Hello, Captain,

Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!

Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?

One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?

More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.

Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.

The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.

She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?

Auntie Out of State

Dear Auntie Out Of State,

Re: Your Quick Aside:  I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.

As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.

Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:

Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.

It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:

  • Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
  • Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS!  If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
  • Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
  • Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
  • Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.

Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.

Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards  – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.

Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.

How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.

Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.

She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.

Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.

Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.

*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.

 

Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.

We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”

Hey Captain Awkward,

Here is my dilemma:

I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.

She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.

She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.

After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.

Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.

Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.

I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.

I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?

Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,
— S.

Dear S,

You gotta leave M. alone. 

I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and you tried to be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. would talk it over one more time and maybe give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone. 

We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.

That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every single past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her again.”

Her silence now is a way of making that space when asking didn’t work.

Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space (a thing she tried several times), but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. What is there to explain? She’s been pretty consistent with you from the start and it’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.

Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out just outside the gates trying to have just one more conversation about what kind of fish to put in the moat.

So where do you go from here? You can decide that M. is incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.

In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic to “punish” her. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at considerable expense? 😉 And let her do the same, without having to manage your feelings!

Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.

As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. It won’t go back to how it was before, a little friendliness from her absolutely will NOT be an indication that she’s changed her mind and is now Into You That Way, but chances are it won’t always be quite so tense. If and only if: You give her space.

(And if you hear that she’s broken up with her boyfriend at some future point? KEEP GIVING HER SPACE. We don’t forget when people close to us tell us they are in love with us, if she ever wants to talk about that again you will know because she seeks you out and brings it up. If she doesn’t talk about it, assume she’s not feeling it.)

I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out, turned out the lights, and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.

Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?” 

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The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.

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Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX near Waterloo station, 7th December, 1pm onwards.

(Please note change of meeting time, 1pm rather than 12.  Also we will be on level 5)

This will be our 7th anniversary (!) as well as Christmas etc. party.

Please bring food to share.  Any type of food is fine, but please make sure you bring the ingredients list so that people can avoid things if they need to.  Also if it’s messy food please bring plates/napkins, if it needs cutting please bring a knife, etc.

The venue sell food in a cafe (standard sandwiches etc.), but they also don’t mind people bringing food in from outside. There are several other local places where you can buy stuff as well. The excellent food market outside has loads of different food options, which can fit most requirements, or you can also bring a packed lunch.

Meet on the fifth floor, facing the river, hopefully towards the left hand side (go up in lift 2 or 3)

Here is the accessibility map of the Royal Festival Hall: PDF map

I have shoulder length pink hair and glasses, and I will bring my plush Cthuhlu, which looks like this: 

The venue is accessible via a lift, and has accessible toilets with options for all genders. Waterloo tube station has step free access on the Jubilee line but not on the Northern line.

The London Awkward group has a Facebook page, which is here: https://www.facebook.com/groups/549571375087294/. There is also a thread in the new forums for saying hello.

My email is Kate DOT Towner AT Gmail DOT com

January meetup will be on the 11th.

Hi Captain,

Low-stakes question here.

I (she/her) have an old, dear friend (she/her) who has recently taken up a new art form. From my limited experience, it seems like she’s really good at it! But the subject matter hits on a relatively common phobia I have – let’s say she paints enormous, detailed portraits of spiders. Not offensive in any way, super cool for some people, but totally makes my skin crawl.

For now, I’ve muted her on social media and make some time every week when I’m feeling cozy and safe to scroll through and look for non-spider content. She’s an active poster about her art and her life and I like to catch up with the latter, plus she takes it pretty personally when her close friends don’t comment on heartfelt posts.

We live in different places so I haven’t had to see her art in person, but I’ll be visiting her city soon. How can I bow out of the personal exposition she’s offered while still making it clear that I love her and support her work? Likewise, should I say anything about my social media approach?

Sincerely,

Arachnophobic Friend

Hello and thanks for the question.

You sound like a wonderful, considerate friend who does a lot to cheer for and support your friend’s artwork, bravo!

I think it’s absolutely okay to disengage from art that scares you.

I think it’s okay to disengage from art you plain old don’t like, even if a friend made it.

Also, I think that you generally do not have to explain unfollows/filters that you use to make social media more pleasant and safe for you. It’s unlikely that your friend has even noticed your personal lack of response to SPIDER SPECTACULAR 2019, but if she has that’s the perfect opening for the conversation you need to have, not a reason to remove the safety net. Edited To Add: A Twitter friend suggests possibly asking artist to carefully tag all spider-related social posts so that you can easily filter the tag.

What if you told your friend something like, “Friend, you are so talented and I love your work, but [topic] freaks me out. I really want to see some of your pieces in person when I visit, but if you don’t want to have to peel me off the ceiling or split the difference between ‘aversion’ and ‘phobia’ in real time, I’d appreciate a) detailed warnings and b) being able to skip [topic]-related stuff. Can you work with me and curate all the non-[topic] pieces? I’d love to see those.”

This person likely knows what a great friend you are, how good you are at supporting and showing up for them, and that you wouldn’t bring this up if it weren’t serious, so it should be well-received. If you get a “Whoa, are you saying I shouldn’t make art about ____?” reaction, try “Oh no! You should make art about anything and everything you want to. It’s not you, it’s definitely the spiders, and how vividly you’ve rendered them is a testament both to your talent and my extremely specific terror, which you had no way of knowing about.” 

I hope it’s a good visit and you don’t have to put any spiders (etc.) in your eyes.

 

I wrote a piece for VICE about taking good care of yourself during holiday visits with family. We’re at work on the sequel about hosting holiday visits that people won’t have to write to internet advice columns about.

The therapist I spoke with for the Vice piece, Rae McDaniel, is a delight and had so many quotable bits besides “Discomfort is not harm” and “You’re not going to be able to buy groceries at the hardware store” that had to be cut for space, so I want to direct you to their online coaching practice for people who want a safe place to explore gender in case that’s a thing that would interest you or someone you love. Lott Hill, a former colleague of mine quoted in the article, also had some beautiful things to say during our interview that we couldn’t include. He and I talked a lot about college students who were in the process of coming out or exploring gender identity and sexuality and who felt afraid to go home,  and this is one piece of advice that sticks with me about what parents can do to affirm and welcome their kids:

“Encourage any parent at any opportunity to tell their children that they are proud of them and appreciate them. If something terrible happens that’s unavoidable, like a relative goes off despite being told what’s unacceptable behavior, a parent can check in later and make it clear to their child that they don’t agree even if they couldn’t speak up in that moment: ‘I don’t agree with what your Grandma said and I love you very much.’

Remind parents that for the majority of their child’s life, they’ve been protective of that child in whatever setting that child is in, don’t forget that you’re still in a position that you can protect your child with as much strength and awareness and compassion as you’ve always protected that child. You don’t have to speak for them, but you can intervene and protect them at a very vulnerable times in their lives.”

❤ Imagine a holiday celebration where everybody tells everybody else: “I’m proud of you and happy to see you.” What a wonderful world it could be.

On a related topic, this Asking Bear column: “My home is unsafe for me to explore my gender. What do I do?” is extremely good. I completely hate that it’s necessary to strategize and work at “surviving” a situation, but S. Bear has very good advice for getting through.

It’s also a good day to mention that Scarleteen is offering donors a preview of their ADORABLE and HIGHLY USEFUL sex ed zine. Need an affirming, funny, safe way to articulate just what the heck it is you even think about sex? This is a great tool for that and a great cause.

Hope everybody’s staying warm and that your holidays are the good kind of awkward. I’ll be back to regularly scheduled advice programming very shortly.

It’s time for the monthly feature where I answer the things people typed into their search engine before they wound up here as if they are questions. These come in completely anonymously and context-free.

A few links before we get started:

  1. Dear Mantis on Twitter: Great advice column or GREATEST ADVICE COLUMN?
  2. Our beloved Goat Lady has made some big changes and is chronicling them here.
  3. Podcast Listener People: I was a guest on the Fat Like Me Podcast, answering questions about how the holidays bring out everyone’s food & body weirdness. Come for the question from the woman whose boyfriend was suggesting she cook a holiday feast for his fatphobic parents (NOPE) and stay for questions like “Is it okay to show off arms/legs at company holiday party by wearing a cute minidress” (YES).  I don’t know if the story of The Last Time I Ever Wore Spanx made it into the final edit, but talking to Cass is always a great time.

Now, as traditional, a song to take us into the search terms:

Lyrics here.

Also bonus song sent by a reader, I’ve been listening to it basically nonstop because it is so pretty:

And now for the main event!

1) “When to leave an ex alone.”

If your ex has asked you to leave them alone, that’s easy: You leave them alone 100% of the time, forever, to the very best of your ability.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you share parenting of minor children, you can still respect their wishes. Good ways to do this: Follow the custody agreement to the letter, be pro-active about anything to do with time, paperwork, and money so it only has to be done once and nobody has to chase anybody down, and stick to the least-intrusive possible way of communicating about non-emergency child-topics as they come up. The rest of the time, you leave them alone.

If an ex has asked you to leave them alone, but you work at the same place and must interact sometimes, you direct all non-essential communications to fellow team members if at all possible, you give them space, and when you absolutely have to interact you keep it polite, brief, and 100% about work topics. Be professional, don’t make things harder than they have to be. Outside of work? Leave them alone!

If an ex has never specifically asked you to leave them alone but also, they never initiate contact with you, are slow to respond to communications from you (and respond tersely when they do), they do not invite you places, include you in social events, or seek your company, then it’s probably time to stop trying to forge a friendship (or whatever you’re after) here. “But they said they wanted to stay friends!” A lot of people say that, many of them mean it sincerely, and yet: Are they acting like they want to be friends? No? Then leave them alone.

If they’ve never asked you to leave them alone and seem quite happy to stay in touch, but being around them makes you feel bad because you’re not over the relationship and/or because things that happened during the relationship are still upsetting you, and you feel like you’re having to force yourself to stay in touch, maybe give yourself the gift of not hanging out with people who routinely make you feel bad, and leave your ex alone!

When in doubt, leave your ex alone! Unfollow their social media, disengage from keeping tabs on them, and spend that energy on people who actively want to enjoy your company in the present and the future. Your ex knows how to reach you if they’d like to reconsider.

Related Content: 

2) “Is it weird to want to reach out to an ex after years” and 3) “I want to get coffee with an ex.”

“Weird” is very subjective. It’s certainly not unusual to want to reconnect with an ex if how often this comes up in the search terms, the awkward mailbox, and the odd “hey I was just thinking about you” popping up in my dms a couple times a decade are indicators.

“Not weird”/”Not unusual” aren’t the same as “A Very Good Idea That I Endorse!,” so how’s this for a few guidelines for making it less weird?

  • Assume the other person has not been thinking about you as much as you have been thinking about them (as in, they might not think about you at all).
  • Be honest with yourself about your hopes and intentions.
  • If things ended relatively amicably and you think this person might be open to having coffee or catching up briefly online, then ask, once. 
  • Ask in a way that’s straightforward and easy to say “yes” or “no” about. “Hey, I’m going to be in town over the holidays, if you’ll be around can we meet for coffee?” “Hey, I found a bunch of old photos and recordings from that band we were in together, can I mail you copies?” 
  • If they say yes, then enjoy the coffee or the catch-up. If the person says “no thanks,” leave it there. You broke up for a reason, you made the one attempt, now you know!
  • Back to those intentions: Don’t be sketchy with yourself or others in your life, especially current romantic partners. Does “just catching up with an old friend” mean lying  to somebody about something? That’s a good sign to Just Not!
  • Speaking from experience both personal and forged in the fire of 1,000 Awkward Mailbox letters: If you’ve recently become single and you think your long-ago ex would be the best sympathetic, comforting sounding board for you as you process your feelings about life, love and loss, it’s possible The Highwomen wrote a song for you.
  • If any of this seems harsh please note: The search string wasn’t “how do I reconnect with a friend who is also an ex” –  if these people were friends, they’d already be friends.

:brief musical interlude:

(Lyrics)

4) “Fourth date and he hasn’t kissed me.”

There is exactly one person on earth who knows if “he” is not particularly attracted to you vs. he is into you but nervous about kissing you for the first time vs. he is not comfortable with taking the expected role where “he” = “common initiator of kissing stuff”  vs. he’s  asexual/demisexual and not particularly into kissing or needs a lot of time to know if he is into kissing you, specifically vs. he’s at home wondering why you haven’t made the first kissing-sort-of-move in his direction.

If you’ve been enjoying the dates so far and would like to see if Kissing Each Other is a thing that “he” is into, it’s probably time for you to ask him about it. “Would it be okay if I kissed you?” or “I’ve enjoyed going on these dates with you, would you be interested in some kissing?” are possible ways to do that, I hope you get a clear and mutually satisfying answer.

5) “He realized he cant handle a relationship right now.”

That’s a breakup. You are broken up. Grieve the possibility and move on,  he knows how to find you if he changes his mind. I’m so sorry.

6) “My friend told me I was obsessing over a guy.”

Are you obsessing over a guy?

If yes, is your friend trying to tell you:

a) The fixation is noticeable to others and your friend wants you to be aware so it doesn’t get embarrassingly out of hand (for instance, you all work together) or unhealthy for you (i.e. your friend is saying, ‘being this intense about someone is worrying them or unlike you, are you sure you’re ok?’).

b) Your friend wishes to hear much, much less about said guy.

c) Both a and b, i.e. a) “reign it in” and b) “find another sounding board, please. “

If no, why does your friend think that you are? (Plus, see (b) above). These are very good questions to ask yourself and your friend!

6) “Talking and treating your adult kids with baby voices.”

My entire body recoiled from this, but I’m back.

If you were to say, “[Parent], I’m [age]. I have a mortgage. I have a will. I have at least three distinct types of insurance. Can you please stop with the baby voice?” 

What would happen? Would they stop? Or would you get: “But I’m your [parent] and you’ll always be my liddle-widdle babykins!” 

Because to that you could try saying, “I understand that you remember when I was a baby very fondly, but I don’t remember that (’cause I was… a baby), and it’s very distracting to try to have an adult conversation when you use that [voice][nickname] with me. Can you just talk to Adult Me, A Grownup That You Successfully Raised, from now on?” 

They either will or they won’t. If that affects how you perceive your relationship and how much you want to spend time being baby-talked at, so be it, that’s a choice they are making and you have choices, too.

There are tactics that can help over time, like ignoring requests that are made in the baby voice and responding to ones that are made in a normal speaking voice (giving attention for good behavior and removing it for bad), reminders (“[Parent], we talked about this, you know I really hate the baby voice, so why are you still doing it?”). It will probably get worse before it gets better, and for that, I am sorry. Stay firm, this is worth fighting about.

7) “I am so tired of hearing my husband complain about his job.”

Periodic venting about work and asking for emotional support and advice about work and career stuff are pretty routine, reasonable partner-things to do with a spouse, but there are limits.

Signs it’s gone too far:

  • The partner spends their workday at Horrible Job and then your entire evening together is spent Reliving Horrible Job and the whole weekend is about Dreading Horrible Job.
  • You find yourself thinking, “But I don’t have to work there, so why do I feel like I do?”
  • Sharing the problem doesn’t seem to release tension or make the person feel better, the venting feeds on itself and the person gets more and more irritable as they go.
  • Bonus: Their irritability about work becomes irritability with you.
  • The venting is repetitive and unchangeable. Today’s bad work thing reminds them of every bad work thing that’s ever happened, and once a rant has started the person resists subject changes to the point it starts feeling (to you) like a ritual that cannot be interrupted once it’s begun. What is this for?
  • You’ve of course done the “Do you want advice or do you just want me to listen?” check-in before giving any advice, they choose “advice” sometimes, and now the nightly venting ritual includes arguing with you about why your advice is bad/impossible.
  • Nothing at work gets better, and you start to feel as stuck in the relationship dynamic as they do in the job.

I want to make it super-clear that both Mr. Awkward and I have been the “And ANOTHER THING about [adjuncting][customer service]!!!!!!” person and the “Babe, quit or don’t, but we can’t have this conversation even one more time” person in the last seven years and this is because capitalism sucks.

Some things that readers have suggested/Some things that have helped me, personally, ruin fewer evenings with endless workfeelingsdump are:

  • Create a structure for work-talk. Some people literally set a timer – you get 5 minutes, I get 5 minutes, we go back and forth for 10, then we try to stop talking about work for the day. Adapt that or find something else that works for you (I, personally, do not use the timer) with the caveats that setting limits or designing a structure doesn’t mean that work is never discussed at any other time, or that you have to make formal appointments, etc., with each other for support or venting, or that there’s never a reason to dig in for a good long discussion. When it works, it hopefully interrupts a daily, unsustainable cycle where one person auto-dumps and the other person dreads it/avoids it/tunes out of it/endures it, and replaces it with a predictable routine where everybody gets to vent some, everybody gets the expectation of being listened to with full attention some, and there is an agreement in place to fight, together on the same team, the notion that The Problem Of The No-Good Terrible Job always has to be the focus of the time you spend together.
  • Reclaim the time. If you try setting limits about how often work talk can be happening, reframe it away from “SHOULDn’t I be more supportive?”/”But isn’t it a partner’s JOB to listen?” and toward “Look, if we spend the whole day working and the whole evening talking about work, it’s like the job stole both your day and our night, too. We have to set limits on how much of our time and energy that place gets to have during unpaid hours!” You’re not a terrible spouse if you need to vent about your job, you’re not a bad, unsupportive, mean, selfish spouse if you do not want to mentally work four+ additional hours at your spouse’s job for every eight hateful hours they spend there. This dynamic is worth re-designing.
  • Practice opening the floodgates and closing them again, even if there is more to say. In film and theater we talk about “putting a button” on the end of a scene, which means finding an action or line (or lighting cue, cut, transition) that signifies that this beat is done for now, but still leaves the story open to continue. Maybe this concept can help with refiguring how you end difficult discussions, which is not a thing that comes naturally? As in, once discussion time is over, can you decide to physically move into a different room and purposely start a different, pleasurable activity together (put your feet up, watch a TV show, play with the pets) or separate for a little while and do solo self-care stuff (take a shower, practice piano, take a bike ride or walk, take some quiet time to read or play computer games)? There may be more to say, but honestly, you don’t have to rehash every work problem from the beginning or solve it all in one go every single time you talk about it, this is a hard but extremely worthwhile lesson to learn, plus I generally suck at task-switching and find that moving into a different room to end one thing and start something new makes it easier.
  • Give credit and acknowledgement and love often. Sometimes the least worst option (assuming everyone would like to keep eating and living indoors) is to keep going to a bad job with the knowledge that you’re not going to be able to change it or fix it or suddenly stumble on or invent a new one any time soon. In that case, validating oneself (“Everything sucks but I am doing my best I can in an unfixable situation”) and each other (“I know it sucks, and I can see how hard you work to keep your integrity in a difficult situation, I’m proud of you”) can go a long way.

Set some limits, redirect some conversations, offer what support you can, be gentle with yourselves and each other.

If you’re the serial venter with the bad job, here are some resources for getting out of it/enduring it until you can: 

And here’s my two-cents from having been that person:

Practice converting complaints into action, even silly action. Sometimes complaining is healthy and necessary to define problems, process emotions, and let my Team Me into what’s going on in my life. Other times, I get in anxiety loops where the more attention and words I give the problem without doing anything about it, the worse I feel. When I catch myself in an unhappy cycle where nothing is improving, I’m sick of the problem and myself, and I can feel the people who love me are maxing out on soothing noises, I write down my complaints, and then for each one I write down something I could do about it, including both realistic action steps and total absurdities.

Maybe today isn’t the day I can [take rational, reasonable, positive steps to further my career] but it’s also the day I successfully did NOT [quit without notice by yelling “Good luck, fuckers!” and rappelling dramatically down the building][Smuggle in a live goose as an offering to HONK, the God of Mayhem], go me! Sometimes having that snapshot of actionable vs. absurd helps me begin sorting out whether anything can be done and in what order. On the occasions it doesn’t, at least I amused myself momentarily and didn’t ruin another evening dumping it all in Mr. Awkward’s lap without preamble. Some days that’s the best we can do.

Create rituals around ending the workday and re-entering “home” or “relationship” space. Example: When I was teaching full-time, I’d sometimes have 12 hours in a row of teaching and meeting with students, with 20 minutes here and there to check emails, wolf down a food, and use the restroom before the next class. On good days, nobody followed me into the bathroom to try to pitch me their projects or ask about their grades through the stall door!

When I came home after a day like that, I needed to take the bra off, put on pajamas, wash my face, and be unavailable to every living being for 15-30 minutes of quiet. I couldn’t be a listener in that mode, and if I started talking, I might not ever stop. Once I figured that out, on days I gave myself permission to take that time and space, I would be a much better [human cat bed and servant][wife][dining companion][self-regulator of emotional workspew] then when I did not. If you and your spouse don’t have your own versions of coming inside and donning your snappy indoor cardigan and tennis shoes, think about making some. I think it helps with the whole “we are not on Work Time right now” project.

8) “My boyfriend keeps accusing me of still being married to my ex.” 

I am assuming a) you are NOT still married to your ex and b) you have told your boyfriend this with words? If so, what we have here is a boyfriend problem.

Feeling jealousy sometimes is human.

Making wild, untrue accusations, repeating these accusations even when they’ve been corrected, and using jealousy as a reason to question a partner’s integrity and control their behavior is what’s known as a red flag.

I don’t even know how to fashion a script for this, but I’ll try:

“I’m not still married to my ex, the fact that you still bring it up is incredibly weird and upsetting. 

If worrying about this is occupying your thoughts to the point that it’s affecting how you feel about our relationship, please seek counseling, but I’m not discussing it with you again. Stop.” 

If he brings it up after that? Someone who questions reality in a way designed to upset and blame you is unlikely to result in a safe or healthy long-term partnership. Abort!

9) “Should I tell my parents I’m gay before I get married.”

Methinks you were searching for this prior post on how to share news that 1) I’m gay 2) I’m married!.

tl;dr: Wedding announcements: So useful!

If that’s the case, it seems like a good time to talk to your fiancé(e) about coming out to family before the wedding, who (if anyone from the family) should get this information and be invited to the wedding, and who would be better off with a nice wedding announcement after the fact. Decide together with your future spouse how you want to handle everything for maximum safety and comfort, and then work from there.

If you are gay but you are about to marry a straight person who thinks you are also a straight person, BEFORE THE WEDDING is the time to have that conversation (even if that conversation is “I’m sorry, we need to cancel the wedding, this is a mistake“), whether or not you can safely come out or loop in your parents right away. I don’t know anyone who has done this specific thing before the wedding personally, but I have seen more than one marriage where the people in it learned the hard way that nothing painful gets LESS painful after “I do,” a breakup that needs expensive government paperwork, and a party with lots of photos to remind you how sad and scary and lonely it felt to go through with it even when you knew it was doomed. ❤ and courage.

10) “My professor is so hard to reach through email.”

Professors vary wildly in their preferences around email and what constitutes a reasonable timeframe for expecting a response. Some people will get right back to you, some people will write back within the week, some will wonder why you don’t just come to office hours, already, some really wanted to write back to you but they are adjuncts on a semester contract and their access to the system auto-locked them out the second the grades posted.

In ye olden days of the mid-1990s, I went through undergraduate study without ever emailing a professor that I can remember (I think my senior year is when they started issuing faculty email addresses that students could know about) and I’ve studied with and taught alongside some folks who act as if those days are still happening.

Here are my suggestions if you have a professor who is routinely non-responsive to email:

  1. Email them anyway. This spells out the question or request and documents that it was made in the first place.
  2. This seems like a good time to re-link the basic guide to emailing professors
  3. If your question is about the course subject matter, revisit: The syllabus, your notes & readings, talk to classmates and see if it’s in their notes. Give it your best shot. Best case you answer it yourself, the worst that happens here is you end up with a way more specific question when the prof does respond.
  4. If your question is about course logistics (due dates, something is unclear on syllabus, what’s going to be exams, etc.) double-check syllabus and course materials and check in with the [teaching assistants][the most diligent note-takers in the class, at least one of whom you should befriend if at all possible]. Maybe they can help you.
  5. #3 & #4, translated: Assume that due dates on the syllabus are still real, assignments as described are still the assignments, even if your professor doesn’t respond. A lot of students email their professors and then stop working on anything until they get an answer, which, I get why they do this, but professors working on the old “I talk to students in class and then during office hours, that should cover it!” model do not think this way, so I advise asking your question and then proceeding as best you can with the work based on the information you have. Revisions of imperfect work that was handed in as spelled out in the syllabus > opening negotiations around late work with someone who is bad at responding to questions.
  6. Go class and to office hours if you possibly can. If you can’t, make an appointment to meet face-to-face. If the problem is that you can’t physically be in class or attend office hours, and/or your question is time-sensitive try: calling the number on the syllabus and/or calling the department phone to leave a message for them, or asking a classmate who can attend to carry a note/question for you.
  7. Ask politely if they prefer another way of being contacted. “I sent an email about _____ and haven’t heard back yet, is it okay to send another email if I have more questions about ______, or do you prefer the phone for things like that?” “Making it to office hours is hard for me, it conflicts with another class, can I make an appointment to meet before our lecture to go through [my paper draft][review difficult material], or could we set up brief phone conference?”
  8. Sometimes department admins have the cheat codes, and speaking with them in person (do not put anything in writing that you wouldn’t want forwarded to the person you’re writing about) can unlock the secrets of the Eldritch Ways. Script: “I’ve been trying to email Professor ______, and I’m not hearing back, is there another good way to get in touch about [thing you need]?” Sometimes the admin will gently put a metaphoric boot in the person’s ass on your behalf, sometimes they’ll direct you to that person’s teaching assistant/minder and sometimes they’ll tell you stuff like “Oh, ____ is terrible at email, anything I want them to see I write on a piece of paper and shove under their office door. If you’re a student, include your name, what class and section it is, your phone number and a good time to call you back, it usually takes a day or two, but they will respond.” 
  9. Probably get someone else to write time-sensitive recommendation letters?
  10. There might be contact info for a “department coordinator” or “course coordinator” listed on the syllabus. If the above tactics aren’t getting it done, try a note to that person, as in: “Dear _____, I am a student in [course][section] with [professor]. I had a family emergency and will need to miss class on ____. I’ve emailed Professor ___ to arrange makeup work/handing in late work and have not heard back yet. Are you someone who can let him know that I won’t be there this week, and do you have suggestions for getting in touch by phone or some other way to sort out due dates?” 
  11. Be polite and professional, even if you’re frustrated, especially with anything that’s in writing. If this becomes a grade dispute or something where the department needs to be looped in, the more the emails you’ve sent read like “Hello, this is a polite, reasonable person who asks good questions in a timely manner,” the more it will go your way. If these people work with your bad-at-email professor all the time, trust me, they know how bad it sucks.

11) “Family member always canceling plans.”

In the absence of history, context, or reasons (disability/illness? small kids? money?transportation issues? family disputes/history? other logistics) here are some things I suggest for handling someone who routinely cancels plans:

  • Talk to ’em directly about it and ask questions. “I want to keep including you and trying to see you, but you keep cancelling. Is there some reason that’s happening that I don’t know about? Is there something we could do to make attending easier for you?” 
  • Change up the plans. Maybe you go to them instead of inviting them to you, maybe you try something last minute if advance-planning is hard to commit to, maybe a quick drink or coffee or running an errand together > a big family gathering.
  • Take a break from making plans for a while, at least, stop taking the lead on making plans, and put the ball in their court. “I’d love to see you, and I’m happy to work around your schedule, why don’t you let me know when you can definitely get together and we’ll work something out then.” “You’re always invited, if you know can’t make it for some reason, it helps a lot if you give me as much lead time as possible.”
  • Don’t plan things with this person that require advance tickets or deposits if you have a history of having to eat the cost of those things when they can’t come.
  • Plan things that don’t depend 100% on their attendance. One way to do this is to lock in reliable people and then include the frequent canceller in those plans once they’re set, i.e. “X, Y, and Z are going to see Knives Out at 3pm Sunday at [theater], with an early dinner at [place] right after. Feel free to join us, everyone’s just gonna snag their own ticket and meet up at the theater, so just grab yourself a ticket and text me on the day if you want us to save you a seat.” This gives the person the chance to opt in and you the chance to enjoy yourself without banking on them.
  • If it’s not okay with you when someone cancels, stop pretending that it is. Stop saying “no problem” when it is a problem. People can have very good reasons for needing to cancel, we can be accommodating and understanding of those reasons, and it can still hurt like hell when it happens routinely. If you find yourself saying “no problem” around this a lot (and then quietly seething), try replacing it with “Oh no! I was really looking forward to seeing you, so I hope you’ll reschedule when you’re able.” 

This question and its mirror (“I am the person who has to keep cancelling plans, for Reasons, and I’m afraid of losing all my relationships, but I just can’t guarantee that it will be different next time”) carry a lot of fear: fear of rejection, of losing connections, of looking bad, of being considered “too flaky” or “too rigid,” of imbalance/lack of reciprocity, of being the person who has to do all the work of maintaining relationships (“Would anyone even like me if I didn’t host/plan all the things?” is a variant I see a lot, as well as “Everyone stopped inviting me places and I’m pretty sure it’s my fault for saying no 100 times in a row, but how do fix it?” ), of shame around money (“I want to go but I can’t afford it”), of ableist messages (“They would be here if they really wanted to come”).

It sucks, and sometimes the best we can do is to speak honestly about what we want and need, find ways to convey affection and stay connected even when face-to-face hangouts aren’t working, set each other up to succeed as much as possible, enjoy relationships even if they aren’t perfectly balanced, take breaks from working on unworkable problems when we need to and leave the door open a little (even when it would be fair to shut it for a while) when we can.

No comments today. May upcoming holidays be restful and celebratory.