Dear Prudence

I Catfished Someone. Now I’m in Love.

He still hasn’t seen the real me.

Photo of someone texting "I love you" on a smartphone, overlaid with a fish hook
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Tero Vesalainen/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

I know this sounds ridiculous, but COVID boredom pushed me to do something bad: I catfished someone. Basically, I’ve always had deep curiosity about what life would be like if I was significantly more physically attractive and dating someone other than my current, long-term-heading-toward-marriage partner. I created a fake profile using a photo of someone my same age but much more conventionally attractive. I adopted personality traits I always wish I possessed (more adventurous/free-spirited, into partying, etc.) and ended up matching with someone in my area. We texted constantly, then moved to phone calls. We haven’t met up yet despite four months of talking, but that isn’t out of the ordinary in these strange times due to COVID. Prudie, we’re in love. We talk nearly all day and deep into the night. I’ve never felt this way about someone. But now I feel sick with guilt. For one, I’m definitely emotionally cheating on my long-term partner. They have no idea because they live in a different state and we obviously aren’t traveling to each other right now. Second, I know the person I’ve been talking to will be heartbroken when they find out I’m not who they thought I was. I know I probably need therapy, but I can’t afford it right now. How do I extricate myself from this mess? Leaving my partner for this new person is an awful idea, right? What in the world should I do?

—Gone Catfishin’

Oh, boy. This is a real disaster. Happily, it is a disaster that, like many personal disasters, is also an opportunity to learn some important information about yourself.

You have to break up with your “current, long-term-heading-toward-marriage partner.” They live in a different state, and you’re in love with someone else. You’re doing this unfortunate person precisely zero favors by remaining in this relationship. You don’t have to tell them exactly why, because there are a number of equally true contributing factors here: You don’t live in the same state, you want to see other people, you no longer see a future with them. I’m also disturbed that you express concern for how your “new” partner will feel when they find out but none for your long-term partner.

Frankly, I don’t see a future with you and this innocent catfished person either. They do not know what you look like, and your interests are not the interests that first drew them to you. You are having long, passionate phone calls with someone who has no idea who you are, and every day you continue to have this weird, fraudulent “relationship,” it will only be causing this person you profess to love more pain when the truth comes out.

Now, it’s possible (aliens are also possible) that this person has grown to truly care about and love you such that if you show up after months of passionate phone calls looking completely different and with no interest in partying, they may be able to overcome that. I have major issues with this. I would never, ever advise your “new” partner to maintain this relationship if they and not you had written to me. I would say “run like hell” and encourage them to grieve, and also to remember they’re grieving for a person who never really existed.

Because you are the one who has written to me, I believe you need to do some serious, serious work on yourself before you are capable of being in a truthful, emotionally mature romantic relationship with another person. I know you can’t afford therapy right now, but I would look through CBT and potentially DBT workbooks online and see if you can work on reacting differently to these feelings of worthlessness and the need to “trade up,” and how to build your self-esteem.

Would I tell this person you catfished them? I’m unclear. I think that just ghosting or sending a quick “it’s not you, it’s me” would cause them more unwarranted pain. If I felt you were coming from a place of more stable mental health and readiness, I might tell you to send them an actual photo of yourself, come clean, and put the ball in their court. But you’re not. You’re not ready to be with someone else. Tell them you’ve been untruthful with them, you need to work on your own issues, you’re very sorry, and you can’t be in contact anymore. You need to be OK with being alone for a while. Work on your friendships, get some hobbies, read some books.

I wish you all the best.

Dear Prudence, 

My wife and I have been married for almost six years, together for more than eight. I know it is the cliché, but the quarantine has me contemplating divorce, not from spending time together but my wife’s reaction to it. Her drinking, which was a problem before the quarantine, has gotten out of control. Most days, I don’t know what I am going to come home to (within the past month, I started a new job and had to go into the office after three months of working from home), if she’s going to be drunk or not, and if the former, is she going to be passed out or angry or giddy or hungry. Many times in these states, she’s become verbally abusive, screaming “fuck you” at me or calling me names—this she usually doesn’t remember the next day, or says she doesn’t. She also isn’t taking the quarantine isolation well in terms of mental health, stating it is making her feel crazy. But her expression of this is trying to push my buttons and push me toward darkness because it makes her angry that I seem to be OK and she wants me to be crazy so she doesn’t feel lonely in her craziness. But I can’t let that happen because she has stopped helping with anything around the house, from taking care of our animals (two cats and two dogs), cooking (when I was working from home, I had to make sure she ate, and now that I’m not home, she has stopped eating during the day), cleaning, doing any of the shopping—one of us has to stay OK. I have tried to be supportive, encouraging her to go see a therapist or to AA (she refuses to do these things) and being there for her; I worry about her and want her to be happy, or at least OK. But I am exhausted. You mention in relationship letters how a person will describe a problem and couch it in “But they are a really great person” or “Otherwise the relationship is great.” When I try to think about the good, it is always in the past. She was smart and fun and silly; we did have great communication.

I have been increasingly thinking about leaving (and these are usually fantasies about coming home from work and being able to flop on the couch and read a book over a cup of tea or play a video game) but am held back by several factors. One, I don’t want to abandon someone when they are obviously in a dark place, and I fear what she would do if I were to leave. She has stated many times she doesn’t know what she would do without me and how she feels desperate to keep me. Two, I come from a very dysfunctional family (don’t we all) that I am not close with at all (I was always the black sheep, but being gay sent me out to pasture with them), while my wife’s family is very close (talking multiple times a day, group chats, frequently getting together—before the pandemic), so I feel like I would be losing a family and would be alone. (I don’t have any close friends.) Three, my wife’s drinking has been an issue really since we first started dating but got bad about two years ago, and the reason is that I had an emotional affair—I fell in love with someone else, though nothing physical happened—so I feel responsible for both her excessive drinking and her negative self-thoughts. All I want is peace, to feel able to relax, but I feel like I am a babysitter/caretaker. But if I were to leave, I would feel like I was a monster. I am currently in therapy and my wife refuses to go to couples therapy and I would greatly appreciate your advice. Should I stay or should I go now?

—Stay or Go?

I think you have to go. You don’t have children, she is screaming and swearing at you, and she is actively in the throes of an untreated substance use disorder. You can’t keep living in a horrible marriage that you actively fantasize about leaving because you blame yourself forever for your emotional affair.

My first recommendation is to have a consultation with a divorce lawyer. People often think that automatically means you are going to get a divorce, but in fact it’s very often a way of figuring out where you stand financially, in terms of your primary residence, etc. I would do this first before doing anything else.

You say that your wife has refused to go to couples counseling. Have you made it clear that the choice is couples counseling and active, committed treatment for her drinking, or you walking out the door? Her response will tell you a lot, either way.

If you do get a divorce, you will feel guilty. That’s inescapable. Process that guilt with your therapist and try to move on. She has, as you’ve told me, a large and warm family who will be a source of support to her through this time. You are not a monster. You are dealing with an unlivable situation, and I’m very sorry.

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Dear Prudence,

My in-law has severe mental health issues and a history of violent behaviors, stalking, and delusions. He is medicated, but he is still clearly “off.” My husband’s family has expressed concerns about relapses. He has delusions of grandeur about becoming a big novelist like George R.R. Martin. He gets aggressive when he talks about it. He has been arrested for trespassing at the houses of publishers and literary agents and sending harassing, threatening messages. At a family function, I quietly mentioned that I recently got my book published. I had no idea he was around. Later on, he said that he overheard me and would like the name of my editor, publisher, and agent. I panicked and told him he must have misheard—I haven’t written a book. My husband’s family agreed not to say anything or let anything slip. They agreed that what I did was the best response, because he wouldn’t accept “I’d prefer not to divulge that information” as an answer.

Eventually, he confronted me with the release page for my book, including publisher and agent information. Prudence, what else could I say but that it’s not me? I feel bad playing with his already tenuous sense of reality, but what else can I do? I feel like I’m too far to turn back now. I’m worried that I’m being ableist, but his transgressions are on record, in the family *and* the news, and they are severe. How do I handle this going forward? Do I keep lying? Do I avoid all family gatherings he might be at? Was I wrong for lying in the first place?

—Gaslighter?

This is a doozy! I think we can do some things to help. In terms of “gaslighting,” you told a single, brief, instinctual lie out of fear he would harass your team, which is very forgivable. It got dicey when you decided to double down on the lie and got the whole family involved with it. I don’t want someone with mental health issues to have more reason to be paranoid or to think people are conspiring behind his back.

There is no need to keep lying. I note that you said “he wouldn’t accept” a statement from you that you would rather not talk about this. That’s untrue. You do not have to alter your reasonable boundary because someone keeps hacking away at it.

I encourage you to use the pandemic as an excuse to avoid family gatherings as much as possible. Next time you see him, if he brings up the book, you can say, “Yes, that’s my book. I’m sorry, my team has wanted me to keep it under the radar for now” (this is not a lie; your “team” is you, your husband’s family, and, if you have one, a dog). He does not have to accept this, but neither do you need to accept his nonacceptance of it. Leave the room! Go to the bathroom! Listen to “50 Ways to Leave Your Lover” for more ideas.

I think the more space you can put between you and this man, the better. You do not have to have these conversations. I would give your agent and your publisher a heads-up in case he tries to enter one of their buildings. I would also talk to your husband’s family about your concerns so they’re aware he may have a relapse and that you can’t keep hiding the book forever.

Congratulations on the book!

Help! My Roommate Keeps Bringing Out Her Cat to Interrupt My Dates.

Danny M. Lavery is joined by Shruti Swamy on this week’s episode of the Dear Prudence podcast.

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Dear Prudence,
When our father died, all three of his children inherited equal shares of his house. I bought out my siblings’ shares, since they wanted cash and I needed a place to live. Four years and a whole lot of renovations later, I am in a position to sell it for a pretty penny. The area has gone through an upswing, and it is a seller’s market. My sister is pissed about this. She thinks she deserves a slice of the sale because she managed to get pregnant twice. Our father would have “wanted” his grandchildren provided for. How she burned through all her inheritance is a topic she refuses to touch. Our relationship has basically boiled over to a point I don’t see it getting repaired.

What hurts is my brother has admitted he isn’t “happy” about the situation and thinks it is “unfair.” I got angry and asked him if it was fair that I paid the taxes, redid the bathroom, and took out loans for the restoration? My siblings didn’t come over to help me paint. My brother told me to drop the subject. I don’t know what to do. I know it would have disappointed our father to see us acting like this, but I bought out my siblings at above-market rates four years ago! What can I do?

—House Rich

These whiners. You bought them out! Have a consultation with a lawyer to make sure you are completely in the clear and then refuse to have these conversations anymore. It sounds like your brother is happy not to talk about it any longer but does enjoy saying snide little things occasionally. With your sister, you just have to say, “We’ve already discussed this, and I bought your share out four years ago at above-market rates” and then refuse to engage.

—Nicole

Classic Prudie

My husband and I have been married a little over two years. Soon after getting married, my husband, who works in information technology, revealed to me that for the prior year he had placed a tracker on my laptop to monitor every site I went to, every search I made. I thought something was wrong when he would ask me about things I didn’t discuss with him but had searched for online. I’ve woken up to find him holding my phone, scrolling through my messages. I’ve told him that this bothers me, that I’m not doing anything wrong, but some respect for personal boundaries is in order. Then he accuses me of hiding things. It leaves me with stomach cramps knowing that even this email itself could trigger a fight because he may be tracking me. I try to weigh the good against the bad, and I’m not unhappy apart from this issue. Can you please tell me if I’m the crazy one here?