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#261: I keep falling for fixer-uppers

Don and Joan from Mad Men sitting in a bar together.

“Why didn’t you ever send any flowers?” “You scared the shit out of me.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I hope you and your army of awesome readers can help me! I’m 28 and I find myself in the awkward position of getting divorced and simultaneously losing my best friend. Long story short, I was also dating my best friend and we broke up so she can go back to her Darth Vader Husband. I’m really hurting, but I know that I created a lot of my hurt by my own choices because I was blinded by happy pants-feelings and my own need to fix/nuture the people in my life.

What I need help with is this: I have a long history of picking people in my life who need fixing. Specifically, I meet and quickly become close friends with beautiful, intelligent, articulate women who either have relationships with Darth Vaders or end up having relationships with Darth Vaders. And I’m talking baby daddy doesn’t have a job and gives you a curfew and tells you how to spend your money (uses your paycheck to buy pot, etc) and maybe hits you Darth Vaders. I then keep my mouth shut for months (years) attempting to keep the peace because I care for these women a great deal and value their friendship. Eventually though, I end up telling them how I feel about their partners because I get so frustrated with the situation. Then, my friend inevitably leaves me because her relationship with her Darth Vader is more important to her.

Okay, so I probably should keep my opinions about other peoples’ relationships to myself, and if I’m not going to I should use my words instead of building it all up. But this is my question, how do I find people who don’t have exceptionally dysfunctional relationships? Is that even possible? Because while I’m rebuilding my life (I tend to have only a few close friends and my friend tally is very low right now), I’m hoping to invest in some relationships that have staying power. I don’t want to lose a friend in 3 or 5 years because she likes to date assholes. And even more importantly than that, how do I stop picking people who need fixing? Are there signs? Like big neon flashing ones that say “broken and in need of a codependent relationship” so that I can avoid or keep at arms length?

I’ve lost two friends to Darth Vaders in the past year, and I don’t know how many more losses of friends I can take. And when I start dating again, I’d really like to have a better way to determine if the person I’m dating is capable of being my partner not my project. Also, is it me? Am I just that fucked up and I don’t even know it? Are there really that many Darth Vaders in the world?

Thanks,

Keeping company with Darth Vader’s wife

Dear Keeping Company:

First, OMG, someone summed up your question in a single image. I won’t display it in the post because all rights are reserved. Are you ready? I know, right? I also love this one.

Second, I think it is both helpful and unhelpful to look at your past friends/lovers as part of a pattern.

It’s unhelpful because they’re not dating horrible people AT YOU. They’re all separate people who are doing it for their own reasons, and if you read the original Darth Vader Boyfriend post, they’re getting something out of it that you can’t see. You can’t really prevent someone from making a terrible decision. What you can do is honestly voice your concerns, listen with as open a mind as you can manage, and when you can’t listen to it anymore, say “I’m sorry, I want to be here for you, but I can’t listen to you talk about Darth anymore. Consider talking to a trained therapist who can really help you work through everything. Do you need help finding someone and placing the initial call?

Joan Holloway from Mad Men, holding out her hand.

“My fingernails shine like justice.”

It’s tough to think about the possibility of leaving a friend hanging and refusing your support, but you get to draw boundaries about how much of their problems you will take on as your own.

A few years ago I read Melissa Banks’s The Wonder Spot, which is about growing up affluent and kind of directionless and feeling lost (kind of like a prequel to Lena Dunham’s work), and there is a section that struck me like lightning. Our heroine is taking an art class, and she meets a wolfishly sexy dude who asks her out, and then stands her up for their first date. He circles back later to apologize and reschedule, and she is sorely tempted, but she realizes that she can already see the entire pattern of their relationship unfolding:  he will be unreliable and shitty, and then apologize and charm his way back in. She realizes that just because someone likes her and wants to sleep with her doesn’t mean that she has to like them back. She can just choose not to sign up for the whole thing.

That passage has helped me so many times? When I meet someone who is sexy and interesting but not all there somehow, someone who seems to be using a first date as a therapy session, someone who casually admits to many, many problems in a self-deprecating “you probably won’t like me once I tell you this” way that’s designed to make me reassure them that no, it’s okay that they are still sharing a house with their ex-wife, I don’t mind!, someone who, let’s face it, would have been catnip to me in my 20s for being all “complicated” and “deep”, and even though he totally wants to put his sexy-Darth-Vadery vibes all up in me I decide nope, I don’t have to sign up for this. I smile and say “Thanks for a nice evening!”, put some money on the table and walk myself to the train.

It also reminds me of a great passage in Tana French’s In The Woods when our emotionally stunted, would-probably-be-played-by-Clive-Owen-in-a-movie detective gets dumped after a few dates with a colleague. I’m paraphrasing the exact quote because Sweet Machine has my copy, but when she dumps him she says:

There’s a fine line between ‘interesting’ and ‘really fucked up.’ You should date younger women; sometimes they can’t tell.”

So how do you figure out where that line is? Some of it comes with age and experience, and the fact that you’re asking this question is a good sign that you will be more able to tell going forward. You can break patterns! I had one where I kept dating men who lived in New York when I did not live in New York, and then I moved to New York for a short spell and spent all my time on the phone with someone in Chicago = NOT GOOD. There was something in there about being unsettled where I was. There was something in there about wanting a lot of time to myself and not feeling ready to have someone in my life all the time, and since I also liked fixer-uppers that was probably a self-protective instinct. There was something there about liking fantasy more than a real day-to-day, and then I grew up and met better people and realized that the day-to-day is where it’s at.

Maybe the commenters can help generate a list of signs of a fixer-upper that you can look out for early in your relationships. A substance abuse problem is one! As is always being a few $ short when it’s time to pay the check, or being chronically late, or oversharing really soon after you meet them. Constant bitching and complaining is a sign. Having no other friends but you is one I’d watch out for. One “possible sign” alone might not sink a relationship, but a combination of them should tell you that there are rough seas ahead. Maybe there’s some good stuff here.

Maybe you can use this classic Tomato Nation post about how to behave like an adult as a rough guideline. It’s certainly not an absolute standard I hold other people to (and I flinched when I re-read it recently and saw some areas that I could definitely raise my game), but there is a lot in there about being reliable and taking care of yourself and not expecting others to pick up your slack. I love this, especially:

19. Take care of yourself. If you are sick, visit a doctor. If you are sad, visit a shrink or talk to a friend. If you are unhappy in love, break up. If you are fed up with how you look, buy a new shirt or stop eating cheese. If you have a problem, try to fix it. Many problems are knotty and need a lot of talking through, or time to resolve, but after a few months of all complaining and no fixing, those around you will begin to wonder if you don’t enjoy the problems for the attention they bring you. Venting is fine; inertia coupled with pouting is not. Bored? Read a magazine. Mad at someone? Say so — to them. Change is hard; that’s too bad. Effort counts. Make one. Your mommy’s shift is over.”

You don’t need your friends to be perfect (no one is perfect), but when you’re making friends look for signs that they know how to take care of themselves and put their best foot forward in their relationships.

So, let’s look at the pattern you have of choosing people who need to be saved or fixed. Maybe that is something you should chew over at length with a trained professional (and if you’re in the middle of both a divorce and a sad breakup, therapy is a good call). I can tell you, there are plenty of people who are not entangled with Darth Vaders out there, and your perception has been radically skewed by recent experiences.

What I can also tell you is that we don’t stay in relationships, even really dysfunctional relationships, if we aren’t getting *something* out of them. So it’s time to examine what you get out of fixing people. I suspect that at least some of it has to do with a feeling of control, competence, and superiority. It feels good to be the smart one and to feel like you’re in a position to help people (o hai, my blog!). It can feel good to be needed. There are little jolts of attention and drama that keep life interesting. And it might do you good to examine to what extent you’re bringing a sense of entitlement to these friendships with women. “I’ll listen to you endlessly and save the day, and in exchange you owe me making better decisions and leaving that asshole (for me).” You’re angry at her/them for not picking you after all of that work you put in, and the terrible things that are happening to them feel like terrible things they are DOING to you. That’s also a bit skewed.

Recently on Mad Men, Don Draper and Joan Holloway Harris hung out in a bar and the subject of why they never got together came up. Don admits that it’s because she scared the shit out of him, which makes total sense. Joan is so polished and competent and awesome at work. She’s pretty close to Don in age. She doesn’t look up to men, not one bit, and if she pampers and flatters them sometimes everyone knows it’s part of a game where she holds the upper hand. Both of Don’s wives have been substantially younger than he is, and he loves the role of benefactor/protector/mentor (even though when he steps out on them, he goes for badasses). The most recent episode is all about wanting to “control” women, and some of that manifests in wanting to save or rescue them. (Spoilers abound at those links, FYI. But Amanda is doing some of the best recapping of the show. See also Tom & Lorenzo’s Mad Style posts for amazing criticism about costume & character. Sorry about your plans for the rest of the day!)

I can’t untangle all of this stuff for you in one blog post. This is deep-seated stuff. But to leave you with one practical tip, maybe the next time you start hanging out with someone you like and they launch into a sad terrible story about their problems, you can say “Whoa, that sounds really terrible. You should probably dump that asshole.” And if they continue, expecting you to listen to the whole sad story, say “Sorry to interrupt you, but have you tried talking to a therapist about it? Because that’s definitely above my pay grade.” And if they still continue? Put some money on the bar and get yourself home. And if the friendship does not grow closer? That’s a bullet you dodged, right there.

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98 comments
  1. commanderlogic said:

    As a carrier of the FIXIT gene, I may have even a little more insight into why you “keep picking fixer-uppers.” Helping people may be your default way of meeting and pursuing friend-or-more dates. It’s just so much easier to have a GOAL with a person (listen to your problems, help with your budget, move your stuff, provide ex-boyfriend barrier, etc.) than it is to admit that your goal is ‘hang out have good times.’ And god-creatures forBID you ask for help from anyone, because you are the one who can fix all the things, right?

    No, you and I and my mom cannot fix all the things.

    So here’s an experiment to try the next time you meet new people or even your old people: do not offer to help with anything, and ask them for help. It is really, REALLY hard to do if you’re an entrenched fixer! I know! But if you’re the only one who is bringing support to the table, then it’s not really a friendship.

    • kathleendonohue said:

      “It’s just so much easier to have a GOAL with a person”

      THIS x a million.

    • PomperaFirpa said:

      GET OUT OF MY HEAD. OH MY GOD.

      • commanderlogic said:

        I CAN FIX THAT FOR YOU. BY GETTING OUT OF YOUR HEAD.

        • PomperaFirpa said:

          I AM SO GRATEFUL

          • commanderlogic said:

            NOW WE ARE BEST FRIENDS, BECAUSE THAT IS HOW THIS WORKS. :D?

    • Eclairity said:

      that back and forth made me laugh so hard, mostly in embarrassed recognition and also because it was really funny. I am a recovering fixer. I think it is so difficult to stop because it is a great way to avoid the problems in your own life by fixing others (plus that sense of accomplishment) but it is also a substitution for intimacy. You don’t have to show the squishy vulnerable bits of yourself because you are busy fixing the other persons problems. This, of course, doesn’t work unless you have a Marla in your life because other people eventually get fed up with your constant fixing (because it makes them feel like they are always fucking up) and wander off into the sunset.
      I think it is also easy to get stuck in the helping mode because we tend to give away what we want most, but since I can never ASK for help (that would make me NEEDY, SO NEEDY and no one would ever like me ever) I just help and help and help in the hope that someone will offer me the help I need so badly. Which is why Using Your Words is so very important. I wish they taught this shit in high school though. Gah.

  2. I guess I’m a little perplexed at how this always ends up an either-or situation for you, LW. Like, either your stunning and scintillating ladyfriends can have a Darth Vader boyfriend, or they can have your friendship? Are those really the only two options, ever? Maybe it’s true that some women sometimes decide that your criticism of their partner is not something she can keep in her life, but I would be surprised if all women you like always decide this. That, for me, suggests that maybe there is something going on with you, personally, that brings you into this pattern. I am not sure what, though.

    I’ve had a few close friends (male and female) who dated Darth Vaders, and once it became clear to me that I didn’t want to be around the two of them together because then I would have to watch Darth mistreat someone I care about, I put my foot down about that. “Nope, you can’t bring him/her to my party. I would love it if you can come, though. If not, would you like to get a drink sometime soon?” In other words, my house and other places where I meet with my friends are only for love and care and carefulness; no Darth behavior allowed. For me, this works out well. I keep my friend in my life, and get to enjoy being with him/her without the dark planet of some mean-spirited or manipulative partner glowering above us. Yes, I do worry about what goes on when I’m not around, how Darth treats my friend, how my friend is holding up. But I can’t control that.
    Usually, in time, the friends realize they deserve better relationships. Darth goes out of our lives, the friendship stays in it.

    I am lucky. But I can also see how things could go differently here if the friendship isn’t that strong to begin with, or if the friend is kind of a manipulative person him/herself and needs either the drama or the affirmation of spectators, or if I made ultimatums that limited or controlled my friend rather than my exposure to Darth. So maybe there is something you are doing that isn’t quite working, rather than something you are magnetically attracted to embedded in all these Mistresses of Darth. Just a thought, consider only as applicable.

    • I just read Commander Logic’s comment that posted while I was typing mine, and realized that I left out the whole part about seeking fixer-uppers. So I reread the letter, and it sounds like the primary thing you think needs “fixing” about these women is that they are dating assholes. They are otherwise smart, articulate, and pretty, you say.

      That sounds like your problem right there. If these ladies are so awesome, they don’t need fixing at all. A Darth Vader may wreak some havoc on a woman’s life but it doesn’t make her broken. Try not to think of them that way. . . I’ve been a smart, capable woman in a Darth relationship, and I remember that even when I’d talked myself in circles to justify that mess, I could still smell pity and condescension in other people from a mile away.

      • catyshark said:

        This.

        And what was super nice was when my friends would say “I wish you would grow a pair and DTMFA” but continued to be my friend, no limits.

  3. Esti said:

    Honestly, LW? Be friends with men for a while.

    I say this not because men and women can’t be friends with one another (they definitely can!) or because you specifically can’t be friends with women (I’m pretty sure you can!), but because you have fallen into a destructive pattern and it is a really, really hard one to get yourself out of unless you take a break from it for a while.

    The pattern, as you describe it, goes something like this: Meet a woman you think is attractive and amazing. Become close friends (probably pretty quickly? possibly via long, emotional conversations about her relationships with men and the problems in her life in which you provide reassurance that she’s attractive and amazing?). Feel really good about being someone she can open up to and from making her feel better. Possibly (definitely?) develop some pants-related feelings about your attractive and amazing friend who you have such a close and special emotional bond with. As a result, become more and more upset about the drama with her boyfriend/husband and how she just doesn’t *understand* that he’s terrible and that she deserves someone so much better (someone like you? Not you specifically, you know, because you’re married and you’re just friends, but someone like you). Then, in a fit of frustration as she once again describes her dude being terrible, FEELINGSBOMB her about how her relationship is terrible and the dude is very bad and she should definitely leave. Sadly watch your friend decide to leave you rather than the dude she is obviously, for whatever reason, very invested in.

    This pattern, LW? Is about artificially deriving self-esteem from the type of friendship that sometimes happens with someone you are at least somewhat interested in romantically/with your pants, even if you never intend to act on it. Don’t believe me? Compare how you interact with one of these women to how you interact with your male friends. Ask yourself whether you’ve ever had a friend-breakup with a guy because of the person he was dating. Consider why you noted in your letter that these women you befriend are beautiful. Generally, whether my female friends are beautiful is not something relevant to my friendship with them.

    I speak from experience, LW, because I have in the past been on the opposite side of these types of friendships (though generally the dudes I’m dating are less toxic than those you describe, thank god). It feels good to be so close to someone that you can tell them all kinds of secrets and get reassurances about all your insecurities, and it feels doubly good when you know that there is some kind of attraction between you. Apparently, from the other side, it can feel good to know that you are someone’s support system and are making them feel better and that there is some kind of attraction between you (or at least that they are very attractive). I recommend you seek out guy friends for a while because it can be really hard to recognize that pattern playing out in yourself (or at least really easy to pretend its not). Because of course you want to be close to your friends! Of course it’s normal to talk about important things in your life, and to try to cheer them up when they’re down, and to not want them to be with a terrible partner!

    The problem is that when you’re deriving a big self-esteem boost from being the guy who this attractive, amazing woman is really close to and relies on, it’s difficult not to make unconscious choices about who you become friends with and how the friendship plays out based on those good feelings. So maybe you go to a party and talk to several women and two of them chat about the football game last weekend and how great Game of Thrones is while with another woman you end up sitting in a quiet corner for two hours having an intense conversation about how everyone else seems to know what they want in life but you don’t, and about how sometimes she thinks no one will ever really love her, not really, and about how great you are at listening and how much you seem to get her. And sure, the last one makes a bigger impression, and if you’ve got a pattern of being in these friend!attraction relationships, you’re going to have a harder time stepping back and asking yourself why this lady is telling a perfect stranger all these things and whether this is really going to be a healthier friendship than the one you could have with that woman who also loves the Packers, and thus ultimately avoiding this becoming another fixer upper friend who leaves you for her boyfriend in six months.

    So my advice, for the time being, LW? Cultivate some male friends. Go join (or get more involved with) some activities you’re interested in. Volunteer. Don’t date anyone! Just get comfortable and happy in your own skin, in your own life, in a way that doesn’t require any attractive woman to sustain. And when you do start looking for female friends again, start by looking for ones for whom the first descriptor that comes to mind is not “beautiful” but rather “kicked my ass at ultimate the first time we played together” or “likes the same sci-fi author.”

    • Esti said:

      Wow, that was really long. Sorry.

      Short version: it’s telling that your letter asked for help finding friends but used only female pronouns when describing all past and potential future friends. Short term solution, be friends with dudes. Longer term solution, don’t try to be friends with women in ways you would not be friends with dudes.

      • JenniferP said:

        Don’t apologize! I feel like you so aptly and beautifully described the problem of the faux German expression “der Helpenboner” and I will be linking to that comment for years to come.

        • I’ve also had Der Helpensploosh for people I thought were friends (i’m bi, it gets complicated) and it has ended BAD BAD BADLY. My rule of thumb now is as follows: if I don’t feel comfortable nicely telling my friend what I think right away because I’m afraid she’ll get mad, then we are probably not really friends.

          The logic behind this is that I tell my friends what I think. I do this because I care about them and want them to be happy. (While respecting boundaries.) I don’t let them complain at me and nod happily and try to avoid pissing them off just so I can spend more time with them. If I’m more concerned about keeping the other person happy in my presence and never upsetting them, that means I want something out of a relationship. I just want to bask in their attractive fun glow, and possibly do more than bask.

          So that might be another red flag to look out for with relationships. If you can’t be real with someone then what are you really hoping to get out of this relationship?

  4. CPALady said:

    I think, LW, you maybe also need some reassurance that it’s okay not to be friends with/date someone for any reason or no particular reason at all.

    If you meet a lady for dating/friending and at some point in the first interactions a little bell goes off in your head saying “This reminds me of Jane… Jane ended TERRIBLY for all involved” you can not date/friend that lady!! It’s okay! You don’t have to break don’t every syllable to sift for clues about “Is or isn’t she a ‘fixer’”. There are other friends/dates available to both of you, be polite and don’t hang with her anymore.

    Maybe those bells in your head are broken and you need to work on them or something. But I thought, maybe, you also just need to be reassured that it’s cool to not hang with someone just because.

    • CPALady said:

      “Break don’t every” should be: “break down every”

  5. MHM said:

    What an interesting letter!

    Relationships that start too fast are a HUGE red flag. When I met one of my best friends, she told me that it takes her 2 years before she becomes close friends with someone. I decided to wait, and we are friends for life! People who seek closeness too fast may be needy in some way. A good friendship is often built slowly. Needy people often make bad and hasty choices. Look for the SLOW BURN. That is a green flag!

    In terms of the LW’s tolerance for these types of friends, CA and comments bring up lots of probable reasons. Another one: Some people have a higher tolerance for the dysfunctional because they grew up with it in some way (parent? social circle?). Like, if you did not grow up around any smokers and you never had smoking friends, it would be less likely that you’d end up befriending a bunch of chain-smokers and then marrying a chain-smoker. Hmm, was that a weird analogy?

    I am reminded a bit of the Marla post from a few days ago (it is still disturbing me). If you recall, Marla was a terrible friend who a LW could not dump. Why was her tolerance so high for such a bad friend? Only she will know how to answer this question, but I did wonder if it was “normal” for her to be treated badly.

    So, stay away from Instant Friendship! Look for the red flags as defined by CA, including avoiding people who cope with problems through alcohol/substance use. Look for people who are functional and stable in their work life and home life. People like that may be harder to befriend as they are less needy, so making friends may be much more work. This all may feel more boring to you, though.

    And if you see that a new friend has a YIKES Relationship, back away slowly. You haven’t made any vows to stick around even if the friendship is not reciprocal with even give and take.

    • LilyR said:

      “People [who are functional and stable in their work life and home life] may be harder to befriend as they are less needy, so making friends may be much more work.”

      Exactly this! I have been experiencing this lately as I try to make friends in a new city, and you have articulated it perfectly. It’s a lot easier to find and become close to people whose lives are unstable for one reason or another, Some instability is a normal part of life – and even a good way to meet people! – but if things are *always* like that for them, the friendship is likely to be exhausting or eventually explode.

    • Britt said:

      Re: relationships starting too fast, even more than the actual *speed* of how quickly the friendship takes root, I’d suggest paying attention to whether that speed feels organic or if it feels like one or the other of you is really pushing it along full-steam. My best friend of 12 years and I became very close very fast, just because circumstances made it convenient that it happened that way, and obviously we’re still friends and have seen each other through a lot of awesome and terrible times over that decade-plus. In contrast, I’ve had other friendships that went down in flames where we got roughly as close roughly as fast (in the initial period of the friendship at least), but looking back on it the speed didn’t feel entirely organic and I was kinda being dragged along. It was the weird imbalance of it that I think was really the red flag and ultimately the death of those friendships (and at least one dating relationship I can think of).

      • Olivia said:

        YES. I just ended a friendship that started waaaay too quickly and then I just felt pushed and cornered and harassed for most of it. Also, it’s not a good idea to become friends with someone who bears certain similarities to toxic former friends, just so you can prove to yourself that you’re not a shallow person, you can totes be there for someone who’s really needy. In my case, I’m learning that maybe I can’t!

        • Britt said:

          It’s the “pushed/cornered/harassed” part that is just so uncomfortable and unpleasant and toxic, at least in my experience. The good friendships I’ve had that have started pretty fast are the ones where you look up and go “wow, I have spent so much time doing awesome fun things with new friend and I was so busy having fun doing awesome fun things that I didn’t even realize!” as opposed to the ones where you feel constantly aware of the fact that you are seeing new friend AGAIN or they are calling you AGAIN.

          • Ellen Fremedon said:

            This. If there’s nothing else in a relationship that makes you worry, speed isn’t necessarily a red flag. But if sketchy things are happening, it is probably worse if they are happening really fast.

          • Britt said:

            Yup! If speed is happening because of mutual interest and yayness, that is most awesome, but if speed is happening as a way to railroad you into not having the time or space to establish boundaries, then it is no bueno.

  6. drst said:

    Because while I’m rebuilding my life (I tend to have only a few close friends and my friend tally is very low right now), I’m hoping to invest in some relationships that have staying power. I don’t want to lose a friend in 3 or 5 years because she likes to date assholes.

    I think this could be a stumbling block for you, LW, as you seek to rebuild things. I understand the desire to know the people you care about will still be there for you over time, especially given your current circumstances, but friendships are relationships too, and they don’t always last for decades. People change, lives change, and even the internet, the great destructor of geography and time zones, isn’t always enough to maintain a friendship. That can be sad or even tragic depending on the circumstances, but it doesn’t have to be. There are several people I was friends with at various times in my life who I’m no longer in touch with. That’s a bit depressing, but I don’t regret those relationships at all, or wish I hadn’t expended energy on them when I did. Nothing dramatic happened, we just went our separate ways and lost touch. It happens.

    I hope you don’t ignore people who may be really cool friends to have right now, for a while, out of concern that 5 years from now they won’t still be friends. I think that might cut you off from some awesome people who could be good supports/distractions/buddies right now. I also wonder if developing some friendships with people without expecting long-term relationships might ease some of the fixer impulse – you’re friends with this nice woman right now, but you have no idea if you’ll still be friends in 3 years, and so her every move and relationship decision isn’t your problem to fix. Maybe it would help you let go a little.

    • Briz said:

      ^^THIS.

      I’ve moved from state to state for the last six years and had to do alot of social rebuilding and reconecting with people – and some only lasted six months, to a few years, to (potentially) forever/a long time. Some ended simply due to physical distance/situation, slow awkward fades; or evolved to once-in-awhile visits, semi-regular skype chats, or brightly burning friendships. All of them (even some that make me flinch, good Lord, WHY were we friends?)are valuble in their own ways, be it a source of growth for me, or they introduced me to some awesome music I never would’ve heard of. If they ended, it’s not a failure…just part of life.

      Treat it like a relationship – early on keep it casual and focus on having a good time in the present without a specific goal (OMG we’ll be BFFS FOREVER!!1!), while being sure to keep an eye out for red flags.

  7. boots mcgee said:

    I hope that I don’t come off as callous about this, but it sounds like LW may have conflating and conflicting ideas about what it means to have an opposite-sex-friendship and what it means to be opposite-sex-dating, and what is or isn’t platonic. (I am going off my reading of the letter which to me indicates LW is a male person interested sexually in female persons.)

    As a hetero female myself, I have definitely lost female friends in whom I had no pants-interest (2 of them) in my 30 or so years of life to Darth Vader-type relationships. I figure it’s reasonable to expect that some of your friends throughout your life are going to drop of the radar for a variety of reasons, and lord knows the draw of the Darth is strong.

    But if you have to ask “how do I find people who don’t have exceptionally dysfunctional relationships?” because all you have ever found are people who have exceptionally dysfunctional relationships (which are so fraught on either side that they cause either you or the other person to abandon your friendship), you have to at some point consider that you are the common thread. Which I don’t say to be mean, but to say that I really am a fan of recognizing when we are doing the same thing over and over again and expecting new results.

    It sounds to me like what LW has been having are, to some degree, dysfunctional “umfriend” (see: the hairpin) relationships with women who have at least a little bit of a pants-interest in LW and in whom LW has a little bit of a pants-interest. Of course, you can be friends with people in whom you have a pants-interest, even if you’re in a monogamous partnership, if you navigate things carefully and mindfully. But if LW is despairing because every! single! friend! LW! has! dates! Darth! Vaders! and! then! all! LW’s! friendships! die!, it sounds to me like the problem is more LW’s friendship-boundaries with these people, and less the fact that these people keep! dating! Darth! Vader! every! single! time! (I don’t want to wade into Nice Guy (TM) territory, here, because LW seems very mindful and kind, but there’s an element of the “These female ‘friends’ of mine deserve better! Specifically, they deserve me!” to this letter.)

    There are a lot of Darth Vaders in the world, but there aren’t so many Darth Vaders that every single female friend LW has ever had will have definitely have one, causing LW to end the friendship. I’m not saying it’s not theoretically POSSIBLE that all the friendships LW has ever had in his adult life have ended up in shambles because every last one of LW’s friends date horrible, abusive jerks, but it seems EXCEEDINGLY unlikely that the Darth Vaders of the world have singled out all of LW’s female friends as the combined targets of their united ire.

    The thing is, when what you want is to fix people, but you also want to put your pants-parts on them, it’s a vicious cycle: you need other people to hurt your friend so that you can come to the rescue, so you then see all their partners as Darth Vaders, some of whom will definitely BE Darth Vaders, but others you will just not jam with but still find things to dislike about them because panic! what if a person is totally available to you and you just hang out with them and use your words and be a couple or be friends-sans-drama and how does that even work!?

    Breaking the pattern is hard, but it is also so rewarding. I think breaking the pattern starts with building more friendships with men, if that means there is less of a chance of a pants-interest developing. That way, LW can start building behavior patterns that he can emulate, sometime in the future, with platonic female friends.

    • Ldubs said:

      I feel you. I read the OP a couple of times and was STILL confused about whether he was dating all these women, or just friends. Obviously, (if you’re monogamous) you can’t date people with asshole boyfriends (or any kind of boyfriend), but I just do not understand why so many of his platonic lady friends can’t have asshole boyfriends and still be friends with him. Or why he’s describing these fading friendships as women leaving him for other men. ‘Cause healthy friendships don’t end just because someone partners up.

      Anyway, you’re reading this exactly how I am reading this.

    • M Dubz said:

      This is so absolutely true. I have found that, in my life, it is very easy for me to be friends with people in dysfunctional relationships. I have many friends, male and female, who have been in and out of relationships of varying degrees of dysfunction. I have also found that it is possible to be friends with people that I am attracted to, so long as they are single or attached to awesome people. The only people that I seem to have difficulty with are the people that I am attracted to who are dating awful people. I think the Captain’s point about feeling like the terrible things happening to those sorts of friends are terrible things they are doing TO YOU is really the crux of the issue. (and thus, I learned something about myself today! yay!)

      There are two things that I tell myself, that don’t make the problem go away, but they keep me from FEELINGSBOMBING all over my attractive friends dating other people:

      1) You can’t change people. There is usually nothing you can do or say to magically erase someone else’s dysfunction. All you can do is be there and generally supportive.

      2) You can always do better than someone who doesn’t properly want you. No matter how amazing someone is, if they’re not reciprocating with the lust in the way you would like, it’s better to find another outlet for that lust, because you are going to end up feeling all the sads.

      … on an unrelated note, the Captain wins a home-baked internet for the CAKE reference. That song is my jam :)

      • JenniferP said:

        Thanks for the kind and insightful comment, especially this part: “You can always do better than someone who doesn’t properly want you. No matter how amazing someone is, if they’re not reciprocating with the lust in the way you would like, it’s better to find another outlet for that lust, because you are going to end up feeling all the sads.” I will be quoting/stealing that forever.

        • M Dubz said:

          Awwww thanks! *pride that the Captain likes something that I have to say*

  8. “You are the common denominator in all your life experiences.” (Auntie Bright, in Grace Awakening Power, but Shawn L. Bird).

    Scary that.

    Unfortunately, it’s also true. We tend to find what we look for, and live what we create. Is your focus on the negative, so that’s what you see?

    Some folks like their ‘bad boys’ but presumably they’re getting something out of it, or they wouldn’t be with them.

    All behaviour is purposeful. A need is being met. If you you want to change a behaviour, you have to figure out the need, and then find an alternative way to meet that need. (For more info on Glasser’s model of needs see here: http://www.pakeys.org/uploadedContent/Docs/ECMH/Focus%20on%20ECMH-Basic%20Needs.pdf This is an early childhood education example, but it is true for all humans.

  9. Lee said:

    Oh lord, “signs of a fixer-upper”. I’m not even over this person as I type, nor am I the right person to offer advice when it comes to cutting ties with a fixer-upper. All I can say it that I got wound up into a friendship with someone who is always the victim. Every story they tell about their past involves them being treated badly by nearly everyone around them.

    My instinct was to tell them how fantastic, lovable, amazing and incredible they are. And I derived a great deal of self-worth from that interaction of being The One who told her how wonderful she was, and I fed off the positive feedback I got from her. Until a situation in my relationship with My Actual Fiance took precedence over Her Needs. Then I was dumped like a steaming bag of dirty kitty litter. And where did it leave me? Feeling like crap, nearly 6 months later, clinging to an illusion of someone who totally absorbed all my positive attention and gave me great feedback, as long as she was priority numero uno in my life. I still mourn how awesome our “friendship” was before my fiance took precedence, and I’m still foolishly trying to recreate what once was, because I have such a hard time letting go.

    My personal moral of the story? Don’t closely befriend the “fixer-upper” who needs you to constantly reassure hir about how fucking great they are. Please don’t go down this road – just observe from afar if you’re so inclined. It’s not your responsibility to make someone feel awesome about themselves or to make them feel loved.

    Also, commenters, feel free to chime in and correct me where I’ve gone wrong in my assessment.

    • I’ve gone from trying to fix people to changing the subject after about five minutes’ worth of chatting about how terrible a friend’s life is. Life is not always terrible! We can find something to talk about! At the very least, there’s always books, hobbies, movies, tv, or other wonderful aspects of pop culture to debate about in an innocuous, life-is-not-terrible fashion.

  10. Liennae said:

    Thanks for the Tomato Nation link, Captain. I wish I could post this all over the place and highlight and underline the important points. And then put little asterisks all over the place too. But people would always assume that it doesn’t apply to them, especially the ones that need it the most.

    Though admittedly, I don’t get the purpose of thank you cards. Especially because you’re supposed to come up with these personal notes about how much you love the gift they gave you and how nice it’ll look on the fireplace mantle. Which is fine if that’s true, not so good if you’re wondering how long you have to wait until you can have an accident involving their gift.

    • commanderlogic said:

      I don’t get the purpose of thank you cards.

      …To… thank…people…?

      Okay, so here’s the template:

      Dear Kind Person’s Name,

      Thank you so much for [thing you're thanking them for.] It was/will be wonderful to [Specific instance of using the thing in the future or past], and you are so sweet to have thought of me! Hope to see you again soon!

      Best wishes,
      You

      It’s not an essay, it’s three to four sentences. And I am a terrible person who doesn’t send out enough of them. Aunties, mums, and grandmas always get them, though, because that’s how we do.

    • Janey Mac said:

      Yeah, I was a bit thrown by that too. I don’t know anyone under the age of fifty who sends and expects thank you cards for gifts.

      I mean, I make sure to thank people for gifts; I call them or email them or text them or make sure to squee about how awesome the gift was when I next meet them for coffee. I just haven’t written a note to that purpose since I was a kid getting birthday presents from my great aunt in Australia.

      The others I either do or am aware I should do. (Except for the getting help moving from your friends thing. Everyone I know still does that, so I guess it’s ok in my circles.)

      • JenniferP said:

        Reactions:

        1) Really? Of all the things in that post we’re going to focus on thank you notes?

        2) You’re right, I don’t think younger people *expect* paper ones anymore. The post is at least 7 years old. Things change. It also depends on where & how you were raised.

        3) I got a heartfelt and handwritten one in the mail a few days ago. I wasn’t expecting it, a verbal thank-you or emailed thank-you would have been enough. But you know what? It was pretty great.

        4) If you receive a gift (or assistance/mentoring/job interview) from someone in our parents’ generation or older, SEND A NOTE. You’ll never be wrong to do so. It will make them happy. And since so few people do send them, it’s an extra touch that will make you stand out.

        Consideration doesn’t go out of style, folks.

        • Sheelzebub said:

          Really, a handwritten thank you note to ANYONE who gave you something/did something for you can never go wrong.

        • Exactly, what’s not to love here? Thank you cards are cheaper than a bottle of wine or a gift. You get to buy or make awesome cards! People will display them and smile when they think of you! And for those self-declared Awkward Giftees among us who can’t summon up the social skills necessary to respond to the gift ugly mantelpiece vase – may that ever be the biggest problem in their lives – Miss Manners does a great line in appropriate replies!

        • Liennae said:

          it wasn’t so much of a focus, it just piqued my interest as something considered to be a hallmark of being a grown up, especially since the rest of the list seemed a lot more obvious to me. (Ok, I didn’t realize 25 was the cut off limit for asking your friends to help you move, but since I move on a yearly basis anyway, it seemed pretty douche-y to keep asking.)

          I understand the purpose of showing gratitude, but sending thank you notes really is the sort of thing you’re brought up to do and I wasn’t brought up with that particular habit.

          I do feel properly chastized though, I can think of a couple instances where I probably should’ve sent a thank you note, but didn’t.think of it as an option. I’ll have to try to keep it in mind for next time.

          Is it just me, or is this something only women send to other women?…that is the strong impression I’m getting here and I would love to be proven wrong.

          • JenniferP said:

            I’ve done plenty of assistant work for men in the business world (advertising, consulting, media), and when someone sends a gift or does them a favor they send the hell out of a thank you letter on the good stationery.

            I don’t actually audit whether people send me thank you notes. But if you’re thinking “should I be sending a thank you note? Is it expected? Do I HAVE to?” isn’t that a sign that you should err on the side of going the extra mile for a nice gesture?

    • As far as hideous gifts go, you still appreciate that they were thinking of you and wanted to get you something, right? Unless it’s a gift given as a deliberate insult (an item of clothing that’s too small, to use “as inspiration”, for example), they wanted to give you something that you’d like. This is one of the few times where intention really does trump actual effects. It’s also a place where you can make use of the more neglected secondary and tertiary meanings of adjectives. If you’re marveling at a present’s ugliness, you can fairly tell great-aunt Ethel that it’s marvelous. If you find it dreadful, dread is akin to fear, which is akin to terror, so you can call it terrific.

      (It’s possible that other people are less geeky about words than I am. I happen to really enjoy the above game. YMMV.)

      • Olivia said:

        I also find that the thank-you notes for the hideous gifts are the most fun to write. I always break out my best stationery for those…

        “Thank you for the tiny sweater! It is so cute, and it looks so good on my Bichon Frise! I am the only woman in town with a dog that is better dressed than I am.”

        “Thank you for the plate with the painting of the Pantheon on it! The artwork is so beautiful that I hate to cover it up with food. Instead, I have chosen to display it on my kitchen wall in [earthquake zone that is 3,000 miles away from where you live]. Hopefully it will remain there, intact, for years to come.”

    • Jenna said:

      Purposes of thank you cards?
      To let the giver know that it arrived and got to the proper recipient, at minimum. I gave a check, last year, to a couple getting married, and I still don’t know if they actually got it or if someone else managed to walk off with it. This is especially useful for gifts given at parties where someone COULD walk off with the gift, or things sent long distance.

      I have cheerfully accepted ANY acknowledgment of a gift, though, from verbal to email to a Facebook note. I don’t require handwritten on nice stationery.

      For writing thank you notes in bulk for weddings, I highly reccomend that the husband and wife sit down and write the dang things [i]as you open the presents,[/i] BECAUSE you will never ever be as excited about that gift as when the paper has just been removed. It makes it easier, and it gets it done, and then you can move on.

      • Liennae said:

        Admittedly this ^ would be a very good time/reason to send thank you notes.

        I think the thought behind my initial statement was that since (usually) the only people who give me presents/do nice things for me are close friends/boyfriend/parents, sending a thank you note would probably be very impersonal. However, it’s good that this fault was pointed out to me, because now I know what to do when I get gifts from my mother-in-law. (Which I often have no clue how to handle, so YAY!)

        I actually feel better knowing that gentleman are expected to do this as well. It REALLY bothers me when courtesy is something only women are expected to convey, and that men can get by with their sense of entitlement. (Which is something that happens a LOT in my family. And is confusing since I’ve never had the impression that they were particularly sexist, even if they kinda are.)

  11. Sheelzebub said:

    But this is my question, how do I find people who don’t have exceptionally dysfunctional relationships? Is that even possible?

    Yes, it is. There are swaths of people who are not in exceptionally dysfunctional relationships.

    Because while I’m rebuilding my life (I tend to have only a few close friends and my friend tally is very low right now), I’m hoping to invest in some relationships that have staying power. I don’t want to lose a friend in 3 or 5 years because she likes to date assholes. And even more importantly than that, how do I stop picking people who need fixing? Are there signs? Like big neon flashing ones that say “broken and in need of a codependent relationship” so that I can avoid or keep at arms length?

    Yikes. Okay, a few things:

    1) You were dating a woman who was married. I assume while you were married as well? Or while you were separated? It’s cool if you’re poly and everyone was okay with the arrangement, but if that’s the case, her primary relationship really isn’t your business. I know, he’s a ginormous asshole. He’s also her husband. It sounded like you wanted her to leave him for you (you were complaining about her going back to her Vader). So I guess I’m a little confused about the situation here. Either way, he is her husband, and she went back to him for [reasons]. They might not have been good reasons to you but she’s the one living her life, not you.

    2) Almost everyone has been involved with a shithead at some point in their life. Not everyone continues to do so, many of them are either happily single or in functional and happy relationships now.

    3) The red flag is, I suspect, your emotional reactions to people’s pain. Do you find yourself being drawn to women who are in shitty relationships? Do you find yourself trying to “help” or constantly mulling over the things she said.about her Vader BF? Are you getting invested in their relationship? Do you think of yourself as a savior? Do you try to save these women? There’s a difference between being a good friend and being a savior. I helped a friend who was in an abusive relationship. But I didn’t save her and I didn’t “fix” her and I didn’t fix things–if anything, I really set down some hard boundaries (long story). I gave her the help she asked for that I could give and I realized that I couldn’t get involved in her situation. I also tried hard to not talk about how shitty her (now ex! YAY) husband was. And when she was still living with him, I didn’t obsess over this. I knew she’d have to come to this in her own time, I just made it clear I would do what I could to help her if she needed it and I gave concrete ways I’d do that.

    4) I’m going to throw down the therapy card here. If you’re noticing a pattern, you’re the common denominator. Figure out what’s making you tick and you’ll figure out what’s fueling this and/or start being drawn to people who aren’t in these situations.

    • Mmm, I picked up on this too. I read this as LW getting divorced from hir own partner, while also sleeping with and emotionally overcommitting to women in committed relationships. This made me raise my eyebrows, so although LW is asking about friend-perspectives and not lover-perspectives in their letter, perhaps it would help them to have it reinforced: if you want to be everybody’s primary relationship ever, and if you can’t separate other people’s relationships from your own, then you really shouldn’t be dating poly until you work it out. By all means, interpret your own monogamy/polygamy however you want, but you have to be 100% aware that all of the people you love are not actually orbiting you like devoted planets around a single sun. Also, emotionally overinvesting in your friends can be quite manipulative behavior; LW sounds like a decent person, and probably doesn’t realize this.

      I also read LW as a woman, so.

      • Sheelzebub said:

        Yes, I assumed the LW was a woman as well.

        • Agnes said:

          I did too, but on rereading the letter I’m not noticing textual clues either way. I suppose it only matters so much, though.

  12. staranise said:

    I have a few friends whose SOs I dislike. I candidly say to some of them, “You know, I think your boyfriend is treating you like crap. I think you deserve someone better.” This is done while acknowledging that this doesn’t make them a bad or stupid person for staying, since everyone has their own boundaries and what drives me nuts demonstrably doesn’t bother them as much, and I shut up about it if it gets to be a point of contention. Mostly, though, I’m a partisan: “Maybe Bob has reasons for yelling at you, but I’m friends with you, Jane, not Bob. I disapprove of people who yell at my friends! I think he was a jerk there and should shape up right quick before I send my ninjas after him. Also, I think that scholarship to Belize is a wonderful idea, since Bob being banned from Belize is a feature, not a bug, in my opinion. But that’s just me.”

    But no one has ever broken off a friendship with me because I disapprove of their SO, and let me tell you, I have disapproved of some real jackasses.

    LW, think about that for a minute: while Darth Vaders are awful things, the Darth Vader is not the force breaking up your relationship. At least not in this telling: this does not read to me as, “I opposed the boyfriend, the boyfriend got wind of it, and pressured the friend to cut me off so he would be unopposed.” This reads to me as, “My thoughts, feelings, actions, and words about the Darth Vader caused my friends to break off their relationship with me.”

    So, what is that? If they choose between your friendship and the Darth Vader, are you the one forcing that choice, not them? Even if you aren’t flat-out saying, “I can’t be friends with you anymore if you date that jerk,” which is your choice and not the other person’s, you can insinuate it. It’s easy for people to hear things like, “I think you are stupid for being in this relationship,” “I think you are weak for putting up with this,” “I think you invite and encourage your own abuse here,” and all kinds of other shitty things when you criticise their SOs.

    Maybe you’ll find some great, difficult-life-circumstance-free people, but in the meantime, are you actually committed to being friends with these women, or does your commitment carry an implied, “I want to be friends with you… so long as I agree with your choices of who to date”?

    (For the record, I’ve dumped some friends because I can’t listen to them whine about their SOs anymore. That’s an option. But I’ve got to be honest that *I* was the one making that call, not the other person.)

  13. Is it possible that the LW is avoiding romantic/love relationships of his/her own and vicariously seeking the drama and intensity of the romantic/love relationships of others as a substitute? And also, maybe the Darth Vaderishness of his/her friends’ romantic/love partners helps him/her feel less bad about his/her own divorce?

  14. I wish you the best, LW. You sound like a really decent person who is making a great effort to improve your life, and I know it’s difficult and hurtful.

    The only advice I can give you is to stop appropriating others to fill your own needs. It can be quite tempting, especially when you have a need to feel needed, and the women in question are approximately the same shape as that hole. I also read you as a woman – apologies if I’m wrong – and I am familiar with those fast-burning somewhat-sexual close female friendships. They can be so intoxicating and passionate and attractive and addictive, and they really do give you a high. My advice is that you have to stop thinking with that groin/brain/neediness complex that says “YES YOU BEAUTIFUL WOMAN, GET INTO MY LIFE, YOU WILL FILL MY LITERAL METAPHORICAL HOLES QUITE NICELY!” and start thinking of potential friends as people.

    And while I don’t want to minimize or erase the experiences of those who have been badly treated and are at threat because of their Darth Vaders, I have had a few close platonic female friends who got weirdly possessive, and the experience sounded like this:

    Me: Sorry I’m late! Boyfriend forgot to set the car clock back, the time-thieving buttface.
    Her: THAT ABSOLUTE BASTARD HE DOESN’T RESPECT YOUR BOUNDARIES AT ALL
    Me: Haha, yes, he’s not the sharpest Time Lord in the Tardis!
    Her: YES YOU SHOULD LEAVE HIM
    Me: er
    Her: AND SPEND MORE TIME WITH ME
    Her: OUR FRIENDSHIP HAS REALLY SUFFERED BECAUSE OF THIS GUY
    Her: I FOUND A GREAT APARTMENT FOR US THAT WOULD TAKE YOUR CAT
    Her: HE DOESN’T LOVE YOUR CAT AS MUCH AS I LOVE YOUR CAT
    Her: I’VE BEEN WAITING FOR MONTHS TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THAT BASTARD BUT I WAS JUST WAITING FOR YOU TO BRING IT UP
    Me: Whoo, I think I hear the Doctor calling, gotta run. away. forever.

    • Sheelzebub said:

      I love that dialogue. I’ve observed this from afar and all I can say is WORD.

    • …wow, this actually just explained what happened between me and a friend of mine. Granted, it’s been years now, but I never really could understand exactly why she suddenly became manipulative and weird at me, and this puts it pretty clearly. Thank you.

    • JenniferP said:

      I laughed so hard when I read the dialogue. Awesome.

    • MissPrism said:

      WRITE MORE SCRIPTS ELODIE. I LOVE YOUR SCRIPTS. MORE THAN THOSE OTHER PEOPLE DO.

  15. Buttered Lilies said:

    Definitely find some people who aren’t fixer-uppers. But also, work on your ‘not fixing’ skills, because that’s a problem in all relationship, because everyone has problems (big and small) eventually. Which basically works like this: any time you have the urge to fix, remind yourself that only they can fix themselves. Nothing you can do can fix them. Sure, you might be able to break a friend (or ladyfriend?) up with a specific Darth Vader, but you can’t break the pattern; she’d just return with Darth Vader II, and then Darth Vader III: Revenge of the Sith, and before you know it’s a damn trilogy of trilogies. Any action on her part that isn’t 273% empowering is bullshit; by telling her what you think she should do, you actually make it harder for her to leave. So, once you relieve yourself of the responsibility to fix, and place it firmly on each fixer-upper’s shoulders, that really helps.

  16. Sheelzebub said:

    Another thing to consider: By fixing someone and trying to get them to do the Right and Correct and Wise Thing, you’re kind of becoming a Darth Vader yourself. We all want to see our friends happy (unless we are TERRIBLE PEOPLE), but there’s a difference between being supportive and being controlling.

    I know. Vader BF’s and GF’s are shitty. But if you force the issue–if they are that awful and abusive and you Make Your Friend See How She Must Leave Right Now–you’re being kind of controlling. You’re morphing into a Vader. I have a friend who is with someone who I get terrible physical reactions to when I see him–I think he’s a narcissistic dickbag who manipulates her to get his own way. But she’s been with him for 20 years. She loves him. I am not privy to everything in their relationship so I assume he has qualities that she sees that I do not, or that he does things for her that I cannot ever know or pretend to understand. At the end of the day, what works for her does not work for me and I can’t imagine she thinks my situation is all that great either. If she left him tomorrow I would want to throw a party–I am not kidding, I find him that terrible–but I would be supportive of my friend. And sometimes support isn’t trashing the terrible ex. Actually, it’s being there for your friend and helping them find their feet again. And watching MST3K all day on Saturday and eating lots of popcorn and Chinese food out of the box.

    So. Be as supportive as you can be and don’t be afraid to draw boundaries. “That sounds like a terrible situation. What do you think you want to do?” “You’re thinking about leaving Vader? What do you need? Here’s what I can do to help [lists specific things].” “You know, it’s okay to show [x emotion], it doesn’t mean you’re weak or ‘crazy’.”

    Also. Maybe don’t complicate your friendships with sex right yet? First, because you chose a huge clusterfuck of a poly (I think a poly??) relationship and second, because you’re not allowing yourself to just be friends with them.

  17. Commandant Cray Cray said:

    “There’s nothing more annoying than a helpful person.”

    Don’t know who said it or if I wholly agree, but I ponder this when I feel a desire to insert myself into things that are none of my damn business. I can’t really turn off the urge but I can control when and how I employ it. I used to have quite the helpenboner specifically for damsels in distress. It made me feel good to help other women in their hour of need. So I volunteered at a domestic violence shelter…and learned pretty quick that there would be no rescuing and i was being a condescending ass. OMG my attitude was so wrong-headed. Worse, it was offensive to said damsels. We wouldn’t even advise women to leave their relationships, because we didn’t want to be another person in their life telling them what to do, and judging them if they didn’t. The phrase we actually used, along with a lot of education about the patterns of domestic violence, was “you are the expert in your own experience.” I don’t think I’d ever really understood the concept of empowerment before this.

    I had to confront myself about this urge to save ladies. It wasn’t about the ladies, and by trying to make myself into their savior, I occupied that role, leaving no room for them to inhabit it. That’s not fair or helpful, and it won’t produce the long term results of someone taking charge of their own lives. The helping relationship is NOT a partnership. As I domestic violence counselor, my role is to provide ancillary support, when asked, for a specific need or request. That’s it.

    This has totally changed how I conduct my relationships. Help only when asked, because otherwise it is not my business. If asked to help, only help with what they ask you for help with. No giving them what you think they need (yuck).
    And once your assistance to them is done, go back to fun topics and equal footing. This is not only respectful to the people in my life, who are capable and awesome, but it’s much less emotionally exhausting. You can use all those emotions and helping instincts instead on the one just target for them: yourself!

    Sometimes if you’re attracted to something that might not be so great for you, it helps to run towards it rather than away from it, but at a different angle. My tact is usually the let’s-get-educated approach to my fears and angers. Maybe volunteer for something like a domestic violence shelter? I’m not entirely sure if this will help you specifically, or even if all domestic violence shelters take an empowerment perspective though. I volunteered at a uber feminist one in la.

    Good luck LW and all the others helpers in the house!

  18. I think I may have been on the other side of the LW’s experience, where I had a friend who wanted to “fix” me and my relationship. And my relationship wasn’t that bad, thought I’m no longer with that SO, but I think to my friend it appeared that way. But a big part of why it may have appeared is that my SO didn’t like my friend, because of my friend constantly trying to fix me and “rescue” me from my “bad” relationship. And it made my SO uncomfortable and angry, so to my friend he was always polite, but cold and distant when they were in the same room together. Which made my friend read him as a cold and distant person.

    And the thing is, I eventually had to do a slow fade on my friend, partially because he was a bit a of a Nice Guy (TM), but also because he kept trying to rescue/fix me, and I didn’t want to be rescued/fixed. I always felt that my friend wanted to be the Knight on the White Horse for someone, who sweeps them up and they are eternally grateful and will give him mad sexytimes because of it, but that wasn’t for me. I wanted someone who thought I was awesome the way I was and didn’t want to change me.

    I think one way to build lasting relationships is to accept people for who they are. If the LW meets someone who seems troubled/damaged/in need of help, try not to see that as the entirety of who they are. It’s almost a form of pedestal-izing (reverse-pedestal-ing? Putting someone into a box, maybe).

    They may be Someone Who Is In A Bad Relationship, but also Someone Who Loves Doctor Who, or Someone who is a Mad Petanque Player or whatever. People are complex beings, if you let one aspect of them define them to you, you limit yourself to the fullness of that person. And you also limit their ability to grow as a person around you. I know this was my experience, that for years after even the relationship with that SO, my friend refused to see the person I was growing into, who wasn’t the same person he had initially met. Though technically, I’m not sure I was ever the person he thought he had met.

    • KL said:

      “my friend refused to see the person I was growing into, who wasn’t the same person he had initially met. Though technically, I’m not sure I was ever the person he thought he had met.”

      This resonates so strongly for me. Many years ago, I dated someone who had been my friend years before and who had a major helpenboner for me. I know, I know, but I was really young. Result? He began “saving” me from my friends and other life choices, of course.

  19. MG said:

    Captain I love you, but I can’t overlook something that has been driving me crazy from nearly all your recent columns. I am not usually a grammar or spelling fanatic, and don’t make a habit of pointing out mistakes. However, this has showed up more than a few times, and appears to be a style choice, not an honest mistake.

    You use question marks where you should use periods. Today’s example is:

    “That passage has helped me so many times?”

    It’s really distracting, and it puts the wrong tone in my head when I’m reading. I don’t think everyone everywhere in every situation needs to be 100% correct. I’m just asking that you reconsider your choice to use that style.

    Also, that passage that helped you does seem helpful, I think I may read that book.

    • JenniferP said:

      The irony here is that it’s probably my deliberately informal & conversational writing style that makes you feel comfortable enough to offer presumptuous, pretentious, piece-of-shit style critiques like this the first (and only) time you (will) ever post on the site.

      • E said:

        You seem defensive?

        • JenniferP said:

          I don’t “seem” anything. I’m fucking pissed off.

          Expanded to Add: As gently and pleasantly well-intentioned as MG’s critique was (and believe me I get that not everyone will love that particular affectation or any of my writing), it’s presumptuous as hell to show up to someone’s blog and have the first thing you ever say to them be about an (obviously deliberate) style choice. It’s like coming to a dinner party of people you haven’t met before and emailing the hosts afterward to helpfully critique the color of the cocktail napkins or mention how they should really move that bookcase to the opposite wall,like a scene from “How Not To Get Invited Back to Parties: The Movie.

          There are a couple of rogue grammarians who hang out here and feel the need to correct letter writers and other posters on grammar and style choices, and I delete all of it. If they are regular posters with an established history of constructive comments, I might email them and tell them to knock it off. If it’s their first time here? I just ban them. Just because you mean well doesn’t mean other people need to listen to it and pretend to be grateful.

          If you can understand what the person was saying, it’s correct enough for this blog.

          • Lauren said:

            It’s roundly annoying to provide a free space for people to hang and then have someone come by and red pen your work to death.

          • JenniferP said:

            Maybe time to reclarify the whole “free blogs are for writing whatever you want however you want” concept, for sure.

          • Vicki said:

            I’m capable of being a rogue grammarian. And I save that for Making Light, where the bloggers include two professional editors, one of whom used to run the copyediting department at a book publisher (and where it doesn’t come up very often, but they’re currently running a thread about particularly difficult spelling words). Beyond that, I figure if it isn’t an editorial query about my genuine confusion—”do you mean this or that?”—it’s my problem, not the blogger’s. I don’t need to comment on your, or anyone’s, blog when my overly literal mind comes up with something that is clearly not what was meant.

        • How to ‘properly’ react to someone who thinks it’s appropriate to *ahem* ‘constructively criticize’ your writing style?

        • kathleendonohue said:

          Inappropriate

        • MissPrism said:

          I reckon MG is a bit of a twerp but E was joking.

          • JenniferP said:

            Well, his/her literary style was confusing so how could I know that? I GUESS THOSE ARE THE RISKS WE TAKE.

    • the tone makes sense to me (and hundreds of other folks reading), so this seems to be a user error, not a captain’s error. if you don’t like a writer’s style, don’t read their writing. and if you’re not asked / hired to be their editor, shut your type-hole.

    • A couple of things.

      1) “I love you, but…” The use of the word “but” disregards words that came before it.
      2) There were more tactful ways to do this, both in wording and in venue. Worded as “was this sarcastic or serious”, especially if it had been through a private message, may have gone over better than this “Hey Captain, your punctuation sucks, and I totally have a right to criticize you even though you have no idea who I am” message did.

    • Simone Lovelace said:

      Oh God I know you’re coming from a good place but seriously MG? I think the Captain’s epic smackdown was totally appropriate?

      In all seriousness, as an American woman, I have a lot of love for the much-maligned “upspeak,” which serves a pretty complex and interesting linguistic function.

      • MissPrism said:

        Oo, interesting thought! I have always found it grating, as if it signifies that the speaker doesn’t feel (s)he has the right to say anything without seeking approval by making it a question. But maybe it’s just another one of those ways we’re all encouraged to despise feminine things.
        *ponders*

        • MissPrism said:

          Oh, and by “it” here I mean the rising intonation thing, not the Captain’s chatty, clear, unaffectedly hilarious writing style, which I love. I can be a venomous pedant at times, but I try to do so only when my opinion is overtly asked for.

          • Thanks!
            *practises vocal fry to get ahead of the curve*

          • Simone Lovelace said:

            In fairness, I am a master of upspeak and the gratuitous “like,” but I never figured out vocal fry. Totally behind the currrrrrve. :-(

          • KL said:

            It helps to be a smoker or Marge Simpson.

          • RocketFullOfHoles said:

            Huh. A friend of mine recently told me I was doing vocal fry. I had no idea what he was talking about. Thanks for clearing that up.

    • Do you ever think that the tone you are hearing in your head might actually be the tone the writer intended you to hear! (See how that was a question but now it looks like I’m yelling at you, it’s because I am.)

    • Anyone can tell it’s a deliberate style choice. I personally love it! In fact, I often have to stop myself from adopting it, it’s downright infectious! :)

      • See also Dr. Slippery’s daughter Lucy in “Dr. Slippery”, who speaks like this all the time and she’s the cutest! I want to pinch her cheeks all the time.

      • Jess said:

        I don’t think that “anyone” CAN tell it’s a deliberate style choice.

        I have to admit that I had to read the sentence MG pointed out a couple of times to try to understand the meaning – I ended up deciding that there was a word missing somewhere, shrugging, and moving on. It wasn’t until the Captain’s comments above that I realised that it was a deliberate style choice.

        Is it meant to imply an “upspeak” (as another commenter suggested) or rising intonation? Because if it is then I suspect that there must be a dialectical conversational type thing that’s passing me by. That’s cool, the intarwebs are international and I like to learn new language things.

        It’s making me feel kind of foolish (and I don’t think I am!) to say that the original criticism was unwarranted just because it was so obvious to everyone (or was a one-off “user error”) that the style was deliberate. The criticism may have been unwarranted or inappropriate for other reasons, but not that.

        • JenniferP said:

          Yes! Shrug and move on! Shrug and move on! That was the correct choice!

          In a fight between:

          a) Being a rude, tedious little pedant and publicly correcting another adult’s grammar,
          b) feeling like the open culture of the internet means that you get to throw out rude critiques of a writer’s literary style on their actual website and they have to say “Oh THANK you for the constructive criticism, kind stranger!” and be totally gracious or else (according to Twitter) they “lose all respect” and “might be bipolar“, or;
          c) shrugging and moving on when you come across a typo or a style quirk that bugs you, I definitely vote for the shrugging and moving on.

          On my own site that I write for fun, I write how I talk? And sometimes it comes out like this? Because it feels right to me? And I don’t really think about it that much, I just do it? And I don’t really care if some people don’t 100% get it and I DEFINITELY don’t care if some people don’t like it?

          I don’t let commenters correct each other’s spelling and grammar, I don’t let them do it to letter writers, and it turns out that I don’t let them do it to me.

          I cannot believe “an occasional misuse of the question mark” was actually something people thought was up for debate. Re-reading MG’s original comment – “Captain I love you, but I can’t overlook something that has been driving me crazy from nearly all your recent columns…” is the “You would be so pretty if you just lost some weight, I only tell you because I love you” of internet comments.

          REALLY done talking about this. REALLY REALLY done.

    • liyyspoon said:

      How unbelievably rude.

      Also, just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean others don’t – I for one really like the Captain’s informal writing style and the way it makes the ‘reading voice’ in my head sound.

    • Jenna said:

      This letter predictably attracted both people who have run into fixers and the fixers themselves.

      Fixers absolutely need something to fix. Even if it is something that doesn’t need fixing.

      The problem with trying to fix things that don’t need fixing, for someone with a reasonably good grasp of reality, is that they KNOW they don’t need fixing, and so push back.

      Welcome to being a really good example.

    • Lauren said:

      Just an observation that this is an interesting dynamic for this particular blog, which is largely about setting boundaries. Someone crosses a boundary, the Captain draws a very bright line to illustrate where the boundary lies, then a dozen people show up to protest, justify, demand, explain, and argue why that boundary is wrong, wrong, wrong, and tell the Captain how to feel about it and how to change her tone.

      Darth Vader Boyfriend? How about Darth Vader readers?

      Food for thought.

      • staranise said:

        Fodder for the process, as we say in therapy. What happens in comments is a micro teaching tool to demonstrate the principles that get applied more widely.

        I’ve found with my own blog, I need to set bright boundaries, because people are always willing to tell me what I can or can’t write in my own space. If I don’t fend them off with a long stick, I lose my own platform to somebody else’s agenda. I don’t think it’s an uncommon problem.

  20. Jenna said:

    I have a term for fixers that I have used in the past: White Knights
    I have mostly run into guys doing it, though I know both men and women have the urge. My personal experience has been with men “riding to the rescue!” of what they see as “damsels in distress” so that is why I tend to wrap the ride up in the White Knight label.
    There is a friend I have, who sees less of me than he used to because I can’t bear to watch the train wreck. He has been married twice now, and both times the person that he married used this internal narrative of his to snare him. I know I am judging from outside the relationship, but, one of the reasons that I would never ever consider dating him when he was single was because of his total absorption of this particular gender role. He is the White Knight! He will totally rescue this poor damsel in distress! Nevermind that she totally sees the buttons that she needs to push. That is outside her role, and therefore he is blind to it. His latest foray into marriage is a “Rules” girl…she had a timetable and everything. I can’t watch.
    I see two possibilities in the letter.
    One, that the letter writer is a fixer, looking to rescue someone.
    Two, that the people he is seeking to rescue are ALSO fixers….and that is why they are choosing the supposed bad news guys that they are choosing.
    My advice? Just because you have the urge to rush in and help does not mean that you should. Stop and evaluate.
    Is this person who has problems working on solving their own problems? Are they reasonably self aware? Then they are probably ok, but, still don’t rush in and offer to help with everything.
    Look at your OWN motivations as well. Are you helping because that’s what friends do….but still keeping your own things going? Or are you dropping everything to go rescue someone else, every time? And then looking for more connection in return? If you drop everything for people, and then feel slighted when they are less emotionally invested in you than you would like, then you really need to find a new way of dealing with people. Immediately.
    I have someone in my own life that was helping me and giving me things. I am less close to him than he would like, though at first I couldn’t figure out what my problem was. He’s nice, right? He’s reasonably handsome, tall, and I should really like him because he’s doing all these nice things for me, helping me out, rescu….OH! yeah. Suddenly I see that he feels entitled to me now, and that is what I was sensing that was turning me off. I am not a formula, or recipe, and he does not get to plug in values A, B and C and get D just because that’s what he believes will happen.

  21. Jess said:

    Omg, I just realised this could be a pretty good example of a friend I had about eight or so years ago. Zie was TOTALLY trying to fix me and my relationship.

    Or at least, zie was trying to convince me that my girlfriend had borderline personality disorder and was emotionally abusing me (which zie could diagnose because hir mother was a pyschologist) and so I had to leave. (We stayed together for several more years, btw.)

    Zie also made it quite clear that when I came to my senses and left my girlfriend, zie would be there for me. Because zie loved me. And thought it was cool to tell me this while I was in a relationship with someone else. Yeah. At the end of the day, apart from the I-love-you-drama, why would I want to be friends with someone who didn’t think I was smart enough or had enough self-esteem to be able to take care of myself?

    That friendship died a tearful, drama-filled death. Even with the benefit of hindsight, I truly don’t think I was a fixer-upper – my relationship had its drama, but it wasn’t worthy of an intervention. I also wonder if the fact that my ex-friend was in the middle of a bout of hir own life-improving-projects had something to with it – friend was having so much success with hirself, zie needed New Projects!

    No one likes to be a Project.

    • Jenna said:

      The fixers that I know aren’t really interested in someone UNLESS they can find something to fix(and then get back pats and hopefully hugs and kisses too). Either they find someone with major issues…..or if their circle of friends is actually, fine, thank you, they make issues up. They make mountains out of molehills, or give you gifts you need to be grateful for( but, not reciprocate with gifts in kind, no…..they want Connection, and if you can give them things in return then you aren’t as helpless looking as they like), or do yard work or other things for you.

      • staranise said:

        That’s something the people I know who are training to be therapists really have to unlearn. It’s a really, really bad habit to see everyone around you as eternally sick, broken, or in need of help. Our professors often throw scenarios at us to see how we’d respond–diagnose depression, use CBT, whatever–and 10% or 20% of the time, the correct answer is, “Nothing’s wrong, this person doesn’t need help because they’re doing fine.” Because we REALLY NEED to be able to make that call. Otherwise, you can F up people who were doing okay at the outset.

        A lot of those discussions turn into conversations about projection–”Is it possible there is something about YOU you wish someone would fix or heal, but instead of getting that looked after, you are projecting that weakness or wound onto someone else, and doing for them what you really wish someone would do for you? Because in that case, TAKE IT TO YOUR OWN THERAPIST, KTHXBAI.”

      • jessikast said:

        Oh yes, there were gifts too. Gifts that I could never afford to repay in kind (poor student) but that I really, really wanted so it didn’t take too much persuasion to get me to accept.

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