Dear Prudence

Help! My Cheating Husband Returns Every Christmas to Dampen the Mood.

We’re tired of having to tiptoe around him all day.

Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Basilico Studio Stock/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Samtoon/Getty Images Plus.
A woman holds her head and looks down at a present with an illustrated Christmas tree behind her.

Our advice columnists have heard it all over the years. Each Sunday, we dive into the Dear Prudie archives and share a selection of classic letters with our readers. Join Slate Plus for even more advice columns—your first month is only $1.

Dear Prudence,

Several years ago my husband had an affair that resulted in a child. Although we’re still married and he has no interest in a divorce, he lives with the child and her mother. Our family has been shattered, and my children occasionally say things that let me know they still carry a tremendous burden of hurt. But we all believe the child bears no responsibility and deserves a father. The mother of the child, however, will never be accepted into our lives. A major problem arises around the holidays. My husband insists on coming over for Christmas, but isn’t present in any meaningful sense. He just stares straight ahead. He criticizes little things, opens gifts but never takes them with him, and refuses any offers of food. Nothing we do makes him happy and the harder we try the unhappier he seems. I know therapy for everyone is the answer but he’s never been one to open up and previous efforts have been fruitless. What can we do to make his Christmas visit a little less awkward and perhaps even pleasant? I hate to see him so unhappy, but we’re tired of having to tiptoe around him all day.

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You all deserve a zombie-free Christmas this year. Scrooge had nothing on your husband with his thousand-yard stare, his nastiness, and his refusal to interact with his own children or take part in the holiday. I don’t even understand why he comes—unless it’s to make everyone glad he left. If you are able to communicate with him, you need to have a conversation explaining that merely showing up is not enough. If he can’t interact pleasantly with his family, his presence will cause more pain than his absence. More important than Christmas, however, is addressing your oversight in not making this man your ex long ago. He has abandoned all of you, yet apparently shows up once a year to play paterfamilias, an impersonation that could better be described as paterunfamiliar. As a gift to yourself, hire a divorce lawyer, end the marriage, and get your financial and custody issues addressed. Surely, your children would be helped by having this kind of clarity. I agree about the benefits of therapy, but your I hope soon-to-be-ex does not have to accompany you. You and your kids all need help in sorting out the pain their father has inflicted and guidance in taking steps toward healing. Your children need to understand his leaving, and even his strange Christmas behavior, has nothing to do with them; sadly their father is a troubled and limited man. Once the lawyers get involved, they can help work out a schedule for visitation so that your husband can establish a relationship with his children separate from you. It’s likely he will take your kids to his new home. That would mean they interact with their half sibling and her mother, which I know would be painful for you. But for your New Year’s resolution, decide to work at ending this limbo and moving on. —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! My Husband Abandoned Us but Returns to Sulk During Christmas.” (Dec. 12, 2013)

Dear Prudence,

I have been with my husband for seven years and we have been married for a little less than one. He is the love of my life and we have a lot in common but there is one thing we cannot seem to agree on. A couple of times a month, I like to go out with my friends dancing or to a bar, generally from about 9 p.m. until after midnight. My husband says this is inappropriate for a married woman. We’re all in our late 20s and early 30s. It’s a mostly female group, but our male friends are invited and often come as well. Most of us are in long-term relationships and we mostly enjoy each other’s company, dance, drink, play games, and so on. I’ve invited my husband but he doesn’t like to be up and out late and when he does come he becomes a wet mop, telling me to stop dancing, counting my drinks, and pushing to leave early. Here’s the solution we’ve settled on: I go out, he stays home, we agree on when I’ll be home and roughly how many drinks I will have, and I make sure I’m reachable at all times. Prudie, my parents trusted me enough not to give me a curfew when I was a teenager! Despite this arrangement, my husband’s mood often sours before I leave and stays bad through the following day, and the haggling over the terms of my hanging out feels like a fight we keep repeating with no resolution.

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I’ve asked what he doesn’t like about my going out and whether he worries I’m going to cheat on him. He says he doesn’t—he just thinks it’s “inappropriate.” He doesn’t mind when I go out to brunch with friends or other daytime activities. My thoughts are that I am not doing anything wrong, and I should be able to go out with my friends without feeling like I need to abide by his rules. He thinks I need to stop “acting like I’m single.” Am I wrong?

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There is no one right way for a wife to act, and your husband is attempting to avoid taking responsibility for his own feelings, fears, and insecurities by claiming that going out with friends a few times a month is simply “inappropriate” for any married woman to do. Unless you have a history of getting wasted and behaving badly at these events (and it doesn’t sound like they’re drunken bacchanals), there’s no reason for your husband to begrudge you a few drinks with friends or to insist on knowing your whereabouts. I’m not sure what underlies this insecurity on your husband’s part—does he feel like the two of you don’t spend enough time together? Does he depend on you to organize his social life? Is he unable to make plans of his own that he might enjoy on your occasional nights out? Why does he conflate “spending time with friends in public” with “acting single”? Now that the two of you are married, does he think you need to change the way you socialize since you’re “his” now? But he needs to get honest about what he’s afraid of, with you and with himself. Moreover, he needs to stop trying to control your behavior in order to manage his own anxieties because that’s the quickest way he can drive you away from him. —Daniel M. Lavery

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From: “Help! My Husband Hates It When I Go Out Dancing With My Friends.” (Aug. 16, 2018)

Dear Prudence,

This is going to sound like a ridiculous problem. I work part time at my mom’s office, and one of my co-workers repeatedly tickles me. If I happen to be standing while sorting out documents or something, she will sneak up behind me and either poke or tickle my sides. It irritates the hell out of me as I am an extremely ticklish person. I usually burst into giggles and she seems to find this amusing. I have asked her to stop, politely and firmly, then angrily. She thinks the whole thing is a joke and doesn’t take me seriously. I am the youngest employee here, and she does this only to me, maybe because she thinks it’s a cute way of relating to the little girl who works at the office. I have to restrain myself from punching her in the face because it’s been going on for several weeks. I can’t exactly avoid her in a small office, either. When I told Mom how annoying this co-worker was, she didn’t really respond, because, “Mom, Sally at work keeps tickling me” doesn’t sound like a big problem. I’m thinking of quitting my job because this is so annoying and I HATE, HATE, HATE being tickled. Can you offer any advice on how to get her to stop?

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This is not a little problem, this is abuse. I’m startled your mother wouldn’t pull this co-worker aside and tell her to keep her mitts off her daughter. The next time Funny Fingers approaches you, say in a voice loud enough for those around you to hear, “Shirley, don’t ever touch me again.” If she lays a hand on you, you of course must do what you can to get away from her. You don’t want to punch her in the face, but you are certainly free to elbow her away (yes, I expect to hear from the lawyers now) or stomp on her foot to protect yourself. If this doesn’t stop the attacks, go to the boss. And if you have to, yes, find a job elsewhere. —E.Y.

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From: “Cat fanciers, fat boyfriends, violent video games, and risqué wardrobes.” (May 16, 2011)

Dear Prudence,

My oldest son is engaged to who I thought was a lovely, upstanding girl. I admit the wedding details have been difficult, and they had to change the dates twice due to family illness and other events, but I never thought they would secretly elope. Apparently last week, my son called up his brother and told him to come down to City Hall. They were going to get married with no family, no priest, only a clerk and some of her college friends. My son’s wife said the wedding was too stressful for her to deal with. I only found out because I overheard my youngest son telling his girlfriend about it! I am very hurt. I was denied and lied to. Neither of them know that I know and the thought of continuing to plan the charade of this wedding with my now daughter-in-law just makes me ill. Should I confront them or just go through with this charade?

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I hope, in a quieter moment, you can reread your own letter and see the clues as to why your son and daughter-in-law decided to elope. I’m sure you are also a lovely, upstanding person, but you have been “denied” nothing. Your son does not owe you a wedding. He and his wife are not planning a charade while snickering behind your back. They are planning a public celebration of a wedding they have already commemorated privately. It’s interesting to me that you mention your son got married with “no family” even though his brother was actually in attendance. I think what you mean is that he got married without you, and that’s what stings.

The larger ceremony is not somehow fraudulent because they decided to exchange vows in a more intimate fashion. The longer you think of your son’s wedding as an act of betrayal he committed in order to hurt you, the more needless pain you’ll put yourself and your family through. If you want to have an honest conversation with your son about the fact that he’s already gotten married, that’s one thing, but drop the idea of confronting them over a perceived wrong they didn’t commit. This is not about you, and treating it as such will only deny yourself the opportunity to share in your child’s happiness. Take a long walk and cry it out, or write an angry letter you then burn in the fireplace, or talk to a therapist, but find a way to deal with your sense of having been wronged on your own time. If you can’t stand the thought of keeping this secret for the rest of your life, consider this as an alternative to a furious confrontation: Keep this to yourself until the wedding, and then when you send off the happy couple at the end of the night, tell them, “I know you eloped, but I’m so glad we still got to celebrate your wedding together. Have a wonderful honeymoon.” This would shock and delight, rather than shock and upset them. —D.L.

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From: “Help! My Son Eloped and I’m Still Stuck Planning the Charade of His Wedding.” (July 14, 2016)

More From Dear Prudence

My GF and I recently started having sex. I’m not sure the best way to explain it, so I’m going to just give you some examples of things she says during sex. “You’re doing great!” “Your technique and fundamentals are really good.” (While going down on her:) “Yes! Keep going! You can do it!” “Wow! That’s good. You must have been practicing!” Mind you, let me reiterate, these are things she is saying WHILE we are having sex. What is this all about?

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