Dear Captain Awkward,
I just had the weekend from hell. There was really no foreshadowing that the weekend would work out so horribly, but now that it has, I feel like it’s foreshadowing an even more hellish future.
I recently relocated with my partner to a beautiful, comfortable city about 2800 miles away from the expensive, cut-throat city where we went to school together. The former city happens to be where his family still resides, (only not technically the city, the suburbs). Things have been so much better for me here in almost every way. Since moving here, I’ve mysteriously quit smoking, gone for the longest stretch of eating disorder sobriety I’ve had since I was 19, and learned a ton of instruments, art techniques, and other nifty tricks. My partner has found a better job, loves having trees and hot springs for us to visit on the weekends, and has seemed more in love with me here than he seemed to ever have the time to be before we moved. All of that sounds well and good, but people here are socially awkward and my partner is used to having tons of friends, as he’s lived in the same area since he was a child. It’s really the only drawback for me, but having moved far away from home before and starting my own life from scratch, I’m kind of used to it and feel it’s an important experience for people to go through. )
Last week I was in a car accident and injured. I went to the hospital, was X-rayed, and given a prescription for narcotic painkillers. That night, my partner’s sisters announced, entirely out of the blue, that they were going to be arriving in our city the next night and that we were all going to a camping festival in the mountains together. I was happy that they were coming- I’ve always felt very close to his sisters and I’ve missed them a great deal. I’ve been asking him ever since the second week we moved here when they would come to visit. We’ve spent hours talking on the phone, hanging out in person, and just generally getting along really well. They’ve claimed to have dreams where I’ve saved them from danger. One of them I’ve felt the most in common with from almost any other person I’ve met, but all of them I regularly ask my spirits to protect. Cool story bro, perhaps, but I wanted to give some background as to why I expected them to empathize with my injury and perhaps take it into consideration before deciding that we should go hiking in the mountains and camping far from any hospitals. It’s aside from the point that my partner and I had plans for the 4th of July. It’s also aside from the point that we had a guest in town already, who had told us they were coming months prior, visiting from the former city.
The night they were arriving, I allowed my partner to use my wrecked car, despite the insurance agent telling me not to drive it, so that his sisters would not have to wait at the airport. He asked me to get dressed and be ready to do something with them when they came, which I did. Only that time never came. He would call to update me on the situation every hour or so, but long story short, it was nearly six in the morning when he came back. I had been waiting, hungry, and in too much pain to reasonably accommodate myself. I kept calling because I was upset and didn’t understand what took so long. I found out that they had rented a car- yet, were insisting on being ferried around in my wrecked car, to go to the grocery store at 4am. Why my car had to be used is a mystery. My partner came home at 6am and yelled at me for not giving him time with his sisters. His sisters apparently took my need for care and considerations for my car insurance to be controlling, dominating, and trying to keep them apart (!).
The next morning, my partner invites them to our apartment to discuss their plans. They’re too busy. They “want to see downtown”. He asks them if they will drive us to a car rental place because my insurance is covering a rental and my regular car isn’t drivable. They “didn’t come to ____ to help me rent a car”. Instead of trying to figure everything out together, they take off without him, and expect us to just come to the mountains and meet them there. My partner is not insured to drive the rental, so it basically translates to they are expecting me, with my injury, to not take my medications in order to drive out to do something I had already expressed I felt unable to do.
After a lot of yelling and my partner having a breakdown, I agree to just suck it up and drive him out there, despite throwing up from spasms in my leg, shoulder, and back. I am dizzy and unable to keep down any food. Not an ideal driver to forge into the mountains, but if it will enable him to see his family, who he hasn’t seen in seven months, then fine. When we get there, there are miles and miles of cars parked alongside a one lane road and people walking with heavy packs. We offer some people a ride towards the gate, curious to know where it is to try to find better parking. On the way, we run into his sisters, who are trying to hike up a mountain with rolly bags and enough luggage to think they’re going on a trans-Atlantic cruise. I tell everyone in the car to make room for them. Then apparently only two of them get in and two stay, unbeknownst to me, who made everyone move to make room for them and their luggage.
It takes two hours to get to the top, in stop and start traffic, winding up a one lane, gravel road, with a cliff on one side. It’s midnight when we reach the top. I look for parking. This causes a complete breakdown. WE HAVE TO GO BACK FOR THE TWO LEFT BEHIND. Two were left behind? Jesus, who knew? And why? Why were they left behind when there was room for them? And go back? Why did we go up there to begin with?
I get out of the car and vomit from the pain of stop start driving for two hours, but then go back to get the other two. Right back to where we started. I tell my partner that I’m unable to drive any further. That I am in too much pain. That I am ready to go to the meadow where my partner agreed that we could camp at earlier, which is just down the road. This is unacceptable. DRIVE THE FUCKING CAR. JUST FUCKING DRIVE. WHAT THE FUCK IS GOING ON. DRIVE DRIVE DRIVE. WHAT THE FUCK IS YOUR PROBLEM. I’m shocked. I begin to cry. Everyone starts screaming and demanding that I drive them. That GODDAMMIT, they are going to the top. When I try to explain that I’m injured and not even supposed to be driving at all, they begin to demand to drive. I explain that it’s a rental and they are not insured. They offer to pay for any damage. They do not offer to pay for my insurance premiums for the rest of my life, which any damage would cause to raise substantially on top of the accident I was just involved in. Apparently this is unreasonable. I’m ruining everyone’s time. I’m trying to spoil things for everyone. My partner needs to be a man and just make me do what I’ve voiced being uncomfortable doing.
When my partner says that making me drive any more is ridiculous and to respect what I’m saying, lots of drama ensues, but they claim to disown him and say that I’m tearing their family apart. We end up sleeping in our respective cars, away from each other, only my partner and I don’t sleep and cry the entire night. We try to leave the next morning, but he sees their car and “tries to make it work.” The plan for making it work is my driving to the summit again and trying to spend a day there. I agree, though pale and ill and nearly unable to move my legs. Because I love his family and I love my partner and I want him to see his family. It doesn’t work out. They can’t park close enough, get frustrated, and decide to just leave and go back to a fancy hotel near the city we’re living in.
They refuse to see me the rest of their trip. But they have my partner come to their hotel to tell him that I’m emotionally abusive, controlling, and that our relationship is unhealthy. He should move back to the city we left because he’s abandoning their family and choosing me over them. They even went so far as to flat out lie about me and say that I told them that I was still in love with my ex and that my partner is just a replacement. Insane, first of all, and second of all, why would anyone tell something like that to their partner’s sisters? It’s just ludicrously implausible. My partner has asked me every time I tell him that I love him since then, if that’s true, and if I don’t just love my ex, which brings up so much baggage for both of us that it’s unforgivable. It becomes clear at this point, to me, that they did not come on this trip to see us or see our new city, but to try to break us up and take him back with them. Every time he tried to explain to them that I was injured and that they were treating me unfairly, they told him that just by mentioning my needs, he was yet again, only thinking of me.
I feel like almost no one thought of me. I still feel that way. I feel so disrespected and mistreated and abused that it’s insane. I have been physically assaulted and find this more hurtful in comparison- this was an extended weekend and the cruelty came from people that I loved and desperately wanted to see. At least my attackers were kind enough to limit the assault to an hour or two and leave my relationship and life out of it. I always wanted sisters and felt like I had them in my partner’s family. I am so shocked and hurt by their behavior that I really can’t even begin to describe it.
Growing up, my father’s family felt the same way about my mother. She was always excluded from everything on their side of the family. She was called names, my dad was even offered a monetary bribe to leave her, and every time my brother and I were supposed to see our grandparents, it seemed like a betrayal of our mother. My partner and I have been more serious about our relationship and it troubles me that this is potentially a future, not only for myself, repeating the position of my poor mother, who was destroyed by such treatment, but also if we have kids, putting them in the same pool of shit that my brother and I were made to wade in.
I love my partner and I want to be a part of his family. My family loves and accepts him as a part of our family. I don’t see “your family” and “my family”. I want “our family”. My partner claims to want the same. We’ve been best friends for five years and together for nearly three. There has never been a problem between his family and I until we moved. He himself tells me that they’re codependent, manipulative and treat each other like this all the time. But it’s unacceptable to me to be treated this way. Furthermore, both of my parents have terminal illnesses and it’s important to me that any partner I do have treats me as part of their family, as my own family won’t be around to likely see much of my adulthood.
I realize this is a novel, but I don’t know what to do. I don’t want to leave my partner, but I want a future together and I can’t bare the idea of it being my mother’s future. I also can’t bare the idea of moving back to a city I hated, and I feel his family is trying to manipulate things to make it so.
Why Can’t We All Just Get Along?
OH. MY. FUCKING. GOD.
This story made my eyes bleed tears of blood.
I am so sorry that these people you loved and trusted have turned into Emotional Terrorists.
As soon as I got done reading your story, I googled “Crazymakers” – credit to Julia Cameron of The Artist’s Way for that one – because that’s what you are dealing with here. Here’s a good summary of Cameron’s work from the great site Think Like A Black Belt, which helps people deal with bullying (and whose entire archive Captain Awkward will be reading later today):
1) Their time, schedules, energy, drama, and life issues always outweigh yours
From the book:
“Crazymakers thrive on drama, and melodrama requires a sense of impending doom. Everything is an emergency, a deadline, a matter of life and death, or something they will get to eventually. Read ‘never’ … Nearly any situation can be cast as melodrama to support a crazymaker’s plot lines …”
2) They expect special treatment
As the book authors write,
“They suffer a colorful variety of ailments that require your care whenever you have an important deadline or anything that deflects your attention from their demands.”
They also demand special treatment in their daily lives:
- Do you know that man or woman who loves to insist the doctor or chiropractor in the house stop what they are doing and treat them right now?
- Ever met someone who grandiosely insists the dining party sit a certain place in a restaurant?
- Have you watched someone work a situation so they always come across as the Alpha wolf, whether they deserve the leadership position or not?
3 ) They belittle and downplay your needs, emergencies, and requests
Despite howling over a broken nail, a crazymaker will say your requests for their time or help are just so much drama — a way for you to get attention. They might also add, that you are disrespectfully expecting too much of their good will or prevailing too much on their valuable time.
“Crazymakers discount your reality. Your pressing agendas – however real – are never as real, as important, as critical as a crazymaker’s drama of the moment.”
4) They triangulate to stay in power
One Dark Heart I know compartmentalizes all information so much one staff member doesn’t know what the other is doing, so no real coordination can occur. Of course coordination like that would mean some power slips into the hands of the staff, and a narcissist can’t handle that.
Crazymakers also elevate gossip to an art form of power and control. (But be wary of accusing them of it, or they will say they are only trying to help others and how could you be so cruel to think otherwise?)
“They are experts at gossip, at feeding paranoia, at driving wedges between working colleagues.”
One Dark Heart made sure I knew who the sole dissenting voter was in a secret meeting involving a decision about me. Despite saying that he wanted teamwork among his staff, he tried to subtlety create rivalry instead.
5) They sow the wind, while others reap the whirlwind
When I think of the term crazymaker, I see Taz, the cartoon Tasmanian Devil, stirring up the world with his manic spins. Dark Hearts adore making much ado about nothing. As the authors put it:
- “A crazymaker is someone who makes you crazy by constantly stirring up storms.”
- “‘Normal’ doesn’t serve their need for power.”
- “Everything is always their problem, but nothing is their fault.”
Here’s what you have to know about these people. They will never apologize and it will always be your fault. If you express a need or displeasure, they will wonder “Why are you always exaggerating?” If you call them out on what happened, your version of what happened will be wrong. Logic, evidence, common sense, the social contract = totally meaningless to these motherfuckers. They want what they want when they want it, and they are called crazymakers because they make you question your sanity over and over again. The best thing ever (in their eyes) would be to make you blow up and scream at them, because then they’ll sit back and say “See? We told you she’s totally unreasonable.”
That’s how terrorists operate. They ignore all the “rules” of conventional warfare, so none of your defenses that would work against traditional attacks will work against them.
There is no perfect way to deal with crazymakers, unfortunately. What I can offer you is a combination of 1) Severely limiting contact 2) Teaching yourself not to expect anything or need anything from them 3) If they are suddenly nice to you, do not trust it – there is a hidden agenda. Reveal nothing! 4) Remind yourself “It’s not me, it’s them” over and over again, 5) Use mantras and bland, neutral politeness to respond to them so that you can calmly hold your ground. 6) Ask the other person directly for their best-case scenario.
So, step by step:
1) Severely limit contact. Good thing you live 2800 miles away and will only see them very occasionally! Their next visit will be godfuckingawful, but not as bad as this one, because you will be prepared for the awfulness. Also, guess who deals with them from now on? That’s right! Your partner! Not you. Any questions they ask you, any stuff they say to you, gets the response “So nice to hear from you, why don’t you check with (partner) about that?”
2) Keep your expectations low. They suck. Believe in the suck. Trust the suck. Before your standard for your relationship with them was “OMG, I love you guys, and you are like my very own sisters!” Now the best you can hope for is “They behave like fucking grownups for 2 hours in a row and no one has to die.”
3) Be gracious and let them save face, but don’t get sucked in. If they apologize and are nice (doubtful, but they may try that in pursuit of their agenda), you can just say “Yeah, that was a really rough weekend for me, so I appreciate the apology” but don’t get sucked in to sharing close sisterly confidences or try to rehash it. They suck.
4) It is not you, it is them. It is not you, it is them. You did nothing wrong. They acted like assholes. It is not you. It was not you. It will not be you next time. Or the time after that. It is them.
Here is a long official complex definition of a mantra, and I love the short definition: “a sound, syllable, word, or group of words that is considered capable of creating transformation.”
In dealing with a crazymaker, a mantra is a thing you can repeat over and over with varying wording, in response to their unreasonable requests and statements. It’s a way of acknowledging that you’ve heard them without giving them an argument that they can latch on to. I’ve written about it before as a way to respond to “concerned” family members who say mean things to you without escalating things. You find some kind of neutral, mostly positive statement and recycle it until they shut the fuck up and go away because you’re not going to give them the argument they’re looking for.
A former boss taught me about mantras in dealing with crazymaking people, and it was incredibly, incredibly useful. Her personal example involved a stepdaughter who was planning a wedding and using that process to manipulate and punish her dad (who was paying for everything) for leaving when she was a kid by making everything as difficult as possible. When she would make an unreasonable request or cancel things halfway through or threaten to flounce, my boss and her husband would just say some version of “We just want you to have the wedding you want to.” “Here’s our budget, you use that in whatever way that will make you happy.” “We just want you to have a great wedding that will make you happy.”
So for your partner’s sisters, a mantra might have looked like this: “I’m really glad to see you guys and want you to have a great visit.” “I wish I could spend more time with you, but (injury), so I want you to have a great visit with (partner).” “Thank you so much for coming to visit us, we’ve both missed you so much.”
It doesn’t matter if the mantra is full of white lies. You could be thinking “KEEP YOUR DISTANCE, POISONOUS CUNTS!” in your head. It won’t win the argument, but it will help you become Teflon and deflect a lot of the argument.
6) Ask for the best-case scenario. When you’re fighting with someone you can sometimes get bogged down in hurt feelings (with good reason, obviously) and the details – “But you said ____!” And sometimes it’s helpful to stop all that, and say “Okay, I don’t like how this conversation is going and I don’t want us to keep sniping at each other, so can I ask you a question? If this works out exactly how you want it to, and you get everything you want, what does that look like? Can you tell me what your best-case scenario is for how this goes from now on?”
This can have a really magical effect on an argument sometimes. A person who is normally caring and cool and who is arguing in good faith will give you a thoughtful, good answer that cuts through all the petty bullshit, and together you find out that you probably agree more than you disagree. It’s a way to get the other person to admit what they really want, from the heart, and that’s a good basis for discussion instead of talking about all these side issues.
When dealing with a person who is uncaring and uncool and who is arguing in bad faith, asking for the best-case scenario can work to a) refocus the conversation on a positive outcome vs. all the ways they are unhappy and b) force them to admit their real agenda (or that they can’t actually be satisfied because what they want is completely unreasonable).
It doesn’t always work (for example, sometimes what they want is something you can’t give) but asking the question can get you at what’s real. The short, sweet version of this is asking “What do you suggest?” when someone is finding fault with everything but refusing to help solve the problem.
Now let’s talk about your partner and the way they spun his head. You’ve got to have a post-mortem with him, yes?
This is tricky. The sisters were MASTERS of finding the fault lines – family obligations and missing old friends and the close community he had in your old city (any chance he’s the only boy?), suspicions about your feelings for your ex, trying to paint you as controlling and unreasonable – and because they are family you are on shaky ground because the more you criticize his family the more you put pressure on him to defend them and put him in the middle. The sisters would LOVE to have him in the middle of a girlfriend vs. family fight, that’s RIGHT where they want him. That’s right where they put him.
What you need him to say to his family is “Of course I love all of you, and I do miss you living out here, but I also love my partner and I am very happy here – this is where we need to be right now, and I want you to respect that she is also my family. Please come visit us, and we will of course come visit you, and please find a way to be happy for me and treat both of us with respect and kindness.”
And when they say mean things about you or disrespect your boundaries, you need him to stand up for you. “I find that really hard to believe. How are you doing? (Or other subject change).”
So unfortunately you are at a disadvantage in talking about this, because you have boundaries and ethics and manners and under pressure to Be The Bigger Person (ugh).
So some sort of talk is in order, and where you probably want to go with it is this:
- Express your love.
- Express your distress at how the visit went – you were in a lot of pain and under a lot of stress, you love his sisters and wish that their visit could have been better.
- Express that you want him to spend time with and feel close to his family.
- Express that the stuff about your ex is really troubling to you – you do NOT still have feelings, you did not bring it up to his sisters, and you are confused about why they would think that’s an issue, and would he mind telling you his worries around that so that you can put them to rest?
- Tell him you trust him to figure out how to make this work. That is a GREAT response to accusations that you are controlling, right? Don’t control it. Maybe it’s time to say “Obviously they miss you so much – you should go visit them.”
- Mantras aren’t just for dealing with crazymaking people, btw, and you may need to develop some for him around the issue of his family. “Of course I want to you to see your family. Of course I want you to spend time with your family – in retrospect, I wish this weekend I’d just spent the time in bed and sent you off to hang out with them and shuttle them around, and it was a mistake for me to go along when I wasn’t feeling up to it.” (Um, trust me, if you had stayed home in bed they would have turned it into the “Why is she avoiding us, does she hate us” show, but he doesn’t know that, probably.) “Yeah, that weekend really sucked, but we can make the next one better.“
- If he brings up his sisters’ accusations, like, you were exaggerating your pain, respond with “It really hurts my feelings that they would say that about me. Is that what you think, too?”
- Recognize that it’s painful for him to be in the middle and maybe realize that his family acted like assholes and that it may take some time and fits and starts for him to fully accept it, so try to take whatever he says in the best possible light. Give him some time and benefit of the doubt and room to sort it out for himself. This is really primal stuff.
- Ask a lot of questions. Let him do the rest of the talking and see what happens.
I don’t know how to answer the stuff about the future or repeating your parents’ problems with family. My dad’s mother offered him an all-expenses-paid trip to Greece to find a “real wife” on the morning of his wedding day to my mom. Then, my mom couldn’t physically have kids, so she was depriving them of grandchildren. Then my parents adopted me, and I was worshipped like a tiny goddess and my mom stopped having to eat a shit sandwich every time she saw her in-laws and it all mellowed out somewhat, I think because my dad adores my mom and made it very clear when he dealt with his family and partly because my mom was really good at saying “Huh. Can you please pass the salt?” and also she helped take care of them when they were dying (it’s amazing how that wins people over!). Imperfect and painful for my mom, to be sure. You’re going to have to sit with that stuff for a while, and reach out to whatever support network you do have with family, friends, your partner, a therapist, and a lot of time.
In the meantime, be really gentle with yourself. You didn’t deserve any of this. Take care of those injuries and take it really easy on yourself right now, ok?