Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
When I was 10, my then 16-year-old stepsister Corrine moved in with my family. Her mom kicked her out for breaking curfew. Corrine and my mom clashed; she got my room, while I had to move in with my sister, and I was bitterly jealous of her being our dad’s biological daughter. So, I framed her for stealing and destroying my mom’s heirlooms. When Corrine refused to confess, my parents sent her to live with relatives while everyone calmed down. At the time, I was terrified to tell the truth, lest I be sent away. The guilt over what I did to Corrine has haunted me ever since.
Now we’re grown up. Corrine ran away from the relatives and was homeless for a few years. She now refuses to speak to my parents, who deeply regret sending her away. I know I need to confess to my parents and apologize to Corrine, but I am terrified of how everyone will react. My dad will never forgive himself for failing Corrine, and it would destroy me to lose his love, although I deserve it. I don’t know what to say, because nothing in the world will make what I did okay or fix the hurt I caused.
How should I begin to confess?
My editor and I think this sounds like the plot of a 19th-century novel but we can’t figure out which one. But the important thing is, you’re probably not the first (fictional or real) person to experience something like this—and more important, you are not unforgivable. You did a mean, immature, childish thing. Because you were a child! A child who was going through a tough time! The blame here is on your parents, who failed to give Corrine unconditional love, and ruined her life based on the allegations of another kid. Good parents don’t abandon children for misbehaving. Forgive yourself.
Given what I know about your dad from your letter, I don’t think he would take your confession well, and he may in fact take his love away from you. Because he’s not a reasonable person. So don’t tell him, but if you do have a chance to apologize to Corrine for the role you played, do it. Chances are, she knows her father well enough that she’ll understand where the blame belongs.
I have been married for almost five years. My husband and I have two children, ages 4 and 2. Whenever we get into a conflict, my husband is always passive aggressively taking the 4-year-old for a “fun trip” and not inviting me. I have observed this behavior before we got married, with our dogs. He would take the dogs out to “have fun,” isolating me immediately after a fight just to spite me. He also often tells my 4-year-old that I always ruin their fun (I am stricter about rules). Now my 4-year-old, when being punished by me, will cry to daddy and say “mommy always tries to ruin our fun.”
We’ve talked about this multiple times. I told my husband that this behavior is hurtful to me and harmful to our kids. However, I am not sure I am seeing a lot of changes. I don’t think I am so small that I would do the same thing to spite him back. But what if our children become distant from me in the future because of what my husband frequently jokes/says to them? That would absolutely break my heart. While I am the primary breadwinner in the house, I am also the primary caretaker, discipliner, and cleaning lady. There isn’t as much energy left for me to play with them—I am definitely less “fun.”
There are other issues in my marriage (probably in many people’s marriages), but they are not as big as this one. I don’t know if I should cut my losses right now because I feel like I can see the writing’s on the wall or if I should actually wait it out since there are no other major deal-breakers.
— Should I Divorce?
Dear Should I Divorce,
Taking your child away and saying negative things about you isn’t passive-aggressive, it’s aggressive-aggressive. And just plain mean. I wonder whether the “other issues” in your marriage, while different, stem from the same place: his vindictiveness and desire to punish you when you have a disagreement. Divorce isn’t easy, and of course if you go through with it you’ll likely have to share custody, which means your husband will have plenty of time to try to turn the kids against you (even more!) if he wants to. So I don’t recommend it lightly, and you could, of course, attempt couples therapy first (though I am not hopeful about his investment in that process). But as the primary breadwinner, you’re in a better position than most to listen to your gut (which is screaming “you don’t deserve to be treated this way!”) and make a move. And honestly, any time you’re asking yourself “Should I cut my losses now because I feel like I can see the writing’s the wall,” I think you already know what you have to do.
How to Get Advice From Prudie
I started dating a guy last month. I thought he really liked me. Last week we were watching an obscure TV show that we both like. We were talking about a couple of the female characters, and he said one of them was not his type. The weird thing is that I’ve always thought I looked a little like her. I’ve been feeling weird about this for days. I’ve known this guy for a while and have always kind of thought he was desperate for a girlfriend. I’m now worried that he’s not actually attracted to me. I definitely don’t look like the female character he thought was attractive. I don’t really know how to bring this up. I feel like he would just tell me he didn’t think I looked like the character. Is there some way I can tell for sure?
— Not Just a Pretty Face
Dear Pretty Face,
I wouldn’t read too much into his comment. While for some people having a “type” means everyone they’ve dated looks like they could be related, for others it’s more of a statement about their favorite celebrity that has little to do with real life. Plus, attraction has a lot of parts, including personality and chemistry. It’s possible he’s very into you as a whole package. BUT! The line in your letter that jumped out at me was “I have always kind of thought he was desperate for a girlfriend.” Pay attention to that feeling. I’m not saying you should break up, but if you have the sense that he was simply looking for a warm body to date and would have settled for anyone, you may be on to something. It’s early, so continue to keep an open mind, but observe how he treats you and how compatible you feel—and don’t be afraid to decide that the kind of connection you have isn’t your “type” and move on.
I’m in my early thirties and moved away from my small hometown to a big city for my dream job 10 years ago. It’s about a four-hour car ride away. My other two sisters have also moved away (two and six hours away respectively). My mom is devastated (my dad is too, but less vocally); she wanted to be the matriarch to a big family with loads of grandkids, but we’ve all moved away. I get why she’s upset, especially as her sister has the life my mom wants with an army of kids around. I feel bad that my happiness appears to be incompatible with hers.
But it’s been 10 years, and she still cries when I leave after a visit. Yet she’s never visited my home as she doesn’t like the big city. We talk all the time, and she talks to my sisters every day as well, but we’re constantly walking on eggshells. If there’s anything less than perfect in my life, her only suggestion is to move back to my hometown. If my nephew is having struggles, Mom suggests it’s because he’s not close enough to his family. She’s constantly making snide and bitter remarks that she is actively unhappy that we’re not around. She’s suggested 10 years is enough time to have a career and get it out of my system, but now I should come home. I’m exhausted. I’ve called her out on it, that it’s not fair that her dreams and happiness depend on us living the life she wants for us, not the lives that we’ve chosen for ourselves. I’ve suggested she get therapy, but she’s basically told me she’s choosing to be unhappy. I think she resents us as we’ve chosen to leave but she’s chosen to stay to be near her mom.
I love her so much and it kills me that she’s this sad. I really don’t think she gets that she’s pushing us away or how hurt and sad her comments make us. I know I can’t fix it—I just can’t see a way of making this situation more tolerable.
— Not What Mom Wanted
Dear Not What Mom Wanted,
This sounds incredibly hard and draining. I wish I had some concrete ideas (Get your dad to talk to her! Get your sisters to join you in confronting her! Remind her that four hours is nothing and the city will not kill her!), but I’m not sure there’s anything you can do to change your mom.
The good news is, therapy is made for situations that feel hopeless because of the way someone else’s actions and feelings (which may never change) are bringing you down, and I definitely suggest that you go. You won’t learn how to get your mom to think differently, but you might learn techniques for dealing with this that allow you to continue loving her while being less affected by her unreasonable demands, and less hurt and sad. Which is what you deserve.
Dear Prudence Uncensored
“Like, what if you just said, ‘I am Never Ever moving home.’ What happens?”
Jenée Desmond-Harris and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.
I used to volunteer 4-to-5 hours a week at a local food bank. Mostly stock shelving and bookkeeping related stuff. It felt good to help out, there is a definite need, and I was working with like-minded good people, or so I thought. Towards last May, somehow politics came up, and I mentioned how I never vote in presidential elections because I believe the electoral college system is fundamentally unfair, since the individual voter’s fraction of an electoral college vote differs from state to state. I also added that I did vote for a republican in the congressional representative role and for two of the local political candidates, for fiscal policy reasons.
Two days later I got an email saying to never come back, that they did not wish to associate with conspiracy theorists, and they were glad that I was never front-facing. I worked with these people for years and somehow my “conspiracy theories” never came up, probably because they do not exist.
Since then, I’ve had extra time on my hands. And I know that I ought to find somewhere else in a similar role to volunteer, get back on the community outreach and help wagon again. I still think it’s important, and there is still a definite need. Every time I think about it, I lose all energy to continue and get angry about how idiotically tribalistic they were at the place I used to help at. And it’s been close to six months and I still haven’t gotten around to it, even though I keep telling myself “yeah, I should start again soon.” How do I regain my motivation?
— Trying to Regain the Spark
Dear Regain the Spark,
To regain motivation, think about the impact you hope your volunteer work will have for the people served by the organizations you volunteer for. Also pay attention to the key word in “volunteer work”: work! The goal isn’t to have fun or be treated nicely. You’re doing it (hopefully) so that fewer people go hungry, not to be validated by your colleagues. Also, if you’re able to regain your energy and get involved again, mentally prepare yourself for a not-so-great reaction if you advertise that you make political choices in support of candidates and policies that many in the social services world will view as making life worse for the very people everyone’s trying to help. Indeed, good “fiscal policy” from your point of view might very well mean fewer resources and more suffering for them. That’s something you’re not going to be able to avoid, so it may be best to sidestep the subject entirely.
Give Prudie a Hand in “We’re Prudence”
Sometimes even Prudence needs a little help. Every Thursday in this column, we’ll post a question that has her stumped. This week’s tricky situation is below. Join the conversation about it on Twitter with Jenée @jdesmondharris on Thursday, and then look back for the final answer here on Friday.
My family moved from one state to another when I was in my late teens. I stayed behind to help my aunt recover from surgery. During this time, I had a one-night stand and found that I was pregnant. I confided this in my aunt, and she asked what I wanted to do. Abortion seemed too scary, and I said that I’d like to adopt the baby out. She arranged with my parents that I could stay with her until I graduated high school and helped me arrange the baby’s adoption. Right or wrong, this was done without informing my parents and after the delivery, adoption, and graduation, I joined my family in our new state with no one the wiser.
I’ve never second-guessed this decision, but my sister contacted me last week saying that someone on a DNA ancestry site came back as related to her, and she couldn’t figure out how. After she shared a couple of pictures of this person, it didn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that it’s the baby I had twenty years ago—they bear little resemblance to me but have the very striking features that attracted me to their father. Their age and region are accurate to being my baby as well.
I had no intention of saying anything about how this person is related to us, but since discovering them, my sister has been theorizing that our dad may have had an affair. I don’t know what my next move here should be. I never expected to hear of this baby ever again, but they’re in active communication with my sister trying to figure out where the family tie is. I feel like it’s only a matter of time before they or my sister find themselves on the right trail.
I never did and still don’t want to meet or interact with them. What my family chooses to do whether they puzzle this out on their own or whether I “come clean” is up to them; I just don’t know what I should do or say from here. I know that regardless of how the family connections are discovered, it’s going to be a rocky road with a lot of questions ahead, many of which I believe aren’t anyone’s business but my own.
—Not the Plan
I have been with my husband for over 20 years, married for 15. He is 54 and I am 61. He adores me and has never been anything but happy with our life. However, in the last couple of years, I have had some major health issues that have changed our lives somewhat. He doesn’t complain and is right there to help me with anything, but I feel that I am becoming a burden. How do I stop feeling that I am holding him down from enjoying his life? I love him so much and I don’t want to ruin the rest of his life.
— Holding Him Back
Dear Holding Him Back,
When you got married, did he know you were seven years older than him? Was he familiar with the way people tend to deal with medical issues later in life? Was there anything in your vows that touched on the idea of loving each other unconditionally, perhaps “in sickness and in health?” I’m guessing the answers to all these questions are yes! You need to think about why you don’t believe you’re deserving of care and companionship even when you’re not at your best, and why you can’t see that having you as a partner adds value to your husband’s life. And then, with the help of a therapist or some good conversations with him, begin to change your thinking. I’m sure you’re suffering enough as a result of your medical issues—please don’t add to your pain by refusing to accept that the person who promised to love you forever actually does.
I recently caught my fiancé and his sister together and broke up with him. I’d always gotten a strange feeling about their closeness, but I didn’t believe it until I saw with my own eyes. To my family and friends, it seems like I woke up one morning and decided not to get married. Everyone is pushing me to work things out with my fiancé. Initially, I wanted to keep what I saw between them and me. If I tell people they have an incestuous relationship, it would probably destroy their lives. I know they’re barely functioning and terrified I will tell people about them. I’m worried I will seem spiteful if I tell even a few trusted loved ones the real reason I called off the wedding. At the same time, I’m heartbroken too and don’t know how much longer I can handle lectures about “letting a good man get away.” Should I stay quiet or speak up?