Dear Prudence

I Just Found Out My Friend Had an Affair With My Ex

My marriage ended 20 years ago, but I don’t know how I move on from this betrayal.

A distressed woman, with two wedding rings off to the side
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Mel on Unsplash and excentric_01/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence,

My first marriage ended 20 years ago. I knew my husband was sleeping with someone else, but I never found out who. “Helen,” my friend and neighbor, made me coffee and held my hand when I broke down. She even helped me while she was pregnant, and I often referred to her sons as my “other nephews.” Recently I learned her younger son did an ancestry test and learned that Helen’s husband wasn’t his father and that he was first cousins with people still living in my former town. That’s the name of my former in-laws: My ex-husband was the father. My “nephew” ended up calling me to ask for the truth since Helen was stonewalling him and his father refused to deal with it. I told him I knew my ex had had an affair but not with whom, gave him my former mother-in-law’s contact information, and wished him well.

I only had one conversation with Helen. She tried to apologize, and I asked her if she got off more from sleeping with my husband or gloating over my stupidity and misery. She said that wasn’t “fair,” and I asked her if they ever slept together in my bed and whether any of this was “fair” for me or her son. Then I hung up. My new husband thinks it would be easier to let this go and forgive since it’s been so long, but can anyone forgive a betrayal like this? I feel sick. I miss Helen, I hate Helen, and I wish none of this had ever happened. I feel like such a stupid, naïve fool—a betrayed wife crying to her husband’s mistress, what a farce. I don’t know what to do.

—The End, Again

Although the end of your first marriage was technically a long time ago, this is brand-new information for you, and it’s premature for your husband to counsel forgiveness and letting it go. This revelation changes everything about how you experienced comfort and solace during an absolutely devastating time in your life from someone you considered a close friend. You’re not a fool for having trusted a friend who offered you comfort—you couldn’t possibly have known or guessed that Helen was having your ex’s child—and you shouldn’t rush to get over this just because it happened 20 years ago. And it makes sense that you feel a thousand conflicting emotions about Helen because this information changes every interaction the two of you have had over the past two decades. You treated her son respectfully and with the appropriate amount of distance, and you were brutally honest with Helen, but I don’t think you crossed the line from anger to cruelty, so you have no reason to regret your own conduct.

Allow yourself a lot of time to be hurt, angry, bewildered, and upset. Give yourself permission to discuss this with other close friends, to write about it, to see a counselor. Find ways to name and address and heal the specific wounds you’ve had to carry over the loss of these relationships. “Letting it go” doesn’t mean pretending you weren’t hurt or acting like you no longer care. At its best, it means that you will not use your own pain to justify harming or lashing out against others and that someday this will not feel like the most crucial, central emotional fact of your life.

Dear Prudence,

My father died three years ago. He left relatively little money but about a dozen pieces of jewelry worth perhaps a few hundred to a few thousand dollars each, most of which he’d acquired during his 40-year marriage to our stepmother. My sister was the executor of my father’s estate. She agonized over how to equitably divide the jewelry and portioned it between herself, my brother, and me as fairly as she could. Our father’s beautiful diamond wedding ring went to our brother. Just a few weeks after this, my brother was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died just eight short months after we lost our father. Our mother died that same year, so our grief is very deep and ongoing. Fast forward to this week: I commented on an attractive ring my nephew was wearing. He revealed that his mother, my sister-in-law, had melted down my father’s and my brother’s wedding rings and had them made into new pieces of jewelry for himself and his two siblings. My sister-in-law apparently had no intention of telling me about this.

I was shocked and devastated. We have virtually nothing left but that jewelry to remember our father and stepmother by. To melt down our father’s wedding ring left me appalled. My sister or I would happily have paid her any amount of money for that ring. I know in my head that once a thing is given, it is the property of the recipient to do with as she wishes. But my heart is aching, even more because she also disposed of my brother’s ring, albeit in a way that gives a bit of it to each of his children. I believe her intention was good, but it was without regard to the loss my sister and I have endured. That ring is irretrievably lost. But there are a few other pieces that were also given to my brother, which my sister-in-law now owns. One in particular has special meaning to my sister and me, an antique that belonged to our grandmother.

Would it be proper for us to let our sister-in-law know how we feel about the loss of our father’s wedding ring and to ask about her intentions for our grandmother’s ring? How should we broach this topic? We love our sister-in-law very much and don’t want to create a rift in the family, but we are hurt that she took this step without giving us an opportunity to salvage our father’s ring. Should I also mention that this secret was revealed to me at an event during which we met our sister-in-law’s new boyfriend? Ouch.

—Melting Family Heirlooms

This feels thorny and complicated, and I hope you can realize the very real ways in which your sister-in-law has suffered loss too—not just of her father-in-law, but of her husband, shockingly young and terribly quickly. She’s not thoughtless, and she’s not unfamiliar with loss herself. You’re able to, on some level, recognize that she did this in order to carry on a family tradition. She didn’t melt down those old pieces of jewelry on a whim; she and her children found a way to incorporate meaningful family heirlooms into pieces that suited their individual tastes and fit their fingers. I think it was a lovely, caring thing to do, and as you say, it’s her jewelry to do with as she sees fit.

Please do not try to process your complicated feelings about these new rings with her. While I can understand and appreciate why this might be hard for you, they were hers to begin with, and she acted out of generosity and love. You still have your own jewelry and memories of your parents. I think you’ll find more healing and solace by sharing some of these feelings with a therapist. If, after you’ve taken some time to process these feelings, you still want to ask to buy your grandmother’s jewelry from your sister-in-law, I think it’s possible that you can do so politely and lovingly, but you have to be prepared to hear no—and to respect that no if you get it.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a woman in her late 20s, employed full time in the nonprofit sector. A few years ago, my partner and I survived a car crash together caused by a distracted driver. My partner emerged unscathed, but I sustained severe injuries that necessitated multiple surgeries, weeks in the hospital and rehabilitation, and years of ongoing physical therapy, as well as psychotherapy to address PTSD, anger, grief, and anxiety. One of the few “positives” of this horrible chapter in my life was obtaining a modest settlement. It was enough to pay off my car and student loans and still have five figures left over in savings. My parents had privately advised that I not pay off my partner’s student loans, as we are not engaged or married and had only been dating for six months at the time of the accident.

My partner is a state employee and makes a little more than I do. He has a similar amount of debt from college and his car. He spends frivolously and then complains about his credit card bill. Now that I have paid off my debts with my settlement, he has decided that I am “better off” than he is and expects me to be his “sugar mama.” When I push back, he throws it in my face that I have no debt and that he’s a public servant who “really makes less than [me]” because he has to pay off his loans. How do I make him understand that I only paid off my debt by having to go through hell and that I don’t appreciate being made out to be an heiress, when I am just a nonprofit employee with a tiny salary? I would gladly take back my old self and my old debts if I could. I didn’t ask for this “wealth.”

—Boyfriend’s Jealous of Car Crash Settlement

I am resisting the urge to start (and end) this letter with “Dump him,” because I know not everyone wants to play that card right away. But this is a pretty significant issue of his character and ability to provide you with meaningful support! He’s a bad steward of his own money, but rather than looking to reevaluate his financial priorities, he simply turns his covetous eyes over to your bank account and—disregarding the years of pain that money represents—wants to know why you won’t give it to him. I don’t want to dismiss the real burden of student loans, but his response to this is selfish and uncaring in the extreme, and I think your parents were right to advise you not to share any of your settlement with him. Couples decide to share costs, pool savings, and otherwise combine their finances as a gesture of trust and commitment to mutuality, where each member can rely on the other for support and guidance—not because one partner was horribly injured and received a settlement to help deal with the cost of recovery, and the other started listing all the reasons his credit card debt and careless spending entitled him to her money too. If he can’t let this go and accept that the money you received from your accident was to cover medical costs, pay for the grueling pain and suffering you experienced, and cover time you weren’t able to work as a result of being injured, then I think you’ve got all the information you need to look for another partner.

Dear Prudence,

My fiancé and I are planning our wedding. He has two girls (7 and 9) from a previous relationship. We alternate weeks with their mother; the wedding date falls on the end of custody week so we can take our honeymoon before our next time with the kids. I have a good relationship with the girls but not much of one with their mother, beyond small talk. My fiancé deals with his ex, and she has requested to come to the wedding to “support” the girls. The girls have not expressed any stress over the wedding to their father or the rest of the family. In fact they are very excited to give their dad away during the ceremony. I don’t want this woman at my wedding. She isn’t a horrible human being, but she was not happy when I started dating her ex-husband. She has subsequently made a few attempts at “reconciliation.” Our guest list is small, and I honestly don’t want to have anyone there who isn’t going to support us as a couple. We are starting our lives and our family together. Is it all right to put my foot down? My husband just doesn’t want to cause a rift right before everything gets thrown into wedding mode. We are juggling a lot of balls in the air. If the girls were small, I would understand, but not this.

—Ex at the Wedding

I agree that a 7- and 9-year-old will be able to get through a wedding—with presumably at least some of their other relatives present—without needing total parental supervision. It might help put your fiancé’s ex at ease if she knew their grandmother or other relative has been tasked with babysitting duties so the girls will be with someone familiar and trusted throughout the ceremony and reception. I want to read her request to attend as generously as possible and assume she’s not trying to get in with the intention of causing a scene or asking pointed questions, but there’s a reason people don’t usually invite their exes to subsequent weddings. Unless they’re on really great terms, there’s just too much potential for things to go south. Without definitively foreclosing the possibility that you two might decide to invite her in a spirit of generosity and hope that the future will be unlike the past, I think you and your fiancé are better off trying to assuage her concerns about her kids (communicating a clear child care plan to her, checking in with the girls yourself) and keeping your guest list restricted only to people neither of you has ever married before.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“It’s the rare ex-wife! Only in European movies from the ’60s.”

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

Dear Prudence,

I am an only child, and my parents are first-generation Americans. In their culture, you live at home until you get married. I went away to college, moved back home for a couple of years, and then moved out to an apartment on my own. In many ways my parents have come to accept my independence as a testament to how well they raised me. I am 29 now and engaged. They are thrilled about the engagement. They know when I first moved away from their home, about five years ago, I had a roommate. However, about a year and a half ago, my partner and I moved in together. It was a few blocks away from where I lived with my roommate, and it was just easier to avoid the subject. My parents only live 20 miles away, so we never send mail to each other. They don’t like driving into the city we live in, so any time my partner and I see them, we drive to them. But now, they are asking questions about where we will live. I know I need to tell them the truth and realize I probably should have just told them at that time. I am struggling with how to bring this up. Any advice?

—Broaching the Subject

You sound fairly decided on the subject of whether to tell them. For what it’s worth, I don’t think maximal disclosure is always the way to go with family, and I understand why you wanted to look out for your parents by not sharing this right away. You can say something like, “We’ve found a place in [current neighborhood] that we like a lot, and we’ll be living there.” Since your parents rarely come out to visit and don’t seem like the type to pry when they might have reason to suspect you’re living in a way that might challenge some of their views, I think there’s at least a decent chance that they will take that answer at face value and not press the issue.

On the other hand, it sounds like your parents have worked really hard to understand your values and choices as an adult, and it may just be that you feel ready to tell them about this wholesale. I think that’s fine too. Don’t spend too much time trying to prep them for the news. Just say: “Mom and Dad, I know you’re curious about where we’ll live after the wedding, and I wanted to let you know we moved into a place together last year in [neighborhood]. I understand if you’d like a little time to process this, and I’m happy to answer any questions you may have. I know this may not be the timeline you wanted for me, but I’m really happy about where we live and our upcoming wedding.” Given that you two are about to get married—and that what’s done is done—I think your parents will likely come around sooner rather than later. If you’re worried they’ll take this late-stage information as a sign of disrespect or disregard, you can acknowledge that, say you wish you had told them sooner, and stress how proud you are of your upbringing and the life you’ve managed to build for yourself. Then give them a little time and space to have whatever reaction they need to have. But based on what you’ve told me about your parents, I think they’ll come around.

Dear Prudence,

I recently went on a date I’d had low expectations for and ended up having a great time. I spent the night at his place, and he kept talking about wanting to hang out again. However—in what often ends up happening—a few days later he stopped answering my texts. I didn’t send many, maybe one or two a day asking how he was doing and mentioning that I’d like to see him again. After a while, I said I’d have preferred if he had just been upfront about not wanting to go out a second time instead of ghosting me. He ended up responding a few hours later to tell me that while he was dealing with too much at work and was burnt out and couldn’t commit to anything long-term, he did want to see me again when he was feeling better.

He also mentioned that he often has his text notifications turned off because a lot of his friendships faded away when his friends got into relationships and knowing no one was texting him made him feel worse. I feel like he still may be leading me on and is too cowardly to turn me down, but I’m also worried he may be depressed. Since he doesn’t seem to have many or any close friendships, I’m wondering if I should try to see if he’s OK, though I also realize that we have only known each other for a few weeks. I’m also not sure if I have the emotional bandwidth to provide support to him. I feel like I should probably just be glad I had one good date and leave it that, but I guess the slight possibility that he may reach out for another date and the guilt of abandoning a person going through a tough time is stopping me. Are my instincts right? Do I just need to officially cut the cord?

—Depressed or Ghosting?

I am so glad that you asked! Your instincts are not right, and you should ignore them. Or rather, your instincts are telling you right now to ignore your own needs, your own desires, your own well-being in order to offer life-changing assistance this guy really hasn’t asked for. Ignore the voice that’s telling you to ignore yourself. “Sorry, I’ve just been really busy at work” is one of the oldest lines in the book. That doesn’t mean people can’t be legitimately busy at work, but no one is too busy to set aside 30 seconds over a 48-hour period to text, “I had a really nice time with you, but I’m not interested in going out again.” It’s also an insulting excuse—he wasn’t too burned out and overworked to go on your first date, but suddenly three days later he was so overwhelmed by his mean and uncaring bosses that he lost all ability to keep up with his correspondence? Hogwash. Please do not offer unsolicited emotional support to a guy who’s made it clear he doesn’t spend very much time thinking about your feelings or treating you with a bare minimum of courtesy.

I understand the temptation to spin a guy’s indifference or light, low-stakes cruelty as a sign that he’s actually really vulnerable. I’ve done it myself, to my own detriment! It makes something petty and embarrassing feel somehow noble and important: “He only ignored me because he’s so afraid of being abandoned, like how all of his friends I’ve never met apparently abandoned him in the past. He wants to treat me well, to initiate a second date and ask me how I’m doing and respond to my texts—it’s just that his terrible boss and his cowardly friends and his deep emotional sensitivity are getting in the way. But I can help fix all of that, if I just dedicate myself to understanding him.” Anytime you find yourself inclined to explain that someone has treated you carelessly because they’re secretly so sensitive that they have to treat you carelessly, lest they explode in a cataclysm of vulnerability, stop what you’re doing immediately and go take a long walk until the urge to knock down your own (reasonable!) expectations passes. Good second dates happen really easily and intuitively, because both parties are equally excited in getting one set up. I’ve never heard of a really good second date that started because one party vanished, made up a bunch of flimsy excuses when called out on vanishing, and then finally set one up out of guilt. Go out with someone else.

Classic Prudie

I have a 9-year-old cocker spaniel. I’ve raised him since he was a puppy and I think of him as my four-legged son. However, my boyfriend of 10 months is allergic to dogs. He also dislikes them. He was attacked by one as a child and now won’t go near dogs at all. As such, he almost never comes to my place. We are very committed to each other and wish to get married soon. But the problem is that I can’t allow myself to give my beloved doggy away to another family. He has a few medical problems related to age and the vet has told me he will probably live another two years or so, although of course nobody knows for sure. I’ve asked my boyfriend if we could delay our marriage until my dog dies, and he thinks I’m crazy. We both want to have kids soon, but considering I’m now 34 and he’s 40, my boyfriend doesn’t want to wait another two years. He understands that I love my dog, but he thinks marriage is more important and I should just find another loving family for him. I feel heartbroken at the very idea. Am I really nuts for putting my furry baby ahead of human babies?