#859: “My husband’s clingy friend is ruining his life but he won’t do anything about it.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

My husband, “John”, is currently studying for a graduate degree. He has exams coming up so is spending all day every day in the library and then when he comes home he just wants to eat dinner and go to bed. It sucks and I miss him but we are dealing with almost never seeing each other properly because these exams are important right now.

My husband has a friend, “Martha”, who is doing the same course. Martha is taking the same exams. Martha lives in the building across from us. And I just wish Martha would fuck the fuck off and leave him alone.

Martha is incredibly psychologically needy and seems to have latched onto my husband as a target for her emotional vampirism. She doesn’t have a boyfriend or may other friends here. I am all for my husband having friends and for him sometimes needing to be there for them, but Martha wants his attention all the time. She messages him constantly about trivial chatty things and ‘needs’ him to reply immediately. They go to the library and spend all day there together, and then when they get home he feels he needs to invite her in for a drink or even sometimes for dinner because she’s “so lonely”. Then five minutes after she leaves (which is always well after I thought she ought to have left) she is messaging him again. This happens all day every day.

The thing that kills me is that my husband will come home and say how tired he is of Martha and how he wishes he didn’t have to see her again all day tomorrow. So I say, “You don’t! Just say you’re not going to that library and go somewhere else to work! Or when she makes her sad face and talks passive-aggressively about how she’ll just go and spend the evening alone again, just let her go! The world is not going to collapse if you ignore her stupid messages!”

But he doesn’t. He says how fed up he is of her (and I think he really is) but then nothing changes! He still gets guilted into spending all his time with her and getting sucked into her emotional neediness. I don’t want to turn this into some huge drama when he’s focused on his exams, but I cannot stand to hear about Martha one more time, I cannot stand to see Martha ever again and I cannot stand to know that she’s stealing his time and energy that he needs for himself right now (let alone for me!).

Please help me before I do or say something I regret!

Hateful Wife

Dear “Hateful” Wife,

I don’t know what Martha’s deal is – there’s one story where she’s a clingy, terrible, emotional vampire, and another story about how she is best friends with a man who constantly spends time with her, invites her over to his house, texts her, and talks about her all the time. The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. Here’s what I do know:

  1. Institutions of higher education tend to have: a) classmates, plural b) social events, clubs, and meet-ups for students looking to connect with others, c) counseling & student affairs offices for students who are struggling. None of those might be perfect or Martha’s particular cup of tea, however, one classmate is not the sole source of study buddies, emotional support, or human companionship on the planet. If Martha tells John so, that’s a lie. If John tells himself or you so, that’s also a lie.
  2. While manipulative people are very good at using guilt and pity to get attention, and people who can’t let go choose people who can’t say no, John has choices in how he deals with Martha, and the less you treat him like a hapless victim the better. You don’t have a Martha problem, you have a John problem, and the way to address that is to deal directly with him and those choices. That’s a harder road than hating or banishing the Other Woman/Annoying Friend is, but it’s the road you’re on.
  3. You’re worried about “turning this into some huge drama”, but being “cool” and “relaxed” and hoping it will all blow over hasn’t worked – Martha, and your husband’s constant catering to her, has only grown more entrenched in your lives. You are upset and annoyed and jealous and that is okay! Your husband is constantly prioritizing another person over you. It’s okay to be hurt and annoyed by that, and it’s okay to say something about it. There is no prize for being the world’s most accommodating person. No prize except…more Martha!

So, what to do? Someone wrote a song about your question (Iron-Man/Pepper Potts/Steve Rogers version is here). Time to play it for John and say:

John, this Martha thing is really bugging me. She is taking up way too much space in our lives and in the time we get to spend together, and I’d like you to stop inviting her here and to stop messaging her/texting her when you and I are spending time together.”

Then, whatever John says (whether it’s to try to make you feel bad for him, or to feel bad for Martha), stick to your needs and feelings.

  • I don’t like Martha, and I’m tired of having to make small talk with her in my house at the end of a long day.”
  • “It’s annoying for me to try to watch a movie or eat dinner with you when you’re constantly messaging and texting Martha.”
  • “I’m sure she does need some sort of friendship/help/attention/companionship. I also need your attention sometimes, and I hate feeling like I’m competing for that with someone you say you don’t even like.” 
  • When I look forward to seeing you all day, it completely ruins my evening if Martha is here or if you’re too distracted to even talk to me because you’re messaging her the whole time.
  • Yes, I’m sure Martha will be sad/lonely if you don’t message her right back. I am also sad and annoyed at having yet another conversation with you totally hijacked by her.

To enforce the boundary, try:

  • Making it very boring when he brings her up. John: “I had the worst day, because: Martha…” You: “Huh. What do you want to bring to the pot luck on Saturday?” John: “I just wish Martha would stop…” You: “Me too. What time are you taking a shower tomorrow? I need to be in and out by 7:30.” John: “Martha said that…” You: “Interesting. Do you have time to see a movie this weekend?” It will be weird and awkward and throw off the entire expected rhythm of your conversations. That’s the point. He’s not allowed to BOTH let her intrude on all your time together AND get your sympathy about that.
  • Stop performing when he (inevitably) brings her over. Being openly mean or rude to Martha or confronting her is not the answer (you seriously don’t know how much of what is happening is because your husband encourages it), but do drop the fig leaf that she is friends with both of you as a couple. You come home and Martha’s sitting in your kitchen for ‘a quick drink’? Say “Hi honey! Hi Martha,” and breeze right through that room to somewhere else – to bed with a book, in the living room to watch TV, out for a bike ride or run, anywhere but there. Do not socially rescue his ass, and drop all the training you might have been raised with about what a good hostess does – no “Can I get you anything?,” no putting another plate on the table, no small talk. You’re ready for Martha to leave so you can go to bed? Go to bed anyway. Martha’s here again? John is on his own.

Watch out for:

  • Derailing in the form of elaborate, pre-emptive defenses against (non-existent) accusations of cheating. You: “I don’t like it when Martha is here all the time, please make it stop.” John: “Well, we’re not sleeping together, if that’s what you think.” You: “I don’t think you are sleeping with her…well, I didn’t until you brought it up just now! I don’t like her and don’t want her here all the time. Please make it stop.” In my experience, doth-protest-too-much “I would never cheat on you with her” responses to you setting a boundary are a big red flag – like, he probably hasn’t slept with her, but the topic has come up in some way between them, and it’s not a completely ridiculous question anymore.
  • Derailing about how sad/lonely/upset/annoying/clingy Martha is. Does he genuinely not know how to set a boundary with her, or does he just love the sound of her name in his mouth? Who knows? “John, that’s sad for her,  but let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me.
  • Derailing that make it seem like there’s something wrong with *you* for having an issue with this. Anything along the lines of “You’re jealous, you’re controlling, you’re insecure, you’re crazy for thinking she could ever come between us (even though she’s sometimes quite literally coming between you spending an evening alone with him), I’m allowed to have friends, why can’t you understand that it’s a stressful time for me, why can’t you see that she has no one else, I am the real victim here,” etc.

If you bring up an issue and your husband dismisses your feelings or displays contempt for you, that is very bad. I very much hope that it’s not the case, but I wanted to put those warnings out there so that you can be alert to them and say, “Hey, stop derailing. I love you, I don’t think you’re cheating on me, but I do think you are having trouble setting healthy boundaries here, and I’m sick of Martha taking up all this space in our lives. She’s not my friend, so I can’t deal with it for you or instead of you. Please, find a way to say ‘no’ to her. I need you to know that I am not okay with how things are right now.

Finally, a note on self-care:

I think it’s imperative that you reach out to your friends and nurture a social life for yourself that does not center around John right now. And, since you want to wait out his exams before having Big Discussions, doing this might be the very first step. It’s counter-intuitive, but hear me out:

John’s busy with grad school (& Martha), you’re busy with work (& Martha). You get so little free time with John while grad school is in session that it’s totally natural to want to reserve all your free time for him. When he does not reciprocate (i.e., he lets his free time with you be hijacked by Martha), it increases your resentment and bad feelings around the whole situation. That is normal and understandable, and it’s also understandable that you feel powerless about this. The only person you can control here is you, so, what can you do to reclaim a feeling of control?

Please, one night a week, go do something with a friend or friends or by yourself. Make a weekly standing date to take a class, go for a swim, see a show, try a new restaurant, listen to some live music, cook something great, Skype with someone faraway. John is drowning in exam stuff, but you don’t have to be. Reclaim a tiny bit of your life from this whole thing and remind yourself that hey, your company is pretty great, there are people who love you and have your back, there is life outside of and after grad school. Build a boundary around this time for yourself, practice defending it from all who would invade it, including your husband.

You need a sacred weekly date night with John, too. You need Order-Delivery, Shut-Off-All-Communication-Devices, And-Have-Sex-Like-Newlyweds-Fridays. You should absolutely make something like that a tradition in your house, especially if you’ve lost the habit and the knack of putting that time aside for each other. By giving it a definite day of the week, maybe you give yourself and John a tool to protect that day from interruptions. “It’s Friday and we agreed that Fridays are just for us, but you’re on your phone with Martha, so why don’t you tell me what’s really up?

I really hope you can work this out, dear Letter Writer. Be nice to yourself.


172 thoughts on “#859: “My husband’s clingy friend is ruining his life but he won’t do anything about it.”

  1. The whole ‘spend time with one woman, complain to another woman about it’ thing makes me veeery suspicious that he might also be doing the same to Martha. “Oh my wife -complain complain-” to Martha, and “oh Martha -complain complain-” to the wife. I have known these guys. I have been the Martha to these guys. What I thought was a terrible relationship with a controlling woman was actually a terrible relationship with a guy who was constantly getting sympathy and 2nd/3rd/4th/20th chances from two women at once.

    1. This.

      So, three different times in my life I’ve had a guy cheat on me, and each time it started with him bad mouthing a woman but then somehow always spending time around her. So whenever what a guy says about a woman and how he acts towards her don’t jive, it’s a red flag for me. Not saying that’s what’s going on here, and LW is in a better position to know the dynamic, but if it were me, that’s where my mind would go.

      1. And, you know, after a point, it doesn’t *matter* if he’s sleeping with her or not. It frustrates me so much when guys try to pull this. “Well, I’m not sleeping with her!” Okay, but you are being emotionally intimate with her to a point where it is affecting our relationship, The fact that you might be *physically* faithful to me is immaterial.

        1. Yeah, in one of the instances, he was just hanging out in her bed… with her. And then dumped me to be with her (and she turned around and decided that she actually wasn’t interested). some might not consider that cheating, but for the purposes of my comment I rounded it up.

          Either way, spending time with someone as if they’re a friend but then bad mouthing them to other people is always shady, imo.

          1. Oh jeez. I’m really sorry that happened to you but I LOLed at my mental image of how that conversation must have gone. “I wasn’t SLEEPING with her I was just, you know, laying in bed with her.”

          2. @human,

            I actually found out about the bed occupying from one of her suitemates (this was in college). Suitemate and I weren’t particularly close, but just friendly acquaintances, but got closer on a trip with a student group and she gave me the missing puzzle pieces of the story. She was the type of person who is so kind and caring that she doesn’t usually attribute bad motivations to other peoples actions, but in this case she had trouble coming up with a valid reason for that.

    2. I’ve known a couple of men who complain about their wives to their female friends all the time, and it was 100%, always, every single time in eventual service of grooming those female friends to lend a sympathetic body along with that sympathetic ear. It makes me very, very suspicious, as does the reverse.

      1. I was just complaining to a friend the other day about how much I hated it when guys flirt by complaining about their wives. This is definitely A Thing.

        1. Ew, do people actually do this?! When someone complains about their spouse to me I assume they’re not interested in me romantically/sexually, because if they were interested then I would very obviously be the wrooooong audience for that type of venting. Venting about your spouse is just…something you only do with platonic friends.


          1. Oh yeah, they definitely do. In my experience, it’s usually aimed at people who are then made to feel special by comparison. My wife doesn’t understand me (but you do!). My wife is boring and in a rut (but you are fresh and exciting!). My wife has expectations of me and nags me (but you are chill and cool and never demanding!). My wife doesn’t want to have sex anymore because she’s a tired old prude (but you are young and have a healthy sex drive!). Etc. Especially if you’re fairly inexperienced and have low self-esteem, feeling so much cooler and sexier and fresher and younger by comparison can be, sadly, appealing.

            And of course it’s a trap. Not only because they’re grooming you for an affair with no future, but because all of those by-comparison compliments? Are traps. The first time you are less than perfectly sympathetic, less than totally thrilling, expect anything of him, or aren’t up for exactly what he wants in the bedroom, you’re Just Like That Horrible Harridan. And so the pressure to go back to being the Cool Girl ramps up, and up, until you can’t maintain it anymore and he starts looking for a new cool girl who will feel understanding, exciting, chill, and sexy by comparison.

            It’s a horrible, horrible trap, but it’s sadly common.

          2. Oh Turtle Candle, I wish what you said wasn’t soooooo horrifyingly familiar to me. Every word of it is spot on. 😦

          3. That’s what I thought too, but alas.

            I wrote in a while ago about a professional guy I had a professional lunch with. At first, he talked positively about his wife and new baby, but later when he was giving me a tour of his office (not an unusual thing) he started complaining about his wife and baby. I thought he was just opening up until he said, “you know, when I was younger, I would have assumed you were here to sleep with me.” At that point, I fled from the giant red flag that was and left and have only seen him once briefly in public since then.

            When I think back to my male friends who constantly complained about their girlfriends, I can definitely see this pattern. It’s sad. 😦

            What I have been doing is following standard CA tactics if a guy starts complaining about his SO – “I’m sorry to hear that, how about that weather?” “That sounds tough, hey gotta go!” I want to make it clear that I am not the woman they are looking for.

          4. Actually, I did it once. In the presence of a person I was very attracted to, I spent the whole evening complaining about how my boyfriend Didn’t Understand Me, and how sad I was about it.

            In my defense, I was about 16. And it didn’t even work. And I felt really shitty about it the next day, and I’ve not done it again, nor would I.

          5. Venting about your spouse is just…something you only do with platonic friends.

            Hmm. Not even that. I don’t vent to anyone about my husband who would not forgive him if I do. I don’t want to hear about my friends’ spouses, either – if they have serious problems that they can’t work out, then I will choose my friend, but if there is a problem that they resolve, I don’t even want to have known about it because I WILL NOT FORGIVE THE SPOUSE FOR BEING A JERK.

        2. I’ve found that asking ‘if you don’t like her so much, why are you with her at all?’ tends to be a derailer for these kinds of people. Stops some of them cold.

          1. This is exactly what I do. “Wait, but if your [person] is so thoroughly awful, why are you dating them? Break up; problems solved.”

          2. I said that once and got “on paper, she is perfect for me, but she just doesn’t excite me. And there is just something about you. You give me butterflies.”

            Fresh off a painful break-up + depleted self worth + total lack of boundaries = dramarama for 9 months while I worked this guy out of out my system. BUT he introduced to my now husband who has displayed zero creepiness. Though 5 years later I still get bizarrely wordy email to the tune of: “I truly believe you are my second soul mate”* from dudebro, presumably when his ego isn’t being stroked by multiple women, and I send these to all my friends and we laugh.

            *his first “soulmate” being his first wife who left him for the man she had an affair with – soooooo there’s that.

          3. “Perhaps most important, Untangled helps mothers and fathers understand, connect, and grow with their daughters. When parents know what makes, their daughter tick, they can embrace and enjoy the challenge of raising a healthy, happy young woman.”

            Yes! This is exactly what I do. My response is usually “you should break up with them.” I do this both with people I think might be hitting on me and people I think might not be hitting on me. I really dislike it when people I barely know complain to me about their SOs.

        3. So like, I just realized this was a thing in my late 20s. (I was married/committed from 19-27 and kind of not paying attention to flirting.)

          I had a coworker with this habit, although I don’t know if his intention was flirting, venting, or somewhere in between. Anyway I had met his wife and she was always perfectly lovely to me, so I took up defending her. “Mrs X is so depressive and mopey!” got the response “Wow that seems really hard *for her*, what are you doing to help?”. “Mrs X just lies around all day!” got “Wow sounds like *she’s* having a hard time, what are you doing to help?”

          Unsurprisingly, when it became about him actually becoming a source of support for his wife, the complaints dropped steeply off a cliff. While I get that living with a depressed person is not easy, it was also not appropriate to bash her to me all the time. (Especially when I had to hang out with her, knowing all the awful things her husband said about her! I would have been furious to find out my husband spoke of me that way.)

      2. I, for one, think it is super-considerate of these people to do this, especially when the dress codes forbid t-shirts emblazoned with the legend, “DO NOT UNDER ANY CIRCUMSTANCES SLEEP WITH OR OTHERWISE WASTE YOUR TIME ON THIS SKEEZEBALL.”

      3. I’ve actually been the female friend in a case that was an exception to that rule, but it was a very unusual situation for two reasons. First, his wife really was abusing him pretty badly and he was falling apart from it… I know this from what I saw personally when they were together in my presence and what I heard from multiple mutual friends based on what *they* saw personally; NOT primarily on his word. And second, everyone involved was poly, and he and I had been lovers intermittently since years earlier, even though we weren’t at this period. When he wanted to go to bed with me, he knew how to use his words, and how to take no for an answer.

        So I really didn’t have to fear that he was complaining about his wife all the time because he wanted to play on my sympathy to get me into bed… he had to know that if he decided he wanted me back in his bed, the great likelihood was that all he’d need to do would be to ask. But he definitely needed someone to whom he could unload about the stress, especially since he was too afraid of custody wars to leave. The whole thing is long since resolved, and he’s never done anything like that again to me… it really was just the unusual circumstances. But I agree 100% that, even though a very few rare exceptions exist, if you hear galloping hooves don’t assume unicorn.

      4. I had a guy try this on me once: “my girlfriend and I aren’t sexually compatible” is something he said to me, practically verbatim, whilst moping about the loss of the tinglespark one gets with someone new. I don’t know what effect he was hoping for (that I would offer to try out sexual compatibility with him?) but it gave me the full-body ews. I adopted a tone of almost aggressive cheerfulness and pretended I was his relationship therapist. “Well, sometimes that’s the price we pay for more lasting companionship, right?” I mean, if he was going to kvetch about his girl under the smokescreen that he and I were “friends,” then I was going to respond with the pep-talk I might give a friend!

    3. Yeah, I’ve had married male friends, and part of the reason we stayed friends is that they never tried to complain to me about their wives. They might mention, “X is going on right now,” but it wasn’t, “My wife is so unreasonable and a jerk about Y.” And the wives were fine with us being friends because they knew I was a friend to their marriage as well.

  2. FWIW, a male friend of mine at university had a female emotional vampire. It was totally platonic, but she glommed onto him as an emotional crutch to help her through her stresses over her degree and other issues, doing very similar things to Martha here. He hated it and tried very hard to escape, but having been raised to never be anything but kind to women, he couldn’t find a way out. In the end he had a violent outburst against various inanimate objects, and she backed off. A horrible mess, but at least it didn’t ruin his degree, although it came close. Which is to say that sometimes people don’t have the assertiveness skills they need to get out of a situation like this, especially if they’ve been conditioned to Be A Good Person and they have very little mental space to learn said skills because they’re trying to focus on something like a degree. Sucks to be John though, because he has to learn those skills pretty quickly.

    1. Misspiggy brings up a good point – If John really doesn’t like dealing with Martha, than to what extent is this affecting John’s grades and his own stress level? That may be a good angle to raise with him…

      1. I think John’s stress/grades, etc. is a factor in this whole situation, but not the most useful strategy for the LW to convince him, for 2 reasons:

        1) Whatever is going on with John/Martha, it has moved past logic. “You can’t stand this woman but spend every moment either with her or talking to her or about her” = LOGIC FAIL. Reasons are for reasonable people.

        2) Trying to make it about John’s well-being vs. the Letter Writer’s needs & feelings is a trap. It’s the “I don’t want to look jealous, so I’m trying to pretend that this what’s best for you” trap. So what happens when John says “don’t worry about me, I’m fine”?

        The LW is ANNOYED and JEALOUS (and that’s ok).

    2. It’s really sad that your friend didn’t have those coping skills, and it is true that manipulative people will take advantage of kindness/the social contract/politeness/other people’s good faith. The first time you encounter someone like this, it can really fuck with your sense of self, because you are a kind, good person acting in good faith and the other person is hurting, and OF COURSE you should do what you can to help. All your regular defenses stop working because until now you have always been dealing with people who are acting in good faith, and when you finally run out of patience and exit the relationship, there’s no way to do it prettily because 1) you don’t have those coping skills 2) The situation has gone on way too long and 3) because the other person will react badly no matter what you do.

      John might not have those skills yet, and it sucks because he does have to learn them pretty quickly, but I think framing this in terms of his choices and his agency is the right thing to do both for the LW and for John.

      When you deal with a manipulative person who wants to be in a relationship with you at all costs, they will frame things as “should” and “have to” – “But I have no one else, so you have to hang out with me.” “But you’re my friend, so you should (invite me over every single night).” It seems that the mere mention of Martha being alone for an evening is enough for John to spring to the rescue. One way to cut through that manipulation is to ask yourself “Wait, do I even want to be friends with so-and-so?” “Do I even want them to come to my house?” “Do I even want to be here right now?”

      In the LW’s shoes, she has no control over what Martha or John do, but saying “Well, John, what do you want to do about this?” is actually the kindest thing she can do for everyone, especially herself. “John, you say you hate this and don’t want it, and yet, it happens every single day. So what are you getting out of it? What if you behaved how you want to behave?” is not a mean question for an adult to ask the other adult they are married to.

      1. I have to say that my graduate school Martha (two heterosexual women in this case) was difficult for me to initially define because she was very open about having mental health problems. And so for a long time it wasn’t a case of Martha is manipulative and controlling, but rather – Martha as working through mental health issues – Martha was depressed and anxious. I’ve since learned that it is entirely possible for someone to be depressed, anxious as well as manipulative and controlling. And also that manipulative and controlling do not necessarily mean she was had some malicious plot to hurt me, but rather that her actions to benefit herself didn’t include my well being.

        This was all a lot for me to take in and then when I combined the stress of grad school and in my case living abroad – it was really hard and I never truly got out until school ended and we lived in different countries. So I’m very sympathetic to the situation, but yeah – the more you can show boundaries, that’s the best you have. In my experience there’s no amount of passive aggressive complaining behind Martha’s back that will ever end this in a straight forward way.

        1. Right, and it can be hard to say, “Wow, that really sucks!” and then “Ok, bye, I’ll see you tomorrow.” You feel like a compassionless asshole.

          It takes practice to say: “I am really sorry you are hurting, but I need to (get some sleep/see my wife/study for this test/walk the dog), so, gotta go.”

          It’s not until I dealt with a “Martha” who got angry when I walked away from Instant Messenger for a sec to go to the toilet that things came into perspective.

          Martha may be working through some stuff and need all John has to give and more. The LW also has needs. John has needs. Speaking up about those is not automatically selfish or mean.

          1. This reminds me of “you can analyze on your own time” guy from a few letters back.

            I’ve been both The Depressed Friend and The One With The Depressed Friend and I can say in both cases, having problems of one’s own–whether of the mental health variety or otherwise–doesn’t magically make it ok to act entitled or manipulative. Wish I’d learned that lesson a lot sooner.

          2. How dare you not prioritize her needs over your bodily functions? Didn’t you get a laptop so you wouldn’t let little things like elimination get in the way of Constant Communication? I mean, you’re just S(h)ITTING THERE…

        1. Thank you! I feel strongly that validating the idea that Martha is helpless about this and that John is helpless about this is NOT the way that the LW gets a happier situation.

          1. It’s also not the way JOHN gets a happier situation.

            I still remember the little mental “click” that happened when I complained for the umpteenth time about something (“I’m so fat,” actually), and my colleague and frequent hearer of that complaint said, quite cheerfully, as if there was an answer: “What are you going to do about it?”

            John needs that “click”; the LW can say, “what are you going to do about it?”

            And yes, “I don’t want you to ever invite Martha here, and I don’t want to listen to you vent about it. If you don’t like it do something to make it stop; I’ll help you strategize even. But I will not be your steam valve that relieves just enough pressure to allow you to continue like this.”

      2. LW, this comment reminds me of some very good advice someone once gave me.

        If you’re dealing with someone whose actions don’t match up well with what they say about how they feel and what they want — if you find that what they claim to want and how they claim to feel don’t form a coherent picture with their choices and actions, and you notice that you’re confused — stop. Take a deep breath and set aside everything they’ve told you about how they feel and what they want. Forget what they’ve said about their feelings, and focus solely on what they’ve done. Often, a much clearer picture will begin to emerge of what’s going on in this person’s head.

        For example, your husband is choosing to spend a lot of time with Martha. He’s choosing to invite her into your home, despite your discomfort and dislike of her. He’s choosing to message with her frequently. He’s choosing to do all of this even though he knows that it really bothers you.

        You know the situation best, so I of course defer to your judgement. But looking at these facts, to me this looks like your husband wants to be spending time with Martha, and like he’s not willing to stop doing that in order to please you.

        saying “Well, John, what do you want to do about this?” is actually the kindest thing she can do for everyone, especially herself.

        This is a *great* script. Telling him what you’ve observed and then straight-up asking him what he wants seems like a good way of encouraging him to think carefully about his choices. After you say these things to him, just remember to take what he says back with a grain of salt — the real thing to watch is whether, following that conversation, he changes his behaviour.

        1. …Hmm. I feel like I left an important thing out of my comment:

          I’m not necessarily suggesting that your husband is deliberately lying to you. I have no idea what’s going on in his head. What I’m noticing is that how he says he feels isn’t borne out by his actions. That to me suggests that his words about his feelings are not accurately representing how he actually feels. This could be because he’s lying. Or it could be because he’s really out of touch with what he wants and how he feels and hasn’t really checked in with himself a while. Or it could be that he’s unconsciously afraid to check in with himself and ask himself what he wants because he’s scared that he won’t find what he wishes he would. Or it could be that he’s having some feelings he wishes he weren’t having, but he’s hoping they’ll go away soon and he’s ignoring them and denying them in the meantime. There are lots and lots of possibilities for what could be going on with him right now.

          I think that regardless of what’s truly up with him, the best thing to do is to draw his attention to the fact that his recent behaviour doesn’t match up with what he’s said about what he wants and feels, and to ask him to check in with himself about where he’s at.

          (Note that this is something he might not be able to tell you right-away-on-the-spot. But it’s something he needs to figure out and get back to you about. And if, after he does answer you, he continues to behave in a way that doesn’t jive with that answer, that is the reddest of red flags, in the shape of maybe he shouldn’t be in a relationship right now.)

          1. So the OP should take the time to hold his hand and walk him through all that emotional labor. Or, no. No sounds good to me.

          2. @oregonbird: Well, that is what many people are explicitly signing up for when marrying someone, so it’s not unfair on its face. The support should definitely be reciprocal, and I’m not going to argue that there aren’t plenty of people (I would guess more non-men* than men) who wind up in relationships where they’re being exploited for emotional labor without reciprocation (that’s a role I wind up in more than I like, so I know it’s a real thing), but there’s nothing inherently wrong with doing emotional labor for a spouse (or anyone whom one cares about), or helping to guide them to be better able to manage self-care. Ideally John should already be able to handle this, but this clearly isn’t that ideal situation, and at least here in USA, we don’t tend to do a very good job about socializing men to do emotional labor, for themselves or for others, meaning that if they ever learn, it often falls to therapists or willing partners or friends to help teach those skills in adulthood.

            *I’m not doing this to identify women relative to men, I’m doing it to include people who are not men nor women, as I suspect they, too, wind up in this role at higher rates than men.

          3. I’m not sure “it’s something he needs to figure out and get back to you about” supports the idea that Chessie expects the LW to do all of her husband’s emotional labor.

          4. @oregonbird — yeah, “nope” is also a totally reasonable response, and if that’s how the LW’s feeling then I totally support her noping right on out of there. I phrased my comment the way I did because in her letter she sounds (to me at least) like what she’s looking for is a way to fix the relationship — she doesn’t seem like she’s thinking seriously of ending it. Also, from the limited information available, this situation sounds like there’s a chance it could still be salvaged, IF that’s something both people want to commit to working on. I could totally be wrong about any of this though, and the point you make is an important one.

    3. having been raised to never be anything but kind to women

      I’ve run into variations on this dynamic, and it took me a long time to work out that in this kind of situation, “being kind” too often correlates with “doesn’t respect.” I.e., they can’t see women as sturdy/intelligent enough to deal with having self-respecting boundaries set in a respectful way. Weirdly, it’s like this kind of inverse misogyny, where women are “delicate flowers” that have to be “protected,” instead intelligent, aware adults with agency.

      1. It’s one of the ways the patriarchy hurts men!

        And I can totally see that someone can end up with this lack of respect without even realizing they’ve got it.

        In Martha’s case, I think that she’s (unconsciously, perhaps) playing on that, by playing up her image as vulnerable and unable to fend for herself.

        1. In a way, this may be what he is getting out of it.
          I have met guys who were the rescuing sort. If they spotted a damsel in distress they just had to assist because it fit SO WELL into that particular prince/damsel* narrative and it felt good.
          There are also women* out there who, consciously or not, love the attention and are happy to tell the guy* how much they need him, how lost they would be without him.
          So, we have a situation where he’s stressed, and Martha is feeding his ego. He may be annoyed and complaining, but, there’s probably also that ego boost hiding there for any guy who’s been raised to think he should take care of people, that he should ride to the rescue, and that he should provide for those weaker than himself.
          It’s a sneaky and stubborn trap because sometimes it’s wonderful! Dating a guy like this, or marrying one, can be great!
          But, watch out if you are reasonably self sufficient and someone who is needier comes along, especially if the rescuer type is not self aware enough to see that the ego boost is all that there is, and they neglect their current relationship.

          *i gendered it. Mostly because in our current society there’s a strong gendered element to this, usually. However this dynamic can happen to ANYONE if someone was raised to be a responsible rescuer, and they meet the right kind of attention seeking person of the gender(s) that fit their preference.

    4. Actually, rereading this comment, I realize that my previous response is entirely off-topic and inappropriate. I apologize. Please disregard it.

      1. I don’t think it’s off-topic! I mean, it may or may not be an element of what’s going on with John and Martha, but it’s definitely relevant to the wider topics of how men and women relate and how they choose to spend their emotional labour resources.

  3. That suggestion about self-care is really, really helpful, as is listing out all the different ways one can derail a discussion. I’ve had those happen to me before, and the other party usually ends up getting their way while I feel horribly guilty for having feelings in the first place. Thank you for putting words to it, Captain.

  4. I love this: “Let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me.” Oh yeah.

    1. My dad growing up was one of these super accommodating, incredibly nice, (maybe a bit of a superhero complex) type of guys who’s always helping someone in the community while leaving little time at home.

      As far as I can tell, he just thought of my mom and the rest of us as sort of an extension of himself, which meant that any “rules” that applied to him applied to us as well. You know, if he must care for this person and sacrifice family time for them, so must the rest of us. He had a hard time with the idea that my mom, especially, might have different needs and boundaries around this stuff, and that didn’t mean she was doing something wrong.

      Phrases like that – “Why can you say no to me but not to him/her/them?” – have always helped him break out of this thinking and remember that we were people who had needs too. It’s taken them a long time and stacks and stacks of relationship self-help books, but he and my mom have figured out healthy ways to navigate things like this.

      Anyway, just wanted to say, this is a powerful line and one it’s good to latch onto and explore, as early as possible. Once you’re in a serious, life-entangling relationship, it’s no longer just your boundaries that matter. It’s your boundaries, partner’s boundaries, and *our* boundaries together. It’s OK if they’re all different as long as the shared boundary works for everyone.

      1. Yeah, perhaps this is me projecting, but I would start wondering exactly where I fell on that SO’s priority list if I was the only one they could say “no” to. It’s a very demoralizing feeling.

        1. Oh yes. My first marriage was like this. It turned out he couldn’t say no to all of the other priorities on his list because he didn’t want to. It took me asking him one night if I was a priority for him. And he hesitated and said “no.” And that was the end of that.

          1. That’s a really big one – why does his education and your comfort take a backseat to Martha’s wants? He KNOWS you don’t like her and are uncomfortable with him bringing her into YOUR space, but does it anyway. Ask yourself this – why is he putting that kind of importance on HER feelings, and yet not putting any consideration on yours?

          2. Oh, wow. Harsh. But good on you for finally making him bring his disregard for you out into the light where you could both look at it, appraise it, and then decide how to handle it.

    2. This.

      I dated someone for a few months who couldn’t say no to an ex-girlfriend and her demands – but he could say no to me when I told him I was uncomfortable with, among many things, her “needing” to stay at his apartment (which meant sleeping in his bed) when she visited our city for the weekend. His need to never say no to her was more important than anything else in his life, including me. It did not take me long to kick him to the curb.

      1. +1000 to this. My current partner had an ex like this, and it took a conversation very similar to “Let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me” to finally put the nail in the emotional vampire’s coffin. I love Partner dearly, and I’m thankful were able to move past this, but for the longest time I was so invested in being the “Cool, Chill Girlfriend” that I couldn’t bring myself to say anything about it.

        It took his credit card being declined at the hotel front desk for *his* family reunion because he just *had* to buy her a fairly expensive birthday present, which led to me having to foot the (not insignificant) bill with money I didn’t reeeeaaally have at the time (took some fund shuffling on my part, after we had agreed way ahead of time that he was covering this particular expense). After we got home from the trip and I found out that the shortage on his part was not just a miscalculation/mistake, I asked “Why on earth did you *HAVE* to buy her an expensive present that you COULD NOT AFFORD at the time just because she asked? You knew we had that trip coming up and needed to spend wisely; you have not hung out or seen each other in person for MONTHS after you set that boundary (necessitated by some seriously poor behavior on her part).” His answer: “I just wanted to avoid a big fight with her at the time.” Me: “But you seem perfectly willing to fight with me over it RIGHT NOW.”

        It was like a freaking lightbulb went off in his brain. I’m still a little sour that it came to that, but sometimes laying it out in those terms is what needs to happen: not specifically that I had a problem with her (which I did, but that’s beside the point), but that he was allowing their behavior/relationship to affect me (emotionally! financially, even!) and our relationship. Just wanted to post this as an example of a hard conversation/case of emotional vampirism that ended up OK, in case the LW is reading.

  5. The Captain’s Point #1 about institutions of higher learning doesn’t just apply to Martha….John, too, can find study buddies and stress outlets on campus without requiring Martha’s presence. It’s odd to me that it sounds like it’s constantly just the two of them. Has he ever tried making study time a group thing? Why is it always these two by themselves? That has me suspicious.

    1. It depends on the school and the department. I’m at a small school in a small program, and I only have one person in my program that I’m close to for various reasons (and I tried making study groups a thing and nobody was having any of it). Luckily the school as a whole is very community-oriented, so I’m friends with a lot of people outside of my program, but at some schools departments can be very insular and competitive.

      1. Really important point. I’ve been in several different grad programs and the culture can really vary. I really struggled socially in one department because I wasn’t ideologically “pure” enough.

    2. It’s definitely possible for some programs — PhD programs especially, although I don’t know if that’s what John and Martha are studying for — to be small enough that a student might only have one true peer (in terms of moving through the program in sync, taking qualifying exams at the same time, etc.). So I can imagine how they might feel like they’re stuck together, and there really might not be another source of study buddies available. But even if that’s the case, John can still put down some boundaries between Study-Buddy Time and The Entire Rest Of My Life!

  6. I want to echo that this letter from the Captain is great because as someone who struggles to enforce boundaries – my grad school Martha was very challenging for me. Grad school provided me with the difficult dynamic of both having the professional “we’re classmates/peers/cohorts” dynamic very mixed with the social one “we’re in X Club, going to Y party, living in Z dorm”. So once My Martha became noticeably a problem – I really didn’t know how to set boundaries while still encountering her all the time. Because on top of everything else, we also lived together.

    My method over the course of two years in managing this fluctuated from a range of tactics like giving in and being passive aggressive – none of them terribly productive or successful.

    This all being said, looking at a situation like the OP’s – it’s very easy to say “Just set boundaries! Boundaries are great!” So my advice on this is to make this as much about you and your husband as possible. If the grad school trap ultimately is just too difficult for him to also involve boundary setting – then don’t let his decision to go this route also impact you as much as it is now. OP, just because he can’t set boundaries with Martha, doesn’t mean that you can’t, especially with your husband around issues that impact you.

  7. Oh, man, I am so dealing with this right now. My partner keeps picking up these lost puppies and trying to help them, and I understand, he has this need to be Helpful and I am She Who Doesn’t Want Help Unless She Asks For It, Dammit, so he finds other outlets for it. And that’s great, but I wish he’d volunteer for a suicide hotline or something and do it in some sort of structured way so I could count on it only taking up Thursday nights from 7-9 pm.

    Because right now his notion of who to spend time with is Who Needs It More, and I will *always* make a point of losing in that kind of contest. I hope. I had a breast cancer scare this week (“It’s only a cyst,” the four most beautiful words in the English language), and I got all the attention I could have needed or wanted, but I don’t want it that way and I don’t want my subconscious to decide to put me in a car accident or let me fall down the stairs so I can get attention.

    Yes, I’m doing the self care by doing things elsewhere; yes, I told him clearly that I didn’t think he should be involved with this most recent one; yes, I told him I’m not interested in hearing the minutiae about what’s going on with her and I cut it off if it starts. Doesn’t matter. Right now he’s spending the entire day dealing with her getting out of the abusive relationship she has been in for the ENTIRE TIME he has known her and she’s sounding suicidal, again, and I know I sound like the most awful compassionless bitch ever but it just seems like she has one problem after another and you know, maybe she should be dealing with a professional instead of a talented amateur?

    (and yes, I’m thinking that I should tell him a) the thing about her seeing a professional in her own geographic location and b) volunteering for a suicide hotline, and I’m going to do that between crises.)

    1. I’m with someone who tended to collect lost puppies, and I’m the person who will view the puppies with impartial eyes. Because you know what? They’re not puppies or helpless lost things – they’re people with their own autonomy and initiative! And it bugged the hell out of me when SO treated them like helpless idiots, who Only He Could Save, TM. You know what? Fuck that! It’s weird, and it rightly squicks people out.

      I’ve encountered the Marthas of the world. I’ve had them try to glom and insert themselves, nowadays and back when I was bad at boundaries. But you know what? I certainly didn’t encourage my Marthas if they were truly that annoying. When I was bad at boundaries, I still wouldn’t respond to texts and calls with lengthy conversations, and I’d avoid the person like the plague even when we were in the same classes/programs/social settings. It sucks, and it feels weird, but if you really aren’t that into the relationship and act like it, even in such as way as ghosting, the glomming will stop.

      So that’s where things get interesting with people like the LW’s John, or your partner, or my SO…if they’re really not a fan of the person glomming onto them, and even if they have bad boundaries, why do they keep in contact with them? What’s holding them to that person, forming that attachment? Is it a need to feel wanted, to be a helper? If so, that’s Codependency 101 and not healthy for anyone involved. Do they get off on feeling superior, like their life is so much more on track than Poor Puppy #12 and only through their “kindness” and “attention” could Poor Puppy ever become a functional member of society, and if they do, it’s all because Helper was so Helpy!

      My ultimate point: LW, there’s more going on than John just having a clingy friend. There’s stuff John probably needs to acknowledge about himself and his relationships with people. (side note: has he had Marthas before? If so, how many of them have been women?) And it might bring up some uncomfortable and stressful things, particularly if he deflects onto you.

      What helped my SO and I was a great relationship counselor and a lot of talks between ourselves and with the counselor about boundaries. It wasn’t without its bumps, and we still have snags here and there, but overall I feel now our space is OURS, not his to rent out to whoever might be feeling vulnerable in his vicinity.

      Best of luck!

    2. Maybe he should try helping actual lost puppies instead. With bonus of them being much cuter than people.

      1. I actually thought she did literally mean lost puppies at first, and I was reallyjealous that he was just *finding* all these lost puppies to help. I want to help the lost puppies!

      2. another bonus: they do eventually change and get unlost and unpuppy. Most of them end up house-broken, and the all grow out of the chewing phase. The people version often doesn’t actually, especially if they’re relying on someone else.

  8. Oh boy, a similar situation marred the first year of my current relationship. Some key differences: Martha was my roommate, and all three of us were in the same PhD cohort. My Martha would constantly send instant messages and texts to my boyfriend– at times she would arrive home, breeze past the two of us in stony silence, and then as soon as she reached her room his chat notifications would go OFF. I begged him at length to just…delay…before responding. Not asking that he cut her off completely, just slow things down and not be so instantly available to her. This request caused massive fights between us, where I was framed as the controlling girlfriend and he was the innocent party texting so innocently. When I would leave town, she would invite him over and cook him extravagant dinners, which I asked him to decline (he never did). Thinking back, I really wonder how our relationship survived that year. I don’t regret staying with him (we’re over five years in, and things are pretty good) but if I had to do it all over again I would definitely be saddling up my nopetopus.

    I have no pointers to add, but you, dear LW, have my deepest sympathies.

  9. Dear LW:

    You get all the sympathy and hugs in the world.
    This situation with your husband and Martha is rotten.

    One thought I haven’t seen expressed is that John’s and Martha’s motives (anxiety, exams, lust, bad boundary skills, vampirism – to name just a few) don’t matter.

    The result does.

    The result is that your life has too much Martha.

    Motive is yet another derailment and can be treated as such.

    The Captain’s suggestions, especially date night and taking time for yourself resonate so lousy with me.

    So, when you follow the Captain’s script, please remember that all the derailing John may come up with doesn’t matter.

    Has your husband and really, why can he say no to you, but not Martha.

    Jedi hugs if you want them.

    1. Yes, this is huge huge. It honestly doesn’t much matter if Martha is actually amazeballs, or if she’s History’s Greatest Monster, or where in between she falls. If she was the best person in the history of the world, it would STILL be okay to say, “I don’t want to spend so much (or any) time socializing with this person.” If she was a magical unicorn of awesome, it would STILL be okay to say, “It bothers me that I can’t have your uninterrupted attention during dinner/movie-watching/whatever.”

      I say this not to downplay your annoyance, but rather to validate that you do not need to get drawn into a discussion of How Bad Is She Actually. Because it’s so common when you set a boundary like “I don’t want to spend my evenings with this person” or etc., to get the script flipped from ‘she’s annoying’ to ‘oh she’s not that bad and she’s hurting.’ It doesn’t matter if she is that bad, or not that bad, really. Your needs are still valid, and your right to express them is still valid, period.

      1. Your needs are still valid, and your right to express them is still valid, period.

        This could be the second motto of Captain Awkward, underlying Use Your Words

  10. “There is no prize for being the world’s most accommodating person.”

    I love this so much. I want to cross stitch it with a hand giving the finger beneath it, and then I wanna hang it in my kitchen. ❤

    1. If you do this, and choose to post the pattern on the forums, I would be grateful for it.

    2. “There is no prize for being the world’s most accommodating person.”

      Or, as Pratchett put it: “The reward you get for digging holes is a bigger shovel.”

  11. Does he genuinely not know how to set a boundary with her, or does he just love the sound of her name in his mouth? Who knows? “John, that’s sad for her, but let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me.“

    Oh my god, that framing of who he’s choosing to say no to rang in my head like a clarion bell.

  12. I had my own Martha for the first two years of grad school. She didn’t have a car, and I did, and the very first day of class she asked me to drive her to classes and thus I was her transportation for TWO YEARS. As in choosing the same electives, doing the same rotations, etc etc. She was not someone I would have chosen to be friends with; at that stage of life I thought I had to be friends with anyone who was available and I tended to collect sad puppies, so yeah. Whenever I’ve been tempted since then to collect a puppy, I remember the two years with her solidly planted in the passenger seat of my car and that helps me maintain my boundaries.

    My husband has never been one to collect puppies but when he was in grad school he was always available for his friends and not so much for me. As in “no, we can’t go out to dinner on Saturday because I have to study and oh, by the way, on Sunday I am spending four hours driving Doug to the airport.” It took a long long time to sort that out and there was a lot of “you’re being too needy” thrown around in the process. I realize now (decades later) that he was depressed and overwhelmingly anxious about school and terrified that I’d leave, so he didn’t want to be too dependent on me, so he kind of held me at arm’s length. That suited me in some ways and not in others – I own a piece of this dysfunction myself – and it took lots and lots of time and effort and some counseling to sort it out. I really wish I’d known to focus on the behavior back then.

    tl;dr: The Captain is right on.

    1. Oh god. The lure of “always there for acquaintances, no matter the circumstances, because I’m a Very Nice Guy” destroyed my first long-term relationship. This included (but was not limited to) refusing to back out of posting bail for a coworker after being pressured to do so by his manager because he “gave his word.” And this was immediately after the phone call, when I reminded him that said coworker had already skipped his court date once, had no ties to the city, and was shady as fuck. Didn’t matter. “I gave my word” was on continuous play. Of course, the dude bailed and it was only on the merest technicality that my ex wasn’t stuck paying $50,000 to the state. There were times that I’d be cooking dinner for our date night– something fancy, like steak and risotto, or linguine alla vongole– and he would get a phone call from one of his hapless friends in need. The tenth time he left me sitting despondently over dinner, with our two pets gazing hopefully at his empty spot, I ended things. I rarely think about that relationship, but even ten years later I feel Madeline Kahn-style rage-flames on the side of my face when I remember him.

      1. OMG I feel rage-flames on the side of my face on your behalf. If you treat your partner like they are your very last priority, you are not actually nice! At all!

        1. Co-signed, especially if their response to you raising the issue is nothing but derailing and how It’s Not About You, and ironically, that’s the problem, because it’s YOUR needs that are going unmet. (Sorry. I have a lot of feelings about this.)

        2. This is a little-known but nasty fact about people-pleasers (PPs). Many PPs will have that one person they trust to be nice and accommodating to *them*, and not frighten them with any crossness or drama. If the PP encounters someone who is very aggressive or high-maintenance, he or she will throw the “nice friend” under the bus in order to keep the peace with the trouble-maker. This happens in relationships, workplaces, families, and all sorts of other areas.

          This can be a shock when you first encounter it – a case of “if PP is so nice to everyone else in the world, why aren’t they looking out for *me*?” The horrid truth is that your PP *needs* someone to sacrifice, someone to take the brunt of any conflict or nastiness, so he or she can carry on being the “nice guy” or “nice girl” in their own and the world’s estimation.

          1. I am a bit of a people pleaser, and I have unfortunately noticed a little bit of the dynamic you describe. I tend to give the squeaky wheels the grease, i.e. spend more time and emotional energy dealing with unpleasant, troublesome people. It actually makes me very nervous because I don’t feel like I have a good intuition about how much time to spend on people, so I always worry about whether I’m neglecting my friendships and romantic relationships.

          2. j_bird, you might try the metric of “The nicer they are and the more fun we have together, the more time I’ll spend with them” as opposed to what sounds like your current situation, which is the opposite: the more drama, the more time.

          3. I’m real glad to know that little-known fact, since it brings a lot of things to light.

            One question, if that’s OK: what happens when the “nice friend” objects to being thrown under the bus? Does the PP freeze them out/dispose of them?

          4. @codenameminali

            I am the “nice daughter” in my family. The few times I attempted to disrupt this pattern, I was derailed when the PP started balling about what a terrible parent they were. Long term – nothing changed. It’s like those conversations never happened (my family’s bread and butter is severe denial and gaslighting) and I have a very superficial, almost nonexistent relationship (at my doing) with my family.

            I am sure this is not the news you want to hear, and with a friendship it may be different. But I think the common response is: PP apologizing profusely with genuinely good intentions. But until *they* acknowledge *their* codependency issues and work on modifying *their* behavior (and often working hugely on building self worth) and learning how to set boundaries, they will “relapse” into these toxic and high maintenance relationships.

          5. @thetigerhasspoken:

            I, too, got derailed, but no profuse apologies, and being made to feel implicitly guilty for how I was treated. There was a promise of never doing this again, but some time later that was broken and I was disposed of. Maybe that wasn’t a normal PP response, but prior to that there was the feeling that I was considered sweet and accommodating, and therefore it was all right to disappoint me over anyone else.

            I’m never letting that happen to me again.

          6. @codenameminali

            I recently learned to be wary when the following things are all true: 1) The other person says that I am “so sweet”, 2) They are specifically talking about me being understanding in a point of potential conflict, 3) The privilege lines are there of other person being a dude and me being a woman.

            In those circumstances, “You’re so sweet,” apparently means, “I can get away with being really nasty to her and she’ll just suck it up and be nice to me anyway. So I should just let it all hang out and do whatever I want to her! It’s a giant perpetual get-out-of-jail-free card!”


            Or, as the Captain says, there is no prize for being Understanding Girlfriend, other than being given a whole fuckton more shit to be understanding about.

          7. @Helen Huntingdon: In my case, 1 and 3 definitely applied (bonus points for me being a WoC), and while 2 may not have been specifically brought up in that context, it was also my most prominent feature as opposed to capable or whatever.

            I have a sneaking suspicion that had I not Used My Words, I wouldn’t have been disposed of so cruelly, but on the other hand, I’ve read and heard what happens after 2-4 more years of this, and it’s probably a blessing in disguise, y’know, instead of being drained dry. At least most people understand that my sweet nature has limitations, even if I’m too patient for my own good!

  13. I like how you said there are two stories, one where Martha is terrible and clinging, and one where she’s friends with a man who chooses to keep texting her and inviting her over and spending time with her.

      1. I’m learning from these stories that I could plot where a person chooses to spend their time on a pie chart. If I were in this position, my takeaway is that the person I have chosen, chooses to be unavailable to me. Then I must ask myself, what do I choose to do with that data?

      2. Yes, exactly. Martha herself is, in a way, a red herring. The real issue is that John keeps spending huge amounts of time with someone who is not his wife, and seems to be investing more in another person than he is in his marriage.

  14. My partner also has a penchant for lost puppies, and has had a few co-dependent relationships explode spectacularly with permanent fissures in social circles. The idea that helped him most was that it wasn’t fair to promise people more than he could deliver.

    For folks who needed to heal from trauma with professional help and time, it was really unfair for him to promise that he could make them feel better, make the world a better place, or take the place of a romantic partner that they hadn’t found for themselves yet. If he promised these things, those people would be understandably angry with him when they continued to be unhappy or unfulfilled. They would demand more and more trying to get him to fill a hole much too big for him. Until he made himself so desperate trying to meet their expectations that he exploded at them and never wanted to be around them again.

    It is heartbreaking to see need and know that you can’t fix it. But being able to sit in that empathic sadness without NEEDING to make it all better is an acceptance of one’s own emotions one’s own helplessness that makes many men uncomfortable. This is an important part of being an empathic man: folks need to be able to be in pain around you without you needing to make it all better.

    1. Ooh. That is a very useful insight which illuminates some issues with a few men in my life. It’s a nice problem to have, being around guys who want to make it all better, but it can be tough for everyone when things can’t be made better by them.

      1. And as a man who has a touch of that (please note ironic understatement), it has been SO HARD for me to accept that my friends will have problems and that, unless I am asked, those problems are theirs to solve, not mine, no matter how badly I want to swoop in and help out.

        Learning how to ask, “Are you venting or may I offer a piece of advice?” has been hugely helpful. So has taking stock of my own issues and deciding whether it’s more important to care for myself or my friends in any given moment. “Not my circus, not my monkeys” is not always dismissive; sometimes, it’s just an admission that I am not the right person to fix a problem, no matter how badly I may want to.

        1. Completely tangential: I’ve always used “Not my circus, not my monkeys” as an indication of a hands off type of respect. Essentially saying, “I will not get involved, because I know you can cope just fine on your own.”

        2. Sort of “Not my circus, not my monkeys, and furthermore I wouldn’t even know where to begin training monkeys, and my intervention would probably make the monkey-related issues much worse.”

        3. I really appreciate when friends ask the, “Are you venting, or would you like advice?” since most of the time it’s the former, and I HATE having someone give me advice to a problem I can solve on my own (or one that has no solution, like, “I’m tired of this bone being broken but it won’t heal any faster, darn it!”). I think many people are like that. I will also be fair and when I am looking for advice I make sure to mention it (“Hey, I know most of the time I just want to vent, but this time I’m not sure what to do; could you let me know if you have any ideas?”) so they know this is an unusual circumstance. A lot of times even if I didn’t know what to do before I started venting, just having someone listen to my verbal processing helps me figure it out.

    2. My partner has a penchant for lost puppies as well. To the extent that we’re currently dealing with the realization that maybe, just *maybe*, a poly relationship with Latest Puppy is not an especially good idea when she does things like trash Partner’s other romantic partners and come up with rules out of nowhere that require things to stay exactly the same, always, forever. And maybe it’s not a good idea either, when she appears to be seriously afraid of me (the one who’s been here in a relationship with Partner for the past ten years) and isn’t able to even have a conversation with me in the same skype chatroom as them.

      Latest Puppy is currently in a bad place, and has an awful family, and has anxiety and other brainweird going on. Latest Puppy also needs professional help, and Partner has admitted as much. But Partner’s still reluctant to let them go because (and I only recently found this out), they feel like they don’t deserve good things. So, at a guess, they’re trying to balance out karma so that they can “earn” good things.

      So there’ve been things like helping out every person who needs a hand. Which is good and kind…and has resulted in them giving away enough money that we could have started a retirement fund by now. We’ve never had problems with the bills, but we have sometimes needed to pass on getting nice new things because “latest charity project needed an unexpected, large amount of money”.
      And I think that’s starting to gear up again, as they get ready to let go of Latest Puppy. (And I…honestly hope that they do let go of her, because she’s causing them significant amounts of stress and eating up what feels like all their free time. To the point where when we do have date night, they have to take some time to reassure her that no, they’re still alive and okay, because apparently they cannot be out of contact with her for two hours without her blowing up their phone with increasingly concerned texts.)

      1. Somehow this reminded me of when a lost puppy latched on to me and proceeded to alternate pathos with verbal abuse, which naturally made me back waaaaaay the hell off.

        Someone he’d known since high school told me, “The last thing on earth he needs right now is to be told yet again that he’s not good enough.”

        I think I just stared at her — this is normally a sane, intelligent woman. Mr. Sad Puppy’s behavior sucked. He most definitely was not “good enough” to hang around with until he decided to quit being a dick. From where I was sitting, THAT would be the message of a true friend — that there is no Sadness so profound that it gives you a license to abuse people.

      2. Since you mention it, my partner and I are also poly people and yes, he is often sexually involved to some degree with his puppies. I didn’t want to bring this up originally because I didn’t want people to latch onto that, but yes.

        And ditto to the having to reassure one of the puppies frequently, though at least he only has to reassure this one once a day so far and not every two hours. I pointed out to him that, you know, when you’re with your other partners I leave you alone until I hear from you because that’s how I show respect for your other relationships, and he goes, well, she’s not you. So as others have mentioned, my reward for behaving like a reasonable human being is to get my time with him intruded on constantly.

        1. “I pointed out to him that, you know, when you’re with your other partners I leave you alone until I hear from you because that’s how I show respect for your other relationships, and he goes, well, she’s not you. So as others have mentioned, my reward for behaving like a reasonable human being is to get my time with him intruded on constantly.”

          Argh, that sounds really awful. I’m sorry that’s going on and hope it gets better.

        2. Oh, that would be incredibly frustrating (re: “she’s not you”). No advice, but empathy and Jedi hugs if you’d like them.

        3. So … what do the other people do to show respect for your relationship?

          This really doesn’t sound like a good vibe at all! I would be as frustrated as hell if I had your partner.

  15. “John, that’s sad for her, but let’s talk about you and why you can’t say no to her but you can say no to me.“

    This. This right here is everything!

  16. Long time lurker, first time commenter. I feel like I was just having a conversation trying to figure out what about graduate school leads to such poor boundaries, because I feel this sort of thing happens ALL THE TIME. Some of it is being in a high pressure environment with the only other people who don’t visibly shudder at your field of study, so there is a bond with your comrades in arms. There is also the informal expectations as well, which is fine as long as everyone is well behaved, but can lead to really toxic situations with poorly socially calibrated people.

    This doesn’t really help the LW, but graduate school becomes so much better when you start viewing it as your profession: your fellow classmates are your colleagues. I consider a few of them as close friends, but I’ve also made it a point to socialize with people outside the community. And while I will happily lend a shoulder if I notice someone in acute distress, that does not commit me to be their friend or their therapist. I save my socializing for people who make me happy.

  17. You are upset and annoyed and jealous and that is okay! Your husband is constantly prioritizing another person over you. It’s okay to be hurt and annoyed by that, and it’s okay to say something about it.

    LW, it is so easy to get sucked into the idea that feeling jealous means you’re terrible and possessive and needy and awful and it’s just not true. Feeling jealous is just a signal like feeling hot or cold is a signal. Sometimes that signal means your jerkbrain is acting up, sometimes it means you need a little extra reassurance from your partner, and sometimes it means something is really wrong. I think this case is the last one: it is super not okay for your husband to prioritize Martha over you *and* complain about her to you. It’s not okay for him to act like he hasn’t made the decision to act in a way that hurts you.

    Here’s a random theory about what’s happening that may or may not apply: your husband may be putting you last because the pressure you feel to be the “cool”, “chill” wife means you will put less pressure on him when your needs aren’t getting met than Martha will. Some people dump an unfair amount of crap on people who can handle it because they can handle it. It’s super not fair to treat you badly because you behave well, but it’s a thing I’ve heard of in the comments here. If he tries to derail the conversation you two need to have by talking about how wonderful and understanding and uncomplaining you are, you absolutely have the right to tell him the way he’s treating you is a really terrible reward for all your good qualities.

    1. “you two need to have by talking about how wonderful and understanding and uncomplaining you are, you absolutely have the right to tell him the way he’s treating you is a really terrible reward for all your good qualities.”

      ^^^^^^^^^^^^^This is such a good point

    2. Jealousy tells you something. Maybe it’s saying, “I am jealous about my spouse going gaming once a month because I’m secretly afraid he’s going to run off with the DM. And I’m feeling that fear because my last BF actually did that. I think I need to talk to my spouse about what happened, and work on this.” Or maybe it’s saying, “I am jealous because my husband repeatedly prioritizes another woman over me, spends his spare time with her and insists that I do too, complains to me about her but refuses to do anything to change matters.”

  18. I think LW needs to remember that it’s her home too, and she has a right to put her foot down at least once in a while and say “No, sorry, it’s not convenient for you to have dinner with us tonight. Perhaps some other time.” And then insist on doing something after supper, even if it’s just a walk around the block, when the emotional vampire is likely to be texting him.
    This woman knows perfectly well that she annoys you and probably enjoys that aspect of it. She gets a feeling of power from it.

    1. Martha is encroaching on LW’s marriage and encroaching on her home. Reading the responses, I started getting a cold feeling that Martha is erasing LW. And would not be successful if not for John’s complicity.

  19. He may or may not be sleeping with her (or planning to) but if he’s giving her more of his time, energy and attention than he’s giving you, as far as I’m concerned he’s cheating. He’s having an emotional affair. He married you, and that is an implicit promise that you will come first with each other. It is perfectly reasonable to expect your husband to put you and your needs ahead of another woman’s needs. You may want to put it in those terms to get across to him that this is a serious problem.

    1. “He married you, and that is an implicit promise that you will come first with each other.”

      Yes. That was what I thought … but my ex had a different view. After a couple of decades together, we were in couples’ counseling when I learned that his understanding was more like “I wooed you, and won you, and once you agreed to Be Mine that meant I could relax.” and also: “We’re married, so we don’t need to negotiate or put pressure on each other. And you’ll always understand when I need to be focused on something/someone else.”

      … which, over the years, included the exciting amazing high-travel job, the cute new subordinate, and the Victorian House Restoration project (finally abandoned in Year 10 of a Five Year Project) …

      He may or may not be emotionally attached to Martha, as a person. But he is certainly attached to having the freedom to see her, text her, and invite her over whether LW likes it or not.

      1. Just wanted to jump in to say that you describe a shocking turn of events that I hope has improved from the astonishing revelation described here.

        I sense a lot of patriarchy where, somehow, you were not quite considered an actual person.

    2. Cheating, to me, implies lying about what’s really going on. If John says he’s spending a lot of time with his leechy friend and that’s what’s happening, he’s not cheating. Doesn’t mean the situation is okay.

      1. I see where you’re coming from, but I am also picking up a sense of duplicity. While it might not be outright “lying”, John is still saying one thing (how tired he is of dealing with Martha) and doing another (continuing to enable her emotional vampirism). I don’t know enough about the situation or the cast of characters, but there is definitely a disconnect here and I don’t think it’s entirely out of line to call out John’s handling of the situation. It’s also a bit disingenuous to Martha as well – even though I’m firmly on team LW here, if John is complaining about her while not setting boundaries, she might not have any idea that he’s unhappy with the status quo.

  20. Having been through the intensity of dissertation writing, I understand how academic adversity can bring people together. I also understand the duality of finding someone annoying, but also spending a lot of time with them. But John’s behavior has passed the normal level.

    I doubt that he’s cheating with her, or even considering it (though I don’t have a crystal ball). I do know that when you spend all day around a person, it can be difficult to talk about things that don’t involve them when you’re in other conversations. I think a quality test of both John and Martha is to ask him to sit down and talk with her about this. Not in detail, just say “I need to cut back on post-school communication, I’ve been ignoring my SO; she’s been such a great sport, but I know I haven’t gotten to spend enough time with her.” Not “my SO has been complaining”… that’s a convenient point to push the wedge of “irrational” or “controlling.” Many Marthas would be honestly surprised and mortified/understanding of the situation. If she isn’t… that’s an indicator in itself. And if John won’t have this conversation. Well… I think he needs to understand how seriously you take this. And how much it does affect your life, your emotions, and your relationship.

  21. Great advice, Captain. The idea to go reclaim a bit of life away from this once a week and to have a “sacred” standing date night stood out to me as particularly wonderful–I will try to implement that myself.

    One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was “Don’t give your power away.” It reminded me that even when I don’t like the situation or my options, I have agency in that. I think you’re giving the LW some great ways to remember she has power and agency here too.

  22. I dated a guy who had a friend/lover like this. They fought constantly, he Could. Not. put down his phone and stop messaging her, etc. etc. He’d complain about her, but still continued to see and talk to her almost every day. It was such bullshit. Oh, So-and-So is so horrible, that’s why you voluntarily see them on a daily basis. Yeah right.

  23. My four-year-old, God bless her, is an emotional vampire. She doesn’t get boundaries, she feels I should be available to her whenever she wants me, and if possible likes to spend lots of times physically stuck to my person. This is okay because a) she’s four and b) in deciding to become a parent, I made a commitment to be there for her.

    Having kids has thrown all other vampirical relationships into sharp relief. It is tremendously helpful to be able to look at people who feel entitled to my unlimited time and energy and ask 2 questions:

    1) are you four?
    If not, it is probably inappropriate to look to others to meet your basic emotional needs. It’s very sad to be a grown up with the emotional needs of a toddler (and I’ve been there–I say this without sarcasm or malice) but by virtue of being a chronological adult it’s on you to find a healthy way to meet those needs. Therapy has been helpful to me in this regard.

    2) am I your mommy?
    If I am your mommy it is my job to take care of you with all the love, generosity and forbearance I can summon and then some. But I f I am not your actual mommy, why am I treating you like my child? What need of mine am I fulfilling by being the hero in this boundaryless relationship? And at what cost to me and my other relationships?

    It’s been helpful to have a bit of a framework to try to understand my draw to both the John and the Martha roles.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking about this sort of thing myself upon consideration of this letter.

      John’s behavior sort of reminds me of a principle of child psychology that explains why children (of loving, non-abusive parents/guardians/primary caretakers) generally tend to behave “better” for non-parent adults (preschool teachers, grandparents, aunts/uncles, etc.) than for their parents. If a child is being raised in a loving home with no abuse, the child will internalize the message that “my parents love me and will love me no matter what.” This is a very healthy message for a child to internalize and it means the parents are doing their job right; unfortunately (for the parents’ patience at times!) it tends to result in the child throwing more tantrums at home and pushing more boundaries with parents than with other trusted/trustworthy adults, because however much the child may love and trust their grandparents/aunts/uncles/preschool teachers, they don’t have the level of trust in that love that they do in their parents’ love.

      That being said, taking a parent’s love for granted is more or less acceptable behavior (and certainly understandable) in a four-year-old child. Taking a spouse’s love (and tolerance) for granted is NOT acceptable, and that’s how I’m reading John’s behavior towards the LW. It’s not cool, and while she can’t MAKE him do anything (as the only adult whose behavior one can control is one’s own), she doesn’t have to and shouldn’t have to put up with it.

    2. Your commentary is really useful but also it made me laugh.

      You made a commitment to take care of a dependent person. You did it on purpose. I think the intent is really meaningful, there– relationships between adults, unless specifically negotiated otherwise (i.e. via caregiving contract, etc.), are expected to be reciprocal in some way. When I make a friend, sure, they do some taking care of me– but I do that for them, too, in the ways that I am able, in as balanced a way as feels appropriate given our level of intimacy, because we are equals.

      If nothing else, it doesn’t seem like John views Martha as an equal, and that concerns me.

    3. 1000 thanks for making “Are you four?” and “Am I your mommy?” legitimate tools in my relationship garage.

  24. “It’s Friday and we agreed that Fridays are just for us, so put your phone down and take off your pants and give me your full attention. And if you can’t or don’t want to, then we have a problem,”

    Please don’t tell people to say this. I dated a guy for years and he would say things like this and I never wanted to get in a fight so I always said yes. I said yes to so much sex that I didn’t want over those years. We never did get into that fight, when I decided I wouldn’t say “yes” when I wanted to say “no” I left. Please, if your partner doesn’t want to, let them not. Please.

    1. I am sorry, re-reading this, I can see how it reads as “sex on demand, or else we have a problem!”

      I edited the post slightly, and let me rephrase entirely:

      “If your partner does not want to set aside time just for you (SANS MARTHA) & if your date night is always interrupted by others, work, etc., then it is time for a pretty serious discussion about shared priorities and visions.”
      Start by setting aside some sacred time for yourself and then build.”

      1. Let me throw in one other thought. My ex husband and I had a weekly date night, and we’d go out to dinner, and let our hair down, and laugh and cry, and vent and rant, and get royally drunk. It was wonderful.

        The only night of the week we would not have sex was date night. We were both much less likely to have sex but much more likely to express our emotional needs and wants if we were tipsy. We consciously chose that our date night was for talk and reconnecting.

        It worked for about 10 years, and was not the reason the marriage ended.

        tl;dr date night doesn’t have to be sex night.

  25. Without knowing the physical layout of the OP and John’s living space, and while fully endorsing all of Cap’s recommendations, I’m gonna suggest that the OP can politely ask Martha to leave when the OP wants her to; she isn’t obligated to leave it up to Martha or even John, for that matter. If it’s easy to just leave them in a room while the OP goes elsewhere or to bed, I understand that as a recourse, but I’ve never been one to permit a guest to overstay a welcome (even a begrudging one). “Well, I’ve got an early morning, so we’re going to have to cut this short — here’s your hat, bye-bye now!” If John smarts over this perfectly reasonable decision about who gets to be in YOUR home and for how long, well, that’s a piece of information worth having.

    I’m not suggesting that John isn’t allowed to have guests of his own over, but since he’s not the only one who lives there, the other occupants def get a say in how long they stay. If John is a blameless victim, this will model skills on boundary setting and extrication. If he’s not, the OP will find out right quick.

    I agree the problem is with John, not Martha, and that’s where the effort should be directed. But in this limited aspect, look at it as if Martha’s standing on your foot. You are perfectly in the right to require she get the fuck off.

    1. Good point. Different people have different comfort levels. And yes, layout matters – “bedroom with decent noise separation” vs “sleeping alcove”, for example.

  26. One concern I have (from bitter experience) with this kind of friendship is that, unless you’re careful, the friend becomes the person that needs and admires your SO, and makes them feel all helpful and strong and manly and caring, while you gradually turn into the person that nags them about spending time with you and taking your feelings into consideration. And it’s much more rewarding to be admired than nagged, and the situation worsens. Set firm boundaries and practice your ignoring superpower.

  27. Events in my life had led me to being in a situation similar to John’s so I would like to share thoughts on that perspective:

    John might be the kind of person who really can’t say no. Who experiences anxiety whenever he is thinking about cutting Martha off. He might feel that Martha is not that bad of a person to be cut off completely and that she doesn’t deserve that, but when he tries to do it in little bits like “Tonight I can’t have you over, I am tired, the house is a mess and all I want to is to cuddle with a hot cup of tea and my wife”, Martha’s response might trigger a lot of guilt. And feeling that guilt several times / day (for how many rejections he would have to shoot at Martha in order for their relationship to be comfortably distant/close) might exhaust John and his studying might suffer. John probably knows that so he does nothing.

    John might need Martha here and there. They have studied together for ages, know each-other, have helped each-other in the past, John might feel like he can’t go through this if he doesn’t have Martha’s notes or her question cards or whatever.

    So John might feel like he has no choice but to stand Martha with all of her neediness. (can’t cut her off completely, can’t cut her off half the time)

    Now I am not saying that John’s wife should just live with it, but that he might actually need her help in getting Martha further away. I know that what I need is for my partner to know my weaknesses and to help me reach my goals despite them. In this case, the goal is saying no to Martha. So instead of demanding more from poor John, I think that his wife might try to get closer to him, ask him about his feelings, support him emotionally after he sends Martha an “I don’t want to see you or hear from you right now” kind of text, make jokes about the situation, take the pressure off. Because if John is anything like me, he is probably feeling a lot of pressure! From exams, from Martha and, if all the wife does is become demanding, from her. Again, if John is anything like me, he will feel very alone (though two women want his attention) and crushed under a lot of requests, unable to fulfill them all.

    Now of course my truth doesn’t have to be John’s truth but if the marriage is otherwise fine, if there is trust, my belief is that more communication, questions like “how can I help you in this whole Martha situation?” might also do some good. (John might be praying for his wife to make a scene so he would have an excuse to stay away from Martha – again – not saying that this is the thing to do, just we don’t actually KNOW what John wants, thinks or feels) Maybe John needs a piece CaptainAwkward advice too….

    1. I think it unreasonable to expect your wife to act as your parent. She is John’s partner, not his parent.

    2. Well, if John were *asking* for LW’s help distancing himself from Martha, or accepting it when she offered it as she mentioned in her letter, I might see the benefit of them working together as a team to rid themselves of a toxic person who has infiltrated their marriage. That is not the case here! LW is already doing everything a reasonable person can be expected to re: her partner’s needs, and now she needs to take care of herself.

    3. Just, no.

      If I understand you correctly, you’re asking LW to read her husband’s mind and gently lead him to elementary decency towards her. So, no.

    4. if all the wife does is become demanding

      No. “the” wife (which is a creepily objectified way to describe an adult woman) is trying to build a loving relationship and support her husband through a difficult time in his life. Your description reduces her genuine concern and love to practically nothing.

      Nobody wants to hear about someone who really can’t say no. You really, literally can. You’re just choosing not to.

      1. I am a woman myself and the poor choice of words was a result of far-prof-perfect English skills since it is my second language. I apologize if my phrasing was creepy.

    5. If John can’t say no, it is his job to learn how (preferably from a therapist or self-help seminar, and not from his also very busy and very stressed partner!).
      If John needs help/notes/study buddies to get through school, it is his job to find them and collaborate with his cohort in a way that does not shred his marriage.
      If John needs support/backup from the LW, it is his job to identify what he needs, ask for it, and make a plan if she is not willing/able to support him in that way.
      If John is feeling pressure from Martha/the LW, it is his job to manage that pressure and respond appropriately with words and actions (not their job to manage his stress/emotions for him).
      If John is unable to fulfill all the requests for his time, it is his job to set boundaries, make priorities, and communicate about the situation he finds himself in.
      And if John needs an excuse to get him out of an uncomfortable relationship with Martha (“…might be praying for the wife to make a scene…”), then it is his job to (1) make that excuse/confrontation HIMSELF and (2) seriously address his own conflict avoidance that made a furious wife provoking a fight with an acquaintance a better option than just having the uncomfortable conversation with Martha and silencing his phone during dinner.

      This helpless, overwhelmed John is certainly a possibility – but it removes the agency that CA has worked so hard to give him. John is a grown-up, married dude in a graduate program, which suggests that at a few crucial points in his life at least he has been able to take charge of his situation, manage conflicting priorities, and make a choice. If that is a hard thing for him to do (and it is for many of us!), it is not the LW’s job to do it for him or to scaffold the experience; being his wife does not make her his coach, teacher, therapist, or personal cheerleader. She may offer support, if he asks and it is reasonable to her, and she may set her own boundaries around Martha regardless of how John resolves the situation on his end.

      What John does not know how to do – no matter how hard, uncomfortable, awkward, or stressful to learn – is still John’s work.

      1. This times a million. It is not the LW’s job to arrange John’s playdates, unless John is actually three years old, in which case I am both impressed that he’s in grad school and scared that he’s married.

        I, for one, am heartily sick and tired of people who continue to try to shovel off the emotional work of maintaining relationships onto women, and expect women to have developed magical mind-reading powers that let them know exactly what to do and when without their partner actually, you know, TELLING them.

        1. “I, for one, am heartily sick and tired of people who continue to try to shovel off the emotional work of maintaining relationships onto women, and expect women to have developed magical mind-reading powers that let them know exactly what to do and when without their partner actually, you know, TELLING them.”

          YES. This is a dealbreaker. The burden of maintaining a relationship is not solely on the woman, and it’s not on her to read minds and figure out what needs to be done. I won’t have things held against me that I had no way of knowing, because people can damn well TELL ME.

        2. “I, for one, am heartily sick and tired of people who continue to try to shovel off the emotional work of maintaining relationships onto women…”

          and who try to argue that because men do not already know how to do emotional work, they are somehow exempt from learning.

          Look, I’m really sorry that the grown-up skills of speaking up for yourself, managing conflicting needs, and enforcing boundaries are hard. Like everyone with a nervous system, I know that doing what John has to do is uncomfortable, physically and emotionally! But the fact that it is uncomfortable for him is not actually an inability to do it (just like the fact that no one wants to clean the bathroom isn’t a incompatibility with basic housework).

          Saying no to Martha – it probably sucks for John. But that doesn’t make it the LWs job to mitigate the suckiness of resolving this situation that John got himself into and has to get himself out of.

    6. This is “Do all the emotional work for him.” It was your choice, which made it right for you, but it buys into the patriarchal culture and does nothing to advance anyone’s long-term mental or emotional health. I simply cannot agree to accept the sexist yardstick, and shudder at the daily cultural damage I have to navigate because women continue to accept that yardstick.

      1. It is not sexist, really! As I said, I identify with John. I am a woman. My partner is a man. The man in my relationship does a lot of the emotional work! I am not good at it, I struggle with it while I do try to make myself better. However, my partner, a man, does what I simply find too difficult and I really never care about the gender. How could I have possibly meant what you are implying given my situation?!

        I was simply saying that, while empowerment might be needed, sometimes compassion is welcomed too. It is not about what she should do, it is about what she thinks, fells, decides that she should do and I was under the impression that she loves and cares for John and wants her marriage back to normal. I believe that acknowledging that nobody is perfect and that we all need help and support here and there while at the same time offering what is needed, is a better way of dealing with a partner.
        I didn’t understand the tone of the letter as “I feel trapped, I do not know what to do and this is unbearable” but more as in “I am in a delicate and difficult situation here” and it is my view that sometimes, instead of more strength, more vulnerability might be the better answer.

  28. The Captain is spot on, again. I went through a similar-ish situation in the first year of my marriage — except Martha was his baby momma. I say baby… The kids are in their 20s, and she was (is) a full-blown, shameless vampire of energy, time, money, attention – anything she could get from him.

    She trained up the kids to be vampires too, and to him, because it went on so long(?) everything looked “normal.” I was expected to fall in line and be ok with a lot of really bizarre behaviors.

    I grew incredibly resentful, and jealous, and even though I sorta did and said the things the Captain suggests awkwardly and over time, it still took a while for him to have his light-bulb moment and apply the lessons.

    I don’t know how we got through it. Maybe we didn’t, because it still comes up occasionally, It’s been almost a year later and I’m still mad about it, to be honest. Really furious when I think on it. Like, you’re an incredibly smart and educated man, how do you not understand this?

    Don’t put up with any bullshit, because what you put up with — you end up with. Best of luck to you, LW.

    1. His children in their twenties are still his children, not “vampires”.

    2. This comment raises a lot of red flags for me but i admit it may be because I was the child in a relationship with my father that was framed as vampiric. Me and my brothers had great “vampiric” sins including, but not limited to: showing up for dinner our father had invited us to with no contribution (because he told us not to bring anything), staying on his healthcare till we turned 26 (because that is what was allowed to us from the state and not all of us had other jobs that could provide it), occasionally wanting to go out for lunch or dinner with him, accepting gifts from him that we hadn’t asked for, etc.

      Now my father wasn’t blameless for sure, he really did have an issue with still being super attached to his ex wife, my mother, but our relationship with him was perfectly normal. now i hardly have a relationship with him at all because his new wife is so controlling and jealous of us, his children, and views us as money grubbers who only love our father for what we can “take” from him. Maybe in your case it was something different but the way you talk about it makes me super uncomfortable. Children are children. Even grown children are children to their parents.

      You don’t magically stop wanting to take care of your child because they turn 18. We are not vampires and the fact that he cared (cares?) for us is not actually a fault in the relationship even when he has a new “replacement” family. It is one thing to question relationships to exes, its another to insinuate that a man who cares for his children and wants the best for them is only doing so because the evil, manipulative, vampiric (insert whatever else sort of hyperbolic woman blaming stuff here) ex wife is just TRAINING them to be emotional vampires. That sort of insinuation can and does destroy families.

      You agreed to marry a man with children, you shouldn’t feel hurt when he still loves those children. It should say (good) things about his character. Of course, the relationship to the mother would hopefully be distant but friendly (or distant and un friendly depending on how the parting happened but the distant part is important).

    3. I can see two possible ways of reading this, and I don’t really think either of them is what you are seeing. The first possibility is that your husband’s ex-wife did indeed “train up the kids to be vampires too”, which pretty much means he left raising his children to someone else. You don’t get to let someone else do all of the raising of children and then complain that you don’t like the way they did it. The second possibility is that he was involved in raising his children and is perfectly happy with the adults they grew into and the relationship that he has with them, but it doesn’t suit you. Which is a pity for you, but it’s still horrible to displace that onto his children.

      You need to start seeing your husband as an adult who made choices, not a victim of his ex-wife and his children.

    4. “I don’t know how we got through it. Maybe we didn’t, because it still comes up occasionally, It’s been almost a year later and I’m still mad about it, to be honest. Really furious when I think on it. Like, you’re an incredibly smart and educated man, how do you not understand this?”

      There is a saying that a mind changed against its will is of the same mind still.
      It sounds like your partner is now treating you the way you resent him treating his children. And he is still relating to his children the same way, but less often.
      There may be a light-bulb moment in your future. I hope that it is as painless as possible for all involved.

  29. One more possibility for John that I haven’t seen come up – could there be some social dynamics in his program that would make it severely awkward at school, if he stopped catering to Martha? Like is she the program’s Broken Stair, and he’s the Designated Handler? Or could there be a whole constellation of Geek Social Fallacies flourishing? None of this makes John’s behaviour ok, but it’s another possible explanation.

    Regardless, the Captain’s advice about what the LW can do, is spot on.

  30. I can’t help but feel bad for Martha here. Her best friend, the one who is always there for her, is badmouthing her to his wife behind her back. Would Martha still want to be his friend if she knew? I see no evidence in the letter that Martha is a horrible person, or an emotional vampire, or trying to have an affair with John, just that John spends lots and lots of time with her and that Martha must perceive the friendship as very close. She probably sees him as her closest friend. I hope for her sake that he manages to be more honest with her, or at least cut her off so she spend her time and energy on a friend who can really be a friend.

    1. I get this. LW has a John problem, and Martha is just an unfortunate symptom. Martha may *also* have a John problem if he’s being disingenuous in his actions/behavior towards her.

    2. That is also a point. My mother has a ‘friend’ whom she constantly badmouths and complains about when we spend time together, looks at her phone and goes ‘Ugh, her again’, etc.

      I sucked royally at taking hints when I was younger, only realizing in retrospect that *I* was the ‘ugh, her again’ for several people whom I cared about for a very long time. This was a gross and painful thing to realize. So hearing repeatedly about this person from my mother is a nasty reminder of that, in addition to being a really tiresome way to spend a conversation. (Pointing this out, suggesting alternate coping or distancing strategies = completely ineffectual.)

      1. (Note again that this is not to say the LW is not entitled to their boundaries and we need to make this about Poor Sad Martha, but it might make them feel better about sticking to their guns to realize that this is a toxic situation for Martha as well.)

  31. As I read these comments, I was patting myself on the back about my good boundaries even in my 20s — even to the extent of being mean. For example, an oft-flakey friend woke me by calling at midnight because she’d somehow been failing to pay her rent, and now she was standing on a curb surrounded by the contents of her apartment. (Of course it had all gone down in daylight, but somehow she wasn’t calling until midnight.) I declined to drive over and rescue her and her stuff.

    But then the comment thread here arrived at ““Why can you say no to me but not to them?” And I was uncomfortably reminded of a time in my 30s when I was starting my own freelance design business. I’d been married ten years with no kids. After about 18 months of working all hours, cancelling couple travel plans because of deadlines, etc, my husband politely asked, “Why can you say no to me but not to your clients?” Oh. My. God. Eyes Opened. He didn’t have to say another word!

    I started saying no to clients sometimes, and — whaddaya know? — they stuck with me. A couple of decades later, I still have my (mediocre) business and my (marvelous) husband.

    Sometimes a person who gets sucked into some intense behaviors needs only a reminder to consider their REAL priorities.

  32. Our beloved Captain helped me out with a slightly similar issue 5 years ago (https://captainawkward.com/2011/08/01/reader-question-83-do-we-have-to-do-everything-with-my-boyfriends-friend/) and this LW reminded me of how that person was taking up all the air in our relationship without having any agenda other than monopolizing my then-new-boyfriend-now-husband. After I predicted some of her behavior based on how he responded to her, he started to see the pattern of her taking advantage of his good nature and found ways to break the patterns and set boundaries. Ultimately we pulled completely away from her and she survived just fine, and we’re the better for it. Courage and best of luck! And Captain, thank you again!

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