Dear Captain Awkward,
My teenager has informed me that their father told them he plans to mail me jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Their father and I have been divorced for nearly a decade and a half and I’ve been in three committed, long-term relationships in that time. I have less-than-zero interest in my ex-husband romantically (or even platonically) and while I am able to be polite/civil with him, I am quite looking forward to the day I no longer have to take his calls. He is not a nice person. (He was abusive during our marriage, used custody issues to punish me, treated our children poorly, etc. etc.)
Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues, he’s been acting far too friendly over the phone. A few months ago he told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever really loved and said he thinks we should still be together, which I responded to with “You know, life moves forward and though my path has been rocky, I’m happy with where I am now, thanks. Gotta go.” Ever since that revelation from him, I’ve made it a rule to do my best to keep any calls very short and to the point, if possible, and I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.
That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all. I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together. Ugh. (I did let him know, through text, that what he did there was not okay and that was not what I meant by support, etc., and he did apologize to them eventually.) So, now since the “talk about our kids” topic no longer works, if he texts, “Hey, do you have time to talk?” I ask him if he has something pressing to discuss, as I’m quite busy, and it’s usually “No, just wanted to chat,” so I tell him I’m too busy to chat. If he calls, it goes to voicemail and I decide whether or not it’s appropriate to call back based on the content of voicemail.
Since I’ve been brushing him off, he has been reaching out to my teenager more than ever. They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes. During recent calls with them, their father told them that he really thinks we should have stayed together as a family, etc. It makes my teenager really frustrated and uncomfortable that all he seems to want to talk about with them is me and how he wishes we were still together.
I’m so irritated with him for the way he is treating me and my teenager, but not surprised, as he’s never been one to respect people’s boundaries.
[Don’t know if this is relevant or not, so I’ll add it just in case: He is in a relationship with a woman who is really kind and sweet (and a nice buffer/ally for my teenager when they visit their father), but who recently moved out of his house after having lived with him for about a year. His overly-friendliness started before she moved out. His behavior would be frustrating no matter what, but it’s even more exasperating that he’s doing this while in a relationship with another woman, no matter how rocky it may be.]
So… what do I do when he inevitably mails me jewelry? It makes me queasy just thinking about opening the box. Do I mail it back? Say thanks but no thanks? I don’t want him to get the idea that it is okay or in any way desirable for him to send me romantic gifts. Thankfully, he lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t have to worry that he’ll drop by with the gift. (Fingers crossed. Don’t want to jinx it.)
Over the years since our divorce I haven’t pushed back too hard or spoken my piece about his bad behaviors since he kept custody issues pretty contentious for some time and I never wanted anything to be misconstrued and come back to bite me. It’s been hard to break out of walking on eggshells with him and taking the step I noted above to let him know how he hurt his teenager with the nasty comments about their college fears felt good, but was terrifying.
(If you have some scripts for my teenager, too, for when their father starts up with his pining for me thing during their phone calls or laying on any other guilt trips that would be wonderful.)
My pronouns: she/her
Your ex is being ridiculously manipulative. He’s trying to use your teenager as his unwilling wingman. He’s putting the idea of the Valentine’s Day gift out there as bait so it can hang over you with dread and he can get off on the suspense: Will you confront him about it before it arrives (giving him an opportunity to blow up at your teenager for spilling the beans) or will you wait until you get it (giving him an opportunity to get all offended about having a gift thrown back in his face, giving him an opportunity to renew his sad, gross courtship)? He’s using a gift on purpose so he can claim he intended to be nice and make you have to push through all the socialization you and other people have received about being gracious receivers of gifts.
He’s testing this new line of backchannel communication with you he thinks he’s opened up via your teen (a strategy known as triangulation) because it gives him multiple strings of blame and control to pull if it all goes wrong. His ultimate stated “win condition” is y’all getting back together, but if he can force you and the rest of the family to center him and his feelings, that’s a win of another kind, and if he feels like he has an excuse to blow up at someone when it doesn’t work, that’s a win for him, too.
This is what’s so frustrating, right? If you ignore it, he wins, if you call him on it, he wins, because a) he thinks all attention is good attention as long as it’s your attention and b) he doesn’t give a shit about protecting your kids from manipulation and you do.
All is not lost. There are three pretty solid tools for dealing with manipulative people. You can use them and you can teach them to your kids. They are:
- Remind yourself of the facts.
- Don’t let triangulation work.
- Be consistent and boring.
Fact: You don’t want to get back together with your ex. No matter what he gifts you with or throws at you, it’s never happening. He will try everything he can to drown you in feelings or distract from this fact, but as long as you know for sure that you’re done with him, the facts are on your side. He can send a troupe of dancing peacocks to your house bearing the crown jewels, he can hire a plane to skywrite his feelings over your house, and your answer will be the same: “I prefer not to.” As long as you know this, you don’t have to explain or convince anyone of anything. You’re never getting back together. His feelings, his efforts are just theatrics. They have no actual power.*
*This isn’t always the case in abusive/manipulative relationships, of course. You think he’s unlikely to escalate to physical violence and threats, and I’m glad. If you still shared a house with him, if you thought your life or safety was in danger from him, it wouldn’t change the facts (you don’t want to be with him) but it would change the power calculus in that you might have to use subterfuge or be less direct about confrontation until you could safely remove yourself from his proximity and reduce his power. You already went through this when you left the first time, and you are going to be the absolute best judge of what is safe now.
GOOD NEWS: You’re already good at keeping your interactions boring. You were so smart to start screening your ex’s calls and never, ever having Time To Chat. Keep doing that. Keep all communication about the kids about mundane logistical topics, and consider taking everything to text or email for a good six months or longer. It has the advantage of creating a documentation trail of the things he says to you (useful if things escalate or get weirder) and it also allows you to filter and respond to things selectively, when it’s convenient for you. Look into or review resources about parallel parenting (where after a contentious divorce or split, the parents work on communicating as little and as neutrally as possible.) Consider that the weirder he makes communication for you, the less access he gets to you. He’ll adjust accordingly (making things less stressful) or he won’t (and you’ll interact with him even less, making things less stressful).
Defeat triangulation by only responding to things your ex says directly to you. Just because he tries to put your teen in the middle it doesn’t mean you have to leave the kid there! Messages or trial balloons your ex tries to send through your teen won’t work if you are consistent about only responding to his direct communication.
Since you don’t want to make your teen feel responsible for this in any way (either to pass messages on OR to feel like they have to keep them a secret to protect you), a gentle hand is in order. You could try asking questions – “Did Dad ask you to tell me about [whatever it is] or did he ask you to keep it a secret?” – but that can turn into an interrogation pretty quick depending on your kid and how your ex has primed them. Maybe try a script like this:
“Hey buddy, thanks for telling me, that must have been kind of an upsetting thing to hear from your Dad!
I hope you know that I want you and your Dad to be able to talk about whatever is comfortable for you, and you don’t have to worry about me or protecting my feelings! Grownup stuff can be complicated, it’s not your job to help us figure it out. You can tell either of us to stop talking about something if it makes you feel weird.
Anyway, after 15 years, one thing I’ve learned about your Dad is that if something is really important for me to know, he’ll tell me about it himself. So I’m not going to even worry about it until he does. Sound good?”
If your ex tries to feel you out to find out if your teen is passing on his messages, you can answer that pretty directly: “Oh yeah, weird, Teen mentioned something about that. I figured you were just blowing off steam. I told them not to worry about it and if it was that important, you’d just tell me yourself. I mean, you’d never actually try to get our kid to be your wingman, right? That’s just silly!”
I know you’re feeling a lot of dread right now and you want to head this Valentine’s Day gift thing off at the pass, but honestly, if you haven’t spoken to your ex about this already I’d use this as an opportunity to test out the “don’t respond to anything except direct communication” strategy. This thing isn’t real until it arrives or he mentions it. Whatever the gift is (I’m picturing something from the Two Butts Stuck Together line, personally), today is February 10th and it’s already in the mail. To bring it up now risks putting your teen in the crosshairs of your ex’s anger and blame. Your ex is very capable of skipping over the facts (you don’t want any presents from him and you don’t want to get back together) to blame your teen for ruining his doomed gambit somehow. If it helps, think of your ex as a Scooby Doo villain – “It would have worked if not for those meddling kids!” – Laugh at the image, and then protect your kids.
Some strategies for dealing with this (and future) awkward gifts:
First things first: An unwanted gift obligates you to nothing. Once it’s in your possession, it’s yours. You can accept it, refuse it, regift it, sell it, or set it on fire.
The giver can feel some kind of way about that, and your ex specifically can probably manufacture infinite grievances out of whatever you do, but the facts are the facts: You don’t love this dude or want to be with him. If he wants to send you gifts, that’s not your fault or your problem.
You can rip the bandaid off. Send it back. Send a text or a note that says “WTF is this supposed to be? I don’t want it” or “Nope!”
When he bugs you about it, try “I didn’t want it so I sent it back. Is there something that would spell it out for you more clearly? Cool, let me know and I’ll do that.”
We talk about “returning awkwardness to sender” a lot here, how often do you get to literally do that.
Alternately, you can make logistics & time work for you. You’re dreading this package’s arrival right now, but as soon as it’s “supposed” to arrive the dread and anticipation are all his – Did you get it? Did you like it? Is it working? Should he say something? Should he wait?
And one sent through US Postal Mail? Generally, as long as you don’t open whatever it is (it must remain Schrödinger’s unwanted pendant made of butts that is somehow also an angel), you can refuse delivery. You don’t have to sign for things (it’s earrings that looks like a bunch of rear ends stuck together, not a subpoena) and you don’t have to ever pick packages up from the post office. It will most likely get sent back to him or wherever he ordered it from…eventually.
And, no worries if you do open it or sign for it, you can still most likely return it to the vendor. He gets a refund, you don’t have it in your house anymore.
And if it lives in the trunk of your car for the next 9 months or collects dust on the mantel in the lobby of your apartment building for the rest of time because you keep forgetting to take it to the post office to ship it back, oh well! You get to do whatever is most convenient and comfortable for you.
Your line when he asks about it could be “Oh, was that from you? I wasn’t expecting a package, so I figured it was a mistake. Did you know that if you don’t open the package, they send it back where it came from for free?”
If he reminds you that he told the teenager? If you can bring yourself to joke about it, do so. Sunlight and humor disinfect.“Oh, right, Teen mentioned that, but I thought it was a joke! You weren’t serious about sending me a piece of jewelry in the mail, right? WTF would I do with something like that? LOL, next time just send it directly to the Museum of Broken Relationships, it will save on the shipping fees.”
Whatever you do, please don’t worry about finding the perfect solution. As far as your ex is concerned, any choice that isn’t you fainting with desire and gratitude is the wrong one and a reason to punish or harass you. If he acts like a jerk, it’s ’cause he’s a jerk, not because of whatever you did or didn’t do. He will likely try to claim that you owe him something (money, time, attention, hassle). Resist this framing. Don’t argue with him or give him attention. Be boring, stick with facts: “I didn’t want it so I sent it back.” He can wrangle with the postal service until the rest of time, it’s not your problem.
Make him do all the work. As discussed, this gift doesn’t exist until it arrives or he tells you about it directly, and it doesn’t mean anything until your ex spells it out, in words.
Maybe this is just petty of me, but if he tries to put you on the spot, I want you to make him say it. Like, ask: “Wait, you sent me a Valentine’s day present? Why?” and see if he’ll own up.
If he tries the “you’re the only woman I ever really loved and I think we should still be together” line again, it’s an opportunity to be direct.
“I thought I made it clear the last time you brought this up that I don’t feel the same way. You seem confused about that, so let me say it again: I don’t feel that way about you and I don’t want us to ever get back together. I want to do a good job parenting our kids. That’s it. What can I say so that we never have to talk about this again?”
Prediction: He is too much of a coward to risk this amount of directness, so he’ll either try to gaslight you that he never meant it That Way (it was just a general statement of regret at how things worked out with you, he wasn’t actually trying to get back together, how can you be so conceited, you misunderstood him, can’t he send you a simple present, etc.) or he’ll try a “I can’t help how I feel” gambit.
The gaslighting is a win for you, strangely enough. If he tries to pretend it was all a mistake and backtracks in order to save face, let him! You can say “Oh, it was all a misunderstanding? I’m so relieved! Hahahaha! Close call! Thank goodness, let’s put this embarrassing episode behind us and never speak of it again!”
The “I can’t help how I feel” strategy is a little harder to deal with because he might try to stack more feelings on top of the first in an attempt to wall you in with them. You don’t give a crap about his feelings, so, if he goes with this strategy, think of it as a dare. He doesn’t think you’ll have the guts to squish his feelings if he can make the pile deep enough. But you totally can! The way around this is to remember the facts (You don’t want him) and also remind yourself that he has a variety of appropriate choices about who he can talk to about his feelings: a therapist, a friend, a pastor, his actual girlfriend, the other people in the line to buy movie tickets, his diary, his telephone psychic. It doesn’t have to be you, it definitely should not be his kids!
If he goes with this tack, try: “Let me stop you there – I don’t feel the same way about you, and it’s never gonna happen. If this is really bothering you, maybe you should talk to a counselor about it. In the meantime, let’s agree: No more discussion about this, and definitely no more gifts!”
GIANT ROMANTIC GESTURES that try to do an end-run around the desires and feelings of the person you are trying to romance are doomed. So doomed.
I hope that solves it, to the extent situations with people like this can be solved. You can’t control this guy’s feelings or what he does about them, but I think you can actually do a lot to interrupt the cycle of dread and the cycle of rewarding this behavior and see if he adjusts.
Empower your kids. You asked for scripts for your teenager, and I have some. If they can pull it off, humor goes a long way, since there’s nothing like the scorn of an adolescent to wither the romantic inklings of an adult.
- “Dad, if that’s how you feel, you should talk to Mom directly. I’m not getting in the middle of the two of you!”
- “Dad, are you trying to make me your wingman? GROSS.”
- “If you’re going to keep talking to me about Mom like this, my allowance is going to need a boost to cover the Years of Therapy™”
- “If I like someone I pass them a note between Trig and Chemistry. Maybe try that?”
- “Dad, don’t you have any friends to talk to about this? Maybe ones who could talk you out of the whole thing? I’m your kid, not your therapist!”
- “Yaaaaaayyyyyy just what every kid wants to think about: Their parents boning. Thanks for scarring me for life!”
- [robot voice]”BEEP BEEP BOOP BOOP SYSTEM SHUTTING DOWN GROSS ADULT FEELINGS OVERLOAD”
- [for younger kids] “Quit being silly, Daddy!” or “Ew, that’s grownup stuff!”
As discussed earlier, one goal of the scripts is to make talking about you with your kids very boring for your ex, to teach him that they won’t really engage or take him seriously on this topic. And more important than any particular script is empowering them to tell their dad they don’t want to hear about this, empowering them to change the subject with him, and empowering them to get off the phone if they want to. “You don’t have to talk to your dad on the phone every time he wants to, you know.” “You can get off the phone if someone is making you uncomfortable; I do it all the time – sometimes texting is better!”
I hope this lessens your anxiety about this somewhat. You are clocking everything about this situation correctly, you totally have your ex’s number, and it sounds like you are a great mom. May your February 14 be completely uneventful and free of wearable butt-sculptures!
P.S. I left the part in about your ex having a girlfriend (Maybe? They’re still together but she moved out?) in the letter but left her out in my scripts for you, and that was completely deliberate.
If he’s trying to win you back behind someone else’s back, that’s gross, but everything about the situation is already gross. In your shoes, I’d stick with “Whoa, but I’m not interested in you that way” and I wouldn’t mention her at all. The point isn’t that he’s potentially cheating on somebody, the point is that you wouldn’t date him again if he were the last man alive. Mentioning her – “Does your girlfriend know that you’re sending me Valentine’s Day presents?” – allows him to manufacture more drama from the situation, like, maybe if he were single, you’d go for it, or “Ladies, ladies, please don’t fight!” Don’t let him ego-stroke by setting this up as a situation where he’s torn between two women. He’s not. She’s halfway out the door, you don’t even remember where the door is. If you did, a key that is also a diamond-encrusted ass-cluster has zero chance of unlocking it.