Hello Captain Awkward team!
Since I started college, my mother has been driving me crazy regarding calls home. Specifically, the frequency of my calls home. I am introverted and don’t express attachment and affection openly. In the beginning of college, if I didn’t call every single day to reassure her I was not dead in a ditch somewhere, she’d go crazy. If I don’t pick up the phone when she calls within the 3rd ring, she thinks I’m ignoring her. She once even called campus police to report me as missing, all because I took a prolonged sleep to recover from an allnighter and didn’t think it was that big of a deal to call her! She’s gotten a lot better now but calls every 2 to 3 days is still very demanding for me, especially during midterms when I barely even have time to eat.
If I don’t call her for a week, she’ll get angry and then refuse to pick up her phone when I do call. So then, I don’t bother to call her (it’s immature behavior in my opinion) until she caves in and calls me, all upset because “You don’t love me anymore and don’t call me!” Gee I wonder why. I told her to get texting (she doesn’t have it) or check her email since I like reading over talking but she says those mediums aren’t good because “They aren’t as human as talking on the phone. Also, if you were kidnapped, texts and emailed could be falsified by your kidnappers so I won’t call the police in time to save you!”
I’d rather be able to call her once a week, which is more reasonable for my schedule. She, however, sees this as me not appreciating and loving her anymore. She has a great fear of being a failure as a mother (I’m the eldest child) since she had a horrible relationship with her own mother. I’ve tried to reason with her but she just complains and whines about how I don’t love her enough to take the effort to call her. Her solutions are also ridiculous; she suggested I call her every time I use the bathroom, which is gross to me and a bad idea for a klutz who has dropped phones into the toilet multiple times.
It doesn’t help very much that I hardly see her since my school is far away. She also doesn’t understand I don’t run in crowds that would likely get me kidnapped. Since I am currently going through a bout of being ignored, do you have any suggestions for improving the situation once she gives in and calls me?
Hello, Tired Introvert:
First, being introverted and “preferring not to express attachment and affection openly” are two different things.
Introverted = You need a lot of time alone, and being around people too much can sap your energy. If you are around people for long periods of time, you will likely need a lot of alone time to recharge.
Not expressing affection “openly”= It’s own separate thing. Consider it a preference, or a habit. A tendency. You don’t like to talk about emotional stuff. That’s not a good thing or a bad thing, it just is. But it’s not because you are an introvert. Neurotypical introverts (this one included) can express themselves just fine in words, get along with people just fine, make friends just fine, and even have highly interactive jobs just fine. We just need to balance those interactions with plenty of alone time to recharge. It takes practice sometimes, or doesn’t come naturally sometimes, or is downright hard and scary sometimes, sure, but it is a skill or mode of expression that can be learned. This isn’t just for you, Letter Writer, but I don’t want to see any more “I am an introvert, so I can’t ________” questions.
Let’s get to your actual question, which is about how to set boundaries with your mom.
You can deliver this script in the form of an email, if you like.
“Mom, we need to come up with a new plan for how to handle phone calls, because the way things are now is really stressing me out. I want us to be able to catch up and be involved in each other’s lives, but I need it to be a more scheduled, regular thing and not cause so much anxiety and fighting. Let’s schedule a weekly time to talk. _____ day at _____ time works for me.”
She’ll probably reply with the usual “YOU DON’T LOVE ME” stuff.
Say, “Wow, that’s really not true. But I’ll talk to you on _____ at ______ time.”
Then call her at the agreed-upon time. If she sulks and ignores you, say “Well, mom, I was really looking forward to catching up. I guess I’ll call you (next week) at (usual time).” And then do it. If you have time, send her a periodic text or voice mail or piece of physical mail to let her know what’s going on as well.
And don’t pick up the phone any other time she calls. Let it go to voice mail. If your phone allows you to set things so her calls automatically go to voicemail, turn that thing on. “She thinks that if I don’t pick up by the third ring, I’m ignoring her.” Yep, you’ll be ignoring her.
If she calls 10,000 times and you pick up on the 10,001st time, you’re teaching her that it takes 10,001 calls to get your attention. If you do want to respond somehow, email her later that day- “Got your phone call, sorry, I don’t have time to talk – what’s up?” Lesson: You won’t talk on the phone at all hours, but you will respond quickly in case there is an actual emergency.
If she calls campus police to check on you, let them check. Say “I’m fine, but my mom freaks out if she doesn’t hear from me every day. Sorry she bothered you.” It’s not the end of the world. Checking on students for worried parents is part of their job.
The kidnapping thing….just….wow. I mean, she is right that voice verification is considered Proof of Life, but her anxiety about you being far away is HER anxiety, and she needs to find other ways to deal with that and channel it.
One time when I was studying abroad, I went on a solo trip during a school break and my mom freaked out about the fact that I was going to be traveling alone. And then I said “Everyone on my program is leaving for the break, so if I stayed here I would also be alone.” Kind of broke her brain, that one did. She used to also do bed-checks at very early morning hours, to make sure I was actually sleeping in my bed when I was supposed to be. Since this was in the ancient era before cell phones, she would call on the shared phone, which would wake my roommate up as well as me. Since this was also in the days before caller ID, my roommate had the great idea to treat it like an obscene phone call. She blew a whistle into the phone and then said “STOP CALLING FREAK, WE DON’T WANT TO SUCK YOUR FEET.” (The gross thing is, we *were* getting obscene phone calls. Some guy would call the Georgetown freshman dorms pretending to be your roommate’s dad, and then it would get…icky).
Parents worry, and depending on how long you’ve been at school your mom might need some time to adjust to you being away, but making a plan to check in regularly and then sticking to that plan (and texting her/emailing her in advance if the plan is going to change) should go a long way to settle her down.
She won’t like it. She will resist, and do everything she can to test the boundaries, and you’ll probably hear a lot more mean/anxious/guilt-inducing words, but eventually I think she will figure out that her kid loves her and will call her once/week for a meaningful amount of time and use email the rest of the time. Your mom is a grownup, and she can figure out how to deal with her anxiety/fill her time/find meaningful human contact on her own.
Also, “I’m worried that I’ll be a failure as a parent, so take my calls all the time and reassure me that I am not” is TOO MUCH to put on your kids, jeez. Maybe a trip to the student counseling center is in order for you sometime when you get a moment, because that is a lot of outsized expectations to digest.
Dear Captain Awkward,
I find myself in an unusual position. I’m a person who is extremely extroverted, talks a lot, discusses all my feelings, needs, wants, and typically hashes things through with my “Team You” to handle my life’s issues. I wear my feelings on my sleeve, want to make friends with everyone and their rubber duck, and am generally an explosion of silliness and glitter.
My problem, however, is that for the first time, I’m dating an introvert. A SHY introvert! Earlier in life, I figured out that I may be overwhelming at times. Usually I can pick up on cues with introverted friends of mine, and tend to pipe down/give them space. However, because this is a romantic relationship, I’ve run into issues that I haven’t run into before.
It’s very difficult to know my partner’s feelings. He tells me that he finds great difficulty in articulating his thoughts, and tends to stumble over his words a lot. He has mentioned that he’s had issues in previous relationships because he has times where he “shuts down.” And let me tell you, Capt’n, I’ve experienced it once, and it was horrifically painful. I felt like he didn’t care anymore! I kinda cajoled him into talking about it, because goshdarnit, you can’t not talk about problems! He says that it’s not that he doesn’t care anymore, it’s just that he gets an overload of stimuli at certain times and he becomes irritated because of it. The best solution I could come up with was for him to give me a code word when he’s in this mood, and I can just vacate and give him his space. He didn’t want to do this though! He said he didn’t want to hurt my feelings by indicating that he wants me to go away (which is how he feels this solution would come across).
He is currently seeing a therapist and is getting medical treatment for his depression. He has a lot of issues that he’s working through, this particular issue included.
He genuinely is a sweet, funny, and caring person, but I struggle with not knowing his moods or mindsets. I’ve asked him to talk to me more, and he tries, but I know it’s out of his comfort zone.
I understand that since he is an introvert he may well have different needs than me. I’d love to have some tips about how to make sure someone is getting what they need even when they don’t really tell me (and how to get what I need too!). What can I do to help my extreme extroversion and his introversion/shyness work together harmoniously?
Dear Extrovert McExtroversion:
I think the code word was a great suggestion. I mean, which is worse – telling you he wants to be alone for a bit to cool off/figure out what he wants to say using a prearranged signal, or totally shutting down and making you play guessing games about his moods and what he needs? He might not be good at using all his words, but one word? He can’t give you one word, or like, a hand signal that says “Circle back to me in an hour?” Option One probably won’t hurt your feelings. Option Two is actually hurting your feelings and making things harder for you.
By not giving you that, he’s basically setting you up for what he (says that he) least wants: A period of guessing games where you try to suss out what’s going on and ask him a lot of questions and he gets more and more shut down and avoidant.
Also, to echo the first question from today, being an introvert and being avoidant of emotional conversations (or being an extrovert and good at emotional conversations) are not the same thing. Obviously you can be both introverted and have trouble communicating about emotions. You can be extroverted and talk about everything except emotions. Having trouble understanding and communicating about emotions can be part of being non-neurotypical and require real help to figure out and navigate when relating to other people – it can feel like and be an actual disability. But introverted tendencies do not cause and are not even directly correlated to trouble with communication skills.
I’m glad your partner is working with a therapist and trying out some stuff, and one of the things he should maybe try working on is recognizing when he gets in “don’t talk to me” mood and sending out some kind of clear signal that you can respond to.
I totally get the difference between being a processor who shows their work in figuring out emotional things and being someone who considers quietly and would prefer to speak aloud only when a decision has been made. It’s like if The Doctor were dating Batman. The Doctor needs to let Batman know “I want to hear what you have to say even if you aren’t sure about it, ‘haven’t decided yet’ would be an acceptable answer if that’s where you really are with things” and Batman needs to let The Doctor know “Hey, could you think out loud somewhere else right now? I have important brooding to do.”
I realize I just picked two of the least emotionally healthy characters in pop culture for that example, so for a less dysfunctional example, I give you this great post by Commander Logic about how showing more of the work doesn’t always mean *doing* more of the work.
You asked for tips. “I’d love to have some tips about how to make sure someone is getting what they need even when they don’t really tell me (and how to get what I need too!)”
I’m hoping readers can help here, because my tips are:
- Behave normally – like, be nice and kind to him, tell him when something is working and when something isn’t, ask him how his day was, tell him how yours was, tell him when you appreciate and enjoy something, and treat him as you would like to be treated. If you do that, are you enjoying the relationship? Then it’s working.
- If you feel like he’s avoiding something – doesn’t really want to talk, being really monosyllabic, not wanting to be touched, seems upset (I’m picturing a cat hiding under the couch here), ask him once: “Is there something you want to talk about or anything I can do?” and if there isn’t, go do something else with your time. Call up Team You, go out, get those needs you have met elsewhere. That communicates both “I care enough to try to pick up your signals” and “I don’t need you to fill my every need” and also “So if there is something you were really wanting to happen or on your mind, you can just tell me.” If this starts to feel lonely and depressing instead of caring and like taking a needed break from each other, maybe this isn’t the relationship for you.
- I don’t know how often you hang out, but schedule some time together that is not talkative. Reading together in the same room. Watching a movie together. My best roommates ever have understood that mornings = quiet time. A few weeks ago, Commander Logic and I had a very awesome chatty lunch where we caught up. Then we went to her place and each disappeared into our work, speaking only very occasionally over the course of three hours. It was great.
- Assume that if there is some deep-seated need he has that he will find some way to communicate it to you. I think it is very productive to be polite and considerate and respect people’s stated boundaries. I think it is very unproductive and exhausting to try to read your partner like he’s the weather or a Magic 8 ball or a palm and try to perfectly anticipate his needs. If he’s not saying stuff, then assume there is no Stuff. If he’s loudly Not Saying Stuff (by sighing a lot and obviously hoping that you’ll ask him about Stuff, and then claiming there is No Stuff when you do ask), then still assume there is No Stuff until he tells you WTF the Stuff is.
- Get your needs met by asking for what you need. “Partner, when you’re in shut-down mode, it feels really scary to me and I am afraid of saying or doing something to make it worse. Can you give me some signal – a code word, a gesture – that tells me that’s what’s happening so I can clear off for a bit? That would make me feel a lot better and give you the space to process. Also, when you come out of that mode, it would mean a lot to me if you would seek me out and show me some affection.” It sounds like you are already good at this, so, keep awesome-ing.
Commander Logic has good advice on how to start speaking up when it’s hard for you here, and I know in comments she has posted the Occasional Check-In “Name that Need!” Ritual that she and HusbandLogic do when they get crungry (cranky + hungry) or flaily and words start to fail them:
Are we….hungry? Tired? In a kissing mood? Wanting to talk? Wanting to be quiet? Needing to use the bathroom? Too cold? Too hot? Coffee? Whiskey? Coffee with whiskey in it, then makeouts, then sleep? Awesome! Name that need!
Sometimes the Self is a tired, cranky toddler and needs to be coaxed gently to the table and fed for its own good, and a partner can help that. Sometimes what I have to express out loud is “I am too hungry to make a decision about where to eat, please just pick something and I will be grateful” or “I am having a lot of feelings at the same time right now, need more time to process, let’s change subject now.” Once in the early stages of dating I sent my boyfriend a text that just said “FEELINGS” and he texted back “Returned, with interest” and I smiled the whole rest of the day.
Your boyfriend is a person, not a project, and you are neither his parent or his Pygmalion. The whole relationship shouldn’t be about you coaxing affection and conversation out of him. That’s not an introvert/extrovert thing, that’s a do we fit? thing. So if it’s mostly working, let it work. If it’s mostly not working, ask for what would work for you and see if he can find a way to get you there.
Recommended resources about introversion:
- Caring for Your Introvert, Jonathan Rauch
- Quiet: The Power of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain. Her TED talk is here.