#244: Playdates and friend break-ups

Hi Captain Awkward,

I have been meaning to write you for a long time. I had a really long dilemma that turned into a really short dilemma over the last weekend. Basically, husband and I were friends with a couple (I’ll call them Marjorie and Lance) who were completely stressing us out. The abridged list of the issues includes: demanding/using, boundary-crossing, super clingy and needy, always mired in self-created chaos, on the brink of financial ruin, manipulative, jealous, competitive, kind-sharking and trying to make others responsible for their emotions. I’ve been trying to do a slow fade over the last six months, but my efforts at distancing myself were having the opposite effect on Marjorie, whose behavior started escalating into stalker-type stuff. 

It’s so perfect! The kids can play while we gossip and drink! BLISS!
Things came to a head recently, when she “caught” me out at a public place with a mutual friend and threw a tantrum because she hadn’t been invited. There was screaming, sobbing and foot-stamping. For me, after swallowing two years of increasingly unacceptable behavior, it was the last straw. I spent the entirety of last weekend crafting an African Violet letter and asked for a break in what I hoped was a direct and humane way. She responded once, was pretty gracious about it and says she is really sad about our friendship ending. For that matter, I am sad too, but also very relieved. In the past, when she’s had altercations with my husband, Marjorie’s reaction falls into a pattern where the first phase is sadness, the second phase is guilt-tripping and the third phase is overt hostility and making scenes. 
This brings me to my dilemma: my children are best friends with her children. Like, best-best friends. The girls are all young (4 and 8), and their friendships are healthy, with a good dynamic. I thought really long and hard about giving the African Violet because of this, and because of the fact that it’s impossible to avoid this family over the course of my daily life. I see these people everywhere – the kids are in the same classes at school, signed up for the same activities, and we live in a small, rural community where everyone knows everyone else. At a minimum, my husband or I are forced to interact with them three times a week, in environments like dance classes, birthday parties or waiting on the playground, where I am stuck watching/waiting for a predetermined period of time and can’t just walk away if things get uncomfortable. I would like to try to continue to sustain the friendships between the kids, they are very attached to each other.
Up until now, I’d been suggesting get-togethers that didn’t take place at my house (among other things, Marjorie and Lance had a tendency to drop their kids off and leave them with me all day, often). But meeting at the park requires spending extended amounts of time with Marjorie, and I desperately need some space. My husband loathes Lance, so I can’t ask him to shoulder this either. I also want to be compassionate toward the kids, none of this is their fault. 
Any strategies on how to handle this would be very much appreciated!
Yours truly,
Playdate of Thrones

I love the name you chose. Playdate of Thrones! So apt!

First, congratulations on using your words to stop the Marjorie Debacle.  Also, you sound like a great mom! I hope the kids and your husband give you awesome Mother’s Day attentions.  You love your kids, and you don’t want your personal likes and dislikes to mess with their groove. I get that.  But you also want to minimize your exposure to Marjorie.  I don’t think you can cut down exposure any further, but I think you can control the tenor of those required meetings.  Before we get there, let’s take a rhetorical-question stroll:

1 – Must you always be friends with the parents of your daughters’ friends?

In my humble opinion and experience, HELLS NO.  You must be kind and in contact with them, but that doesn’t mean that you are automatically friends.  You are a full human with wants and desires and preferences that are separate from those of your daughters. Friends are a choice, not an imposition. Imagine this the other way: what if you made friends with a woman whose children your children detested?  I’m sure you would hope the children would get along and be polite when they were required to be together, but you wouldn’t expect them to like each other if they didn’t, right?

2 – What are your professional relationships like?

If you’re working with people now, or have worked with them in the past, perhaps you noticed that you don’t have to be friends with your co-workers. You have to be polite, kind, and maybe friendly, but no one should expect you to be automatic besties just because you’re working on the same project and grab a working lunch once in a while.

And a rhetorical point: Being friendly and warm to someone does not make us friends.

You do not have to be friends just because you work together. Thank God.

SO! my strategies for dealing with Marjorie on a cordial but distant basis is two-fold.  Pretend that you two work for the company OurKidsAreAwesome Inc.  Your two projects for the company are currently overlapping, so you will be interacting from time to time to make sure that nothing goes seriously awry.  You don’t have to know about her home life, she doesn’t need to hear the family gossip, all you two need to do is relay the information needed to make the interactions of your projects go smoothly.  The second fold is to invest in some engrossing books, so that when you are required to be in close contact with Marjorie, you can say “This is my downtime for today, and I’d like to get some reading in. Thanks!”

Limit playdates to a level that works for YOU (holy unexpected babysitting, Batman!) rather than the one that works for your kids (who will see their friends at school and events anyway), and when you have to see M&L around town, treat them like parents you don’t know well: cordial, polite, but distant.  If they are imposing on you in your home or at the park, create distance as you would with someone you don’t know well. Have a thing on hand to be busy with. It’s not rude on your part to be involved in something else that it is rude to interrupt. If they corner you at a birthday party or something where you CANNOT get away, disengage with them and go talk to another parent.  Do you have other people in that parent group that you can talk to? Use them as your go-to.

I’ll get into some useful phrases to say in a sec, but I also want to briefly address the “my husband hates Lance so he can’t help me shoulder this” thing: Malarky. Big steaming heaps of MALARKY. He is your partner on Team Family, and has to encounter Marjorie and Lance too, by your own admission. He doesn’t have to pretend to be friends with them, just like you don’t, but he will have to be professionally polite, just like you, and possibly be uncomfortable for the sake of Project Kids. That’s just sense.

NOW!  Useful phrases for you and husband!
Out and About:

  • “We’ve got plans, but thank you!”
  • “You know, plans. With the family.” (silent: “to do exactly nothing” (Or hey! “hot boning my husband plans” no one will know your silent plans!))
  • “I’d rather not, thank you.”
  •  “That’s pretty personal, why don’t we talk about something else?”
  •  “I hope everything’s going well.”
  •  “[Child] asked if [other child] could come over [date]. Would she like to?”
  • “I have to go [something], so I’ll see you around.”
  • “I’m on a tight schedule today, so I’ve got to go!”
  • “I need to go ask [other parent] about a thing, please excuse me!”
  • “I haven’t seen [other parent] for a long time! Please excuse me.”

Trapped in the Park or at Home:

  •  “This is my downtime today, so I’d like to read quietly.”
  •   “I have to run an errand, can you hold down the fort?” (the errand can be walking all the way around the block three times)
  •  “I’ve got everything under control, why don’t you take some time for yourself?”

When things get Weird (i.e. the hopefully non-inevitable “YOU HATE ME!” meltdown):

  •   “I’m not sure why you/he/she would say/think that, but okay.”
  •   “I’d like us to be in touch for the kids, but I already have a lot of social obligations/friends/family/etc.”
  •  “I’m sorry I’ve given you that impression, but what I really feel is [what you feel].”

Keep your tone level,  engage the expectant silence when necessary, and enforce the everloving shit out of your boundaries with this couple.

And know that I know that feel, broette. And so does the rest of that town.

37 thoughts on “#244: Playdates and friend break-ups

  1. Captain’s got awesome advice, as usual, and LW, you did good in setting those boundaries (LORD I CAN’T EVEN WITH SOME PEOPLE). My heart aches for Marjorie’s and Lance’s kids–I fear it’s only a matter of time before they start pulling this shit on them. 😦 You sounds like a fantastic mom.

      1. FYI in the mobile format of WordPress the “posted by” field is stripped out, so it’s hard to tell when the Commander is at the helm.

  2. In a small town, with your kids being friends, “Did you not get the African Violet? We find you annoying!” may be on the tip of your tongue for the next decade. (Voice of experience, though for me it has only been about a year and a half so far).

    The two pieces of advice I can offer are 1) to offer a bland statement (as often as needed) when she complains about your diminished closeness as if it is confusing (despite the fact that you did the African Violet and SAID why) that “yeah, Husband and I have realized we were kind of overextended socially, and for our own sanity we just need to pull in a little. We certainly wish you the best, though!” and when she tries to draw you in again, “We’re just really not up for that right now. Have fun!” The idea being that the desire for distance is not as personal as it really is. You’ve tried honesty. It didn’t take. And you can’t beat that drum without making things unpleasant for your girls. So now you’re just going to go with relentlessly friendly-but-only-to-a-point. And unbudgeable.

    2) Headphones for public places. There doesn’t even have to be anything coming out of them, if you’re not in the mood for music! Just having them in your ears gives you an excuse for looking abstracted and predisposed against chat… you can mouth “audiobook!” if necessary (though you should have a title in mind for the shred of conversation you’ll probably be unable to avoid). By saying an exaggerated “”huh?” as you pull out your earphone — then popping it back in the second you answer the question or respond to the remark — you mark yourself as unavailable for conversation even though you are RIGHT THERE :). Nothing squelches unwanted conversation quite like the other person having to wait for you to remove the earplug and then repeat themselves every time they insist on saying something.

    These techniques have evolved over time; I can’t say they’ve worked for the whole year and a half. But they do seem to be helping.

    And yes, I know this would be a horrible way to behave under other circumstances!!! But really, under these circumstances this is as nice as you can be.

    1. Hi there – LW here. This is especially helpful advice because, since I gave her the letter Marjorie has been doing the opposite of what I asked. All week she’s been following me around the school and trying to suck me back in by being Extra Nice and Super Friendly and trying to offer to do favors for my kids, etc. I asked for space and she’s responding with increased attempts at contact.

      I think I’m going to invest in those giant headphones that you can see from across the room.

      1. Luckily you’ve had toddlers so you know that being all cuddly when they’re supposed to be taking a time out is still bad behavior.

  3. Wonderful advice all around above, so just a quick comment of reassurance that when my parents got divorced when I was early in elementary school, the parents of my best friend took sides (for lord only knows what reason, but they did) and things got awkward but I was totally none the wiser until years later. Not sure how much of that can be chalked up to childhood obliviousness and how much to my mother’s ability to be scrupulously polite while shutting people down and my father’s ability to be very charming even in awkward situations, but even in a small town like I grew up in, it absolutely can be done and you sound like you have a wonderful head on your shoulders and are a great parent.

  4. LW, for what it’s worth, my boyfriend and his best friend became friends when they were 2 and 3 years old. Their moms were best friends. Their moms had a violent parting of ways somewhere along the line and haven’t spoken to each other for 20 years, but the two boys are still extremely close. You don’t have to like Marjorie and it doesn’t have to interfere with your kids’ friendships. As long as no adult puts the kids in the middle (and here I’m worried about Marjorie) then their friendship shouldn’t be touched by any of this.

    1. Thank you (LW here) for this – I’ve been worried that my daughters are picking up on the tension, despite the fact that my husband and I have been really careful to not discuss this other family in front of them.

  5. I agree that LW’s husband must also step up the plate but I did notice that LW both (1) initiated the slow fade and (2) Wrote the African Violet Letter. No word of her husband’s involvement. If her husband is part of the solution, he needs to be part of creating it.

  6. One thing you didn’t address that I have little doubt will rear its head (given my knowledge of intrusive dramatic fuckewaddes like this) is that the annoying assebagge parents are gonna use their daughter as a proxy to try to get to the LW through their own daughter. So they will seed their daughter’s mind with all sorts of toxic shitte and goad their daughter into asking the LW’s daughter all kinds of questions and comments and shitte like “Why aren’t your mommie and daddie nice to my mommie and daddie?”

    Any realistic plan of action has to deal with this. In this regard I would note that emotionally healthy children at that age make friends very easily, and have new “best friends EVAH FOREVAH” on a weekly basis.

    1. I can’t agree with that last part… from what I remember and, more recently, what I’ve observed in my own kids’ lives, childhood is not an idyllic, carefree, make-friends-easily stage where happiness comes naturally. It’s often angsty and insecure and isolated-feeling… even for “emotionally healthy” kids, which itself seems like a kind of glib label. t’s pretty normal for even kids with no diagnosable mental health issues or specific traumas or stressors to feel like walking disaster areas a lot of the time! And friendships can be HARD.

      The hardest part of parenting is not keeping their bodies from harm, but watching their little hearts suffer and being able to do only so much about it. Which is not to say that LW should stay in a relationship that is toxic for the sake of their kids, just that the reason for going ahead and distancing should not be “Don’t worry if it screws up their friendship! Kids are resilient!”

      What I’d say is that kids are observant. If M&L have that many issues, your girls will probably have noticed it and formed their own opinions. My kids have certainly been able to notice which of their friends’ parents are overprotective, or super-controlling, or selfish, or drama-lovers, or whatever. We discuss that sort of thing openly but understatedly, acknowledging the facts but then saying something like “yeah, well, so and so’s parents do things a little differently from the way we do… everybody’s gotta do what works for their family. I couldn’t live that way, but if it works for them…”

      I see no reason not to say, “Mom and Dad weren’t really enjoying spending time with M&L anymore (or even ‘they weren’t really being NICE to us”), so we haven’t been hanging out with them like we used to. We don’t want to be hurtful about it, though, and we don’t want to cause problems for you girls — because we love X and Y just as much as ever, and we know you do, too — so best not to talk about it with X and Y. We don’t have to be best friends with their parents for you to be best friends with them. And its fine with us if you like the parents — we don’t suddenly hate M&L or anything. If the girls ask — or if M&L ask — just stick ‘with I don’t really know, they don’t really talk about stuff like that with me,’ and keep right on playing.”

      1. Even just “Sometimes people who were good friends stop being friends after a while.” Kids see that all around them, they understand.

      2. This talk is awesome. I am definitely going to use it with my kids!

        In response to the earlier point about using their kids to get to my kids…yeah…that’s been happening for a long time. Several months ago I told Marjorie that we would no longer be hosting sleepovers at our house b/c her girls were too young and they wouldn’t go to sleep without their mom (understandable). Yet Marjorie will still tell her daughters that maybe they can have a sleepover at our house this weekend. She does this knowing full well that a) I might have other plans already and b) I am not hosting sleepovers anymore. So then my kids get set upon by their friends and I’m set up as the Big Bad No to both her kids and mine.

        She pulls shenanigans like this all the time.

        1. Thanks for staying in the comments Olivia – just delurkling to say I admire your patience 🙂

    2. I’m not sure about that last comment either, having grown up in rural villages. I was shy anyway but always had one great friend and other people I played with regularly but we hung out together because there was nobody else to hang out with. My brother, the outgoing one, was friends with the entire village. Kids who live in a small place make the best of their limited options, generally, but that doesn’t mean friendships will stick once they have more choice.

  7. Oh, sorry. Just realized Sarah G also raised this issue: “As long as no adult puts the kids in the middle (and here I’m worried about Marjorie) then their friendship shouldn’t be touched by any of this.”

  8. A question: What is an African Violet Letter?

    As a note, when I googled “kind-sharking” the first four links to come up were Captain Awkward Links, and when I googled “african violet letter” the only link on the page which was NOT about the plants was Captain Awkward. So there’s that for famous!

      1. Thank you! I am going through the archives in reverse order, and haven’t gotten anywhere near that far yet :D.

      2. Notice I said I’d been post-breakup about a year and a half? The African Violet post is part of what empowered me to extricate myself from a friendship that no longer worked. Thank you, thank you. It may not have been easy, but it has been *better.*

  9. Hi everyone…LW here. Thank you so much for the awesome and thoughtful advice, CommanderLogic – as well as everyone in the comments. There is a lot to think about here, and I’m really grateful for all of the script suggestions; I have been losing sleep over what to say while trying to anticipate the variety of situations that may come up as I run into these folks.

    I may have understated a couple of things in the interest of being brief in my original post. Marjorie and Lance are really pushy in their willingness to challenge boundaries. Marjorie in particular has no shame. Her conversation-opener of choice is to lead in with “Sasha was SO DEVASTATED that Arya didn’t attend her ballet recital/flute performance/walk on role in the school play!” When she finds me talking to other people, she just barges right in. If Marjorie leaves five messages in one day and I don’t return her call, she’ll have her daughter leave a forlorn message for my daughter. She has no compunction about trying to make me responsible for her daughters’ emotions and definitely uses her kids as a proxy.

    She is also ridiculously competitive. For instance, if my daughters are invited to a party or a play date at someone else’s house, she will find out who is hosting it and will call them and demand that her children be included too. On the bright side, this leaves many people in our community with an accurate idea of what she’s like…but for my own selfish purposes, it makes it harder to avoid her.

    I also understated my husband’s involvement in this whole mess. He does most of the pick up and drop off at school, he was the first one to initiate the slow fade, and he actually coaches the older daughter’s softball team – so he interfaces with Marjorie and Lance about twice as much as I do. We’ve had to learn to present a united front after several instances when M&L would ask one of us for a favor, get declined, then ask the other one without mentioning that they’d already been turned down. Husband and I now have to debrief each other after every encounter we have with these people to make sure we’re on the same page.

    Since I sent the original letter and received her gracious response, there has unfortunately been more contact. I’ve received two additional emails from her, which are long, rambly and full of guilt-trip explanations/justifications of her behavior. I have not responded to either of them. She has also been following us around at the school, trying to initiate conversations about how she understands why I’m upset now, and she’s going to be different now, and it’s all better! In each case, husband or I have mumbled that we have to go and have dragged our kids away from her.

    Anyway, that is the update. Thank you for the awesome advice. I really appreciate it. My mom is visiting for Mother’s Day and she’s coming to the kids’ softball game tomorrow to act as a buffer. And my mom has a side-eye that could freeze mercury in a thermometer!

    1. I would begin to slow fade out your kids from her kids. It’s not fair to let them be harassed like this.

    2. Oh my GOD this woman sounds totally toxic. Mimic your mother. Mimic for the long term. Marjorie gets a frosty side-eye and brush-off with every attempt at conversation, and then you walk away if she keeps trying. Do not engage, except to reinforce your boundaries. DEFINITELY don’t respond to the sad messages through the kids.

      It is great that you and your husband are on the same page and communicating well and keeping a united front!

    3. God, I hate to say this because they are just kids, but I’d do the slow fade from any and all playdates or plans with L&M’s kids. Marjorie seems way too willing to use her children as pawns and as tools and it’s gross. I feel bad for her kids–she really is fucking them over with her behavior–but you are right to protect your kids and YOURSELF.

      Marjorie is being uber creepy and she needs to stop.

  10. Hi Olivia/LW–I know this is not the most useful comment. But not only did I love ‘Play Date of thrones’ I thought it was awesome that you called your daughter Arya–even if it is, as I suspect, a pseudonym.

    While I have no experience with children of my own, I have, in my own childhood, experienced adults manipulating eachother through me. It is not fun. I’m wondering if you can help your kids gradually form other friendships beyond Marjories children, but since I’m not a parent I only offer advice about kids with great reticence. Good luck!

    1. Hey, thanks LAGF! I guess you can tell I am kind of a fangirl ; )

      The good news is that my older daughter Arya (yeah, pseudonym) is super outgoing and has tons of friends, so even if Marjorie’s family moved away, I know she’d be sad but she would move on. My younger daughter is the one that’s less social, and tends to gravitate toward just a few friends and hold them really close. She’s just starting kindergarten next year, though, so hopefully she’ll make new friends too.

      I have to say, I’m leaning more toward the advice from Elle, Foolsgame and you at this point, just letting the kids see each other at school and at activities. Marjorie has been completely disrespectful of my boundaries in the week and a half since I sent the letter. She has emailed me three times, stopped by my house twice to try to talk to me (I didn’t answer the door) and last week she actually snuck up to my house and left a potted plant beside my car. This was extra creepy because the plant arrived in a five-minute interval between when I got back from errands and when I left to pick up my daughter from school…which means that Marjorie must’ve been parked in my neighborhood, waiting for me to get home.

      This is bothering me a lot, not just because it’s freaking creepy! but because I feel like I am dealing with an emotional terrorist here who thinks my boundaries are just speed bumps. So far I’ve been avoiding her, ignoring her and freezing her out. Such a giant pain in the ass.

      Anyway, thanks to everyone!

      1. Dude that is super Not Okay! You are correct: You are dealing with an emotional terrorist who thinks your boundaries are speed bumps, not brick walls. Also, she is using her children as a social weapon. How terribly sad for that entire family. BUT! Their sadness is not your fault, nor your problem to correct.

        You are also dealing with this in the correct way. Do not engage, do not email. Do avoid! Do ignore! And if the number of playdates you can handle is zero, then that is okay! Your girls will hang out with the other girls at school, and will have other friends. You’re doing a fantastic job of handling this!

        1. Thank you. I’ve been losing sleep over this for sure and your responses (and the comments) have been SO helpful. I was going to try to be the bigger person and still do very occasional playdates, but the potted plant episode has me convinced that any effort I make for the sake of the kids will be misinterpreted as me “breaking down” in the face of her onslaught.

          On the bright side, once I decide I’m done with someone, I am really good at giving a total stonewall. It’s the in-between states of awkwardness that are a struggle for me.

          1. If you want to really, REALLY be pointed about it, you can also make use of the “cut direct”. That’s where you look straight at/through the other person, give no acknowledgement, and turn your back. Believe it or not, it’s very good manners.

            Also, you may want to start documenting her attempts at contact. The potted plant thing is scaring me. If she escalates to the point that you need to get the police involved for your own safety or peace of mind, having a list of when you told her to stop bugging you and all the times she’s attempted to bug you since then can be useful. (It can also be another tool for dealing with her when she approaches you in public — pull out a notepad, look at your watch, jot down a few words, and then go back to ignoring.)

            I’m sorry this is happening to you and your kids.

  11. Will do that – I’ve been inadvertently documenting everything in a nearly daily email rant to my best friend on this very topic. It’s probably also time to alert my other friends at the school to the fact that Marjorie and I are done. A buddy of ours will be watching our place this summer while we’re away, and I could totally see her trying to talk her way into using our pool while we’re not home.

    Husband thought I was slightly overreacting about the potted plant until this morning, when Marjorie announced via email that she’s having a kiddie party this weekend, and has invited every single person we know – including friends and neighbors of mine whose children don’t go to our kids’ school, whom she’s met maybe twice at my house.

    I swear, there is a script for a Lifetime Original Movie in here somewhere…

    1. wasn’t it called The Hand That Rocks the Cradle? Only in this one she wants your friends, not your husband.

    2. Good for you for recognizing what you needed to do and following through even though it is hard.

      It is typical for people like Marjorie to escalate things as their efforts to re-engage you do not work. So what she’s doing is “normal” (I mean, normal for folks with her kind of emotional life) and it may get worse (i.e. more dramatic, more emotional, etc) before it gets better. It is how it is, it is probably unavoidable, and it is not your fault. Hold fast!

      1. This is very helpful. I have to say the escalation has been causing me a lot of frustration lately. It’s good to know that I’m making progress against getting away from her, even if it doesn’t seem like it yet…thank you!

        1. LW,

          I’m sorry this is happening to you. I just don’t know what people like this are thinking. I got rid of my own Marjorie recently. I cut contact silently last Thanksgiving weekend when she told me she would treat me to dinner and a movie and she proceeded to use that occasion to insult me in any way that she could. Then I ran into her in public at work and she invited me to Christmas Day. I said yes to get rid of her at work but meant no. Before Christmas I thought of blocking her email but realized that would alert her to something being different and I knew that would make her escalate. So what I did instead was set up an email filter that sent all her email to my spam folder on the server so it never got downloaded to me and I never even had to see it. Meanwhile she was not alerted something is different. She continued to call of course (through February) but that one is easy for me. I screen anyway and if the message was from her I just deleted it without listening to it. Good luck. Stand your ground. Fist bump of solidarity.

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