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My first marriage ended 20 years ago. I knew my husband was sleeping with someone else, but I never found out who. “Helen,” my friend and neighbor, made me coffee and held my hand when I broke down. She even helped me while she was pregnant, and I often referred to her sons as my “other nephews.” Recently I learned her younger son did an ancestry test and learned that Helen’s husband wasn’t his father and that he was first cousins with people still living in my former town. That’s the name of my former in-laws: My ex-husband was the father. My “nephew” ended up calling me to ask for the truth since Helen was stonewalling him and his father refused to deal with it. I told him I knew my ex had had an affair but not with whom, gave him my former mother-in-law’s contact information, and wished him well.
I only had one conversation with Helen. She tried to apologize, and I asked her if she got off more from sleeping with my husband or gloating over my stupidity and misery. She said that wasn’t “fair,” and I asked her if they ever slept together in my bed and whether any of this was “fair” for me or her son. Then I hung up. My new husband thinks it would be easier to let this go and forgive since it’s been so long, but can anyone forgive a betrayal like this? I feel sick. I miss Helen, I hate Helen, and I wish none of this had ever happened. I feel like such a stupid, naïve fool—a betrayed wife crying to her husband’s mistress, what a farce. I don’t know what to do.
Although the end of your first marriage was technically a long time ago, this is brand-new information for you, and it’s premature for your husband to counsel forgiveness and letting it go. This revelation changes everything about how you experienced comfort and solace during an absolutely devastating time in your life from someone you considered a close friend. You’re not a fool for having trusted a friend who offered you comfort—you couldn’t possibly have known or guessed that Helen was having your ex’s child—and you shouldn’t rush to get over this just because it happened 20 years ago. And it makes sense that you feel a thousand conflicting emotions about Helen because this information changes every interaction the two of you have had over the past two decades. You treated her son respectfully and with the appropriate amount of distance, and you were brutally honest with Helen, but I don’t think you crossed the line from anger to cruelty, so you have no reason to regret your own conduct.
Allow yourself a lot of time to be hurt, angry, bewildered, and upset. Give yourself permission to discuss this with other close friends, to write about it, to see a counselor. Find ways to name and address and heal the specific wounds you’ve had to carry over the loss of these relationships. “Letting it go” doesn’t mean pretending you weren’t hurt or acting like you no longer care. At its best, it means that you will not use your own pain to justify harming or lashing out against others and that someday this will not feel like the most crucial, central emotional fact of your life. —Danny M. Lavery
From: “Help! I Just Found Out My Friend Had an Affair With My Ex.” (Nov. 14, 2019)
My husband and I moved from the liberal Northeastern town we both grew up in to a small, conservative Southern one several years ago. One of the biggest adjustments has been the way people very openly talk about religion and assume that everyone else should as well. We mostly kept quiet about the fact that we don’t practice any religion and politely explain (over and over) that we’d rather not come to their churches. Our elementary school daughter recently told us that her teacher led the class in prayer each day before lunch in her public school. All the children had to bow their heads and recite a lengthy prayer. My daughter said she didn’t know if she should do it, but thought maybe it was “being a good American.” We told her that no one should ever force you to pray against your will. My husband and I wrote the principal about this and asked our child not be mentioned by name. The principal said she’d send a general reminder about not praying in class, but the tone of her email made it clear she thought we were overreacting. Our child reported the praying stopped immediately with no explanation. My husband and I think the teacher should have told the students why she shouldn’t have led them in prayer. He wants to press this issue, while I feel as long as we let our child know what’s right and wrong, we should let this go and accept this is part of where we live. Our child will be in this school for several more years. We did tell a few acquaintances about this and they said “people like us” were ruining the community of faith. Sometimes, I feel like I’m being a coward not standing up for religious tolerance.
Your neighbors may think you’re a family of unholy Yankees (although “unholy Yankees” may be a redundancy where you live), but you were right, even righteous, to make known your objections to forced prayer in school. Whatever the tone of the principal, she understood it violated the law and the praying stopped. So please don’t be sore winners and now try to compel this teacher to rend her clothes and explain to her students that she was violating the Constitution. I understand that it’s distressing to live someplace where people not only don’t respect your lack of religious belief, but make it clear you’re going to hell. Presumably for professional reasons you must live somewhere where you are out of sync with the general culture. But one problem with our country is how insulated people can be from those who don’t share their religious or political views. You may accurately feel somewhat bullied by the devout you live among, but I think you should continue to remain diplomatic in your interactions. You are being good ambassadors for heathens! Since you’ve got at least several years of living down South ahead of you, you want to try to see beyond the religious fervor and appreciate some of the appealing qualities of your neighbors that might not be so prevalent up North. You explained to your daughter that she didn’t have to pray in order to be a good American. Some of the other crucial lessons you are giving her are that being a good person means standing up for what you believe when necessary, and letting things go when it’s wise. —Emily Yoffe
From: “Help! We Stopped the Class Prayer in Our Child’s School, and Now the Community Hates Us.” (April 24, 2014)
My wife just completed her Ph.D. program after almost eight years. I’m so proud of her, and she is really happy to have finished and defended her dissertation. She’s used the same laptop since at least a year before her program started. In that time it’s gotten a new battery and a new hard drive because she couldn’t afford a brand-new computer. My wife has said for the past year or so that it seems to be on its last legs and that she’ll be sad to throw it out. Well, the time came, and it stopped functioning. The thing is she’s gotten increasingly upset about her laptop’s “death.” When she wiped the hard drive, she cried a little. We took it to a tech store for recycling, and as the guy took it behind the desk, she watched it like it was a dog about to be euthanized. When the guy disappeared with it and we heard a “clunk,” she turned to me and said, “I know I sound like a lunatic, but I feel like it’s hurting,” and sobbed in my arms. She’s usually so calm and collected. I know transitioning out of her program has been a big change, but I don’t know what to do about her feelings about this laptop. She already sees a counselor. What’s going on, and how can I help?
Oh, this is sweet and endearing! I think you should ask this exact question (“How can I help?”) of your wife. She knows that she’s anthropomorphizing this laptop and that there’s something a little absurd about the situation, so I don’t think you have to worry that you’ll be encouraging any sort of reality-denying tendencies if you engage with her feelings on the subject. This was a very loyal companion during a huge, consequential, likely stressful part of her life. Millions of people saw Wall-E and cried over a drawing of a robot (see also The Brave Little Toaster), so I don’t think there’s anything especially unusual about your wife forming an emotional attachment to a laptop. People like to imbue objects with emotional significance! It’s a big part of being human! And it’s right and proper to try to engage someone on that front!
I think it’s lovely that you want to help, just be sure to stress first that she doesn’t have to try to downplay her own feelings: “I know you know that a laptop’s an inanimate object, so please don’t feel like you have to call yourself a ‘lunatic’ or beat yourself up for having an emotional response to losing it. I want to help support you in this. Do you want to talk at all about what that last recycling appointment felt like for you? What you loved about the laptop, and what you’ll miss?” Make her a cup of tea, listen, talk her through it. I don’t think you’re going to have to do anything more challenging than smiling sympathetically and nodding when she talks about saying goodbye to something that helped her get through grad school. —D.L.
From: “Help! My Wife Fears Her Laptop—an Inanimate Object—Endured a Painful Death.” (Nov. 5, 2019)
I am dreading my family’s annual Christmas get-together this year, but not for the usual reason. My mother, who’s in her 60s, her sister-in-law, and a female cousin are huge fans of the Fifty Shades of Grey books. They literally cannot be in a room together without discussing the book in great detail, regardless of who is around. They have all badgered me to read the books; however, any interest I had in reading them was squashed by their incessant and overly detailed accounts of the books. They all call me a prude, laugh at me, and deliberately try to cause me discomfort. I have been warned to not be “so oversensitive and uptight” and that they plan to discuss this openly at our family Christmas dinner in front of the children. Am I wrong to think they should be respectful of my feelings and others? Am I the only grown woman having this issue or are all women so crazy for those books they have lost all concept of appropriateness?
I can understand that after years of discussing the thickness of the gravy and the thinness of Uncle Herbert’s 401(k), these ladies have grown sick of post-Christmas Mass talk and would prefer a mass reading of Christian Grey. Sure it could be awkward explaining to the kids that even though Grandma keeps going on about her favorite brand of Ben Wa balls, that they are not getting their own set in the Christmas stocking. And yes, they might wonder what Aunt Lois did that was so bad that she keeps talking about getting spanked. But respect your elders and let these ladies have the pleasure of thinking that isn’t a hot flash, they’re just hot. As you’ve seen, the more you object and squirm over their passion for the trilogy, the more they’re going to torment you with references to Christian Grey-flavored popsicles. (Just tell the kids it tastes terrible and you’re sticking with grape.) Ignore this senior trio or laugh at them, and agree with the kids that they sound very silly. And if ice cream is served for dessert, just tell the children that even if Grandma keeps talking about letting it drip down her body, they’d better keep theirs in the bowl. —E.Y.
From: “Help! My Friend Got Pregnant by a Creep. Can She Keep the Baby a Secret?” (Dec. 20, 2012)
More Advice From Dear Prudence
My cousin died last year. Her widower, “Greg,” and I became close since our daughters are the same age. I did a lot of the heavy lifting with his daughter since Greg was grieving and my aunt wasn’t much help. We were friendly, but all our interactions involved the girls, and Greg is not my type—I’ve never had any romantic feelings for him.