How do you back out when when someone manipulates you – successfully- into something you don’t want to do? Plus, help for when you need to ghost a baby and his manipulative parents.
I have a good friend of five years. She had a baby and invited me to his christening. Five minutes before the christening ceremony started, my friend’s mother looked at me and told me that I, the godmother needed to get inside the church as the ceremony was about to begin. I looked at my friend’s mother in shock as I didn’t recall her mentioning anything about being the godmother much less asking me to be her son’s godmother. Plus she had many sisters so I had assumed she would choose one of them.The church was packed with other babies, their parents and their respective families. Annoyed that she had made a decision for me without asking, I nevertheless took part in the ceremony to save my friend from embarrassment in front of the church had I said no. I suffer from depression and really do not feel I have the mental wherewithal to do the role justice.
I visited my godson twice in the following weeks right after the ceremony. My friend told me that I needed to spend more time with my godson and started to pressure me to come over to her house more, she then compared me to the godfather saying he was visiting his godson far more than I was.T he little annoyance I felt at her for making this decision for me and not asking grew into resentment. She had recently experienced a break-up with her other friend and her husband and her were not getting along. I started to wonder if she had made me the godmother without asking because she figured it would be hard for another friend to break up with her since as being the godmother I would have a reason to stay in her life. I started to feel somewhat manipulated as previous to this issue, she told me that her husband had not been happy that I had not called or emailed her during a my three week vacation abroad. I had in fact emailed her ,but she had not seen it.
I withdrew for a while because I was pissed to talk and I really did not know how to say to her (as it concerned an innocent baby) that I was upset that she had felt it was ok to make a life long decision for me without consulting me on the matter. After some time had passed, I contacted her and she was upset because I had withdrawn. I decided to visit her and when I reached the house I got a verbal lashing from her husband for not coming over more. At my godson’s first birthday, my friend’s husband criticized the train set I had bought for him. I have a low tolerance for drama combined with my depression I really don’t know if I can deal with this situation anymore,I think the situation is awkward for me because it concerns me being upset over a decision involving an innocent baby. I still feel resentful.
Imagine for a moment you could sit down with your friend and say, matter-of-factly:
“Hey friend, we’ve never really talked about what it means to be a godmother.
First, can we talk about what happened that day at the church? Everything happened so fast, I didn’t want to embarrass you or ruin the day, so I went along with what your mom told me to do with the expectation that we would have a serious talk afterward. Can we have that talk now?
What the heck happened? Why me? And why didn’t you ask me, or even give me a hint?
Second, I get the sense that you and your husband don’t really think I’m doing a good job as Kid’s godparent, but I honestly have no idea what you expect. Is there a “godmother” checklist somewhere I could see?
Or could we make an agreement that, since I’m the godmother Kid’s got, the way I do things is the right way?
I didn’t sign up for this, really, but I definitely didn’t sign up to be criticized about it, so maybe this is a good time for me to pass this role onto someone who can do it exactly how you want it.”
Does that feel possible to say to your friend?
What do you think her answer would be?
Do you think you’d walk out of that conversation with a respectful end or substantial renegotiation of god-mothering duties, with a lighter heart, and still having your close friendship?
If you’ve never actually had that conversation with her, what stopped you?
When I started the blog, often people would write to me for advice, and my first question would be, well, did you tell the other person what you just told me? Maybe I can help you find the right words, but your crush doesn’t know you love them, your roommate doesn’t know you hate it when they sing in the shower, speak up!
As time went on, often what I’d see in people’s letters is that they’d already told the other person exactly what they needed and there was nothing wrong with the words they used, so what now? i.e. Maybe this isn’t a persuasion problem, it’s a power problem or another kind of problem, one that may need scripts but definitely needs more strategy and more awareness of costs and consequences before engaging further.
Your letter is a variation of that kind of problem, where fairly obvious words for your friend come to mind but there is also something stopping you from saying them. Call it a fear, call it a strong sense that you shouldn’t or can’t or mustn’t say them, or else…(???????)
Or else = You’ll make people upset, you’ll “ruin” the day/the occasion, you’ve gone this long without saying something, you’ll look silly if you bring it up now, you’ll be a bad friend, you’ll be breaking a promise, you’ll let people down, you’ll lose the friendship, you’ll be “abandoning an innocent baby.” Whatever the obstacle is, you sense that there is a covenant here that depends on your silence and you’re not sure quite how to break one without breaking the other.
If it feels impossible to have this kind of frank “So…godmothering…what the heck?” talk with your friend, I’m not surprised. By imagining some very reasonable conversations you might have with your friend and measuring the resistance to them, hopefully we can help keep track of just how far this whole thing has veered off the path into the “WTF? Who assigns somebody lifelong responsibilities for their baby without asking first and being sure that the person really wants to do any of it?” forest. (Maintaining a healthy sense of “WTF?” is an absolute survival skill at times, and this is one of those times.)
While we’re busy not being surprised, I’m not at all surprised that you are resentful and “feel somewhat manipulated.” You were manipulated and you’re still being manipulated. This isn’t a post about how to spot red flags and avoid manipulation, it’s more about what to do when the manipulation has been successful but you’d like it to please stop now.
Not all manipulation is automatically bad. Persuasion is a form of manipulation, whether it’s an op ed or a blog post trying to get you to stop pouring irreplaceable life-years into the black hole of mean boyfriends. Putting just the right music in the right place in a movie soundtrack to make you feel a certain thing is manipulation. A little kid who needs just one more trip to the potty, glass of water, closet monster check, bedtime story, and hug is manipulating because they don’t want to go to sleep or be alone without their parent, but they aren’t evil. [True story: I will never forget a very tiny WeeLogic saying “Hugs, Mama!” when we were at brunch and then grinning adorably while she used the good Commander’s cute Easter outfit like a handi-wipe for her disgusting maple-syrup hands.] Humans manipulate, and it’s not always evil or harmful.
The harmful kind gets you to do something the manipulator suspects or knows, reasonably, that you don’t want to do, something that is not in your best interest, something that you wouldn’t agree to do or put up with if they came correct and just asked you outright and gave you all the information you needed to make a good decision. The harmful kind senses the “no” that’s forming and does everything it can to shut it down, shut it out, ignore it. It wants what it wants, your “no” doesn’t matter.
This kind of manipulation thrives on silence, and coerced, shocked, incredulous, reluctant silence will do the job just fine. This kind of manipulation needs everyone in room to agree to live as if the elephant who is obviously in the room is not in the room, to pretend that the naked emperor is wearing clothes, to say, “Thanks for this weird key you handed me on our wedding night, it’s absolutely cool and normal to request that I never ask you questions about it, curiosity solved!”
In both fairy tales and real life, when a question is forbidden (or feels forbidden), it makes me extremely nervous.
As soon as you say, “This is a door that can never be opened” or “This is a fruit that can never be eaten,” I’m in suspense. Obviously somebody’s going to open the door or eat the fruit, and the longer we go without anybody doing either of those things the more my suspense is going to turn into dread. I know that the only way out of this story is through, so the longer we stay on the precipice, the greater the tension, the harder the fall.
The danger of ongoing manipulation is that the longer it goes on, the the more the targets and bystanders succumb to a situation where it becomes obvious that extremely obvious questions simply must not be asked. The longer and more absurd the pretense, the greater the pressure is to say nothing about it, because surely, if what everybody knows were happening were actually happening, and if it were really that bad, why didn’t anybody speak up sooner?
As the manipulation grows, so does fear, and people do not have to be able to even name the source of the fear to feel it and to justify it. “I must not speak of certain things, or something bad will happen.” “It’s just not done.” When people do speak up, they often get labeled as “hysterical,” “crazy,” “overreacting again,” “selfish,” “dramatic,” and pressured to shut up or blamed for ruining everything, like, it’s your fault that the youngest brother will have to wear a swan’s wing forever now. You should have stayed quiet, quiet and safe.
Silence about true, obvious shit may buy temporary safety (RIP, every thriller character who waited until they were alone with the killer to reveal how they knew what they knew), but it’s never safe. Forced pretending like this creates a tear in reality, an erosion of integrity, and a tear in the fabric of any relationship that depends on a false shared reality to keep existing. It is inherently unstable.
I have my quibbles with the storytelling traditions and lessons I grew up with (see: compulsory heterosexuality and the addiction to redemption narratives that center the personal growth of all the worst people at the expense of everyone they harmed), but I’ll argue that “The only way out is through” is a keeper. In a horror movie, the sooner the characters admit and deal with what is actually happening (vs. arguing that it shouldn’t be happening or pretending that it isn’t actually happening), the more likely it is they’ll survive: “I know that we just buried Uncle Kevin, honey, so it’s ‘impossible’ for him to come back as a zombie hungry for brains, but why don’t we walk and talk about it while you lock all the doors and windows and help me find the sledgehammer real quick.”
In real life, it’s possible that The Unsayable True Thing is the thing that must be said to dispel the fog of manipulation. It may not always be safe, wise, or necessary to say it out loud directly to the manipulative person, given the stakes and what you know about someone’s capacity for harm (again, RIP every second body in a manor house detective tale), but saying it to yourself in a way that recognizes its truth is a step toward giving yourself something true to hold onto is a step toward getting somewhere where you don’t have to lie to yourself anymore.
Manipulation thrives on silence, it also requires constant distraction and deflection to reinforce it. One problem with “successfully” manipulating someone the way your friend has manipulated you is that the manipulator has to keep on manipulating. Criticism about HOW to be the perfect godmother (“You need to visit more!” “You need to get different presents!” “You need to inform us if you are leaving on vacation!” “This is all a secret competition with the baby’s godfather, and you’re losing!”) distracts from the extremely basic question that would cut through all the bullshit, which is: Whatever you’ve gone along with in the past, do you actually want to be this kid’s godmother, especially on these terms? Y/N
The first step out of manipulation is to remind yourself what’s true:
- You never wanted to be this kid’s godmother.
- They never asked you, and if you’d known what you were in for, you would not have agreed.
- Now that you are doing the job, you don’t like it, it’s not bringing you closer to these friends, and you’d like to stop.
- These friends have been manipulative and mean to you about this and you don’t trust them to react well to an honest conversation.
The next step out of manipulation is to resist manipulating yourself.
For example, you refer to your soon-to-be-ex godson is an “innocent baby.”
The kid is one year old, yes? Please trust that he doesn’t know what a “godmother” even is. He may have vague positive associations with you when you’re in the room, but you are not one of his primary caregivers, so you can safely assume that the second you are out of his sight, he doesn’t really think about you.
Say he did know. It was harder to swap Aunt Vivs on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air than it will be to explain to a toddler that a slightly different adult gave him his inadequate birthday train set this year. “We used to call M. your godmother, but now [DIFFERENT RELATIVE] is your godmother, and M. is your friend! What a lucky boy with so many people who love him!” This can be solved easily, providing that his parents want to solve it.
You (and readers of a more optimizing bent) may be tempted to think, with parents like these, doesn’t he need a non-manipulative cool adult looking out for him? Fortunately you are unlikely to be the sole cool adult this boy will ever meet, and fortunately “godparent” is not the sole format for positive adult-child relationships. You can step down from this role, his parents can ask someone else, and maybe this time they’ll share their secret godparent job description in advance.
As for whatever promises you made in the church:
1) Captain Awkward’s view is that coerced promises delivered without informed consent don’t count, and just like you don’t have to actually marry people just because they hired a marching band and a skywriter to crash your family reunion and you didn’t want to publicly embarrass them, you don’t have to be this kid’s godmother forever just ’cause you got voluntold and froze before you could flee.
2) People get to change their minds. You don’t have to stay in a situation just because you were manipulated into it for a while. “But you promised!” “I know I initially said yes, but it’s not working for me so I want to stop.” “But you promised!” “Yes, but did you hear the part where I said I wanted to stop? Because that’s what we need to base our decisions on going forward.” “But you promised!” “Sure did! And now I want to stop, so, I’m going to stop.” Beware of anyone who defines your consent back to you as “the exact moment I assumed I could have what I want is the only moment that counts and nothing that you said or did after that matters.”
3) “Godparent” has no absolute rules. I did some research about this and “godparent” as a role varies widely across religious and cultural traditions. Sometimes there is official paperwork filled out at the church, sometimes there is the expectation that the godparent will become the child’s legal guardian if something happens to the parents, sometimes it’s more about spiritual guidance within the faith tradition, sometimes it means assuming a place in the family akin to an additional aunt or uncle, sometimes it just means “promise to be a cool babysitter, hang out with the kid sometimes, and give good presents,” but there is no one definition or rulebook for how to be a godparent. Even the Catholic Church (which requires paperwork, so I’d put it on the stricter end of the scale) sources I found were like, “Yeah, ideally the godparents guide their godchildren as they grow up in the church, but people move away sometimes and relationships drift, what can you do.”
Clearly your friends had the Full Premiere Executive Upgrade God-parenting Package in mind, which would have been good information before they asked you to take this on. Hopefully that makes your decision to quit easier.
Will your friends pull the “How can you abandon an innocent baaaaaaaaaaaaaaby?” card out of the deck and try to play it to get you to reconsider? Oh yes.
Will the story they tell about you be about how you were ungrateful for the “honor” they showed you and how you “turned your back” on “an innocent baaaaaaaaaaaaaaaby” and also how you probably lied to God? Almost certainly!
Let the godfather win this round and all rounds! You actually tried pretty hard to figure out what was expected of you and do it, and these people were never happy! The “innocent baby” will be just fine without you! You can still be nice to a baby without being its godparent! You aren’t “abandoning a baby,” you’re renegotiating a relationship with his parents after they manipulated you into shit you don’t want to do.
Anticipate these arguments, and don’t fall for more manipulation on your way out.
Time for the next step: Let the truth set you free.
If you wanted to slow fade these people into 2050 I wouldn’t blame you, but the kindest and easiest thing to do is to let them know and give them a chance to find somebody else. I suggest mailing a note in a nice card and avoiding the phone, a face-to-face conversation, or anything where there is back-and-forth discussion that they could mistake for a negotiation.
[TOTALLY OPTIONAL: If you have $50 or so that you wouldn’t miss, buy a savings bond in his name or write a check to the little guy’s college fund and include it in your letter. You absolutely don’t owe anybody this, I mention it as a nice parting gesture to the little dude as you officially lay your duties to rest as well as a ritual offering to help you to walk away knowing that you did your best.]
The card could say:
I am writing to officially step down as [Kid]’s godmother.
Everything happened so fast at the church that day, and while I am fond of Kid, I’ve never been fully comfortable taking on such a big responsibility. After a year, it’s definitely time for me to pass the torch to someone else within Kid’s loving family and supportive community who can take a more active role.
Please accept this small gift for his college fund, the last from me as a godmother and hopefully the first of many from his (and your) loving friend,
Please note: I deliberately left out the words “I’m sorry” or “I can’t because of my depression.” Save “sorry” for the follow-up conversation, where you repeat “Sorry but I know this is the right decision for me” and save your reasons for reasonable people who won’t try to use your reasons to keep manipulating you. You don’t need to convince them of your reasons or anticipate and manage all their feelings in order to communicate your decision: You are stepping down as their kid’s godparent, you plan to continue as their friend. And yeah, the shady, rushed way it all went down IS a factor, so, let’s deal with that.
Last step for breaking free of manipulation: When you tell someone you’re done, let yourself be done. Your job is to be honest with your friend about your needs and your feelings, not fix her marriage, her kids’ religious instruction, her feelings about all her other friendships, and manage every feeling she might have about this. You might have to tell her and then let her go feel and do and say whatever she wants about you and friendship.
Sadly, in my opinion, it’s pretty unlikely that the friendship with this couple survives this. I think they will take it as a giant rejection of them and their child and then they’ll do what they usually do: Double down in order to get their way and blame you for not being good enough.
If that happens, please remember 1) The answer wasn’t to stick around to be berated and manipulated forever, that’s not a friendship 2) There are no perfect words to tell someone a thing they are determined not to hear 3) If your friends want you in their life and their child’s life, they have many choices about how to treat you and one very obvious choice is to say, “We understand, thanks for being such a big part of Kid’s life so far, we hope you won’t be a stranger!” and keep on right on being your friend.
It sounds like the husband was already routinely a jerk to you, so, good riddance, and the wife told *somebody* you were the godmother (or how else would her mom know to herd you into the church that day?), she just neglected to ask you. Or tell you what she had in mind. Or warn you. Or explain to you what this even meant. Or follow-up afterward to be sure that you really wanted to do it. Or thank you? Upon review, I detect zero hints and zero acknowledgement that you did them a giant favor.
Even if it was a very last minute switcheroo because somebody dropped out and everybody was trying to save face and go on with the show (my guess as to why it happened how it happened), your friend had many choices about how to include you in her choice. Why has she never made the one that recognizes that you needed to have a say in any of this?
Yes, the church was filling up with people that day, all people who came to see a baby get baptized, all people who recognize that babies are unpredictable and sometimes things take a little longer than everyone planned, and all people who would absolutely have waited the five additional minutes it would have taken for the baby’s parents to pull you aside and say “Look, friend, the godmother we planned on dropped out at the last minute, and I needed to get my mom & sisters off my back so I panicked and told them you’d do it – will you help us out today and then we can figure it out after the ceremony?” You could have walked into helping them save face with open eyes.
After the ceremony, they could have said, “You probably have some questions? Can we have lunch this week and talk about it?”
The first time you came to visit the baby, there was an opportunity to clear the air. “So, I realize we kind of blindsided you with the whole godmother thing, can we talk about it? In our family, what that means is __________, and we’d love to have you do it. I realize we didn’t actually ask you, so can I ask you officially now?”
When you were upset and withdrew, your friend could have said “I realize I owe you some thanks for stepping up that day and an apology for ambushing you, and it’s okay if you don’t actually want to be godmother, I was embarrassed and scrambling. Can we talk about it?”
“Why don’t you visit more?” “The godfather visits so much more than you, be more like him?” could have been expressed as “We love you so much and want to see you as much as possible, please come visit whenever you can?” If the train set you bought was not to their liking, it could have been put on a high shelf until their son was older, or returned to the store, or put in a donation bin right after you left. They could give you a list of things the little boy could use or off-limits presents. They had choices other than “yell at you about a present.” Note: If this is the shitty husband talking through your friend, you don’t have to keep being the kid’s godparent for all time to be a good friend to your friend or to solve this. “Yep, you’re right, I’m not cut out for this! Love you!”
To me, there is no fucking universe where your friend doesn’t know that she totally manipulated you (unless she is an astronomical and unreachable level of entitled, which also does not bode well for a lasting friendship), and she’s had a jillion opportunities to clear the air, so, why does she keep steamrolling you, blaming you, and criticizing you?
So we’re back to the start: What happens if you say “I do not think this godmothering thing is for me, and the longer we go without talking about it the weirder it gets, so what if, no harm, no foul, we just reset and I keep being your friend and you ask someone who really wants to do it?”
I think that someone who is your friend might take that conversation as a gift, and let all the weird stuff she’s been holding out, and if that happens, there’s hope. She doesn’t have to trick people into church vows to have friends!
I also think that the only way out of this is through. This friendship is already broken, and not by you. An honest conversation is probably the only hope of repairing it, and if an honest conversation is what finally breaks it all the way, that will be sad, but you don’t have to trade your compliance or integrity for whatever the hell this is right now.