Dear Captain Awkward,
I’m reaching out because, while this is a relatively specific scenario, I’m sure a lot of people feel this way at one time or another. My partner’s old friend group never really warmed to me when I first moved here, and I let that be okay because I knew his ex was still really hurting from their break-up (there was no cheating, I should be clear, and I wasn’t involved). I accepted that they didn’t really see me as a fully-drawn person but rather the reason why everything was different between two of their closest friends now – which isn’t great from the outside. I made a few attempts to get to know the more accepting ones on my own terms, and I had mixed results. Some I do legitimately feel have become friends and I see them semi-regularly. Others were kind to me but clearly not feeling it and we have enough fun when we see each other but don’t really keep in touch. There are a significant amount, including his ex, who I barely see and when I do it’s tense.
I don’t really subject myself to the full group because it’s an anxiety-creating experience, and I still have feels about being sorta bullied by then when I first moved back – pointed glances, whispers to each other while I was at the table, conversations where I couldn’t contribute anything that lasted the entire time. It didn’t feel good, so I just dipped. I made my own friends here, and I have my own life. I’m polite when we see each other out, but that’s about it. That said, there are a lot of big birthdays and weddings coming up, and my partner and I have been together about 4 years so he wants me to attend them with him. I want to go, too, because I feel some type of way about being intimidated out of attending – and also because I want to have the kind of relationship where I go to significant life stuff as his date.
I am … dreading this more than I thought. His ex will be there, and she feels the way she feels about me. She’s not been above being super kind to him and acting like I don’t exist, and everyone more or less follows suit and resumes the Mean Girls (and Boys) act. I’ve talked to my partner about how this kind of exclusion makes me feel, and he’s been supportive and empathetic – and tries to help bring me into the conversation, when he can – but he can’t change what other people do or don’t do. His position, which I can see, is that he’s cut way back on this group in general and never asks me to be around them – but these are big significant life events, and he wants us to go.
I don’t know if there’s even a question in here, but — I guess what I’m asking is, how do I handle a situation where I know there will be a few friendly faces but also a few (more) openly hostile faces? How will I hold it together if the bullying and whispers and whatnot start? How will I stay chill and composed and above it if what I really want to do is scream I HAVE LIVED HERE FOR FOUR YEARS, Y’ALL, YOU DON’T HAVE TO LOVE ME BUT GROW UP. How will I stop myself from feeling awkward and excluded when the conversation mostly involves stuff that I wasn’t around to see? I want to do this; I know I can do this for a few hours for wedding or a 30th birthday just not every week. I’ll say I’ve booked plane tickets and whatnot to some of these things, so the “just don’t go!” advice ship has sailed. What are your/the commenters thoughts, if you’re up for it? Thanks in advance.
You can’t stop yourself from feeling awkward about things or dreading these events a bit. Your feelings will be what they are and they sound pretty reasonable based on the history! I think your strategy up until now – to find individuals within the group that you enjoy engaging with to spend time with and give the rest a wide berth – has been a good one. An ex who is still playing the “I’m going to pretend you don’t exist…to your face” game after FOUR YEARS (and people who enable that behavior) isn’t someone you can cheerfully Nice your way through hanging out with, so, good job disengaging there.
So what can you control and what can you do to make these trips more enjoyable for yourself?
First, here are some things I’d need in order to be okay with RSVP-ing “yes” to all these events: 1)Total acknowledgement from my partner that he is taking me into potentially hostile territory and that any hostility there is Not My Fault, 2) thanks & acknowledgement for being a good sport about it, 3) him doing whatever he can to look after my comfort and enjoyment during the trip, including steering me toward the most fun and welcoming people to be found, ensuring comfortable accommodations, and building in tons of down time where I don’t have to be “on,” 4) absolute respect if I need to head out early or step away from a given conversation, 5) him doing the bulk of the planning logistics of the trip and all the work of picking out of gifts & cards & stuff for these people 6) When the weird “you don’t exist” thing happens in the conversation, doing something to break the cycle right fucking then, up to and including saying “Well, this got weird!” and prioritizing you in some way, even if that means he steps away from the conversation temporarily and 7) him quietly doing any smoothing over with the ex and her circle that needs to be done, like, “You don’t have to like LW (and they don’t have to like you), but this Obvious Silent Treatment thing is WEIRD and I don’t enjoy it, please stop, because if LW isn’t welcome then I don’t feel welcome.”
If the partner could guarantee me that, I would hold up my end of the “wedding/party date” bargain, which is to put on my nicest clothes, show up where I’m supposed to show up, smile and say nice things whenever possible, be quiet when nice things are not possible, hope and expect things to be pleasant and look for things to enjoy (vs. coming in ready to criticize everything), to be fairly self-amusing (get my own drinks from the bar, introduce myself to new people), generally go with the flow (ok, I guess we are dancing now, it is dancing time), hold my liquor (if any), stay engaged at least an hour past my early-to-bed natural inclination to flee, and generally do my best to relax and have the best possible time I can and let other people’s weirdness fall where it may. Like, if awkward shit happens, it happens, but it won’t be started by me and I won’t go looking for it. Mantra for myself: “I chose to be here, so since I’m here, I will choose to try to enjoy it as much as I can.” I will also pay attention to and advocate for my own needs, like, if the schedule is weird and I am hungry I will figure out how to get a snack vs. becoming a hangry martyr, I will gracefully opt out of shit I know that I actively hate doing (complicated board games, escape rooms, I’m realllllllllly not a hiker).
As for not feeling like you have the option to not go, you’ve bought tickets and said yes to some events, but not all, and it’s okay to mentally reserve the right to opt out of others if the first ones don’t go well and if for any reason you don’t feel supported. If the first 3 events are hell, it’s okay to reasonably decide the next 7 will also be hell and cut your losses! Or have a serious “Look, this isn’t fun for me, when are you going to talk to your shitty friends/when I am allowed to bow the fuck out?” readjustment of expectations. Hopefully it won’t be necessary and this will all go fine! But you didn’t sign a binding blood pact with the Party Demon.
As for those conversations where people talk about stuff that happened years ago that you weren’t around for, you have choices:
- Engage fully and get the people to tell you the stories. You have something precious and beautiful to offer them: A BRAND NEW AUDIENCE who hasn’t heard this story a million times before. “He did what? Tell me all about that!”
- Remind yourself: The people who already don’t like you don’t like you, and you can’t do anything about that, which also means that unless you act like a total asshole, you can’t really fuck it up, either! This isn’t an audition, you aren’t failing at it. You showed up, that’s all you have to do, you don’t have to be “impressive” or “sparkling” or do anything to fix the awkwardness in the group.
- You probably won’t be the only person there as “the date” so, engage with your fellow “dates” who haven’t known these stories forever. Especially since you have a bunch of these things coming up, you might make some real “Hey wedding buddy, is that a new tie? Looking good!” friends among the SOs. You didn’t find the group all that welcoming when you joined it, but four years in, you can be a person who makes the group welcoming to the next New Kid(s).
- Think of each event as “practice.” You are practicing a skill. That skill is “meeting new people!” That skill is “pleasant small talk!” That skill is “remembering people’s names and how they know each other!” That skill is “giving compliments that light up people’s faces!” Give yourself points (any amount of points, there are no rules here) for stuff like finding out all about someone’s interesting job, for giving that “elevator pitch” about what you do, for facilitating the flirtation of cute single people, for telling someone they look beautiful, for finding out about a book or a movie that you didn’t know about and wouldn’t otherwise be on your radar, for remembering someone’s drink order (“I’m so sorry, I’ve forgotten your name, but I remember you like an Old Fashioned and you have a really cute dog. That’s a great jacket! I’m [Name]. What’s new with you?” = 10,000 points.)
- Weird conversations at a wedding are actually awesome? Once a bunch of guests with security clearances at a D.C. wedding where I was “the date” came up with a terrifyingly long list of innocuous items that could be MacGyvered into incendiary devices over dinner. Once a good friend of Commander Logic’s came to her wedding & crashed at my house, breathlessly told me all her deepest dramas and secrets (including about an ex who was going to be there, with his new partner, which she had A LOT of feelings about plus a lot of LiveJournal-related drama and feelings), dramatically exited rooms a lot to go outside and smoke and talk on the phone about said feelings, came back into the rooms and recapped the entire phone conversations (about people I knew nothing about, answering questions I had not asked), breathlessly told me many times what a good wonderful friend I was, emailed me once afterward to say thanks and reiterate our undying bond of friendship and invite me to come stay with her anytime, DAY or NIGHT, and then…literally never interacted with me again. I am telling this with far fewer capital letters than it deserves (FEELINGS!), but it was hilarious and I regret nothing about it. Can you find a way to laugh at the whole dramatic ex situation?
Additionally, Mr. Awkward has one superstar trick for big family events like weddings and baby showers and funerals that I will share with you: FIND THE CHATTIEST OLD PEOPLE AT THE THING AND CHAT INCESSANTLY WITH THEM. “Oh, are you the bride’s Grandma? You must be so proud! It IS a lovely wedding! That’s a such a great hat, it looks perfect on you. I bet your wedding day was a lot different than this. What was it like?” and then they are off to the races and it is AMAZING to behold. I don’t think it’s a trick, in that he is genuinely friendly and likes old people (as do I!) and is a good listener, it’s just, he will become Best Friends with everyone’s elderly relatives at parties, fix them plates, refill their drinks, trade book recommendations, learn what it was like to set up a paper company from scratch and run it in the Midwest in the 1960s-80s or what it’s like to leave your small town and move to the big city by yourself in the 1970s or “How did you and your spouse meet?” Everyone’s family is different, but if you’re at a big wedding and you want to meet the people who give zero fucks and who have comfortable seating, steer for the gray hair. It’s probably more fun than standing next to your partner in uncomfortable shoes while you wonder if his ex will acknowledge your existence this time?
Another thought I have: Are you using all or most of next year’s precious vacation time and travel budget to go to the far-flung life events of your partner’s friends who don’t like you? Because if so, that’s one clue as to why this is not sitting well right now!
So, to address that, are there any getaways planned that are just about the two of you spending time together? Or ways these trips can be 2 days of friend-group hijinks and then 2 days of a nice trip in the region for the two of you? You’re staying somewhere nice with privacy and a good bathroom and you’re not expected to sleep on people’s floors or be with them 24-7, right? Can you look at each place you’ll be going and find some things you want to do/see/eat while you’re there? Let’s face it, as “the date,” there is a lot of each trip where your plans will realistically be “I don’t know, it depends on what the whole group is up to, gotta keep the schedule open” but you might feel less anxious/more in control if you have good private lodgings to retreat to and also have a list of nearby places at the ready that you can pleasantly fuck off to, like, “Oh no, darling, please go catch up with everyone, I’m going to try that new lunch place that just got written up in a fancy magazine/go see the medieval manuscript exhibit at the art museum/churn butter at the living history museum/tour the historic cemetery and learn about how Memphis’s sex workers nursed everyone through the Yellow Fever epidemic (true story!)/ have tea with my college friend who lives in this town/take advantage of the pool and the spa and this really good book I’m reading. I’ll see you at the rehearsal dinner!”
If you do opt to do your own thing for part of these trips, I checked The Wedding Date Pact and it reads: “It is understood that if one is a Wedding Date On A Weekend Trip, attending a certain amount of Group Fun with a willing attitude (if not a willing heart) is expected. However, if you shalt opt out of select Wedding Weekend Group Fun to do one’s own thing and recharge for short periods, your partner shalt not make a big deal about it. They shalt not sulk, they shalt not whine or wheedle, they shalt not blame. If Group Fun Participants inquire where the Wedding Date is, verily, they shalt say only “DATE has some plans early in the day and wanted to give us some time to catch up on our own, but they are excited to see everyone at [formal event]!” They shalt not use your absence to create drama or indulge drama, as one’s romance CAN in fact survive temporary spells of not being joined at the hip. So it is written, so shall it be done.”
Those are my thoughts. Readers, have you been “the date” to an awkward event? How did you get through? Have you ever felt frozen out of a romantic partner’s friend group? Did it ever thaw? What changed?
Letter Writer, I hope you have the best possible time. Embrace the other New Kids! Find the old people! Insist on comfortable accommodations with a lot of privacy! Wear comfortable shoes!