• What To Do When Friends Have Inconsistent Birthday Traditions

    This month Nina addresses inconsistencies in birthday “traditions” between friends. Do you give gifts if you’re also taking friends out for a meal? What if some friends in a group get taken out for a meal and others don’t? And in the case of this month’s letter writer, what if the group does gifts for some friends, but not others?

    Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    birthday traditions

    Dear Nina,

    My birthday was in July and a small group of my friends took me out to dinner. It’s the first time they have ever done this. I missed someone’s birthday from the group in August and then in September. I took those two women out separately, since I couldn’t make it to the group dinner.

    However, the next birthday was in October, so I showed up at the restaurant and everyone else had a gift. I was so embarrassed because I was empty handed. I didn’t get the memo that gifts were now included in these outings. Isn’t taking the birthday girl out for dinner enough? Apparently at the one birthday dinner in August, gifts were given, but at the September dinner—no gifts. Why one and not the other?

    Recently there were two more birthdays. I refused to show up empty-handed, so I got both women some cute, fun jewelry—nothing too expensive, around $20 each.

    But why must we give gifts? How do we stop the gift giving without hurting others’ feelings? I didn’t get gifts at my birthday dinner, so I never thought to buy a gift for anyone else. I told my friend who sort of arranges these dinners that after our friend’s birthday in Dec, we should say no more gifts unless it’s a big birthday ending in zero or five. Not all the women in this group are super close, so it’s all awkward. I don’t know what the right thing to do is.  Any advice you can lend would be appreciated.


    Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts

    Dear Let’s Knock It Off With All These Gifts,

    You’ve come to the right person. Some may find this particular issue ridiculous to consider a friendship “dilemma” since it means you’ve mastered a question often asked here: How to make and keep a solid group of friends in the first place or at least a few friends close enough for birthday celebrations.

    Friends who take you out! Friends who give gifts! What’s to complain about?

    Let’s call this advanced friendship advice then. These etiquette conundrums and inner drives for practical living fascinate me endlessly. How can any sane and functioning crew of friends give gifts off the zero and five years with such randomness? You are absolutely right that this madness must end.

    Not everyone will agree with me on this, but I think a meal can be gift enough in the off years. Now, if the birthday girl is throwing her own party and you’re attending as her guest, then a gift is proper. If she says no gifts, however, I try to respect that except in cases when I truly can’t help myself.

    I asked my mom what people in her social life do for birthdays, and she said it’s a gift or a meal, not both, even for the big birthdays. Of course each person gets to make her own decision and just because a group of friends has decided not to do gifts, that doesn’t mean closer friends within the group or those for whom gift gifting is their go-to way of expressing closeness cannot privately hand over a present. Maybe those friends can consider not bringing the present to dinner in front of everyone else.

    As for expressing closeness to friends, we each have our methods, whether we’re aware of them or not. Your letter made me think about how my friends know that I love them. I’m not the best about bringing a gift in the non-zero years or even initiating the birthday outings, but I make old-fashioned phone calls and leave all kinds of voice memos, too. I also answer calls, ask for advice, and give advice when asked. I also introduce my friends to everyone I know both to help them professionally and socially. So yes, my gift giving could stand to improve, yet I’ve managed to keep most of my friends.

    My point is, I’m with you that gifts, while nice, are not the only way to “give” to a friend. And I agree that it’s immensely awkward the way your group of friends is giving gifts for some of the birthdays and not others with no discernible pattern. I like your idea of getting the woman who arranges these outings to announce before the January get together that it’s a new year and from now on, people should only bring gifts to dinner for the zero and five years. If she won’t bring up the topic, then you will have to decide if you’re up for doing it yourself. I noted you said this is the first year they’ve taken you out for your birthday. I’m not sure how long this group has been getting together and whether you feel it’s the right time to step in that way. Only you know!

    Or, and this is advice I probably couldn’t take myself, you can also get comfortable with doing things your way (no gift) even when others bring gifts for a friend’s 43rd birthday dinner.

    Good luck! Let us know what happens in 2019!



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  • A Friend Who Wants to Stay Out of the Middle

    In this month’s column Nina addresses two issues. Should a friend be expected to get in the middle of two other friends’ tension? And she also covers some thoughts on invitation lists for big parties. Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.


    nina badzin

    Dear Nina,

    A few years ago, I introduced a longtime, dear friend to an acquaintance as I thought they would have a lot in common. As it turns out, the women connected and their husbands really connected, and the two couples became fast friends.

    I invited both couples to my son’s Bar Mitzvah, but only invited the children of the longtime friend. The acquaintance-friend was very upset and shared her feelings with my longtime friend.

    Fast forward to after the Bar Mitzvah. The acquaintance no longer speaks to me if she sees me, yet she and her husband go out with my longtime friend regularly. I tried to make amends with the acquaintance to no avail.

    The question: I confronted my longtime friend, letting her know that it would have been nice if she had told me the issue before the Bar Mitzvah as I would have included the children rather than cause any upset. She had no explanation, nor has she ever tried to intervene to help the relationship. I feel betrayed by my longtime friend, especially when she talks about the acquaintance. Any advice?


    Looking to Move Forward


    Dear Looking to Move Forward,

    This is a tough one because I see why you’re upset.

    #1. You made a great friend match for the two women, but it seemed to backfire. Nobody likes that, even people like me who get a real thrill out of connecting people to each other.

    #2. Anyone planning a party needs to set boundaries on the invitation list or the sheer number of guests would make the party less fun and way less affordable.

    And yet, despite having every right to be upset, you will have to make the choice to let your longtime friend off the hook before any moving forward can happen.

    Nowhere in your note did you say you want to drop the friendship. Assuming you want to stay friends with Longtime (that’s what I’m going to call her), you either have to be okay with Longtime setting that boundary of not getting in the middle, OR, you have to talk to her about it again and understand that she may feel you’re asking too much of her.

    I want to rewind a moment and remind you (and all of us!) that it’s okay for people to be disappointed with us. Meaning, the acquaintance’s disappointment doesn’t mean you did anything wrong. And just because you wish Longtime would have intervened then and even now, it doesn’t mean that she agrees with you or that she made the wrong call. It’s clear she doesn’t feel it’s her place to get in the middle. I’m not saying she’s right or that you’re right. I don’t really know. But if SHE feels it’s not the right thing to be in the middle, then you have to accept that if you want to put this behind you. One extra point to make: I would argue that Longtime never should have told you that acquaintance was upset about the party. Because that WAS getting in the middle and not in a helpful way. It only served to make you feel bad about a party that was already underway.

    As usual I consulted a few of my best advisors for my own dilemmas.

    Taryn, my best friend from childhood said this: “I’m going to give Looking to Move Forward the same advice I give you sometimes. Don’t assume to know what was said between your longtime friend and the acquaintance. Staying out of it might have been your longtime friend’s way to stay loyal to both of you. Time to turn the page.”

    I agree with Taryn that there are simply too many assumptions here. What if your acquaintance wasn’t feeling a deep connection with you before the bat mitzvah and just used that as an excuse to let things drift? There’s really no way to know.

    My best friend from college, Rebecca, pointed out that if this acquaintance was truly upset about her kids not being invited then she was bound to get upset with you over something small some other time. Maybe you dodged a bullet. It’s totally inbounds not to invite the children of all your friends, acquaintances, colleagues, and so on to an event that is a special milestone for your child. Rebecca also said, “Don’t relive something that happened only once.” In other words, continuing to think about this event gives you the false sense that Longtime has wronged you many times when it was just this one event. (And whether she was wrong is still up for debate.)

    And of course I consulted my mom.

    “As hurtful as it is, it’s not reasonable to expect your old friend to give up the friendship with the acquaintance or to intervene. I remember something similar happening in my own life. I had a huge blow up with an old friend, and somewhere in my head I was hoping that some of my close friends who knew her would not be friends with her anymore. I kept the thoughts to myself, but felt that my friends had picked sides by staying friends with her.  After some time, my friends were no longer friends with the person I had fought with for some of the same reasons I could not get along with her. So who knows how this will all play out in the future.”

    I hope we were able to help you move forward. I sympathize with the situation as did Taryn, Rebecca, and my mom.

    Best of luck,



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  • Should This Friendship End?

    In this month’s column Nina makes an unusual call for the end of a friendship. Do you agree that this friendship is doomed? Nina is always taking anonymous questions here. And catch up on all the other letters Nina has answered here.

    end a friendship

    Dear Nina,

    I’m writing to you because I’m unsure how to move forward from some serious arguments with my childhood friend of ten years. I live a state away from her, and over the years our communication has deteriorated. I find it very hard to be open with her about the events in my life due to the many explosive calls I’ve received from her.

    In one instance, she told me that I don’t deserve to be happy before she is happy. Furthermore, all of our discussions have become about her and her struggles. I don’t mind being a support system for her, but whenever we do discuss my life, she’s judgmental and mean-spirited. Therefore, I have limited how much I see her and talk to her, which has angered her to the point where she believes I don’t make her a priority.

    The thing is she’s right that I have made her less of a priority, but that’s for reasons other than our disagreements. My life has become very busy with all of the responsibilities I have to juggle as well as a recent family emergency.

    In our most recent argument, I had called her out for meanly phishing for information. What really angered me was how I was trying to tell her how uncomfortable she made me feel; yet she took offense to me calling her out for bullying me and told me she won’t ever give me advice anymore—instead she wishes for me to fall on my ass. Lastly, she told me I shouldn’t play the victim all the time and she shouldn’t have to apologize all the time because she has been through more problems than me.

    She revealed to me that she no longer trusts me. However, I have not trusted her in a long time. Overall, I agree I’ve avoided her and made her feel like I’m not in her life. But I have apologized for this. Yet, I don’t like the way she makes me feel. I admit I have not been the perfect friend, but I also feel that she refuses to be accountable for all of the things she’s done and the way she’s talked to me that has made me distance myself from her.

    I’m always afraid of hurting her feelings. How do I talk to her? Is it wise for me to take a break from her? Is there a way to for me to get her to realize it’s impossible to open up to her because she makes me feel like I will upset her? I always feel like we are walking on eggshells. I am afraid of losing a friend, but I’m also afraid we can’t move forward. Should we even be friends?

    Thanks for any advice,

    Not Sure I Can Continue This Friendship


    Dear Not Sure I Can Continue This Friendship,

    The answer to your final question, “Should we even be friends?” is clear to me, though the method to get there will still be difficult.

    You and this woman should not be friends. You need more than a break. You need a breakup.

    If describing a friendship worth saving, you wouldn’t be using words like explosive calls, mean, bullying, distrust, fall on your ass, and egg shells.

    Friendship is certainly work and takes compromise on both sides, but friendship should not be as much work as what you’ve described in your letter. Friendship shouldn’t be half the amount of work as what you’ve described.

    If you find yourself saying, This is just too much, that’s because it is. It is too much. It’s too much pain, too much frustration, and too much effort. She should be telling herself the same thing. Because even if she technically started all this drama with the exploding at you on the phone nonsense, you have chosen to stay in the strained relationship, which set up an expectation that she can treat you this way. You wrote a few times about the way she makes you feel, but she’s been given little reason to treat you any differently since you keep allowing her to stay in your life. If someone calls you yelling and you continue to take her calls, she will continue to feel she can yell at you. Period.

    I rarely say this concretely that a friendship needs to end because I like to believe there’s hope for people who’ve shared a history, especially from childhood. But in this case, I don’t see any reason to keep putting yourself and your friend through the agony. You’ve both stated a lack of trust. She has blatantly told you she doesn’t wish you well. I can’t find anything worth saving here.

    Here’s the bad news: There is no easy way to end a friendship.

    I’ve had emotional notes from people who’ve been ghosted, meaning their friends simply disappeared. The readers on the receiving end of a breakup like that wish the friend ending the relationship had written a letter or offered an honest reason in a face-to-face conversation. I’ve also have notes from readers who received such a letter or direct conversation and wish the friend wanting to end the relationship had found a way to fade away gracefully or “ghost” out of the blue. Some people don’t want such a direct goodbye. My point is that there is no “good” way to sever these ties.

    From what you’ve described of your friend, a face-to-face conversation sounds like a bad idea as does the phone. (I know she lives out of town, but perhaps a visit had been discussed.) One choice is to write a letter explaining some of what you’ve written to me. You know you haven’t been a perfect friend and you value your shared history, but the need to walk on eggshells has become so difficult that the good memories and good times are now too far in the past. Something along those lines.

    Another choice is to continue what you’ve already started, which is to fade away. Maybe you take longer and longer to return calls and texts. Maybe you interact less with her social media accounts than you do now. (Assuming you are interacting with them now.)

    You have my sympathy. The task ahead isn’t easy. Although I can’t tell you how to end the friendship, I do feel certain that you should end it.

    Wishing you as painless of a break as possible. If that’s possible.

    I’m sorry you’re going through this,


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  • Talking to Friends About Money

    This month’s topic is MONEY MONEY MONEY. Does it bother you when friends ask what you spent on something? Does it bother you when a friend avoids answering a financial question? Please read the situation described in the letter below and help Nina guide this month’s letter writer past all the awkwardness.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here. See the questions she’s already covered, here.

    hertake nina badzin


    Dear Nina,

    I would love some advice about navigating the subject of money among friends for the midlife set, whether those friends have more OR less, to minimize awkwardness on both sides.

    Here’s what prompts my request. The other day a neighbor (someone we’re fairly close with, e.g. we help each other with dog walking needs, vacation mail, etc.) was asking me about a recent stay we had in a local beach community. We’d rented a house for the week and she asked, “Do you mind if I ask if it was expensive?” That was her exact phrasing, not “Do you mind if I ask how much it costs?”

    Now, I happen to know from previous conversations a hint of her financial situation that we are in a much, much stronger financial position than she is right now. Which is to say, to *her* I knew this would be expensive, and, like any vacation travel, there are ways to do it cheaper. I also knew that the pricing is available online if she were to ever ask where we stayed, so I didn’t want to lie either. My answer to her was “Well, I don’t like characterizing anything as expensive or not because I think that’s relative, but it cost $XXX.” And, as I expected, her eyes widened. And then I felt guilty, finding myself qualifying my response with things like “but this is the only vacation we take . . . we rented a bigger house so we could have more privacy . . . etc.” I guess I felt I had to justify the amount we spent to make it sound less…fancy? After she left I felt badly, almost guilty.

    I know never to assume anyone’s financial status, and yet these kinds of things come up once in a while, on either side of the coin, for all of us. And when socializing in mixed financial circles it can get awkward. For me, what I want to minimize most is resentment or any whiff of “showing off” or “missing out” for anyone. Like if we go out with a group of friends . . . sometimes some are happy splitting the bill evenly, and others you can sense it’s not what they wanted to do. Or how for many of us, family size (big or small) directly impacts ability to pay in some situations. You get the gist. Any pointers for our midlife generation who have things like college, parent care, mortgages, retirement plans, etc. that we all might be better or less equipped to finance than our peers? How do we talk about these things honestly without hurt feelings?

    Thank you!

    Need Help With The Money Talk

    Dear Need Help With The Money Talk,

    First, I’m taking the “midlife” angle out of the question because awkwardness about money is an ageless concern. Second, I want to assure you that you’re not alone in finding this subject tricky.

    I use Facebook occasionally to get a feel for which friendship topics piling up in my “HerTake” inbox will interest readers. When I brought up a more general version of your question, the post attracted more conversation than any other I’d attempted in four years of writing this column. Do I say that because everyone who responded agreed that friends shouldn’t ask what things cost or whether they’re expensive? No. I say it because the comments varied widely:

    “It’s tacky to ask what someone spent.”

    “It doesn’t matter if someone asks. Friends should be able to talk about it openly.”

    “We can look anything up these days so no reason to be private.”

    “It’s nobody’s business.”

    Yikes! What to do?

    Many agreed they didn’t mind discussing what things cost as long as they felt the person asking wasn’t judging the answer. There was also consensus, which doesn’t make it scientific, but I’m mentioning it anyway, that women over-explain and apologize for their purchases more than men do. “It was a deal.” “It was a gift.” “I bought it at a resale shop.” You reacted this way, too when your friend’s eyes got wide at the price of your beach vacation. There was also agreement that context matters. If someone is looking for a similar deal on a similar item, that is entirely different from outright nosiness.

    One Facebook friend, Kate, summarized the issue well: “I do think it can be awkward when there are differences in economics among friends. But then, the truth is the truth, and neither bragging about it nor lying about spending money seems to be a modern approach. If someone resents a person for how much they spend on something, whatever it is, well then that’s on the resent-er. We must all be able to be ourselves among friends!”

    I agree with Kate’s point, especially the part about being ourselves. And you’re right, too, that we can never count someone else’s dollars. Maybe one person cares about the car she drives more than going on a certain kind of a vacation. Maybe another friend is spending her extra money on childcare during the week, which means she can’t afford to go out as much on the weekend. Maybe another friend seemingly has everything—new clothes all the time, a new car every few years, fancy vacations, three kids in private colleges—but she’s in debt. Maybe another friend never seems to stress about money, but she panics privately about saving for retirement, helping her parents, or dealing with medical bills.

    And as you said, what’s expensive to one person may not be to another. I would just stick to the facts. It’s presumptuous anyway to think you know how anyone will react to the information you provide. And as Kate said, the reaction is on the other person, not on you.

    That said, I think there is still nuance to every situation involving money and it all depends on the relationship. But even with my closest friends, I’d find it unusual for anyone to expect me to provide exact numbers on hotels, clothes, or anything for that matter.

    Now to be fair, my view comes directly from my childhood as evidenced by my mother’s reaction. “Because your grandmother was a stickler for manners and appropriate behavior in various situations, I learned at a young age it is gauche to discuss money in a social situation. This means you never ask someone what they paid for something, and you do not volunteer the cost of things you purchased. Clearly there are nuances to this rule. For example, you might tell a friend you hired a great computer person. Obviously your friend will want to know what the computer expert charges. That is a different question from asking what you paid for your vacation. The latter is an intrusive question and no one else’s business.”

    (I enjoyed my mom’s use of the word gauche.)

    I wish I could give you one specific rule to follow, but my mom is right that helping a friend make sure she’s not overpaying (or underpaying) for a service is quite different from providing dollar amounts about more personal purchases. And as my mom says, “There are some topics that are fine to talk about with some friends and other issues to avoid.” It depends on the relationship.

    In the case with your neighbor, I might have said, “We stayed at [name of place], but the prices depend on the availability or deals going on. Take a look.” This removes any opinion on your part about what she can afford and helps you avoid feeling defensive about how you spend your money. You’re not lying about where you stayed, but the exact price you paid for the place is truly not her business. Sure, she will see a ballpark of what you spent, but that will happen on her own time, which means you don’t have to get into an uncomfortable conversation about it. Perhaps this type of approach will help you the next time she asks a similar question. Does that mean you should never reveal the price of something? No. Like I said, nuance.

    The question you asked at the end about the bill at the restaurant is a good one, too. But the idea that you can sense some of your friends didn’t want to split the bill. . . I don’t know. I think you put too much pressure on yourself to know others’ financial issues and desires. You’re obviously a sensitive and caring friend, but you can’t single-handedly eliminate these uncomfortable moments. These fellow adults can speak up. Someone who does not want to split should ask the server from the get-go for separate checks. Sure, it would be a considerate gesture to offer to ask the server for separate checks yourself if you spent significantly more, but for a typical meal where people spent around the same amount, I think it’s fine to assume you’re all splitting unless the person who doesn’t want to says otherwise.

    I know this doesn’t cover every instance, but hopefully reading about the topic here (and in the comments below) will help you see you’re not alone and also encourages you to give yourself a break from having to mitigate everyone else’s money issues. That’s not your responsibility!

    Best of luck,


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  • Casual Friendship: You Can Be Friendly Without Committing to Friendship

    What can casual friendship teach us? Instead of answering an anonymous question this month, I want to discuss a friendship article from The Today Show’s parenting site that’s appeared consistently on my social media feeds since February. Rachel Macy Stafford, author of Hands Free Mama and Only Love wrote, Am I Invisible? One Mom’s Pain-Relieving Response to Being Excluded“.

    nina badzin hertake

    There’s a good reason it pops up every few days from various friends and pages I follow. Who hasn’t been left out as a kid and as an adult? Who hasn’t struggled with their kids getting excluded and excluding others? Who wouldn’t want some pain relief?

    Stafford’s piece begins with a familiar situation. She brings her daughter to a new extracurricular activity, one where the other families have been going already, and her attempts to inspire more than a passing glance and grunt from the other moms is a failure. But after several weeks of the same treatment, instead of feeling bitter and ashamed, Stafford feels grateful to these women for reminding her how she wants to operate in the world and what she wants to teach her daughter about treating new people. Among those lessons is this nugget: 

    “Remember the deepest desire of the human heart is to belong … to be welcomed … to know you are seen and worthy of kindness.”

    Including others

    Stafford recalls moments when she’s seen the power of one welcoming person. No, we don’t need every person to include us and our kids, but it makes a tremendous impact when at least one smiling face acknowledges our worthiness. Sure, in an ideal world we wouldn’t need that external validation. But find me a kid or an adult who doesn’t shine brighter when seen by a few others, even by one other person.

    It’s normal to feel defeated and ashamed after being excluded, but it might help, if, like Stafford, we think beyond who should be more welcoming to us and instead ask ourselves if there’s one person or one kid who could use our help. As Stafford recounts those memories when one person made all the difference and times she and her daughter have helped others, she is again grateful to the women at her daughter’s class who didn’t want to let them in the circle. 

    “I nearly forget what I have the power to do until one Tuesday afternoon when I take my daughter to an activity, and I am reminded. I approach two women hoping for kindness, but I am met with rudeness.”

    Stafford’s essay continues and I recommend reading every word. I relate to her description of the women at the activity who for weeks in a row turned their backs, making it clear they had no interest in her presence, nor would they encourage their daughters to warm up to Stafford’s daughter. It wasn’t personal, per se. These women didn’t know Stafford or her daughter enough not to like them. It was the total disinterest that stung—the not-so-subtle hint that for these women the nuisance of bringing in someone new trumped however uncomfortable it might have felt to know there was a fellow mom off to the side alone week after week.

    I had a similar experience when I moved to Minneapolis after college and again a few years later when I had my first child. My oldest is fourteen this week, but I still see the shoulders closing me out; I remember the body language that screamed, We don’t need new friends.

    Now, listen, I do have friendship lines in the sand and support them for others. While I’m often complimented for being a local connector — and it’s a compliment I accept proudly — I would never argue that everyone has to be close friends, or even more than a casual friendship. If you take nothing else from this essay, take this:

    Casual friendship: you can be friendly without committing to lifelong friendship.

    Inviting someone to join you once for lunch doesn’t commit you to decorating her locker on her birthday from now until you graduate from high school. Acknowledging that someone else exists doesn’t make you best friends. You get the idea.

    I’m the first to say there is often no explanation for good chemistry or the lack of it. I’ve been writing the friendship column at The HerStories Project for over three years to help people who are struggling to make new friends, keep the friends they have, or move away from the friends who are causing them more stress than joy. You will never hear me say that everyone new to town, new to your kid’s baseball team, or new to the office needs to become an integral part of your social life. Most of us don’t have the bandwidth to take in every fresh face.

    But I believe in kindness. There’s a universe between allowing someone to hang out for an hour with you at the park and suddenly having to include that family in your kid’s birthday parties until the end of time. Or your group trip, happy hours, or whatever you would like to keep more intimate. I’m all for intimate. I complain when there’s more than six people at a dinner so I get that everyone can’t be invited to everything. 

    Is it possible to simultaneously teach our kids that we can’t be included in everything while also encouraging them to be the type of soul who includes or at least sees—really sees—others? Lord knows I’m trying. If you have tips, I’m all ears.

    Friendship is complicated. I love Stafford’s piece because she rises above what we should expect from others and asks us to consider what we can do for others. If we don’t like feeling invisible, we can make a point to acknowledge someone who’s alone or struggling.

    Like Stafford, I’m grateful I’ve been forced to remember (more than once) as an adult how much it stings when people treat you as if even ten minutes of small talk is a real hassle, as if you and your child would take away a crucial element of the group rather than add to the group’s breadth and depth of friendship experience. It’s made me a connector for others and given me the empathy I need to call on now and then when I, too, get overly protective of my social circle and time.

    Thank you, Rachel Macy Stafford, for the reminder that we can do better, that we can be more generous, that we can be kind.

    By Nina Badzin

    See a list of friendship questions Nina has answered over the past three years and send your own anonymous question any time.

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  • HerTake: Should an Ambivalent Wife Leave Her Marriage?

    When should a midlife woman leave her marriage?

    HerTake Nina Badzin

    During the HerStories Project relaunch, we announced that Gen X women at midlife is the new focus for essays and classes at our site. The relaunch included a call for questions for our resident advice columnist, Nina Badzin, that goes beyond friendship dilemmas. Although Nina will take questions related to friendship as they pertain to midlife women, we couldn’t think of a more representative dilemma for our site’s relaunch than the one presented in the question below.

    Nina is always accepting anonymous questions here.  

    Dear Nina,

    I’ve been married to my college boyfriend for almost 20 years, and we have two kids — a teen and a tween. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’ve been experiencing a mid-life crisis in good and bad ways. One of the good ways is that I have a sense of this being a turning point where I can let go of past failures and insecurity and move forward with a better sense of myself.

    An uncomfortable symptom of this sense is that I’ve become more and more aware of disappointment in my marriage. My husband is a nice guy and an excellent provider and (I’m pretty sure) has always been faithful. But I think I knew early on in our relationship that we had very different interests. In recent years, he has gotten more intensely interested in three (count ’em, THREE) different hobbies. When I ask him to go on a date or do something with the family, it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.

    We have been in and out of marriage counseling and recently ended therapy because I was feeling like what I really wanted was for my husband to be a different person with different priorities. Even when he tries hard to be a good husband and dad (which he sometimes does), I feel like he’s doing it out of obligation, not enjoyment or interest. In our last session, he admitted that he was probably never going to value his relationships as much as his hobbies.

    Although I’ve worked part-time for most of our kids’ lives, I’m currently not working. I enjoy being able to devote time to family and volunteer work, and the thought of going back to work full time makes me nervous about work/life balance…especially because my fields of interest and experience are not very lucrative.

    I’m struggling with whether to stay in the marriage or not. On the one hand, I so often feel disappointed by the lack of interest and intimacy in our marriage. And I worry that our lukewarm relationship is not a great role model for our kids. There’s rarely real conflict between us, but sometimes I’m sure they sense disconnection and resentment.

    On the other hand, we have a good symbiotic relationship: He makes a comfortable living for us and has time left over for his hobbies. I enjoy taking care of the household and family relationships and not worrying about money.

    Should I leave my husband and change the entire dynamic of my family, with no guarantee that things won’t be worse for all of us? (The thought of living, even part-time, away from our kids and pets, is horrifying to me…and I would almost certainly end up with a lot more economic insecurity.) Or do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?

    Thank you,

    Ambivalent Wife


    Dear Ambivalent Wife,

    I let this question sit in my inbox for weeks. It’s one thing to opine on the safe terrain of friendships. Yes, friendship problems lend themselves to permanently hurt feelings, resentment, and disappointment. (See the many variations of friendship dilemmas I answered right here.) But hard as it is to hear this truth when we’re upset about a faltering friendship—we can replace the hole left by a friendship disappointment with another friend. And we all get to have more than one close friend at a time.

    Spouses are (obvious statement alert) not so simple to replace, especially spouses with whom we’re currently raising children. Which is not to say you should stay. And marriages 20 years in the running with long-held resentments are not so simple to change. Which is not to say you should leave.

    Let me be clear: Other than situations of abuse in any form whatsoever, I would never outright tell someone to leave a marriage. But I’m also not going to tell someone who seems to see her husband as a roommate, at best, that staying is the only choice.

    You were brave to share your situation and give voice to a reality felt by plenty of couples who’ve been together for two decades or more. (Or less!)

    While I cannot give a direct answer—really, how could I?—I’d like to at least further the conversation you started and encourage other HerStories readers to add their thoughts.

    I suspect many people reading your letter will come down in one of three camps.

    #1. Life is short and you should leave him.

    #2. You should stay, at least for now.

    #3. You need more information from yourself, from your husband, and for sure a new marriage counselor.

    Let’s start with the temptation to leave.

    I think the fantasy of starting over with a new partner with all the self-knowledge we’ve earned in two decades of adulthood is relatable.

    I personally have a recurring dream of going back to high school or college with the 41-year-old version of comfort in my skin I enjoy now. Would I have made vastly different choices as this version of myself? Would I have put up with less from other people and experienced less self-doubt at every turn? I suspect the answer to all of the above is yes, but I’m also glad I went through those growing pains. Weren’t those awkward and sometimes painful experiences all necessary to make me the person I am now? But those are just dreams. Let’s get back to reality.

    You asked at the end, “Do I stay in a relationship that I know will never fulfill my deepest desires?” I wonder if defining and analyzing your “deepest desires” is a good place to start. Have you adequately reflected on how realistic those desires are? Are they reasonable enough to find? Is there already someone out there you have in mind? Whatever those desires are—sexually or otherwise—are they sustainable for, say, two decades with someone new? The answer may be—yes. I cannot say.

    The rest of my answer will combine options two and three, not because I think staying is the only option, but I do think it’s one to consider.

    Judging your husband based only on your letter, I’d say, yeah, he has tons of work to do. But I want to defend him on one of your biggest complaints. You said, “ . . . it often feels like he’s pulling himself away from his practice or study because he knows he should, not because he really looks forward to time with me or the kids.”

    I bet my husband could say the same about me, and yet, I know I’m a very dedicated mother and wife. I am physically where I need to be for them. Most of the time, I’m emotionally there, too.

    But at 10:00 at night when all the kids are finally in bed, I can’t say I’m terribly enthused when my husband wants to talk to me just as I’ve sat down to read, write, or watch a show. (In other words, I wouldn’t mind if he had three hobbies to call on in that exact moment.) I can’t say when I jot down the many dates of my kids’ games, activities, and school events, that I don’t sometimes sigh and panic about all the time parenting requires. I can’t say I don’t sometimes wonder, aloud, in front of my husband, when my life will feel like mine again. I know he wishes I had a cheerier attitude about all the transporting and face-showing that comes with parenting. I know, for a fact, that he doesn’t love it when I text him self-pitying notes letting him know I am once again cancelling an appointment or interrupting my work time to pick up a kid at school who convinced the school nurse she has a stomachache.

    I could go on and on.

    You said your husband is generally a good husband and dad, but it bothers you that he seems to show up out of obligation. I guess I feel like by that standard I am not a good mom and wife, and I know that is simply not true.

    And now for some meatier advice, I’m sharing my mom’s email to me about your letter because my mom is smart, has been married to my dad for 52 years, and has successfully added her two cents to some of the friendship letters on this site. 

    Here’s Kathy, my mom, writing to me about you.

    I think Ambivalent Wife’s feelings are very understandable and common for someone married around 20 years. Some people call it the second seven-year itch. Many women feel “disappointment” in their spouse at this time of life. It doesn’t seem like this is what we signed up for when we first got married. I had those exact feelings at her age, though divorce did not occur to me. I felt Dad was unavailable in a lot of ways—busy at work, traveling, playing tennis twice a week. The way I got through it was to find something for me that did not include him or the children. I was about Ambivalent Wife’s age when I took a course and started a consulting business. The business was time-consuming and removed me from my daily life into a different universe. Finding something that was just mine and completely absorbing was a good way for me to get through the rough times.

    There are things we do not know about this marriage. We do not know whether there are big communication issues, whether there is still a sex life for this couple, and if they even still like each other. Assuming that he is not abusing her, does not have another woman, and does not have a severe emotional problem, there might be some good reasons to stay in this marriage, or at least consider options and issues that might occur if she were to leave.

    First, if she goes, she will have to work, and it doesn’t sound like she has or had a career. Second, her children’s lives will be completely disrupted, and does she really think the grass is greener anywhere else? Third, a continuation of item two, another man her age will also be busy with work and hobbies and may have his own children.

    She might consider finding wonderful new hobbies for herself, especially now that her kids are older. She should also maintain close relationships with her friends. There is no substitute for long-time women friends.

    The divorced women I know left for the following reasons:

    1. Another woman
    2. Severe emotional problems such as untreated mood disorders.
    3. Terrible communication problems. For example, one woman told me if she and her husband disagreed about something, he would not speak to her for a week or more. I asked her, “Not even pass the salt or pass the pepper?” She said not even that. She found that intolerable.
    4. Another friend said her husband worked long hours. When he came home, all he did was criticize everything she did from the smallest housekeeping issue to other things. No detail was too small for him to criticize, and she felt demoralized all the time.

    I don’t think any one person can advise another to get a divorce. I hope that Ambivalent Wife explores some other options for herself before deciding to leave her husband. Lots of couples have different hobbies. That can make a marriage more interesting. In my opinion she needs to find an activity that consumes her before deciding her next step.

    Love, Mom

    Okay, I’m back. And I will only add that as someone married for over 17 years who is surrounded by friends married for around that same length of time, I promise you are not alone, which does not make your next step any easier.

    But I do feel comfortable saying that the status quo is not an option.

    Maybe, once you find a new marriage counselor, you can bring your letter to me with you and read it aloud. That might be a good place to begin (again) to work towards a happier marriage, if that is possible with him.

    Wishing you peace whatever you decide to next,


    Nina Badzin is a freelance writer and a writing workshop instructor at ModernWell in Minneapolis as well as ModernWell’s book club host. She has been the advice columnist for the HerStories Project for three years. Learn more about Nina at her website.

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