Dear Prudence

Help! My Ex-Husband Has the Ideal New Life and Family. With My Sister.

My niece is now 5, and I have never met her.

A woman looks to the side beside an illustrated silhouette of a couple kissing.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by vladmarko/iStock/Getty Images Plus and PeopleImages/iStock/Getty Images Plus. 

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.

Dear Prudence,

When my ex and I were married, we had trouble conceiving and years of heartache. I thought our marriage was strong enough to survive this, then I discovered he was having an affair with my sister. We had a huge, traumatic confrontation and my then husband and I decided to move and make a fresh start. A few weeks after we moved, my sister gave the news that—surprise!—she was pregnant. My ex then divorced me to start a family with her. Because I’d just started a new job and had a mortgage, it was financially impossible for me to leave. I stayed in the new city by myself and eventually made friends and settled there. My parents were also very hurt and angry, but when the baby came they mellowed and reconciled. My niece is now 5 and I have never met her. We take turns attending family functions because I can’t bear to be in the same room as them. Recently my parents gently asked if I would consider having a Christmas dinner with my sister. I told them I would think about it and I really did. I took a deep breath and went on my sister’s Facebook page for the first time. There, I saw hundreds of happy pictures of them as a family. My ex-husband kissing her after she’d just given birth, photos of the happy first birthday party, family trips, etc. She was tagged in a status update from my ex: “Celebrating another amazing anniversary with my beautiful wife, thank you for giving me so much happiness and our perfect daughter.” I literally vomited after reading that. After five years, is it time for me to get over it and try to force myself to at least tolerate their company?

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It’s no wonder what you saw made you sick to your stomach. The violation against you was enormous. However, I don’t think you should conclude that the only way you could be with them is to have a bunch of air-sickness bags with you. You have been in a bubble of denial for the past five years, so a tidal wave of evidence of the happy family life you feel these cheaters stole from you is bound to be overwhelming. If over the past few years you’d had some minimal contact with them and knew your niece slightly, you would be in a different place emotionally now. Yes, you might have still concluded you want nothing to do with them, but you would have made that decision from a more rational place. So give yourself time. You may want, possibly with the help of a therapist or even a friend, to give yourself some desensitization therapy. Instead of consuming pictures of the past five years at one gulp, over the next few months you could look occasionally at pictures of your niece. She is the innocent party here, and focusing on her might enable you to see that painful as it is, something positive has come out of all this. But Christmas is too soon for this. If you are going to find yourself being able to be in the room with this reconstituted family, it would be better to do it at a less loaded time—say a weekend in February with no connotations of holiday joy. Whatever you decide vis-a-vis your sister, be proud that you have moved on and built a happy life for yourself. (And how often do brothers- and sisters-in-law get it on? Just a few weeks ago I got a letter from a woman whose fiancé impregnated his brother’s wife, but the brother remains none the wiser.) —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! My Husband Got My Sister Pregnant.” (Nov. 26, 2012)

Dear Prudence,

I am a middle-aged male in a relationship with a sweet, kind, successful woman who seems to suffer from a shopping addiction and who can never stop herself from taking home free food. When we first started seeing each other, she wouldn’t let me into her home. At first I thought this was because she wanted to make sure we had something real before I met her young daughter (I have children too), but when I saw her home I realized it was because she had a hoarding problem. At that point I already cared for her very much. I have very serious rescuer tendencies, and I know better than to follow such a path. Now we’ve been together for almost two years.

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Last year, she bought a new home and recruited me to help her move. I pitched in but also gave her space to deal with the masses of shopping bags that had never been unpacked full of duplicate bags of chips and other storage bags, unopened Amazon boxes, stacks of old luggage, etc. I had hoped she would want to pare down on her own, but that didn’t happen. She ended up needing a later move-out date and became very distressed as we started moving stale and even decayed food to her building’s dumpster. We filled the dumpster and her new detached garage. Evidence of rodent and insect activity was revealed with each peeled layer. Nearly a year after this move, her garage is still stuffed, she hasn’t unpacked any of her wardrobe, and new boxes are starting to arrive. I spent a weekend organizing and rearranging her kitchen, but she never committed to the new setup. There’s not an inch of open counter space.

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I’ve shared my concerns with her and have been accused of being judgmental and hypercritical. I am terrified that her daughter’s nascent compulsivity will blossom into the shame and loneliness her otherwise very sociable mother fosters. After an argument following the exhausting move, she bought self-help books. She seemed committed to cultivating some self-denial strategies. Last week, I visited her place and had my own stress attack when I navigated a cavernous path from her front door to her kitchen. Her attractiveness to me is waning. I love her, want to help her, want to help her child, but I am not a psychotherapist. We recently argued that I’m not moving fast enough, and my question, “Where exactly do I fit in your home?” remains unanswered. Should I stay or should I go? I’ve been dating on and off for eight years since my divorce, and I’m tired.

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Let’s leave aside the fact that you’ve grown tired of post-divorce dating, and let’s leave aside (just for the moment) the fact that your girlfriend clearly needs additional help dealing with her hoarding and compulsive shopping tendencies, or even the fact that you’re worried her daughter may adopt some of her mother’s more dysfunctional coping strategies. The most important question for you to answer is not “Do I wish I could stop dating and just settle down?” or “Does my girlfriend need help?” but “Am I happy in this relationship, and would I like to stay in it in the future?” Are you getting what you want? You say you don’t want to revert to your old rescuer tendencies, which suggests this is a dynamic you’ve fallen into in the past; can you see a version of your relationship with this woman where you’re not in that exact position? I can’t answer that for you, but I can tell you that if she genuinely wants help, there is a great deal of therapeutic, pharmaceutical, and organizational help available to her, and that she both deserves support and treatment and does not need you to be her boyfriend in order to get it. If you decide this relationship isn’t working for you, that isn’t a referendum on her worth as a person, and it’s not a rejection on the basis of her mental health issues. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! My Girlfriend Is a Compulsive Hoarder.” (Nov. 9, 2017)

Dear Prudence,

My wife and I have a 20-month-old, and he clearly favors me, which leaves my wife upset and sad constantly. I currently work from home while my wife works out of the house, so I get to see him more throughout the day. I help out around the house and do the majority of the housework so my wife can maximize the time she spends with him when she gets home. However, this is not working as well as I hoped, as he still comes to me more frequently and is less fussy with me. Is there anything else I can do to help?

I have a message for your wife: It’s not personal, Mom! It’s perfectly understandable that the parent who is there all day to kiss boo-boos, to get snacks, and to point out birds is going to be the one a toddler gravitates to. That doesn’t mean he’s alienated from his mother. But she is exacerbating this by going into a hurt funk when he seeks out Dad. Even a 20-month-old can tell Mommy is unhappy. Your wife needs to get in a more natural rhythm with her son. You are not focused exclusively on him all day, but have a natural byplay with him. But when she comes home, she seems to be expecting to concentrate a day’s worth of missing him into a few hours. She needs to feel more at ease in her own home. Maybe when she arrives home, all of you can take a walk around the block as a way of transition. Maybe she can make dinner and your son can get an apron and stool and help her. If he gets fussy, you should make yourself scarce, Dad, and let them work it out. The sooner both of you accept this is a phase, and a natural one, the more quickly it will pass and the stronger your son’s bonds with his mother will be. —E.Y.

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From: “Help! Our Baby Likes Me More Than My Wife, and It’s Crushing Her.” (July 13, 2015)

Dear Prudence,

My wife happens to be an amazing cook. She recently took a new job that occasionally keeps her out late enough that I cook instead. Which I love! I’m not as good a cook as she is, but I’m OK, and I enjoy it. Problem is that after I serve dinner on those nights, she’ll frequently end up going to the fridge for leftovers of something she cooked and ignoring the meal I made. After a couple weeks of this, I asked if I was doing something wrong. She said she appreciated the gesture and knew that I was trying, but my stuff wasn’t the way she’d have made it, and she prefers her way—hence eating the leftovers. Life’s too short to eat food you don’t like, but I’m kind of hurt and don’t know how to make this better. I want her to have a nice dinner to look forward to when she comes home late, but I also know that no matter how hard I try, I’m never going to be as good at this as she is, and I’m destined to fail if she’s using herself as the standard. Thoughts?

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Don’t take it personally if she’d rather throw together some leftovers for herself after a long day of work. You’ve just gotten out of kitchen duty a few nights a week. Make something for yourself the nights she comes home late, and enjoy the extra free time. —D.L.

From: “Help! My Husband Thinks I’m Trying to Murder the Cat.” (April 18, 2016)

More Advice From Dear Prudence

My boyfriend feels like he only needs to apologize when he thinks what he did was wrong, and that’s never. The problem seems to be twofold. First, he sees the world in two ways: people who think like him, and people who are wrong.

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