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Friendship

Dear Captain Awkward:

I used to hang out with Friend Group, and dated a guy in that group for two years. When we broke up five years ago, I moved to a different neighborhood and saw them less because I needed space and because I was starting to move away from them socially.

Since then, I hang out with this group less and less, but still come out for big get-togethers. My ex-boyfriend and I were on good terms. He’s more socially awkward than I am and in our relationship and after, I took on the burden of smoothing any awkwardness over. We hooked up at one point, and I suspected he wanted to get back together with me, but I wasn’t interested. We hung out in group settings a few times since then, and all was well.

Then I got engaged to someone outside of Friend Group, and ex-boyfriend started ignoring me at these Friend Group events. Avoiding eye contact. No talking. Looking the other way when I was standing in front of him. Since I don’t see this group much, I tried not to let it bother me. I also didn’t want to talk about it with anyone, because I didn’t want to come off like an obsessive ex. 

I don’t think he bears me any ill will or anything. I just think he’s kind of an awkward guy who just didn’t know how to react.
The problem is that a) mutual friends started mirroring his behavior and b) he started becoming a more integral part of that group, so I got pushed further out. When I show up to a party someone is throwing and he’s with a group of people, most of them are his friends, so no one greets me. I don’t get invited to Friend Group parties at his house (understandable!) but then mutual friends surprised when I don’t attend. It’s made me pull even further away from Friend Group, and now I get super nervous before attending if I go at all.

I KNOW that I should have just ignored any weirdness, jumped right into the middle, and started chatting like normal. But I was tired of shouldering the burden of being the outgoing, socially adept one (despite social anxiety) YEARS after our relationship ended that I just didn’t. And it really, really sucks feeling rejected whenever you hang out with a group of people.

So I’ve been married a year now, and have been with this group maybe five times since then. This last weekend was the wedding for my oldest friend in this city, and it felt really weird to be there, two feet away from my friends, being avoided. People came up to us individually to say hi, but since I haven’t been around much, we weren’t included in any pre-wedding parties or weekend group activities. We left the wedding early because I just felt really weird about it. Everyone else went on to go bar hopping, after parties, etc.

I know no one can make me feel small except me, but is my only choice to avoid this group moving forward? Am I just blowing this feeling out of proportion? Should I be the bigger person and step in, him be damned, and have a good time no matter what?

Help, Captain.

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Dear Captain Awkward and the Awkward Army,

Long story short: my kind, hilarious, handsome (ex) boyfriend and I just broke up because after two years of things being “great!” we realized that nagging “…but maybe not the ‘forever’ kind of great?” wasn’t ever going to go away. It is very, very sad and very, very hard and everyone is crying a lot and gazing listlessly out windows listening to Bon Iver and wishing this wasn’t our lives.

That being said – we would like to still be friends in a real and meaningful way, and I’m not sure how to navigate this for a few reasons:
- I have some exes who I’m friendly with, but they were all “we dated for 6 months” or less exes, and the kind of “friends” we are is, “we can be in gatherings together and it’s mostly fine and not awkward!” and, “we comment on each other’s funny facebook statuses!” not, “you are the thing that makes me laugh when my day is terrible” or, “you are my partner in crime and adventures” or, “I call you when I just want to talk” friends.

- He has no exes who are his friends, and only one with whom he is on still-in-contact friendly terms.

- We are VERY NEWLY broken up, and I don’t want to mess this up by rushing to friendship before every time I see him and then remember we’re not together it feels like a sharp tug on my Golden Retriever of Love’s leash (you know – that feeling of stabbing knives and despair). But also don’t want to “give it space” until seeing each other turns into this unnatural production.

- I suspect that, in my heart of hearts, I will be unbelievably ungracious about his new girlfriend(s), when their time comes. He is, truly, the Perfect Guy (Funny! Kind! Unbelievably hot! In possession of the world’s best beard! Not into the DC-style of one-upmanship that is the worst!) – and I KNOW that he is going to be snatched up by some really perfect waif-y-type-woman in basically seconds. I “KNOW” this in part because he is amazing and in part because This Is My Greatest Insecurity (jerkbrain says: “What if he dates some blond, no-makeup-wearing, athletic woman next? Will that ‘prove’ that our relationship wasn’t meant to be because I WAS UNWORTHY?’“) and I react to it by having a lot of possessive crazyperson thoughts that I keep mostly to myself, but that eat me up inside.

Can you help me figure out how to navigate, “I love you, but need to be falling out of love with you” and “I want you to be important in my life – but also need to let go of feeling possessive of you?” We’re both going to make an effort to communicate a lot about making sure we’re respecting one another’s boundaries but this re-definition is hard and unfamiliar to me and I just want to cut right to the part where seeing him doesn’t feel like stabbing and I don’t want to push his new girlfriends into volcanoes.

Thanks,
Let’s Be Friends

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Robin Marantz Henig’s piece on loneliness and the science of how loneliness affects the brain is sad and interesting and relevant to our interests, I think:

What is different about lonely people is how they interpret their interactions with friends and acquaintances. In the Ohio State study, lonely people tended to feel put upon and misunderstood. They were, the researchers wrote, “more likely to attribute problems in social relationships to others,” and to see themselves “as victims who are already giving as much as they can to their relationships.”

In other words, people grow lonely because of the gloomy stories they tell themselves. And, in a cruel twist, the loneliness itself can further distort their thinking, making them misread other people’s good intentions, which in turn causes them to withdraw to protect themselves from further rejection — and causes other people to keep them at arm’s length.

According to Guy Winch, a New York psychologist and author of Emotional First Aid, lonely people can become “overly defensive and come across to others as detached, aloof, or even hostile — which only pushes them further away.” Loneliness can create its own self-defeating behavior.

I see this pattern in letters and discussions we have here. “Try meeting more people!” we say. “I’ve TRIED that and it’s not WORKING” the struggling, lonely letter writer or commenter says. “Just, um, try harder!” we say.

I have also seen the self-fulfilling “negging” behavior in action, and I do have a strategy when I meet someone at an event and I say “Hi, nice to meet you” or “Are you enjoying the event?” and they say (true story) “You’re probably just saying that” or (true story) “I’m sure it’s nice but I can never meet people at these things. Not people who want to be my friend.” To be honest, responses like that make klaxons go off in my head, and I DON’T want to be around that person very much, and I DON’T want to be guilted into being friends with a stranger. A mean stranger. But recognizing that sometimes people blurt stuff out when they are feeling really awkward, and knowing that my own semi-public role as an awkward soul makes it more likely that they will blurt that stuff to me, I’ve begun a strategy of redirecting the conversation. “Wow, well, I can’t answer that, having just met you, but…” 

  • “…how did you find out about this event/know the hosts?”
  • “…what would you rather be doing with your Tuesday night?”
  • “…read/watch/eat anything good lately?”

Sometimes the answers are (true story) “I know the hosts because they are good people who take pity on people like me,” “Somewhere really quiet, like the morgue” and “No, but let me tell you about all the things that I’ve read that SUCK and all of the details of that suckiness” and then I do bail politely after three unsuccessful attempts, likely added to their list of “fake people who just can’t hang when things get too real,” or whatever. But sometimes I am able to draw the person out about something they are interested in that isn’t their own self-consciousness, and then they relax a bit, and then we have a pretty ok conversation. So if you hear the klaxons, but sense the person is really trying to connect, I humbly offer that as a way to get through the interaction.

I don’t know how to bypass the self-defeating patterns of a “lonely brain,” and it’s not exactly comforting to know that this is what could be happening. At least you’re not imagining it? Sadly, I also don’t know any possible solutions beyond “recognize the role that your own assumptions and fears might be playing in how you respond to interactions with other people, and see if you can’t find happier tapes to play for yourself and for others over time” (maybe with some professional help) and “just, um, keep trying to meet people, Buddy!” I can see why hearing that would be frustrating, especially when you are already making the effort and it feels like it’s going nowhere.

Do others have experience getting themselves out of this mindset? What changed/how did you change it? What other advice could we be offering lonely people who are frustrated with the usual channels for making friends?

 

 

Dear Captain,

In essence, I absolutely adore this girl, but there’s someone else, and she has problems being away from home. As a disclaimer: this isn’t some crush, or the case of a naïve adolescent. This is my fifth relationship (though I wouldn’t call myself experienced in relationships). I’ve dated this girl, and known her for over a year, during which we’ve been comfortable friends for long stretches of time. I want her in my life, at least as a very close friend.

Lets call her Emma. We met last August in college, and very quickly, naturally, spilled all our feelings and pasts to each other. Emma was emotional and had a troubled history of depression. I’m an open and helpful person, so I was more than happy to be there for her. She didn’t need me, but felt much happier with me around. She was single, but had lingering feelings for her ex, who she’d gone out with for two years, but had broken up with because she didn’t want to do long distance in college. His presence was visibly ruining her emotionally. At this point I had no intention of going out with her – I was more than happy to have her as a close friend. Eventually, I had a sit-down with Emma, explaining to her she wouldn’t truly be happy if she didn’t let him go.

About a week later, Emma stopped contact with him. She was noticeably happier, and I was proud to have helped her. I started to develop feelings. She had had feelings for a while, before she broke things off with her ex. The natural progression of our friendship led to us going out. This lasted over 3 months, until break. She went home to her closely knit friend group, which included her ex. My family had just moved to a remote location with a harsh winter, and was alone for break. It was hell.

This took an emotional toll on me. When we returned to campus, things weren’t the same. She broke up with me after a week with no clear reason. Emma got back with her ex shortly thereafter. It was because her ex was more accessible over break than I was, by default. It wasn’t my fault.

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Maggie Smith as Professor McGonagall with text "Professor McBadass"

There is more to teaching and life than having a good small-talk game.

Dear Captain Awkward,

This question is not so much about a single major situation or a crisis as it is about a recurring, if minor, situation that I encounter again and again. I am a graduate student at a medium-sized research university where graduate students do a lot of teaching. As a result, I encounter former students on campus on a very regular basis. I hope very much to keep teaching college students long-term, though who knows what my future holds.

The problem I have is this. My classes are often fairly popular with students, in part because my teaching persona is very warm and approachable, and in the classroom, I am good at not taking myself too seriously and putting other people (i.e. students) at ease. In real life I am none of those things: I am awkward, introverted, and ill-at-ease with social acquaintances, and I overread Every. Damn. Detail. of routine social interactions. I often feel that students who run into me in public social settings (at coffee shops, libraries, etc.) are surprised by what they perceive as a change in my affect, and that–put bluntly–I make them feel uncomfortable when they greet me after our class is over. I hate that. I feel I talk too long, or not long enough, or that I greet them when they’d rather avoid me, or that I avoid them when they’d rather greet me.

I should say that, while many college instructors resist or resent outside encounters with students, I don’t feel that way at all. I enjoy keeping up with former students. Even more importantly, I think that students at my large, cold, competitive institution need as many one-on-one adult contacts as they can get, and that it’s important for them to feel like they are part of a supportive social network made up of people of many different ages. I think that having good, positive, low-key, supportive encounters–not with every single student, but with students who actually want to say “hi” or catch up briefly in passing–is an important part of my job. But I’m not good at it.

I’m asking you because I know you are a college professor, and I imagine that–like me–you have a lot of students who would like to keep in touch, or who check in when you pass them in the hallway. Any advice on how to make these encounters productive, or at least comfortable?

Wants to Be That Supportive Former Teacher

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Dear Captain,

I couldn’t find a similar story, and I don’t know how strong a bro-relation is, so I’ve been quite confused for a while. The history about this story is bigger, but I only want to point out the main things. This is my story:

It all started a year ago, I met this guy Jimmy, which I fell in love with. We became friends. I gathered my courage and confessed to him. The response I got was not what I expected… His reply was just we’ll see what happens. After a month he didn’t took the effort to make it work. We didn’t saw each other at all. For me it was pretty clear that he didn’t wanted to start something with me.

A month later I went to a party at his house. For me this party was the opportunity to find out whether I still had feelings for him. At this party we all drank a little too much and a friend of him, Jason brought me home. I think you can already predict what happened. We kissed, nothing bad yet, except for the fact that this guy has a girlfriend…The next day, when we got sober I talked with Jason, and we decided it was a mistake and never mention it again. I felt horrible for making him cheat, and was so confused about my feelings. So it was easier for me to not seeing them both for a while.

A few weeks later, Jason contacted me. He wanted to see me and I agreed to it. I think I was being naïve, for not seeing what he wanted and we went a step further. His girlfriend still didn’t know anything about it.

A week later I met up with Jimmy at his house. Jason was there too. We talked about cheating and Jimmy hated people who were cheating, he couldn’t understand why someone would do that. At the end of the night he brought me home. We talked and I wanted to know what I meant to him. He confessed that he didn’t want a relationship right now. His ambitions are too big to settle down at this moment, but his feelings towards me can still go any direction. So my secret affair with Jason continued. After a month he ended it all. He confessed our affair to his girlfriend, and he wants to stay with her.

Months passed by without seeing them both, until yesterday. I went to Jimmy’s house, where they both were. The weird thing is that it didn’t felt awkward at all, sitting between them. For all I could say, I got the feeling that Jimmy was hitting on me. For what reason I don’t know, did Jason told him anything? Or is he finally ready to settle down? Just all those assumptions, makes me insecure.

Also I just don’t know what to do if I ever get serious with Jimmy. Am I obligated to tell him about Jason? I still have a weakness for Jimmy, but I don’t know if he can ever accept me for sleeping with Jason and if I would damage his friendship with him.

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It’s July, so time for the monthly “let’s answer the stuff people typed into search engines” post. It is, as always, a very mixed bag of topics.

1. “Is my partner’s family using my family for money? Help!”

I feel like there is a lot of backstory and context here that would be valuable to know, but one suggestion is to revisit and renegotiate current arrangements around money, and see what happens. It sounds like that you (or your family) are already uncomfortable with something about the financial arrangements that are taking place or requests that are being made, and that’s a good enough reason to pull on one of the threads and see where it goes. Do you feel like you are allowed to say “no, we can’t help with that, sorry?” Does it change how your partner’s family treats you?

2. “Should I be upset with a coworker who didn’t donate to a fundraiser in my name?”

Feel however you want, but I don’t think addressing it with the coworker, complaining to other people, or changing the way you interact with them at work is a good idea at all. Be grateful to the people who did donate, and assume the coworker who didn’t had completely understandable reasons that aren’t really your business. Let this one go.

I don’t feel shame about asking for donations here periodically, or for boosting charity stuff or crowd-funding campaigns for friends or causes I’m close to, and I don’t mind at all when people in my life ask me for help with their stuff, but that only works as long as everyone understands that a request is not an order and that gifts are voluntary. For real, the quickest way to make everyone you know go “fuck you and your cause” is to act like they are obligated to give. I also think, personally, that bosses should never ask their employees for charitable donations. Get some friends, boss. Get some friends.

3. “If someone with depression apologises for something they did, do u tell them its not their fault?”

Well, maybe it is their fault. Depression dulls and blunts a person’s ability to function within relationships sometimes, but it’s not an excuse for mean behavior, and we are still ultimately responsible for how we treat other people. If you want to say something comforting in response to the apology, howabout “Apology accepted, thank you.

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