#442: Clearing the air (but only if you feel like it) + Pledge Drive Week (but only if you feel like it).

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Dear Captain & Friends,

A while ago, I had a falling out with a lover I’d had for a relatively short time. They are in the habit of not speaking to people when displeased with them, and my last contact with them was to say that I would contact them when I felt like I was in an emotionally good place to talk again. I also made it clear that they could contact me before then, and I’d be open to scheduling a talk at that time.

After some time and hearing some of the hurtful things they said about me to my primary partner, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to talk to them. Some of my actions and habits were clearly misinterpreted, and while I don’t think this former lover is a bad person, I also don’t think they use their words enough for me to feel comfortable around them. I use my words A LOT, and I’m pretty direct about discussing what bothers me, why, and if I think it needs to be changed or it’s something I know I need to relax about. They didn’t choose to communicate their boundaries or feelings to me, except for a little bit at our falling out, when it was already too late for us to talk about fixing things. That’s not the kind of (lack of) communication style I want in my life. I’ve already started taking a look at how I was misinterpreted and deciding what I want to do differently in the future, with other people, to avoid that issue the best I can.

There are two problems with this.
1) I feel guilty because I said I’d say something when I personally felt like the rest of my life was going smoothly enough for me to talk. I don’t care for going back on my word.

2) We share a (large, to be fair) social circle, which they’ve been in far longer. I get anxious when considering going to events I know this person will be at, not knowing what they may have said about me to other people (they spoke poorly of one person they were *still sleeping with* when I was seeing them) and also fearing what people will think if they notice me and this person avoiding each other/not speaking.

What do you think? Should I offer to schedule that talk, or at least say I don’t care to? What kind of script could I use? And how can I deal with going to the same events?

Thank you for your time.

Going for Calm & Responsible

Dear Calm & Responsible:

If you think sitting down with this person and talking through some things will make you feel less anxious (about attending future social events, for example) and help you leave things on a better note, then by all means schedule something.

Script: “I promised I’d get in touch when things got more manageable around here, so this is me getting in touch.”

But what to say then? You don’t want to be sex partners again. You don’t even really want to be friends again. You mostly want them to stop discussing you with people who are not you.

I think big “clearing the air” talks are for when you have a relationship you are invested in preserving. When you are really done with the relationship and not interested in reconciling or spending any time together, you risk just opening old wounds or giving a false impression of your level of investment.

So if you want to let the whole thing drop, let it drop. You’re 100% allowed to just move on without a big talk if you think it will just stir up bad feelings and long discussions about stuff you don’t really care about anymore. A little time has gone by since this note came in, so I doubt this person is waiting by the phone to hear from you. Not getting in touch with them to talk things over IS a kind of response. It means: I don’t want to be in touch with you right now. As Elodieunderglass and others have stated: There is no special reward you get for being the most accommodating and nice to people who hurt you.

As for how to handle things in the social circle, it is completely probable that this person has gossiped about your relationship, so your anxiety at the possibility of some friction is understandable. But that friction and awkwardness is eminently survivable. I think you should keep going to fun events you like, nod at this person and say a brief hello, and focus on talking to the people you really like. If something awkward comes up from a third party, you can say “Yes, we dated briefly, but it turns out we were a bad fit. No need to rehash it, what’s new with you?” or (if they are pushy)” or “Wow, my least favorite topic! Well done!” depending on who/how close you are/what they say and how they say it. People will figure out pretty quickly that you don’t like to go over the gory details of your love life in public. Anyone who keeps crossing the line once you’ve set up the boundary that you don’t want to discuss it is way out of line and you may proceed to the “Look! Over there! Is where I want to be!” stage of interaction.

If you do think your former partner will be receptive to some communication and that talking things over are likely to make things better, ask yourself: Is this person better in email vs. text vs. phone vs. chat vs. in-person? and choose your medium.

Script #1: If you feel you need to draw a boundary about what is and isn’t up for public discussion

Hey, I promised I would get in touch at some point, so I’m getting in touch. How are you doing?

(listen)

Okay, cool, so I’d love to figure out how we can be in the same social spaces and not step on each other’s toes or make each other feel weird…what do you think?

(listen)

Well, one thing that would make me more comfortable is knowing that you will take any concerns or issues you have with me directly to me before you discuss them with others. It really hurt my feelings when you told (stuff) to Partner that you didn’t tell me, and I don’t like the idea of the details of our sad business being out and about in the friend circle. Can you reassure me about that and help me feel more comfortable?

(listen, likely to a lot of justification)

I don’t want to reopen old wounds, but I did want to be clear that privacy and directness are important to me. Mostly what I’d like is to be able to say hello to you at (events) in (social circle) and have that be positive and have us leave things on a good note. Is that cool?” or “What do you suggest?”

Script #2: If you feel compelled to honor the promise to get in touch eventually but don’t actually want to discuss anything.

“Hey, remember how I said I’d get in touch? I’m getting in touch. How are you?”

(listen)

Cool, that’s good to hear. Well, I don’t have anything really serious to talk about, I just didn’t want things to be awkward when we run into each other at events. I’m really grateful to you for giving me the time and space I asked for, it really helped me feel better about everything.”

You do feel “better,” right? Not awesome, or you wouldn’t be writing, but more confident about what kind of treatment you need from a partner and probably happier now that this person isn’t still a big factor in  your life? This person doesn’t have to know that “better” = BETTER WITHOUT YOU.

If this person tries to open up a big serious discussion, you can close it off. “I appreciate the apology” or “I appreciate your efforts in wanting to clear things up” + “But there’s really no need – let’s just let bygones by bygones and I’ll run into you at (events) when I do. Take care!

You don’t owe them reaching out in the first place, you definitely don’t owe them a full airing of grievances.

Script #3: They get in touch with you.

Wow, yeah, I’m still not ready to talk.

(listen)

Well, since you’re here, I’m pretty sure I’m not interested in resuming any kind of close friendship, but I would like to see you sometimes at events and not have that be painful and weird for either of us. Being able to say a quick hello to you at parties and then chill and enjoy everyone who is there would make me feel like we left things on a good note.”

In all of these scripts I am trying to outline specific behaviors that would be comfortable or okay, because when someone has wronged you and is trying to make amends it can be helpful if they know specifically how to go forward.

I hope this helps and that you can return to enjoying parties without worrying about what this person is saying behind your back. Good on you for figuring out what you really need from a relationship.

———————————

Finally, dear & beloved commenters, it’s the week of the winter where I remind people that the tip jar is open. If you can throw a dollar my way, I’d be ever so grateful.

I don’t have a special reward this time around, but I took my short film The Wardrobe out from behind the password and now everyone can watch it. Here are some other projects that I’m excited about:

  • A short film I directed, Meet In A Public Place, is in the last stages of post-production and will be ready to be posted here on the site soon. Premise: It’s always good to Google someone before you meet them in person for the first time, but it’s possible to take this too far. Much too far.
  • Boyfriend and I wrote a webseries together about a married couple that tries to bring the spice and connection back to their marriage. Unfortunately they decide to do this by using sex tips from Cosmopolitan. You want to see this web series, right? Your donation will help us get it made.
  • My graphic designer friend is starting to work on Captain Awkward Swag – t-shirts, reusable bags, mugs, cross-stitch patterns, and most importantly, greeting cards. Need to tell someone that you don’t want to be friends anymore or that they make you 30-35% more human? We’re on it. If you think something should definitely be on a card or a t-shirt, tell us here.

That’s all for now. Thanks always for reading and being the best community on the internet.

61 comments
  1. cuntessvonfingerbang said:

    Oooooh, I am really excited for your webseries! I don’t have the funds to donate at the moment, but I will when I’m able. I appreciate the work you do here so very much. Thank you, Captain!

    • Ditto to this! I currently like to describe myself as a recessionista. It sounds so much better than broke-ass doler, don’t you think? But I guarantee you that when (not if!) I am again gainfully employed somewhere wonderful (it will happen!) there shall be donations. This blog is, like, my Being A Grown-Up Human 101. You rock 🙂

    • lol yeah! I have to leave what money I have in reserve in case of moving cities or (hopefully) if a couple I know find somewhere to live I said I’d help them put up the bond. So many good places to put money, so little money to put good places.

  2. Boyfriend and I wrote a webseries together about a married couple that tries to bring the spice and connection back to their marriage. Unfortunately they decide to do this by using sex tips from Cosmopolitan.

    HAHAHAHAHAH! That sounds fucken hilarious, in a very painful way!

    • JenniferP said:

      In some cases, literally. A lot of the dialogue consists of “ow!”

      • Me and my partner did something like this. There were donuts and peen-pics and it was gloriously funny.

        Not in the least bit sexy though.

        PRO-TIP: We have learnt that pretty much anything Cosmo tell you to put on his penis will give him a yeast infection.

        Can’t wait to watch it!

    • Katie said:

      Definitely hilarious! I’ll chip in for that one. Cosmo was the entertainment of choice at the college I went to (ironically a mostly-male nerdy science college). The tip I still remember the best involved the eating of a, err, … “strategically-placed” donut.

      • Ethyl said:

        EURGH stickystickysticky NO.

      • Manatee said:

        Wow, way to ruin a perfectly good doughnut! 😀

      • griffykate said:

        There is a joke about glazed donuts in here somewhere…

  3. Congrats on getting Freshly Pressed! Awesome!

    One thing I’d say to the LW, though? I know that as someone who Uses Their Words and is Responsible you can feel like it’s important to go through with getting back in touch with your ex. I think, though, that saying “I’ll call you when I feel better” during a break-up is one of those things that doesn’t necessarily mean that you get a call. It’s the kind of situation where you really don’t know how you’ll feel when the dust settles, and it’s okay for you to feel comfortable with a very different set of things then than you had originally thought you would.

    An example from Things Which Were Far Worse, Hopefully: When I ended things with Abusive Ex, the extent of how bad things had been hadn’t sunk in yet and I still figured that we’d be able to be friends after a few months of radio silence. I was wrong- the more time passed, the more I realised that this was not a person I ever wanted to be in contact with again. The way he had behaved towards me and others pretty much waived any right he had to getting a conversation with me where I politely laid all of this out. I didn’t owe him that.

    If you feel like you want/need to have a conversation with your ex for you, then that’s awesome and the Captain has brilliant scripts. But if you feel like you owe it to them, then I’d reconsider. Sometimes I think that We Must Always Talk Everything Out With Everyone might be verging on being a Poly (I assume poly, since you mentioned a primary partner?) Social Fallacy. You get to just not talk to the asshole who badmouths you to your partner. You don’t lose maturity points for that.

    Good luck!

    • mintylime said:

      As far as I can tell it is TOTALLY a Poly Social Fallacy. 😦 😦 😦

      One I am currently in the middle of ignoring the fuck out of because there is NO conversation I can have about anything emotional with Mister mintylime’s secondary partner that does not end up badly. So much with the gaslighting from hir.

      And because it is a Social Fucking Fallacy.

      LW – do not let anyone guilt you into having this conversation if you do not want to.

      • Aaaargh. Massive sympathies for the whole partner-dating-someone-full-of-the-gaslighting situation! Much luck in enforcing ALL THE BOUNDARIES there.

    • Definitely seconding Aoife on this one, here.

      I can fully sympathize with the I Keep my Promises feels – but, really, you are keeping you word here. Even if you never get in touch. After all, you said you’d get in touch when you felt better, yeah? So if you never feel better about getting back in touch, then you are never obligated to do so.

      I did a similar thing with a jerky potential-investor-in-a-hypothetical-business. I told him I’d get in touch when I wanted to be friends again… and lo and behold, I’ve decided that I will want to be friends again somewhere between When Hell Freezes Over and When Pigs Fly.

      Another thing, too: if this ex-partner is badmouthing you, and badmouthing people to you… chances are they do that all the time, to all the people. Folks will quickly figure out that game and realize that they should probably take anything they hear about you (and everybody else) from this person with several large grains of salt.

      If Bob has a problem with everybody… the problem is Bob.

  4. hypatia said:

    CROSS STITCH OMG YAY

  5. Sara said:

    One thought on the worry about gossip in the larger friends group…

    I do think people have the right to talk to their friends about relationship difficulties and problems, even if the partner they’re having problems with is also friends with the confidante in question. Maybe it would be ideal to discuss these things with a no-common-denominator friend, but sometimes that’s not always possible due to the way friends groups overlap, the vagaries of who we happen to be close to/feel comfortable opening up with, etc. That said, there is of course a big difference between malicious bad-mouthing and honest “hey, I’m upset about this, help me process!” But, when you’re the subject of the talk, I think it can be really hard to have perspective on it and tell which one it is. That your primary partner apparently was party to at least some of these conversations suggests to me that maybe this was more “venting to my friends” rather than “I want to spread around terrible things for no reason!”, at least if your primary partner is otherwise a non-jerky person who would presumably stand up for you if someone were just randomly bad-mouthing you.

    Now, that’s not necessarily super comforting when you’re the subject of such talk, but at the same time, maybe it IS kind of comforting to know that everyone else has observed the way this person talks about partners before, and is going to take it all with the huge grain of salt of his/her past behavior and the fact that you guys just had a falling out. When a friend of mine has a fight with a boyfriend and vents to me about it, my immediate reaction isn’t “Oh gosh, he is evil incarnate and must be a terrible person!” Unless something truly terrible is revealed, I’m going to take it for what it is – people get mad at each other, and need to talk to friends about it, and that’s okay. (That goes double it it’s a friend who tends to be overly dramatic and complain about romantic partners/exes a lot.)

    I guess “Script 1″ just pushed my buttons a bit on this topic, because I don’t actually think it’s totally fair to ask someone to not talk to common friends about relationship problems. Clearly if the person has been over the top spreading rumors or lies, it’s one thing, but it’s different if they’re just complaining or upset that the relationship ended. At the least, you can ask, but don’t be shocked if the person said…”Hey, these were my friends first! I think I have some right to share my feelings when I’m upset!”

    • JenniferP said:

      I think this is a legitimate point, and we’ve definitely come down on the side of “friends get to tell their friends stuff” in the past. Sometimes you gotta vent or figure out your own mind about something. It’s definitely situational.

      For example, I used to work with a guy who CONSTANTLY complained about his girlfriend to us. Then we’d all hang out, and there she was, and we’d all know that he was describing her as “so uptight” and “boring” and “a bitch” and we’d have to smile at her and pretend we didn’t know. I guess he thought he was venting or letting off steam, but he was putting everyone in a pretty terrible and disrespectful position. I was really glad when I didn’t work with him anymore, and the girlfriend would have been right to feel anxious about seeing all of us. For another example, it became very obvious that an ex-partner had shared certain words and deeds that had happened mid-sexytimes with others, because I was at a party with him and one of his friends decided it would be funny to repeat the thing I’d said in the tone of voice I’d used, in front of everyone. NOT COOL, BRO.

      The personal ethic I try to use is to of course run things by close friends and use them as a sounding board, but if I find myself constantly complaining about my partner, especially if I’m bringing up problems to them that I don’t feel comfortable talking to my partner about, something is probably wrong.

      It’s super-situational. I’m going to believe the LW that whatever came up from her ex was on the side of Not Cool. Friends get to talk to friends, but I have some private stuff that I would not be happy if my partner shared with others and I don’t discuss his deepest private stuff with others, either, and it’s okay to speak up if that boundary gets crossed.

      • Sara said:

        Totally understood. I guess I was more saying that this is something for LW to think about, not that it’s necessarily true. I know from my end, I can tend to feel kind of uncomfortable knowing what one particular former partner has shared with some joint friends, even though from a more objective place, I can recognize that I don’t actually think he was out of line. Ex-lover in this case may indeed have totally been out of line…just wanted to bring it up as something to possibly consider in this case since I think most people have an automatic reaction that they never want anyone to share negative comments about them (totally understandably!).

      • Chris said:

        “The personal ethic I try to use is to of course run things by close friends and use them as a sounding board, but if I find myself constantly complaining about my partner, especially if I’m bringing up problems to them that I don’t feel comfortable talking to my partner about, something is probably wrong.”

        I think that this is really important. If someone is saying stuff about you to others, but won’t say stuff to you directly, it creates a really weird dynamic.

      • Quisty said:

        Follow-up question, if that is alright. I really like your idea about how to go about this when it comes to your partner. What if it’s a co-worker?

        I have a co-worker who’s been consistently been giving me crap in the “these insults are just all in good fun, right? DUDEBRO” kind of way while simultaneously professing to ALL THE PROGRESSIVE POLITICS which make me very confused when he treats me kind of… sexist? Constantly? Like none of the guys gets this kind of flak? Just me and other women? It’s hard to talk to friends who have never met him because I want to know if I’m going out of my mind or if anyone else has noticed a… pattern. I probed gently with a few co-workers who has also noticed problems and I brought it up to my supervisor. Talks have been had, all separately and things seem better now. (Although there was a definite period of NO SPEAKING on his side for a couple of weeks). This is my first real job, everyone is really young. Was this the wrong way to go about it?

        • I think you did exactly right, although it’s important to be careful that the gentle probing with coworkers is actually gentle. But you did what you did, you got confirmation, and you brought it up with the person whose job it is to take care of that.

          That person then did things about it. The annoying guy got huffy, which yeah, a lot of people do when they’ve been Spoken To about their Attitude or the way they Treat Others, because most people do not actually think that they are assholes.

          But after a few weeks this guy got over himself and he’s being careful around you (and hopefully others) now. That’s great. That’s exactly what you wanted, and exactly how it’s supposed to go.

          The only thing I think you should be doing, other than sitting at home with your beverage of choice and rocking out with your bad self, is to be relentlessly positive and professional at work. Don’t avoid him or let things be awkward. Just let it be in the past, same as you’d do with some other embarrassing workplace event, like the tomato sauce on the shirt or stinky fart in the elevator.

          This is the most professional way to act going forward, and it is also the way to best encourage continuing good behavior. Positive reinforcement!

          Great job using your words.

          • Chris said:

            “Just let it be in the past, same as you’d do with some other embarrassing workplace event, like the tomato sauce on the shirt or stinky fart in the elevator.”

            This is a good perspective.

          • Quisty said:

            Thank you. And yes, the situation is definitely improved!

            “The only thing I think you should be doing, other than sitting at home with your beverage of choice and rocking out with your bad self, is to be relentlessly positive and professional at work. Don’t avoid him or let things be awkward. Just let it be in the past, same as you’d do with some other embarrassing workplace event, like the tomato sauce on the shirt or stinky fart in the elevator. ”

            I’ve been trying to do this per earlier CA advice about dealing with Unpleasant People Being Unpleasant. So when he was all morose and non-talking I would still give him a friendly greeting in the morning when I came home and say goodbye in the evening. We talk about business-related things and things are generally non-awkward at this point. Can’t speak for any of the other ladies in the office but I’m pretty glad about how things have turned out.

      • Ethyl said:

        Oh! We worked with the same guy, apparently! Such a delight.

      • solecism said:

        I am enjoying the discussion here. My personal rule of thumb is if I vent/complain about someone 3 times (whether to 3 different people or iterations to my partner), then it’s time to take it to that person directly. I don’t always succeed in following this rule, and the follow-up with the person that I’m angsting over may not happen immediately, but it helps remind me to do something about what I perceive as a problem and limit my scope for gossiping. In general, I have just a couple of confidantes in addition to my partner that I vent to, and I try to limit more general gossip to positive news.

        I gotta say, I tend to be a very private person, and I remember how uncomfortable I was years ago when a friend commented to my new housemate that my moving in meant more leverage with the landlord because I was an ex-lover who presumably had more influence. A fairly innocuous statement really, but I really wasn’t expecting my sexual history to be trotted out so blithely in casual conversation. And yet, I certainly talk a lot about my relationships, current and former, as I process them, so I recognize that I can’t control what happens to that information.

        A conversation where you express discomfort about the possibility of the particulars of your intimate history shared with person X or Y (and therefore please refrain) seems reasonable. A more blanket request to not discuss it among the general social circle seems far more controlling. I tend to think that whole mentality of “don’t air dirty laundry” is more designed to protect abusers and their public reputations and create opportunities to further punish their victims.

        I mean, I am not intentionally trying to badmouth my abusive ex when I frankly admit that the relationship in hindsight was abusive. I did choose my words carefully when we first broke up and I was speaking to mutual friends exactly because I didn’t want to intentionally damage his reputation with them, but after a certain point, I realized it wasn’t my job to protect him and it was more important that I speak my truth. I am sure he would disagree. YMMV.

    • Beth said:

      Now, that’s not necessarily super comforting when you’re the subject of such talk, but at the same time, maybe it IS kind of comforting to know that everyone else has observed the way this person talks about partners before, and is going to take it all with the huge grain of salt of his/her past behavior

      I just want to heartily second this! I live in a very small town, about half of which is related to one of my exes. I spent a long time after the breakup – a LONG time, like two years – very socially isolated and anxious about the gossip I knew she must be spreading. (I wasn’t paranoid. She was.) What finally happened is that one of my very few friends repeated to me something she’d said in public, not knowing that this person and I were close. My friend’s demeanor was entirely, kind of hilariously sympathetic-snarky; I think the words “bless her heart” may have been involved. (Note! My friend is very astute, and read me and my needs very well. Repeating Unfortunate Ex Gossip to the aggrieved party: in the “don’t try this at home” category of anecdotes.)

      It was incredibly freeing to suddenly 1.) know, instead of suspecting; and 2.) realize that yes, half the town is related to her, and EVERYONE in town knows what kind of person she is. I’d been letting her frame the dialogue – taking up as much space as she wanted, and retreating into an ever-tinier box. Which was, of course, exactly what the relationship was like. That was when I really, finally, broke up and moved on, and the next time I heard gossip – this time from someone who WAS ill-intentioned, stirring trouble to see how I’d react – I laughed in their face.

      LW, live your life in a way that reflects who you are, and this ex will do the same, and let what comes of that be. You’ve totally achieved calm and responsible, and also gracious and classy!

    • LW said:

      I get what you’re saying. And yeah, knowing someone is venting can be awkward. In this particular situation, it’s not my concern. I also vented to a couple of trustworthy people. My concern has been more over that I know they think (or thought, haven’t heard more in over a month now) some things about me that are a mixture of factually incorrect, completely the opposite of what I intended, and/or a strange misinterpretation of my words/actions. I dislike people thinking/saying negative things about me, but I *haaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaate* that coming about because of misunderstandings that could be explained. It was a not pretty couple of months in my life, and I’ll be the first to admit that I didn’t do everything awesomely – but I don’t think it’s fair to judge me on that alone, as even they knew that it was a bad time. If people do judge without trying to get to know me, I don’t really need them, but it’s hard to move past the emotions of that.
      Also: as a woman who has experienced varying levels of gaslighting over time, the idea of getting painted as crazy is, well, crazy-making.

      • Manatee said:

        Oh wow I really empathise with you on this one. I hate being misrepresented so hard. It is gaslighty, and in my experience, the people who have done it have also been the people who were generally emotionally manipulative/abusive so for me it stinks of that. I was in a similar situation to you a few years ago, complete with twisted version of events being spread around behind my back as part of her way of dealing with the hurt of being dumped (both before and after we’d cleared the air in fact – that just gave her more narrative to twist). The fallout in our social circle (where she was alpha) really, really upset me. But ultimately it did me a favour. And how people responded to her really sorted the wheat from the chaff in that group. At the time I was sad to lose friends and a social circle, but now I have new friends which I have been much more careful in choosing, have nurtured the relationships with the few people from that old group who either ignored the gossip or asked me for my side of things, and don’t have to waste time on people who buy into those sorts of twisted politics.

        Anyway, I’m sorry you’re going through this, it sucks big time. But I just wanted you to know there are some positives that can come out of shit like this too in time.

      • Bittybird said:

        Oh, I’ve been there–misrepresented by an ex to a group of mutual friends, and having everyone take his side. No, I didn’t handle the breakup as best I could–I kind of had a panic attack the middle, so, y’know!–but I don’t think I deserved the horrific twisting of events and the Wall of Shun that followed. They were his friends first so by default the majority took his side…but I had thought they were my friends too, and I had thought that they would have cared enough to at least ASK for my side of the story. I was wrong.

        In the end I’m glad. I sure as hell learned who my friends were. But it’s still incredibly hurtful. And in a way, frightening, to know there is a narrative out there about an alternate you who is shitty and bad, and that people you thought cared are telling everyone about alternate you, eroding the image of real you. I worry there will be repercussions in my future relationships/friendships/endeavors because of alternate me’s fictional actions, which I have no way of disproving.

        I’m still learning to cope with this, and it still gets my goat sometimes that he gets to sit on his tower telling his lies, believed without question. But I learned a LOT about friendship, and that I have a few true friends who’ve got my back, and the rest are people I don’t want or need in my life. I also learned to pick more mature partners!

      • twomoogles said:

        This is really hard. Because your ex might be venting and giving the situation the way *they* see it, but if they’re the only one talking, you feel like other people are getting sort of a skewed view of the thing. On the other hand, it’s probably not helpful to seek out anyone you think they might’ve talked to to say ‘Just in case Ex said anything to you about how I was These Things, that’s not actually what happened! It was actually This Way!’

        In my experience, there isn’t anything you can say or do to stop your ex talking about you. And it’s possible that the more you say ‘don’t talk about me!’ the more they will feel like they have something to talk about. I think if you get a chance to clear up the misunderstandings with your ex or friends in a natural way, that would be good. But other than that…well, I think most people take Ex Rantings with a grain of salt. If someone is talking about a friend of mine in a way that seems uncharacteristic, my opinion isn’t going to be that easily swayed.

        I feel for you, because sometimes it seems like the person who talks most and first is believed. I was in the middle of a situation like this–my best guy friend’s ex ranted a *lot* about him to other people. She wasn’t lying, but she was giving her own, skewed perspective and making him come off *very* badly. At times people would comment on this to me, and I’d try to defend him as best I could, because I felt like the fact that he wasn’t talking about it and she was meant he was assumed to be in the wrong.

        Again speaking only from my experience, but I have never seen ‘chasing down’ gossip go well, in part because the lines are so blurry between conversation, gossip, rumours, venting, and lies. What’s obviously fine to one person is obviously not to another.

        Do you have people you could recruit to be on your side if you do come up in conversation in a way they feel is unfair? Not jumping in angrily, but just to say something to remind people there *are* two sides and not to take everything your ex says as fact.

    • Lily said:

      Perhaps it’s not possible with that former lover, but normally you can have a arrangement to whom they will talk in an shared social circle.

      e.g.
      You: “It’s totally okay if you want to discuss our relationship with your friends. I would prefer it if you talked about it to Peter or Hepzibah, and I’m okay if you talked about it to Jane, but I would feel a bit insecure if you discussed our relationship with John. Would that be okay for you?”

      And as a poly person, I would never vent to the other partner of my lover (unless you are really BFF with them). I really think this is very uncool behavior. Perhaps not an red flag, but a yellow one?

  6. Rocketpants said:

    LW, you really don’t have to talk to them if that’s not something you’re interested in – as The Captain said, but you might want to keep in mind that, whatever happens, you can’t control what they say. You can ask them not to bring up things with other people, and, in theory, they should respect that. It doesn’t mean that they’ll listen. So, even if you do talk to them about that, you might want to have something prepared just in case they decide it isn’t a request they want to respect.

  7. The last thing your mutual friends want is to be Stuck In The Middle Of The Drama. So I think all you do is go about your business, going to the parties and events that you want to go to, and use the script for avoiding the negative conversations. You were just not a good fit, and you really hope things are going well for her!

    Pretty soon Everyone(TM) will forget that you were even a Thing, unless she keeps bringing it up to Everyone(TM) all the time. In which case, who looks reasonable and who doesn’t? I mean, her closest friends might decide that you’re an evil sea-witch out to steal her voice, but that’s kind of their job.

    People don’t want to have to remember who all is dating and who all is on the outs and which friends are feuding and who can sit next to each other and who has to be kept apart — even though they love to gossip about it! It’s all, like, News Of The Moment. Exciting for a day or a week, but then you don’t want to remember who was the mermaid and who was the octomaid (merpus? wait didn’t she have ten arms, if you include the two human ones? See how confusing it is?)

    If I’m your good friend, I really do want to hear how things are, and I want to know the twists and turns of your plot, because good friends love each other. But if I’m someone at a party who is not really close friends to either of you, I have no idea who’s fish, crab, octo(deca)pus, prince, or chef. I can’t keep it straight, I’ve got my own stories to manage, I mean, my brothers are still bears! Argh!

    Do what you have to do to be comfortable with the end of your relationship and don’t even sweat what happens among the large friends circle. There’s space for Team You, and there’s lots of space for Team Not My Plot, Leave Me Out Of It.

    • twomoogles said:

      This comment rocks in all sorts of ways, like being something I totally agree with and having excellent references.

    • mintylime said:

      +1000000 Internets to this comment.

      I’m a recovering “If I Can Just Explain, You’ll Agree With Me”-er, and my experience is that no level of trying to explain in detail why their lies are wrong ever helps, even if you don’t bring up anything about why the lying liar is also a jerk.

      When I left my first husband, I had the delusion that we might still be friends, and we had a lot of friends in common, so I was worried about them choosing him over me. I told our not-really-close friends that it just didn’t work out, that he and I had grown apart, but I didn’t want them to feel like they had to take sides. (The really close ones already knew how bad it really was.) I’m told that he said a lot of crap about me. I ignored that shit and went on being cool friends with people.

      A few years later? Most of them were still friends with me, including some people who had known him for decades before I came along. Some of them are still friends with him (I assume), but by and large it’s irrelevant to my life.

    • Ve said:

      “If I’m your good friend, I really do want to hear how things are, and I want to know the twists and turns of your plot, because good friends love each other. But if I’m someone at a party who is not really close friends to either of you, I have no idea who’s fish, crab, octo(deca)pus, prince, or chef. I can’t keep it straight, I’ve got my own stories to manage, I mean, my brothers are still bears! Argh!”

      I agree with the whole comment, I just love this paragraph in particular and wanted to draw attention to it lol 🙂

  8. “my last contact with them was to say that I would contact them when I felt like I was in an emotionally good place to talk again”

    Remember that that time can be never. You can be ‘sorry, still not really ready to have this talk with you’ for as long as you like, until they stop asking. Even if you feel like you’ve worked through everything yourself – you’re not obligated to let them know that.

    • JenniferP said:

      Indeed, this is a good insight!

  9. LW said:

    LW / letter writer here. I totally didn’t expect this to get answered, since there ended up being a post I saw right after submitting this that was pretty relevant. Thanks, Captain. Much fan love.

    Update: I have started going to events again. The awkward was getting to be too much for me and my anxiety, so I did send them a message to request an opportunity for both of us to smooth things over and establish enough coolness for us to be casually friendly at social events. That was almost a week ago, and I’ve had no response. Probably not going to get one. I’m currently processing my anger about that (I know the emotion is illogical, I know they don’t owe me anything, I just still have Feelings to work through). Unless I get a response, I will continue the “politely pretend they aren’t there” tactic I’ve been using.

    I have kept my nose clean by not posting things on the internet (this excluded) or Telling Everyone Ever. A couple of close friends in the shared group know the whole story, and that is all. I can’t tell if things have been said to other people, and am trying to act as if the thought hasn’t crossed my mind. I’m doing a lot of sticking close to people who I know are genuinely friendly, spending one on one time with them and having them over in small groups. It’s slowly getting better.

    • I think acting like everything is cool is probably a good way to go, but I’m glad you are letting yourself work through your anger. I sometimes get frustrated because I think I should be able to just switch off certain feelings because they’re illogical, or unfair on certain people. And then I have to remind myself that I’m not, in fact, a robot and do some Feeling of My Feelings.

    • Em said:

      I totally understand that anger, but in an effort to cheer you up, I want to suggest a different interpretation: GIven that you do not want to be friends with Lover, you may have masterfully allowed yourself to get what you want with the least amount of pain.

      I’ll explain.

      Many people like the last word in an argument. I suspect this might be particularly true of those given to badmouthing exes behind their backs. After all, what is that but a sneaky way of having the last word? You share a lot of mutual friends. Lover knows you’ll eventually hear some of what s/he said.

      If you suspect that’s the case with Lover, then you’ve given them the opportunity to have the last word without actually having to hear any words. Since you have no desire to resume a friendship or relationship of any kind, that’s perfect. Lover gets to “reject” you one last time by not responding. You get to skip whatever self-serving fauxpology s/he might have offered AND you don’t have to respond to it.

      Of course, this does mean YOU don’t get the last word, LW. That does suck, but if it means you have satisfied the obligation you felt you had and that you don’t have to have an unpleasant conversation, that’s a win.

    • redgirl said:

      I think you’re proceeding as well as you can. You can’t control what your ex says about you (even if you do have that conversation–there’s no guarantee they’ll respect your wishes). But I think that most people (the kind of people you’d want as friends, anyway) do recognize over time when one person is constantly trash-talking someone, while the other person has moved on and behaves maturely. They might buy into the trash-talking for a while, but ultimately the kind, mature person that you continue to be will shine through to them.

  10. Lilly said:

    Oh I love your film! So well done. Especially love the moving shot at the beginning of the young woman riding her bike outdoors contrasted with the claustrophobic shot of her struggling on an exercise bike in an enclosed space.

    • JenniferP said:

      Thank you so much!

    • thesurfmonkey said:

      I loved that exercise bike shot too! The roomba made it extra spooky somehow.

    • Em said:

      I loved that shot too!

    • Simone Lovelace said:

      Yes! I love The Wardrobe–so deliciously creepy.

  11. I get wanting to manage what gets spread around about you, These kind of stories tend to have one part truth to them and several parts interpretation. Like that game you did back in grade school where you whispered something to one of your classmates, it went around to everyone and in the end it was all gibberish.

    Asking the ex-lover to take their concerns directly to you without passing go or collecting $200 is a fine and dandy script but I doubt it would work in this case. The former lover seems to have a pattern of talking about people (understandable to some degree) and avoiding direct conflicts with the concerned parties. The LW can only do so much and getting someone to change the way they handle conflict is a tall order. I suggest acting like social icky-bullets bounce off of you and giving the ex-lover enough rope to hang herself should s/he choose to be a gossip mongerer.

    • JenniferP said:

      Asking for it probably won’t work, but it’s still okay to try to set that boundary and see what happens. The ex might say “sorry, nope” and then the LW will really know not to ever engage again, and the ex will know why.

      • Yan said:

        Asking and being ignored is actually a very informative experience. For one thing, you get to set out a boundary, verbally, and feel empowered by speaking your boundary. When someone ignores it, you not only have reliable information about them, but you also now know that that person is willfully doing what you asked them not to do. You no longer “wonder” if it could be “innocent.” Sometimes that can help you to really see who that person is and move on.

  12. Em said:

    This is such great advice. I wrote a very similar letter to the Captain not long ago, though mine was about an ex-best friend (of the “close as sisters” variety) and I too was hung up on the idea that our mutual friends might be hearing about a version of me that wasn’t an accurate representation.

    I’m still making peace with that situation, and still myself debating whether re-establishing contact so we can have a “let’s not be awkward but I don’t wanna be friends” convo is worthwhile BUT, the thing that has helped me most is reminding myself that when it comes to perception, actions often speak louder than words. I’m a writer by trade, so this isn’t something I usually find comforting, but it’s so true in scenarios like this. She can TELL everyone her version of events, but as long as I ACT sane/calm/cool in my public treatment of her, then I’m a) doing what’s right and b) not supporting her narrative.

    People love good gossip. If it’s about people they know, that’s even better. So mutual friends will be curious, and they will listen, but that’s not the same as believing.

    I also would like to suggest that you deputize your closest friend in the group. Someone LW is not even remotely close to, i.e. someone without a conflict of interest. Tell that person the version of your story that is a) true but b) doesn’t demonize Lover. It can be as simple as “We both acted badly. I’m sorry for the way it ended, but it has ended and I just want to move on.” Ask Deputy (if s/he feels comfortable) to repeat this sentiment if/when the topic comes up when you’re not there.

    You can’t control what Lover says behind your back, but I don’t think it’s wrong to ask someone you’re very close with to offer a neutralizing response. You should obviously repeat this mantra whenever someone asks you directly, but tapping Team You to help spread it might help.

    Important Caveat: Doing this really does require that what is said about Lover is as positive as possible, given the situation. Recruiting friends to badmouth an ex is creepy. Recruiting friends to say, “LW wishes it had ended better, but wants to move on. Let’s stop rehashing,” is smart.

    • Manatee said:

      This is such great advice. I think the problem with these sorts of dynamics is that often both sides believe their version of events to be the truth and so both feel somewhat misrepresented, hurt, and anxious about how others see them. Even if there is agreement about factual stuff like an event or exchange of words, there will probably be dissonance about the reasonableness of each party’s actions. The idea of using whatever intervention you have at your disposal to neutralize rather than take sides is so smart. Digging in with one side’s version of the truth will only prolong the conflict (I know this having done it the ‘wrong’ way before!) whereas this allows the kind of compromise that allows everyone, friends included, to move on.

    • griffykate said:

      “People love good gossip. If it’s about people they know, that’s even better. So mutual friends will be curious, and they will listen, but that’s not the same as believing.”

      This is pure genius. Of course [I suddenly realise], hearing gossip is not the same as believing it. Declining to argue is not the same as believing, either, is it? Sometimes your friends don’t argue with people who are pushing the borders of decency about you behind your back, just because those friends don’t want to ‘create drama’, and/or because the badmouther is good at maintaining a wide-eyed shield of plausible deniability (I’m just WOOORRRRIIIEEEEDD about her because it’s not LIIIIIIIIKE her to be such a bitch!, etc etc).

      Friends politely going ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh’ doesn’t mean they are being infected with hatred for the person being gossiped about. It mostly means they are allowing their social responses to run on autopilot, while applying their conscious mind to screaming telepathic messages for a real life Captain Awkward to come and save them from the awful terribleness

      This was revelatory. Thanks!

  13. dancedc said:

    I see that “use your words” is the guiding principle of this site, and so my opinions may be unwanted. But I honestly believe my life got much, much easier when I stopped complaining, demanding, and boundary-setting with lovers. “I’m pretty direct about discussing what bothers me, why, and if I think it needs to be changed or it’s something I know I need to relax about.” that sounds nice, on paper, but in reality it can be exhausting to filter through someone else’s stream of consciousness feelings about every single action or inaction on my part. It’s also deeply unromantic. if you spent the length of your (albeit short) relationship offering this kind of analysis, your partner may have felt some of what you’re now feeling, that things are being overblown, misinterpreted, or just not changeable.

    In my long term experience, most major conflicts are unresolvable. When you’re talking about living with someone, or just spending 8 hours in bed with them on a regular basis, they’re not going to be on their best, job-interview behavior. There’s a paradigm shift I’m talking about, which changes the conversation from “who’s right and who needs to change/ get over it” to “no one’s wrong, and how do we negotiate a way to live together that allows both of us to be our quirky selves?” If it’s a dealbreaker, then break up; if it’s not, find common ground and escape valves. Maybe you get your missing needs from friends, maybe you hire cleaning staff, maybe you get separate checking accounts. I don’t know the precise nature of your conflicts, of course, but I suspect there are plenty of couples who have had the same and have found creative solutions.

    It’s kind of like the paradox of venting anger, that what you focus your attention on grows. Are you as direct about discussing what you love, why, and how you can get more of it? Can you set a positive example by focussing your group’s energies on those aspects of the relationship? “I’m sorry X and I weren’t right for each long term, but I’ll always cherish the lovely meals we cooked together / funny movie nights/ deep talks about our hopes and fears.” Make a list, if necessary, of all the wonderful things about partner, why you chose to become lovers and why you continued to choose that for as long as you did.

    • mintylime said:

      If it’s a dealbreaker, then break up; if it’s not, find common ground and escape valves.

      I’d say that this is EXACTLY what Using Your Words is about doing.

      I’m not sure that anyone here has ever said that Using Your Words is about establishing who is right and who is wrong. By definition, boundaries aren’t a matter of objective “rightness” – they’re subjective, very personal needs.

    • twomoogles said:

      Certainly, issues can get ‘over talked’, and at a certain point it’s not helpful to rehash. But I don’t think using your words is about rehashing. I could use my words and say to my partner ‘I love going out for dinner, it’s really important to me that I get to do so. But I know it’s not really thrilling for you, so I’m going to go out for food every so often with a friend.’ Which is a lot more helpful than me sitting around miserably wanting to go out for dinner, or him coming along with me halfheartedly and me always feeling like something just isn’t quite right.

      I used to have a really big overexplaining problem, where I was sure if I could just say something the right way, I could get people to understand where I was coming from and therefore agree with me. To me, the ‘nobody’s wrong so let’s figure out how to deal with this’ is absolutely ‘using your words’ in a constructive and helpful manner.

      I find being direct to be extremely relaxing for me, because it prevents guessing and anxiety about guessing. One thing about my current relationship that is great is that we have agreed never to say ‘everything’s fine’ when it isn’t. It doesn’t mean we need to sit down for a State of the Union right then. ‘I’m feeling kinda off, but I’m not up for talking yet’ is perfectly acceptable.

    • LW said:

      I do see your point. Something I have started taking steps towards is processing more in my head before saying anything. I’m working towards the middle after being on both sides of the pendulum swing – I spent most of my life in a situation where I largely had to be emotionally mute or face verbal abuse from both parents. I err on the side of communicating things because I’d want to know, if the shoe were on the other foot. I’m pretty transparent when I’m feeling things, so I don’t want to seem like I’m hiding things, either. I do also strive to be appreciative. There’s a lot that I couldn’t include because I wanted to respect the character limit/keep it to the necessary facts.

      In a nutshell, I think it was mostly a few key things that kept popping up in the same form, places where I now recognize we’re inherently incompatible. Really, I knew it at the time, but have a hard time giving up on situations with people. Live and learn.

  14. Victoria said:

    I am SO glad to hear you’ve got a designer working on CA swag. That is so awesome.

    As an occasional designer of such things (and occasional commenter-under-a-different name), I’ve occasionally thought about making some, but it’s not my IP, you know?

    On the other hand, I am the person who made the “Certificate of Adulthood” PDF/Zazzle stationary. It seemed like a way more generic idea, and I hope that’s cool with you all.

  15. Batsy said:

    I basically never comment, but I want to say that I’ve decided I don’t want my life to lack such a webseries about Cosmopolitan sex tips, so I have donated. Good luck! 🙂

  16. Teresa said:

    “Need to tell someone that you don’t want to be friends anymore…” Haha! This is a much needed public service that I can’t wait to use!

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