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.