Dear Prudence

My Husband Failed Two Polygraph Tests About His Infidelity

I need to divorce him, but he’ll take everything.

hand hooked up to a polygraph machine
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Dear Prudence,

I am a professional woman who has been married for 16 years. My job is stressful, and I often work 12 hours or more. We have no children. At first things were wonderful, and my husband always seemed like a sweet, mild-mannered, caring man. Three years in, he was laid off because his company ran into financial trouble. Because I am a high-earner, I told him he didn’t need to go back to work as long as he kept the house up and did basic repair projects. He never went back to work, but he never kept the house up, either. We also hired housecleaners to visit every two weeks, but in between nothing got done. I asked him to go back to work. He didn’t. I strongly suspected he was having affairs a few years later, but he always denied it. I have no concrete proof, but he did many suspicious things like hiding months of phone bills and having midnight texts. Years later he voluntarily took two polygraph tests to save the marriage (we stopped having intimate relations five years ago mostly because I no longer admired, respected, or trusted him, and because of my resentment toward him on several levels). He failed the tests.

Until lately, I generally ignored all my feelings and went about trying to have a good life. My husband will not discuss our issues because, he says, he clams up or needs time to think. I verbalize my needs and frustrations all the time. At one point he started snapping at me and rolling his eyes, but I firmly and strongly told him to stop, which he mostly has. I demanded that he get a job, and he finally works 25 hours a week making a small salary. He knows I no longer love him (in the least), but he won’t leave. We now live in separate bedrooms. We have been to two marriage counselors. I have told him I will go back if he is willing to discuss his unfaithfulness, which he still denies. He states the lie-detector tests are invalid. The house and everything we own are paid for by me alone. I need to divorce, but he will take everything I own, plus alimony. On the surface, he is a nice, charming, religious guy. None of our friends know about our marriage troubles, and they would be shocked to hear this. Advice, please.

—Trapped

You have learned the hard way that ignoring your feelings does not usually result in a good life. My advice is to leave your husband, who sounds terrible. Even if he managed to come out of a divorce with most of your stuff plus alimony, I’d argue you would still be better off. You’re still paying for everything now, but if you leave, you won’t have to live with a man you don’t love “in the least.” Go talk to a divorce lawyer today.

Then talk to your friends tomorrow. It sounds like the last 13 years of your marriage have been fairly agonizing, and that’s a remarkably lonely condition, and I hope you can find new ways to share a little more with your loved ones in the future. That doesn’t mean you have to relate every quarrel the moment it happens, but this kind of emotional isolation is overwhelming and breeds pessimistic thinking like “I can’t possibly leave, and I’m stuck no matter what I do.” You can leave him, and no matter how difficult the divorce gets, you never have to live with someone who takes advantage of you, lies to you, rolls his eyes at you, or refuses to talk to you ever again. Even if you have to move into a smaller place afterward, remember Proverbs: “Better a dinner of herbs where love is, than a stalled ox and hatred therewith.”

Dear Prudence,

I have a lifelong habit of getting focused on a particular subject for months at a time, but I tend to fixate on things I find distressing. I don’t “like” these subjects, but I feel a powerful drive to understand them. The more distressing the subject, the harder it is to get out of my head. That’s not exactly elevator chit-chat, so I try to keep it to myself. Occasional relevant topics do come up, though, and I have trouble hiding how much I know about it. This year, my fixation has been about understanding how the Nazis came to power. The more I learn about it, the more distressing it becomes, and the more compelled I feel to understand it—especially when I see the connections to the present day.

But I have no idea how to explain this to people. It’s one thing if you clearly know way too much about intestinal parasites. It’s another if you clearly know way too much about Nazis. I’m worried that I’ll accidentally make it obvious that I know a lot more about Nazis than I’d like to, and people will come to the wrong conclusion. The obvious solution might seem to be “don’t talk about Nazis,” but they come up more often than you’d expect. I don’t think “I read a lot about stuff that stresses me out, including Nazis” will fly, because I don’t have a good answer to the obvious follow-up of “Why?” Plus, if the assumption isn’t directly brought up, I’m worried that trying to address it just sounds more suspicious.

—Frightening Fixation

Some of this I think you can let go! Being well-read on the subject of intestinal parasites isn’t inappropriate or outside of the realm of human experience, and I don’t think you should fear knowing “too much” about these areas of amateur expertise. If you were dominating conversations with monologues about your pet subjects, offering unsolicited advice, or interrupting watercooler chats, I’d advise you to make some changes, but that doesn’t seem like the case here. It also doesn’t sound like the people you’re talking to have objected or become uncomfortable once they learn you’re familiar with a given topic of discussion. Nor do I think there’s anything troubling in learning about the history of Nazism, especially in the context you describe. There are numerous programs designed to educate the public on this very subject for the purpose of preventing any future resurgence. As you say, Nazis come up more often these days in casual conversation because Nazism has lately been more emboldened in this country. This is relevant information!

Now, as for this lifelong compulsive drive to learn more about disturbing subjects: If you find such work interesting or productive in managing your fears, I’d encourage you to consider it a worthwhile impulse, or at least benign. It may have proved an advantage in many ways, leading you to cultivate curiosity, open-mindedness, empathy, and initiative, especially in the face of fear. But if you find it overwhelming, or that it exacerbates your sense of fear, or that it strengthens your belief that others would treat you with hostility and suspicion if they knew the extent of your research, you might benefit from seeing a counselor who specializes in dealing with unwanted or intrusive thoughts, particularly through cognitive-behavioral therapies. That’s not to say you have to seek out a diagnosis of any kind. But there are a number of tools you can learn that might aid you in developing a more robust sense of independence from these thoughts so you can consciously decide when to pursue research and when not to pursue anything.

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Dear Prudence,

I have an older cousin I always admired growing up, and our families have always been close. But he’s gotten progressively more religious (Catholic) over the years, while I’m gay and trans. He and his wife haven’t cut me off or anything, but they’re figuring out how to appropriately shelter their two young kids from those things about me. While I miss my cousin and this hurts, I would be mostly fine with having minimal contact, except I really love my nieces and nephews. And they really love me! The oldest is 5, and even when I haven’t seen the kids in over a year, they still remember me and ask to see me. I don’t know how I could stay in contact with them while talking to their parents as little as possible. Should I talk to my cousin and try to arrange video chats (supervised, probably) with the kids, even if that’s awkward and sad? Do I have a responsibility to stay in touch with them just in case one of them is queer and needs a role model? Or, should I just pull back now and let them forget about me, so it doesn’t hurt as much when they get older and learn to be homophobic? Pulling back would make me sad, but I’m afraid the alternative would be too painful.

—The Gay Cousin

I’m sure you already know this, but I don’t want it to go without saying: There is no way—and no reason—to “appropriately shelter” kids from knowing that gay and trans people exist, especially if said gay and trans person is someone they already know and love. I understand you may not be in a position to argue that with your cousin, but it’s straightforwardly and self-evidently true. I don’t want you to worry about whether your cousin’s children might be gay (or homophobic) someday as you think about your next moves. Rather, I’d encourage you to focus on what’s possible first in terms of your own emotional well-being and second in terms of what your cousin and his wife permit. To that end, you can ask them about talking to the kids for a few minutes over video chat sometime soon. If they make painful, dehumanizing requests before granting permission to see your nieces and nephews and you can’t accede to said requests without great distress, I think the best, kindest choice you can make is to decline. If you think you can accede to these requests, then feel free to go along to get along.

You may find certain compromises manageable for a time, only for things to change as your nieces and nephews get older and you chafe against having to be the family’s Phantom of the Opera. It may also be that no matter how politely you compromise, no matter how willing you are to temporarily neutralize your identity to accommodate your cousin’s bigotry, that he and his wife decide to cut you off from the kids anyway. That’s always the risk when trying to negotiate with bigots, especially the type of bigots who call bigotry “concern.” I’m sorry you don’t have better options at present; here’s hoping there’s a Damascene moment in your cousin’s future.

Help! My Husband Wants to Leave Our Kids but Stay Married to Me.

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

Subscribe to the Dear Prudence Podcast on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts.

Dear Prudence,

I recently received Facebook friend requests from two different women, along with messages. The first woman hails from my hometown. She also sent me a message via Ancestry.com. She states that we are closely related. When I checked my Ancestry “Relationships” tab, I found out she may be my half-sister via my father. The second woman is my new half-sister’s sister-in-law. The sister-in-law blew up my inbox with repeated messages, calls, and photos. I did not respond. She proceeded to contact my Facebook friends and asked for my contact information and for them to persuade me to call her.

I am a 55-year-old gay man with a husband. My father may not have been the worst father, but he was definitely verbally and emotionally abusive. He got better as he mellowed with age, but we were never the closest family. He has been dead now for eight years. My mother is 88 and lives close to me. I do not want her to know about this, as it would make her even more bitter and hurt her feelings unnecessarily. My sister is in agreement and has no desire to reach out to this woman. My brother may want to know, as he is very family-oriented. It’s not like I have great stories to share with this woman and truthfully, I don’t really want to revisit the past. It was difficult enough. I feel for her, but what are my obligations here?

—Reeling Relatives

If a stranger wants to have a relationship with you, that’s merely a desire on their part, not an obligation on yours. It’s polite to consider their request, but you’ve already considered it, and you’ve made your decision. Sending a brief but polite response declining your interest will hopefully cut down on future message-spamming, but if it doesn’t, you should feel free to block both your half-sister and her sister-in-law.

Whether you can successfully keep this information to yourself is another question. If these two women were able to find you so easily through Ancestry and Facebook, I wouldn’t be surprised if your brother, mother, and other relatives ended up getting messages of their own. I understand your impulse to protect your mother, but it may simply prove impossible. You’ll have to decide whether you’d rather tell her preemptively or say nothing and hope your gamble pays off. The same truths apply to your brother, albeit in a slightly different context: You don’t have a moral obligation to tell him about this contact, but since you have reason to believe he would want to know about a half-sibling, you should prepare for him to be upset with you if he finds out from another source and resents you for keeping it from him. In that case, you may decide to tell him simply because you have a strong sense of his wishes. You can still stress that you’ve already decided not to get in touch with her and ask that he respect your wishes by not attempting to loop you into whatever relationship they may develop. The general rule here is this: While you can’t keep a lid on information that’s already mostly out, you can still make your own decisions about who you consider family and who you don’t. Don’t try to control what you can’t control (whether these women speak to any of the rest of your family, whether your mother ever checks her Facebook messages), and you’ll be fine, even if things get bumpy for a while.

Dear Prudence Uncensored

“There’s a reason why dystopian novels, disaster movies, and TV shows like Law and Order: SVU are so popular.”

Danny Lavery and Slate staff writer Christina Cauterucci discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

I have a low-stakes, probably silly problem. My wife and I (both women) are very happy together, and our anniversary is coming up. I want to get her something special but am incredibly stressed about finding her a gift. My wife is amazing at gift-giving. She’s an artist and often puts a lot of time into creating beautiful things for people. Sometimes her gifts aren’t homemade, but even the store-bought ones are carefully selected (plus she’s quite generous). I don’t have a talent for making or painting things, but I’ve tried having craftspeople hand-make personalized gifts for her in the past, like jewelry boxes. But I don’t have the same knack, and it always looks like I’ve made less of an effort for her than she has for me.

For example: Last year, I bought her a necklace. She got me an antique guitar that she’d restored and decorated herself (I’m a musician). She seems to genuinely like the necklace (it was expensive, and I’d really tried to find a unique design for her), but it was clear my gift had required much less effort and time than hers and I felt really guilty. In previous years she’s given me: an oil painting of my favorite view, a ring she designed herself, and a jewelry box she made from scratch. Meanwhile I have given her: jewelry, clothes, books, ornaments. Again, she has always seemed to like them, but they are clearly the less exciting and thoughtful gifts. I had been planning to get her concert tickets this year to try to up my game, but that obviously isn’t happening with COVID. Can you advise me on what to do? I’ve been stressed for ages and trying desperately to think of something as amazing and personal as the things she gets me, but already feel guilty knowing that she’ll get me something better.

—Endless One-Upswomanship

It’s not a silly problem inasmuch as there’s a serious undercurrent of the fear of inadequacy running throughout your letter, although I agree with you on the low-stakes part, because you say you two are very happy together and she’s never hinted or otherwise indicated that your presents are falling short of her secret expectations. I wonder, if you were to show this letter to her, whether your wife would agree that your gifts are “clearly the less exciting and thoughtful” ones and that it “always looks” like you put in less effort. Worry and self-loathing certainly count as effort in my book. I’d encourage you to share this with your wife, not so she can feel bad about her own gift-giving skills, but so she has a better sense of just how agonized you feel over making sure she knows how much you love, value, and appreciate her. That way she’ll be better equipped to reassure you, to address your fears when they arise, and to relieve unnecessary suffering when it is in her power to do so.

I don’t say any of this to imply that you’re simply manufacturing problems out of nowhere, but I do think you’ve convinced yourself that all of your subjective impressions are objective reality when that’s just not the case. At one point, you describe finding a woodworker to build a personalized jewelry box for your wife, but that gets dismissed as part of the “less exciting and thoughtful gifts” you bring to the table. I’m sure your wife really does have a flair for getting great gifts, but you’re no slouch yourself. Maybe once you two have talked about this, you’ll decide to go easy on the presents for a little while, not to punish your wife for having a creative flair, but to reduce some of the pressure you’ve been experiencing and to reestablish marital gifts as the lovely little tokens of affection that don’t cause fear or stress in the giver, nor inadequacy in the recipient, that they’re meant to be.

Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit YouGet it from Slate

Dear Prudence,

I was so excited to move into my apartment this past summer—and then I realized that the large house behind me is full of frat boys. They have loud parties every Tuesday and Saturday, and sometimes other days, too. They pee off the back porch, often when I’m sitting on my back deck, and seem to enjoy making direct eye contact and unnerving people when they do so. I mentioned it to another neighbor, who said, “Yeah, they do that all the time. I once saw one of them take a shit outside, too.” They also scream at one another, play loud music, host drinking games that involve breaking bottles at 2 a.m. I’m at my wits’ end. I’m not going to talk to them about it, because I don’t feel comfortable around them after the aggressive public urination. I’ve called the nonemergency police line basically on a weekly basis. I generally don’t call the cops, but I do not worry about the potential harm it might cause wealthy white frat boys (and of course no harm has come to them, because it hasn’t made a difference).

I can’t handle a future of lying in bed at 2 a.m., putting my pillow over my head and calling the police every single week. I’ve referenced my city’s website and they simply say to call the police about noise complaints and offer no long-term solutions. What should I do here? They’ve loudly talked about how many of the guys who live there are on the college’s baseball team, so I’ve considered writing a letter to their coach. I just want these idiots to either be quiet or be gone.

—Nuisance Neighbors

If you’ve already contacted the nonemergency police line, sending a note to these guys’ baseball coach is surely a less difficult decision. It’s certainly a step down on the escalation ladder. Contact the coach, and the school administration too, and CC the fraternity head or supervising faculty members while you’re at it. But do bear in mind that universities often grant a lot of leeway to fraternities for a number of financial reasons, so this could backfire and might only make your neighbors angrier and more resentful. Another option is to contact your city councilmember, explain the issue and the steps you’ve taken, and ask for assistance. You might also want to speak to your local tenants’ rights board to see if you have a case for ending your lease early. And, of course, if you do move, make sure to double-check for any nearby fraternity houses before signing a new lease.

Classic Prudie

I was raised as part of a large, tightknit extended family with traditional values. About 30 years ago, as a young teenager, I violated the rules of abstinence and chastity I had been raised with and became pregnant. Abortion was not a consideration and my mother insisted that the child be placed for adoption. She was doing what she thought best. Although I have a wound in my heart for the child given away, my life has been in many ways blessed and beautiful. My husband knows my secret past and understands what happened to me. Now my youngest child is the same age I was when I had that first pregnancy. I have raised my sons and daughters with very strict traditional values and oversight. They have made me proud in living up to and exceeding all of my expectations. Recently, while I was shopping, a stranger stopped me and told me she knew of someone who so strongly resembled me it could be my adult child. Maybe it’s a coincidence, but the mere possibility that my child could be close by floored me. Part of me has always hoped for a reunion with that lost baby, and the other part of me has always feared that my children would think of me as a hypocrite and hate me if they were to find out. I truly do not know what to do if that child tries to find me. I want them to understand I raised them as strictly as I did because I love them and want to spare them the pain I experienced. Should I continue to keep this secret from my children?