Dear Prudence

Help! I Walked In on My Husband Having Sex With My Cousin.

Read what Prudie had to say in Part 2 of this week’s live chat.

Woman gasping at the sight of two people getting frisky on a couch.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Steve Sparrow/iStock/Getty Images Plus and AntonioGuillem/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Danny is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.

Q. Holiday affair: I spent the Christmas holidays with my family, my husband of five years, and our 2-year-old daughter. We hosted everyone at our house. Toward the end of the visit, I got up to check on my daughter, who had a slight cold. I noticed my husband was not in bed and decided to go look for him. Imagine my surprise when I found him and my cousin having sex on my couch! I booted both of them out, and the rest of the family went the next day. After talking to some other family members—who knew what was going on and said nothing—I found out that this affair has been going on for about a year and a half. I am devastated and heartbroken and will be speaking to a divorce lawyer in the next few days. Here is where it gets tricky. My family is urging me to get back together with my husband for the sake of my daughter. They reminded me that my cousin loves to stir up drama and probably doesn’t even love my husband, and just did this to get at me. I am trying to ignore them, but they are right—my daughter does deserve her father. What say you?

A: Your daughter will be able to see her father according to whatever custody agreement you two are able to agree upon during the divorce proceedings. I do not agree with your relatives that the key issue is whether your cousin “really loves” your husband; the key issue is that your husband is willing to cheat on you with your own relatives, in your own house, over Christmas. You know, I think, that your relatives have not demonstrated that they have your best interests at heart based on the fact that they kept this affair from you for over a year. Why would you take their advice now?

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Q. My boss is investing in me but I am not planning to stay: I’m an attorney with a very small law firm in a rural area. My boss and the firm I work for are absolutely wonderful. A few years ago, my boss purchased a tax practice in another town with the intention that it would be a new practice area for the firm and that I would run it, which I have been doing with the assistance of the previous owner, who still works with us as a contractor. My boss intended to eventually sell the tax practice to me. At the time, I thought that I would work for my boss long term. However, I had come to realize about a year ago that I no longer want to practice law, and I am looking into transitioning into a new career. The new opportunity that I am looking into will not be available until mid-2021 at the earliest, so my plan has been to continue work in my current position until then.

One of the reasons that I am not trying to leave immediately is because my boss has invested a lot of energy and money into my position and I do feel that he should get some return before I leave. I also cannot afford to leave and take a job that pays less, and there are not many jobs in my area with comparable pay. The issue now is that my boss has told me that he is looking into buying a building to move our tax office into instead of continuing to rent. I’m worried about him making this investment with me planning on leaving in a year and a half. The tax office is in a small town, and many of the buildings do not have renters. It is pretty unlikely that my boss will find someone else to run the tax office after I leave due to lack of qualified people in the area and decreases in clients from year to year. It is possible that he will personally lose a lot of money if the tax office does not use the building and if he fails to find another renter. Knowing this, do I tell him that I don’t plan on continuing to work for him long term? Do I not tell him and just hope for the best? I don’t even know if I would get this new position. My telling him now could also very well mean that the previous owner of the tax business, and our contractor for at least the next four years, would find out—which will make my working relationship with him difficult. Telling him could be pretty detrimental to my job, but not telling him could be detrimental to him personally.

A: You do not owe your boss the information that someday, over a year from now, you hope to have another job that you have not yet been offered. Don’t endanger your livelihood because your conscience is running on overdrive. If there are other advantages to renting rather than buying, you can certainly offer your boss your opinion that you think he should wait to buy for a while. But all you owe any employer is good, reliable work, and ideally a few weeks’ notice before you move on. Employees leave, retire, move away, die, etc; any business that relies solely on “Such-and-such worker can never leave or we’ll immediately fold” is a business that’s asking for trouble. I get that this is a small town and you likely feel closer to your boss than you would if you worked at a massive corporation, and I think it’s fine that you plan on staying an extra year or so, but don’t say anything to your boss about your future career plans unless and until you’ve got an offer in hand. (If any small-town lawyers want to chime in with additional advice, please feel free. I’m aware this is slightly different than the usual employee contemplating a move, since the letter writer has apparently had at least one conversation with their boss in which they expressed interest in taking over the tax practice.)

Q. I don’t want to out my ex: I was with my ex for several years, during which we shared several friends and became very integrated into each other’s lives. About a year ago, our relationship ended after a very painful period of time when my ex withdrew all intimacy very suddenly. When it finally ended, my ex confessed to me that he was gay. He didn’t want to lose me as a friend and roommate and made a very bad call, in choosing to inexplicably withdraw and deny that his behavior had any effect on me, in order to make me end things. It was a very jarring and painful time, and I stayed in his life for a few months after, as I was the only person who knew his secret. After time in therapy, I realized that I needed space and time to heal.

I moved to a new city and I began a wonderful new relationship not too long after I cut ties. In an attempt to respect his privacy I chose to mostly withdraw from our shared friends. However, I recently crossed paths with some of them and have learned that people think that my relationship with my ex ended because I cheated with my current partner, and my ex has not come out to any of these friends.

I feel really sorry that my ex still doesn’t feel ready to share his secret with our friends, which is why I am trying so hard not to say anything that would force him before he is ready. But I also feel so rattled that people whom I was once close to think that I did such a horrible thing. I had always hoped that I would at least have a cordial relationship with my old friends, but they all think that I am a monster because of this lie. They think I left my ex to pay for our shared lease to take off with someone else! My friends live in an area where my only family is, and I hope to move back one day. I don’t know how to explain myself without also explaining my ex, which would unfairly out him. Do I have to live with this lie for his sake, or is there a way that I can assuage the rumors without violating his privacy?

A: “I didn’t cheat on him. He suddenly withdrew from me and eventually told me he thought we were incompatible. After we broke up, I went to therapy, decided to move away and clear my head, and met someone else. It was a really painful, lonely time for me, and while I wish [Ex] the best, I don’t think we’re going to be friends anytime soon.”

Q. Double standards: I’m a woman working in a professional field, and I like to wear dresses to work. This winter my partner (also a woman) decided to stop shaving her legs because, despite self-consciousness, she was no longer happy complying with a patriarchal beauty standard. While she didn’t ask me to join her, I also stopped shaving—I’m already an irregular winter shaver, and I vaguely felt it might make her feel less self-conscious, and be an interesting way to stretch my own comfort zone. In winter I wear leggings or tights under my dresses, but yesterday as I showed my partner a new dress I lightly remarked that when summer came I’d start shaving my legs again. My partner was surprised and angry. She feels that I shouldn’t let myself be overwhelmed by patriarchal norms, and sure! I shouldn’t! But I don’t want to experience high levels of self-consciousness at work, and I don’t want my clients and colleagues to be focusing on my legs instead of what I have to say. She also says she’s worried that if I find my own hairy legs abhorrent, I will think the same of her. That’s not the case—I don’t find my own hairy legs abhorrent. (This winter, I’ve happily gone to the gym and gone running outside wearing shorts and bearing leg hair.) I just have a mental image of how I like to look when wearing dresses, an image that includes shaved legs. Also, I have massive double standards.

I’ve reassured her that I find her deeply attractive, regardless of the presence or absence of body hair, and that I admire her embodying her values so strongly—but I don’t think it’s getting through. She says she’s angry not at me but at the patriarchy on my behalf, but I really don’t feel like that’s true. I feel I need to reopen this conversation. Please can you advise how can I make it clear I respect her stance and find her hot but am making different choices for myself?

A: “If you can only believe I find your legs attractive when I make the same choices about shaving as you do, we’re going to run into trouble. Sometimes I’m going to shave my legs and sometimes I’m not. Sometimes I’m going to wear dresses and sometimes I’m not. I am going to prioritize comfort and reasonable conformity when I’m at work. I like the way shaved legs look with dresses on me. That doesn’t mean I’m turning myself into a mindless drone, and it doesn’t mean that I suddenly find leg hair horrifying or that I’ve closed myself off entirely to appreciating leg hair and a knee-length hemline in combination. At the very least, even if you don’t agree with my choice, I hope you’ll let it go—I’m very aware of how you feel about it and don’t want to endlessly relitigate this all summer.”

Q. Charity: Since my children have grown, I have become very involved in a local charity. A position opened and I applied. It went in another direction by hiring a fresh college graduate, “Grace.” While disappointed, I resolved to help her find her feet. I wrote up a little “work bible” that included the names of many of our major donors and other miscellaneous information. For example, we send flowers to this donor on the anniversary of her daughter’s death, or if we use this restaurant we can get a deep discount. It has been five months. Grace is still stumbling and I am out of patience. She either completely ignores protocol or asks me about every little thing. I am not her mother and it is very irritating to stop my work to deal with hers. Grace went over budget at Christmas by over a thousand dollars (we usually have a surplus at the end of the year) and managed to offend a major donor’s wife by referring to her as his “daughter” (third marriage, wife is prickly—all of this is in the documents I gave her). I had to smooth everything over rather than spend time with my own family. Grace isn’t malicious and is very grateful for my help, but sometimes I wonder how she gets out of bed, let alone how she managed to finish college. I have worked here for more than a dozen years and I can’t stand the thought of Grace damaging this organization until she gets fired. Grace considers me her friend; I don’t want her to lose her job, but the girl has zero common sense! What should I do?

A: I wonder if it’s the best use of your time to be so closely involved with an organization that’s decided it would rather hire Grace than you. It sounds like you’ve been working as a volunteer, and while I’m sure you care deeply about this charity’s mission, making yourself personally responsible for making up for the company’s mismanagement (and it does sound like Grace is being mismanaged, or rather that management has abdicated the job of managing her to an unpaid volunteer) strikes me as a way to feel maximally put-upon and minimally listened-to. Even if you are being paid for your own work, you’re not her manager, so my best advice is to stop acting as though you are: Kindly but firmly encourage Grace to go to her own boss with any questions, stop worrying about her budget and whether she goes over, etc. If she gets fired because she’s unable to do her work well, she’ll have to figure out how to find another job and become more self-sufficient; if she slowly but surely improves, so much the better. In the future, decide to spend time with your own family instead of cleaning up after Grace’s mess. That was a choice you made, not something Grace made you do.

Q. Re: My boss is investing in me but I am not planning to stay: I think there is another solution here. The letter writer does seem to owe the boss a bit more consideration, but likewise, the boss can’t sign them up for obligations they didn’t ask for. What if the letter writer comes up and says something along the lines of: “I know you are considering buying. I want to let you know that if I do take this business over in the future I will not assume any mortgage payments or responsibility with them. I would continue to rent, even if it meant moving the business out of the building you had purchased and would still own.” That is likely enough to stop the boss’s buying plans in their tracks. And now he knows what he is getting into: that whether the letter writer leaves or goes, that mortgage is his responsibility alone.

A: That strikes me as a pretty reasonable compromise; if the boss is thinking of the letter writer as a future partner, it seems fair to assume he’d welcome their input about decisions that are likely to affect the business down the line.

Q. Too many gifts! My mother-in-law is a gift-giver—it’s her love language. When my husband and I were first married, she had a habit of sending a box almost once a month full of little gifts (often home décor that is not our style as well as candy, which we try to avoid). Once we started having kids, the gifts transferred from us to the kids (which is how it should happen). We have two kids under 3 and live in a 800-square-foot apartment. Storage space is incredibly limited. We know we can’t keep her from buying things, but we’ve tried to refocus on giving books, clothes, experiences, or treats. Despite our talks, she still buys gifts, saying, “But it’s just a small toy”—but it’s five or seven small toys. I feel guilty getting rid of toys that she buys, but our kids don’t need or even play with all those toys, so they just sit there. We know we can’t change her, and all our efforts to redirect her have failed, so how can we show our gratitude without letting our house be overtaken by stuff we can’t store and don’t need?

A: “This is so thoughtful! As you know, we’ve had to adopt a pretty strict toy policy since our apartment is so small, so we just don’t have room for it. If you know anyone else who needs this, please feel free to give it to them. Otherwise we’d be happy to donate this to someone for you.”

Q. Strategy for avoiding problematic relative? A while ago I decided that I wouldn’t attend any family gatherings with a particular relative who can be toxic toward me and my spouse. Most people in my family are aware of the situation (but not the reasons for my decision) and they invite us both, which is fine. My problem is how to respond to these invitations. I find I’m avoiding family events because it’s pretty likely the other person will be there. Is it crass or too high-maintenance to say, “I’d love to attend if X won’t be there—please keep me posted”? Can you suggest other strategies?

A: I do wish you’d been able to provide me with a bit more detail about what toxic means in this instance. Has this relative been cruel? Racist? Homophobic? Prying? Merely unpleasant? There are a number of situations in which saying, “I won’t be there if Aunt Hostility is going to go” would be perfectly reasonable, and a number of situations in which it would be high-maintenance or unnecessarily avoidant. But you are always free to host your own get-togethers and maintain sole control of the guest list—and, of course, one is allowed to be occasionally high-maintenance or slightly avoidant. You’re certainly not obligated to seek this person’s company out just because you’re related. I suppose my biggest concern, if I were in your position, would be whether any of my other relatives might report back to the especially difficult one. If you’re worried about that, you can always go for the plausibly deniable “We’d love to try to make it! I’ll have to check my schedule later. Who all’s going to be there?”

Q. Re: My boss is investing in me but I am not planning to stay: This person may be under contract with the supervising attorney. Many are. Just make sure that all that investment and such doesn’t come with a price tag when you extricate yourself from the working relationship.

A: I would hope anyone who’s running a tax law practice has carefully read their own contracts and knows exactly what they do and don’t owe their employer, but this is certainly a useful reminder.

Q. Re: My boss is investing in me but I am not planning to stay: Has he made you a partner? For example, do you have an equity stake in the business? If not, then all of his “Oh, I want you to take over this practice in the future” is all just hot air.

Also, your state bar association should have networking opportunities and business advice for these kinds of things. I’m sure there are discussion groups for small tax practices, rural practices, etc.

A: Thanks for pointing that out. It’d be a shame if the letter writer felt so honor-bound by what was essentially a kindly meant but toothless promise that they overshared their own plans for the future and risked their continued employment.

Danny M. Lavery: Thanks for the help, everyone, and remember to keep your eyes on your own cocaine.

If you missed Part 1 of this week’s chat, click here to read it.

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