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Friendship

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?

 

 

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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