kids, and other people’s boundaries you have no say in, like your partner’s sisters having a long-standing relationship with the mother of his children and occasionally inviting her to come visit. You were perfectly right to tell her to stop involving you in their disagreement over college tuition, although the dig about how great your kids have done by comparison was unnecessary, and I think you should avoid comparing the kids to one another in the future. And you certainly don’t have to listen to her go into detail about whose fault she thinks the divorce was, and you can tell her that’s not a topic of conversation you’re comfortable with. But one of the things you’ll have to accept about marrying someone who has been married (and had kids) before is that the two of them have a long history together, and as a result, she’s part of the family, even though she and the kids are out of the house. That doesn’t mean you have to become best friends with her or that you can’t spend time with your partner’s family without her, but your visits may occasionally coincide with hers, possibly for the rest of your lives. That’s what being part of a blended family means.

Dear Prudence,

My boss tries really hard to be friendly and understanding in our highly stressful job, but it has led to a misguided habit that bothers both me and several co-workers, and we’re not sure how to approach it. When any of us reference long work hours or our health (for example: “This week has been busy for me”), she’ll say, “Oh yes, you look so tired!” Once, I told her I needed to leave early, and before I could say “for an appointment,” she jumped in and said, “Yeah, you look like you’re getting sick! Go home!” My co-worker, who has a morning shift that starts at 4 a.m. mentioned to me that nearly every time she packs her bag to leave around 1, the boss will say, “Oh, good, you’re heading out! You look exhausted!” How do I politely tell her that this misguided sympathy is irritating? I want to be sensitive because she is my boss, but I’m also sick of it!

—Please Stop Telling Me How Tired I Look

The good news is that it sounds like this is just a nervous habit of hers when she’s trying to express in-the-moment sympathy and understanding after someone’s asked for time off. If she said “You look tired” out of the blue, I’d be a bit more concerned, but as it is, I think she’ll be able to stop doing this relatively easily once you’ve brought it to her attention. Just say, “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t comment on how I look when I tell you when I’m heading home for the day or having a busy week. I think you’re just trying to let me know that you care about my rest and health, but it makes me feel like you’re monitoring my appearance.”

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

More Advice From How to Do It

I’m a full-time student with another year left in an accelerated program. I’m also married, and in the three years my husband and I have been together, we’ve seen each other through many stresses. We love each other dearly and are best friends. In the last year, my desire for sex has shriveled. It got worse when my academic program started, such that I don’t masturbate or fantasize anymore and rarely have sex. My physician and therapist both told me to be gentle and patient with myself; I also saw a sex therapist, who seemed surprised that the situation bothered me and then advised me to have hormone tests done. (My doctor later told me that such tests for low desire don’t exist.) The consensus is that I should relax, accept that stress is a libido-killer for me while I’m still in school, and keep talking with my husband while being kind to myself.

My husband and I communicate well, and we’ve had many loving talks about this. He understands my frustration, but hesitates to initiate anything because he doesn’t want me to be anxious. I do have self-esteem issues, and when I’m overwhelmed by schoolwork, sex can feel like another task to complete. But I don’t graduate until next May, and I don’t want to be celibate and take bubble baths until then! I keep hearing that patience and space will help me relax, but it’s not actually having that effect. Instead, I feel alienated from my husband and stuck in a rut. I’m so tired of talking and reading about intimacy more than actually experiencing it, and I certainly don’t want to be in this position a year from now. Can you give me advice—not about how to pamper myself or what books to read, but something practical I can actually do?