Hello! This is a question that is hopefully less fraught than a few of the other Holiday Questions and I hope will be an easy question for you all to answer.

My partner and I have been living together for over a year and together for much longer than that; it is a thoughtful, committed relationship and I’m very happy. My parents took some time to warm up to him but now like him very much (him wading in (yes, literally) to help at last Thanksgiving’s Sewer Explosion in the Parents’ basement went a long way towards them recognizing how good of a man he really is).

The problem: my family is deeply Catholic (not me) (and in the liberation theology, Nuns on the Bus, Vatican 2 kind of way, which helps). Until my partner and I marry, my parents will not allow us to stay in the same bed. We have no plans of getting married unless there is some extenuating circumstance, and then certainly not in the church.

I haven’t brought it up in the last year or so because 1) I want to respect their beliefs and 2) most of the times we’ve been home, I’ve been sleeping on a couch or with my sister anyway since it’s been for other family events where there’s a full house. But now it’s gone on for a long time, and aforementioned sister yesterday got in a fight with my parents about creating a “boys dorm” and a “girls dorm” for our next family vacation (this also will impact my brother and his girlfriend, who have been together since they were sixteen but also are unmarried). They told her that it’s clearly not an issue since I haven’t brought it up and she’s overreacting. She is not.

Look, I’m not trying to have wild kinky sex under my parents’ roof. I would like for my partner to not have to sleep on the floor (or as happened on other vacations, in a tent outside), and I would like to feel like my parents respect our relationship. How do I broach this topic and make it clear that this does, in fact, bother me, but I’ve thus far respected their wishes — but it is a problem that they don’t seem to respect me or my relationship as responsible, adult, or mature without the parameters of Catholic marriage? Do I even bother? Is this a passive aggressive nightmare waiting to blow up ten years down the road if I don’t say something now?

Help me, Captain Awkward! You’re my only hope!

Grandma’s sleeping in my bed this year anyway so it doesn’t even matter right now

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Dear Captain Awkward:

I’m in my late sixties, and I have some health challenges that mean I’m occasionally caught short and need to use the ladies’ room rather urgently. This happened to me earlier today in a restaurant, where I was in the (single) ladies’ room for about ten minutes. After I’d been in for one minute, someone came and pounded (like, with the side of a closed fist) on the door. I said I’d just be a few minutes, and the pounding stopped. For about another minute, after which time it started up again. I said I was sorry, but that I’d only be a few minutes. I get that I’m not the only one in the world with this issue, but I was being as quick as I could. Really, I was helpless to leave at that point, if you know what I mean. When I was able, I completed my business, washed my hands, and opened the door, to find a woman of thirty-odd standing in the hall with a scowl and a raised fist. “There are four people out here waiting to get in there!” she snarled. (I looked. There weren’t.) “Maybe you should have used the men’s,” I said. “Instead of standing there arguing, why don’t you just get the hell out!” she said. Very loudly. People were looking, though they were trying not to meet my eyes. And I’m not proud of this, but I said, “Why don’t you go fuck yourself?” and collected my coat and purse in a leisurely fashion while she reared back and gave a Victorian-maiden impression over my use of the f-bomb. Nobody in the place would look at me as I left.

I don’t feel like I can ever go back to that restaurant, which is unfortunate, since they make a great scallopini. I feel humiliated, and I feel powerless, because that was the only comeback I could think of. What should I have done?


Dear IBS in CA,

You could have said “WOW” or “EXCUSE YOU” but I think you should take a page from Dame Helen Mirren, who regrets not telling people to “fuck off” more in life.

I feel bad for that lady, in exactly one respect, in that she probably had to use the bathroom really badly and was not her best self in that moment. However, that’s not your fault, abusing you was not the answer, and you don’t have to care about her feelings. Let her clutch her pearls forever while you go back to that restaurant any time you feel like it and eat some scallopini.

Let’s take this as yet another argument in favor of gender-neutral bathrooms.


Captain Awkward

Hi Captain and Army,

I have a problem with my dad’s girlfriend, namely that she tries to guilt-trip me. My dad had a party recently and at the end of it, as I was leaving, she started talking about Thanksgiving. Dad’s girlfriend said she would like to host this year’s Thanksgiving at her place. The guilt-trip was that since I spend every Thanksgiving at my mom’s I could spend the actual day of the holiday once with my dad. She also said that my sister and mother would be welcome to come too. I told her I’d think about it and get back to her.

My parents are divorced and have been separated for over a decade. My mom has custody of both me and my sister and we see our dad on our terms. We both live with her. My sister is estranged from our father and my parents had an awful divorce and make it a point to never be in the same room as each other. I have tried to see my dad on holidays, usually at a day not of the specific holiday, like a day before or after. My dad has a habit of making himself seem like a victim. I like spending the holidays with my mom, because it is more fun and way less full of awkward things and nobody has any bad history shoved under various rugs.

The problem is that I am sick of her guilt-tripping us. Apparently it is a part of traditional Chinese parenting and she is super traditional about everything including family and respecting parents. Both of them want to have picture perfect holidays at all times even if everybody hates each other. I wouldn’t mind seeing them on a day before or after, but when I hear the gross inaccuracies that she obviously got from my dad I don’t want to go at all. I also don’t want to have to smack down either one further guilt-tripping me for not going. If I don’t go, then I stay at my mom’s but if I go then I have to listen to dad’s girlfriend and dad being happy at ‘family’ while seething. I can’t see other family because they live back east and I refuse to be anything more than politely civil to my dad’s brother.

Is there any way I can call her out on her guilt-tripping that will make it stick? She’s tried to do this before. I don’t think my dad will back me up because he used to do it to me too. Should I tell her I can come for Christmas but not Thanksgiving?

Another year of holiday problems

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I am a woman who is a graduate student. One of my fellow students, a man who I’ll call Nigel, takes up a lot of space in seminar. He speaks over people, interrupts, makes noises while other people speak, and doesn’t wait his turn. If unchecked, he will dominate seminar and prevent nearly anyone else from speaking. Nigel doesn’t seem to interrupt other men, but only other women of all ages, including our instructors. Multiple female professors in our department have noticed this behavior and taken steps to correct Nigel. Multiple women and men in our department notice and have commented on this behavior. I know of at least one occasion where one of our peers has said something to Nigel about this behavior. None of this has had an effect on Nigel, and he continues to run roughshod over his peers whenever he is able. The only professor who doesn’t seem to mind Nigel’s constant interruptions is his adviser, Dr. John Smith.

What I am struggling with is a recent turn in my relationship with Nigel. While in the past I’ve managed to hop over this missing stair, things have come to a head and I’m not sure what to do.

Nigel made a point in seminar last week that was incorrect (not to mention offensive). I spoke up, noting the factual error only. He told me that I was wrong, and something in me just couldn’t let it go, so I didn’t. This point applied broadly to my research, and was entirely unrelated to his. In the two classes we have had since this time, he has interrupted me each time I have attempted to participate. Every. Time. This has made it difficult for me to participate, and other people are noticing, which is embarrassing me. I really despise conflict, and I hate to think that this is becoming a ‘thing’–being professional is important to me. At the same time though, I refuse to let a rude dude prevent me from participating.

Today, in seminar, we came to a head–he said something, I disagreed, he told me I was wrong, I disagreed, he attempted to explain something to me, I told him that the issue wasn’t with my knowledge and that I didn’t appreciate it, and Dr. John Smith (his adviser) asked us to ‘agree to disagree’. I feel like instead of seeing the issue with Nigel, Dr. Smith thinks I’m the problem. I was harsh–my exact words were “I don’t need a lesson on this, I have google”. That wasn’t ok for me to say, so maybe I am? He also told me I didn’t know what I was talking about–how do you respond to that?

Captain Awkward, I don’t know what to do. I’m tired of having to learn around Nigel. I’m not sure there is much doing if the professor of this class doesn’t mind or notice that the missing stair is missing at all. I’m frustrated that I am being antagonized, and I’m frustrated with myself for taking the bait. I’m frustrated that I seem shrill or antagonistic. It feels to me that this is much more an issue with Nigel’s professionalism than mine, BUT it has affected mine as well and I’m upset with myself about that. I’m not afraid of letting it be awkward, but I do not want to develop a reputation of being ‘difficult’ in my department.

I am too close to this issue to see straight, so I’m reaching out to you. Any scripts, advice, or suggestions for living with Nigel and managing my own responses to him would be very much appreciated.

Thanks so much,

Grad Student, Interrupted

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I think my partner has a big Geek Social Fallacy problem.

We live together in a small house in an expensive area where lots of people live with parents or roommates. So, ever since before we met, he’s hosted huge blowout theme parties for his entire geeky friendgroup. He always encourages them to bring new people and expand his social circle. Partner enjoys being The Cool Fun Host.

Partner was a late bloomer socially, had terrible ostracizing experiences and some related depression issues, so now he’s trying to make up for lost time. He wants to be as inclusive and welcoming as possible. Which sounds great in theory! He’s big-hearted and just wants everyone to be his friend.

When I first moved in with Partner, I enjoyed these parties — organizing them, coming up with themes. But the more comfortable I became thinking of it as “our house” instead of “partner’s house”, the more protective I’m becoming of my living space. The more I dread the thought of prepping the house for a destructive messy horde of nerds and cleaning up after them and yielding my space for a night. I’m finding I’m enjoying hosting smaller, more controlled gatherings.

On top of this, our good friend recently pointed out a Missing Stair in this friendgroup. Missing Stair has made a few people uncomfortable, and, who knows, may be driving away others. But we just know a couple of anecdotes, and while Partner admits Missing Stair is a jerk, he doesn’t know where he should draw the line. Because inclusivity. And Missing Stair hasn’t done anything egregious and maybe a few people just don’t like him. Partner isn’t comfortable disinviting _anyone_, much less this specific Missing Stair, because he knows how it feels to be uninvited and it’s evil and horrible.

So how wrong and awful does Missing Stair have to be for Partner to disinvite him? And how do we balance how much control over the parties I get to have? Obviously I think Missing Stair should be uninvited right now. But these are still mostly Partner’s parties, even though I help host and I live here too. I hate feeling like I’m trampling all over Partner’s fun and trying control everything now that we live together.

Normally Partner and I are great at communicating, but he has a terrible blind spot here.

— Killjoy

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They’re playing Christmas music in the Walgreen’s near my house, so, here you go.

Hi Captain & Co.,

I need a script for my dad for the upcoming holidays on why I am not spending it with him, and I need a script for my in-laws on why I am likely to be pretty emotional while I try out spending it with them.

Both my parents are alcoholics and my mother is abusive. I stopped going “home” (300mi away) for the holidays at 20 after a physical altercation with my mother on Christmas Eve the previous year. My mother is ill; I spent my teens caring for her, as well as serving as my dad’s only emotional crutch for her abuse (which was worse toward him) while he drank, making him unavailable to me. Among the features of her abuse was to habitually threaten suicide and dramatically self-harm, primarily as manipulation tactic, whenever someone did something she didn’t like.

As their only child I have found those codependent bonds extremely difficult to break. After hashing it out with a therapist I found the thing that was least taxing for me was still to visit, but to put firm boundaries on those visits. Accordingly we have done a strictly sober “Christmas” a week early, which largely avoids the worst of the manipulative nonsense from my mom, and I have spent the holidays themselves blissfully alone for the last five years.

I am now 26 and this year I moved 3,000mi away, which makes travel times more difficult to arrange. I have to go back to my home state to wrap up my graduate degree at the end of December. I do not want to spend the holiday with my parents for obvious reasons. My dad (now sober for five years) is aging and is struggling to remember some of the features of my childhood, and he and my mother have both denied my abuse before, so I do not want to cite that as my reason for not going in case it raises that conversation. He doesn’t have much in his life and I don’t know how to tell him I’m not coming without turning the interaction very negative and conflict-oriented, because I think we both deserve better than that.

On the flip side, I have an incredible, loving boyfriend. His family loves me and I them, and they are *all about Christmas*. I feel great joy and great sorrow when I think about spending the holidays with them. After talking very frankly with my boyfriend about my conflicted feelings, we agreed that I could try to spend the holiday with his family, and I can always bail if I’m not feeling it. He is very supportive of this plan and of whatever I may need, but I feel unsure how to present my potential for ill-timed breakdowns and need for escape plans to his family, who, bless them, could be the default photo in picture frames for how ignorant to struggle they seem to be.

What’s the best way to say “the holidays are triggering for me” to both these parties without saying those actual words?

How Do I Holiday

For your parents:  “I’m going to _______ for the holidays this year.” (Don’t tell them what you won’t be doing, i.e., going home, tell them what you will be doing, and don’t treat it like a big important talk about the underlying issues. Treat it like “hey you should know this so you can make plans.”)

Tell them the information.

Let them intuit the reasons.

And let their reactions be theirs. Him: “I can’t believe you don’t want to spend Christmas with your old man!” You: “Sorry dad, not this year, but I hope you and Mum have a nice day.” + HANG UP PHONE.

Since you’re going back to town anyway, go ahead and have sober holiday (observed) on another day if you want to or don’t if you don’t want to. Take your dad out for breakfast or some other small event if you want to see him (or don’t, if you don’t want to). His memory was selective to begin with and will only fade as he gets older and that’s a hard thing for an abused kid to carry into adulthood, that knowledge that parents can just forget the things they did to you and that that resolution and real honest discussion is probably never coming. When the monsters of your childhood become faded old people with the fight gone out of them, what do you do? How do you find a way to relate? Do you forgive and try to find a way to interact with who they are now or do you hold onto the tight little ball of yourself you’ve been protecting all this time?

I don’t know.

I don’t know.

I think maybe you take it day by day, year by year.

This year, you could send them a nice holiday card (and think about sending them the info about your travel in a card or an email) and remind yourself that it’s not a negotiation. This is for everyone reading: You can spend holidays with whomever you like, including just yourself, if that’s how you want to roll. Family members will have feelings about it, and that’s understandable, but their feelings don’t automatically trump your own. The first time you break tradition is the hardest time, but people do adjust.

Letter Writer, for your boyfriend’s family visit, I suggest that you do your best when you’re there, and if you need to bail, you let your boyfriend smooth it over and explain. If set-up needs to happen, he can do that, too. “You are all so great, but this is LW’s first holiday away from her family and it’s hard for her. She just needs a little space for a bit.” You could also plan time during the visit that is just for you or just for you and boyfriend so that you have some quiet built-in. Or go for one or 2 days, not a multi-day extravaganza, and spend the rest of the time alone. When you’re there, volunteer to run lots of errands at the store, for example, or have your boyfriend take you to see That One Cool Thing In His Town. Be the person who goes to bed really early. Nobody has to know that “bed” is “you quietly reading a book in bed.” Let yourself be a guest, take care of yourself, bring a nice host-gift for his folks to observe the ancient rituals, and let your boyfriend take care of you. Let his care include smoothing over anything that might need smoothing over.

People from fucked up families do not owe people from ‘normal’ families the performance of ‘normality’ or happiness, especially around the holidays. The hot shame and terror you feel when people ask “What are you doing for Christmas” or say “But what about your faaaaaamily!” without realizing that their small talk is your stuff of nightmares is real, and I’m sorry. It’s such a shitty combination of feeling put on the spot, shown up for not being ‘normal,’ maybe with the stab of grief for the memories you *should* have had, and anger at the happy obliviousness of the questioner. Sometimes the best answer is a non-answer, like “we like a very quiet Christmas” (who’s ‘we?’ who cares?) and sometimes it’s “that’s not a very happy time of year for me, but I am glad it is for you” and sometimes it’s “haven’t really made a plan yet, but tell me all about yours?!?” and sometimes the best answer is the naked truth: “My parents are alcoholics and all my worst memories are of Christmas with them. I’m trying really hard to make a new tradition for myself, and thanks to boyfriend I’m happy to be a part of yours this year.” Or “The holidays are triggering for me, and sometimes I can’t always predict how I’ll react.”

Whatever answer is your answer is good enough, and your holiday celebration (or “just another Thursday”) is good enough, and you are good enough, and there are a lot of people out in Awkwardland who feel you and get you and root for you and love you. This year we’re going to have Thanksgiving and Christmas (and other winter holidays that you can nominate in comments) Open Threads on the actual days for people who need a place to vent and collectively off-gas some winter feelings. <3 <3 and <3.

Dear Captain Awkward:

I’ve been reading your blog and I really like your answers. Hopefully you can help me with a problem I’m having. I have no perspective.

I recently remarried (about 5 years ago), and my (second) husband’s parents treat me, and most especially my kids, as though we aren’t family. They don’t even really treat us as guests. It’s more that we’re accompaniments to my husband. He has two brothers, one remarried (but both wives provided ‘actual’ grandchildren), and one married for like 25 years; they, and all of their kids, are obviously all ‘family.’

But my kids and I aren’t. My husband’s mom, when my husband brought this up with her (that I was sad visiting because we weren’t talked to, and because I hoped we’d be part of the family), consisted of: “I’m not going to lose any sleep over (my sadness / my children’s isolation at their house)” and “blood is thicker than water.”

For the first few years, my kids would come with us when we visited, and were basically ignored (they might be asked a question, but then their answers were ignored). Their cousins were talked with, asked about school, etc, conversations ensued. My kids, on the other hand, weren’t treated overtly meanly, they were just ignored. My husband said to me, when I’d say it made me upset: “they don’t care about your kids, they just met them” and “it will take time” (yeah, forever, since nobody talks to us).

So, eventually, I told my kids they didn’t have to go when we go up (they are now 15 and 18, and my mom lives with us, so they can stay here). But honestly, I don’t want to visit either, since I also get ignored; I don’t want to leave my kids behind to be with people who don’t want anything to do with us. (I think this is because my husband is very close to my kids, they see my kids as a threat to the place of his daughter, since she’s ‘really’ family.) Pennsylvania is very different from Virginia in the concept of hospitality and family welcomes, I’m finding.

My husband will say “why do you NEED to belong?” like it’s selfish to want to be a part of the conversation. He says I want it to be “all about me”, but that’s not true, I only want it to be as much about me as it is about everyone. (Normally, he’s wonderful and supportive, but when we get around his family, suddenly he sees the sense in everything they do, and I’m crazy, and I should just be there to support him, and not care if anyone talks to me. He once told me to get out a “puzzle or something interesting” and hope somebody asked me about it as I sat and worked on it alone. He says me bringing up my kids is “pushing them onto people who don’t care.”).

Every Thanksgiving we’ve pretty much always gone to his parents, because my kids are with their dad, and I want my husband to be happy. But it’s harder and harder, after being married almost 5 years, to just sit and be ignored, and then have people be mad at me for not just sitting there contentedly. They’re happy to talk with me as long as I ask questions about them, but they won’t talk about me or my kids with me at all. Not true – they will ask one question about my kids, and when I answer, they change the subject. Like their duty was done, time to move on. So I don’t want to go.

To make matters worse, my husband’s 20 year old daughter, who essentially stopped seeing him once she became 18 (though happily kept taking his money) is going, and I’ll get to watch everyone be so happy to see her, even though she treats her dad so terribly, but then watch nobody ask about my kids, who treat my husband like a dad. I keep going hoping each time will be different, but it never will. I don’t miss my ex, but I sure miss feeling like a part of the family I married into.

So my options are:
a) stay home alone and let my husband and his daughter go be with ‘their’ family (this is the one I’m leaning towards) … sucks because I’d like a nice Thanksgiving with my family too, to begin to create our own traditions;
b) go, and feel isolated (we’ve tried the talking about it, it doesn’t work, this isn’t a family that talks about issues, or I’d want to just talk about it; my first in-laws, I’d talk about problems with them, we’d resolve them) – this is a “put up with it or don’t, but nobody’s changing”; or,
c) ask him not to go (but not really an option; they’re in their 80s, and I’m not going to keep my husband from seeing his parents when they don’t have too much time left).

Can you please help? Just give me a point of view other than mine or theirs? Thank you!

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