Dear Prudence

I Now Regret How I Tormented My Stepmother

Prudie’s column for Sept. 12.

Photo illustration of an adult woman seemingly lecturing a disinterested and disengaged teenage girl.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Wavebreakmedia/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

I was a very angry teen. My parents were wealthy but morally bankrupt. My father got sole custody of me after my mother hit and killed a man with her car while on drugs. My impression of my stepmother at the time was that she was young and “the enemy.” I was horrible to her, even when she raised me after my father’s death. She didn’t have to keep me, and I know she didn’t like me, but I would have been dead without her. I was forced into therapy three times a week and given private tutors when I struggled in school. We had dinner at 7 every night, usually in silence. I haven’t seen her since I was 20, when she invited me to Christmas and I said something cruel and hurtful in response.

I am 30 now, and the therapy has finally brought some empathy into my self-absorbed head. I really regret how I treated my stepmother. Whether she loved me or not, she acted like a parent more than my own mother ever had. Raising me was a thankless and difficult task that she didn’t have to do. For years she fought to keep me from falling into my family history of drugs and depression. I don’t think I could have done the same thing in her place (one of the reasons I will never have children). I want to thank her, but I’m afraid to. She’s moved on with her life and has a new marriage and new kids. I don’t want to bring up old ghosts. I think my dad may have abused her. I know I did—cursed her, threw things, and was generally a nightmare. I knew better, but I was so angry that I just wanted to hurt someone. She was the only one there. There is no excuse for that. Should I reach out? Or would I be hurting her more?

—Too Late to Say Thank You

I can’t tell you how much this letter moved me and how sorry I am that both you and your stepmother had to work so hard to grapple with your painful family legacy. Your instinct to want to let her know how much you can now appreciate all she did for you as well as apologize for all you did to hurt her is a good one, although I can’t guarantee that your stepmother will want to hear from you. I think if you were to put everything you’ve told me here—your awareness of how cruelly you treated her, your deep regret now, your gratitude for the ways she helped protect you from a painful family legacy, and your desire to respect her new life—into a letter or an email, that would grant her sufficient space to decide whether she wants to respond. You might even open it by saying that you’re not sure whether she wants to hear from you and that you would understand if she didn’t want to reply. But an acknowledgement that all of her hard work eventually meant something to you, a full-hearted apology for your cruelties toward her when you were a struggling teenager, and gratitude for her long kindness would probably mean a great deal to her—and it would mean a great deal to you to get to say it.

Dear Prudence,

I have a crush on a co-worker that’s making me miserable. We’re both married, and as far as I can tell it’s not mutual. I’ve remained professional, but we recently had to exchange numbers for a big project, and now I have daydreams about confessing. I know what’s causing this, in theory: My husband is unemployed, depressed, and mistrusts therapists, and we haven’t had sex in months. We talk about it regularly, and I’m working hard to support him emotionally and both of us financially. It’s hard, but I never question that it’s worth it. The object of my affection is about 10 years older than me, whip-smart, funny, supportive, and devoted to his family. Which is the stupidest reason to have a crush on someone, by the way. It’s just nice to think about a relationship like that.

But acting on it would ruin everything, and I don’t actually want to. Still, seeing him and thinking about him makes me flush like a teenager. It’s embarrassing. I know the real solution is getting myself and or my husband into therapy. That will take time. But how do I keep my hormones in check when I’m working with this guy tomorrow?

—Unwanted Co-worker Crush

You’re being a little too hard on yourself, especially since you haven’t said or done anything to betray your partner or make your co-worker uncomfortable. You say it’s stupid to have a crush on someone because he’s devoted to his family, but I don’t think it’s stupid at all, especially when you’re working overtime to support your partner without getting much in return. It is possible to acknowledge your husband’s depression, have compassion for the pain he’s in, and still have needs of your own. It’s not stupid to want devotion, support, emotional engagement, shared financial responsibility, or a sense of reciprocity from your husband. And I worry you’re trying to prematurely shut down your own frustrations or needs because you’ve decided that your husband is the only person in your marriage who is allowed to need something right now. Make that first therapy appointment for yourself as soon as possible—don’t wait on him. Talk to your therapist about your crush and rehearse how to bring up the key points (if not the specifics of your crush) with your husband—not because you’ve done something wrong that you need to confess, but because you sound like you’re at the end of your rope, and it’s important that your husband has a sense of just how alone you feel in this marriage.

If you have a trustworthy friend you can ask to help keep you accountable about your co-worker crush, consider asking them to check in with you once or twice a week until your first therapy appointment. But you already know how to behave appropriately at work, and since your co-worker hasn’t telegraphed any interest in starting an affair, I don’t think you need much more advice on that front. The solution for you is not to demand even more of yourself and be even harder on yourself than you already are. It’s to acknowledge you have real needs that aren’t being met.

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Dear Prudence,

My older brother “Sean” recently came out to our family. It wasn’t really necessary, though, since we already knew. Not in an “Oh, we always knew” sort of way, but because he already came out to us when he was 17, nearly a decade ago. He had a boyfriend and everything at the time. Some of the family took it well and some didn’t, but eventually it all came together. Then he went away to college, and while he didn’t have anyone serious, I know he dated. Then last week he turned up on Sunday with his new boyfriend to a family dinner and “came out” to us all. Again. We mostly said we’d already known, and he got annoyed and said this had been difficult for him. He “wanted us to take it seriously.” So we kind of went along with it because we didn’t want to call him out in front of his boyfriend. My mom says to just ignore it, but I feel like I should talk to Sean about this. It’s weird, and if there’s something bothering him I’d like to know. I just don’t know how to broach it or what questions to ask.

—Come Again

You say that when Sean came out a decade ago “eventually it all came together,” but I’m not quite sure what you mean by that. He told your family he had a boyfriend, some members of your family didn’t take it very well, then he moved away and never seriously discussed his relationships with any of you for another 10 years. It doesn’t sound like any of you have had a real conversation with Sean about his sexual orientation or his relationships in years! I can see why he wants you to “take it seriously” now and actually engage with him about his personal life, especially since your mother suggested that everyone in the family continue to ignore his feelings.

Be honest with yourself. Do you really think that your family, as a group, has been thoughtful, open-minded, and interested in your brother’s personal life since the first time he tried to come out in high school? Do you think that Sean would say “eventually it all came together” before he went off to college, or do you think he would describe his relationship to the family at that time as stilted, uncomfortable, and repressed? I feel confident that if you marshaled the full strength of your imaginative powers, you might be able to come up with a general sense of what’s bothering Sean. Underreacting to him now and pretending that what was a fairly unsuccessful attempt at coming out 10 years was in fact a totally comfortable experience is a deeply cruel response, one that’s designed to make Sean feel isolated, hypersensitive, and unreasonable. You shouldn’t participate in that.

If you really do want to know what’s going on with him, ask him—but not in a way that will put him on the defensive. Instead of, “Why did you come out a second time?” try “Thanks for introducing us to [new boyfriend]. I’m really looking forward to getting to know him. I know when you tried to come out in high school, none of us went out of our way to get to know your boyfriend or to make you feel welcomed and loved, and I’m so sorry for ignoring such a big part of your life for so long. Is there anything I can do now to try to mend fences?”

Dear Prudence,

Last week, I told my husband to leave our home. I’ve done this many times over the past three years, for good reasons—drinking too much, not adequately treating his mental illness, verbally abusing our kids and me, and making terrible financial decisions that affect all of us. Every time, I’ve let him come back, sometimes because it benefited me (I needed him to watch the kids over the summer), and sometimes because the kids begged me to give him another chance. The last time I let him come back, the only thing I asked of him was to be respectful to me and our kids. Last week, he screamed at me because I made pasta for dinner. I’d asked him to pick up a chicken dinner at the grocery store, but he was late, and he didn’t call or reply to my texts. The kids were hungry, so I made some pasta. He screamed at me for wasting his time and his money.

I told him to leave and I really mean it this time. Now he’s telling our kids, his family, and even people at church that he can’t believe I kicked him out over something so insignificant. He’s got everyone thinking this one tiny thing isn’t worth “making him leave,” but in my view it’s one tiny thing piled up on top of everything else he’s done over three years. Am I wrong? Does it really seem that I really ending a marriage over pasta versus chicken, or am I ending a marriage after three years of continued abuse and disrespect, with one tiny last straw that finally broke my back?

—Straws

I think one of the reasons you’ve asked your husband to leave so many times is because you’re aware that he doesn’t have an especially accurate grip on reality, doesn’t have reasonable expectations of you as his partner, and doesn’t know how to treat others well. One of the upsides to ending your marriage is that it does not matter whether your soon-to-be-ex-husband thinks you are acting reasonably, because he’s not your husband anymore. His attempt to turn everyone else in your life against you is upsetting and alienating, but it’s designed to do that. He’s going out of his way to smear you in the hopes that your friends, family, and fellow congregants will apply social pressure on you to take him back for the umpteenth time.

What you need right now is a plan that will get you all the way through a divorce and a few key people in your corner who can help support you through it. Talk to a lawyer. Find out how to file for custody and child support. Assemble a record of his active drinking problem and verbal abuse—anything to demonstrate the importance of demonstrating you are the kids’ primary caregiver. Don’t waste your time worrying about what your former in-laws think of you. Tell your own family members what’s going on and ask for their help, especially if you need assistance with child care in the short term. If you have close friends at church who you trust and feel comfortable taking into your confidence, let them know just how hard it’s been for you to end this marriage. Ask for what you need in order to make this breakup stick. Convincing your husband that you’re right to end it isn’t something you need to waste your time and energy on.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“Honestly, this letter makes me so hopeful about the future.”

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 bi/pan woman in a relationship with a straight, cis man. Since I came out a few years ago, I’ve worked really hard to surround myself with members of the queer community. My issue is that I’ve encountered a lot of biphobia. A few instances this summer stick out to me in particular, compounding my feelings of exclusion and impostor syndrome. A lesbian woman at a queer event (that I didn’t bring my partner to) told me I must be either gay or straight because “no one’s really bi, are they?” A gay couple told me at a queer event (that I did bring my partner to) told me that they didn’t want me to join them for the rest of the evening because we don’t “look like a queer couple.” One of my friend’s boyfriends told me that bi people can’t say they’re bi unless they’ve been in a long-term relationship with someone of the same sex. The list goes on. I’m in therapy (with a queer therapist) and examining my feelings of internalized biphobia, but these experiences are hurtful and confusing, particularly when I’m so excited to feel like included and accepted. Is there anything you can offer me in the way of how to navigate these experiences?

—Do I Just Shrug It Off?

I’m sorry you’ve run into a few extra rude people this last summer! I hope these rude partygoers are few and far between. At least these individuals are doing you the favor of letting you know upfront that they’re not going to be kindred spirits, but they don’t have the power to include or exclude you from any queer communities, nor do they have the authority to determine your identity for you. Feel free to ignore them, disagree with them, or get into a spirited argument with them, before moving on and looking for someone you do have more in common with. You may find that seeking out other bisexual women (regardless of whether they’re in relationships with men or in relationships at all) goes a long way toward solving this problem. That’s not to say bisexual women aren’t capable of rudeness or ignorance, but I think you’ll find a more immediate sense of shared experiences and identity. You don’t have to confine yourself to only befriending other bisexual women, but once you’ve developed a bit more of a foundational community, you might feel more prepared to venture forth and meet others. Good luck!

Dear Prudence,

I recently collaborated on a Twitter-related project with a co-worker, and in the process discovered “they/them” listed as their pronouns on their Twitter bio. They’ve never mentioned this at work, and everyone, including me, has been using gendered pronouns. I asked my co-worker privately what they preferred. They thanked me for asking and confirmed they prefer gender-neutral pronouns but hadn’t brought it up because they didn’t want anyone else to feel guilty for forgetting or getting it wrong. I asked if they’d like me to let other team members know, and they said it was “up to me” and that they really didn’t mind how others perceived them. Should I say anything to the rest of my team? If it matters, this co-worker is only part-time and both younger and more junior to the rest of us. I’m not a manager, so I don’t have any authority here, but I don’t expect any pushback or negative reactions from anyone else.

—Correcting Co-workers

This sounds pretty low-stakes and low-investment! Go ahead and start using “they” at work to refer to your co-worker. You might mention, “Oh, by the way, [co-worker] uses they/them” individually to the other members of your team, but since you know your co-worker is pretty laissez-faire about pronouns and doesn’t want anyone to start worrying about messing up, I wouldn’t correct anyone else who fails to adopt it or flips back and forth between gendered and gender-neutral pronouns. Take your co-worker’s lead, make the switch, and stay casual.

Classic Prudie

When my wife and I met in college, the attraction was immediate, and we quickly became inseparable. We married soon after graduation, moved back closer to our families, and had three children by the time we were 30. We were both born to lesbians: she to a couple, and me to a single woman. She had sought out her biological father as soon as she turned 18, as the sperm bank her parents used allowed contact once the children were 18 if both parties consented. I never was interested in learning about that for myself, but she felt we were cheating our future children by not learning everything we could about my past, too. Well, our anniversary is coming up and I decided to go ahead and, as a present to my wife, see if my biological father was interested in contact as well. He was, and even though our parents had used different sperm banks, it appears so did our father, as he is the same person. On the one hand, I love my wife more than I can say, and logically, done is done, we already have children. I have had a vasectomy, so we won’t be having any more, so perhaps there is no harm in continuing as we are. But, I can’t help but think “This is my sister” every time I look at her now. I haven’t said anything to her yet, and I don’t know if I should or not. Where do I go from here? I am tempted to burn everything I got from the sperm bank and just try to forget it all, but I’m not sure if I can.