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Question #177: Fresh Meat Walking

Dear Captain Awkward,

I recently broke up with my partner. It was actually the best breakup I’ve ever had, if such a thing can exist: mutual, honest, open, and with what we hope will be a genuine friendship remaining. I’m still sad and I miss him terribly, but I know that it will be okay. For now though, I am often sad and lonely, and so I’ve been leaning on my friends a lot. Which has become weird since a few of my friends have begun expressing interest in sleeping with me.

Many of them identify as polyamorous, and some seem to have no friend zone. I don’t have a problem with casual sex, but what I need from my friends is friendship and company and hugs, and what I’m getting is flirtation that makes me feel both guilty for saying no and angry that they can’t see that this is not the time. I’m scared to accept those hugs and company for fear of sending the wrong message, and I’m even more scared that I’ll relent in a moment of vulnerability and loneliness and do something I really can’t handle. I have blatantly told them that I only want friendship right now, but I still feel paranoid, like I am being set up for the polyamorous edition of this XKCD comic.

So I guess I have two questions: first, how do I keep boundaries so that I don’t seek validation from people I like, but don’t find supermegafoxyawesomehot? And second, how do I stop getting angry at friends who are attracted to me, or questioning their motivations for friendship?

Thank you,

Fresh Meat

Dear Fresh Meat,

Congratulations and condolences on your good breakup. I’m sorry that it has done strange things to your mojo and that your friends are choosing this way to “comfort” you.

There is one phrase that can throw cold water on the intentions of people from the planet of no friend zone.

Thanks, I don’t like you that way.”

Your letter shows that you are just fine at standing up for your needs and asking for what you want. I mean, you can have a lengthy discussion with them where you try to spare their feelings by explaining that you would totally hit that if things were different (which leaves the more hopeful or persistent perpetually wondering when the right circumstances will take place so they can make sure to be right there), or you could just come out and say “I do not like you like that.”  The only adult response to “I’m not interested in you that way, I wish you would stop suggesting it” is “Ok, sorry” and backing off immediately and never raising the subject again. Think about how people behave when they make these offers. Do they offer despite you telling them not to offer? (Not cool. Be angry.) Do they offer once but then back off immediately? (Eh, not ideal, but you can work with it). Or do they try to convince /coerce you? (NOT COOL.)

As for what you do with those lonely feelings and the worry that you’ll want to seek validation?  Read this Sharon Olds poem and know at least that you are not alone.

Celibacy at Twenty (Sharon Olds)

After I broke up with someone,
or someone with me, days would go by,
nights, weeks, soon it would be months since I had
touched anyone. I would move as little
as possible, the air seemed to press on my skin, my
breasts like something broken open, un-
capped and not covered, the buds floated in the
center at the front, if I turned a corner too
fast I would almost come. Swollen,
walking like someone carrying something
filled to the brim, the lip of the liquid
rocking, taut, at the edge, at the top -
and at times, in the shower, now matter how quickly
I washed I’d be over the top in seconds,
and then the loneliness, which had felt enormous,
would begin to grow, easily, rapidly,
triple, sextuple, dodecatuple,
the palm fronds and camellia buds bent
double under a campus sky of iron.
Later, when the next first kiss would come,
it would shock me, the size and power of happiness,
and yet it was familiar – lips aching and
pulling, hands and feet going numb, I’d be
trying not to moan, streaming slowly
across the arc of the sky – it was always
a return, the face in the dashlight closer
and closer, like the approaching earth,
until it is all you can see. Each time,
I wanted to be coming home
to stay. But every time I went
from months of hunger to those first kisses
soon there were the last kisses , and I
felt I stood outside of life, held
back – but no one was holding me, I was
waiting, very near the human,
my violence uncommitted, I was
saving it. Once I stripped and
entered the pit I did not want ever to come up out of it.

Yeah. You get to decide what your own boundaries are. If you make a rule “I’m not sleeping with people right now, I just want to be friends,” then don’t sleep with people, and/or these particular people. If you want to sleep with someone because it offers comfort and distraction, then sleep with them. You’ll find no finger-pointing or “shoulds” here.

You can’t make people not be interested in you, and you certainly can’t pre-empt all of their desires with a well-written speech, and you can’t make them responsible for you acting on your own desires – “I accidentally slipped and my face just fell onto his face, Your Honor, but it’s just that I was lonely and he hugged me and smelled really good, so it’s totally his fault for not respecting my boundaries!” So you will have to handle it on a case-by-case “No, but thanks” basis. On the other hand, if you say “no thanks” and someone keep trying to bring it up and constantly offers you backrubs? You are right to avoid that person, they are not safe for you especially when you are feeling vulnerable. Coercion, wheedling, whining, manipulation, badgering get a sharp “No! I am not interested in you that way!” and you leaving the room/party/situation for a good while.

In the meantime, spend some extra time “in your bunk” and just generally loving your body with good food, exercise, stretches, clothes you love, hugs from friends who don’t mack on you, and whatever pampering makes you feel good.

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24 comments
  1. Danielle said:

    Off-topic, but Very Potter Musical reference! Writer, you may award yourself ten points.

  2. jenjo said:

    This post brought back awkward memories! Along the lines of “I’m feeling sad and weak – oh, my friend is hugging me, that feels goooood, oh wait, did he just kiss my neck? Probably his lips just touched me accidentally, oh hang on, his lips just accidentally touched me again, but I’m sure that’s just a coincidence, oh, now his hand is up my shirt, shit, it’s my fault for leading him on, after all I totally just let him kiss me a bunch of times, and he hugged me and let me cry on his shoulder so now I HAVE to sleep with him shit shit shit”.

    cringe cringe cringe.

    • Ugh, the “I’m just comforting you, oh wait now my hand is on your boob” ploy.

      There are people who find comfort in sex. Nothing wrong with that. But unless you specifically ask for it, the person comforting you should definitely not be trying to initiate. (At least, definitely should not be trying to initiate physically; they can ask, but even then that can be kind of insensitive. “I’m sorry you’re hurt and feel like you’ll never be okay again. Wanna bone?”)

      Me, when I’m hurting, I find sex comforting. I find all forms of intimacy comforting, from a hug all the way up to hardcore pounding. But I’ve also noticed that this is not the case with many (if not most?) people. So when another person is hurting, I DO NOT start groping them and telling myself that I’m totally just helping them out.

      Advice part of this comment: If you’re comforting somebody and you have a strong, legitimate reason to believe they might want you to comfort them with your genitals, don’t initiate physically. Ask. Verbally. Use your words. I’m going to go out on a limb and say this will probably never happen, but if it does and everything is consensual, it’s not a bad thing.

      • Really, it’s just better to assume they don’t want sexy comforting unless they initiate. (Like I said, it’ll probably never happen, but it’s not outside the realm of possibility.) I mean, really, really only ask if you have a strong reason to believe they might want that (“I want to comfort them with my genitals” is not a legitimate reason to believe they also want that), because if you ask and the answer is no, there’s a good chance that they’re done being comforted by you for the time being.

    • Nobody's Girl said:

      I’ve had that happen. Really recently. Dancing with someone and then the neck kiss and I didn’t know what to do. Now that I know that it’s a thing, it’s going to be a lot easier to, I guess, turn it down–as soon as they’re unambiguously doing something sexual I can be like, “Wait, were you kissing my neck? That’s really sweet, but sex isn’t what I want right now.”

      Because I KNOW I’m not brave enough to say “not with you.”

  3. Mergare said:

    Memories – of exactly what a jerk a guy was when he used “comforting” as an opportunity to try and have sex with me some hours after my ex husband assaulted me. As soon as I was aware of what he was up to, I told him to stop. I thought his behavior was creepy and disgusting and, if he ever had any chance with me, he just lost it right there. I equated it with attempted rape: this guy who equated “tears” with “foreplay” raised all my red flags. At the very, very least, it reveals a person who is completely self centered and totally uncaring about your feelings (except as a gauge to see how far he can get).

    • Mergare, I feel ya! After I was assaulted by a stranger on a trail, the only person who actually sympathetically listened to my story attempted shortly thereafter to get it on with me. (Shortly thereafter: next day from story telling, which was a few months after event.) At the time I was like, “well, I can CHOOSE to give up my body to this guy rather than have lost my virginity to someone from behind I never saw” so I went with it. And after all, he WAS actually sympathetic. But later I was like, “oh that was kind of creepy of him” after he didn’t talk to me for 2 years afterward. Oh, high school.
      Long story short (too late): No means no and comfort is what YOU need it to be. Poly people are supposedly well-versed in boundaries and communication, which you have to be in order to manage/survive that life; they *should* take your polite refusal with grace. If they aren’t, then they’re probably the juvenile poly-light that think it’s all tail and no brains or heart. Avoid.
      Also, jedi hugs of a totally non-sexual nature so you can just be hugged.

      • Mergare said:

        Thanks karinacinerina. These guys must be just another type of predator, hovering around ready to pounce when someone is vulnerable and has their guard down. I’ve begun to think it’s like when guys target drunk women: they just have a different way of seeking out vulnerability. Even my (now ex) husband pulled that one on me while comforting me after my mother died but, because we were already having consensual sex, I went along with it though it really was no comfort.

        There’s a book and maybe a movie too called Summer of ’42 which romanticized this kind of predator. In the book, the boy/man hung around a young and attractive women whose husband was away at war and, when she got the news that her husband was killed, that was when he pounced. She avoided him after that. (No wonder). The book was very popular years ago and I wonder if it influenced the culture or reflected it, or both.

        It was passed off as romance but to me it seemed creepy.

        Thanks for the hugs.

        • Hugh said:

          I think you’re going too far here, Mergare. You’re describing consensual sex there. Is that really predatory? Is all sex where participants don’t talk to one another afterwards predatory? If so, what’s the danger sign? As has already been said, for some people sex -is- comforting. It seems like you feel that anybody who gives them sexual comfort is a predatory.

          • JenniferP said:

            I think we can draw a nice clear line about not hitting on people who are coming to you all sad and vulnerable about something and turning a friendly hug into sexy touching, or making jokes and hints about how much you’d like to “cheer them up” with your naked parts, or, as described in a movie that I haven’t seen, waiting until someone’s husband has died to show up and “comfort” them because their defenses are down and it will be easier to get laid. It’s not “GO DIRECTLY TO JAIL” behavior, and like I said in my answer above you are also responsible for making sure you don’t sleep with people you don’t actually want to sleep with “in a weak moment,” but it’s not cool. If someone wants that kind of comfort from you, let them be the one to suggest it and all will be well.

  4. Tosca said:

    LW, you have my sympathies. I’ve had to drop boundary-ignoring, opportunistic “friends” in the past. I’m female, they were male.

    It adds an extra yucky layer to the whole thing. Like you start to think, were they even ever really my friends?? Did they really care about me and listen? Or Were they just waiting for a moment to pounce? It also put me off guy friends for a while (though not forever; I just had to find much cooler ones).

  5. Esti said:

    Hugs, LW. I faced a similar situation with a close male friend following my last breakup, where a weekend visit planned pre-breakup became an incredibly awkward game of him trying to cuddle/hug/stand too close/rehash old flirtation while I tried to stay physically apart without directly confronting the situation.

    You’re already a step ahead of me in that your friends were apparently more direct about their intentions and you told them that you were not interested, so good on you for that. But beyond that, please purge yourself of the idea that you need help not being angry/trusting their intentions. Because even if they dropped it after you told them to, you never should have needed to say it in the first place. Trying to sleep with a friend who came to you for comfort after a breakup is completely uncool, and is something it is perfectly okay for you to be angry about. Likewise, it is perfectly okay for you to not feel totally comfortable with them at the moment, knowing they have already demonstrated some real disregard for your feelings by hitting on you at an inappropriate time.

    That doesn’t mean you need to never speak to them again. Maybe they handled this badly but are generally good friends, and once you’re in a better head space you’ll be comfortable hanging out with them again. But in the short term, when you’re feeling vulnerable and sad, feel free to only surround yourself with people who don’t make you feel on edge about whether they have an ulterior motive.

  6. Marie said:

    Oh god, this for sure happened to me. When I was in the process of a long breakup, a poly friend of mine was a great support 95% of the time — and the other 5% of the time, she kept trying to get me to sleep with her or her boyfriend or her poly friends. Things she did:

    1. Make it a joke. But not a joke? If you want to I mean? But it’s totally a joke, ha ha, you wouldn’t want to sleep with me. Unless you would? Oh, you’re starting to directly refuse, let me laugh over you so it’s like a joke again, no need to directly refuse a joke!

    2. Purposefully misinterpret my polite refusal. “I’m not really interested, thanks,” became “I’m not interested because I’m not fully done with my ex” or “I’m not really interested because emotional wounds” or “I’m not really interested because I’m monogamous and not fully broken up yet.” So once she perceived each of those imaginary obstacles was done with, she’d bust out with, “You should come over to my house and fuck my boyfriend. After all, you’re not taken anymore!” Like that was the only thing holding me back from her boyfriend.

    3. Ambush me on a night out with her and some of her poly friends. At the end of the night, when I was drunk and maudlin because aaaaaaaaargh break-ups are hard, suddenly I was getting offers from everybody in the party (who were also going to be my ride home) to get some wild freak on with them. When I said no, I got, “Well, we were just being nice, because you’re so sad. Ha ha, confidence boost for you!” Yeah, man, that’s how I usually do it, too, I go around looking for emotionally vulnerable people and then offer to fuck them so they feel better. What can I say, my vagina is just such a philanthropist.

    4. Bring me to meet her poly friends at their house, in what I think is a “here, meet my friends, we’ll have a BBQ,” but what to her was introduced with, “My hot friend is coming over, and she’s breaking up with her boyfriend, wink wink, nudge nudge.” So I think I’m at a BBQ with new potential friends but people keep trying to slyly put their arm around me and tell me I’m pretty.

    This all culminated in me making a spectacle of myself at a gay club. We had gone out for a fun night on the town, and the MC assumed me and my friend were a couple, and started making jokes about all the wild sex we were going to have. I was so uncomfortable with the idea of her running with this that I burst out, “I’m straight! I have sex with men! I am a straight girl! This is not my girlfriend!” and must have looked like a total closet case.

    I know in her mind she was offering nice fun opportunities to do things she liked that made her feel good (that is my generous interpretation, I have less generous ones), but from my perspective, she was getting pushy with me at the moment where I had the least energy, heart, and resources to set firm boundaries over and over and over. If she had chosen some time other than THE WORST BREAK UP EVER to try to get in my pants, we might have been able to have a more constructive conversation about it (again, generous interpretation). But since I had no energy to have a difficult conversation like that, I finally just blew up one day, told her I didn’t want to fuck her or her boyfriend, and she needed to never call me again.

    Moral of the story (outside of don’t be such a dick): don’t spring your sexbomb or feelingsbomb on somebody who just got bombed by somebody else. What could have been a long conversation about feelings and boundaries over coffee turned into an apocalyptic explosion of friendship-death, because I just didn’t have the energy to deal with saying “your sex offers are gross, stop” more than once.

    • Ugh ugh ugh ugh. Ugh. I will not stop saying ugh in response to this.

      Your friend’s awful behavior does remind me of something delightful, though, which is Jenny Owen Youngs’s queerish cover of “Hot in Herre.” Your friend is basically the protagonist of this song, including the “Unless you gonna do it” line!

    • I promise poly people aren’t all bad!

      I don’t want to take the focus away from the point here, which is that your friend was an awful, inconsiderate, boundary-ignoring ass. We polys have the same responsibility as every other human to be considerate of others’ boundaries, and the fact that your friend was poly is definitely no excuse at all for her awful behavior.

      So ultimately, I’m very sorry your friend treated you that way is the most important point.

      • Marie said:

        I have for sure met some not-creepy poly people! I’ve generally found that the not-creepy poly people I meet, I don’t even know they’re poly until I put a few points together (that’s her boyfriend? I thought she introduced me to a different boyfriend last week? Ohhhhh that’s why I saw her other boyfriend kind of canoodling with a girl last week, ohhhhhhh I get it now).

        The creepy poly people I’ve met, it’s the first thing I know about them after their name, because it’s “Hi I’m so-and-so and I am poly and poly and there is also poly and here is my boyfriend he is poly and I am having a party a poly party you know what you are saying is way more interesting if I add some thoughts about poly to it.”

        I guess what I’m saying is that extremely self-centered people with no concept of how to reciprocate in a conversation poly poorly (is it a verb? Can I do that?), and people who just have normal intimate relationships that are nobody’s business but their own poly well.

        I guess also what I am saying is we need a Bad Poly Ryan Gosling meme? Pretty sure that’s what I’m saying.

        • JenniferP said:

          “The creepy poly people I’ve met, it’s the first thing I know about them after their name, because it’s “Hi I’m so-and-so and I am poly and poly and there is also poly and here is my boyfriend he is poly and I am having a party a poly party you know what you are saying is way more interesting if I add some thoughts about poly to it.”

          WORD. Replace the word “poly” with “Jesus” and you have my younger brother, which is why I blocked him on all social media and don’t return his phone calls.

          • commanderlogic said:

            Oh man. We have that guy at our community meetings, except his words are “homeowner” and “taxpayer.”

            I hate that guy.

            I dub this particular That Guy/Gal: Interest-Identity Singularity Guy/Gal

          • Ethyl said:

            Ugh, it also works if you replace poly with kink (actually, in a lot of instances you just ADD the kink). I knew this guy who talked ALL THE TIME about how kinky he was and how he was kinky and also kinky and he would TOTE AROUND completely inappropriate kink-related objects to, like, the coffeeshop. No surprise he wound up sexually assaulting me (in a particularly kink-specific way, but consent is consent).

          • JfC said:

            The only time that I met someone that would lead with that was in an explicit dating situation, as in, we met on a dating site and decided to start dating. That is the only time when that may be appropriate, in the context of negotiating relationship styles etc. I’m new to the lifestyle so I’m trying to curtail my excitement at new experiences to avoid becoming *that person* to friends. I’m wondering, are most of these annoying poly people that are bothering folks around here newbies? Shitty communication skills, shitty respect for boundaries and over-enthusiasm seem to indicate that.

    • “The Philanthropist Vagina” is the name worthy of a memoir. I would read that book.

  7. Virginia said:

    I would like to offer up a script:

    “Dear friend:

    You know all that radical honesty and boundary-setting you need to do to keep your poly relationships healthy? That is what I am doing now. BOUNDARIES SET. Please play by your own rules.”

    This assumes, of course, that they *are* the sorts of radically honest, boundary-setting poly folk. Regardless, LW, my skin crawls for you! But in a totally platonic way!

    • Ensign Perception said:

      Yes! You may also try adding: “Dear Friend, I respect your lifestyle and your choices, so please respect mine by not trying to hit on me.”

      And as others have been saying, this isn’t about them being poly – it’s about them being poly with a shitty sense of what kind of comfort you want as a friend, and the kind of “”””comfort”””” they are interested in offering. LW, I hope they shape up, because you don’t deserve to be treated like fresh meat.

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