Dear Prudence

Help! My Friend Is Furious I Didn’t Bail on My Vacation to Help Her Deal With a Minor Crisis.

I really needed this trip, and I don’t think she really needed me.

A woman holds her hands over her face next to an illustrated palm tree.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

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

Dear Prudence,

I have a friend, “Anne,” that I’ve known since sixth grade. We were amazing friends for many years, and then I moved away. Our relationship has gone from close to less- close over the years. It got worse after she got married and had a child. I do not consider someone a close friend if they only text me every couple of months and only see me a few times a year.
She has no idea what’s going on in my life anymore and vice versa. I know she considers me to still be a close friend, though, because she’s mentioned being fine with the infrequent contact and has recently talked about being a bridesmaid in a hypothetical wedding I might have had with my ex.

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Well, my ex and I had a terrible break up. I had saved up a ton of vacation days and so I planned a huge trip. I hadn’t told Anne because, by this time, I had decided to distance myself from her. I had been trying to figure out whether I needed to say something to her or just let our friendship fade away. I had decided I wouldn’t worry about it until I came back from my trip. The day I was heading to the airport, which was a good three months since I had heard anything from her, I got a frantic call from Anne: Her husband had been in a car accident, and she was spiraling. I helped her talk through what she needed to do and said I could make some calls before my flight if she needed me to. She asked me to come to the hospital or pick up her daughter from daycare, but I was too close to having to leave and I told her that. She got really upset and hung up. I got a text from her in the airport saying how horrible of a friend I was that I would leave her in the middle of the most traumatic experience of her life. Mind you, she has several family members she is close with in town, but they’re not always great in a crisis. I told her I hoped her family was supporting her and that her husband was okay.

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I haven’t heard from her since. I heard from some mutual friends that her husband was completely fine, just broke his arm. I got back from my trip and had to do a ton of catch up at work, so I didn’t see or talk to many of my friends for a few weeks. I finally saw them last weekend and a few of them were really cold to me. The friend I’m closest with told me that Anne had said I abandoned her when she really needed me and basically implied that I was a horrible person. This other mutual friend of mine knows my issues with Anne and tried to calm the other friends down that were upset, but didn’t want to say much without talking to me first. I decided to let things cool down and wait to talk to them.

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Now, I’m worried about what I will say. Nobody else knows how I felt about Anne’s lack of support. They all thought we were the best of friends because we’ve known each other for so long. I haven’t known some of these new friends for very long. I’m worried that telling my friends that I’ve been trying to distance myself from Anne for several months makes me look like I’m trying to explain away the “selfish” act of leaving my “best friend” to go on vacation. I’m also worried that telling them about my issues with Anne without talking to Anne first will cause even more problems. Should I give them an explanation? Should I say something vague like, “there were some issues you are all unaware of and Anne’s story is not completely true”? I feel like I’m in a lose-lose situation, and I worry that I’m going to lose a lot of friends and that this is going to cause an issue in our friend group. What should I do?

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— Friendly Fire

Dear Friendly Fire,

I think a few of these problems are coming from the same source, which is a lack of clear communication. Anne communicated what her friendship expectations were and you didn’t tell her that you saw close friendship differently. This started a ball rolling that got you here. That’s not to say that you had an obligation to cancel your vacation to help Anne, or that either of you is definitively wrong. Simply that being direct and honest about what you want and what you’re doing is going to help you going forward. Things may be broken between you and Anne, but if you feel compelled to reach out, I think it’s important to own your part of the miscommunication and to express your wish that things had gone differently. However, it seems that’s less of a concern than the new group. I’m unsure about the effectiveness of bringing up the problem with Anne preemptively unless another friend approaches you about it. That’s only going to feel petty. But if they do bring it up, again, be clear and direct—you and Anne had different expectations, you didn’t meet hers, and you wish the two of you had communicated better.

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Dear Prudence,

I recently remarried after being widowered. My children were under 5 years old when my late wife passed. I’ll skip over the sad in-between, but I met current wife less than a year later. She is perfect for us—respectful of my late wife (not one picture has been taken down) and helps carry on her memory with our children. My children adore her; they started calling her Mommy even before we were married with no influence from us. She is their Mommy.

My in-laws from my first marriage are still very much involved in our lives. My children are their only grandchildren and only tangible link to their daughter. We all get along well, and they are always very respectful of our home and of my wife … until a recent transgression. They watched our children for a bit while we were on our honeymoon. When we returned, we were thrown off as the kids greeted us with a showering of “mama mama mama!” They refer to their nanny as Mama, and they have never called my wife that (only Mommy). We just thought it was weird at first, but after a couple days of us correcting them, the “Mamas” were still popping up.

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It was my wife that cracked the case. My in-laws had left a late Mother’s Day present for her, a shirt that said Mama. She figured that they must have instructed the kids to call her Mama. I confirmed with my littlest that Granny told them to call my wife Mama and not to tell me. We both were completely thrown. That is such an overreach into our relationship. I empathize with her losing her daughter, and I understand it can be painful to see their daughter’s babies call someone else Mommy. But I can’t imagine how they thought changing how my children refer to my wife behind our backs was a good idea.

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I have not addressed this with my in-laws. My inclination is to let it go and chalk it up to bad decision-making related the most painful loss possible. My in-laws are taking our kids again for a week coming up soon. I won’t stay quiet if it happens again. My question is if this or something similar does happen again, how do I address my in-laws? They will always be a part of my children’s lives, I want that. But I will not be comfortable with them babysitting if they come back with a Mama complex each time.

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— Who’s Your Mommy?

Dear Who’s Your Mommy?

You should speak with your in-laws before they take the kids again. When an adult tells a child not to tell their parents something, it’s a big red flag and it needs to be addressed. Their judgment may have been clouded by their grief, but that’s no reason to let it slide. Tell them that if they have a concern about the way the kids are being parented, they need to come to you and that they are never to ask your children to keep secrets from you, as it puts the kids in danger. Be very clear and unwavering about this. Reassure them, as you wrote in your letter, that you want them in your lives and you want your late wife to stay present in their lives as they grow older, but that for the health of the family and your relationship with them, they need to respect your boundaries. Their pain is hard to fathom and the fear that their daughter might be replaced is understandable. But these are things they need to work out within themselves, or with you. Not with your children as pawns.

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Dear Prudence,

My husband “Mitchell” and I have been together for the last 15 years, married the last 13. He and I were high school sweethearts and have a young child together. While on the surface we look like the perfect happy family, in truth Mitchell and I have been living off the fumes of our early relationship for about the last five years. We seem to have nothing in common anymore. Any attempts to get closer by learning to share hobbies, go on dates, or even just have casual conversation end up feeling awkward. Our child is really the only thing we can share without any trouble, which is great until they leave the room. One day they’ll be leaving the house, and at that point, we both suspect we’ll finally end the relationship. We’ve talked about it and we both agree that while we don’t especially want that outcome, it might be inevitable.

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Why don’t we just end it now? Well, the reasons are admittedly based on ego and laziness. In terms of ego, Mitchell and I, having known each other since we were teenagers, seemed to be the couple no one expected to last. Many people, including our respective parents, didn’t take us seriously, assuming that after some time we would grow apart and move on. It wasn’t BAD, necessarily. No one flat-out told us that we were wasting time and energy on a stagnant relationship. But they also didn’t cheer us on so to speak, never showing real interest or investment in our development. I hate to say it, but looking back, I think one of the main motivations in us making it work was to prove everyone wrong. It was not until we had a child that people did seem to change their minds about us. Ironically, it was around that time that Mitchell and I seemed to lose interest in each other, maybe because the scrutiny was gone. We hate the idea of proving them right.

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As for laziness being a factor, that’s on both of us. The fact of the matter is, we’ve spent years together fighting the odds and are more or less comfortable with how things are. Basically, while we’re both still young enough to begin new relationships, neither of us feels like starting over. It’s why we don’t look forward to divorcing one day: The mere thought of having to learn someone new, adjust to them, introduce them to our friends and families, and merge everything and everyone is exhausting. Yet it feels weird to want to remain married when there’s no romantic love. We’re essentially roommates at this point. We’re open to seeing a counselor, although we both fear things are too far gone. Is there a way to make this work that neither of us has tried?

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— Married in Name Only—and Fine with It

Dear Fine With It,

Even though you’d be going in with low expectations, I think counseling is a great first step, because a counselor can help you identify your goals (i.e., are you looking to consciously uncouple or are you looking to stay married but get more out of it?). It also sounds like there’s a hazy mix of ambivalence and something akin to dissatisfaction that bears examining. If you are actually happy to be roommates or in a “companionate marriage,” as this is sometimes called, and don’t feel like dating again, there’s no reason to change your situation. But if you find yourselves aching to pursue a fuller experience of romantic love, you can’t let your ego get in the way. Do you really want to deny yourself that sort of happiness because you’re trying to prove some naysayers wrong? Disregard them and focus on what you and your husband want now and in the future.

Catch up on this week’s Prudie.

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