You’re worried about someone or something. You want to help. What happens if you don’t try to fix whatever it is and take care of yourself instead?
Dear Captain Awkward:
My boyfriend and I have been dating for three years and I dread every interaction with his family. He’s the youngest of five. The eldest brother will ignore my existence entirely. If his mom sees me not right by my bf then she comes over to explain how she wishes he would date his ex from high school because of how much skinnier, prettier, ect…she is. I spend every holiday with them now because if bf goes go with my family they explain how controlling and evil I am. So now my family had just been doing holiday stuff a little bit later or earlier so that both bf and I can attend. They keep trying to convince bf I am controlling him. It started when he became vegetarian after meeting me (I don’t care if other people eat meat; I didn’t care if he ate meat). I don’t make a big deal about eating I just take the things I can eat when we eat with them. They however endless “tease” (it can get mean) over it. I don’t want to just not go because I want to see my boyfriend on the holidays and it helps him withstand the abuse if I’m there to shoulder some. I just wish I knew what I could do to help make it better?
You can’t make your boyfriend’s family less shitty, so let’s talk about what you can do.
You could go with him to his family “celebration” while reminding yourself: a) you’re just here to support him b) this is the one day a year when you have to see these people c) nothing they think actually matters to you d) it will be over soon. Bring a really good pie you so that there will be something that you want to eat. Say “please” and “thank you” and “Happy Thanksgiving” and “what an interesting idea” and decide to ignore whatever bullshit they bring. Remind yourself that you are choosing to be here as an act of support to someone you love and give yourself credit for that. Let your boyfriend take the lead on dealing with his family. Leave at the first possible opening, go home, pour some whiskey in your eggnog, put on pajamas and your best turban, and chill out watching Auntie Mame.
Alternately, what’s the holiday celebration that you want to have? Spending it with your family? Quietly at home? Cooking for your friends? Volunteering? Flying somewhere warm and reading novels by a pool? I goddamn guarantee it doesn’t have anything to do with hanging out with his family, so maybe you could just take that off the table as the thing you will do this year.
Whatever your holiday dream is, imagine it, plan it, and then invite your boyfriend to participate. No pressure, no “my holiday will be ruined if you’re not with me,” no “shoulds” (“I should be able to spend a nice Thanksgiving with my boyfriend”) allowed. This year, there is no should, there is only what you want to do. If he comes with you, great. If he doesn’t, do your awesome plan anyway and have a great time. Focus on the people who are present rather than the people who are absent. If he goes to his family without you, he’ll still be your boyfriend, right? Your script is, “Aw, I’ll miss you, but have a good time.” Easier said than done, I know, but if you can’t change what other people will do try changing what you do and see if the situation gets better.
Important follow-up self-care: If he goes to his family alone and they say shitty stuff to him about you, talk up his ex-paragon of perfection from high school, make snide comments about why you aren’t there, etc. that stuff is not yours to deal with, and it’s actually okay for you to ask him not to pass that stuff on to you. He can tell a friend or his diary or a therapist. You can say,”Honey, that sounds awful, but one reason I stayed away is that I don’t actually want to hear any mean things about myself. Come watch Auntie Mame with me.”
It’s not perfect, it’s not comfortable, but the situation isn’t really fixable, either. Choose how much you can or want to engage, let your boyfriend make his own decisions about what to do, be nice to yourself, cross it off for another year.
A few days ago my boyfriend convinced a very close friend of his to go to a psych ward. Friend has been struggling with school and depression for a while and the day they went to the psych ward was the day after she’d hurt herself. So it probably goes without saying that Boyfriend is hella scared and stressed. (Side note: Friend seems to be improving, everyone is cautiously hopeful about her recovery.)
I’m writing to ask what can I do to help Boyfriend through this, when I live 4+ hours away?
I have never been in a caretaker position before and I could really use some advice. I want so badly for him to be happy and not being able to help makes me feel like kicking something.
–Cyber Hugs Don’t Cut It
Dear Cyber Hugs
It’s great that Friend is improving and that your boyfriend was able to get her the care that she needed. It sucks that the situation is so scary and stressful.
Things you can do right now:
- Be a good listener if he wants to talk.
- Affirm his feelings – “Yes, that’s scary!” “You’re a good friend.” “Who wouldn’t be stressed?”
- Remind him to take breaks and to take care of himself.
- Ask him if there is anything you can do. If he asks you for something and you can do it, do that thing. If he says something like “Not a thing! I got this” or “You being here for me is enough” then believe him. Sometimes help is awesome, sometimes it’s just another exhausting thing to deal with when you’re already stretched in.
- Care packages are nice. For the friend in hospital: A non-spiral bound notebook/journal or a nifty coloring book or book of crosswords or puzzles can be good. For boyfriend: Some little comforting things that you know he likes. Hot chocolate packets. A nice letter from you. For either/both: Something short and untaxing to read. (I’m loving the Ms. Marvel books right now if you’re looking for a rec. So amaze.)
Otherwise, keep handling your life. See your friends and ask them to be nice to you. Take care of yourself. Talk to a counselor if you start to feel overwhelmingly sad or stressed out. Do/eat/read/watch things that are comforting for you. Stay on top of your work and/or schoolwork. The sick friend’s doctors and her friends, including your boyfriend, have her stuff handled to the extent that it can be handled right now. You’ll hug and kiss boyfriend very hard when you see him. Until then, being nice to yourself and to your boyfriend is the extent of what you can do. I hope everyone gets through all right.
Dear Captain and Crew:
I believe that my brother and sister-in-law may be headed for a split, and I feel sad.
I know that I cannot have much effect on this situation, and indeed, it’s essentially not my circus, not my monkeys. Even so, I have two questions:
– What else can I do to be kind and helpful to them?
– What can I do to minimize my own sadness?
Here’s the situation:
My brother and I grew up with no (adult) model for constructive disagreement. Our parents fought bitterly, constantly. We both avoid conflict like the very devil. We both withdraw, and don’t share our hurts easily. He’s probably even worse than I am about this.
Sister in law has had medical difficulties over the past few years that led to difficulties including memory and impulse control. Her health has improved enormously, but deficits remain. As a result she pushes people away a lot.
Sister-in-law has often expressed frustration with Brother’s repressed emotions. Brother has often expressed frustration with Sister-in-law’s temper.
Both of them over the past several days have approached me and complained sadly about the other.
What I’ve done so far is:
– Tell each one that [what they just described] sounds very tough
– Tell each one that they have my love
– Tell each that individual therapy might help them clarify their thoughts
– Tell each that couples therapy might help them communicate better
But I really really really think from specific unkind and sad things that each of them has said that they will separate.
I (who am not part of their marriage – I know that) have seen them as a working and romantic couple. They’ve had a number of obstacles to happiness over time. (For example, each has had medical issues, there have been occasional money difficulties. None of this is out of the ordinary.) As it happens, the two of them are quite different in approach to life and in temperament. The thing is, they always seemed an admirable and cooperative team. Of course I’m not privy to their inmost thoughts.
I’m unhappy thinking of their sadness now. I’m unhappy thinking about how unpleasant a divorce is, and how hard it is to remain friendly (with both halves of a divorcing couple). I know that really, I’ll end up losing my sister in law. That disappoints me too, as I introduced them. Maybe there’s an element of “I really messed up! They are no longer happy together!”
Those questions above are what I’d like some help with. I’ve discussed this a little with friends. I’ll bring this up with my therapist, but I’d really like a hand processing what’s going on, and any suggestions on how to be helpful and kind to a (possibly) splitting couple.
Dear Relatively Sad,
You’ve completely covered this in your letter, especially with this: “I know that I cannot have much effect on this situation, and indeed, it’s essentially not my circus, not my monkeys.”
Their marriage will do what it will do. None of this is about you, and inserting yourself into it or analyzing why it’s happening will not help anyone, least of all you. If you feel sad and need help processing what’s going on (like how your & your brother’s upbringing is manifesting in adult relationships), write in a journal, talk to a friend who is outside the situation, talk to your therapist. Comfort in, dump out and don’t try to be everyone’s #1 marital sounding board. It’s hard to avoid those “How are you….” conversations that we all lapse into when something is awkward, but it’s okay to ask about work, pets, movies, books, talk about your own life, etc. and let them take the lead if they want to talk about marital stuff.
Even if things get very sour between them, you and your sister-in-law can very likely continue a friendship someday, especially since you knew her before her marriage. Your best chance to make that happen lies in giving everyone some space and some time to work things out on their own. While they do, pour your love and your energy into other areas of your life. Strengthen your ties with your friends (friends who are not them). Strengthen your own ties to family (family members who are not them). Feeling sad when people you love are sad is understandable, but at the end of the day it’s not your sad thing to carry or to fix. Try to remember that when two good people end an unhappy marriage, it isn’t a failure, it’s about them being brave enough and honest enough to admit that something they once wanted more than anything isn’t gonna work out. Speaking of which…
Dear Captain Awkward,
My marriage has been on the rocks for 2 years now. And a couple of months ago we sat down and talk about it and decided to work it out. To move to a smaller house (we brought a huge house and now we are house poor). We are both stress at work and with 2 kids have not a lot of time to be together. My husband has a friend(girl) online for about 10 years now. She lives very far away. And they talk back and forth all the time. When he is mad at me, he will vent to her. I’ve never met her and he hasn’t either. The other day I went to clean up by his computer for our open house and found his Facebook open. I went on to see and found such horrible things about me. That I’m the reason for all his anger and how stupid I am when I talk. Even more things that I can’t say. And she would laugh and make jokes about me too. I confronted him and all he said was that was his way to vent and that it’s like a diary that I shouldn’t have seen. My question is like is that normal and was I wrong to be looking at his private things. Or is this really how he feels about me. And that our marriage is done.
Ugh, it must have been so awful to read that.
We all know that snooping in someone’s private communications is not awesome, but treating your spouse with contempt is also not awesome, and what concerns me here is that your husband is 100% about “Well you violated my privacy, what did you expect” and 0% about “Hey, I’m really not psyched that you read my private messages, but I can see why you’d be upset after reading what you did, how can I reassure you?” He can’t slide that bar to like, 60% outrage/40% concern for you?
- It sounds like these messages about you are recent/ongoing/came from after y’all decided to keep working on the marriage.
- You’ve been unhappy together for at least two years.
- Your husband speaks about you with contempt to others. “My wife is stupid and the reason for all my problems” goes beyond venting. That is not the way that people who are in love speak about one another, in my experience.
- I think you knew, or suspected, what you’d find when you read his messages. Or that you’d find *something* that was “off.” You broke trust by snooping and he also broke trust by mocking you and running you down. End result: trust is broken between you.
Here’s what I recommend:
- Have things actually been getting better between you since you talked about holding onto the marriage? Is there anything he could say or do to make you relax and trust him after what you read? If so, tell him what that is and see if he does it. If not (and I suspect not), let the subject of what you read drop for now. “Well, if it was just venting, then there is no use discussing it.” Keep your conversations with him focused on immediate topics – the kids, the daily routine, the sale of the house – and be as polite and detached as you can. He might feel like he’s getting away with something, and that’s okay. He is, for now. You have other things to worry about .
- Quietly document ALL of your assets, debts, and finances. Make copies of all financial documents, wills, insurance, retirement info, bank accounts, etc. and make sure you have the complete financial picture.
- As soon as possible, and also quietly, visit a divorce lawyer. Give the lawyer copies of the financial documents, discuss all of your options with the lawyer. Make a “if we separated” plan for where you would want to live, what you would want custody to be like, how you would want to divide up assets, what your budget would be living on your own. People tend to freak out at the prospect of involving a lawyer, but it’s important to remember that visiting a lawyer doesn’t mean you’ve made a final decision about getting a divorce. Think of it instead as gathering all the information you need to make a good decision.
- Reach out to other members of Team You. Strengthen ties with friends and family. Consider seeing a counselor (not marriage counseling – the time for that is probably over, this is about YOU-counseling) so you have a safe place to vent about your feelings. The better care you take of yourself, the better care you can take of your kids, and making sure you have shoulders to cry on and babysitters, etc. is part of taking care of yourself.
When you’ve got the facts & support you need, have the conversation. One possible script:
“Husband, I think we should use the sale of the house as a way to start the process of legally separating from each other. We have been so unhappy for so long, and I don’t things are getting better. I love you very much, and we will always be in each other’s lives as co-parents and hopefully friends someday, but I think it’s time for us to say ‘we did the best we could’ and move on from working so hard at this.”
He might say a lot of angry stuff about how he’s been trying, about how it’s not fair to leave him because of some Facebook messages. While you’ve been preparing he might not have been preparing and might be taken off guard. He might think you’re too “stupid” or dependent on him to really leave, he might have been planning his own scene where he dumps you. Whatever. Or he might be fine and even relieved that he didn’t have to be the one to do this. His feelings can be whatever they are. Your job is to communicate what you’ve decided, work out logistics of living space and money and parenting responsibilities, and otherwise try your best to find a balance between sticking to the facts and not giving him ammunition to pick at you. Remember that your attorney is there for a reason, and it’s that person’s job to handle really difficult stuff dispassionately, so don’t be afraid to say “In the house, let’s be pleasant roommates and great parents, and let’s let our lawyers handle the contentious stuff.” Don’t share a lawyer, btw, you need someone advocating just for you.
Divorce is complicated and expensive and it sucks. From what I’ve observed, it’s like, a shitty year of wrangling with the details and complicated feelings, but then you are free of the other person and you find a way to be without them. Also from what I’ve observed: It’s possible to be a great co-parent with an ex-spouse, and whatever kids might lose in the process they also benefit from not living in a house suffused with tension. When you’re no longer suppressing all your feelings and trying constantly to make the marriage work, it’s sometimes easier to be kind & relaxed when interacting with the other parent. I sincerely hope that can be the case for you. Please be kind to yourself, and reach out to the people in your life who are kind to you, and remember that you deserve kindness from the person you are married to. You’re not being petty if you distance yourself from someone who speaks so unkindly of you.