Dear Prudence is online weekly to chat live with readers. Here’s an edited transcript of this week’s chat.
Danny Lavery: Welcome back to another week of human imperfection! Let’s get started.
Q. I want to puke: I recently found out that my husband has been sexting his cousin! I’m at a loss. Just devastated. It’s bad enough that he has been sexting another woman, but it is with his first cousin and it has been going on for years! We’ve been married for 30 years! I feel like if it were any other woman, I could deal with this. And, my God, I wish it was someone else.
I feel trapped! I feel like I can’t talk to anyone about this! All I can think of is how disgusting and disappointed my children, who are in their 20s, and his family would be. We spend a lot of time together with his family and are very close. (No pun intended.) His sisters are like sisters to me. In fact, one of the sisters is best friends with the cousin! I can’t think straight! Please help me help myself! They both have said it hasn’t gone beyond texting, but from the messages I saw, I believe it would or could have.
A: You can, and should, talk to people about this! There is no good reason to keep this to yourself. You are devastated, you’re right to be devastated, and you’re going to need a great deal of support as you figure out your next move, so start thinking about at least one person you can share this with. You mention your fear of your children and your husband’s family’s reactions, and while it makes sense that that would be at the forefront of your mind, I don’t think you need to worry about that just yet. Your kids can’t be your primary support as you divorce your husband, and neither can your in-laws. Start with a therapist, if you can get an appointment soon, and a friend or relative of your own whom you can share the first wave of your grief, anger, and shock with. Don’t worry yet about how you’ll break the news to others; cross that bridge when you get to it. But the hardest step will be going from “No one knows about this but the three of us” to “It’s out in the open.” Once you’ve told one person, it will get—I won’t say easier, because this is not an easy situation—but it will feel less radical and disruptive to go from one to two and then from four to five, than it felt to go from zero to one.
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Q. That’s not my TikTok! I’m a second-year university student with a very distinctive name (think Martina Hingis). My first and last names are much more common in Europe than North America. I’m aiming to go to law school, so maintaining a professional image online is crucial. I’m also looking for a summer research job right now, so last night I was Googling my name to make sure that nothing embarrassing comes up. On the very first page, I saw a TikTok account belonging to someone with the exact same name who posts videos of themselves engaging in not-so-lawyer-like behavior (i.e., getting drunk at parties). I don’t have any pictures online that clearly show my face, but from the pictures that are out there, it’s possible someone might mistake me for this person. What should I do to avoid being confused with the party animal? Or should I just let it go?
A: You can’t control what someone else with your name (even a very distinct one) might do, and it would probably be going too far to include a line on your résumé to the effect of “By the way, I’m not the Martina Hingis on TikTok.” But you might mention it during job interviews, toward the end of your conversation after you’ve addressed more important issues: ”I don’t have much of an online presence, but there are a few different social media accounts from people who share my name. It’s much more common outside of North America, and I wanted to let you know, since we’ve occasionally been mistaken for one another.”
Q. Traumatic birthday: I come from a very close family. A bit more than two years ago, my older brother died by suicide. He was 35. It was highly traumatic for my whole family (my parents and my three surviving siblings, as well as myself). Of course, there is a lot of grieving and recovering to do for all of us, but the bit that is mine alone is that he killed himself on my birthday. I have gone through a lot of counseling and hard work to process the event, and have made a lot of progress.
When my birthday rolls around, though, it inevitably leads to a disagreement with my mother about what to do. I strongly don’t want to celebrate my birthday on that day. I feel it’s inappropriate and puts us all in a weird position of faking happy when we are all of course thinking about this horrible thing that happened to our loved one. And a selfish part of me wants, after all the hard times, to be able to have a nice birthday. So it’s my preference to celebrate on a different day. This causes conflict with my mother, who is of the view that my birth was a very happy day for her and that it’s nice to have a distraction on the anniversary of his death. We cannot seem to agree on this issue at all, and it drives me crazy that she won’t listen.
Everyone apart from my mother says that it’s up to me and they will do whatever I want. The problem with that is I have no idea what I want or what the right thing is. There’s no rule book for celebrating a birthday when your brother died in a horrible way; I have even Googled it and can’t find anyone who has been through such a thing! Please tell me what’s the appropriate way to celebrate a birthday when someone died by suicide that day?
A: I’m so sorry you have to contend with this—it’s awful. You say you have no idea what you want toward the end of your letter, but it seems like you actually do—when you say celebrating your birthday on the actual day feels inappropriate, rings hollow, and forces you to feign an excitement you don’t feel, and that you want to celebrate on a different day, when you can really focus. That sounds very clear to me! You don’t have to worry about getting your mother to agree to feel the same way on your technical birthday, but it’s perfectly reasonable to set your own terms. If she wants to privately reflect on your birth as a source of solace and joy on the anniversary of your brother’s death, I hope she feels immense freedom to do so, and that it brings her comfort. She can even discuss those feelings with her own friends or other relatives on that day.
You’re not asking her to stop thinking about you on that anniversary; you’re just telling her that you’ve decided to celebrate on another day, and that you’re not available for any birthday-related activities/wishes/conversations on that day. It’s not at all uncommon for people grieving the same loss to have different, sometimes even slightly contradictory needs; you can care for one another deeply and affirm one another’s position while also sometimes putting your own interests first. That doesn’t mean your mother needs to change her own interests; merely that one day a year, you two will need to find slightly different solutions.
Q. Kids’ table: I’m a member of a large, very tightknit family. Before the pandemic, we had family dinners every week with a lot of extended family (aunts, uncles, cousins). Several of us have been vaccinated and once everyone has completed their vaccination course, I’m sure these dinners will continue.
My younger sister got pregnant at 15. She’s now 19 and married with three kids. I’m 24 and very happily single. For some bizarre reason, I’m always relegated to the kids’ table, while my sister and her husband get to sit with the adults. I love my little cousins (and nieces and nephews) but the closest in age to me is 12 years old, and sometimes I’d like to participate in conversation with adults in my family. I’ve tried to tactfully mention it in passing to one of my aunts who usually hosts, but she brushed me off. I’m hesitant to bring it up because I don’t want to seem like I’m throwing a childish tantrum, but I’m a little irritated that I’m relegated to sit with the kids because I made better life choices than my sister. Is there a script to not sound like a whiny baby when I bring this up again with my family?
A: Just because someone else treats you like a child for expressing a perfectly reasonable objection does not mean you are acting like a child. Insisting that a 24-year-old sit with the children (at weekly dinners, no less) simply because they are the only unmarried adult in the family is itself a bizarrely childish thing to do! Wanting to have dinner at the same table as the other adults is not “throwing a tantrum.” You don’t have to mention it tactfully or ask for permission. You should be polite, of course, and don’t throw down an ultimatum preemptively, but it’s an abundantly reasonable expectation, and if none of the hosts are willing to offer you a seat at the table, declining to attend is an equally reasonable response. You’re being put in a ridiculous position, not because talking to younger relatives is inherently demeaning, but because you’re being singled out and infantilized simply because you’re not married.
Q. Divorced friend won’t move on: I have a friend who separated from her husband two years ago. A year after the separation, she filed for divorce. The divorce has been finalized. We took her on a divorce-cation and did a big symbolic burning of their wedding photos. We’ve had celebrations about finalizing multiple versions of paperwork, and she’s even had a new boyfriend for the better part of a year.
But she still goes on and on about her ex when we hang out. She plays sad songs that remind her of him, and she cries at me all the time. I’ve tried to suggest going to therapy, but she rejects that idea on the basis that nothing is wrong with her—she thinks it’s totally reasonable to carry on like this. It is getting to the point that I don’t want to hang out with her because all she wants to do is cry, complain, or plot against her ex. Am I being insensitive? If not, how do I get her to move on?
A: The good news is that you’re not being insensitive by wanting to change how much time and space you grant to conversations about your friend’s divorce after two years of granting it a great deal of time and space, indeed. The other good news is that you do not have to “get her to move on” in order to make that change. She doesn’t have to move on at all in order to meet you in the middle! She doesn’t have to go to therapy, or think about him any less, or feel any differently about their divorce. (And, as much as she’s been trespassing on your good nature lately, she’d be entitled to bristle if you told her she had to “move on” emotionally at your request.) Simply tell her that you’re no longer available to have long conversations about him after two years, and that from now on, you’re going to intervene if she tries to dwell on him when you get together. Don’t get bogged down in trying to convince her that something is wrong with her, or that she has to feel any one way about that relationship. All you need to say is that after two years, you need her ex-husband to take a back seat in future conversations. If she needs to find additional outlets as a result of that change, she’s free to do so. If she tries to claim that this means you’re being insensitive or no longer care about her feelings, lovingly disagree with her. Caring about her pain does not mean signing up for endless, repetitive, one-sided discussions that never stray to other subjects or turn to how your life is going.
Q. Butt crack blues: My husband is very tall. And because most of his shirts don’t come down very far, you can see the top of his butt crack almost all of the time. I have been pointing it out for years and he claims he can’t help it. He says since he is tall and chubby, this is just the way pants fit him. This happens with every kind of pant: jeans, khakis, athletic shorts, pajama bottoms. I find it embarrassing when this happens in public, and I don’t like that our children see it at home all the time. I wouldn’t consider myself all that conservative when it comes to dress; short shorts, bare midriffs, and anyone going braless don’t bother me, but I guess I draw the line at butt cracks. Do you think I am unnecessarily hung up on this, or should my husband learn to wear pants higher up on his waist?
A: I don’t doubt that most clothes do hang that way on your husband, but neither do I think you’re unreasonable for wanting him to make adjustments. It can be really difficult to find well-tailored clothing if you’re especially tall, and while I don’t want to encourage you to spring a surprise makeover on your husband, it might be worth looking for shirts and pants at stores specifically targeting big/tall men; there are a lot more than there used to be even a few years ago. He might feel embarrassed, so raise the subject as tactfully as you can (but not so tactfully you sound like you’re whispering at a funeral)—but there’s a straightforward solution to this problem.
Q. Love stinks! I’m madly in love with my girlfriend. She is the most kind-hearted, beautiful person I’ve ever met in my life. We have been together almost two and a half years and have been living with each other for about 10 months, and it’s been awesome.
There is just one thing bothering me: her breath. I’ve casually brought up a dentist, mentioned here and there that she had “morning breath,” but her breath still stinks. I don’t want to hurt her feelings, so I’ve said these things very rarely and delicately. But I’m so turned off by her breath that I can’t kiss her with an open mouth or allow her to go down on me. I want to, but I am just so grossed out. What should I say or do so I can make out with my soul mate again?
A: It’s never fun to hurt the feelings of someone you love, obviously, and there is really no great way to tell someone their breath smells bad. But if there were any way to address it without a difficult conversation, I think you’d have hit upon it sometime in the last two and a half years. The fact that you’ve only hinted and let it go for so long might make it feel daunting, but it’s your only option. You can either talk to her seriously about it and try to find a real solution, or else try to make your peace with never giving your soul mate more than a peck on the cheek again.
Pulling off the Band-Aid is the way to go here. Be loving and tactful, prepare yourself for her to feel chagrined no matter how lovingly you speak, and make an appointment to see her dentist together. There are plenty of possible solutions—plus there may be some serious underlying gum or tooth issues that need to be addressed!—to your problem, but you can only take advantage of those solutions when you both know how serious the problem is. Her breath smells bad, and you’re the most qualified person to tell her.
Q. Re: I want to puke: This is your husband’s shame, not yours. You have nothing to hide. Tragically, people often blame the victimized spouse for being cheated on (does it sound like I’m speaking from experience?), but since his cousin is his cheating partner, there’s some extra intensity that may help people see it from your side. Sing it from the rooftops, my friend. Don’t suffer alone.
A: I’ll stop short of recommending the letter writer sing about it, but I’ll heartily echo the advice not to suffer alone. Feeling secondhand shame or embarrassment makes sense to me, but you’re absolutely right that the shame does not belong to this letter writer, and that she deserves nothing but attention, help, and support right now.
Q. Re: That’s not my TikTok! It might be wise of “Martina” to set up a professional online presence with a clearly professional photo via a platform like LinkedIn. If they were to include that information on a résumé or as an online link, a recruiter would receive subtle clues about who they are and are not. Martina could then offer further clarification in an interview. As a university student, their career center can provide guidance on how to start a profile that will attract, and not detract, employers.
A: That’s a great idea. She doesn’t have to commit to keeping up a TikTok account of her own or anything that would require much ongoing attention, but it will help to have something minimal-yet-clear as an alternative to the other Martinas out there.
Q. 8.5: I’ve been with my boyfriend for about six months. He’s been wonderful with my 4-year-old son (who has started calling him daddy!), and we recently started living together. The problem is he just told me he considers me only an 8.5 on the hotness scale and doesn’t think our sex life the best he’s ever had but that he’s happy to settle based on the whole package. I think we’re very well-matched (hotness-wise), but I don’t compare him to other men in that way. I’ve also tried to improve our sex life, without much luck. My question is: How should I feel about his revelation? Do I deserve more from a partner, in terms of feeling sexy and loved? Or should I stick with it for the sake of my son?
Now available in your podcast player: the audiobook edition of Danny M. Lavery’s latest book, Something That May Shock and Discredit You. Get it from Slate.