#955: “I’m in a rat trap of my own making.”

Hi, Cappy! I recently discovered your column and am so grateful for it. You’re amazing and helpful!

I really could use some situational advice, but it’s a long and complex story, sorry!

I’m a single parent of a 1st grader. Child support basically doesn’t happen.

3 years ago I was (thankfully) laid off from my research position. I’d worked hard after grad school to achieve success in an almost exclusively male-dominated and competitive field, but it was hard to raise my daughter working the crazy hours and with the amount of travel required for my job.

As a result I returned to school for graphic/web design; a field I thought would provide me with a more flexible schedule, increased job opportunities and potentially more money. I started a two year program at a technical school, with tuition and childcare 100% paid for by government benefits.

Enter “Donny”. Donny was a friend who was a neuroscientist at the University I’d attended and worked at. Despite having very different values, he had become a trusted friend. Romantic interest in Donny = 0. Divorced and childless, he is middle aged. He seemed kind and supportive when I really needed that. He was also the only positive male role model that my daughter had. He was not very involved in our lives at this point.

Donny started a tech company outside of his university position and became wealthy enough to retire from the University this year. He has a low emotional IQ, lots of anxiety and few friends. However, Donny loves my daughter and dotes on her. I don’t think he has ever said “no” to her. I’ve never had weird “vibes” about his relationship with my daughter. She was like the daughter he’d always wanted.

Back to me. Two years ago, after finishing year 1 of my program, Donny convinces me to drop out of school and work with him at his tech company instead. He says I am wasting my time at school and that he, the wealthy and successful entrepreneur, would teach me “real-world skills” and his special coding “secret techniques” from start to finish. He told me people would pay lots of money to learn his secret and that I was lucky he was willing to share this very profitable knowledge with me. He started paying me to do small projects, such as writing copy and some print work for his company. I was thrilled, thinking I was embarking on a new, lucrative and fulfilling career.

Fast forward to a year ago. Donny has stopped sending me any work but continues to pay me a barely livable wage each month to essentially do nothing. Projects are always just over the horizon but wind up “falling through” at the last minute or he doesn’t have the time to teach me anything because it’s a rush job, etc…. I make barely enough to cover my bills most months, but through decreased spending, I can still live check to check. I am ridiculously busy parenting (with no breaks), trying to stay organized, maintaining/improving my small house so my daughter has an un chaotic place to live, and being involved with my daughters activities while occasionally making stuff, but I have no social life (unfortunately that often goes along with single parenthood). I would like to make more money, but confess I am also enjoying the opportunity to be there for my daughter since I am her only family and her whole world. We are very close.

Donny continues to point out how rich he is, but keeps my pay at poverty level. He is also increasingly manipulative and controlling with his money, even believing he is entitled to having input in decisions I make about my and my daughters life, parenting, my house, friends, etc. He is by nature condescending and a master mansplainer. I ignore him and avoid confrontation because after 3 years of rarely seeing my daughter I still feel lucky to have this opportunity.

A month ago I ask Donny for more money for the first time because bills are mounting. I know I need to start a job search, but have been putting it off because —what the hell do I do now?

Donny tosses out a figure 33% higher than I’ve been getting monthly. He says he could even pay off my student loans “if he wanted to”. (They are not getting paid because I don’t make enough to pay them.) He tells me to send him the amount I owe and he will pay them off because he “doesn’t want the government to play any role in my life” which sounds generous, but is actually paranoid and a little conspiracy- theory ish. I send him the figure and he ignores me. All three times. I don’t rock the boat, but never even get a response. When that month’s check arrives its less than the amount he’d promised. I don’t say anything, feeling grateful to get anything at all, but irritated that he has changed the amount without mentioning it.

This months check was even less, back to the original too-low amount. I finally tell him (at 11:30 at night, probably sounding crabby) that it is hard for me to budget when I don’t know how much money I will be getting. At the first sign of what he perceives as questioning him or “conflict”, Donny flips out and says he could easily pay me more money but that he wants me to “work for it” by doing sales for him, which I’ve been clear from day 1 that I was 1) not good at and 2) not interested in doing or I would have pursued a sales career.

Then starts the classic rhetoric all single Moms hear: that I CHOSE to be a single parent and that I CHOSE to have a baby with that person, that my current situation is all my own doing. Followed by hinting that I am lazy and that I need to take “personal responsibility” for my predicament. He then drops a bomb by asking “how long am I going to do this?” I get mad and remind him that I was halfway through my degree which was PAID for and that I had wanted to finish, but that he was right, it was my fault that I had believed his promise to train me and give me work, which he not followed through on in 2 years. So now I have no money and no skills– nothing but some extra time to be a good parent to my daughter.

Then Donny says “I wanted you as a partner, but now Im not so sure,” which had failed to ever be mentioned to me. Apparently I had no say in that either. I got mad and told him not only do I not have time for any relationships, but that we have nothing in common, which we don’t- he voted for the One Who Is Not to be Named -not to mention a hearty “no thanks!” to all the boundary-crossing behaviors I put up with like never knocking but just walking into our house unannounced and at varying degrees of earliness to keep me guessing I guess. Locking the door makes him crabby. I have tolerated these behaviors because 25 years ago he emigrated from a culture where personal boundaries are not a priority, so I thought I was being understanding.

I have not heard from him in 6 days now when normally I get multiple texts per day. I assume he is pouting and will contact me with reasons why I am an ungrateful and overall crappy person. I actually feel enormous relief at not being scrutinized or controlled but am frightened for my financial situation.

What I want to know is: was it wrong of me to go along with this arrangement for so long? What if he contacts me and wants to continue this arrangement for more money? I intend to secure my own employment temping or something, but I am really regretful that I didn’t complete my education. Donny has been really generous, but at this point I feel so manipulated and disrespected that I don’t know if a can have any sort of friendship with him, whether he continues to pay me or not. He will see me as ungrateful and leaving because the money dried up.

I have been very appreciative and grateful and thank him constantly for his generosity, but it never seems to never be enough. He tells me I should just “be a good parent to my daughter,” which I am. I and my daughter make things for him and involve him with my daughters activities, but it’s still not enough. He is feeling under appreciated but doesn’t actually know what he wants. Donny has done a lot for us and I don’t think his behavior is conscious. I believe he is emotionally stunted for some reason. However, i cannot handle any more controlling and condescending bullshit. I am also aware that I am equally to blame for my situation. My motive was wanting to be able to be a good Mom for my daughter, no matter how short-lived. Finally, Donny was the only male figure in our lives my daughter could depend on, but I also don’t want to set a poor example by being manipulated and controlled by Donny.

Scripts for what to say to conflict- averse Donny if and when I hear from him would be greatly appreciated!

-Master Builder of Gilded Cages

she/her pronouns please, he/him for Donny

Dear Master Builder,

I apologize for the delayed response. I’ve been thinking about your story for a while. I’m not sure where you and Donny have left things in the last month or so – I’m hoping like hell that he is already out of your life – but in case he isn’t, here we are.

Before we talk about how much Donny sucks (he sucks), let’s talk about what a good employer would do:

  • He would pay you what you are worth to do the work that helped his business become successful.
  • As his business made more money (thanks in part to your work), he would increase your compensation.
  • He would pay you the agreed-upon amount without fail and without backtracking.
  • He would put agreements about compensation in writing.
  • He would be transparent about assigning work.
  • He would follow through on promises to train you and develop your skills.
  • He would not bring your personal life into any of these negotiations.
  • He would not expect 24-7 unannounced access to your home.
  • He wouldn’t treat you like he owns you.

Never mind being a good friend (he isn’t), or a good partner (NOPE), or a good male role model for your daughter (100 YEARS OF SOLITUDE AND NOPE), he’s not a good boss! Like, if this were JUST a job and not a campaign of financial abuse designed to annex you like a neighboring duchy, it would still be a toxic situation and you’d still need to quit it hard as soon as humanly possible.

Here is some other stuff I want to tell you:

Temping is a great idea – do it! It will put you in the way of permanent positions and also give you a chance to try out different working environments to find one that suits you.

Also, it’s okay to keep your head down, fake compliance, and collect your retainer paycheck from Donny for a little while if that’s what you need to do in the short term to keep a roof over your head while you gather your resources. You don’t have to tell him you are temping or looking for other work or give him any information about your plans that he might use to sabotage your efforts.

Donny will try to convince you that he took you into his company out of generosity and a desire to help you, and that you would not have a job if it weren’t for his amazing charity/fake training. I think he took you on because you are competent and valuable and he needed your work to build his company.

If you can, make a copy of everything you’ve ever created for Donny. That’s your portfolio. Back it up somewhere he doesn’t have access to (Google Drive, Dropbox). You may not ever show it to anybody (if there are confidentiality issues, for instance), but it will be good fodder for rebuilding your resume and documenting for yourself what you did.

Use privacy settings to lock your social media and other electronic communications away from where he can see them. Don’t “unfriend” until you’re free of his employ. Let him think things are normal so that he will be less likely to sabotage your efforts.

Speaking of locking things down, lock your doors. I don’t care what culture he comes from or how old he is, his comfort level with “just dropping by” does not automatically determine your boundaries.This is just more controlling scary bullshit.

Once you’ve locked things down, this is a very good time to reach out privately to every friend you have. Put the word out: You’re looking for a new job, you might need some help with childcare (or recommendations for low-cost summer camps?), you might need someone to help you rewrite your resume and provide moral support for your job search, you might want a friend who will come over and eat ice cream with you and your daughter or play in the park on a sunny day. Donny wants you to think that all of your resources and social connections are through him. They aren’t. Ask. You’ll pay it back (or forward) when you’re free.

It’s also a good time to reach out to every friendly and helpful person you’ve ever come across in any professional or educational context. People in your former field where you were successful might need a consultant or contractor. Your old advisor or program director and fellow students from school might be a Not-Donny professional reference for you.You might think that you’ve burned those bridges and that it’s too late (and Donny would try to tell you that it is), but I do not think it is too late. “I know we haven’t talked in a while, and I’m sorry we lost touch, but I am changing jobs and could really use your advice/help/a reference/some guidance.” I would not be angry at all if a former student asked me for this, even if they did leave the program, but I would be really sad if they felt like they couldn’t ask me because of shame.

Think of a short professionally positive version of the Donny story that you can tell to professional contacts and to acquaintances: “I left the program a few years ago to work for a friend’s startup, where I gained experience in x, y, and z professional areas. Now that the business is on solid footing, it’s time for me to find something [with more structure][where I can grow a, b, and c skills][where I can specialize more in (an area that interests me)][with more opportunity to work in creative teams vs. supporting a single CEO].” People leave school and change jobs all the time, you don’t have to bare your soul and your regrets to be one of those people.

You asked for scripts for Donny. The above generic/neutral/professional response can serve you there, as well. When it’s time for him to know that you’re severing the employment relationship for sure, try: “Thanks for all you’ve done, it’s time for me to seek new challenges, I trust that I can count on you to be a good reference, thanks!” (Note: DON’T use him as a reference, ever, but also don’t tell him that you won’t be. Let him think he has power until it’s 100% true that he doesn’t). Don’t tell him where you plan to go or what you plan to do. It’s okay to lie when an abusive person is pressuring you for information that isn’t their business. “I don’t know yet.” “I’ve applied at a few places, I’ll let you know when I know something.” “I’m confident I will find something I enjoy.” Keep everything about your discussions focused on professional topics. If he tries to throw more fake carrots of a big payday or paying your loans, ask him to put it in writing and to define it as compensation. “Wow, Donny, that’s very generous. Let’s add it to my employment agreement.”  If he gets personal, try “I’m going to pretend you didn’t say that.” If he gets weird about the locking doors thing, try: “I’m just not comfortable leaving my doors unlocked.” The “Because YOU keep dropping by unannounced” can be silent for now.

If you want to finish your graphic design program at some point, you will find a way. You’ll get a job at a university or at a company that offers tuition reimbursement. You’ll reapply to the program that funded you in the first place. You will find a way.

Finally, your daughter does not need Donny in her life – not as a “male role model”, not as anything. She’s little and she might not understand at first where “Uncle Donny” went once you cut ties, but I think it is a good idea to break off any and all contact between them as soon as you feel safe to do so.

You are brave and you are a great mom and you are gonna be free of this controlling dipshit very soon if you haven’t gotten there already. Please be good to yourself. You were the target of a very deliberate campaign of manipulation. That’s scary stuff and it will take some time to undo the financial and emotional damage.

P.S. I get a ton of spam along the lines of “Let me tell you the story about how I lost my man and how this spiritual healer gave me a spell to get my man back.” We don’t need those spells, Beloved. GIVE US THE ONES THAT MAKE THE MAN GO AWAY AND STAY THE FUCK AWAY.












215 thoughts on “#955: “I’m in a rat trap of my own making.”

  1. It sounds as though “Donny” was trying to push the LW into dependency in the hopes that she’d feel desperate enough to be with him. As for “was it wrong of me to go along with this arrangement for so long?”, perhaps, but you can’t go back in time and change that. It’s more important to decide what to do going forward than to beat yourself up for falling for the promises of a manipulator.

    1. I urge anyone reading this comment to peruse the later comments regarding whether it was wrong for the LW to go along with the abuse, because she was not wrong, and it is not appropriate to blame her for the poisoned apple she was offered. She made a call that seemed good based on the information she had. No one is responsible for Donny’s behavior but Donny.

      1. Oh, of course. It’s the LW asking *herself* if it was wrong to go along with it, not me. He gradually reeled her in over time. She seems to have been a bit naive early on, but she’s probably never met anyone so manipulative before.

      2. Also People drop out of school to work at their friends startup all the time. And mostly when it doesn’t work out it doesn’t work out because business is hard, what you did was normal, it might have been risky but you had not reason not to believe that it wasn’t the good kind of “Maybe it doesn’t work, maybe we all end up with share portfolios” risk.

        1. Not only is permanently or temporarily leaving school to work at a friend’s startup pretty normal, but LW herself said:

          Donny started a tech company outside of his university position and became wealthy enough to retire from the University this year.

          That’s a pretty compelling argument that leaving to work for that startup was a reasonable decision. Dude clearly knows how to make money, it’s too bad he’s such a terrible person.

          1. Let’s suppose he made himself impossible at the University & they decided to fire him? His company is not successful. All projects fall through, so there’s nothing for the LW to work upon. Everything he told her may have been a lie.

          2. responding to Thomas, not sure where this comment will end up: That very well may be true, and would help explain why he couldn’t sustain higher payments. But it doesn’t affect her self-presentation in her job search going forward. She made what seemed like a reasonable, normal professional decision; now that stage of her career is over and she’s moving on.
            Oh, I do really, really hope she IS moving on!

          3. @Thomas: that’s totally possible, although I have a strong suspicion that like many if not most abusers, Donny is nothing but lovely and charming to people he doesn’t want to abuse. I just wanted to point out that going by what her (supposed) friend told her, LW made a perfectly reasonable decision to drop out and work for his startup.

  2. elance.com and clickworker.com might be an option in the meantime as a way to provide supplemental income without having to arrange childcare.

  3. (Career computer programmer here)

    “He says I am wasting my time at school and that he, the wealthy and successful entrepreneur, would teach me ‘real-world skills’ and his special coding ‘secret techniques’ from start to finish. He told me people would pay lots of money to learn his secret and that I was lucky he was willing to share this very profitable knowledge with me.”

    Oh god, I’ve met this guy so many times. There are NO SECRET CODING TECHNIQUES that will make you rich. The best programmers are the ones who are LEAST secretive, most open, most flexible. Donny just happened to be in the right place at the right time, got lucky, and now thinks he’s god’s gift to programming. He’s not. And he’s not special. There’s likely very little you can actually usefully learn from him. Don’t worry about the lost opportunity when you move on–it was never there to begin with.

    Best of luck in whatever you pursue! Sounds like you’ve got a good head on your shoulders already.


    1. +1
      My husband is a top notch programmer and YES to all of this.
      The best ones are open, helpful, and will go out of their way to share and mentor.

      Move on, use the advice CA and the commenters here give you and just let the past go.

      My thoughts are with you.

    2. Same with graphic design. I have a fantastic mentor at work that helps me figure out short cuts and new ways of doing things because he enjoys the challenging of figuring something out and teaching. Honestly, you’ll probably learn more from straight up trial and error than ANYTHING Donny could teach you.

    3. There are NO SECRET CODING TECHNIQUES that will make you rich.

      As another career programmer, this + 1000. Here’s the big secret to being a good programmer: try stuff, reflect on how it worked out, think about what you could do differently next time. Note that that has nothing to do with getting rich, which frankly is mostly luck.

      That said, LW it was totally reasonable to believe your *friend* who you thought you could trust. That he roped you into this mess (and it’s all on him, you are not a rat in a trap of your own making, you’re in a trap of Donny’s making) is about how skilled he is at trapping people, not about whatever terrible (I’m being super sarcastic here) flaw led you to think you could trust someone who acted like a friend until he started jerking you around.

      1. 100% agree on the “trap of his making”. Look at it this way: What if he had been a true friend that offered you a real, fairly-payed gig at his company with no strings attached? You wouldn’t be in any kind of trap right now, right? This is completely on him.
        We get out of shitty situations when we have learned to see them. You are there now, that’s great.

    4. (Not-currently-career programmer here)

      While I think the ‘secret techniques’ and ‘people will pay lots of money to be taught by me’ are red flags, I know three programmers off the top of my head (and quite probably more) whose careers were started/jumpstarted when they were hired by a small startup and mentored by an experienced programmer there, so the path was doomed because of Donny being Donny, not because ‘get hired and trained on the job’ is implausible. ‘I have a novel way of teaching, and here’s my plan to turn it into a business’ is equally something I’ve seen work for at least three or four people – if a language/platform is popular and lots of people want to learn it, there is demand for teachers, particularly ones that promise results and deliver them. So again, the LW was not completely unreasonable to believe him.

      It’s the hyperbole – the ‘secret techniques’ the ‘I will teach you something immensely valuable’ (as opposed to ‘this will be a $50/$500 course, I will pay you to beta-test the course so you can learn and I can refine my materials) that are sending up the flags to me, not the situation as such.

    5. Oh hell yes to this.

      Someone declaring they will teach you super-secret magic coding techniques is heavily analogous to someone telling you they’re not the kind of person who will hit you. In both cases the intention is for you to be thrilled at how well they treat you, but in both cases what they are saying reveals their underlying thinking about what is acceptable behavior.

      “I’m not the kind of person who will hit you” = Hitting you is, to my mind, a reasonable course of action. See what a prince I am that I am saying I will heroically refrain from doing so. You owe me undying gratitude.

      “I will teach you magic secret coding techniques no one else knows” = I think hoarding magic secret coding techniques is a fantastic idea. Mine, mine, MINE, all mine, because after all, I can’t compete in an open market of ideas. I’m such a prince I’m thinking about sharing some with you, which is completely unreasonable to expect, despite sharing and publishing techniques being the occupational norm. You owe me undying gratitude.

    6. If he’s coding in some super secret way that nobody else uses it means that he won’t be able to hire anyone who isn’t willing to learn his super secret ways.

      This is why we have conventions. So someone else can understand what you’ve written in order to add to it.

      1. Also if you’ve picked up overly ‘unique’ habits, it makes you harder, not easier, to work with in the future. Not that I’d worry about it terribly because there’s so much need for people who can program at all. Just pointing out that ‘I will teach you to do this in a way that isn’t standard’ isn’t really a selling point.

  4. The not-locking-door thing strikes me as .

    I don’t care where the man is from. I don’t care about the boundary issues he may or may not have. I care about the fact that if he can barge into a house unannounced and unchecked, SO CAN ABSOLUTELY ANYONE ELSE IN THE WHOLE WORLD. Lacking the understanding that a demand like that can put someone literally in mortal danger (and with a child present?!?!?!? SHRIEK!!!!!!!) has got to be more than an unfortunate cultural misconnect.

    1. Eh, it depends on the area and your personal level of comfort. My folks hate having the door locked, as do I, as long as someone is home and awake; however my roommate is uncomfortable without it locked, even though we’re on the second floor in a safe neighborhood.

      1. I was thinking more in terms of houses with a door onto a street, because that’s how most houses are where I live. I’m honestly not sure that I’d consider any living arrangement that lets people without a key into my house at will as safe, though, regardless of the neighborhood. If you’ve got a main, locked door into an apartment block, and you know your neighbors, and they’re all cool, then yeah, maybe. But if that was the case here, then the guy couldn’t just walk into the house unannounced. As much as anything, living your door open here (UK) would invalidate your home content insurance.

      2. Regardless of areas/safety levels/personal comfort zones, it’s one way to decide to leave your door unlocked. It seems to me a whole other ball game to demand that someone else does that for YOUR convenience.

        1. This. We aren’t talking about the LW wanting to leave her door open; we’re talking about her landlord and “benefactor” being upset that she might not let him have unlimited access into her life.

        2. Yes, this is about the LW’s comfort levels. She’s obviously not comfortable with that. End of story.

          1. I must admit to having had a MASSIVE knee-jerk reaction/triggeration because a child is involved in this. I realise that the risks of a random abduction are low (though not impossible, and the mere thought of chancing it for some dude’s convenience, and of said dude prioritising not having to knock over a child’s safety, makes me twitch), but how long would it take for the kid to wonder off into the street? I’m 100% totally categorically sure that mom takes care, but she must go to the toilet every now and then. The best-behaved child has moments of whimsy. My mom narrowly stopped me jumping off our balcony once because I’d just watched Peter Pan and thought I’d give flying a go. I was a bit younger, but still. Just… aaaargh.

        3. This. My parents never locked their door when I was growing up; I don’t even think they had keys to the house. I have always locked my doors. If I want someone to have unfettered access to my house, I’ll give them a key, but the doors stay locked, and I would probably flip if someone demanded that I leave the doors unlocked for their convenience. My dad sometimes rolls his eyes at me and tells me I’m paranoid, but even he doesn’t demand that I leave my doors unlocked.

          This is not a cultural mismatch; this is the behavior of someone who feels entitled to the LW’s space.

        4. Yep.

          I don’t lock the door on my home … basically ever. However, I live in a remote area where I’m more worried about bears breaking in than people, and the bears aren’t a real big worry. I trust all my neighbors (less than twenty of them), and strangers won’t get past my dogs without a heck of a lot of noise and fuss.

          If somebody thought they could come over unannounced and let themselves in? THAT would prompt me to locate my key and lock the dang door. Geeze, what if I was in my underwear or I was watching something embarrassing on TV or I was in the bathroom with the door open? C’mon, knocking first is basic good manners and I would get pretty annoyed if anyone thought they didn’t need to. (I’d probably also tell them to leave and never come back if anyone pulled this because that’s just a basic boundary that normal people don’t cross.)

      3. Home invasions can happen anytime, no matter how safe the neighborhood is. Donny has also been here for 25 years, so he has had ample time to assimilate into his country’s culture.

    2. It’s pretty relative. I’ve lived places where no one locks their door, and places where everyone locks their door. If it were as out of whack for where they live as you describe, the LW would probably have made more of a thing of it in the letter.

      1. Hell, I live on a cul-de-sac in a suburb of a fairly large US city and half of us leave our front doors OPEN (with screen doors closed) during the day when the weather is nice and we are home/nearby. I don’t think we’d do that if it were a through street, but on this small block of 13 houses that all back up to open space, someone’s always around and keeping an eye out. However, if I were in a situation like LW’s, I would keep my doors locked all the time even if I lived in the safest, quietest neighborhood in the world. Stalkers change the equation.

        1. Oh yeah. Definitely now is the time to start locking the doors. I just don’t think it’s total, shriek-inducing insanity to leave a door unlocked with a child in the house depending on where you live.

          1. Oh, absolutely. But I think it’s pretty off to demand of someone else to do the same at all times because having to knock on a door bothers you.
            I leave my door unlocked when I’m at home during the day because I live in a rural area, I have a 6′ solid wood fence, 3 large barking dogs, and a neighbour whose living room overlooks my front door. If my neighbour started demanding that I leave the door unlocked so she can pop in without troubling to knock, however, I’d find that deeply odd and unpleasant.

        2. Yeah, we use ours as a window because there’s only one in this room. *looks over shoulder* Yup it’s open right now. We lock it when we leave and at night/when you go to work and the other person’s asleep, but otherwise? Nah, it’s not really a thing. And the kids I baby-sit know not to go further than the deck without me (like if I’m grabbing water or something, it’s a small apartment and they walk like elephants, I can hear them constantly).

          Our downstairs neighbours, someone actually tried to break into their apartment, but they were out of the country for almost a month and didn’t tell anyone to keep an eye on their place and they’re so constantly loud that we couldn’t actually tell the difference between someone trying to break their door down and them walking around. So, I dunno, maybe it’s naive but it’s just not that big of a worry for us.

          LW neither needs to be shamed for previously leaving their door unlocked OR locking it. Of course you have every right to lock it now. But I can also understand why you wouldn’t before.

    3. Also, if she has a small child, it is not reasonable to leave the door unlocked for the reason that it’s not just about keeping people out; it’s also about keeping the child in. My kiddo went through a door-opening phase where I was very grateful that while she could reach the knob, she couldn’t get to the deadbolt.

    4. On this topic, if LW needs a Donny-acceptable “excuse” for locking the door – presumably home insurance is the same in the US as it is here, in that the insurance won’t pay out for a break-in if the doors and windows weren’t locked.

      So a useful lie may be, “someone on my street was broken into recently, and it’s made me reconsider my home security – quite apart from not wanting to be broken into, if I *am* broken into I want to be able to claim on my insurance”

      1. (oh, and I meant to also say – this lie still works if LW doesn’t have home insurance)

    5. I’m in the rural USA. I don’t live in a town, but on a rural road. I… don’t actually know where my house key is. I’ve lived here for 11 years and the only times all the doors in our house are locked is when we go on vacation. Our neighbors’ homes are maybe, 800 ft. away? We have a driveway, but it’s not particularly long. When people come to visit, they knock on the way in, not stand at the door and wait for us to open it.

      When I lived in a small town (20,000 people) on an actual town street, we didn’t lock the doors when we were home, including overnight. Same guest rules applied, knock or holler on your way in. AND WITH –GASP– TWO CHILDREN PRESENT!

      Maybe can it with the shrieking? Other peoples’ experiences are not your own but that doesn’t make them worth the shrieking and moral panic.

      1. Ok but the whole cultural divide over doors locked vs. unlocked is a derail- Would you still keep them unlocked if a creepy person kept barging into your house? The Letter Writer would prefer to keep her door locked. Donny’s preferences, cultural background, and the door locking habits of readers don’t matter at all.

  5. > was it wrong of me to go along with this arrangement for so long? … I am really regretful that I didn’t complete my education.

    You did the very best you could, given where you were at that point in time. Who knows what any of us would have done in the same situation. You did the best you coudl knowing what you knew at the time. And you cannot turn back the clock. So please do not use these two questions as a stick to beat yourself up — It literally does not even matter. Because the only thing that is ever possible in life is to go forward from this moment. And from this moment, you can still go back to school, find new temping gigs, find a different job, and any number of other things. I know you can. The strings for this “free” money are way too high.

    Also, it can feel frustrating and emotionally scary that he will see you as ungrateful and possibly worse. But here’s the thing: that does NOT make it true about you. That is NOT the real story. You know the real story, and you have written it down here, and Captain Awkward has absolutely seen the truth about you here (brave, smart, competent, and valuable) and if you need to re-read it every single day, then you can. Because what he thinks about you is not what is true about you. You are a bright and caring person who can and will move forward.

    1. +1

      Took me a good number of therapy sessions to learn not to ask “what if I had done XYZ instead of ABC like I did?” The alternative realities, the what-ifs do NOT matter. And I’ll echo the sentiment that LW, you did the best you could with the information you had at the time. Please forgive yourself for the choices you made.

        1. Yep. that part of my brain is one of the most stubborn… and harmful. OP, if you can’t stop asking yet, stop answering. Pick one of the captain’s scripts for responding to unreasonable questions. Sometimes you have to set boundaries inside your own brain.

      1. Two things have helped me. One is that I’m now in a good place – stable relationship, work I love, needs met – so _my path led me here_ and if I could go back and change things… no thanks. I like where I am.
        The other is that a lot of paths are branching. There are no guarantees that if _this thing_ had gone right _that one_ wouldn’t have gone wrong instead: is losing a job and keeping your home better or worse than keeping your job and losing your home? That’s pretty futile to speculate about. Who knows what would have happened.

        What you can do is change things _going forward_, and it’s worth pouring energy into *that*.

        1. The thing that’s helped me is the realisation that i had REASONS for making the crappy stupid choices i made. When my life prior to that point had been full of crap stuff, actually, it’s not that surprising that i made a few shitty decisions. Unfortunately the things that helped there were a) a LOT of talking therapies and b) a lot of time and distance. If there are short cuts though I’d love to hear them :-/

      2. I’ve updated my personal brain software to include abuse-script-sniffing and reporting. My new default is Examine for possible abuse. It overrides Accept without question, which was a childhood script- and didn’t serve me then.

        Now, when someone presents me with You’re the reason everything is bad- rather than being bowed by that, I turn to it to fact-find. Would accepting this premise fix the problem, or is this a Wrong Why? If it does not fix the problem, it is a wrong why.
        The second pass is to ask, does using this wrong why keep the problem in place? Y= Source data and premise is the problem.

        I usually end up laughing as I leave, removing the victim (SURVIVOR) and later draw mocking cartoons in my journal.

    2. And, to clarify, since a comment below makes me think I wasn’t clear: You did nothing wrong. Trusting people is not wrong. Someone taking advantage of that is what is wrong. But if you do find yourself perseverating, over and over and over, on the questions of “What if… Was i wrong… i regret xyz, if only…” then what I am trying to say is: please please try to let this question go, if it is a question you are using as a stick to beat yourself up. You are a good person, and you do not deserve Donny’s terrible treatment.

    3. This!

      Donny used an abuse technique called “loan sharking” to the extreme. He manipulated you into feeling completely dependent and indebted to him. You did nothing wrong, and you are not a bad, stupid, or weak person for putting up with the situation, nor are you ungrateful now that you recognize how bad it is for you. He’s the one who has been ungrateful all this time by not treating you like a worthwhile human.

      I think it’s impossible to completely shake the “If only…”s in one’s life, especially when you end up trapped in a situation that derails what you wanted from your life for so long. But you have to keep moving forward. THAT is how you change your life and turn it around.

      Get this horrible man out of your life asap. Not only do you deserve so much better… Donny has done absolutely nothing to deserve you.

      1. Money is one of the worst ways someone can control a person. And it’s worse when the person who controls the money was someone you had liked and/or respected at one time who has decided to use the money as a way to try to control you.
        My husband worked for his male cousin a few years back. I was a stay at home mom at the time with two very young kids. My husband was making really good money working for his cousin. Our one and only car ended up breaking down and we didn’t have enough to cover the repairs. Cousin ends up giving my husband a substantial loan to cover the costs and this was paid back through payroll deductions over the course of several months. At the time we were grateful because it worked for us, and didn’t break us financially. What a mistake! The next year was MISERABLE for my husband. His cousin threw the loan up into his face at every opportunity. He made work a hellish place – he switched his schedule with no notice, demanded that my husband change a trip that we had planned because he didn’t approve of us vacationing while one of us (me) wasn’t working (nevermind that we weren’t paying for anything), he criticized every decision we made as a family (how we parented, the fact that I wasn’t working, where we lived, what we drove, where our kids were set to go to school). What was worse was when my husband tried to defend himself his cousin would “punish” him at work. By the end of the year the loan was about to be paid back…our kids were about to start school so I had gotten a job (which cousin didn’t know about). Once I was firmly in there husband started looking for a new job. Cousin had forced my husband to work overnights thinking it was punishment, but it actually allowed husband to interview during the day. Literally the day that the loan was paid off my husband gave his notice. His cousin, a man used to getting his way through physical/emotional intimidation, actually tossed his desk over and threw the balled up written notice at my husband’s head. It was awful…they nearly came to physical blows over this.
        Long story short: husband got out from under the financial thumb of his controlling cousin, cut off all contact, moved us out of state and things have vastly improved for us. Cousin, on the other hand, continued to try to financially and emotionally intimidate his employees until several of them banded together and brought a law suit against him. Last we heard through the family grapevine, cousin ended up losing his business and got a job with a company in the same field as his business. He was fired within 6 months for how he treated people. Not sure what he’s doing these days, but my husband is happier…though he still has nightmares about that place.

        LW, the captain has some great advice! Get out of there! Do not let yourself be fooled into thinking that you owe this man anything. Also…1st graders are pretty resiliant…if you rent your home it might be worth looking into a new place in a new town where Donny doesn’t have access to you both.

  6. Donny sounds like bad news.He wanted you as a partner, but he wanted to back door it and just sort of corner you into it, since he didn’t think you had any say in that. Eeew.

    The Captain’s advice is great, as usual. Contact your old advisor or old professors for some help/advice, reach out to your friends, etc. And yes, don’t be afraid to get some temping gigs.

    Check out LinkedIn to see who is working in your field that you can connect with/talk to about opportunities, etc. There may be a local professional group on LinkedIn as well–that would be a good resource for job leads, information about companies/organizations, connections, etc.

    Good luck! You’ve got this!

  7. As I read this, two things occurred to me.
    1) Donny is lying about being rich and successful to keep you strung along, perhaps under the belief that ALL women want a rich, successful man. But really, if he were rich, he’d be paying you what you’re worth. And if he was successful, he’d be giving you full time work assignments, not a trickle here and there. He’s paying you to keep you. Not to be an employee.

    2) The fact that you are single is probably why he chose you. ONe of the ways single parents struggle is with the guilt of not providing that opposite-gender role model for their kid. He’s using that guilt against you.

    But, Dear LW, part of having ANY male presence in your life means that your daughter will grow up observing how you interact with those men. She’ll learn from you. If she sees you allowing a man to have unrestricted access to your house, string you along by promising to pay your bills, making promises that you don’t hold him to, and so on….she will learn that this is what a “good male” is.

    You obviously love your daughter and you’ve framed much of your letter through the lens of wanting what’s best for her. Allowing her to continue to see her mother cave to Donny’s emotional abuse is just not good for you little girl! Your daughter will suffer more from a continued relationship with Donny than she will by not having a “male role model” in her life.

    Please consider the Captain’s advice! All the best to you, from one Mama to another!

    1. I’m with you and your excellent points in spirit, but some of the worst financial drubbings and people I’ve had to sue to pay on contracts are also the very richest.

      1. It’s shocking just how much money you can collect in your lifetime by constantly refusing to give people their due. >.>

    2. Donny is totally lying about his finances and success. He wants a relationship with the LW, and is trying to lock her down before the money runs out. I would not be surprised if a “new project” was “tying up all of his liquidity” soon. Or some other problem that could be solved by LW moving in with him until they’re millionaires next year.

      LW should quit beating herself up. Owners of startups have to be charismatic, convincing, and confident to get backing and employees. They have to create a world of possibility and convince people it’s going to be real. They’re quasi-seductive, over-bearing, and invasive with employees they don’t want to sleep with because they have to be to keep them through the chaos and financial insecurity.

      His financial and emotional manipulation has an especially terrifying edge because of LW’s daughter, and his relationship with her.

      If LW uses CA’s scripts, she won’t have to reveal much. People in the industry know how startups work (or don’t work), and will understand. Many will have been in one themselves, and will fill in the blanks.

    3. “But really, if he were rich, he’d be paying you what you’re worth.”

      So not true. The world is full of wealthy people who underpay their employees and who use money to manipulate others.

      1. He’s either not actually rich or he’s a stingy asshole as opposed to a regular old original flavor asshole, but either way OP ends up in the same place, which is a place where he is going to use his wealth (or “wealth”) to manipulate her rather than paying her what she’s worth.

        And either way he’s still definitely an asshole.

    4. I don’t think Donny is necessarily lying about having money, but we totally agree that he’s a liar. He is never going to give LW enough money to be secure and safe and happy, that would make it too easy for her to ditch him and his financial abuse.

      He’s paying you to keep you. Not to be an employee.

      100% agreed. Ironically paying her more would loosen his hold on her, I firmly believe Donny wants LW to feel anxious about her bills and guilty about not being a good enough mom and not providing enough for her daughter so she doesn’t start getting ideas about finding a job that pays a living wage and (god forbid!) being treated like a person instead of a possession.

      1. Yeah I agree, he could be filthy rich and still just stringing her along. I get the feeling he is just waiting for her to realise if she was his girlfriend she would have SO MUCH MORE money. SO he didnt want to give her too much when he wasnt “getting anything” out of it. It doesnt sound like he wants her to do much real work, just realise what a catch he would be. *vomit*

  8. As far as “Was I wrong to go along with this for so long” is concerned, I disagree with the previous commenter who said maybe.

    No, OP, you weren’t wrong. He fooled you, he’s been gaslighting and systematically isolating you over a long period of time, he deliberately kept you off-balance, and all of that is difficult to spot until you’re trapped right in the middle of the spider’s web. Heck, some of the stunts he’s been pulling – like the gradual reduction in work assignments accompanied by ever more miserly and infrequent pay cheques to keep you on the knife edge of both desperation and gratitude, while he offers you a nebulous “everything if you’re a good girl” – remind me very much of the way kidnappers induce Stockholm syndrome.

    You bear absolutely none of the blame for the situation. Make no mistake, this is an abusive relationship, regardless of whether you ever thought of romance or not, and regardless of the lack of a tangible sexual aspect.

    Furthermore, given his systematic deconstruction of the OP’s life and rebuilding it into his own pet project, I would not give any credence to him having a low emotional IQ. He’s been far too sophisticated in his manipulations for that. And I’m sceptical about the anxiety and paranoia too – the results of his fears are just too coincidental in the way they repeatedly result in the OP putting more of her life in his hands (the government can’t be trusted to hold anything over the OP…so let me hold that power over you instead! I know it’s tempting, OP, but please don’t let him pay off your student loans – if you do, he’ll have bought your debt, and you can be sure he’ll want repaying somehow).

    This guy is genuinely terrifying me at second-hand.

    Be careful, OP. I wish you all the best!

      1. I got more of a Desi Collings vibe, myself. Creepy creepy creepy. I second not letting him pay off your student loans. The bank has a set agreement with you, and it won’t change, whereas Donny’s interest rates will climb higher and higher and change at a whim. He is such a textbook asshole Nice Guy TM.

    1. I can guess how he’d want the LW to repay him if he bought her debt….assuming he doesn’t lie about paying it for her. Even if he did lie, he’d still make her repay him.

  9. This guy is legit terrifying, even at second-hand! Heck, some of the stunts he’s been pulling – like the gradual reduction in work assignments accompanied by ever more miserly pay cheques – remind me very much of the way kidnappers induce Stockholm syndrome.

    1. Sorry, people! Feel free to ignore this post – I thought the first, long reply had disappeared into the ether!

      1. I think the fact that he’s terrifying can’t be stated enough. He’s giving me Killgrave vibes and I want to offer the LW all the Jedi hugs and the best of luck for a speedy escape. So cheers to the double-post.

    2. I think Donny had enough money for a start-up, but his business plan had holes in it-namely, as experts here point out, he did not have a unique coding skillset to monetize. Banks won’t give him loans and the Franchise Tax Board and IRS’ letters are getting more frequent. (A hidden plus to not having any partnership agreement with Donny in writing!)

      His walks are closing in, which is turning up his venom onto LW. He does not want LW to realize she and her daughter can skate away forever, whenever they choose.

      Meanwhile, the ex-wife does have first position on getting paid, has not been getting paid, and her lawyers are getting more insistent.

  10. Tangentially, there’s certainly a thing where non-dominant cultures get extra guff whereas the dominant culture just gets a total pass, but like, just because something’s culturally accepted doesn’t automatically make it something that *should* be accepted. Like, it makes sense to be understanding and to follow someone’s rules in their house, but this is *your* house and understanding doesn’t require you to give someone free rein to do stuff to *you*.

    1. Plus, the guy emigrated 25 YEARS AGO!! It’s well past time for him to have learned that we don’t things like that here.

    2. What sticks out to me is he moved here from a culture with no boundaries 25 years ago. That means he’s had 25 years to learn the culture of his host country and the boundaries therein.

      1. Plus, did he move from a culture with no boundaries? Did he really? I suspect that people from his “own” culture might be surprised to hear some of the things he’s attributing to them. Seems to me that “it’s just my culture!” is being used as a catch-all excuse to manipulative LW’s boundaries.

        1. Is there even such a thing as a culture with no boundaries? Every culture has rules for how people are supposed to behave toward one another, and when visiting another person’s home. Different boundaries, yes, but none?
          Donny has told LW so many lies, this is the least of his lies, but it’s still a lie.

          1. Sure, at least contextually. Part of the reason we describe our contemporary culture in USA as a rape culture (and a big part of why this site exists) is because we have all kinds of situations in which we have normalized the idea that certain people are not supposed to be able to set/enforce boundaries: children to parents, within families generally, younger people to older people more generally – “‘respect’ your elders” as in grant them total deference – romantic partners and especially women to men, women to men more generally, pregnant people to everyone – invasive questions about sexual/reproductive behavior and uninvited body touching – Black people to White people – lots of unwanted, uninvited hair-touching and demands for cross-cultural explsnations, for example – other people not considered White e.g. frequent questions about family area of origin, trans people to everyone e.g. invasive questions about genital configuration and sexual practices, etc. Ivagree a total lack of boundarirs is unlikely, but a cultural norm that asserts that certain classes of people, like women, are not allowed boundaries is, unfortunately, very common.

            A lot of the areas outside of legal and economic issues in civil rights or social justice movements are essentially demands that the right to set and enforce boundaries be recognized.

    3. Yeah, this one had me baffled. Like, I leave my shoes on in other people’s homes because…that’s generally what we do here. But if I moved somewhere where that *wasn’t* the norm, I wouldn’t be freaking out and insisting that people let me wear my shoes in the house. Heck, if someone *here* has a no-shoes house, I will take my shoes off without a grumble. People get to decide what is comfortable for their own homes.

    4. Yeah. I have been in the situation of being told I had to accept uninvited guests because that’s how things were done in their culture, and it spun my head for awhile with “am I prejudiced?”… but in the end: if I was in their country I would not insist they do things the American way–no way!–especially in their house. I made my peace with it.

  11. OP, Cap has a ton of great suggestions, but I want to plug Alison at AskAManager.org for resume and cover letter tips. Also general information about workplace PTSD and trauma.

    1. Seconding this. There’s a lot of good work-specific advice there, and the commenting section is generally great.

  12. Have no shame. Lie to this guy to stay as stable and safe as you can for as long as it takes to get a proper job that’s out from under him.

    It’s possible he’s exaggerated his wealth as Jill suggests, but it’s also possible that he is wealthy, and has decided that this gives him the right to buy people.

    Not for their market price, of course. You don’t get rich without knowing how to cut corners. He’s got it all justified in his head: pay you a retainer so you depend on him, keep it low to keep you insecure, and justify keeping it low by not sending you actual work you could demand proper wages for. Because hey, if you’re not doing all that much work, paying you anything is generous, right?

    Except, of course, that he’s blocked you from seeking other sources of income. So start seeking them, and don’t feel the least bit bad about lying to his cheap, scummy, entitled ass.

    Tell him what he wants to hear while you very seriously look for another job. Then when the time comes, tell him that this is the last time he’ll ever hear from you, and hit those ‘block’ buttons.

  13. LW, so sorry you are in this. But I really admire how protective you are of your daughter and how you are a person on the lookout for new and better opportunities. These are all good and worthy skills. You’ve got the tenacity to have gotten a graduate degree, and the personal skills to navigate a specialized research field as a peer. Now you know a bit about graphic design. Those all sound like transferable skills to me. If continuing with the graphic design doesn’t appeal to you, project management or business analyst are two others that come to my mind. A quick certificate course (maybe even Coursera) paired with your existing skills, and you could perhaps start your own business. There’s a volunteer group that works with the SBA called SCORE, who can give you more info and support.

    Alternatively, without knowing the intricacies of the program you were in or how to apply, from your description it sounded worthwhile to try to get this scholarship reactivated. The covered childcare part after all is huge. What kind of deal might be possible to wrangle with the school? You’ve completed a year of it, and those programs need people to finish. Can you write an appeal for reinstatement? Meanwhile, is there a possibility you could tutor new first-year students?

    Meanwhile, keep these plans close while you negotiate your way back out from Donny’s control. Ease back into talking with him during normal work hours- no more 11:30 at night, when you’re wrung out. That’s how he’s been able to encroach.
    Slowly turn this back into a more formal relationship. At the same time, use his strength to defeat him. “Donny, I’m so glad you think my daughter is precious. That’s why, as in other houses, the door is locked.” “The two of us (you + your daughter) really need to have our family time after 7pm. I’d be happy to look at your new project for me tomorrow morning.” He’ll be back on more familiar ground with this type of communication; it’s a successful relationship you two already have had and hopefully he’ll fall back in.
    Where are other friendly parents, with their playdates and birthday parties? Being your daughter’s whole world sounds exhausting! That support will help keep Donny from hoovering.
    A last thought: kinda wonder if he’s as rich as he claims to be. Seems likely to me that the smoke and mirrors are the only part that’s real.

    1. Yes, that’s a great idea. Move the boundaries back to normal friendship/employer boundaries. (Even my friends won’t call me after 10 pm or before 9 am.) Even better of course employee/employer boundaries. You are completely entitled to this. (You are furthermore entitled to get him completely out of your and your daughter’s life asap.)

    2. Another potential money-maker might be to use your grad-degree job skillset as an Expert Witness. Finding the databases of attornies or consulting companies who are looking, or meeting an attorney who has access to them (might be subscription) might be a path for short-term work that would be high-pay. Maybe they allow telecommuting-?

      Just because the job you had required travel, may not mean all jobs using those skills would. Maybe another company would or has split the job, so the field work and the lab work are teams. I was thinking that finding a high-end employment agency with a excellent recruiter would pay off for you. Their commissions are paid by the employer, and they get a big fat one if you’re hired. There’s a wonderful feeling to having your agent do the groundwork and just call you with potential work.
      If you don’t have other ties to this geographic area, this seems like a prime example where “pulling a geographic” is a good thing.

      One other tip if you do move- tell phone, utility companies and the DMV you are a crime survivor and to mask your home address in their database, which they sell. Have your apartment’s doorbell directory just say “Resident.” Use a different name on mail-order stuff sent to you, and mark it as a gift. Consider renting a personal mailbox, which gives a street address and number, and doesn’t say “PO Box.” Pay the pizza delivery guy in cash ( this is a very common data leak area). Scramble your internet IP. Talk to a women’s shelter or a local police Community Services officer for more tips. Meet some single dads and have fun picnics!

  14. Hey LW.

    You are not alone in having this happen to you. My story is similar, except that this happened with a man that I loved, who I thought loved me.

    Abusers abuse in predictable ways. If you have not come from an abusive family – or at least not one that abuses that way – this can be hard to recognize for what it is. My family was awkward and earnest, so dealing with a manipulator was really confusing. Manipulators know how to exploit this.

    My ex convinced me to quit my job while I was in school, and said he would support me because he made 10x the money I did. Little did I know that there would be no shared money, that asking him for money would mean that I would be interrogated and shamed, and that whenever a conflict arose he would tell me how lucky I was to have him, and state imaginary dollar amount that I had cost him so far. Dude kept a list of what he had spent on mutual expenses – a running tally. Did he keep the same tally for the hours of housework, cooking, emotional babysitting, research and assorted clerical tasks I did for him ? Of course not !

    Abuse works like this: the abuser makes you an offer – a big offer – a grand offer, and has come on like a concerned, loving and helpful friend who wants to help you achieve more. My abuser bought me a couple of big gifts, that he made sure to tell everyone around him about, so he looked like a generous person.

    As the victim, you don’t think like an abuser, so you are conceptually framing the carrot that is dangled as a loving, kind offer based on mutual respect. If you were in the position to make this offer you would do so out of generosity, not a means to isolate and control.

    The abuser will probably interfere with your social life, your education, your employment and friendships. Like magic, he will cast a shadow over ordinary actions, so that others treat you differently due to his interference. Meanwhile, the abuser may frame this like your friends weren’t your real friends, that you were capable of achieving more elsewhere. My abuser interfered with me looking for work, so I would remain dependent. We moved across the country where I knew about two people, who he didn’t like. It’s hard to make new friends with no job and no social contacts.The only friends I had access to were one that he had socially assigned to me – because these people were useful to him.

    Financial abusers tend to be really miserly. THEY have lots of money, and make sure that you know this. However, they will always create this dynamic like you are somehow underachieving . They make lots of money – why can’t you ? What’s wrong with you ? (etc., etc.) Meanwhile, they increase your indebtedness and keep you strung along. You’ve been groomed and brainwashed enough to feel like if you could just work harder, or do more, then you could prove your true worth. They also act like this is somehow just around the corner, yet it never happens. They will also take away their financial support to punish and threaten and control, while shaming you.

    After my abusive ex and I split up, he kept the keys to the mutually owned house where I was still living. Despite asking him to let me know if and when he wanted to come by for something, he would let himself in without warning whenever he felt like it. By law I could not change the locks as he was on the deed. I couldn’t get a restraining order as there were no police calls to the home, or documentation of threats.

    The story gets longer, and more complicated when my abuser instigated legal action against me.

    What worked in my favour in a legal context was documentation – photos, emails, and the dates that these happened.

    Because my abuser was volatile, I had to do a great deal of placating, supplication, as exposing my fear, anxiety, insecurity was only more blood for a predator. Sometimes you have to do what you have to do to get out of a situation, alive.

    My abuser also had many excuses and explanations for his behaviour – abusive dad, alcoholism, frustration at someone else, being “tired” – anything, basically. I believed everything he told me, and took it seriously, and made many allowances for completely inexcusable and abusive behaviour.I didn’t want to be a bad person and disbelieve or question him – though he was intentionally hurting and scaring me.

    LW – the Captain has given you some very good advice about doing what you have to do to get out of this situation, and keeping your cards close to your chest. In the interim – while you plan your escape, please document your interactions with this person. Communicate via email and text, not phone calls. Start a secret log of the drop-in’s, as well as the promises made, with times, dates and details. Back this up so you have copies in a place that is not accessible to him. If you can, tell a close friend about what has been happening. Make sure that someone else knows.

    Donny sounds like he is really abusive. It is a predictable pattern that when an abuser like this is exposed or confronted that their abuse will grievously escalate, with no holds barred. My abusive ex stopped at nothing including telling wild lies in his statement to the court. It was only my documentation which derailed that train, though his abuse via the legal system continued for longer than it should have.

    LW – I really hope that you are okay, all things considered. I hope that you are able to quietly back out of this situation. In the interim, make yourself as uninteresting to Donny as possible. Look up the Grey Rock Method for dealing with psychopaths and narcissists.

    Is it possible to leave your community and move elsewhere ? (Unclear about whether this is the same city you went to university then design program in) Are there friends, family, former colleagues who may be able to offer you a temporary place to stay ?

    Don’t be surprised by anything that happens. Donny may take you to court and claim you owe him money. Donny may have a big meltdown and start pulling promises and assorted blame out of a hat. That baloney about wanting to make you a partner : just another tactic to keep you on the hook.

    None of this is your fault. You believed someone who was lying to you. That is about HIS character, not yours.

    1. Thank you for sharing this. I am so sorry you had to go through such a horrible time. I really admire your ability to tell your story in such an instructive and helpful way – that cannot be easy.

    2. “Financial abusers tend to be really miserly. THEY have lots of money.” I’ve seen this a lot, but I’ve also seen financial abusers who *don’t* have a lot of money and aren’t miserly. For example, an ex of mine started engaging in financial abuse when I started making more money than he did. He was working a night shift, while I worked days. (So he always got to the mail before I did.) The abuse went like this, for months, before I figured out the pattern: Bills came in during the week, and he mailed checks for them right away (but didn’t tell me he had done that.) On the weekend, he would suggest we do a bunch of different fun things, that all cost money, and I somehow always ended up paying for them. After a weekend full of expenditures, he would say, “Oh, I wrote checks for ABC bills, but I don’t have enough to cover them. I need $XYZ money to keep them from bouncing.” And I would end up with just barely enough money to get to my next paycheck, even though I had managed to double my income in a little over a year. Every time this happened, we would have a talk about how he shouldn’t float a check for the bills and should let me know about that kind of thing *before* suggesting multiple restaurant meals plus movies plus plus plus over the weekend. And he would agree. And he would do it again during my next pay cycle.

      I point this out, because a lot of victims of relationship abuse get stuck on specific definitions of “abuse” and talk themselves out of admitting to themselves that they are in an abusive relationship. (I got stuck for a long time on the idea that “abusive” meant physical violence only.) There are multiple ways to commit almost every form of abuse. I think it’s more useful to define forms of abuse based on the result instead of the action–the actions of my financial abuser kept me financially constrained and overwhelmed by stress about money, even though it wasn’t the classic set up. He was also controlling my spending through these actions, even though I had my own paycheck and bank account.

      1. This is such a true and helpful perspective. I am so sorry that you went through that.

        I think that ‘red flag’ behaviours can be really helpful in identifying common abusive actions in a way that victims can start to identify and name what’s happening to them – but it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking these are the only ways to be abusive, and for victims whose circumstances are different to keep second-guessing themselves.

      2. Anon, I think I remember seeing you or someone else post in a previous column about this relationship – yes, seriously! I work with DV victims and financial abuse is something that is kind of glancingly covered under other types of control, but it’s very very very common in controlling relationships and I don’t think we put enough emphasis on recognizing it, because someone having financial control over you is SO powerful and can be really hard to break from.

        I’m not second-guessing anyone who chooses not to work or to be a primary caretaker or anything, but I will say that a LOT of the clients of the shelter system I work for end up completely financially dependent on their abuser because they are pressured into quitting jobs to be stay-at-home parents or pressured into not working, or actively sabotaged from holding down a job by their partners.

        There are other, more subtle ways of being financially abusive – I dated someone very briefly who was very emotionally abusive/manipulative and money was a huge part of that for him. He would do stuff like spend money he didn’t have on dates, then expect me to loan or give him money. We took a vacation together that he absolutely couldn’t afford, which I had no idea – so I ended up stuck in a different city with him, being forced to foot the entire bill for this vacation, with him accusing me of being heartless and only caring about money and (which makes no sense) also only being interested in him for his…nonexistent money? It was weird.

        Anyway, Donny’s control is pretty textbook, right down to making your budget uncertain by never letting you know how much you’re getting paid/keeping it inconsistent/saying that paying you gives him control over your decisions. My workplace pays me, but that doesn’t mean my boss gets to investigate my finances or dictate how I spend money!

        1. they are pressured into quitting jobs to be stay-at-home parents or pressured into not working, or actively sabotaged from holding down a job by their partners.
          Oh lord, a friend of mine works at a group home for teenagers, and one of the residents works at one of those day labour places with her boyfriend. All her cheques go into his bank account, so any time she wants money she has to ask him. She doesn’t even know how much she makes, and he’s convinced her that *she* owes *him*, so she can’t leave him. Also, apparently if she goes back to high school like she wants to, that means she doesn’t really love him.
          My friend has said of this individual, “I don’t want him to die, exactly, but maybe slip into a coma for a few months.”

          1. Yeahhhh. I obviously would never say this but often when we’re putting together a client’s file I’m just thinking, man, it would be nice if the abuser…just….vanished somehow.

            It is really super common for us to get clients (the majority of our clients are women being abused by men) who are in situations where they’re paying the rent on an apartment, but everything’s in his name, they’re not on the lease, etc. etc. – or the flip side of that, their partner will do stuff like put utilities in the victim’s name, promise to pay, and the not pay, so they’re the ones getting the credit rating ding or having utility companies go after them for money. And of course, none of this is in writing, so it quickly turns into a he-said, she-said situation.

            This is VERY VERY calculated on the abuser’s part. It’s not just like abusers luck into situations where, golly gosh, they’re not paying for anything but their name is all over everything, or their victim is legally responsible for certain bills they said they would pay. THEY DO THAT ON PURPOSE. This is why so many DV victims end up homeless! These power differentials and controls are set up by the abuser very purposefully.

            Also, LW, I reread your letter and you refer to being in a “rat trap of your own making.” I know you feel like you ended up here because you made the decision to leave school, etc., but I really think you are being too hard on yourself. You made a decision based on what someone that you thought was an honest above-board person told you. It was not your fault that Donny lied! Just like it is not our clients’ fault that someone abused them.

      3. Anon, Goodnight: I definitely worded that poorly, with shorthand thinking to my experience. My ex had a lot of economic power over me. Later, while the shit was hitting the fan, a well-off “friend” offered me some work, which turned out to be emotionally exhausting and exasperating, and this person felt aggrieved to pay me minimum wage. I had known her for close to 10 years, and had often helped her at the drop of the hat, if she needed it. While this awful stuff was going on in my life due to my ex, she gave me helpful advice like “Couldn’t you get a job where you would make more money ?” (despite applying for many jobs for which I was more than qualified). Meanwhile this person paid other people to clean her aquarium, ate at restaurants every single day, and helped a family member buy a second house in Los Angeles with cash – no mortgage. But I had to ask for my pay – and get paid in small amounts here and there.

        Yes, financial abuse operates in a myriad of ways – from a partner who isn’t working exploiting the working partner’s income in selfish ways like gambling or excessive shopping, to destroying the victim’s credit rating, or making major financial decisions without the partner/spouse’s input. My father used to buy a new car or truck without ever discussing this first with my mother. All she knew of it would be suddenly when the old vehicle was traded in and something new was in the driveway. My parents were responsible with money, so my father’s actions didn’t affect other aspects of how the household functioned, like going without heat or food due to the new car. I could never in a million years imagine my mother doing this to my father however. I would consider this a serious symptom of disrespect and inequality, though. They were married in the 1950’s, so while yucky, this behaviour fits into a certain context.

        In contrast, a friend who I was just getting to know lent me a considerable sum to assist with a serious emergency. At that time I had no clue how I was ever going to afford to pay this person back, and I was upfront about that. This person wound up being a very helpful and kind friend in many, many ways. At no time was the loan or the helping ever thrown back in my face. When my circumstance finally changed, I paid back the loan, and that was the last we ever spoke of it. I did express my deep gratitude as much as I could, but at no time was this guilted out of me, nor was the debt used like a bludgeon.

        1. she gave me helpful advice like “Couldn’t you get a job where you would make more money ?”

          Ohhhhhhhhhh! What a brilliant idea! Golly, I bet you sure felt embarrassed that hadn’t occurred to you. /s

      4. Anon, Goodnight: thank you so much for this comment. My ex did a similar thing when we were living together where he would pay bills, but never tell me when they came in, could never recall how much the bill was, never got around to showing me bills when I asked etc etc. And when we went grocery shopping he always “forgot” his wallet. There’s a long list of shitty financial manipulations he put me through. Anyway, it’s nice to be reminded that this is a thing that people do to other people, and not just… something only in my head.

      5. Oh my goodness, you just explained a dynamic in my marriage! (I’m separated now.)

        I earned more than my ex and we split the bills according to our respective percentages of the household income. However, somehow I ended up paying for most “extras” eg movies with the kids, lunch for the whole family, when we were shop, things he “needed” while we were shopping, any sudden family expense. He always claimed to be broke, or not to have his wallet, so I had to buy things. However, he had the money to pay payments on a luxury car and buy expensive watches etc, while I was scraping by. He would then accuse me of being poor at managing money.
        It was such a clear pattern of financial desth by a thousand cuts, in retrospect.

    3. In theory you can’t change the locks. In practice you can. When dealing with abusers we have to think just a shade less like reasonable people and a bit more like people trying to protect ourselves. A locksmith won’t ask to see the deeds before changing the locks, and a DIY store won’t before selling you a few solid bolts to fit yourself.

      If the other person has a problem they can get a lawyer to request that you give them one of the new keys. Meanwhile you have some time.

      When my ex was living in alcohol rehab and became a threat to myself and my daughter I changed the locks, even though his name was still on the deeds. I said if he didn’t like it I would see him in court. He got lawyers to write to me all the time to make demands, and I had the greatest fun writing my own replies along the lines of ‘this happened on x date, this happened on y date and this happened on z date. He can come to our home any time when sober but he is not getting into this house when he is drunk. See you in court.’ They never did take me to court.

      I was behaving illegally and I knew it. But sometimes you have to fight fire with fire.

      1. And even if he takes you to court over the locks on the outside of the house, you can then also add deadbolts *inside* the house if you need to. My mom added them to her room (she was sleeping in the guest room), my room, and my sibling’s room when we were going through the divorce from hell (ex-stepfather refused to move out because he knew it would hurt his chances of getting the house…and stole jewelry and hunting rifles that belonged to my mother). He actually DID take her to court over those locks, but the judge ruled in her favor. If nothing else, it gives you one more locked door between you and the person you’re trying to keep away from.

        You can do a lot illegally to protect yourself/your interests–my former stepfather did it w/ the jewelry (my mom didn’t have pics of everything, so some of it never reappeared after the divorce, and there was no way to get it back because you can’t make someone return something you can’t proof the existence of). But there’s nothing wrong with getting the locks changed illegally if that’s potentially going to save your life.

        1. In retrospect, I see that I could have changed the locks. As a friend pointed out, the only way that he would find out is if he tried to use his key.

          After the last attempt at speaking with my ex, where he raged and swore and shouted at me non-stop for at least 90 minutes, I began to feel that my life was seriously in danger. He had been entering through the locked back gate. In the time that we lived in the house, we had gone through several padlocks as they got rusty and seized up from being outside 24/7. I did run right out and buy a replacement padlock, as this was within the realm of plausible deniability.

      2. I am a divorce attorney and occasionally my advice to clients has been along the lines of “you’re not legally entitled to change the locks, but do it anyway and if s/he makes a fuss, we can then arrange for him/her to have a key, but your safety comes first”. This is normally followed by an attempt to get a court order to make it legal for my client to change the locks, but sometimes you just have to be practical. I’ve only ever had one client whose estranged partner insisted on a key, and by that time my client had moved out anyway.

        LW, I think you are in a bit of a boiling frog situation i.e. this has encroached and encroached and suddenly you’re saying ‘What!?’ Don’t beat yourself up about where you are now. Donny has behaved intentionally, and the responsibility is his. At the absolute minimum, however, if you do nothing else, please change the locks (because who knows if he has a key even if you lock the door). If he complains you’re being unfriendly/disrespecting his culture, you don’t have to respond to this, but if you feel uncomfortable you could always say that you’ve been thinking about security in general and just don’t feel good about having an open door any more (if there have been any burglaries etc on the local news, this might help). Actually, the cops where I live will come by and do a security survey and give advice on locks etc. If this is available where you are, it might be a good cover for making the change, if you are worried about Donny’s reaction.

  15. Here is the one thing nobody’s mentioned that totally–TOTALLY–creeped me out about Donny: His interest in the daughter. If Donny is behaving in a manipulative and predartory manner with an adult, what do we think the relationship with the child is about?

    1. I agree and tbh I’m extremely disappointed it wasn’t mentioned in the main answer to the LW because it’s something that needs discussing before dealing with anything else. From what the LW wrote, the daughter is likely his real target, not the LW. I would be very surprised if the “no locked doors” rule combined with the financial dependency hasn’t led to the grooming, if not outright abuse, behind closed doors.

      Does anyone have a good resource the LW can read to prepare her on how to ask her daughter the possibility of abuse?

    2. “Well, I would pay your Mommy more money but she’s sooo lazy! Maybe you should come and live with me?”
      Zero. Contact with Donny, today forward. Never alone. No presents, to or from. No food gifts that could be tampered with.

      Switch it up with the daughter “You did such a good job coloring this picture for Donny, honey. Now let’s think of one we can color for (classmate’s) birthday card!” Let Donny fade out by not bringing him up and subbing in talk and plans with other parents and friends to redirect her energies. Where is Donny? “I think he is working, but I don’t know. Did you enjoy Kevin’s daddy singing that song when we were at the park?” The real role models for the little girl are the people parenting children who she can see as fathers, not this goblin.

      Also, the early-morning visits “I really need to get her ready for school, Donny. It’s too distracting for *me* to have a guest here, while she is learning how to gather her things together and be ready.”

      Hopefully, it’s a moot point and something has happened to him. Maybe he owes money to people and is in hiding. Maybe the not-actually-divorced wife is back. All the more reason to end the association and get money coming in.

    3. Alarm bells were going off as soon as I saw that a child was involved. The fact that he’s a boundary crosser and hasn’t been putting the moves on the LW suggests to me that she was never his main target. I would not be at all surprised to find out that this whole scenario has been a way of getting the child within his reach.

      1. Seeing “He never says No to her” presented as a good thing made me fight the urge to scream out loud in horror.

        This is the worst kind of grooming for a child.

        This is the opposite of a model of an ideal father figure, though this business associate visiting in your home has no parental rights or power.

        1. I was particularly alarmed that he regularly tries to undermine LW’s confidence as a parent by saying things like “Well, you chose to have a baby with your previous partner and it didn’t work out, so it’s your fault you can’t manage!”

  16. Oh, LW, I was hiding behind my hands reading this, and I feel for you so much. This is capital-A Abuse.

    Please let me reassure you: even if this were a world where you had gone into this consenting to the full arrangement as it ended up being (which you didn’t — and Donny sure as heck made sure you didn’t know what you were getting into), that doesn’t mean you have to *keep choosing (and consenting to) it* . Even if this were your fault (it’s not), that doesn’t mean you have to keep at it just because you might have agreed to it once (which you didn’t).

    You are always 100% allowed, and justified, to say “this thing might have worked for a while, but NOPE”. I don’t know your field at all, so I can’t give any advise for that, alas, but I just want to reassure you as much as I can, that this is 1) not your fault, and 2) just because you went along with it, doesn’t mean it’s your fault or that you have to keep doing it.

    You’ve been manipulated and abused.

    Definitely contact any old professors you had any relationship with. “I was at a start up but I’m looking for something more established” is totally a legitimate reason to be looking for another job and contacting every old contact you have. WRITE DOWN what you did for Donny, maybe go through the guide at Ask A Manager for ways to re-write it in ways that sound awesome (I personally have a hard time going from “I fixed this thing because it broke” to “I re-designed and completely re-wrote an enterprise tracking system used by 500 people across 5 states, saving 10 hours of time per person per week”, so having a friend or someone at a job site help could be good).

    Best of luck to you, and to your kid.

  17. Another pass at you letter and you sound like you’re in the US-? Along with seeing him during business hours, if you were hired as an employee, he owes you a W-2. If you’re an independent contractor, there should be other documents outlining. If these cheques are going into the bank, the bank is reporting it.
    Whilst being unavailable after work hours, and steering conversations back to upcoming work, you need to task yourself to get this straight. Tax penalties are ugly.

    1. Yes, absolutely. Also, if you get it straightened out with the IRS, you remove a possible weapon (reporting you) from him.

      Tax stuff and dealing with the IRS is often scary to people, but I’ve heard many people joke that the government is the nicest debt collector they’ve dealt with. They really just want to collect the taxes, even if that takes a long time. The worst thing you can do is ignore it and hope they don’t find out.

      If you’ve perhaps not reported prior year income, consult with a tax professional (not at a storefront tax prep service, an actual CPA or tax attorney). Try looking for pro bono tax assistance in your area as money is a concern.

  18. One thing I keep seeing in your letter is you saying multiple times that you ‘re trying to be a good parent to your daughter. I’m wondering why you keep saying that — like maybe you’re trying to convince yourself that you’re a good mom?

    You’re clearly a great mom already, but I don’t think you’d be less of a mom if you needed to put your daughter into child care while you work. I get the reluctance to do so before she’s school-age, I really do; but at the same time, she’s not going to scarred for life if/when you go out and work full time for better money. To my mind, you’d be showing your daughter that it’s possible to be responsible without having to rely on a manipulative sexist douche like Donny.

    …. which is not to criticize you. I’m not saying that the flip side of that is that you somehow are warping your daughter by working for Donny, absolutely not. I agree with the commentors above, who rightly state that you’ve been doing what you need to do for you and your daughter. My point is that as your reality shifts, continuing to take responsibility for your collective life in such a way that involves child care by others will not make you a bad mom. You’re a great mom now, you will continue to be a great mom.

  19. LW, you seem very concerned that your daughter has Donny as a male role model, and I think that’s part of what’s keeping you in this crazy situation. But no male role model at all is way better than a Donny. WAY WAY better. Infinitely better. Take the situation with the unlocked doors as an example. Here is the lesson that that kind of interaction is eventually going to teach your daughter if you continue to allow Donny’s influence in your lives: “If a man demands access to something of mine that makes me feel uncomfortable, that’s normal behavior and nothing to be concerned about. It would be mean to tell him no, so I should probably just go along with it. It’s fine.” Yikes, right? She’s better off learning nothing at all than learning that.

    1. Yes. Yes. Yes. Do not keep Donny in your life for your daughter’s sake. The wrong kind of male figure is infinitely worse than no male figure at all, in the life of any child (boy or girl).

    2. This. She needs positive adult role models in her life. This guy is not a positive role model.

    3. YES! As someone raised by a single mother with a not-so-great dad part-time in the picture… yes. While I wish my mother’s attitudes toward my father (and men in general) had been better, I had so much more damage done to me during the times my dad WAS in the picture (or wasn’t, but through his own decisions) than during the times he was just.. gone. I learned through my dad that men are emotionally unstable, that men will leave you whenever they want and come back whenever they want, that men will only focus on themselves to the exclusion of the wellbeing of their own children and spouses. It took me a lot of therapy and a lot of patience on the parts of current and former male partners and friends for me to mostly un-learn the shit I got from having my dad behave badly in my life.

      I 100% believe I would have fewer issues if I hadn’t had that kind of “male role model” in my life. Gender roles don’t matter (that is, having a “male role model” and a “female role model” doesn’t matter) – learning to be a good human (that is, having a “human role model”) matters in the raising of a child. YOU set the example to your daughter of what a good human looks, acts, behaves, thinks, reasons like. Keeping an abuser in her life simply because he’s male.. well. He’s not a great example to your daughter of what a good human being acts like. But you, LW, can be (and it sounds like you ARE) that example of a good human being that she needs and deserves.

  20. Hey LW, I used to work for a “Donny,” and one of the things that stuck out in your story was the way in which he convinced you to drop out of school and come work for him. It seems like every move this guy has made has been a subtle attempt to remove any other choices in your life, until the last remaining choice is Donny – for your boss, your partner, your only friend, your sole source of income and adult companionship.

    The Captain’s plan for letting him think everything is basically business as usual, except you are secretly building yourself an escape hatch to deploy when the time is right is exactly how I got out of my situation, and it will work for you too.

    And don’t beat yourself up about “shoulds” — it’s difficult to believe that people can be this manipulative, controlling and malevolent until you encounter someone like this. This is on him, not you.

  21. You ask whether or not it was “wrong” to let this arrangement go on for so long. Yes, but the person who did something wrong was Donny. You trusted a friend, and he broke his promises to you. You believed in someone who turned out to be a manipulative liar. You believed you were making the best choice to help yourself and your daughter have a better life, but you were betrayed by someone you considered a friend. Donny may be in an emotional (and perhaps financial) mess rather than deliberately malicious, but he is not good to you or for you.

    It happens. Don’t beat yourself up about it. What matters now is finding your own way toward a financially secure, Donny-free career and future. You and your daughter will move on from this, and the Captain has some great suggestions for next steps to take. Good luck moving forward–don’t spend too much energy looking back.

  22. This guy is a master manipulator, knowing just what to say, knowing just what to offer, to get you into a position where you feel, or are demanded to feel, beholden to him, and therefore in his control. Maybe part of your hesitance to move on is that part of you believes what he is saying (implicitly if not explicitly): that you need him to get by, that you are not worth much, that he holds all the keys to all the locks and that you must wait patiently for him to open them for you when he feels like it (SPOILER: he will never feel like it).

    None of this is true. I 100% believe that your life will be so much better when he is out of it (and also your daughter’s life), no matter what direction it takes.

    Captain’s advice is great about extracting yourself. Keep reminding yourself that you don’t owe him anything–not your time, not your apologies, not your soul, not your future. Generous people give without the expectation of control over you. This man is not generous. Don’t let him convince you that he is.

  23. One thing you might want to find out is if he was paying employer taxes on the money he was sending you, or was listing you as a contract employee. Do you get a check stub showing deductions? Because if he wants to be vindictive he can report your income to the IRS, and you may have to deal with taxes (although as a single mom, probably not a lot).

    Good luck!

    1. Not to start a tangent but if it turns out he has been claiming you’re an independent contractor (and you’re in the US), that doesn’t automatically mean that you ARE. I did some work a while back for a company that was classifying workers as contractors, but under IRS definitions we were actually being treated as employees. Employers do this to try to shift the tax burden to their employees, and the IRS Does Not Like It.

      It was surprisingly easy to file a request with the IRS to investigate and clarify what kind of worker I was (no tax lawyer or accountant required). I got a refund for 3 years’ worth of self-employment taxes I shouldn’t have had to pay in the first place, and shady employer had to pay them.

      1. If LW was adjudicated as an employee, and didn’t get overtime, meal or break times, or worked off the clock, the Wage and Hour Division will fine him for every single occurrence, with penalties and interest.

        IANAL, just a former employee of cheaters who we saw get the lint in their pockets handed back to them with tweezers.

    2. Legally, LW is responsible for reporting the income and paying the taxes even if he didn’t. So if this has been under the table, it’s advisable to straighten it out with the IRS and get on a payment plan proactively. He can threaten to report you, but if you’ve already dealt with it yourself you’ve taken the metaphorical bullets out of the gun.

  24. LW, I am so sorry. What an awful, scary situation for you.

    One piece of advice for when you do definitively remove him from your life: make sure your daughter’s school/worship center/after-school activity personnel/playgroups know that Donny is not allowed access to your daughter. I’m having nightmares of him realizing that you are out of his clutches and subsequently preying upon her in places where people may know him as “Trusted Friend to LW & Daughter”.

    1. This is a really important point. I would stress to them that she will recognize him and might want to go see him, but he should still not be allowed in.

      Similarly, and I didn’t see if this was mentioned yet (but I’m quite tired), when you reach out to friends about looking for a new job, etc. I would ask them to be discreet about it. Most people will be anyway, but I would remind them just in case. I think this is especially important if their social circles might overlap with Donny’s.

      I am hoping so hard for you and your daughter that things get better and then amazing. I hope Donny goes away forever and just leaves everyone the hell alone.

      I’m so profoundly sorry, LW, that you crossed paths with such a horrible, exploitative abuser. You don’t deserve this. No one does.

  25. I have a few suspicions here. One is that given you were a grad student, that would have framed you as a person who is willing to work extremely long hours for an income below the poverty line, and that attracts people like Donny. He probably spewed out some line about how it’s hard for people in your field to get decent-paying jobs after they graduate, because of a lack of real-world experience. The other is that, as someone else said, if he were actually rich, he wouldn’t have blinked at paying you more, or paying off your student debts. But, he hasn’t, he has a ‘kept woman’ where he can barge in any time he likes, and isolate you, and act like you’re a possession he has. So if he is rich, he’s an abusive manipulator, and if he isn’t rich, he’s a lying abusive manipulator. Either which way, it’s all bad.

  26. I agree with other Awkwardeers that:
    A) Beating yourself up or second-guessing this situation is not helpful or kind to yourself. Treat it as a learning experience and be gentle with yourself.
    B) It is irrelevant whether Donny is rich or not, successful or not–what matters is that the advertised career opportunity has not panned out. If you have written employment-related agreements, I’d be surprised if they have been adhered to. (I don’t expect he offered anything in writing, and I’d be concerned that he has not reported you as an employee to the IRS.)
    C) Regardless of previous arrangements, when things that someone else set up that require your participation and agreement stop working for you, it is OK to change those rules. It is also OK to protect yourself by being subtle and careful about changing those rules. That means you can lock your door, and cite your concern over your daughter’s safety as the reason. You can change your locks for sturdier ones if Donny has a current door key and not give him a new spare key. You can trawl job hunting sites, call temp agencies and recruiters (if you have technical skills, there may even be career-specific recruiters near you), call your former school as an alumnus looking for job leads, whatever. You are allowed to do things Donny doesn’t want you to do.
    D) You should be paid what you are worth. It is likely you are worth A LOT more than Donny is paying you, and a LOT more than you even think you are worth, because you have been told you’re only worth the poverty-level wages Donny has gotten away with paying you.
    E) Sounds like Donny has set things up so that he is the #1 male role model in your daughter’s life, that he has unrestricted access to your home, that he has the temerity to tell you he doesn’t like you locking your own house doors, so that you barely have the money to live on so it is hard for you to pay for childcare (and thus hard to buy interview clothes, go get interviewed, socialize with other people, go to school to further your education, etc., etc.), and THIS IS CONTROLLING and V. V. NOT GOOD.
    F) He voted for Vermilion Voldemort? That alone would be a deal breaker for me.

  27. If you are in the USA: please go back to your divorce/custody attorney and ask to revisit the child support issue. In most states, if dad isn’t paying, there are things you can do. If you don’t have a formal child support order, get one. If you can’t afford an attorney, go to legal aid.

    A lot of people who have walked in my doors saying “Dad can’t pay” end up convinced “Dad doesn’t want to pay and can be compelled to pay.” In my state, if he doesn’t, he ends up detained at the county jail at the pleasure of our judge until he’s either found a way to pay or worked off some of his debt by providing labor in one of the programs there.

    (I don’t agree with jailing deadbeat dads, but it is a possibility in many states).

    You may also be eligible for federal assistance. If you aren’t getting it, please do so. There’s no shame in that. This is what it is for.

    You should also look to your local faith community or local groups for support. A lot of people are willing to help if they know someone needs it.

    I have a client that is not Catholic, but is getting a lot of support from the local Catholic church and the nuns.

    1. When I was unemployed for a long time and my benefits ran out, local nuns generously offered a friend of mine their leftovers, which she gave to me. It was appreciated. I’m not Catholic. In fact, I’m an atheist. Of course, I do like nuns, and always have (three cheers for the Sister Simone Campbell with the Nuns on the Bus and Sister Helen Prejean who advocates the abolishment of the death penalty, among others), which my friend knew, and it was probably why she asked them for help on my behalf. I am now extra grateful toward them.

      It’s certainly worth looking into.

    2. ‘A lot of people who have walked in my doors saying “Dad can’t pay” end up convinced “Dad doesn’t want to pay and can be compelled to pay.”’

      ^This. So many times my dad stopped paying child support, claiming “I can’t afford it!”. (Despite buying a new car every 3-5 years, and keeping the house they bought when they were married so he could have it as a rental property, and taking vacations including taking me to Europe for two weeks – and this from California so the airfare was even MORE expensive.) Every time my mom went to the legal-types, guess what! Suddenly he found the ability to pay again!

      The very last time it happened, I was 17 and I was well aware of just how far behind in payments he was. I urged my mom to actually take him to court this time, before I turned 18 and she lost the ability to do so. She did. She won. The court garnished my dad’s paychecks well into my 20s to make up for his back-owed child support payments. My dad, not being the most emotionally smart guy ever, tried to complain to me about it and paint my mom as the bad guy here. I shut him down reminding him that not only was he bad-mouthing my mother, the woman who did a darn good job of raising me single-handedly for nearly 15 years, but oh yeah. I’m the one who told her to take him to court.

      …sorry for the tangent. But. Yes. Personal experience here, from the POV of the child being supported. (Or not supported, as the case may be.)

  28. PS. Letter Writers – When possible to do without doxxing yourself, please list the country or US state you are in if you have issues like this (e.g., legal and financial issues instead of simply interpersonal ones). There are people out there who will help, but it’s hard to point you to them if we don’t know.

    In my state, I could point LW to five different groups for help.

  29. When reading this, I thought that you are being groomed for abuse. Be that abuse of you or your child, I don’t know.

    You are being isolated
    You are being told your judgment isn’t accurate
    You are being made dependent
    You are being told you are “special” and the only one who can do X, Y, and Z

    Enough red flags to cover China

  30. Oooooooooh this made me SO VERY ANGRY! An eyebrow was severely raised and then I got to ‘Locking the door makes him crabby’, and then I lost my shit. I do not care if his behaviour is not conscious, I do not care if he is emotionally stunted, I do not care one tiny bit. And I heartily agree with your excellent instincts that keeping this guy around to protect your daughter’s feelings will do her NO GOOD AT ALL because he is an ASS and she will grow up being gaslit by this ASS. At least as you said, one nice thing has come out of this, which is the special time you got to enjoy with your daughter. But hopefully more great things will come out of it too, like being able to remember how incredibly self-reliant you are and how resilient, and what good instincts you have. And what great new door locks you have. You have already worked so hard and achieved so much, and I hope you are proud of yourself. Don’t let this KNOB vampire his way all over your talent. Please don’t beat yourself up about this, for the many great reasons mentioned by others above; lesson learnt and now goodbye Donny you GIANT ASS. Thank you Captain for being so very good at this. Apologies for my own unconstructive ranting.

  31. One thing that might be reassuring to know when looking for positions in the future is that asshole startup bosses are definitely a Known Thing. You ended up with a particularly spectacularly bad one, but any good employer will be able to read between the lines of things like “I’m looking to move to something at a larger, more-established company where my job duties are more clearly delineated” and not wonder at all why you left the last job or why your previous supervisor isn’t on your reference list.

  32. I want to speak to any reservations you may have about cutting this person out of your life d/t concerns over your daughter’s attachment to him.

    I recently had to cut out a family member that used to provide (a lot of) (free) childcare for my child, from an early age. She is very attached to this person, and asks constantly about them.

    It is Not Right for this person to be around my child anymore, because Reasons. It took longer than it should have for me to realize that, and even longer to finally cut ties. But I did – it was the right thing to do.

    And when she asks about them, I say “[x] made some bad choices and we won’t see them for a while. They still love you very much.”

    1. I’ve had to do it too – we had a housemate/part-time nanny/friend we were helping get on her feet when FirstKid was young, before SecondKid was born. And we had to kick her out because tl;dr she had a mental breakdown of a sort that made it unsafe for us to continue any such arrangement.

      FirstKid, who was about two when this went down, loved her a lot and missed her and didn’t understand and was sad. But life went on and we were all better off for it.

  33. LW, your story struck a chord with me, as a long time ago, a younger Yolanda B. Cool with a tighter ass worked here and there in strip clubs before getting her act together and finishing school.

    So, in a strip club environment, Donnies are a dime a dozen. They start by throwing large bills at you, with promises of even more money. They come in frequently, and expect to monopolize all of your time while they are there, even if they’re not spending any money that day, and you have to pay the club at the end of your shift. They gradually try to push your boundaries to get you to do things you’ve told them you don’t do, and act sulky and entitled when the answer is no. They gradually become weird and menacing and eventually you have to lip the bartender a few bucks to keep calling you away for a “phone call.’ Strip club Donnies eventually call you a “gold digger” when they were the ones making promises of big money, and also… Dude, you’re in a strip club?

    Fortunately, there’s always someone else in the club with twenty dollars to spend, so you’re never dependent on Donny. And LW, for you, there are so many good jobs out there and so many reasonable people who want to be part of your and your daughter’s lives without being a weirdo, that you’ll lose absolutely nothing when you’re done with Donny.

    And as for feeling guilty or like you did something wrong, if I could impart just one more pearl of slightly sleazy wisdom, as an older, wiser dancer once told me “Always keep the money and the gifts.”

      1. Oh my gosh, Captain, thank you. I went back and forth about whether it was an appropriate thing to relate and eventually settled on “I think it’s an apt parallel and the Cap can delete it if I’m out of line.”

        Congrats on your nuptials, and thank you for doing this column.

      2. Something I was reading had linked to an article on the “Tits and Sass” website. I found candid, funny firsthand stories and very thorough journalism on who the workers making “fast fashion” really are. So bookmarked.

    1. “Always keep the money and the gifts”
      That dancer was wise indeed, Yolanda B. Cool.
      Donnie is the master of his money, not the master of you. So he can do whatever the fuck he wants with his money, like gifting it to you, and you can do whatever the fuck you want with yourself, like pay lip-service to the strings that come with it while you look for a safer source of income.

  34. I highly recommend the site psychopathfree.com. When I had a Donny in my life it was invaluable for helping me process what had happened and move on.

    Also, read the book “The Gift of Fear” by Gavin De Becker, which is all about trusting your instincts to protect you’re self from dangerous people. George Simon’s “Wolves in Sheep’s Clothing” is also worth a read.

    Toxic people like this target the generous, the good, the conscientious among us. They spot and exploit the most beautiful parts of us. Consider it a good reflection on your character that he chose you, then work on avoiding like people like this in the future. You may go through a period after this in which you have difficulty trusting people and see manipulator everywhere. That’s normal. It will pass. Also consider seeing a therapist who specializes in survivors of abuse if you’re having a tough time. You’ve been through the ringer and it can take a while to recover.

    If you’re concerned about your safety, you can set up a camera on your front door. Footage of the dude trying to get into your house to could help you with the local police if you need to get a restraining order.

    Your safety, and your daughter’s safety, comes first. It’s difficult to untrain yourself to being accommodating when it’s part of your makeup to do so, and when you’ve been manipulated into thinking that enforcing boundaries is “ungrateful” but consider how much Donny has taken from you and go forth taking your life back.

    Best of luck to you. You’ll make it out of this, and be a better, stronger person for it.

  35. Oh my sweet Cthulhu, Donny sucks SO FTHAGN MUCH.

    I don’t see one single thing in your story that he is doing for your benefit. Every action he took is for Donny first, starting with getting you to abandon a degree you were interested in to come work for him. Just because he’s spinning things to look like he’s on your side doesn’t make it true.

    The locked doors thing made my shoulders clamp onto my ears and hang on for dear life. I don’t think it has anything to do with his culture of origin; I think it’s a compliance test. “Let me ask LW to do something a little odd and a little unsafe. If she does it, I know I can go for bigger asks down the road. If she pushes back or just doesn’t do it, I know I still have some work to do on the basic level.” Ask me how I recognize this behavior – or, actually, please don’t. The scars are still fresh.

    LW, I wish you all the best as you work to break away from Donny and cut him the hell out of your life and your daughter’s. I hope you can come back down the road and update us on how well you’re doing.

  36. First time poster here. LW I think you are smart and brave to reach out to our good Captain and the awkward army and the advice given is excellent.
    One thing struck me about your situation, Not to be paranoid but Donny sounds like such a control freak is it worth considering he may (because he has had access to you home)have put spyware on your computer? While you are planning your safe exit from this horrible person (and the trap he made for you) can you use another computer/phone, one he has never had access to?
    I wish you and your daughter all the best. You have made a really important step in recognizing what the situation has become and asking for advice.

  37. hoo boy, LW, that sounds like an absolute nightmare. I’ve had fortunately much smaller experiences with guys like that (I do freelance art on the side. There’s always some guy with Big Plans to take advantage of dewy-eyed young artists). They’re good at manipulation. They’re really good at making you feel like the best thing to do is stay the course. It is not your fault.

    In terms of finding a job, let me recommend the public library if you have access to one–they usually have resume-help courses and the like. (Bonus–free books/dvds for your and Daughter, free projects and events to go to for both of you to potentially build up a new social circle). Also, it’s worth checking your state and city websites for job listing. If there are any sign or printing shops in your city, they’re worth looking at too, even if you don’t have a finished degree in graphic design yet. (Locally-owned sign shops are one of the few places I can think of where you can really just show up with a resume and ask if they might be hiring.)

    Best of luck to you, LW. You seem like an incredible tenacious and resilient woman.

    1. Also, if the field you want to go into is still graphic/web design, then the really good thing is you don’t *need* a degree. It can help, and if you want to go back to school and have the opportunity to, that’s great! But your work will speak for itself.

    2. Another bonus of the public library, tying into the comment just above this one–if Donny HAS somehow installed a keylogger or other tracking software on your computer, the library is a good place to do web surfing/online communication that you know he won’t be able to track.

  38. Dear OP,
    The thing that sticks out to me is your comment that you don’t think you can still have a friendship with Donny, and that he might think you’re ungrateful or leaving because the money dried up.

    I know you have a lot of concerns and pressures to deal with right now. Please lighten your load by throwing these two straight into the cosmic paper shredder of nope.
    Donny has never been your friend, because friends don’t lie and manipulate you. People who are pretending to be friendly do that.

    And what Donny thinks after you’ve extricated yourself is *so* much not your problem. He already thinks he’s a good boss and a good friend – false! He thinks he’s wooing you as a romantic partner – false! And if he did think you were “ungrateful,” it wouldn’t make that true, either.

    Best of luck and freedom to you.

    1. Oh, yes – I also wanted to chime in on the ‘Donny will think I’m leaving because the money dried up’ thing.

      The Donnies of this world will always, always, always find a reason to define the other person’s behaviour as Wrong so that they can go on thinking of themselves as Right. This means that, no matter what you do, Donny will find a way to think worse of you for it. Whether you stay or whether you go. You could save his mother from a horrible death, offer him your entire bank account and eternal servitude, whatever, and he would still find a way that *something* was your fault and that this translated into you owing him yet more. There is no way out of that.

      So, it is OK to stop worrying about what Donny thinks of your actions and to accept that his opinion of you is officially one of life’s insolubilities and that it also does not actually define you or change the fact that you are, in fact, a good person with great motives who is *actually* leaving this supposed ‘friendship’ because it is creepy and manipulative and all kinds of wrong. He will never, ever accept that that is the case and he doesn’t have to. You still get to get the hell out.

      (BTW – As far as the job side of things goes, yes, of course you’re leaving that because the money dried up. That is a perfectly normal and sensible decision! If someone hires you to do work and then can’t pay you enough, you leave! If they want to make that into some kind of huge personal comment on themselves, then that is their issue which they ought to deal with themselves! The fact that someone once paid you for work does not mean that a contract whereby they own you for life was implicitly included.)

      1. Yes! Yes! In the Real World of Reality, not getting paid is a huge, excellent reason to not keep going to a job.

        And responsible, honest business owners don’t expect people to work for free (or less than originally agreed). If a RHBO forsees being unable to meet payroll, they do layoffs or make other changes so they can meet their obligations.

    2. Oh, yes, very much this! Will Donny think bad things about you for leaving? Probably. So what? Donny is not a good person. Donny has been manipulating you for years. Of course he’ll be put out when he can’t make you do what he wants anymore.

      Doesn’t matter to you.

  39. ok so first you need to stop thinking in terms of “was I wrong to do this” that thinking doesn’t help now and honestly tons of people get caught in bad situations through no fault of their own.

    Next it sounds like he pays you an inconsistent rate. Do you have anything in writing about this job at all, either discussion of pay or duties? tally up how much money has given you overall and see if you are at least getting minimum wage because if not once you’ve extracted yourself you might be able to get backpay.

    Now you need to get out ASAP which there’s already a lot of good advice. Donny is trying to control you, he’s spoiling your child to make himself look good and now he’s controlling you professionally and leading you on and boxing you in. Captain has given some great advice but hop over to Ask a Manager for some career advice as well, she’s pretty good and can offer advice on where to go forward.

    1. oh god I missed the doorlocking part. that is nothing to do with his culture. he’s a freaking creep. he wants access to you on his schedule. lock your door. believe me you want that door locked. I don’t care what culture you’re from, you can learn to knock on the door and respect boundaries. If he complains just point out it’s your house and your door.

  40. I’m not sure if it’s been mentioned here but Alison Greene over at AskaManager has some great advice for job searching, acing an interview, recovering when you’ve been in a workplace that’s skewed your workplace expectations (which usually happens in awful/abusive workplaces), and getting back into a career after a brief or long break!

  41. The commenters here are amazing and I don’t feel like I could add anything constructive to the conversation that hasn’t already been said better, except this:

    >I get a ton of spam along the lines of “Let me tell you the story about how I lost my man and how this spiritual healer gave me a spell to get my man back.” We don’t need those spells, Beloved. GIVE US THE ONES THAT MAKE THE MAN GO AWAY AND STAY THE FUCK AWAY.

    BINDING AND BANISHING SPELLS, man. Like the ones pagans across the country are trying to cast against a certain powerful dude who needs to keep his hands to his own damn self.

    Easy one: Write the dude’s name on a small piece of paper or on the back of a photo of him. Burn the paper in a fire-safe vessel (your kitchen sink is fine) and when the ashes have cooled down, take them someplace where the wind can blow them far the fuck away.

    Even if it does nothing, it feels good. Cathartic. Captain, I apologize if this was too far off topic, all I have to offer is hedge magic.

    1. Go Team Better Living Through Folk Magic!

      Ice works, as well as fire. You can also put the photo/paper in a ziplock bag with some water and throw it in your fridge. (This might be easier if you have a little one around and don’t want to be playing with fire.) I also recommend saying something punchy and declarative while you do it, like “Begone!” or “Stop bothering me!”

      One step more aggro is a visit to your local botanical (or the Lucky Mojo Curio Company, if you have no local options) for some hot foot powder.

      1. I did this to freeze out an abusive ex. I don’t know if it had any actual impact, but it made me feel better! Sometimes that helps.

  42. Unless Donny is a cat he can learn to use a doorbell.

    All good wishes for the LW and her daughter. As long as you have each other you don’t need any other role models.

  43. Book rec: “Why Does He Do That?” by Lundy Bancroft. He runs anti-DV programs and has treated enough abusers to really understand and deconstruct their patterns of behaviour and abusiveness. The book also has a lot of useful tips for getting away from abusers.

    I’d also like to disagree with a couple of points: first, do not stay in contact with this creepy, stalkery financial abuser, even if he owes you money, even if he’s messed up your taxes. Every conversation after you defenestrate him will be all about you ~being mean and abusing his good nature~ and how ~his feelings are so hurt~ and none of those conversations will be positive or helpful for you. Get a lawyer or advocate and have them deal with the financial abuse. Ideally, Donny never talks to you again, once you’ve hit the ejector seat button to catapult his ass off your couch.

    Lastly, it is possible for abusive situations to gradually develop. It is possible that Donny was your friend once, way back when, and then gradually became more and more toxic and abusive. And that does not excuse any of what he’s doing, then or now, but to reassure you that your instincts are/were solid and can be trusted. You didn’t throw him out the door then because he wasn’t so dangerous then; you’re hurling him out of your life now because he’s become dangerous now. You were right to trust him when he was (acting?) within normal boundaries and (seemed?) trustworthy. You are right to catapult him off your front porch now.

    Also I like these quotes (Zsa-Zsa Gabor? Mae West?) “I never hated a man enough to give him back his diamonds” and “I am a very good housekeeper. Every divorce, I kept the house” because (a) if it was wages, you earned it and (b) if it was a gift freely given, it’s yours to keep or sell or burn on the front lawn while dancing around the bonfire. It’s all yours.

    He will try the ~you owe me!/I made you who you are!/you’ll never succeed without me!~ nonsense. Ignore him. Remember: you met him as single Mom who’d made it into grad school and you completed a year of the program. You are capable. You can do this.

    1. 10,000x yes to everything you said. “Why Does he Do That ?” is a super helpful resource every woman should read, even if they do not ever date men.

      1. I agree! “Why Does He Do That” is super-helpful in recognizing and dealing with abusive people in one’s life – including ones that aren’t men and you aren’t in a romantic relationship with! (such as bosses or family members)

        1. Absolutely. I used it as my primary resource for figuring out how the hell to handle my abusive female partner, and have returned to it since to help me understand and deal with an abusive employer.

  44. You say you’re in a trap of your own making. No, it is not of your own making, Donny set the trap, the bait, all of it. This is not your fault. NOT YOUR FAULT!

  45. Hi, LW. I’m the daughter of a Donny. My dad’s like the man you want to act as a role model for your daughter. So let me tell you how that story goes:
    You see how Donny cares about your kid and think that he’ll never hurt her as he hurts you, because he clearly loves her and who could ever harm a kid? But you’re wrong. The financial abuse he’s raining down on you now is just as bad, if not better, as the one that he’s going to be raining down on your daughter as she grows old. I say better because you have earned your own money before without Donny’s interference and you know you can do that again. Your daughter doesn’t. It’s been fifteen years since my parent’s divorce and I’m still putting up with my dad’s abuse for at least three more years, because the laws in my country, and my need for money as a 22 year old trying to safely land in adulthood, force me to accept his monthly child support cheques till I’m 25. I’ll thank God till my dying breath for not being actually dependent on him for my survival. The shit I have to put with for that miserly amount is enough as it is.
    In the meantime, the financial abuse towards you won’t stop, because Donny’s deal is not about money. It’s about control and seeing people as chess pieces. My dad is still abusing my mom financially, but as a wise friend told me yesterday, “B., your mom thinks she’s the only hostage in this situation, and she’s sorely mistaken”.
    LW, right now you think that you’re the only one of Donny’s hostages, but that is not true. Your daughter is a hostage too. Donny is holding her wellbeing over your head to get you to comply with his demands. He’ll hold *your* safety over *her* head as well to make her compliant, and she’s much more vulnerable than you to his manipulation.
    My mom thought it was her duty as a good mother to make sure I had a good relationship with my dad growing up. You seem to feel that part of your duties as a good mom is providing your daughter with a good male role model.
    Fuck that shit with a flaming cedar stake.
    Kids don’t need good male role models. They need caring adults of all genders who love them and keep them safe. They need to be protected from manipulative assholes.
    Per law I have to put up with my dad’s abuse till I’m 25 at least.
    Your daughter doesn’t.

    Please, cut ties with Donny now and save yourself and your daughter from a lot of pain and emotional scars later on. You can make it so that your story ends up being happier than mine. You both will get through this.

    PS: Stop second-guessing yourself, you're the best mom already. Your daughter knows it, too.

    1. I felt very sad reading your comment. Jedi hugs, if you want them! From a slightly older perspective, know that you will be free of this abuse before you know it. Three years might seem like a long time, but keep yourself active and engaged and working on improving your life: higher education, other skills you might be interested in. Any job, even part-time, that you can take up. Meet new people through hobby groups. Teach yourself the really hard life skill of budgeting, saving and investments – most of us have had to learn it the hard way. Learn to be good to yourself, and take care of your needs – physical, emotional and mental.

      At 22, adulting may seem daunting. It is, but you have great perspective, and in ten years time, I bet you’ll look back on this period with a sense of pride and fulfillment.

      1. Another Child-of-Donny here. At age 36, I can confirm that it does get much easier once all financial affairs are out of the picture. I haven’t spoken to my father in three years and my relationship with my mother is much, much healthier and more honest.

        B, I wish I’d been as confident and self-possessed as you are when I was in my early 20s; you sound very sure of yourself and like you’ve got a healthy dose of anger. Took me *ages* to find that in myself even after I was “away” from my family.

        LW, your kid needs you to take care of yourself and show her how an adult navigates relationships. How to get rid of the unhealthy ones and keep the healthy ones. How to cultivate and nurture love, with yourself and with others. Keeping Donny around, or any dude like him, isn’t going to help, because he’s not helping you. Help yourself and that’ll help your kid. It’ll be okay. ❤

    2. Really awesome advice, B. — and I am so sorry that it comes from personal experience.

      LW, B. is right. You are already a great mom. Maybe I’m wrong, but the way you describe Donny and the things he’s said to you, I suspect that he has been feeding your worry that you are not a good parent. You already know that he breaks promises and has not been honest about a number of things, and he is definitely a manipulator. Whatever he has said to you, currently or in the past, about parenting in general or your parenting specifically, take a hard look at those statements and keep in mind that it was probably another way for him to manipulate you.

      You and your daughter need Donny out of your lives. Please take the Captain’s advice and plan an exit that’s as safe as possible.

    3. I’m so happy to read something from this perspective, because I feel like it will be really really good for the letter writer to read.

      That being said, I have tears in my eyes at work because this smacked me right in the face. Thank you for posting this. I’m so terribly sorry that you had to go through that, and are still having to deal with him.

    4. Thank you all so much for your kind words! Reading them gave me many warm feels. You are all awesome ♡

    5. “Kids don’t need good male role models. They need caring adults of all genders who love them and keep them safe. They need to be protected from manipulative assholes.”

      Thank you so much for this, B. Caring adults of all genders and any genders, but if LW’s child does not have any adult men in her life right now, that is totally okay. So sorry you have to deal with what you’re dealing with right now. Sending you vibes of strength and solidarity if you want them.

  46. oh my gosh OP, I hope you’re out there and are OK. So many red flags, I’m genuinely concerned for your safety. I hope you can update us and let us all know you’re OK.

    I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t already been said.

  47. Hey Letter Writer, I work in tech and I wanted to try to give you a confidence boost on the job hunt. You’ve got work experience and half your school program, that’s plenty for continuing to work in the industry! There are lots of self-taught people floating around in tech. Don’t feel you need to go back to school before job hunting. Especially if you’re comfortable just looking stuff up on the internet (I do that all day every day and I’ve been doing this for 10 years) and you sound very industrious to me in your letter.

    It’s not that uncommon for start ups to dissipear with everyone’s money, so “I’m not able to get in touch with the founder anyomore” is a totally plausible reason for not having a reference. The Captian’s idea to gather your portfolio is a good one – your work can stand on it’s own!

  48. As a mom I just want to say you sound like an amazing mom. You’re already doing and amazing job raising your daughter and you’re a stronger, more capable person than Donny is. Sometimes when I make a choice that my (opinionated toddler) son is unhappy about, or I skip the grocery store and just give him whatever I find in the fridge, I think about how I would never want my own mom to feel guilty about the times she came home late or did something for herself. Your daughter will one day be a happy adult who is inspired by all the things you accomplished when life was hard. You are such a powerful and good mom.

  49. As a mom I just want to say you sound like an amazing mom. You’re already doing and amazing job raising your daughter and you’re a stronger, more capable person than Donny is. Sometimes when I make a choice that my (opinionated toddler) son is unhappy about, or I skip the grocery store and just give him whatever I find in the fridge, I think about how I would never want my own mom to feel guilty about the times she came home late or did something for herself. Your daughter will one day be a happy adult who is inspired by all the things you accomplished when life was hard. You are such a powerful and good mom.

  50. Donny looked at you being a single parent and thought you were vulnerable. He did a lot of things to test how far he could go with you. But now you know that he is willing to practically starve you of a decent life in order to control you for his whims. But he was very wrong–being a single mother makes you strong. You will do anything for your daughter, and that means getting out of the trap he set and living as you need to for her. I especially love the Captain’s advice to reach out to everyone you know. If you ask, you will get help, and people will be happy to do it. I hope you are able to correct things very soon. Everyone makes mistakes–that’s the best way to look at it, and to help your daughter understand why you are making changes. Sometimes you don’t know it right away, but when you do? You fix it. Excellent life lesson for her. All the love to you. xoxoxo

    1. As someone who has done one of those shotgun blasts of “I need help!” to my entire social network….you’ll be AMAZED at the people who may crawl out of the woodwork to help. You may have friends and acquaintances who have been rooting for you to get out of this silently from the sidelines who will be thrilled to be able to do something more substantial.

  51. LW, I don’t know if this is relevant to your situation, but I just wanted to mention that if you have federal student loans, http://www.ibrinfo.org is a wonderful site that explains all the federal programs for reduced payments and eventual loan forgiveness if you’re in financial hardship (and/or working for a nonprofit).

  52. LW strength and hugs to you if you want them! Nthing everyone else that you did nothing wrong and you and your daughter deserve a better life where the goal posts aren’t always moving and you feel safe in your own space. May you get there soon!

    My advice on male role models as a daughter of a single mother.

    A. I didn’t really need one but I had many adults in my life who contributed to a strong and comprehensive idea of what a good adult can be vs not so good.

    B. The best adult male role models were teachers, and an artist in a shop downtown that my sister and I frequented, and my best friend’s dad. These were people I found and met and saw and admired. The not good one? My mom’s old boss, he was not very nice and I picked up on the fact that he didn’t really seem to respect my mom. I didn’t miss him when mom quit that job.

    tldr: good role models will surface in your child’s life by being good. This guy will not make the cut even if he’s not creeping her. Also if he puts your shoulders around your ears, your daughter will pick up on that dynamic and that will ruin all the “good” role-modeling he may be performing for her.

  53. Dear LW, as everyone else has said, move forward, don’t worry too much about what is past.

    I’m also a mom of a 3rd grader, sole breadwinner, though I am fortunate enough to have a good partner to handle dinner and other housework. I have felt guilty and like I was missing things, but his needs have really changed over the last three years. The kid likes us ok, and would be sad if he never saw us, but he’s also got a lot of other interests. He wants us for food, stability, safety, and that last hug at bedtime, but as long as that happens, he’s fine with whatever child care situation he’s in. Your daughter is getting old enough to develop those outside interests too, and it’s better for both of you if she does. She needs that space to grow up herself. (and oh, I hate it – he’s really started to pull away this year – but it’s good for him)

    So it’s time for you to try your wings again. You can do it, and it will be good.

  54. LW, lots of great advice. As someone who was in the same sitch long ago (young child, no child support) I know what a vulnerable place that is. If I had known someone who offered that opportunity to me, I would have taken it in a heart beat. Though I was employed at the time of my marital breakup and able to (just) squeak by, I knew that I was one emergency away from financial doom at any point in time. It is a scary way to live, and I would have gladly taken the chance for a more secure life. I hope you have gotten away from that creep, and wish you luck. My escape hatch was taking a job with a university, finishing my degree for free and eventually finding work that paid all the bills with a little left over. My “child” graduates from college next month. You can do this.

  55. ‘Rat trap of my own making’ is an interesting phrase. The thing about traps is, they use trickery or deception to catch their prey – that’s how they work, it’s what makes them traps. You didn’t make the trap. It’s just that it was a trap…

  56. A role model is just a kind of teacher or example. When people go on about male (or in other cases female) role models for your child, the idea is that it’s good for kids to have examples in their life of, e.g., how a good adult man acts, how a healthy relationship looks, etc, so they have good examples to follow and so they can recognize what is good and healthy when they see it.

    I.e., it’s not the mere presence of someone of the other gender that’s the point, it’s very very very specifically someone(s) that teaches the positive things you want her to learn.

    IMO, first get her far away from this man and into an environment with you and other people of whatever gender who respect each other and model positive ways of treating each other… Then if you’re still feeling like she could use more men in her life, look for quality over quantity… teachers (at school or in hobbies), friends’ parents, your own good friends are all people she can learn from.

  57. LW, I am so sorry this happened to you. You are not to blame for it — you were manipulated, by an unscrupulous man who used your love for your daughter and desperate desire to be the best mom possible to her against you. Even if he was “doing it unconsciously” in terms of the pattern of abuse, he still made each and every choice along the way himself, and he is therefore responsible. All you’re responsible for is making the choices you thought at the time were going to be best for your daughter… it’s not your fault that it turned out otherwise because somebody else decided to pull the rug out from under you, repeatedly, after promising you that the footing was stable.

    I’ve been more or less where you are. In my case, I stayed in an abusive romantic relationship for four years because my partner was helping to pay the bills and I had no idea how, with a chronic illness that wasn’t well enough controlled for me to work, I would be able to support my children without her help. And, like your statement about wanting to have a male role model for your daughter, I felt that it would be wrong to take someone who’d been a stepmom to my kids since they were too little to remember away from them… until she nearly murdered me and I realized that it was much MORE important for me to model for them what it looks like to draw boundaries and stand up for one’s own safety, so that when they’re grown they’ll know it’s okay to do that if somebody tries to hurt them.

    We got out. I know that you can too. The Captain has given you some great advice, ESPECIALLY the part about it not being wrong to lie to somebody who is abusing and manipulating you!! You are entitled to tell him anything that helps you protect yourself and your daughter, and get yourselves free of his control. Please do whatever you feel you need to, and don’t let yourself be chained by your fear of whether it’s fair to Donny or whether you need his help for your daughter’s sake. You don’t need it — I know you can find other ways of supporting yourself and your child — and Donny has forfeited any claim on your fairness by the grossly unfair ways he has treated you for so long.

    Best wishes, and good luck in gathering together those friends and contacts that the Captain suggested you reach out to. If you would like, I’d be happy to be one of them. I’m probably not local to you, but I’m a friendly person in a stable situation myself right now, and I’d be glad to do whatever I can to help.

    Good luck. I’ve rarely read a letter here from somebody who sounded so strong. I know you and your little girl will make it.

  58. This is the most terrifying CA letter I’ve ever read that didn’t actually involve weapons. I am hearing horror movie music here, LW. Yiiiiiikes.

    If I had to guess at what Donny’s thinking, I bet he’s patting himself on the back for never requesting sex from the LW. Eeuuurgh.

  59. In terms of locking the house, when he tries the door and finds it locked, I would start with saying “oh, well, I locked up last night and never thought to unlock it this morning.” Then act like it’s not a thing. Because it’s not a thing. You just… didn’t unlock the door. So what? Don’t let him draw you into him making a big deal about it. Act puzzled. Surely a normal person would not find it strange that you lock your home. Hold onto that thought.

    Also, I can tell you that school will always be there. Trying out something else that looked lucrative (the reason you were in school, right?) was totally reasonable with the data you had at the time.

    When I was in college, I ended up withdrawing (like dropping out, but completing paperwork to remain on good terms with the University) because my mother had terminal cancer. Do I regret it? No. School would always be there; time with my mother would not. A few years after Mom passed, I went back to school and finished my degree. Was it harder? Sure, I lost a bunch of grants. Was that okay? Yes.

    OP, you’ve had this opportunity to be with your kid. How awesome is that? First grade is a great age. You’ve been able to give the two of you this gift. What a great choice! Now, it is time to go another direction. That’s also a good choice! You have the foundation of a great relationship with your daughter. Changing jobs now is not going to change that for the two of you.

    Share with her the triumph of whatever path you take “I got a new job that will let us buy Ice cream every week. We couldn’t do that before.” (Hey, we know what’s important in life to a kid. Well that’s what’s important to my kid; yours may be different. 🙂 ) or “I’m starting [degree program]. I’m excited. I was learning this for a while and then stopped. I’m looking forward to learning more and finishing my degree. It will be hard, but I know I can do it.”

    Best wishes!

  60. Hi, LW. There’s a meme going around entitled “Signs of an Emotionally Abusive Relationship.” The signs listed are:

    –You walk on eggshells to avoid upsetting your partner.
    –Your feelings and opinions are rarely validated.
    –Your partner is mistrustful of you for no reason.
    –You feel like you are unable to discuss problems in the relationship.
    –You feel stuck or confused most of the time.

    Your feelings in your letter are familiar to me, if not the exact situation. Getting away from that person in my life lifted the stuck and confused feelings. They were part of the abuse territory. Lots of fabulous advice here. As you get away from Donny, I think you’ll see more and more clearly that the problem is not you; this is not a normal friendship; you don’t owe him; you’re awesome and will find your way while loving and caring for your child. All the best.

  61. I like framing this as an employment opportunity that didn’t pan out. You don’t owe Donny access to you or your daughter. He’s a lousy boss, not a bad friend or boyfriend and now you’ve learned how important an employment contract is. Trust that if you start temping and looking for a steady job an awesome one will come your way and you will look up in a few months and this will be a weird story that you tell. A weird story that is over.

  62. I’ve seen a lot of people suspicious of Donnie’s motives toward LW’s daughter and they do all have a good point. However, I want to weigh in from the perspective of a daughter who was in a somewhat similar situation, who actually was loved and adored by her own ‘Donny’ many year ago. This is personal and a bit painful, so please bear with me.

    My parents divorced when I was a very young infant. My birth father only fought for custody of me as a way to hurt my mother and keep her tied up in court – powerless. Once the game was no longer interesting to him, neither was I, and from there he abandoned me completely. My mom felt that it was crucial that I have a father figure in my life. Through her job, she struck up a friendship with a business owner who was a childless bachelor, and that friend absolutely adored me. I need to say up-front that he never hurt me directly in any way and I do not believe that he ever had any ill intention toward me. In the beginning, at least, he seemed like a god-send to my mom. He showered me with gifts and attention. He soon began paying for my care while mom worked, because he could afford a better quality environment for me. He made personalized bed-rails for me when I transitioned out of a baby bed. He bought me wardrobes of clothes every season. He read books to me and took me on fun adventures to amusement parks and dirt-tracks. Eventually, he wanted mom to quit her job and stay home with me, and she was not only willing, but grateful for that. But at the same time, he was increasing demand for control over and ingratiation into our lives. Believing that it was all for my benefit, mom ignored concerned warnings from friends and family and excused his behavior. After some time, he offered to adopt me, provided that mom would marry him to give me a proper family, and both happened shortly thereafter. After the wedding, he purchased a home with a large fenced-in yard, built a sandbox, bought a huge swing set, and installed a pool, all for me. I wanted a dog and I got two. He also bought a massive aquarium because I liked to watch the fish. I was denied nothing. Christmas was presents stacked under the tree and birthdays were huge parties. From the outside, it was near-perfect.

    *content note: description of abuse follows

    BUT (there’s always a but, isn’t there) he was horribly abusive to and controlling of my mom in a continual pattern of escalation. Before the marriage, he was much like Donny, but once she quit her job and they were married and the adoption was finalized, she was trapped and he knew it. Things only escalated from there. He couldn’t stand the sight of her. He came home angry from work and punched holes in the wall, aiming for mom’s head. I would hear things shatter against the wall after I’d gone to bed at night, when they both thought I was asleep. Quite often, he and I left for Sunday School early, so that I wouldn’t see all the makeup mom needed to put on to cover her black eyes. Mom tried her best to hide it all from me, to take it all upon herself, because she deeply believed that it was important that I have a father-figure who loved me, so she thought what she was doing was for the best. And trying to stick it out until I started school almost cost her life. I remember very vividly, as a young child, hearing him berate and scream at my mom from outside the house, running inside, wrapping myself around his legs, and begging him not to hit my mommy. I remember throwing myself on top of my bloody and unconscious mom, to shield her with my tiny body, as she laid in the closet after being knocked over the bed by him. Yes, he loved me -he never meant for me to see those things. But he didn’t love her. He didn’t respect her. In the end, he despised her. Nothing she did would have ever been good enough. He didn’t want her there.

    Mom did eventually file for divorce. However, my adopted father would not be the last man to abuse her, and that would not be the last time that she willfully excused abuse on her quest to find a father for me – far from it – because she could not realize that what harmed her harmed me as well. No supposed benefit outweighs that fact. I cannot even begin to describe the ways that this reverberated through my life causing damage. And all of it was due to the toxic belief that I *needed* a father figure more than anything else in this world. My mom still believes – despite anything that I can tell her – that she failed because she was never able to maintain a two-parent household. The thing is, though, all of my happy memories of her are of the times when it was just us two. What I needed was her – alive and happy. So, I guess, what I’m trying to say here LW, is that you are enough. Please believe this. You are not an inadequate parent just because you are a single parent. Even IF Donny’s intentions toward your daughter are pure and loving, that will never compensate for seeing her mother abused by him (and I firmly believe that this is where he is headed). Procuring a loving male role model for your daughter is simply not worth it if that man will not respect her mother as well. Right now, your daughter is unaware of the control Donny has been exerting. But you have seen a pattern of escalation and I think you are very wise to want to escape it. Trust in you.

    1. This is a heartbreaking story. I’m sorry you and your mom had to go through that.
      And I wholeheartedly agree that all LW’s child needs is LW alive and well and rather in no relationship* than in one that includes even the tiniest bit of coercion, manipulation or pressure.

      * Counting the current arrangement with Donny as a relationship because even though not romantic or sexual, it’s certainly where he’d like to steer it and how he’s acting.

    2. Madison Blane, I’m so sorry you had to go through that. Sending jedi hugs your way if wanted.

      I hope the LW reads your comment. I think it is very brave and kind of you to share your story. Reading it can help her and it helps others. Thank you for posting ♡

  63. Oh LW. I am de-lurking for this. You don’t deserve to be treated this way. I see lots of good thoughts above, and if I can add anything at all it would be that when you feel overwhelmed with the enormity of it all – how heavy and BIG and WEIGHTY all your tasks are – identify a very small increment and do it. Pick one thing that is smallest, and obtainable, and gets you started on something positive.

    For example, some days for me that small thing is, “I will wash one dish in the sink. I give myself permission to wash ONE and only one, and if I can get that far, I will count it as a success.”

    I wish for you a friend – one of those precious, practical “lets get shit done” types who would mop your floor or watch your daughter for a couple hours and actually listen to whatever it is you need, or maybe just intuitively know where she can fill in a gap. Is there anyone who has been an ally for you in the past? Family, friend, anyone? Even if she’s not perfect, even if you’ve lost touch for a while? I assure you nobody who cares about you would want to see you stuck like this without support.

    (Am I the only one who was completely goobed-out by the “I thought I wanted you for a partner…”? He was roping her into a romantic partnership? A PARTNER. What the frurk. *squiddly arms of anger* WHAT.)

  64. I think almost all moms struggle with balancing work/responsibilities with quality child time, single or not. The things your daughter Needs are food, shelter, and at least one person who loves her and believes in her. It sounds like you had all that going on before Donny LW, and you will continue to have it after Donny.
    Having you around 24/7 is nice but not Needed; she just needs to know you will be there for her when it’s important and I’m sure she already does! Having a house is nice but not Needed as long as both of you have a safe place to sleep. Having a father figure is nice but not Needed; and a bad father figure is worse than no father figure.
    LW you did nothing wrong; Donny promised stuff and didn’t deliver and/or is now changing his terms to ones that are utterly unacceptable. Time to get out and you don’t owe him anything!

  65. LW, I wanted to address your worry that your first grader will be harmed somehow because this man leaves your life. I feel qualified to answer this because my husband is poly and has had several girlfriends that came and went over my kids’ childhoods. My kids are currently 10 and 7, so I also have a first grader.

    Once my husband’s relationships are stable enough for me to feel comfortable, my kids usually meet the girlfriend one way or another. Sometimes they will babysit, or come over to help in the garden for the afternoon, come over for dinner, etc. This relationship with my kids might last for a couple years, and my kids have liked all the girlfriends. Then, there is a breakup and the girlfriend doesn’t come around any more. My kids might be sad for a while, and they’ll ask “Why don’t we see X anymore,” but basically they’ve been completely fine. (The answer to this question by the way, has been that mommy and daddy aren’t friends with this person any more. No other information necessary–elementary school kids really understand the friends one day, not friends the next dynamic because it happens to them.)

    People come and go in kids’ lives. We had the same close neighbors for most of my kids’ lives, and my kids could run and play on their property and were invited in for cookies. These folks moved last year and nasty people moved in and the kids can’t go over any more. They take this in their stride, just as they are slightly sad but basically fine about the loss of any adult friend. Teachers also come in and out of kids’ lives all the time, and other adult friends come and go, friends from school move away, etc.

    Kids are resilient and take change much better than adults. You will not harm your child by cutting this deadwood from your life.

  66. Okay, not that this really changes a whole lot about the advice above, but when everyone else understood that Donny wanted to make the LW a partner in the romantic sense, I was taking it more in the “business partner” sense. As in, he was saying that he thought things would work out in the start-up for her to move up and have an equal position to him in the company, maybe as things got to the point where they were able to hire more employees. Again, that doesn’t change all of the great advice about changing locks and quietly looking for other work, etc., but it’s possible that he was seeing things (or at least framing it to LW) still in a more work-related light rather than vocalizing a desire to date her.

    1. That may be, but whether his intentions are strictly business or romantic, he’s still a controlling, lying creep.

  67. Quick but important point regarding the door-locking:

    If and when Donny challenges you on this, DO NOT GET APOLOGETIC.

    Remain completely matter-of-fact. Rehearse this beforehand to yourself (or a friend, if you have an available one.)

    When someone is displeased with us, our natural tendency – because this is what we’ve been socialised into doing – is to become apologetic about it. Most of the time, this is a good idea that helps smooth things over. When dealing with the Donnies of this world, however, it is actually a very bad idea. The reason is that his demands are unreasonable, but he’s convinced himself they’re reasonable – and apologising to him will only feed into his mistaken, self-serving, entitled belief on that score.

    There is a French saying to the effect that apologising for yourself is accusing yourself; when you apologise, you send the implicit message to the other person that you agree with them that they did something wrong. When you are dealing with a reasonable person, this is a perfectly good way to handle things. When you are dealing with an entitled jerk who is going to assume you’ve done something wrong just by failing to meet their impossible demands perfectly, it is a very bad way to handle things. You do not want to feed into his belief that you are doing something wrong by setting normal boundaries, because you are *not* doing anything wrong by setting normal boundaries – he was the one who was doing something wrong by refusing to accept them in the first place. You don’t want to get drawn into an argument about this (believe me, you seriously *don’t* want to get drawn into an argument about it), but you also don’t want to feed his entitlement.

    So – whatever your response to him kicking off about this, make it brief and matter-of-fact. *No apologising* – not even in your tone of voice. Don’t go the other way and become belligerent, either. Just matter-of-fact.

    Him (in outrage): You locked your front door!
    You (matter-of-fact): Sure. (Just slightly puzzled is actually best for this. You’re the one acting normally here, after all, so puzzlement at his reaction is a normal reaction from the world of normality which he does not inhabit but you wish to return to.)

    Him: How could you lock your front door against me?
    You: I’m keeping it locked for safety.

    If he starts ranting about this, you can resort to the nonpology. This requires you to wait him out, give him a deadpan stare, and say in a flat voice “I’m sorry you feel that way.” AND LEAVE IT AT THAT.

    OK, not so quick. But still important.

    1. The Donnies of the world will find any excuse to abuse. If it isn’t a locked door it can be, well, anything.

      Also : see “Brandishing Anger” as a manipulative and abusive tactic.

    2. At that point, he’s going to be extremely angry anyway.

      (Caveat: If you are in a situation where you fear physical harm, do whatever your instincts need to do to get you out of it safely. And then contact an anti-stalker association, or domestic violence association, or lawyer, or *someone* who can advise you on how best to keep this creep out of your life entirely.)

  68. LW, I second the temping advice, if you live in an area that supports that. If you play your cards right (i.e. don’t react poorly to rejection, stay in touch with old clients, etc.) you can get a lot of repeat business even if you aren’t able to wrangle a full-time job out of it.

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