Dear Captain Awkward:
I’m a transman – reasonably attractive, fairly extroverted, early in my transition. I have recently moved to a new city and found a group of people who are both awesome (sharing similar interests and drives) and supportive of my transition. I even started dating a nice young man in this group. Then he called it off. We took time apart. I was distressed, but realised I’d rather have his friendship than nothing because he’s important.
Since then, however, he’s been flirty, possessive (both verbally, when someone else hits on me, and by keeping my things), mis-gendering me publicly, and generally a combination of acting like a jock out of an 80’s movie and like we’re still together. It’s unattractive, unlike him, and causing me a lot of distress. I’ve tried talking to him and it feels like, short of cutting myself out of our shared friends circle, I’m stuck with this. He’s even telling people that we’re still together! I am stuck looking like the asshole who can’t deal and I am at a loss.
At a Total Loss
Dear At A Loss:
I am so sorry this is happening to you, and that it feels like a choice between your own safety and comfort and your new-found friends. You are correct that if he keeps doing this and your other friends won’t check him or back you up, you will have to leave the group. It is heartbreaking and unfair.
A lot of people will jump in and say “DTMFA!” “Get new friends who appreciate you!” and yes, it may come to that, but I won’t insult you by suggesting that’s an easy thing to do especially when you are in a new city. Those of us who live away from our families create families with our friends. Those relationships are primal and very important, and they can change and grow and survive hard times if there is love and a willingness to work at it.
So what I have for you is less a script than a month-or-two-long campaign to try to make this a little better for you and give all of these friendships a chance. I want you to build bilateral ties with other members of the friend group (so he’s not your closest connection), I want you to tell some of them frankly what’s going on and ask for help/advice in managing him. I want you to avoid him for now to the extent possible – you’re working up to another serious talk, but that’s a ways away. And I want you to take a few tiny steps toward meeting some different/new people, so that you are not so caught up in this one group and not so dependent on them.
Step 1: Invite people in the friend group to do things one-on-one with you outside your usual hangouts. If they are GSF#5 carriers, this may take some effort on your part, because they will automatically want to text everyone and make it a group thing, so go slow. They are your new running buddies, people you take a class with, laundromat partners, you-just-happened-to-make-too-much-dinner,-would-they-help-you eat-it? friends. The first time you hang out with them, you don’t need to necessarily get into your whole history with your ex. Keep it light and free of an agenda beyond wanting to spend some more time with them and get to know them better. Save serious talks for the second time you hang out one-on-one, unless they ask you, in which case you lay it on them.
That script is what you told me:
“I really adore ___, and he and I were so close, but he’s making me very uncomfortable with some of his behavior (possessive, mis-gendering, telling people we’re still together when he is the one who broke it off). I’ve talked to him about it, but he won’t knock it off? Has he acted like this before? How do you think I can get him to stop?”
And then, if that conversation goes well, and you feel like you can trust the person, you ask for what you need:
“It would help me a lot the next time he behaves like that around the group if someone would step in and just say ‘Knock it off,’ so I don’t feel like it’s just me and I have to be the weirdo.”
Then let it drop. Act like you assume they will be cool, and that things with your ex will be cool. Chances are they have noticed something awkward and weird going on, but maybe didn’t know how to react before or didn’t want to get in the middle of what seemed like a lover’s quarrel, so you’re telling them exactly how to react.
If they try to put you off with “Well, that’s just (your ex), you know what he’s like” and brush off your concerns, they’ve indicated that they are outside the circle of trust.
Step 2: Pull back a bit on The Gang’s All Here Events for a few weeks. Go to every other one. And when you do go, give yourself a time limit and an easy out. See your friends, have a good time, but as soon as things start to get weird with your ex, extract yourself. Here’s a big one: Limit your own alcohol consumption, and leave before others (especially your ex) have had a lot to drink.
Step 3: Speak up for yourself. Start with “Hey Knock It Off,” build up to “Big Talk.”
A “Hey knock it off” approach means speaking up in the moment to check him when he crosses your line. Practice saying a few different phrases. The key is to say whatever you are going to say in a neutral, no-big-deal tone, like you expect that the other person will listen to you and that things will be cool if they do. You’ll let him save face, you won’t hold a grudge, but in the moment? He’s got to knock it off.
If he mis-genders you, correct him. “My pronoun is ‘he’, thanks!“
If he touches you in a way you don’t like, extract yourself. “Sorry, can’t hug now.” Physically take his hands off you, move away, don’t sit next to him, etc.
If he tells people you guys are still together, say “Really? You broke up with me. Why do you keep telling everyone that?“
You say in your letter that he’s holding onto some of your stuff. You may get it back eventually, but right now, let that stuff go completely. Assume you will never see it again. Otherwise it’s just one more thing keeping you connected to him in a way that you don’t want to be connected.
On every other issue, correct him every time he crosses your line. You see why you will be leaving parties on the early side from now on? It’s exhausting, right? But don’t be afraid to be prickly and bossy about your own boundaries. He is the one in the wrong.
Other people will notice what’s up and may ask you about it. They may try to argue his case or defend your ex, because maybe they don’t know the whole story, or because in the moment you are the one looking like a jerk to someone who is “just trying to be nice,” but they may also have your back. Don’t assume! But be secure in knowing that you haven’t done anything wrong, and you don’t owe it to your friend group to never ever have conflict. You get to stand up for yourself and risk making it a little bit weird for your own safety. What you say to them is some variation of “You know I love (ex), but he’s been crossing my boundaries since we broke up, and I need him to knock it off. Thanks for understanding.”
There’s a lot more info about how to handle group dynamics/busybodies here. If at any point you feel actually unsafe, get yourself the hell out of there and be as awkward as you need to be. Group harmony be damned!
Step 4: Give it some time. It may take a little while and a few tries for your ex and your friends to get the message that some things are not okay. You don’t have to put up with anything that you don’t want to, but if you can frame it for yourself as a choice and decide that you can ride it out for a month, maybe you won’t have to scorch the earth.
Maybe the time will come when you have another Big Talk with your ex about your boundaries and ask him why he is acting this way. I would try some “Hey, knock it off” enforcement for a few weeks before that so you have some documentation that there is a problem or give him a chance to figure out that he’s not going to get the attention from you that he wants. Maybe you can have a buddy sit in on that talk with you to hold your hand and have your back. In that talk, you say “Hey, ex, you are making me so uncomfortable. And you’re making me afraid that if I speak up, I will alienate all these friends who are so important to me. Why are you doing that? Can we figure out a way to be around each other where we both feel ok and can be close and care about each other?“
If after a month he’s still behaving this way? And your friends aren’t backing you? Then you’ve got to go. But if you feel you can give it a little bit of time in order to save the friendship(s), I won’t give you shit for putting in that time.
Step 5: Branch out. Make an effort to meet some more people so that your friend world is not caught up completely with these people. I’m sorry, it would be so unfair if you had to bail on this group because this guy is acting like a jerk, and hopefully the steps above give you every chance to make things right, but you will be taking care of yourself if you expand your network.
Step 6: Practice excellent self-care. Body and soul. Get enough sleep, food, exercise, reading for pleasure, dance parties – whatever makes you feel nourished and whole, put the time into it.
I hope these friendships can be saved for your sake and for theirs – they’d be missing out if they lost you.
It’s still Pledge Drive week, with 3 days down, 4 to go. Thanks to those who have contributed already, it makes a big difference in my life.