Hello lovely readers!

Whenever I write about family estrangement, setting boundaries with family members, difficult parents, etc. a) I’m usually answering a bunch of letters in one, if that makes sense, like, there are many of this kind of question so I am picking one to tackle at length and b) immediately afterward I get an influx of letters that are like “Hey, MY family is a lot like the Letter Writer’s, but also different, can you help me unpack the situation?” 

This is not a bad thing, I appreciate the letters and comments so much – we are not alone, I am so glad people are seeing patterns and finding the posts helpful! – but also I know 100% that I am not going to get to the influx of similar questions on the site or with a personal reply, and I’m reasonably sure that I’m not going to make any more posts about specifically this topic for at least the next month or so. I’d like to invite folks in similar straits to comment on the open discussions ( #1247 & #1248) and also refer back to this omnibus collection of past posts and summary of the best of the existing “family boundary” advice. Everybody’s situation is obviously unique (heeeeeey Tolstoy, hey!) but my overall approach and suggestions for scripts and strategies is probably going to be covered somewhere in that mix in a way that you can hopefully take to your own support system and tailor for your own purposes.

If you think online peer support around a sticky family situation would help you, the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com are back up after some temporary technical difficulties (I am told), and there are many communities on Reddit (r/raisedbynarcissists, r/CaptainAwkward are a few that come to mind) where people discuss these topics with a lot of gentleness and encouragement. If readers have suggestions for additional off-site “this is a good place to hang out and talk about this stuff” spots, that would be useful – email me those and I’ll add them to the list.

Let me leave you with one reminder: It’s not your job to fix every relationship or clean up every mess in your family, even if you could. (You can’t). Even when we’re armed with all the best advice, planning, strategies, counseling, support from safe friends and loved ones, safety plans, boundaries, kindness, patience, good intentions, etc. fraught family relationships can stay a total mess. Even when the worst of it stops (usually ’cause we grew up and got out), some people will never be what we need. Some people will never make us feel all the way good or relaxed. Some places will always feel haunted, and some situations will always have us double-checking under the bed or behind the shower curtain or between the lines for danger. The absence of danger is no less eerie! No monsters under the bed this time, but are the dust bunnies filled with menace? No monsters in the closet, just these wire hangers. The yellow wallpaper in the hall got paneled over long ago, observe the faded spots where the portraits of what looked like a happy family from outside used to hang. Don’t forget to jiggle the toilet handle after flushing and step over the broken stair. Oh yes, that sound you hear is definitely ghosts, The Ghost of The Childhood That Should Have Been likes to come out this time of night and wail for a while, she’s pretty friendly if you want to say hi! But come away, come away, you don’t need to repair or renovate this wreck, it’s time to hop in the rental car or catch your train back to where your small quiet room awaits. Come in, close the door behind you, nobody is going to knock on it. Hang up your coat, take your shoes off, fix yourself a beverage, sit in your comfiest chair, and open your presents:

  • 1 dog-eared copy of A Wrinkle In Time with “I give you your faults” highlighted.
  • 1 yellow post-it note with “Do less work to manage relationships with people who are unkind to you 2019” scrawled in teal glitter pen
  • 1 “Bless This Mess!” sign, $1, slightly cracked, purchased in the foul rag and bone shop of the heart

<3,

Not Just A Captain, She’s Also A Member

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

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I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.

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Hey Captain Awkward.

I read some of your responses to other writers who had concerns about their partners’ finances, and I feel like this is related but not quite the same.

I’m stressed about my boyfriend’s money management skills and how I can help him without getting myself into a bad financial situation. I also recognize that he’s probably embarrassed on top of being stressed, so I’m trying not to make him feel ashamed. He was raised below the poverty line and when he made it “big” in his industry, he was earning huge salaries, so I think he’s allowed himself to fully enjoy it. Now he’s unemployed but is still living a “huge salary” lifestyle.

About me: I’ve always lived pretty frugally. I’m kind of a prepper in some ways – I buy a lot of dried or bulk foods, and I park nearly a mile away from work and walk every day so I don’t have to buy a $400 annual parking pass, plus I get some exercise which is hard to come by in my 9-5 cubicle lifestyle. My mortgage is manageable, 90% of my furniture is thrifted (thank god eclectic/Boho decor is “in” right now), I pay my bills on time, I have a modest emergency savings, and I have excellent credit — with a little bit of revolving credit card debt. My house is my first home purchase, and in addition to receiving some assistance from my grandparents, I participated in a federally funded first-time home buyer program and saved for years to come up with the down payment. My house isn’t fancy, but I love it because it’s mine goddamnit, and after changing addresses every year for 18 years, I finally get to lay down some roots! I‘ll hit my one-year anniversary of homeownership next week. Yay.

I do not typically seek out partners with tons of money. In fact, I’ve been known to date transient wildlife biologist types who briefly stay in the area to work for six months out of the year, and then squirrel their earnings away to get by the other six months. I just happened to fall in love with my BF who – up until last summer – was successful in his career, made a lot of money as a senior level designer with some recognizable household brands, and was promptly relieved of his duties the same week we met. He felt it was a blessing in disguise because he’s burned out on doing design for a living and wants to pursue his passion of selling rare European cars.

BF was earning a gratuitous salary last year, and while he lived within his means, said means were extravagant and now unsustainable: he owns two houses and has 7 cars (or 8? I actually don’t know anymore). Again, cars are his hobby/passion, as well as his side business, so some of this is to be expected. Two of them are “investment” items that will continue to appreciate in value, two are for driving, and the rest are “projects” that he plans to sell… but as you might imagine, this ties up a lot of capital in non-liquid assets.

BF is hemorrhaging money, but not cash, and is putting a lot of charges onto credit cards. He justifies this by saying that most entrepreneurs fund their businesses through credit. BF also owes his best friend a sizable amount for a recent generous loan which seems to have strained their friendship a little.

Three months ago, BF put his second house, which is in a popular resort town a few hours away from where we both live, on the market. He’s received multiple offers on the second house, but due to complications beyond his control, they continue to fall through, and so it remains on the market. BF was relying on the sale of this second house to kick-start the car business.

His monthly expenses (e.g. mortgages, private school tuition for his two kids, and commercial space for his new business) are over $5k. Not included are utilities, groceries, gasoline, health insurance, pet expenses, or anything else fun/recreational like an occasional meal out or outing to the nearby large city. BF has very little income right now except for infrequent freelance design work which he loathes and the car side hustle. Currently, he sells a car every 4-8 weeks and each sale results in a few thousand dollars. I in believe he’s receiving unemployment, but I’m not sure that he’ll qualify for much longer.

I told him he could sell his primary house and move into mine if he wanted. My mortgage is literally half the size of his, and if he paid HALF of my mortgage he’d still save $2k/month. However, he doesn’t want to sell his primary residence for a lot of (legitimate) reasons, and he wants to keep trying to sell the vacation home that’s been on the market for four months. OK, I get that… But right now, it’s just him and his dog occupying a 3,000 square foot space. He wants me to rent out rooms in my house and move in with him (I would contribute to his mortgage, which would only cover 25% of his monthly payment). I am considering it, but I’m also so happy to finally have a home of my own… it would make me sad to move out of my first home so soon.

I know he’s filed for bankruptcy once before, and he recently said he doesn’t want to do that again (he said it semi-jokingly, so I don’t know how much of a real possibility it is for him). He also told me early on that he thought I’d be a good influence on him as far as spending habits go. These were yellow-orange flags for me at the time. Now, he’s asking me to go with him to a cousin’s wedding on the absolute opposite side of the country in two months. We both have airline miles that will cover the trip, but it’s honestly not how I want to use those miles — the whole reason I got a credit card that gives airline miles is because he suggested I get one so we can travel overseas together this year. I wouldn’t have taken out a second line of credit if I didn’t think we weren’t going to use it for an *international* vacation. Plus, the wedding trip in two months becomes more expensive when you add up the other items that will not be covered: lodging, dining out for five days, hiring a pet sitter for our two dogs, rental car, etc. And I’m also just feeling less and less secure about out future together as the weeks roll by. Like what kind of message would I send to his family by attending this big family event if I’m not sure how into/secure I feel about the relationship by the time the wedding rolls around?

He has also half-joked about how I should have offered to pay for a recent ticket he got because he’s so broke. (He wouldn’t have received the ticket in the first place had he agreed for us to take my car that morning — which gets twice the MPGs — instead of his… but he insisted on taking his car. It apparently didn’t have a front license plate which resulted in a ticket.) The irony is that I almost offered to pay for it as a “sorry you’re broke, happy belated birthday” gift… but after he said that, I thought “NOPE. Nevermind; I don’t owe you shit.”

Let me preface that BF is the closest I’ve found to “my person”, if you get me — our connection, chemistry, and compatibility are mind bending. I’ve dated a lot of people in my day and never felt about them the way I do about him. I want to live with him at some point, get married, and maybe even have a child. How can I communicate my concerns to him without compounding his stress and sounding like a tightwad? (Also… Am I a tightwad? I’m starting to doubt myself and my saving habits…) And how do I support him without getting myself into a bad financial situation of my own? I don’t want to lose my savings, wreck my good credit, or be his cash cow, but I do want to be there for him in a way that empowers, not enables. I can see a future with him… so do I just sit tight through this rough spot and hope it all works out soon, or am I aboard a sinking ship and just don’t have the perspective to see it? Also, is there a way I can get out of attending this wedding?!

Thanks Captain Awkward!

Hello! I am so glad you wrote!

And congratulations on this month’s award for “burying the lede”! I retained the subject line of your email as the subject line of the post because I wanted readers to ride the same “oh, only 7 cars? Or is it 8?” roller coaster I did. 🙂

Screen Shot 2020-01-18 at 4.14.29 PM

Image: A certificate for excellence in “buring the lede in an advice column letter”

You have been so candid and such a good advocate for yourself that it makes my job very easy. My advice is:

  • Do not jeopardize anything about your finances or housing to “help” or “support” a man with 2 houses and 7-8 cars. 
  • Re-examine the idea that it is your job to help him figure out his money & his relationship with money. 

I’ll elaborate but here are some scripts:

  • “I do not want to move out of my house.”
  • “I do not want to move out of my house to make housing payments on a house I don’t own.”
  • “I’d rather save my miles and money for a vacation than go to that wedding, and I can’t afford to do both, so you’ll have to fly solo on that one. I’ll have to meet your family some other time.” 
  • “We approach money really differently, and I do not think it will be good for either my credit score or our relationship if we combine money or housing, especially while you’re still getting your business off the ground.” 
  • “I want to help you through this, but ultimately it’s your money and your decision, so one way I can ‘help’ is by having really clear boundaries especially around financial decisions that affect me.” 

Additionally, scriptwise, be very blunt and specific about money in your dating life. Do not let this flounder in expectations and hints, get in the habit of nailing stuff down like where are we going, what is the anticipated cost, who is paying. When you are offering to pay, make that offer up front: “Can I take you to ____ tonight? Dinner’s on me.”  (This is a good thing to do anytime you are treating a known poor-er person, the anxiety of guessing and mentally running the budget numbers is just awful and fun-destroying). When you are splitting costs or expenses, settle up right away. “The bill is ______, do you want the waiter to split it for us or do you want to pay and I can Venmo (etc.) you my half?”

This may seem unromantic and tedious, and it might bring out some weird shame behaviors and avoidance in him, but do it anyway. If you can’t afford something, say so. “That sounds nice but pricier than I can handle right now, can we save it as a treat for next month and stay in tonight?”  Make this shit matter-of-fact and normal. Make yourselves a couple who can talk frankly about money in mundane, routine ways that doesn’t require big negotiations or emotional processing.

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Posting a touch early, but hopefully this gives peeps time to plan!

When: Sunday, January 26th, 2020, 10 am

Where: Harvard Art Museum Cafe

32 Quincy Street, Cambridge, MA 02138

The closest T stop is Harvard, on the red line. The museum is about a ten-minute walk across the Harvard yard from the station.

Venue: The cafe is located in the atrium of the art museum. You do not have to pay the entrance fee to sit in the cafe area. The cafe has a small selection of pastries and other snacks, but if you have specific dietary requirements you may need to bring your own food. The building is accessible via a ramp on Prescott Street.

How to find us: I will claim a table and set up a paper sign. I will have my mending and/or a painting project. I have coloring sheets, but you can also bring puzzles, fiber projects, or sketchbooks!

What to bring: Crayons, colored pencils, paints, coloring books, a puzzle, carbonized remains of emmer wheat.

If you need more information, you can inquire on the “Boston” thread at FOCA. I am hoping to organize a few meetups that happen on Sunday afternoons this year, so hopefully a few different people might be able to come.

Looking forward to seeing you all there!

Dear Captain,

I (34/she/her pronouns) have a new stepfather as of this summer. He has been with my mom off and on for the last 10+ years, and they finally married in July 2019. I think this man is a Garbage Human, but we have to let our parents make their own adult decisions.

A bit of background – my highly narcissistic mom and I have reached a detente after several years of fighting and NC (no contact). She knows what sort of leash she is on, she knows that access to her only granddaughter depends on her good behavior. We mostly get on ok.

SF seems to be of the opinion that he can smack talk my mother’s shopping habits to me when she is not there. I could use some scripts to help deflect him, because while I am very frequently in my first class compartment on the “My Mom is Awful” train, I do not want my stepfather as a seat mate.

Help?
This Train Has No More Room

Hello This Train Has No More Room:

Oh yeah, shut it down.

Your stepdad humorously venting or having “Hey, is this normal, or…?” or “Here’s what’s going on with me” conversations with a close friend or other trusted member of his personal council of advisors is within bounds, but you don’t have to join that advisory board.

He’s either trying to bond (badly), assuming y’all are much closer than you are, or sending out a triangulation advance scouting team to test things like “Will LW not repeat mean stuff to her Mom?” and “But will she repeat the stuff I strategically want her to, so it comes from her and not me?” but it doesn’t really matter what he’s after, you can still opt right out. He could be like “I’m just making conversation, your mom is what we have in common” and you could still decide “Nope!” He doesn’t have to be aware of the history of how much effort it’s costing you to even be around him and your mom for you to decide “I’d prefer not to,” and you don’t have to explain yourself.

You don’t have to explain yourself, but silence will only encourage him to continue, so the next time he tries this you’re going to have to say something. Possible scripts:

  • “Wow, what a weird thing to say to me about my mom.” + redirect your attention away from that topic. 
  • “Sounds like a good one to talk about with Mom, a therapist, and…nope, actually just those two.” + redirect your attention.
  • “I thought we covered this: Don’t say anything to me about my Mom or anyone in my family that you wouldn’t say when they’re in the room.” Then, redirect your attention.
  • “‘Ladies be shopping’? Whoa, save it for the comedy club!” There is a decent chance he is one of the legions of shame-proof straight, cisgender men who are convinced they could do stand-up professionally despite never once having made a person who wasn’t dependent on them for a salary, lunch tip, or lucrative sales contract authentically laugh. If he comes back with “Ha, I’ve always known I could do stand-up!” try “Sure. Pose as a time traveler from 1983, and let me know when it is so I can not be there.” Then redirect attention, etc.
  • Use your “Yikes.” “Wow.” “What.” “Nope!” “But jokes are funny.” as necessary and then redirect your attention.
  • You could ask him, “When you say mean stuff about my mom what is the reaction you are hoping for?” but do you actually want to know? If you think he’s looking for an excuse to expound, don’t use this one.

Redirecting your attention could mean:

  • Being very terse, flat, and boring in your reactions.
  • Changing the subject.
  • Leaving the room. Doesn’t have to be a dramatic exit to make a point, wandering away because you need a glass of water or to make a phone call or use the rest room does the job.
  • Ending a phone call, social media back-and-forth, or text conversation. Anything from “Ok, gotta go” to not replying to selective replying to using “mute” and other filters to best serve you.
  • Starting up a pleasant side conversation with someone else in the room.
  • If you are a person who tends to space out, harness it. Were we still talking about that thing? Who knows? You kinda spaced out there for a second. (Might as well make it work for us for once).
  • “Rudely” disappearing into your phone. Sometimes the people in the internet are much nicer than the ones we’re related to, sometimes “Oh, sorry, I’m getting distracted by this work message, I need to handle it, if you’ll excuse me” is what gets you out of the moment.
  • Over time, limiting contact with people who routinely stress you out. You know all about that, Letter Writer!

I know I’ve recommended all the above actions individually a whole bunch, but I started thinking of them as a unit to be filed under “redirecting your attention” during the holiday posts, some of the “reasons are for reasonable people” and “why do we spend so much time and energy on the worst people?” discussions, and definitely as part of a “do less” approach to fraught relationships. We spend so much time and energy worrying about communicating with people who don’t give a single shit about our feelings or our comfort. Can “do even less!” in 2020 be about changing that equation?

For example, politely changing the subject is useful, I’m a fan, I like to let people save face and de-escalate situations when I can. But how long do we have to knowingly walk into certain rooms with a list of safe, innocuous topics that we extensively strategized about beforehand, and then cheerfully toss them out like a gym teacher distributing tennis balls at the beginning of class and pretend this is normal, neutral thing to have to do?

Do we have to pull every mean and annoying person we know aside and earnestly and patiently discuss our boundaries, or spend all family gatherings navigating patiently around the people we don’t like and didn’t come to see? Or can we say a quick “hello” for routine politeness’ sake and because it would take more effort to freeze them out, and then go talk to the people we actually like?

When someone says something out of line, can it be enough to say “Jeez Louise! What a weird thing to say” and then skip right to “Oh hey, there’s Louise, I’m going to bring her a glass of water” and keep it moving right out of that conversation? Not as a way to “reinforce the boundary” or convince anybody of anything, more like, that’s done, now I’m reclaiming my attention and re-directing it where I want it to go, somebody else can change the subject for a change.

‘Cause sometimes what the person who is behaving badly wants most is more of your attention, by any means necessary, and if they don’t get the initial high-five or commiseration or invitation to expound they hoped for, they’re willing to be loud and wrong if it means they can suck you into a longer conversation where you discuss the subject by which they mean they get to talk more about it. 

If your stepdad is one of these people, being told “no” is just fine, he’ll promise he won’t say mean things about your mom anymore, but that doesn’t mean he’s gonna shut up, not when he’s just gotten started, can he interest you in a long, involved back-and-forth about why he is the Normal, Cool, Reasonable One Who Is Trying Here and you are the Touchy, Humorless One Who Can’t Take A Joke, Just Like Your Mom, now with extra bad faith? It’s entirely possible that the more you try to talk about stuff you don’t want him to share, the more opportunities he has to try to “discuss” your mom with you, which…is exactly what you don’t want.

Emotional sea-lioning is still sea-lioning, someone whose opinions you don’t care about being “very concerned” (or whatever) and wanting to “get to the bottom of things” or “work on our relationship” doesn’t mean you have to play along. “Ok, stop doing the behavior and the relationship will be fine” is your way out of that one. Resist the pressure and the urge to play the “what if” game. What if your mom’s shopping is excessive and causing financial problems or making him think dementia is happening and he’s worried about her? ‘kay, maybe, then he should talk to someone who is close to your mom (clearly not you) and someone who didn’t just get finished telling him “Hey don’t tell me stuff like that about my mom” i.e. Not You. What if your mom is mean to him and he’s regretting the marriage? He should talk to someone who likes him (Not You, again!), someone who cares about their marriage (this role will be played by…Not You!). Does he want someone to talk with about aging, wills, elder care, and the like? Simple, he can ask people he knows for recs or type those words into Google and click any results that do not contain your name. Is he trying to loop you in because that’s what would happen in other families? Cool, cool, somewhat understandable, but he’s known you for 10 years and he knows you don’t have that relationship. Does he think he can repair the relationship you and your parent have with each other? What an unusual hobby, he should get that looked at by (you guessed it) Someone Who Is Not You. Is your mom perhaps deputizing him to talk to you on her behalf? She knows where that game ends by now, it ends with You, Not talking to Her for extended periods of time. It doesn’t matter why. Hold fast to the safe, happy life you have created and don’t let either of these people make their problems into your problems. 

Letter Writer you are smart and realistic, you obviously have some hard-won boundary-defending skills, and correctly, you don’t want to change this dude, you just want to avoid this dude slightly more and slightly more skillfully than you already avoid him. So when your stepdad says weird stuff about your mom to you, tell him to stop in the quickest and most efficient way possible and then redirect your attention. Don’t worry about getting it perfect, if your stepdad thinks you don’t like him much or that you are unreceptive to his confidences, those things are true, so…:shrug emoji:?  If someone you don’t like, whom you see incredibly rarely, under highly-controlled circumstances decides you’re not exactly his cup of tea, I think you’ll manage to carry on somehow. 😉 If the train called “Mom is Terrible” and the train called “Both Of You Are Terrible” leave the same station at the same time, they will be necessarily be on parallel tracks that can’t meet without causing a serious accident. It doesn’t matter if they are headed in the same direction part of the way, or how long it takes to get where they’re going, or if they double back and cross each other’s paths sometimes, this isn’t the fucking SAT and you don’t have to show your work.

Let us close with a video montage. Is Miranda Priestley (antagonist of The Devil Wears Prada) a paragon of warmth and human kindness? No.

Is Miranda Priestley going to get three visits from three spirits one Christmas Eve to examine her past, present, and future? No, every rich mean person doesn’t get issued a personal redemption psychopomp, but I would watch the hell out of that movie, twice if there were Muppets.

Is Miranda Priestley extremely good at getting people to stop talking when she’s done listening and might you want to harness some of that “I said what I meant and I mean what I said kthxbye” energy when you talk to your stepdad? Oh yes.

 

Oops sorry, now moved to level two – Clore Ballroom end, right under the huge window

 

Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX near Waterloo station, 11th January, 1pm onwards.

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

Happy new year!  Please bring something awesome (an object, a photo, a link to a website, etc.)  Or just come and chat with us.

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. (However I don’t think the food market is open this month), 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

Edit: meetup will be on the 15th.