Hello Captain Awkward & Team!
A couple of years ago my mother met a new partner, A. He has many fine qualities such as being handy with building things, generous with his time and always willing to lend a hand. He makes my mother very happy and I am happy for her. He is also the biggest mansplainer ever.
If we talk about something and I make an assertion he disagrees with he questions me, he always demands sources (as in right now at the dinner table I should cite article, author and page number). When he cannot argue his case successfully he’ll just cop to his extensive business travel experience or other business/age-related experience. He does not respect the fact that I am more knowledgeable about my subject of study (I am a grad student in history) and will disagree with me or treat me like I’m ignorant.
If we have a discussion about something and he does not believe me and my boyfriend steps in and says The. Exact. Same. Thing. he will immediately fold. Every single time (my boyfriend has noticed this, too). And then I want to throw my hands into the air and scream, “I’M SORRY, I DIDN’T REALIZE THAT A BAG OF DICKS WAS A PREREQUISITE TO BE ELIGIBLE TO PARTICIPATE IN THIS CONVERSATION.” (I don’t scream that.)
He is insecure and must always have what other people have when it comes to food, candy & similar. He needs constant, repeated validation from all people present for things like setting the table, barbecuing something for dinner etc. (As in, everyone must explicitly say to him, “Well done A, for barbecuing those steaks” or he will fish for it. Forever.) And I feel like everyone just accept this way of things. My mom will do some version of “boys will be boys”. His (adult) children just quietly roll their eyes. Everyone says “That’s just what A is like. It’s stupid but whatever, don’t let it get to you.”
I am an assertive person and I do not as a general rule let people trample all over me. I am not interested in enabling his inner man-child and just writing about this has me angry. But I also want to keep the peace and have a functional relationship with A for my mother’s sake. But I can’t always shut up, never engage in a discussion, tolerate being condescended to and bottle everything up for the sake of “peace”.
How can I deal with all of this in a mature, assertive manner?
We talked about dealing with the unpleasant partners of people we otherwise love a little while back (and way, way back and some in the middle), but your question is making me think about this in a slightly different way that I think will apply to many situations.
Let’s talk about what “keeping the peace” means in a family situation like this. A nice person has somehow brought a jerk into the family/social group and exposed everyone to this person’s bad behavior. They feel guilty and awkward, because they love Jerkface but can also see that this person is not treating others well, so their loyalties are torn. They are realistic about the likelihood that Jerkface will ever change (It is unlikely), so they try to prevail upon the more reasonable folks around to be the adults. “That’s just how he is…” “Just ignore him….” “Don’t sink to his level…” “He’s just insecure. You’re so much more together, can’t you just let it go?” etc. They win if they get to keep Jerkface in their lives without too much friction from the people who Jerkface hurts and tramples all over.
And Jerkface may indeed add something great to their lives. The decision to stay with Jerkface is one they get to make and may be worth some social friction or other trade-offs. Not everyone will like and get along with everyone else. But pressuring everyone to put up with bad behavior silently as the cost of a relationship is a really, really difficult thing to ask people to swallow. I wonder how many of the people who ❤ Jerkfaces really get what they are asking of their friends & loved ones. *
Now, on one level, the only person responsible for A’s Jerky behavior is A. It’s not fair to make your mom have to “fix” him or curb his bad behavior.
But the reason you put up with A. is your mom. It is something you do for her sake. If not for her, you would wash your hands of A. entirely. So my question is, when A. is super-condescending to you, what does your mom do or say? Does she join in? Does she try to change the subject? Does she try to police you when your voice starts to rise? Does she laugh it off? Do you feel like she would support you if you told A. where to shove it one of these fine holiday occasions?
Because “keeping the peace” sounds a lot like keeping your mom’s peace. And keeping A.’s peace. At the expense of your own, by which I mean, the peace is already broken. A. breaks the peace every time he talks down to you. Someone who wants & expects you to “keep the peace” in that circumstance is really saying, “just pretend it’s not happening, be silent, take it for the sake of the faaaaaamily.” As Cliff writes about in the great piece about The Missing Stair,
Just about every workplace has that one person who doesn’t do their job, but everyone’s grown accustomed to picking up their slack. A lot of social groups and families have that one person. The person whose tip you quietly add a couple bucks to. (Maybe more than a couple, after how they talked to the server.) The person you don’t bother arguing with when they get off on one of their rants. The person you try really, really hard not to make angry, because they’re perfectly nice so long as no one makes them angry.
I know not all these people can be fixed, and sometimes they can’t be escaped either. But the least you can do is recognize them, and that they are the problem. Stop thinking that your inability to accommodate them is the problem.”
What you are facing is that everyone has ZERO expectations that A. will behave himself, but tons of expectations that you (a lady & a younger person, which is NOT coincidental here) will behave yourself. And they think that because they have bended & shifted to accommodate him, it obligates you to do the same. So if you really fight back when A. goes at you, the preconception is that you are the one out of line. Because you failed to “keep the peace.” So it’s a double-uphill battle – not only do you have to contend with A., but if things get too testy and the occasion gets awkward, you also have to deal with the worry that everyone will blame you.
This emphasis on “keeping the peace” has pretty large reverberations beyond the Letter Writer’s family dinner table and into our society and the way that social justice discussions and movements happen. When powerful people are treated with “Boys will be boys” or “What did you expect?” or “That’s just how people are” kid gloves, allowed to endlessly derail conversations or enforce tone arguments, and the people who raise the questions of injustice and fuckery are treated as “impolite”, “attention-seeking” people who “take things too personally,” “play the race card,” “play the victim card”, and ruin everyone’s “fun,” it makes a powerful statement about who is important. You can’t solve injustice until you admit and truthfully reckon with injustice. If we have the expectation that our institutions will always cater to the wealthy, the white, the able-bodied, the cis-gendered, the straight, and the male and treat people who point out the cracks in that system with contempt and silencing and pleas to be nicer and “keep the peace” (not to mention outright denial that there is a problem), we become the problem. We are saying that this state of affairs is “the peace” that is worth keeping, and acting like the peace isn’t broken over and over again with every instance of injustice, white supremacy, inaccessibility, ableism, transphobia, etc. The peace has already been broken. The emperor has no clothes. I realize this is a digression, but the next time you find yourself pleading with someone to be quiet in order to “keep the peace,” think very hard about whose peace is being kept and at what cost.
Ok, onto practical advice and the actual letter.
1) Be around A. less.
Depending on how close you live to your mom and how often you communicate, this could mean:
- Make more solo plans for mother-daughter time.
- Catch up by phone/Skype with just her regularly.
- Find a thing that you both enjoy and do it regularly – exercise or other class, playing a certain game.
Do whatever you can to have an adult relationship with your mom where you can enjoy her company without the presence of A.
Script to keep handy for when he tries to tag along or interjects: “Sorry, A., today is just for mom and me to catch up! We’ll see you at lunch, though!”
Script to keep handy for when your mom defaults to inviting him, “Sorry, Mom, I want to hang out with just you for a while. Maybe A. can join us later, for dinner?”
Additional script: “Mom, sometimes it’s really exhausting for me to deal with A. I know he makes you happy, but things will be more enjoyable if I know that I can just see you sometimes.”
Hold out the sweet, sweet carrot of an argument-free ladies-only time. If she won’t go without him? “I’m sorry to hear that, Mom. Let’s do it another time.” As in, maybe don’t go. Rescind the invitation. This will be really, really hard and may take a couple of times to actually follow through with. It will feel like you are punishing her for his behavior. But remember, you gave her a chance to hang out, conflict-free, A-free, and she turned it down. She has choices here, and one choice is not to inflict that dude on you during 100% of your time together.
This is hard, but try to treat each time you try this like a new event where everyone gets to start fresh. Give this time, gentleness, and a lot of chances to work.
1a) Be around A. less…at holidays & other occasions.
You don’t have to explain or justify any of this or make it about A.. “I’m going to boyfriend’s family for x holiday, see you at y holiday!” “We got super-cheap tickets so we’re spending Thanksgiving in Prague this year. We’ll catch up with you as soon as we come back.”
Your mom will miss you. She will be sad and disappointed. It is the way of moms. You are an adult and there is nothing you “have to” do because of holidays or the way things have always been and you do not have the sole power to “ruin” a holiday by your presence or absence. This (Winter Holiday You Celebrate), maybe give yourself the gift of not dealing with A.’s bullshit. Some years, some months you will decide to go for your mom’s sake and enjoy her company and make the best of it. Other times, if you find yourself dreading something that’s supposed to be a celebration, it is OK to give yourself a break from it all, ok?
2) Find three “safe” topics.
In a weird way, A. might be trying to engage with you (he thinks) positively by showing interest in stuff you like, like history. He’s also a walking bag of insecurities who has to be the smartest & the best at everything, so there is no way this will go well. And he has the unfortunate “arguing until the other person is visibly upset is a form of fun!” chip installed. It’s bad.
I suggest that you find three safe topics to talk about with A.
Topic 1: One where he is the expert or something he is passionate about, like, international business travel or being an old, somewhat privileged dude. Grilling. Fine wine. Sports. What you want is something that is of passing interest to you but you’re not the expert or especially emotionally invested, but it is really interesting to him. And then you ask questions and let him talk.
True story, I once did tech support for a company. There was this older gentleman who was The Guy For Whom Everything Does Not Work As It Should. It was mostly not his fault, just, he had a bad track record of getting broken/shitty equipment or having stuff go wrong. And I was a girl learning the job as I went because it was a temp job & I was filling in for someone, and everything was somehow all my fault and all of our interactions were very negative.
I noticed once that he wore a Cleveland Indians (yes, the team name is racist) polo shirt, and that happened to be on a day where I had glimpsed the front page of the sports section (rare), so I was able to sort of say something like “Great win for the Indians (ugh, so racist) last night, huh?” in an attempt at pleasant small talk. And he lit up and told me about the Indians (That goes for you, too, Blackhawks and DEFINITELY for the Washington D.C. football team) the entire time I fixed his computer. After that, every time I went to see him, I would check and see how the Indians (the logo is even worse) were doing first. Note: I did not pretend to know anything or care about or be a fan of the team. I never said anything beyond “Looks like it was a rough night!” or “What does this mean for the playoffs?” and let him do the rest.
Not only did he decide I was his new best bro-girl, after I left the job he tracked down my info through my temp agency and sent me a “Good luck, if you ever need a reference or a job lead, just call!” greeting card. I know a lot of people genuinely love, live & breathe sports, but until I met that dude I did not realize that even for people who aren’t that into them, sports serve as a magically safe current events topic that anyone can opine on. Epiphany! “How ’bout them Cowboys?”
Topic 2: A TV show or movie you both watch. Preferably something that’s currently on, so you can talk about recent episodes or speculate about upcoming developments. Shared fandom = conversation GOLD. Also you’re working from the same “texts”, so to speak, which makes “debates” less eye-stabbingly annoying.
Topic 3: Something that includes your mom. A trip they are planning. A trip they just went on. Something they are doing to the house. Restaurants or recipes they’ve tried recently.
You don’t have to kiss his ass, fake enthusiasm, or talk about only these things. But anytime the conversation seems like it’s going to a bad place, redirect the dude to one of these safe things and see what happens.
3) Admit that you really don’t like him.
He makes your mom happy and has many laudable qualities. Cool. You are probably never going to really warm up to him, though, because he is a super-irritating dude.
That’s okay. Don’t beat yourself up. Give yourself permission to just dislike him on a molecular “bitch-eating-crackers”** level. Give yourself permission to not immediately follow any complaint about his bad behavior with reminders of the good things he does. Let your hate grow and feed the Dark Side of the Force.
In my experience, it is incredibly liberating to stop trying to convince myself to like someone and admit that I don’t. It helps me interact with them much better in unavoidable “keeping the peace” type situations because the stakes are lowered and I become less invested in any interaction. My expectations of them are non-existent, so when they are uncharacteristically cool I can be pleasantly surprised and when they act like an unfettered shitlord I can say, “Huh, howabout that.”
It helps me choose my battles.
A’s attention & praise-seeking behavior? Let it go. Or make gentle fun of it. “Yes, you are smart & pretty and this steak is the best steak!”
A’s behavior toward his own kids or anyone who is not you? Not your problem.
A’s behavior toward you? FIGHT.
4) Fuck “Keeping The Peace” on A.’s shitty terms.
It’s well-documented on the blog that my Grampa & dad could be/can be huge mansplainers.
Polite redirects sometimes work. “Huh, I’ll think about it.” “Thanks for telling me, I’ll consider it.” “I really don’t agree, but let’s talk about something else.” “You may be right about that. Huh.” That’s always what I try first.
But when they don’t work, the thing that has helped reset the relationship from Shoulders-Around-Ears to short-term really awkward & horrible interaction but a long-term more pleasant & balanced interaction was to just have the fight already.
Reset the power balance.
Raise my voice.
Make it unpleasant & unproductive for them to keep talking over me.
Demonstrate that I can survive their displeasure and discomfort and an awkward moment.
With my Grampa, it was “I don’t want us to ruin the little time we have left by arguing about politics, so do not bring up political topics with me.” And then I would ignore any email from the Cranky Old Man Internet and end phone calls when he tried to bait me there. “Nope, sorry, Grampa, gotta go. I love you.” :click: :turn off ringer: :try again in a few weeks: If it happened in person I would say, “Grampa, we have GOT to change the subject” and if he wouldn’t I’d say, “Ok, can I get you anything from the kitchen?” and just walk away. Rude? Yes. Taking advantage of the fact that he was old and forgetful and probably too weak to follow? Yes. Liberating? Yes.
There’s a thing I’m trying out, of late, when dealing with ‘splainers out in the world. I call it “Two Polite Redirects, Then Fuck Off.”
‘Splainer: Some ignorant piece of blather deliberately designed to bait me.
Me: Huh. I am not sure that’s correct. But let’s talk about something else. Wherever did you get this squash?
‘Splainer: What do you mean it isn’t correct? Where’s your evidence? Why are your girly feelings so allergic to rational debate? If you won’t spend the next three hours point-by-point proving your case to me and explaining it until I agree and understand, I guess that you will have to concede my point. Forever. GOTCHA!
Me: Huh. If you like I can send you a few pieces that really influenced my thinking about x, and you’re welcome to do the same***, but I am really not interested in discussing it right now. How is that thing you’re working on going? (If other people are present, turn your attention away from the debater and ask someone else a question, preferably about something really positive & fun & innocuous. “Have you seen Pacific Rim yet?” If he’s going to keep going, it makes him more of the asshole because now he’s interrupting fun conversation to have Not Fun conversation).
‘Splainer: blah BLAH blah you just don’t want to admit that you’re WRONG and GIRLY and WRONG that’s why you won’t debate me. What about blah? What about BLAH? Behold, I am the Devil’s Advocate!
Me: (raising voice significantly) I. DO. NOT. WANT. TO. TALK. ABOUT. X TOPIC. WITH. YOU. STOP.
‘Splainer: Jeez, you don’t have to get so senstive. Blah blah blah. I was only trying to have fun.
Me: (loud, cold) STOP.
‘Splainer/Others: If the ‘splainer or others will change the subject, the evening might yet be saved! If not….
Me: (to others)Well, this got awkward. I guess I’ll catch up with you all another time.
:exeunt, pursued by a bear:
In most real life situations it does not happen so dramatically, but by giving myself permission to end the conversation, leave the room, hang up the phone, hit the “unfriend” button and actually show, with action, that I will not just sit there, that I am not obligated to politely & endlessly educate people or argue a topic on their terms and on their time, has been immensely powerful.
It does make it super-awkward for the witnesses, so if you do this in real life, let me prepare you:
- The first time you do it, it will be really hard. Your hands & voice might shake. You might cry. You might display emotion that seems out of proportion to what is happening. It’s ok.
- Everyone else might treat you like you are the one who shit the bed and beg you not to leave and admonish you to be reasonable. “That’s just how he is!” “Don’t let him get to you!” Reframe this as their guilt talking. They feel guilty for standing by and letting you take all the bullshit, so if they can convince you it’s not that bad, they can feel less guilty.
- The follow-up conversations will be awkward and you will second-guess yourself a lot.
Keep this in mind: It was always that awkward… for you. Other people were willing to let it be that awkward…. for you….for the sake of “keeping the peace.” You don’t owe them the gift of silently accepting that role forever. It is okay to “ruin” a dinner party or two if someone is constantly browbeating you.
With A., let’s take the scenario where he listens to your boyfriend but not you.
You say something. A sinks his teeth into the lovely delicious argument that will dominate you and show everyone how he is the SMRTST EVR. You try to change the subject. You say, directly, “Let’s change the subject, A. Discussing this stuff with you is really not fun for me.” Maybe you argue back and forth a little bit. Maybe he asks for a cite, to which you say “Really? That’s completely unreasonable. So, Mom, tell us about the trip you are planning in October!” but somehow the argument keeps going. Then your boyfriend makes the point that you just made, and suddenly A accepts the point.
You: (loud)WHOA. I. JUST. SAID. THAT.
You: (loud) That thing that boyfriend just said? I said it right before him. So why is it only true when he says it?
A: That’s not what happened/no you didn’t/he just made the argument better than you/I didn’t hear you.
Boyfriend: She’s right. That is what happened.
You: This is reason number 1,000 that it is not fun for me to have these kinds of discussions with you.
BIG, AWKWARD SILENCE
LET IT BE REALLY AWKWARD. THAT IS PART OF WHAT NEEDS TO HAPPEN SO HE WILL STOP.
Hopefully a subject change.
If not, cut the visit short.
The next script you’ll likely need is for your mom, who will want to smooth things over.
That script is “Mom, I really, really want to get along with A. I know he makes you happy and has many good qualities, and I accept that he’s around to stay. The other day, I tried really hard to change the subject/keep the peace, and he was just not having it. I can’t always shut up, never engage in a discussion, tolerate being condescended, to and bottle everything up for the sake of “peace”, so when he talks at me like that, what is it that you suggest that I do?”
And then you wait and see if she has your back. I hope she does. If she doesn’t, it makes “be around less” even more necessary.
A. will probably always irritate the heck out of you in some ways. Best-case scenario is that he stops picking these fights with you and lets the subject stay changed when you try to change it. It will take a lot of time & several- many tries, so keep in mind that while this is an ongoing problem for you it will take them some time to adjust to the new reality.
*If you suspect that this is you, and that your friends/family are just tolerating your partner for your sake, there is one concrete thing you can do: YES, theoretically your partner should be welcome most places you are, but listen to your friends when they try to make solo plans. Think, 2 solo events for every double date or group thing. Your friends will thank you and be way more chill around Partner at the group things.
**Credit to whoever coined this, so useful.
***I will not read these. But they are welcome to send them!