Dear Prudence

I’m Moving Back to the City Where My Abusive Ex Lives

No one knows we dated.

A worried man standing in front of a city skyline.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Prudence,

Eight years ago, I was in a secret relationship with my first love, a man who emotionally abused me for the entirety of our three-year relationship. (This was my first gay relationship.) We were part of the same circle of friends, and “Jon” swore me to secrecy. No one knew, except for my best friend, whom I confided in. Jon’s abuse led me to contemplate suicide. I finally broke things off, moved away, went to therapy for years, and am now happily engaged. My fiancé just got transferred back to Jon’s city. My old group of friends is thrilled that I’m moving back, but I feel sick. Jon and I went no-contact a few years ago, and I don’t know if he knows about my return. I’m dreading having to navigate hanging out with my old friends if Jon is there. Asking them not to invite him would mean revealing our old relationship. I definitely want to make new friends, and I’m not putting all my eggs in this friend group’s basket, but I know this is something I’ll have to confront eventually. What should I do?

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—Dreading Reentry

I’m curious if you’re reluctant to reveal your former relationship because you want to protect yourself from uncomfortable follow-up conversations or because you still somehow feel obligated to keep your promise of secrecy. In either case (and especially since you say you think you’ll have to confront this eventually), I wonder if the best compromise would be to offer enough of the truth now that your friends would know not to invite you both to the same events, but not so much that you’d feel exposed: “You may not know this, but Jon and I dated years ago. Things ended badly between us, and I don’t want to spend time with him. It would mean a lot to me if you would respect that distance.” Saying it before you move could also reduce the likelihood that someone would put you both on the same group chat, so you wouldn’t have to worry about seeing his number pop up on your phone out of the blue. I hope you will at least consider the possibility of discussing his abuse with your old friends so that they can better support you, but it’s merely a possibility, not an obligation of any kind. You do not have to keep silent for your ex; you are not bound by a promise extracted from you under coercive and abusive circumstances.

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Dear Prudence,

I’ve been working from home since March. A lot of my co-workers have partners and roommates who are also working from home, and it’s commonplace for people to walk by in the background during work Zoom calls or for kids to occasionally pop onto the screen to say hello. Until recently, nothing unprofessional has ever happened, but last week during a call with my co-worker “Madeline,” her husband burst into her office, called her the C-word, and blew up at her for forgetting peanut butter when she went to the store. Then he realized I could see and hear him and did a complete 180. Suddenly he was charming and acting like nothing had happened. Madeline followed his lead. I reached out to her afterward to ask if she was OK, and she pretended not to know what I was talking about. If my own roommate hadn’t overheard, I almost would have doubted what I’d witnessed. Now I’m unsure what to do. Madeline and I are friendly but not friends. Her husband seems deranged to me. I want to reach out to her again, but what if she keeps denying I saw anything?

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—Rampage Over Zoom

How awful for Madeline, and how upsetting for you to witness an unexpected flash of rage and misogyny, followed by such a disconcertingly immediate shift to friendliness and charm. I’m not surprised that Madeline didn’t immediately open up. She likely felt both exposed and embarrassed in front of a colleague and may even have worried that she’d become the subject of gossip or that her husband would try to harm her if he believed she was talking about his abusive behavior to other people. To that end, I think it’s likely that she will continue to act as if nothing had happened, so don’t be surprised if you bring it up again and her response is unchanged. You can’t (and shouldn’t) try to get her to acknowledge anything to you or to convince her that she needs to leave her husband, but I do think there’s a worthy and attainable goal for you here: not merely to ask if she’s OK, but to say definitively that what he did was wrong and that you’re here for her if she ever needs help or a listening ear. You can make it clear that you won’t hound her on the subject and that you understand she is free to make her own decisions, but it’s worth saying clearly that calling someone the C-word for forgetting peanut butter is not OK. You may get further with her by sticking to language like “wrong” and “not OK” rather than “Your husband is abusive”—I think he likely is, but you don’t want to risk putting her on the defensive if you don’t have to. Make it clear that you don’t judge her and that you won’t put her on the spot if she doesn’t want to discuss it with you but that you hope she’ll consider talking to someone else. I hope she does, too.

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Dear Prudence,

My long-term boyfriend lost his job during the pandemic (like most people in his industry) and got a retail job to help make ends meet. The problem is that he now spends the entire evening talking about the ins and outs of his new job, and I really, really don’t care. I don’t care that the blue shirts came in this afternoon or that they’re having a New Year’s sale. I am interested in his day, but I really can’t listen to a 25-minute story about one customer he helped. I try to be supportive because he’s really proud of himself, but helping someone find the right-size jeans in the back is not especially exciting. I feel bad because I don’t want him to think I don’t care or that I’m dismissive of his achievements or concerns, but it’s driving me crazy! How can I be a more supportive partner without having to nod through another evening of rambling anecdotes about how many socks they sold today?

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—Endless Retail

Good news: You can be a supportive partner and also say, “We’ve spent almost every night this month talking about the day-to-day details of your job, and it’s driving me nuts. I can give you 20 minutes when you come home to hear about inventory and customer requests and your co-workers, and then I want to talk about the rest of our lives, like we used to.” Don’t say “I really, really don’t care” or “these anecdotes are stupid and endless,” obviously, but there’s nothing unsupportive about capping off work talk at the end of the day when you’re trying to relax and, you know, not be at work.

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Help! I’m Terrified That Coming Out as Trans Will Ruin My Career.

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

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Dear Prudence,

My husband’s childhood was mostly spent at his grandparents’ home, where they raised him and made him into the great man he is today. As great as my husband is, his mother is not. She tends to be selfish, self-centered, and makes very bad decisions. Whenever my husband tells me of his childhood spent with his mother, it breaks my heart. He and his sister were constantly moving, living in one-bedroom apartments, while his mother brought in man after man into their lives. It scarred him so much that he had to go to therapy.

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If I’m being honest, once my husband told me about his childhood I instantly did not like his mother. Now that we are married, we’re facing an issue that I have never dealt with before: his mother’s finances. She texts and calls my husband for money every couple of months and guilt trips him about how his “poor mother” can’t make rent or doesn’t have enough money for food. However, when we go to her $2,600-a-month condo, she seems to be doing fine. I know my sister-in-law and her husband give her money and it’s what is expected, since we’re family. But I don’t want to! I believe she is a grown adult and can support herself. My husband agrees with me, but he won’t speak up. He hates confrontation and just gives into whatever she says. He tells me that it’s his mother and he has to be there for her. I don’t know what to do. Should I speak up and tell her to leave us alone? We are trying to start our lives—buying a home, having children, etc. I know she already doesn’t like me because I’ve “changed” her son and I “control” so much of his life. (Those are just some of the rumors she spread around the family about me.)

—Mother-in-Law Only Wants Money

The real risk of “speaking up” and telling your mother-in-law to leave you alone is that, if your husband doesn’t back you up, all you’ll do is increase the levels of hostility between the two of you, without actually changing the dynamic between the two of them. If you say “Leave us alone,” and he says, “I have to be there for her,” your words won’t carry any real weight. I can understand your frustration when he says one thing to you and something very different to his mother, but you won’t address the underlying issues if you simply try to speak on his behalf. Rather, I think you should speak to him and try to figure out a manageable compromise. The best time for a conversation about how much money you want to give to relatives would have been before you got married, but the second-best time for that conversation is now. I don’t know whether you and your husband maintain separate bank accounts, but you’re certainly entitled as his spouse to ask him to discuss a budget and possible limits with you, especially if his financial support of his mother affects his ability to contribute to your shared expenses. And you’re also entitled, during such a conversation, to advocate for your own priorities: “I want us to set aside $X per month so we can buy a home and prepare to have kids, and I don’t want your mother to have access to that money.” Since your husband is afraid of confrontation and has a history of giving in whenever someone he loves feels strongly about something, you should also ask open-ended questions and be prepared to listen if he says he wants to continue giving her money for food, even if you disagree. I don’t know what city his mother lives in or what the average rents are there, so I don’t want to discount the possibility that she may very well experience periodic food insecurity even with a $2,600-a-month condo. Asking your husband to discuss limits so you two can afford to start a family is not the same thing as trying to control him, or forbidding him from ever helping his mother financially, so as long as you don’t try to make this decision for him, I don’t think you have to worry you’re overstepping your bounds by stating your objections. But it would be a real mistake to try to state your objections to her—especially if he then undercut your objections by sending her money anyway. Good luck!

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“You cannot realistically expect your husband will stop caring about his mother just because you don’t like her.”

Danny Lavery and art historian Anna Hetherington discuss this letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

2020 was a rough year, and it’s affected my mental health. The past couple of months have been the worst, including what I’m pretty sure are panic attacks with intense physical symptoms. I called a crisis hotline during the most recent attack. I am also still dealing with the trauma from a massive, deadly disaster that happened here several months ago. I don’t really talk about any of this with anyone. I’m closest to my boyfriend and roommate, but I don’t want to burden them with my problems—they are already under enough stress as it is. I really just need a loved one to talk to about this in a constructive way. What are some strategies for letting them know what I’m going through without feeling like I’m burdening them further? I don’t have health insurance, and I don’t know if therapy is something I can afford right now.

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—Need to Talk, but Don’t Know How

I’ll start with practical suggestions for trying to get professional help (assuming you’re U.S.-based). The National Association of Free and Charitable Clinics has a searchable national database that includes mental health services, and the Anxiety and Depression Association of America has information on free or low-cost options such as single-issue support groups, federally funded health centers, and therapists offering sliding-scale or pro-bono sessions, as well as prescription savings programs for people without insurance. The National Alliance on Mental Illness also has a searchable database of weekly support groups. I’m glad you were able to call a crisis hotline during your last attack, but I hope you can avail yourself of additional resources so you don’t feel as though the hotline is your first, last, or only option when you need help.

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When it comes to talking to your boyfriend, roommate, or other loved ones, it might help to ask about their stress levels before bringing up a difficult topic: “Do you have some time today to listen to me talk about _____? I’ve been having a tough time with it lately, but if now’s a bad time, I can talk to someone else.” You don’t have to have a formal script prepared—you can just ask if they’ve got the time and reassure them that they’re not your only option if the answer is “No” or “Not now.” But the mere existence of problems isn’t a burden for the people who care about you. You can bring them up conscientiously without worrying you’re a drain on your loved ones! As long as you make sure to give them space when they need it and occasionally ask them about how they’re doing in return, I don’t think you have any reason to fear you’ll tax them.

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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

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Dear Prudence,

My 47-year-old stepson has been unemployed for more than five years and has burned through most of his savings and 401(k). Being unable to afford to keep living in California, he moved in with me and my wife on her urging. In three months all he has done is play video games, emerging only to eat. When approached about finding a job, he says, “When COVID is gone.” I feel we are enabling him. My wife doesn’t want to talk about it. I feel alone in my thoughts.

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—Endless Vacation

I’d feel alone too, given your position! It certainly doesn’t seem like your wife is very interested in your input on this subject. She invited her son to move in with you two, and she doesn’t seem to have drawn up anything like a lease, a time frame, or anything in the way of house rules or shared domestic responsibilities for this new living arrangement. She also doesn’t even want to discuss the possibility of coming up with ground rules with you now. That’s pretty dispiriting!

If your stepson has been out of work for half a decade and spends every day playing video games, I think it’s unlikely that he’s suddenly going to turn into a motivated go-getter once the vaccine has been widely distributed, so I’d advise you to consider his tenancy as something long term rather than something you can try to outlast in another few months. Can you imagine yourself living with the two of them for years to come, even if he never gets a job or does much to help out around the house? What would peaceful neutrality look like between you, your stepson, and your wife? If you can’t imagine that, are you prepared to tell your wife that you’re unwilling to live with her son past a certain date? In that event, you should prepare yourself for the very real possibility that her response will look something like, “Sorry to hear that, but my son comes first. If you have to move out, there’s the door.”

Classic Prudie

In the past year, my 18-year-old cat has been diagnosed as blind in one eye, with severe glaucoma in the other, and now diabetes. Combined, his medications and special food cost approximately $400 per month. I wanted to have a discussion to determine at what point we would want to have the cat put down. My husband freaked out and accused me of trying to MURDER the cat. To this day, he refuses to discuss it and will often say things to the cat (while in my presence) like, “Don’t worry, buddy, I won’t let momma kill you.” To be clear, I did not want to have the cat put down right now. I just wanted to begin the conversation so that we would both be prepared. How can I address this with him without being accused of caticide?

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