How to recover from an affair? Start with an apology

By Amy Dickinson

September 20, 2014

Dear Amy: My husband of 34 years had an affair with a co-worker, lasting for a year. He has had at least one other affair that I know of. With the aid of a therapist, I confronted him, and he said the whole affair was a terrible idea, and that he wanted our marriage to stay together. He agreed to cut communication with the woman. She moved away.

A year later, after working hard (on my end) to try to repair the marriage, I found out that the two of them had been having long weekly phone calls that my husband had gone to great lengths to conceal. I said that if he felt compelled to continue the calls, I would leave the marriage.

Fast forward another year. The calls continued in spite of repeated pledges by my husband that they were not occurring. I confronted the scarlet woman and told her to cut it out, or I’d spill the beans to her husband.

She did.

Here’s the problem: My husband has never apologized for his actions. He says if he is warm and loving, that should be enough for me, and I should get over these events.

My husband is pleasant enough but is hardly warm and loving. He continues to have multiple phone numbers and multiple e-mails in his name. I’m not accusing him of romancing women, but I feel insecure. If I try to bring up our relationship, my husband refuses to talk because he says all I do is tell him that he is a horrible person (that is not true). He refuses to talk with a therapist.

Any hope here? — Saddened

Dear Saddened: I do have hope — mainly for you. Your marriage? Not so much. Your husband seems determined to deny you the healing and intimacy you desire. Catching him, catching him again and being proactive in driving off his mistress is pretty exhausting. You are expending all of the effort to keep your marriage going. He is passively letting you.

"Pleasant enough" isn’t a very high standard in a spouse. "Pleasant enough" is the ultimate standard you set for your dental hygienist, not your husband.

You need to value yourself more. An apology is not the MOST your husband can give to you; it is the very LEAST he can offer. And he is not even willing to do that. Reread your letter to me. Continue with your therapy. And then do what you want to do.

My advice to a young writer?: Look in the mirror for material

By Amy Dickinson

September 20, 2014

Dear Amy: I just started school again, and it sucks — already!

I don’t really have friends, and my classes are boring. I’m so stressed already, not just because of school but other things also. My favorite class so far is English. It’s interesting.

I have a really wonderful imagination, so I think I want to be a writer, but I’m horrible at putting my imagination on paper. Can you suggest a way for me to be a wonderful writer one day? 

— Bored

Dear Bored: You can be a wonderful writer now, if you want to. The way to do this is to start to write down stories about your own life and experiences.

You should ask your teacher for recommendations for books to read that will fire your imagination and inspire you to write your own stories.

My favorite new book for middle-grade readers is “The Swap” by Megan Shull (2014, Katherine Tegen Books). This imaginative and funny book about a boy and girl trading bodies will give you insight about friendship and the stresses of school and family.

You’re already sitting on an inspiring, occasionally frightening, funny, complicated and truly unique story — and that is the story of you.

For this foster family, it’s nothing but grief

By Amy Dickinson

September 18, 2014

Dear Amy: My husband and I have been foster parents to a sibling group of three young children for the past year and a half. We recently found out that despite our hopes of adoption, the children will be leaving us soon, which is absolutely heartbreaking.

We live in a small town where everyone pretty much knows one another’s business, and I am dreading the inevitable questions that we will be asked about the kids’ departure everywhere we go.

We are not “career” foster parents and only became licensed to take in these children, so I’ve never had to deal with this sort of thing before.

Any suggestions on how to deal with the nosy but well-meaning masses? I don’t want to come off as rude but really have no desire to give anyone the play by play. 

— Sad Foster

Dear Sad: You are to be commended for your effort to make life better for these three children.

As you know, reunification with birth families is a priority for children in foster care, and well over half of foster kids are in fact returned to their birth families. One aspect of the fostering experience is the sheer bravery it takes to face the challenge of parting with children you love.

It would help if you keep in mind that these children were also present in others’ lives — whether neighbors, shopkeepers or the mail carrier.

A simple non-nosy question: “Hey, where are the kids today?” could plunge you into a complicated grief state. You don’t mention the specifics, but you should prepare a simple, truthful answer, such as: “The court made a decision, and they have been placed back with their birth mother.”

It’s usually the second, third and fourth question after a loss that provide the biggest challenge. These come from people who have follow-up questions or unsolicited advice (or who want to share the story about their sister-in-law’s cousin who had “the exact same thing happen!”).

Prepare yourself with this: “We’re struggling right now, and I’m not ready to talk about it.”

The agency that chose you to be foster parents can point you toward support. There are also many online discussion boards devoted to foster parenting, and you would benefit from connecting with other parents in this way.

She loves him; he loves porn

By Amy Dickinson

September 16, 2014

Dear Amy: I have been married for almost 10 years and have caught my husband with various forms of pornography. Recently I found out he has been getting erotic massages and calling “fantasy” phone lines. I’m devastated because he has betrayed my trust and our wedding vows.

I say he is cheating; he says he’s done nothing wrong. I overheard him telling his buddy, “I’m just a guy.”

Who’s right? Do you think the marriage is salvageable? 

- Distraught Wife

DEAR DISTRAUGHT: When it comes to this kind of behavior and the way it makes you feel, does it really matter who is “right”? (Hint: You get to define the boundaries of the marriage you want to be in.)

Your husband’s characterization of his activities as just being “a guy” is an insult not only to you but to guys in general. Most married guys don’t do this, but the ones who do want to normalize it.

Generally, when someone goes from viewing pornography to seeking contact through erotic phone services and then on to receiving erotic massages, it’s a sign that his sexual behaviour is escalating. You should ask your husband how he defines “cheating,” try your utmost to have a frank and honest conversation about this and get tested for STDs.

The question that gave me an instant hot flash

Amy Dickinson

September 13, 2014

Dear Amy: When we were dating, my wife was the sweetest woman in the world. She didn’t make a move without asking me. We had a few kids. She stayed home and raised them while I worked. The kids grew up and went off on their own. The wife got a part-time job to keep herself busy. Then she got promoted. Now she works full time, goes to business lunches and dinners, meetings and training sessions. She comes home, cooks and cleans. She doesn’t ask me what I’d like for dinner but makes whatever she feels like.

Our plan was for me to retire when I turned 62 (she’s 57), buy an RV and travel the country. Well, we bought the RV, but she can only go on weekend trips. Vacations are saved for when the kids come home.

She traded in the car I bought her to tote the kids around for a sports car that I can barely fit in. Now she’s talking about getting a smaller house because she doesn’t have time to clean “a big empty house.” I keep telling her we will have grandkids one day and she will be glad we have all the space.

She’s changed so much in 37 years that I don’t even recognize her, and I’m afraid one day I will wake up to a “for sale” sign in my front yard.

How do I convince her she is just going through “the change” and in a few years she will be back to normal again?

 — Mystified Mike

Dear Mike: Your wife is definitely going through “a change,” but it might not be “the change.”

Your job is not to blame your wife’s choices on menopause. In fact, that notion is quite condescending and offensive. Please, don’t go there.

It seems that you two had a very “traditional” relationship, and she has switched the rules of the game.

There are a number of things you could and should do differently, but your situation basically boils down to this: When your wife grows and changes, you have choices — you could either cry into your cups and complain that she no longer asks you for your menu choices before cooking and cleaning for you after working all day, or you could step up like a good partner and show your wife that you, too, are capable of growth and change.

You obviously feel neglected. The power has shifted in your household because you and the kids are no longer in charge of her. This transition is bound to be rocky, but you should take it as an opportunity to make some changes too.

A marriage counselor could help you negotiate workable compromises.

Nudity in dorm prompts naked jealousy

By Amy Dickinson

September 12, 2014

Dear Amy: I attend a small college in Wisconsin. I live in a dorm. My girlfriend lives in the same dorm on a different floor.

I stopped in to see her this morning. My girlfriend and her roommate have bunk beds. My girlfriend sleeps on the top bunk, and her roommate sleeps on the bottom.

As I entered my girlfriend’s dorm room I noticed that her roommate was still sleeping. She had a companion with her in bed. It was a guy I did not recognize. They were both covered with a blanket.

I could tell that they were topless and probably naked. As I was talking to my girlfriend, the guy woke up. He casually got out of bed. He was indeed naked. He quickly got dressed and left. I am a little concerned that a naked guy is sleeping in the same small room as my girlfriend.

I am upset that she has apparently seen him naked more than just this one time. I know she is not doing anything with him, but he parades around in what is essentially my girlfriend’s bedroom nude. When I asked my girlfriend if he had ever seen her totally naked, she did not answer me at first.

Then she admitted that he had seen her with nothing on! What should I do? 

— Worried Boyfriend

Dear Boyfriend: What should you do? You are not called upon to do anything. This situation does not seem to bother your girlfriend. (It would bother me to be forced to cohabit in a small room with someone having sex with her boyfriend on the bunk below — and it obviously bothers you, for different reasons).

If you were invited to enter the room and your girlfriend’s female roommate were walking around nude, would it bother you? Would it bother your girlfriend?

I’m trying to step back and describe a scenario in which the three people involved are deliberately exposing themselves or at the very least not bothering to cover themselves. (And how hard is it to throw on a towel?)

If your girlfriend does not like this situation, she should contact her resident adviser and also the dean of housing to complain.

This obviously makes you uncomfortable, and you are feeling jealous. You and your girlfriend need to talk about this.

You two may have different nudity comfort levels (which might be something you can work through). However, you might also have different values, and values are non-negotiable.

I was Annie Hall before Diane Keaton rocked her first set of suspenders. Employee photo: NBC News in Washington, 1983 #tbt

I was Annie Hall before Diane Keaton rocked her first set of suspenders. Employee photo: NBC News in Washington, 1983 #tbt

Is binge watching TV that much different from binge reading Harry Potter?

By Amy Dickinson

September 11, 2014

Dear Amy: My wife and I have three great kids, ages 9 to 15. We live in an affluent community where most kids have “smart” devices and all manner of video game optionsat home. I am not against technology, but when my kids had free time this summer, their first choice was to either watch movies or entire television series online — or play video games. If left unattended, they can remain glued to their screens for hours.

To break the pattern, we’d go swimming, play ball in our yard, ride bikes or go to the library. When the alternative activity ended they would inevitably gravitate back to their favorite shows or games for another mini-marathon.

To be fair, when I was a kid I used to watch game shows on TV with my sister and cousins all morning during the summer. But we did a lot of other things, too. I think my kids are missing out on some of the simple pleasures of childhood, but maybe the simple pleasures are different now.

My wife and I have tried several times to regulate this, but despite our intentions, these rules tend to get quietly broken.

I don’t want my kids to resent me for trying to control a habit, but I am not comfortable letting things go. Your insight? 

— Uncertain Dad

Dear Dad: In your youth, the media offerings were slim, and yet you report watching game shows during your summertime mornings. I assume that if there were daylong game show marathons, you would have spent longer periods in front of the set.

I do think there is an (imperfect) equivalency between binge watching TV series and binge reading all seven Harry Potter books — both activities have to do with getting lost in an entertainment during the endless days of summer.

But being in charge of your kids — and teaching them to control themselves — is your job. You need to become media literate. Talk to them about what they watch and occasionally watch (and play) along with them.

You also need to be a human remote control. Whether you decide to switch off the wireless during certain hours or have them turn in their devices during “blackout” times, this is a parenting no-brainer.

Initially, your kids may flop around, act bored and whine about their imperfect lives. But boredom has an important function, because pushing through it can unleash creativity, outside play or (God forbid) helping out at home.

Man ruminates on long-ago insult — and wonders how to recover

By Amy Dickinson

September 8, 2014

DEAR AMY: A year ago, I attended a sports event with three men, one of whom I had never met. As we chatted, this stranger commented on my appearance in a degrading and humiliating way.

I was stunned by his unprovoked, out-of-the-blue verbal attack. My response was to high-five this jerk as though his comment was clever, rather than offensive.

To this day, I am haunted by the memory of this interaction — not so much by his words, but by my submissive reaction.

Our paths will never cross again, and I don’t seek revenge. I just want to stop thinking about it.

Haunted in Carolina

DEAR HAUNTED: You are in the throes of a cycle of rumination, where you replay this unsettling event in your mind, always coming to the same conclusion: “I am humiliated.”

Your goals should be to face the reality of what happened, acknowledge and address its effect on you, and change the pattern.

Write down a detailed account of what happened that day, how it made you feel and why you think it made you feel that way. Writing about this could lead to unexpected insight.

Next, you must forgive yourself. In some contexts your behavior might be a wise survival instinct, but for you the submissive reaction is more humiliating than the original put down. You shouldn’t place your behavior on the same level as the person who offended you.

Moving forward, when you find yourself ruminating, change your mental tape from one of feeling shame and rehearsing different outcomes to feeling compassion and forgiveness toward yourself.

Finally, take the insight you have gained and turn it outward to express empathy and compassion for all of the boys and men who have to tolerate tormentors as a way to simply get by.

Toasting Joan Rivers at the Chanticleer.

Toasting Joan Rivers at the Chanticleer.

Don’t mess.

Don’t mess.

Nephew is a “My Little Pony” kind of boy — is this OK?

By Amy Dickinson

September 2, 2014

Dear Amy: I have a 5-year-old nephew who is starting kindergarten. He is a fantastic little boy who likes “boy” things like cars, but he really likes many “girl” things like Barbies, Minnie Mouse and My Little Pony. He is the most interesting 5-year-old boy I know.

When we were at the store he picked out a My Little Pony lunchbox. His mom is worried he will get picked on, and so am I, but I am also concerned about sending the message that he should not be himself.

I want him to love school, make friends, but not change who he is.

The next thing to buy is the backpack. He will want something girlie, and mom feels she should steer him toward a plain backpack (no characters), which I know he won’t like.

The question I have for you and your readers is this: How do we encourage him to be himself and also try not to set him up to be picked on because he doesn’t like traditional “boy” things?

Anxious Aunt

Dear Aunt: At 5 years old, your nephew has probably already had experiences on play dates or perhaps at preschool where he had to navigate around and through gender-based toys and play. You don’t mention this has ever been a problem, and you should not have him starting kindergarten assuming this will become a problem.

If your nephew is the most interesting boy you know, there is a likelihood that he will always make choices that are outside the proverbial lunchbox. He will also get picked on at some point — but clever, sensitive and creative people do get picked on, because being different riles people who want to bully others into their own comfort zone.

The kids who succeed through this are the kids who know they are awesome — even if (and/or because) they are different.

There is a strong case to be made for not having any commercial products on his lunch box and backpack, but his play preferences will surface, even if his folks suppress them on his clothing.

His parents should let him make his own choices and stand in his corner as they help him navigate whatever consequences follow. If he gets heat from other kids for the kind of lunch box he carries, then it is the other kids who have a big problem and the school should intervene.

Grannie worried by melancholy baby

By Amy Dickinson

September 1, 2014

DEAR AMY: My grandchildren (a boy age 4 and a girl, who is 6) stay overnight with me once a week. Last night while putting them to bed, my granddaughter was chatting and the conversation led to her feelings.

She said that she doesn’t know why, but she feels like crying a lot of the time. She said, “Even when I’m happy, I still feel like crying.” Obviously, I was quite concerned.

I have never been an interfering mother or mother-in-law, but I wonder if this is a time when something should be said.

I raised boys, so I do not know whether this is common with girls. She seems to have a tendency to be dramatic, but I fear that being this way at 6 years old may bode for worse things later. What are your thoughts?

Concerned Grandmother

DEAR GRANDMOTHER: Children do pass through phases marked by deep wells of feeling. It’s like their emotional life is opening and growing, right along with their intellectual and physical abilities. I don’t think this is a gender-related issue so much as it is about a child who is tender and sensitive and who may also be stressed.

She is a lucky little girl that she has a calm, steady and loving grandmother. She is telling you her feelings because she senses that you will handle this information well and in hopes of comfort and guidance.

You should tell her, “It’s really good that you are talking about your feelings. It’s not so good to hold things in.” Offer her as much physical contact and comfort as she wants. If she is particularly sensitive, her parents may banish her for crying because they are trying to encourage her to get a grip, but this would have the opposite consequence than they intend; they should be as patient and loving as possible.

This is something to bring to the parents’ attention. If the three of you talk and you all feel this is extreme (or if she seems to be getting more upset more often), absolutely raise this issue with her pediatrician.

Mother/daughter telephone date ends in torment!

By Amy Dickinson

August 30, 2014

DEAR AMY: My mother and I agreed on a day and time to chat each week. I work during the week, and Mom has been retired for many years and is living alone.

She places the highest priority on her home, playing bridge and her selected TV viewing.

We decided on a specific time Saturday morning to talk. Unfortunately, Mom answers her phone maybe 30 percent of the time when I call.

Later Saturday or Sunday, Mom will leave the “politically correct” response, such as “I miss you and am looking forward to your call later.” She sounds genuinely hurt and concerned to have missed my call. I worry about Mom because I live many miles away with my husband and son.

What I find most upsetting, however, is the litany of reasons why Mom wasn’t able to come to the phone, such as: “There was a worker at my home, and you know you can’t reschedule that” or, best yet, “I needed to trim my roses early this morning.”

Our 30- to 45-minute conversations (when they do occur) are friendly and valuable, but I’m now setting limits and refusing to call her back until the next week. I feel guilty, but I wonder if I’ll miss Mom when she is gone. I’ve always enjoyed the fantasy that my mother loves me more than her actions prove.

Tormented in Tucson

DEAR TORMENTED: There could be a practical reason why she isn’t picking up the phone, such as she isn’t hearing the ringer every time it rings. She might also be having some memory or other cognitive issue that interferes with her ability to attend to this scheduled call.

Also, and just as likely, maybe your mother doesn’t really have much to talk to you about, and so she would rather play phone tag than converse. Or she has something fairly monumental to tell you but is avoiding it.

This is annoying, for sure, and you should ask her if another time would be better than the time you agreed on. You should also stop taking this as an indictment of your relationship. You have placed such a high value on this weekly call that it creates a pressurized situation for both of you.

I hope you will visit with your mother in person soon. Spending time together could revive your relationship — and you could explore other technology that might assist your communications.

Aunt frets as nephew becomes niece

By Amy Dickinson

August 25, 2014

Dear Amy: I’m a wife and mom of five sons under the age of 8. My nephew is in his 20s. He has always been easily influenced and has gone through the punk stage, the Goth stage, the androgynous stage, the thinking-he-was-gay stage and now he is going through the cross-dressing stage.

When we get together with my sister and her family for weddings, graduations, funerals, school events, etc., “Steve” is now “Stephanie,” with wigs, full (overdone) makeup, 6-inch high heel shoes, micro-mini dresses, fur coats in the winter, and crop tops and short shorts in the summer.

He is a man. My boys know he is a man. They never let him forget it.

My mom and sister say we must treat “Stephanie” as a member of the family, and she is considering having the $25,000 sex change surgery if enough people donate to the fund she has on social media. I’ve spent thousands on gifts, tuition, his first car, first apartment and helping when he’s out of work (which happens a lot).

I refuse to waste our hard-earned money on his fad of the moment. My dad no longer speaks to his grandson. I don’t want to be like that. Steve is a great guy. My kids love their uncle. They miss roughhousing, tree climbing, playing ball and all those fun things that uncles and nephews do.

Summer’s almost over, and “Stephanie” will be surfacing soon at school events. Any advice?

 — Aunt

Dear Aunt: I’m going to suggest a way for you to frame this so you will stop being so angry with someone who no doubt has no desire to hurt you or your kids.

He/she is a family member (not an actual “uncle,” but a much older cousin) and should be treated as such. His/her current gender identification might not be a phase but the culmination of all of the other phases and searching he has obviously done in his life.

The lesson for your kids is that they should treat everyone kindly and with respect. At this juncture, it would be easiest for you to explain to the kids, “Stephanie used to call herself ‘Steve,’ but now she feels like she is a woman, and so we’re going to call her Stephanie. She’s still the same person on the inside and still loves you like always.”

You are not obligated to respond to any crowdfunding request from anyone for any reason, whether it is to buy a new Buick or new breasts. And a transgender woman can climb trees, play ball, roughhouse and play with kids as well as anyone.

Please work harder to patiently accept this person as he/she is. Nothing that is happening here is about you.