Dear Prudence

Help! I Have a Crazy Idea for How to Break Up With My Fiancé.

And still get everything I want.

Hands exchanging an engagement ring; an exit symbol.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Elena Nelyubia/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)

Dear Prudence,

I no longer feel sexually or romantically interested in my fiancé, but I still love him very much. He’s my favorite person in the world, and the thought of not getting to see him every day feels really devastating, even as I feel increasingly stifled at the thought of carrying on an intimate relationship. I’ve been struggling with depression, and I had hoped that I would feel more enthusiastic about the relationship again as that faded. But even as other parts of my life are getting back on track, my feelings towards my fiancé aren’t.

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We’ve talked fairly openly about how rocky our relationship feels right now and that I’m no longer sure if we have a future. We stopped planning the wedding, and pretty much took sex off the table when depression tanked my libido. But my fiancé still openly hopes that everything will go back to how it was.

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What I would most like is to say is: Let’s break up but stay best friends. Let’s be roommates and co-parent our dog and date new people and introduce them to each other and manage the inevitable weird feelings as they come up. But I’m terrified that he’d say no and I’d lose him altogether—and even more terrified that he’d say yes because he doesn’t want to end things, and then resent me for it. So right now, I’m not doing anything at all, just limping along in a relationship I secretly believe is doomed. Can you help me break this paralysis?

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— Longing for That Awkward Sitcom Life

Dear Longing,

It sounds like you’re farther along on the path toward a relationship dissolution than either of you is admitting right now. Yes, your fiancé is openly hoping that things will shift back to what they were, but from the way your letter presents the situation, it seems that no one is under any illusions about the state of things. You’re terrified that your fiancé won’t want to carry on a platonic relationship, and you’re terrified that he’ll go along with your wacky modern sitcom plan to appease you, but neither of the solutions you posed involved actually staying together. So the paralysis you’re feeling is less about the misalignment between you and your fiancé, and more about the misalignment between what you want (to break up) and what you’re doing (staying together).

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Changing is okay and it doesn’t make you the villain. From what you’ve written, it sounds like you have a communicative relationship with your fiancé. You’re in a good spot, tough though it may be. But you want to be in an ideal spot, past all the messiness of breaking up. That’s where you’re getting tripped up. You can’t skip over the hard part, I’m sorry to say.

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But, for a moment, let’s fast-forward to the future you’re secretly/not-so-secretly hoping for. It’s possible that you will be able to have an amicable breakup, perhaps even stay roommates and friends. However, I think you’re underestimating the impact of what you term “weird feelings.” Weird feelings are going to be the headline in your relationship for a while. They may be under the surface—they are probably there now—but they’ll rise up after a breakup. This is normal and fine, though it may be hard to navigate. There may even be a period where it feels like you have lost him—he is allowed to be angry at you, or to find the immediate friends idea painful/weird/unhealthy, as many people would. There is no way to avoid these possibilities. But there are also possible futures where you are amicably paired as platonic life partners, talking about dates and co-parenting dogs. However, you cannot ever get to that place without stepping forward into this place that, by your account, you’re already in. You have to have the big conversation. And then you have to wait and see and live.

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Dear Prudence,

I am a 34-year-old American woman who has lived in Europe with my husband and daughter for the past eight years. During this entire time, I have worked for a woman, “Jessica,” who exhibits wildly toxic behavior. She criticizes everyone in the company regularly for failing to anticipate her wishes, changes expectations dramatically from week to week, and tries to pit staff against each other by complaining bitterly about everyone (literally) behind their backs. When we first moved here (before I understood the dynamic at play), I became friendly with her, and it led to a period of time in which I trapped myself in an unending dynamic of trying to finally be “good enough” to please her before her inevitably blowing up at me again. It took some time and a lot of work for me to extract myself from this closer relationship, but I have been able to get some distance over the past few years and have watched similar patterns play out with other coworkers with similar results.

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Based on a myriad of things coming together, including my job becoming increasingly unbearable, my family and I are returning to the U.S. this summer. This move is likely permanent, and I have begun looking for new jobs. When I gave my notice, my boss had a predictable fit, but has since more or less calmed down. Still, I didn’t trust her not to sabotage my job search and only very reluctantly asked her to write a letter of recommendation for me, and made sure to get several back up letters just in case.

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Yesterday, she sent me the letter she had written and it was … glowing. Honestly, I am completely gobsmacked. I had no idea this whole time that she thought so highly of me, and feel really confused and disoriented, almost as if my memory of the last eight years with Jessica is false. Don’t get me wrong, I’m happy to have a good recommendation and I don’t believe it’s inaccurate, but it has never been clear to me that she recognized any of the qualities she just described so eloquently in the letter. If she had told me half of the things that are in this letter, I might not be moving. It just feels so jarring, because I have been assuming that I was disappointing her, when apparently, I wasn’t at all. What should I do with these feelings? Just try to move on? Chalk them up to her unpredictability? I almost feel guilty about leaving now….

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— Which Way Is Up?

Dear Which Way,

Take this letter as a reassurance (or perhaps assurance for the first time) that you’ve done a great job and also that you’re making the right decision. If working with Jessica involves constantly trying to avoid blowups and fears of not being good enough, it sounds like she’s more interested in maintaining a power imbalance than cultivating improved work performance. The fact that she was able to write so eloquently about those skills only backs that up. She knows you’re good, and she’s known it all along, but she withheld that praise from you. That’s cruel and manipulative. For eight years she kept this from you, and while we all own our feelings, it’s clear that she knew at least some of the effect her disapproval could have. Be glad she never let it slip how she felt. You might have never escaped her.

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Dear Prudence,

I inherited a townhouse from my late aunt in a city where the housing market has gone insane. It has three stories and over five “technical” bedrooms—the doors shut and there are private spaces. The result is that common areas are tiny. I charge my three roommates, who are lifelong friends, a pittance of rent compared to the market, and we have lived together without quarrel for six years.

The problem is my younger sister went through an abusive relationship and escaped with her clothes and very small dog. She needs to finish her education, which isn’t possible in our backwater hometown. So she moved in with me on the third floor. Before, I had a strict no pets policy, but this is my baby sister, and no one is allergic.

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No one had an issue until “Ally” raised it. Ally is the disgruntled girlfriend of one of my roommates who I refused to let her move in with her “emotional support” husky. (And she expected to share half of my roommates rent.) Ally didn’t move in and has never shut her mouth about it. She kept railing against me and my sister and says that I told my friend I was uncomfortable with Ally in our home. They accused me of discrimination. I was stung and reminded them they were on a month-to-month lease and could easily find something better if they were willing to pay. Except that they would be paying market rate. Which they can’t.

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We’ve been friends a decade, but they keep acting like a spoiled sour child, and it affects the mood of the house. This is my baby sister, and she is sharing my space. The third floor is mine, so she basically rooming with me. Also, small dog doesn’t equal a husky. Why am I the bad guy and what can I do without being pushed further into that role?

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— Bitten Hand

Dear Bitten Hand,

You’re having what I call a Bennie from Rent experience. Everybody in Rent thinks Bennie is the bad guy because he was their friend and hung out in their weird singing diner with them and railed at the system. But then when Bennie let them move into the building that he owned and they agreed to pay Bennie rent, he had the audacity to want them to actually pay the rent. As the title song in Rent proclaims they’re “not gonna pay rent!” And that’s the root of drama!

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In your drama, Ally doesn’t have a penny in this nickel and you are right to set a boundary. But you’ll be hard-pressed to find sympathy from your friends, because right now they’re not seeing you as a friend; they’re seeing you as a landlord. And the landlord is the bad guy. Everybody wants some force to rail against and to blame for their problems. Sometimes it’s the government or a higher power or the weather. And sometimes it’s the landlord. The landlord takes your money. The landlord won’t let you be great. The landlord called the police on Maureen’s show. You may be charging them a pittance, as you write, but even a pittance is enough to build the narrative that you’re the problem.

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It is not impossible to be friends with a landlord, of course. My old landlord was my dentist! He still sends me birthday texts. But you have to have some common agreements on what’s appropriate behavior in your home. I’d suggest you call a house meeting, only for people who live in the house. You don’t need to defend your choices as it will likely only triangulate your sister in the situation. Instead, ask your friends if this living situation is working, if they feel respected. Answer the question for yourself as well. It may not solve everything—or anything. They may choose to stay mad. The characters in Rent never pay Bennie. But approaching this situation with emotional maturity and a desire to work as a community is the best you can do to keep your side of the street clean.

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Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

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