Dear Prudence

Help! My Fiancée Had a Debilitating Stroke. How Soon Can I Leave Her?

Every day is a reminder of what once was.

A man holds his head with an illustrated suitcase next to him.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Ridofranz/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,

I am 40 years old and until recently a single father. A little over a year and a half ago, I met a woman who totally changed my perspective on life. I’d never believed in soul mates, but she made me a believer. We could complete each other’s sentences and had the kind of love that I’d never felt for anyone. After six months we bought a house together, merged families, and I proposed.

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Three months ago my fiancée had a major stroke, lost all function on one side of her body, lost her speech, and is disabled. She will likely never return to work or the life she had. She can now walk some and has regained some speech, but it is limited. Her arm still has no function. This has created a future that I had not envisioned nor signed up for. Every day is a reminder of what once was, and so is a constant source of hurt and pain. I am committed for at least a year, which is how long I knew her before her stroke, to assist her in regaining as normal a life as possible. But I cannot envision going through the rest of my life like this. I know she will be devastated if I leave, but I will be devastated if I stay. Additionally, I do not think it fair to my own child, who has a limited number of years remaining at home. This is a tragedy no matter what choice is made. I welcome your thoughts.

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However long you’re going to stay, make that time count. You say you want to help her recovery, so you should oversee a recovery boot camp. Our medical system can be good at saving people’s lives, but often these patched-up individuals are sent home to figure out the rest of their lives on their own. But for a stroke patient, particularly a young one, getting aggressive rehabilitation early is crucial. I hope you two have a support system of friends and family who want to help; if so, put them to work. Have them investigate the best treatments in your area for aphasia. Have them see what kinds of rigorous physical therapy is available. (Good places to start are American Stroke Associationthe National Stroke Association, and the Stroke Network—and you can find support groups through these places for yourself.) Have someone be a point person to deal with the insurance company. Ask loved ones to stay with your fiancée so that you can get the respite you need to go out with friends, or go on a camping trip with your child. What you’re facing will be grueling, and it could be that your fiancée will remain severely disabled. It’s also possible that a year from now she will be in a remarkably different place.

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When my younger sister was 30 years old, while she and I were on vacation together she suffered a massive stroke which left her unable to use the left side of her body. After she came out of surgery the doctor told me she would probably never be able to use her left arm. She learned to walk again and while she’ll never be a concert pianist, that arm now works. At the time her marriage was on the rocks, but her husband came home to help. The reconciliation failed, she says in part because she didn’t want someone who was there, as he was, out of pity. When I talked to her about your story, she had no words of condemnation for you. She said that you two being together for a little over a year was pretty light for something this heavy, and she understood that it’s particularly hard for a young person. There’s a lot of pain for both the stroke survivor and the caretaker. But three months out is too early to judge the extent of your fiancée’s possible recovery. (She also highly recommends the book Stronger After Stroke: Your Roadmap to Recovery by Peter G. Levine.) Even if you ultimately decide you can’t stay in the relationship, you still might be able to remain a close, supportive friend. You could also use a therapist of your own to help you work through what you can and can’t do. I hope in time the days get easier. And as they go by, keep checking in with yourself and ask, “What would I expect and want her to do if our situations were reversed?” —Emily Yoffe

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From: “Help! My Fiancée Suffered a Debilitating Stroke. How Long Before I Can Leave Her?” (March 28, 2013)

Dear Prudence,

My 16-year-old daughter is gay. This past summer, she met a girl on our family vacation who was at first a close friend but whom she now considers to be her girlfriend. Because they live on opposite coasts, all of their contact is via text/Skype. While they were still just friends, I promised my daughter that the other girl could come and stay with us for the summer. Recently, I suggested that my daughter give the other girl’s parents my number so that we could discuss details. That is when my daughter disclosed that her friend’s parents have no idea that she is involved with another girl and would “kill her” if they found out. She is begging me for secrecy. I don’t want to kill my daughter’s romance, and I certainly don’t want to out someone against her will, but I also don’t feel comfortable lying to another parent about the nature of a visit. To me, a “girlfriend” visit and a “friend” visit are different, and a parent of a 16-year-old has the right to determine if it is appropriate or not. Advice?

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I’m not sure if “they would kill her” is standard teenage hyperbole or if your daughter’s girlfriend is at actual risk of physical violence from her homophobic family. LGBT youth face a much higher risk of violence and homelessness after being rejected by their family of origin. You’re absolutely right not to want to out her, in any case. Talk with your daughter about her girlfriend’s living situation. Is she in immediate danger? Does she have a place to stay if her family discovers her orientation and throw her out? While it’s understandable that you don’t want to host your daughter’s girlfriend in the same way you would have happily hosted a platonic friend, it’s possible that you and your family can be a resource for this poor girl.
You may not feel comfortable hosting her under the guise of “just friendship,” but perhaps you could arrange for her to stay with a family friend so the two of them could see one another without temporarily moving in together. If that still doesn’t sit well with you, I think it’s fine to tell your daughter you have separate sleepover rules for friends and girlfriends, and now that they’re dating, you can’t host this girl in your home, but I hope that you can continue to offer support and acceptance to her. It sounds like she’s going to need it. —Danny M. Lavery

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From: “Help! Should My Daughter’s Girlfriend Stay With Us if Her Parents Don’t Know She’s Gay?” (Jan. 4, 2016)

Dear Prudence,

My husband and I are both very committed to being child-free. Our conservative, reactionary family is not. We avoided the arguments, lectures, and condescension by using “not yet” as the answer for years. Now we have gotten into our mid-30s, we have changed from “not yet” to “not possible” in order to get around the “you’re not getting any younger” arguments. Most people respect that, but my sister-in-law had fertility problems. She is on a crusade to get me pregnant. She will badger me about our “problems,” talk about IVF, and natter on about adoption even as we ask for her to drop the subject.

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She is opinionated, zealous, and overly invested in the ideal of motherhood. I am dreading Thanksgiving. Being honest with her is a no go; it will cause a bigger problem than this. I am ready to fake cry and lock myself in the bathroom if it will get her to leave my husband and me alone. I just want peace or at least the illusion of peace before we can go take our Christmas trip to Hawaii. What do I do?

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I’d normally advise you to come up with a polite rebuff to well-meaning questions, but if your sister-in-law is truly incapable of having a conversation with you without trying to ensure you’re pregnant by the end of it, you should reconsider spending the holidays with her. If locking yourself in the bathroom is a likely outcome of spending Thanksgiving with your family, it might be kinder and less stressful for everyone involved if you make alternate arrangements.

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I also urge you to consider being honest with her (and the rest of your family); it doesn’t sound like your slightly evasive policy has actually resulted in hearing fewer arguments, just different ones. You don’t have to have this out before the holidays, but I think you should—at least once—tell them that you don’t want to have children, so that you’re not giving them false hope that you might be persuaded. After that, if they start going into the old routine, you can always draw a hard line and say, “We’ve made it clear that we don’t want children, and we’re not interested in arguing the point. As far as we’re concerned, the topic is closed,” then leave the conversation (or the room) if you have to. What an exhausting battle they’ve chosen to wage! Take more trips to Hawaii, and fewer trips to hear guilt-inducing lectures from your relatives, at least until they can learn to stop micromanaging your fertility. —D.L.

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From: “Help! My Sister-in-Law Keeps Lecturing Us on Fertility Treatments.” (Nov. 10, 2016)

Dear Prudence,

My sister and I, both women in our 20s, found out a few years ago that we have a half-sister from an affair my father had when we were young. My mother knew of the affair and the child, and my parents paid child support for this half-sister throughout her childhood. My mother forgave my father, and he has always been wonderful to my sister and me. However, now the half-sister is eager to have a relationship with me and my sister. We are hesitant because we don’t want to upset our mother. The half-sister is not being overbearing, but she let us know that she is pregnant and would like us to be a part of our soon-to-be-nephew’s life. She’s asked if we’ve told our father that she’s expecting. I don’t think it’s our place to mention this news to our father. As far as I know, my father, having completed child-support payments, has not kept up with this other daughter and doesn’t wish to be a part of her life. I feel that if the half-sister wants him to know about his grandchild, she should contact him directly and discreetly. Then again, I’d hate for my mother to open a letter and be forced to remember something she may prefer not to think about. If I decide I want a relationship with my half-sister, how can I go about it in a way that doesn’t hurt my family?

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Your father may have been a wonderful parent to two of his daughters, but for his third daughter he was nothing more than a check in the mail. It’s understandable that in order to save his marriage he kept his out-of-wedlock child away from his “real” family. Possibly this was a demand made by your mother; certainly it was a stance she supported. But however much people would like to wish away inconvenient children, your father had a moral obligation to be a father to all his daughters. Your mother may not have wanted a corporeal reminder of her husband’s infidelity, but she needed to accept that an innocent child should not have been punished because her husband behaved badly. Your half-sister is turning to you because your father—his child-support duties discharged—has closed the books on her. But this woman exists, she’s going to have your nephew and your father’s grandchild, and it’s time for everyone to deal with this honestly and compassionately. You and your sister should sit down with your parents and explain that your half-sister has turned to you because she doesn’t know how to reach her own father. You can say you know she will always be a source of pain but that she’s having a child, and you don’t think another generation should have to pay the price of a mistake made a long time ago. And if you want to make a connection with this half-sister, do so. You can tell your parents about your intention, but you don’t need their permission. —E.Y.

From: “Estranged siblings, brutal brides, and office dilemmas.” (March 10, 2011)

More Advice From Dear Prudence

In February 2009, my live-in boyfriend asked me to marry him, and I happily accepted. We set a date in the summer of 2010, but due to financial hardships, we had to postpone the wedding indefinitely. I was really disappointed but understood why it had to be done. When our financial situation got back to normal, I began asking my fiance if we could set a new date, but he was reluctant to do so.

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