Dear Prudence

Help! My Adult Friend Is Still “Traumatized” by Her Parents’ Totally Amicable Divorce.

This happened when we were 12. She’s 37.

A woman hides her face in her hands, between illustrations of her parents with their backs turned.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Photoboyko/iStock/Getty Images Plus and LittleBee80/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.

Dear Prudence,

I am 37 years old. I have a friend of many years, “Chrissy,” who is the same age, and she is still hung up on her parents divorcing when she was 12. I have tried my hardest to understand how difficult this was for her despite privately feeling like she is being histrionic. Chrissy was at a vulnerable age when she had to move 300 hundred miles away with her mom and suddenly not be with her father daily or even weekly, and it did come out of the blue, but Prudie, I am tired of it. She had two loving homes with three loving parents (her father remarried a lovely woman when she was 14) and never wanted for anything. Her mother moved for work and to be closer to family, and there was an amicable division of custody, with Chrissy at her father’s for winter, spring, and summer breaks and a few long weekends in between. Her parents, whom I know well, are great people, and when it came to her best interest, they always put aside their differences. But to hear Chrissy tell it, her “heart was irrevocably broken, and she lost all trust in relationships.” She “from the moment they split, never again had everyone she loved with her on important days” and “always had to choose who to be with and hurt someone” and she “spent her childhood as a sad kid in an airport, always missing someone.”

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I am reaching the point of exasperation over hearing about things that happened almost 25 years ago. My annoyance is exacerbated by the fact that my parents also divorced, and it was under much worse circumstances, so hearing about how “hard” she had it makes my blood boil. My childhood household was abusive, there was an attempted murder and kidnap threats, social workers, brief homelessness, poverty, you name it. Chrissy’s childhood was a comparable idyll. Actually, not even comparably. I was there for most of this and saw with my own eyes that she had everything but two parents under the same roof. When I’ve told her it seems she needs to maybe talk to someone professionally about her lingering feelings, Chrissy says that I don’t understand because I didn’t lose a loving, unified home. She says that she’s right to feel sad because it’s a sad thing to have happened and that because her feelings are perfectly logical, it only proves how emotionally sound she actually is.

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Prudie, this is a woman who regularly comes home from dates bawling because she “just can’t make herself trust.” We had a friend celebrate a 10-year anniversary recently, and Chrissy was off the whole week of it, snapping when people brought up the celebration. She managed to stay at the party, but was quiet and withdrawn the whole time. Later she asked if she could talk and ended up sobbing, talking about how it just wasn’t fair that she could never enjoy a long-term relationship like our friend because of what she’s been through. How can I convince her that her mindset needs adjusting or to gain some perspective? The issue is quickly becoming a deal breaker after decades of this. While I know it’s difficult, millions of people’s parents divorce, including mine, and they find a way through it.

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— She Even Had Horses

Dear Even Had Horses,

It’s time to put some space between yourself and Chrissy for your own well-being. She’s rejected professional help and the reason of her friends, so it’s unlikely that anything you say at this point will change her mind. She has a right to feel what she feels, but it’s obvious that she’s very stuck and in need of intervention. However, attempting to be that invention is bringing you down since she doesn’t want to get better. She says you don’t understand because you didn’t come from a loving home but still feels justified in dumping this on you. That strikes me as thoughtless at best, cruel at worst. Try putting a boundary up—you want to be her friend, but hearing about her parents’ divorce brings up bad memories of your own parents’ divorce, so you’re just not a good sounding board. If she can respect that boundary, maybe you can build a new phase for your friendship. But if she can’t or won’t, it’s time to consider a kind but decisive split—perhaps even just the possibility of that will make her realize how toxic this fixation has become.

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Dear Prudence,

Visiting my in-laws has always been tough and worsened with time. They live more than three hours away, so we have to drive down Fridays after work and stay for the weekend or longer to make a trip worth it. When we’re there, we basically do what we would do during a lazy weekend at home: watch TV, maybe put on a movie, and get takeout.

My brother-in-law (who lives at home) is a barely functioning alcoholic who has relapsed multiple times after in-patient rehab. My father-in-law’s mental health took a nosedive after a heart attack a few years ago, and he spends most of his time sleeping. My mother-in-law is the only person we actually “visit” with, but she spends a lot of time on her phone. They adopted a dog a couple years ago that still isn’t house-trained, and my wife and I regularly clean up after her. At best she starts barking between 5-to-6 a.m., but it’s typically around 3 a.m. She also jumps and nips at my larger, calmer dog constantly until she snaps, and we have to separate them.

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Now my wife and I are expecting our first child. The idea of driving my dog and baby in a mid-sized car three hours to stay with a dysfunctional family and do nothing all weekend sounds awful. My wife agrees we won’t be making a trip to see them for “a while” after she’s born, but I’m dreading the day when my MIL finally pressures her into scheduling a trip. What obligation do we have to visit them, and how should we navigate those conversations? They’re welcome to visit us as much as they want, but the idea of making that road trip fills me with so much anxiety every time I think about it.

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— Family Trip from Hell

Dear Trip from Hell,

The arrival of a baby is a great opportunity to reset relationships and family practices. For the first year (or two or three) it’s totally reasonable to tell your in-laws that the trip is too hard to make with the baby. In fact, you can keep telling them this for as long as you feel it’s true. If the trip is too hard to make with a 9-year-old, then that’s your truth. As the child gets older, you can also point out that they need a little more stimulation than a lazy weekend—when you finally do go again, you could choose not to stay with them and to fill your agenda with local, kid-friendly activities. As family structures change, our obligations change, and right now your biggest obligation here is to your child.

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How to Get Advice From Prudie

Submit your questions anonymously here. (Questions may be edited for publication.) Join the live chat every Monday at noon (and submit your comments) here.

Dear Prudence,

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I’m an attorney who works for a private company in a major city. I was hired a year ago, and working for this company was a professional goal of mine since leaving law firm work several years ago.

The company, as I had heard from others, is a dream. They pay significantly more than others in the industry and are friendly and professional with zero toxic work environment issues. The company is also openly progressive/liberal, which is important to me given the current political climate (I live in a more conservative area). Additionally, all my reviews have been phenomenal, and I have received additional bonuses for my work. Obviously, it’s a job with all the annoyance of working that comes with it, but it has genuinely been the best job I have had in my professional career as an attorney—which spans more than a decade.

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Sounds amazing! BUT, it’s 100 percent from home, and I am really struggling. I try to get myself to coffee shops and out the door, but I lack motivation. I’ve put on 40 pounds since the pandemic started and half of it in the last year. I find myself socially shutting down. My diet and physical activity have cratered. I would change jobs to an office environment (my prior company would welcome me back with open arms), but the work environment was toxic and I truly think that the professional atmosphere and company dynamic makes this job a bit of a unicorn, especially with the legal industry. My husband and I also need the money that this job brings for financial stability (he works full time in an office).

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Do you have any suggestions for finding a better way to handle this at-home lifestyle? I can muster motivation for a week or two and then it slowly fades again. No one expects me to be out and about, so why bother? I’m not sure how much longer I can sit home alone for days on end like this. I feel like I have become my own worst enemy.

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— Stuck at Home

Dear Stuck at Home,

I’ve worked remotely for the past five years, and I empathize with your struggle. As much as I abhorred the time clock and the weird office drama, it is much harder to create a space where you feel active and accountable when you’re on your own. At one point, I joined a coworking space, at others I set up a regular table at a coffee shop, but things didn’t really shift until I introduced external accountability. I set up regular coworking dates with other friends who work remote, sometimes live at the coffee shop and sometimes just over Zoom. It might seem silly, but the idea that someone was expecting me to show up at a certain time was a great motivator and a reminder that I actually existed. Moreover, being able to look up and chit chat for a second is a great relief. Additionally, scheduling events during your lunch break—be they actual lunches or casual phone calls or haircuts or whatever—is another way of reminding yourself that while no one may expect you to be out and about, the world hasn’t forgotten you just because you’re at work. One of the things that I found surprising about remote work—and, in truth, still struggle with—is the amount of effort that goes into shaping your own day. We might take for granted the rhythms of office life, even if the office is toxic. It’s possible to create those rhythms for yourself, but you’re going to have to change your mindset a little bit.

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Dear Prudence,

I’m a woman in my early 20s. My friend “Taylor” and I have been acquaintances for a couple years, but during the pandemic, we got back in touch and ended up growing close. We talk every day and video chat occasionally, and we have driven to each other’s cities to visit. I enjoy spending time with her more than anyone else. We are definitely not girlfriends (she and I have different romantic and sexual needs in every possible way), but we are each other’s primary confidantes and best friends.

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Because I enjoy Taylor’s companionship so much, I haven’t really felt the need to try dating for the past few years. I’ve had some bad relationships and I’m content to appreciate what I have instead of constantly being on the Hinge grind. But Taylor is interested in getting a girlfriend of her own now, and she’s started telling me about her adventures. And I hate it. I feel heartbroken at the idea of Taylor settling down with someone who isn’t me. She and I would be a terrible couple—and I have plenty of other friends, so it’s not like she’s the only person in my life. But she’s the only person I feel this close to. How do I navigate being so sad?

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Feeling Left Behind

Dear Feeling Left Behind,

Platonic relationships change and sometimes get pushed to the side when a romantic relationship comes into the picture. But platonic relationships are also often still there when the romantic relationship ends. Right now, what feels most present for you is the danger of losing out to the intensity of a romantic partner, but don’t discount how crucial your friendship has been and will continue to be for Taylor. It sounds like your heartbreak is at least partially preemptive—you’re worried about losing what you have. So try to remove your relationship with Taylor from the affection hierarchy. If she was shopping for someone to replace you, she wouldn’t be telling you. There’s room enough in her life for you and someone she’s involved with romantically.

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It’s also possible that you’re in love with Taylor, even though you have different romantic and sexual needs. Feelings don’t always listen to reason. But feelings, I’ve found, will respond to being acknowledged. So, if you are in love with her, accept that about yourself. And ask yourself if that feeling trumps everything else you know about your incompatibility, i.e., do you really want to be Taylor’s girlfriend or do you just want to keep her in your life? If it’s the latter, you’re in a great position. You can even tell Taylor something like “Hey, I’m excited that you’re dating. I really value your friendship, though, and I don’t want to lose that.” Just like a romantic relationship, a platonic relationship will grow and flourish with good communication and self-awareness.

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Dear Prudence Uncensored

“I’ve felt blue when friends didn’t have as much time for me when they got partners, but the depth of this sadness says a lot.”

R. Eric Thomas and friends discuss a letter in this week’s Dear Prudence Uncensored—only for Slate Plus members.

Dear Prudence,

When my boyfriend and I started our relationship a year and a half ago, we were clear and in agreement about what constituted cheating for both of us: individually seeking, starting, and/or sustaining a sexual or romantic relationship with a third party.

We were also clear on what we did NOT consider cheating: sexual thoughts or desires involving another person, finding someone else beautiful or attractive (including making eye contact and/or conversation with said someone, so long as nothing further were intended), sex with other people as a couple (threesomes, moresomes, etc.), and the big, riskiest one: meaningless, inconsequential, and fleeting sexual acts with random strangers with whom we knew we would not stay in touch (e.g. mutual masturbation in a discrete location, such as a car). We also agreed to three important rules about these “safe” escapades: no oral, no penetration, and no secrets; should these escapades ever happen, we would always be proactive and transparent with each other about who, what, when, where and why. Finally, we also agreed on a three-strike system: If either of us broke any part of this agreement three times, the agreement was terminated, and we would take steps to salvage and repair our relationship, including therapy. If we succeeded in rebuilding trust, we could try reinstating the agreement if both of us so desired and felt confident and safe enough to do so. If we failed, we’d consider ending the relationship.

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So far, I have no strikes. Recently, however, my boyfriend committed his first: He had a sexual escapade—mutual masturbation and oral sex—with a man at the gym. Despite breaking the “no oral” and “strangers only” rules, my boyfriend did honor our agreement in that he told me everything, sparing me no details. He was visibly remorseful and emotional, and I trust that he does not want to hurt me again. We are currently working through the emotional damage from this and discussing measures we can take to prevent a second strike, including changing his gym hours.

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Here is my concern: One of the measures I suggested was that he and I try finding a mutually convenient time and start working out together at the gym, since my presence there could have a deterring effect on potential urges and opportunities for another strike. My boyfriend, however, did not like the suggestion. He said he wanted both the continued freedom to have truly “safe” escapades without guilt, like we agreed, and the opportunity to police himself to not commit another strike. He did not like the idea that he needed to be supervised and believes he is mature and capable enough to make amends. I don’t know what to do.

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On the one hand, I don’t want to be a “nanny” to a fully functioning, responsible adult whom I respect and trust to keep his word about wanting to right a wrong, nor do I want to limit his ability to take advantage of a mutually agreed upon condition. We made a deal and we have a system. I should also be able to honor both myself. On the other hand, I’m hurt. And I’m worried he’ll commit another strike, and that his argument is merely a means to remain “free” to fool around—and, now that he’s experienced what it’s like to be the “culprit,” to do so without telling me, thus breaking our agreement and our system. What do I do?

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— Deal Breaker

Dear Deal Breaker,

I’m worried that you just don’t trust your boyfriend, possibly for good reason, and that there’s little external rearrangement that’s going to change that. This strike system is elaborate, but if it works for you, that’s great. However, I am concerned it’s not working for you, it may not be working for him, and it’s not deterring the two things it’s supposed to deter: infidelity and anxiety. I also worry that you two haven’t sufficiently worked through the transgression. You’re still hurt and your boyfriend mentioned amends, but it’s not clear if there’s a clear plan for making amends. How do you feel about putting a pause on outside escapades? You owe it to each other to focus on each other and your emotional well-being. You may be able to do that and still have the kind of casual encounters your system allows for. But ultimately the system is only as strong as your relationship, so taking down the guardrails and turning inward might allow you the perspective to see what you’ve actually got here and if it’s working.

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Dear Prudence,

I married my husband after his youngest was out of high school. He lost his wife five years before that. His daughter “Kerry” was in college at the time. In a decade, Kerry has never warmed up to me. She has never acknowledged me on holidays, barely makes small talk when she visits, and generally makes it known with her actions that she dislikes me. No one knows why. My husband and her brothers have asked her and she denies it. I get along beautifully with her brothers. I have made overtures like asking Kerry to spa days and shopping. She has never accepted. I let it go and left Kerry to define the boundaries as she so desired.

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Meanwhile, I am very close to my youngest stepson and his wife. I take care of their 4-year-old and baby nearly every day. I love being Grandma. Kerry is very critical of how I interact with the grandchildren—things like getting big bows for the baby girl or slipping my grandson a cookie. It has gotten to the point my daughter-in-law has told Kerry to lay off, since if she doesn’t have a problem, neither should anyone else.

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Well, Kerry is currently pregnant and on the outs with her boyfriend. She plans to go back to work as soon as possible—leaving the child care to her father. And me. I don’t want to. My husband is encouraging me to look on the bright side and consider this a chance to bond with Kerry. I am just seeing a collision course. Kerry hasn’t softened towards me in a decade and frankly, I think it’s a little presumptuous to assume anything from me without even the most basic of apologies. Or even asking me directly—Kerry just told her father that this was the plan. What do we do here? I don’t want to cause a fight but I feel there is no way out.

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— Suddenly Grandma

Dear Suddenly Grandma,

I suppose I can see Kerry’s logic here—you already take care of the other grandchild, what’s one more? But her frosty and critical behavior toward you make this seem less like an opportunity for bonding and more like she’s taking advantage of you. She may be stuck without a great option for childcare, but she should still ask first. Also, if she doesn’t agree with your grandparenting style, she owes you and herself a conversation about expectations and ground rules. To not do so is irresponsible. Bring these points up with your husband. He’s got rose-colored glasses on, and it’s not going to end well for anyone. How exactly does he imagine that you’ll bond with Kerry if she hasn’t so much as spoken to you about her plan? Together, you and your husband should have a conversation with Kerry about what her expectations are for the childcare arrangement and what yours are. Because you have the right to define the terms, too, including rejecting her request. And Kerry should see you as a united front so that you don’t get painted as the villain. This may still cause a fight, because sometimes people get upset when being asked to respect boundaries. But know that this isn’t a fight you caused. This is a conversation that needs to be had before any kid gets dropped off.

Classic Prudie

My husband loves to get his feet massaged. When he was younger (think elementary school and up), his mom had him massage her feet often, probably once a week. When he told me about this, I was horrified, even after he assured me these massages were purely a therapeutic thing and not sexual. Now my husband has started telling our young daughter about how she needs to start rubbing his feet. I’ve told him that either I’ll massage them or send him to a professional, but I don’t want her massaging anyone. Am I wrong for putting my foot down (sorry for the pun)?

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