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Friendship

Dear Captain,

I live with my partner of several years. I love her very much. We share a lot of hobbies, including a theater club. My partner is *exceptionally good* at theater – a result of a decade of passion – and most of our friends are theater people. But recently I’ve been discovering that her passion – one of her defining qualities – has been making her relationships within this community harder. 

People have been talking to me for about a year now about her long-standing habit of being incredibly bossy, having incredibly high standards for herself and resenting it when other people don’t live up to them, and making it hard to enjoy this activity at all when she’s there with them. One person we’re close to, he worked with her on a performance a few years ago, before I even met her, and he told me that after that performance, he decided never to work with her again because she made the experience unbearable. As I’ve asked around, others (who she respects deeply) have agreed with me that her behavior is fun-killing all around. People I love are no longer participating in events with us because she lacks empathy when dealing with people in a theater context.

Granted, she’s incredibly empathetic – she’s a teacher by trade – but she feels that when she leaves the classroom, she doesn’t want to have to make so much effort just to, I guess, have friends that value her outside of her intellect. Now she has lupus and is in pain a lot of the time, so most of our friends have sympathy for that. But this seems bigger than just being in chronic pain. (Or is it?) 

I have told her what her friends think of her (well most of it), and have pointed out that most of our friends think her behavior is hurtful, undermining, and steamroll-y. She responds that I need to stop caring about what other people think about her. She’s defensive and tells me to ignore what other people think. 

She’s also bossy about other things in our shared life together. Others have interpreted this as abusive, and one person was shocked to see her apparently bark orders at me. (Granted she was in immense pain at the time.)

I regularly check in with myself – I’m a past victim of abuse – but it doesn’t feel the same. It doesn’t feel like abuse. There’s no emotional put-downs, no manipulation, no threats. We’re highly effective communicators except for this issue. There’s raw anger and frustration, and defensiveness, but missiles are never directed at me as a person. She just underrates the amount of pain she causes others in pursuit of our hobby. 

One or two friends have wanted to stage an intervention. These plans never panned out. I’m not sure whether or not to force the issue. She is in therapy, but I think a couple’s counseling session or two surrounding this would be helpful. I’m not entirely sure what could be done other than me saying ‘You hurt me because you make people feel bad when they’re around us by raising your voice, arguing about the finer points of staging or scriptwriting, and being condescending’ and her being like ‘Well, I’m sorry, but that’s who I am.’ 

Thoughts appreciated.

-Bossed-At

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Hi Captain,

I’m worried about one of my friends, who I think is becoming depressed, a cycle I’ve seen her go through before. One of the things that makes me concerned is that she’s been lashing out at me lately and saying some pointed, personal, hurtful things to me. (Mainly being judgmental and critical about, say, my hobbies, or the way I approach my job, or asking how I am and then being very dismissive of my feelings.) As much as I’m worried, her meanness makes me really not want to talk to her or be around her at the moment. She doesn’t acknowledge the things she’s said as being hurtful, and hasn’t apologised which makes it hard for me to feel very accommodating – but knowing how she thinks, I’m sure she’s dwelling on it and feels awful, and bringing it up to clear the air will just feed the jerkbrain.

And yet, as much as I want to avoid her right now, and avoid the possibility of getting stung again, I’m still really worried. I’ve seen her seriously depressed before and I wouldn’t want her to think that if she’s really, truly desperate then she couldn’t reach out for me to help. I’m just not sure how to be supportive when I’m wary that even a message of caring and support could be met with an attack. Do you have any advice?

I do have advice. Surprise! :)

Call out the behavior as it happens. “Hey, that hurt my feelings.” “Hey, that was really out of line.” “Why did you ask me how I’m doing if all you’re going to do is be mean to me?” “That was rude.” And, I don’t think asking for an apology gets you a GOOD apology, but sometimes the act of asking for an apology can be helpful resolving an awkward conversation, in that it at least tells the person what a next step might look like. “That really hurt my feelings, I’d like you to stop saying things like that and also apologize.”

Being called out on crappy behavior might well start a jerkbrain spiral. Nobody likes hearing they are acting like a shitbeast, and if she’s already feeling terrible about herself, being called out on it won’t feel good. But if she’s acting like this because she’s having a depressive episode, she’s going to feel bad no matter what you say, and you putting up with mean behavior is bad for you and not actually helping her. It doesn’t actually feel good to take all of your filters off and just poop negativity onto everyone around you, and it can be a relief to have someone stop you if you can’t stop yourself. It’s honestly weirder and more alienating to have your bad behavior be totally ignored or coddled…like, “Can’t they even tell something is wrong?

Calling out the behavior is a way into the rest of the conversation, where you say “Friend, you’ve been really snarky and mean at me lately, and I don’t care for it. This kind of thing really isn’t like you, but it is like Depressed You.The only other times I’ve seen you acting like this, it’s been because something is very wrong. What’s really going on with you?” + “Can you check in with a counselor or doctor?”

You can make it clear that you don’t want to subject yourself to mean comments, while also telling her you care about her and are concerned for her well-being. It’s hard to be supportive to someone who doesn’t want your support, and it’s hard to be supportive and present for someone who is mean to you, so cut yourself some slack – if she responds to you with an outburst of mean things, it’s okay to get a little distance from her – give it a couple of weeks and then check back in to see if you get a better response, and then maybe go with short, easy hangouts in small doses or whatever you are comfortable with. Being honest about where your own boundaries lie is part of being a good friend.

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Hello Captain!

I’m writing to you about a lady in my friend group who seems to dislike me very much, and makes social gatherings very uncomfortable. Some back story: I started dating my boyfriend Brad about 4 years ago, and hung out with his friend group consisting of his friend from childhood Jake, Jake’s wife Pam, Jake’s brother John, and John’s girlfriend, the lady who now won’t talk to me unless forced, Kayla. (names changed!)

For the first year Brad and I dated, everyone got along! Kayla was warm and friendly, and once when drunk told me that I was “the sister she never had.” Her, Pam, and I would go shopping, talk about comics or feminism, the whole group played cards and went out – things were fine! But then around the same time Kayla and I both moved in to the 3 bedroom apartment Jake, Pam, John, and Brad were sharing, each couple in a room sharing 2 bathrooms and a kitchen, and things deteriorated rapidly.

Simple roommate requests, like “Brad and I have done the dishes twice this week, do you mind taking care of them soon?” became big THINGS for John and Kayla. After any typical roommate issue, they would withdraw to their room, and Kayla would stop speaking to us. We ignored it, chalking it up to social awkwardness, but things got worse. Suddenly Kayla didn’t want us playing with John’s cat. (who, up until this point, was all over the apartment and playing with everyone freely) No reason was given, nothing was said, but suddenly Brad, and mostly me, got nasty looks from Kayla if we picked up the feather toy, and the cat would then be locked up in their room. Soon John and Kayla weren’t even acknowledging us when everyone was in the main room together, or if we bumped into them during the day.

Pam and Jake noticed this change and spoke to John and Kayla privately, and they really made an effort to be more sociable to us for the next few months. Kayla still wasn’t talking to us a lot, but she at least said hello and acknowledged our presence. Then, about a year after everyone moved in together, Brad and I had a small, typical-couple-stuff spat and Kayla was the only other person home. Brad went out to cool down and I was washing my face in the shared bathroom. Kayla walked by and I made a small mention of the spat, and we talked for a bit about long-term relationships; she even seemed warm towards me. Brad and I figured everything out, and everything went on as normal.

But after that day Kayla point blank refused to speak to me or even make eye contact. She was perfectly fine to everyone else in the apartment, including Brad, but now all the antisocial weirdness from before was directed solely at me. If I ran into her and John in the parking lot and said hi, she would look away and walk straight past me, even if John and I were still chatting. At one point we were all at a restaurant and when I sat down, she literally scooted into John’s lap to not sit next to me, and only came off when I moved seats. She blocked me on all social media when prior to this we had all been fairly interactive on Facebook and Twitter, but denied doing so when confronted by Jake and Pam. Jake and Pam eventually stopped inviting her to outings unless she acted nicely, and even then she would sit as far away from me as possible and responded to any attempts at conversation with one-word answers. At this point I had sent a text and also spoken with her face to face, saying that if I had done anything to make her uncomfortable or upset, that I was sorry and would like to reconcile. Over text she said “Sure!” and in person she just smiled and nodded, but nothing changed. I gave up trying to figure things out and let her be, and Brad and I tried to hand out with Pam and Jake alone more often.

Now, another two years later, all of the couples have moved into apartments of our own, but things are still distinctly weird when everyone gets together. I have tried to speak to Pam, who is close with Kayla, and she has said that Kayla tells her she likes me and everything is fine. She still has me blocked on all social media and when questioned by Pam, said she forgot to undo the blocking. However when we all hang out Kayla will ignore me in the conversation but exuberantly engage with the others. Even if I am included in the conversation, she will address them as if I am not there, even in conversations about things Brad and I now share like our apartment, car, cats, etc. I feel like I’m intruding on conversations about my own life, and it’s frustrating and hurtful. Ultimately Kayla has the right to dislike me whatever the reason, and I don’t want her do anything she doesn’t want to do. However I’d like to be able to engage with my friends about mine and Brad’s life without someone essentially denying my involvement in it.

I feel like I’ve done everything I can to address this, and to do more would just be unnecessary drama. Do you and the awkward army have any advice on how I should proceed?

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Matt Smith as The Doctor, holding a baby (Stormageddon)

“Evan, Stormageddon did not appreciate your last remark.”

Dear Captain Awkward:

My husband is very expressive of his emotions; the problem is, he’s also very subtle about it. I’ve had half-joking chats with his BFF (we’ll call him Adam) about the subtle distinctions between the sigh that means “I’m pretending to be offended because you’re playfully teasing me” and the sigh that means “I’m actually really hurt but I don’t want to make a scene”; it’s as clear as day to me and Adam, but sounds identical to onlookers. My BFF, Evan, is one of those who can’t read my husband at all; recently, he approached me and mentioned that it makes him uncomfortable when I call my husband out on emotions Evan didn’t even notice he was feeling because it feels like I’m telling him what he’s feeling when I’m actually just echoing back what I’m seeing on his face. 

The way my husband and I work, it helps tremendously if I stop and question him when I’m getting signals that he’s not okay, so we can resolve the issue immediately and not let it fester. I’m very grateful Evan said something, however, because I suspect other friends are also uncomfortable. How can I address my husband’s emotions when I’m the only one who can tell them apart without making people think I’m making things up, seeing what’s not there, or generally neurotic and anal?

For example: The three of us (Me, my husband, and Evan) were out to lunch and Evan and my husband were playfully teasing each other. Evan said something that actually bothered my husband, and he went into his (subtle) withdraw-and-sulk routine. I knew he’d feel bad all lunch and barely participate in the conversation, so I tried to comfort him,  but he rebuffed me, so then I felt kind of bad myself. Evan was highly uncomfortable, but he characterized the event as my making a big deal out of nothing and making both of us upset. I pointed out that my husband was upset by the teasing first, and Evan was shocked to realize that he’d hit a nerve at all, and immediately apologized. That ended well, but I feel like I handled it badly. It’s like the three of us were in two totally different conversations: my husband and my perspective, and Evan’s perspective. I really don’t want to come across how I do in Evan’s perspective, but I’m not sure how to clue him in without sounding like a control freak. 

Got any scripts for this?

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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?

 

 

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