Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m afraid I might be walking into an Alice situation (a la letter #247). My boyfriend’s family is very conservative and even though he is an adult, he not only lives with them (which is fine) but lives by their rules, curfews, and puts up with their interrogations over who he is spending time with, who his friends are, etc. They don’t know I exist, but he’ll be telling them within a month. He hasn’t so far because due to conservative culture reasons he can’t tell them he has a girlfriend, but rather that there is this girl (me) he wants to marry. And I’m terrified because they’re going to hate me (his mother especially) and I need scripts on how to deal with that when I meet them.
From everything he’s told me (and I take his word for it) I will be considered all wrong because I’m older than him, have been married before, am bisexual (here’s hoping his family needn’t find out, at least initially), am from a different culture (and don’t speak the language he speaks with his family, and his mother doesn’t speak English fluently), I’m not conservative and certainly don’t fit the mould of what a stereotypical wife would be like (I have no intention to just pop out babies, cook and clean, etc., which Boyfriend is fine with but his family won’t be), I’ve already vetoed the idea of us living with his family when we get married, and I’m expecting there to be body shaming.
Boyfriend has said that he expects his family’s displeasure about all of this to be voiced to him, and not to me and I know I can’t force them to like me. Boyfriend is also scared himself about their reaction to his upcoming conversation with them about wanting to marry me. I have tried to direct him to this site so he can read up some great advice about setting boundaries and making it clear what shit he will put up with and what he won’t, but he says that sort of thing is not done in his culture and apparently I just don’t understand (it’s true, I don’t), and while he sees that I’m trying to be helpful, it’s not helping because boundaries is just not the done thing.
How can I support him with this difficult conversation coming up for him (which will be more of an extended series of fights/arguments) while respecting his decision to not have me encourage him to set boundaries, while also being able to set boundaries myself? What am I meant to say to his family when I meet them (and yes, I’m trying to learn the language so I can at least exchange pleasantries with his mother)? (And yes, social anxiety and severe depression is making me overthink all of this, and yes, I am in therapy, but any scripts would help a lot!!).
Any help would be much appreciated,
Scared of future in-laws
Dear Scared of Future In-Laws,
First things first:
- Keep going to therapy.
- Make sure you have friends & family who are not your boyfriend in your life and keep your connections to them strong. If you’re about to get a whole bunch of negative stuff dropped on you by his family, you need to be grounded with people who think you’re great.
- If you don’t have this kind of strong network in place right now, build it. Take at least 50% of the effort you put into your romantic relationship and put it into finding friends & community. Don’t be in a “You and me against the world” situation with only your partner.
- Keep this question in your mind: If his family sucks, and he turns out to be not good at setting boundaries with them, would you still want to marry him?
Here are some cool ways your boyfriend could show that he’s the kind of person you want to marry:
He could make a plan to move out of his parents’ house. (Not always affordable, and not always culturally the right move, not something I’m blanket-recommending for everyone in life, but in this case, when this guy says he wants to establish independence from his family, he could, like, take steps to get some independence from his family?) What’s he like when he lives on his own, I wonder?
He could find people who are not you to talk through these anxieties with. I mean, so far, you’ve got “My family is going to hate everything about you, I’m oh-so-scared to tell them anything about you, and I’m not going to set boundaries with them because it’s Just Not Done in our culture” dumped on you. Maybe he could use someone else to process all of this with in a way that doesn’t force you to keep hearing about all the negative stuff? A friend, a counselor of his own?
He could tell his folks that he has a girlfriend and he’d like them to meet you. “I’ve met a woman who is important to me and I want her to know my family.” And then he could see what happens. He could take this out of the hypothetical where you talk through all the worst-case scenarios and into the real. In other words, he could give you a chance to see what all of this is really gonna be like before you make the decision to marry into it. If it’s going to suck it will suck just as much now as it will at some theoretical future date, so maybe rip the bandaid off and see what actually happens instead of worrying about it. If they act like jerks to you and he doesn’t set boundaries or defend you, then that’s important information for you to have before you start planning a marriage to him.
I feel like right now he’s trying to lock everything down and control everything – you reactions, their reactions, the whole damn future, in this really high-stakes way that is making you feel really anxious and worried and that puts your whole life history on the judgment block but doesn’t really ask him to risk or change anything about his own situation right now. He hasn’t really ever separated from his family. He is very identified with his family’s point of view about the world. There’s a whiff of “I want to marry you even I can’t stop listing all the things about you that make you ‘not really good enough for my family’ and how worried I am about that” going on here that I mislike.
When and if you meet his folks you’re going to be the kind, thoughtful, polite person that you are in everyday life. You’ll do just fine. Learning a few words of the language are a nice gesture, great, and you’re already just fine as you are and don’t have to improve or perfect yourself for this moment. If they don’t treat you well or like you, it’s not because of anything you did or will do.
Which makes me wonder, is he expecting some big change in you before that meeting or wanting some performance from you? You have understandable anxiety that his family won’t like you, but the real issue is, can you count on him to have your back? To strike out on his own? To make a family with you, where your shared rules and visions are the ones that count? He’s not responsible for his family’s feelings about you, but he is responsible for having your back and for not letting them mistreat you. I don’t know how you can really know this until you see it in action. He’s got to show you, with words and actions, that he can be a rock for you where his family is concerned.
I have a boyfriend of 6 months who I love very much. He is amazing in a variety of ways, but there’s one issue that we can’t seem to get past no matter how I try to approach it.
He’s not great at engaging in conversation on any subject that he’s not independently interested in. Often, I’ll bring up something I want to talk about, and he’ll not respond for a while and then change the subject because he “didn’t have anything to say about it.” However, I regularly have in-depth conversations with him about video games that I don’t play and music that I don’t listen to. He also interrupts me mid-sentence without noticing fairly often, which makes me think that the times he doesn’t interrupt me are less because he’s listening and more because he doesn’t have anything to say at that particular moment. I’ve told him that this sometimes makes me feel like he doesn’t care about me and doesn’t want to engage in my life.
The problem is, he has severe mental health issues and when I point these instances out to him, he reacts incredibly disproportionately. He’ll have episodes of not being able to move or function, he’ll start hitting his head against a wall, he’ll tell me that he hates himself and wants to die. He understands the issue and is taking it seriously, but it’s so ingrained in his personality that he literally doesn’t notice when he interrupts me or talks over me, and I don’t point it out as often as I should because I love him and I don’t want him to be that upset over something small. As a result, I just get more and more frustrated over time.
This seems to me like a very gendered issue: as a woman, it’s my job to listen to men and make them as comfortable as possible, but my own needs don’t get met. It’s something I’ve noticed in my friendships with other men, but I’ve never had to deal with it to this extent before.
Boyfriend mentioned at the end of last semester that he was thinking of going back to a therapist, and I’ve encouraged him to do so several times, but I don’t think he’s currently planning on it. At this point, we’re having weekly conversations about this issue, and he’s both asked me to call him out more often and told me he wished I did it less because it feels horrible for him to be continually told that his efforts aren’t leading to improvement. He says he’s really trying, but in the end I’m still getting interrupted and feeling ignored. I don’t know what to do.
I’d like to reemphasize that he’s caring, compassionate, has been incredible about accepting my asexuality, never pressures me, and is overall a great person. If you have any scripts for gently bringing up the therapist issue again, or any other advice, I would appreciate it. This relationship means a lot to me and it’s killing me to see him hurting.
Tired of This Dynamic
Dear Tired of this Dynamic:
It’s only been six months. THIS GUY IS SO MUCH WORK.
This is a very gendered issue, you’re not wrong, and I guess the question is, how long do you want to date a dude who interrupts you a lot and who can only talk about things he is interested in? And, when you ask him to stop doing stuff that bothers you, turns everything around so that you’re taking care of him and how sad he is?
Before we get to scripts I want you to do something:
Take two weeks “off” from trying to make the relationship work. In that two weeks I want you to spend a little less time with him and a little more time to do a couple of things:
- Connect/reconnect with your friends and family & people who generally don’t interrupt you or talk over you.
- Connect/reconnect with your interests – books, hobbies, things that you enjoy even if he does not.
- It sounds like y’all are in school, so, throw yourself into your classes, clubs, things you are interested in doing.
- Think about making an appointment with a counselor at school who can support you. Even if you think “I’m not the one who needs a counselor,” I selfishly want you to have the experience of being listened to without interruption for an hour at a time.
You love this guy, you don’t wanna break up, I get it. But now is a good time to re-ground yourself firmly in your life and remind yourself that you don’t deserve to be treated this way.
When you see your boyfriend, keep calling him out on the interruptions. “You interrupted me.” “You interrupted me again.” “I don’t know anything about that game, but what do you like about it?” “You see what I did there, where I’m not interested in something but I ask you about it because you like it?”
Keep track of how many times you gotta say “You interrupted me again just now” in a given day. Like, if you get to three, maybe go home and try again another day? You can make it explicitly about the behavior – “You keep interrupting me, I’m annoyed, I’m going home” or you can make it not so explicit. “Ok, good to see you, I’m gonna go sleep at my place.” The message is the same, though: “Keep interrupting me and I won’t want to keep hanging out.”
His “not being able to move” and “hitting head against wall” or “I hate myself and want to die” reactions to being told “Hey, your behavior is not cool!” are not your fault and not yours to fix. One script could be “I’m really sorry you’re feeling that way. That’s awful and I think you need to talk to a mental health pro about it so that you can feel better.” “I really think it’s time to call a counselor in – feeling this bad about this is not normal and you deserve some mental health care!”
But also, after you deliver those scripts, maybe go home for the day, and let him deal with his feelings? Like, I believe that he feels really bad when this gets pointed out but I also believe that he is sort of trying to train you to just accept him the way he is and not actually challenge him about stuff? And one way he could stop the awful feelings is to stop doing the thing where he interrupts you or tunes all the way out whenever you talk about something you’re interested in? Someone who self-harms when you set a boundary needs to work on his own emotional regulation. You can’t love him out of this.
Someone can be a “wonderful person” and still be too much work to be your boyfriend.
And hey, it’s worth noting, your asexuality isn’t something you have to apologize for or something that dooms you to substandard relationships where you do all the emotional labor.