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Dear Captain,

I’ve looked in the archives for something like this, but I couldn’t find anything. What do you do when you apologize and it seems to upset someone even more?

I (she/her) have an ex (he/him), and we have recently reconnected after a breakup and period of no contact and are trying to be friends. He was the one who ended the relationship, if that helps, and I was the person who asked for space, and recently reached out. We broke up mostly because he wasn’t the best communicator, and when I brought it up he said it was easier to break up. (He is a Geek Social Fallacies carrier)

I live in an area under shelter-in-place, and after that started he started texting and messaging more frequently, and then occasional phone calls. I wasn’t sure I wanted this much contact, but was feeling a little lonely with the SIP, and figured he was as well, we could support each other a bit. I have a wide ranging circle of friends that I have been virtually in contact with, I wasn’t focusing on him.

Anyway, we were talking about what we’d been doing since the SIP began, and I mentioned I’d been working on my writing, and he expressed interest in it, and I asked if he’d be willing to give me some feedback. This wasn’t unusual, it had been something he’d done for me when we’d been together. So I emailed it to him, he emailed some feedback (which was good feedback!), and I got caught up thinking about it and how the writing worked with his feedback, and I guess I hadn’t responded or said thank you, quickly enough? Because a few hours after receiving it he texted to ask if I’d gotten it. And I realized I hadn’t acknowledged it, apologized and thanked him.

And then a few days later I asked if he would read over an article I’m working on, and he said yes. He read it and sent me feedback a day or so later, but I was caught up in work when the email arrived (SIP and working virtually means I get SO MUCH MORE EMAIL than usual, and I got a lot before!), and I just didn’t get a chance to respond. Partially because I felt that he deserved more than a, “thanks, got it” email.

But the next morning beforeI got a chance to do this I got a text saying it was “weird,” I hadn’t acknowledged his messages. I emailed back, apologized, and thanked him. He then asked if we could have a phone conversation, which we did that evening.

Prior to our phone conversation, I realized he was probably feeling unappreciated, and made a point of acknowledging that when we talked, and said that he was also probably trying to show that he cared for me by doing me a favor, and that was really nice, and when I didn’t respond quickly enough he felt ignored or rejected or vulnerable.

And by saying that, he seemed to get really annoyed. Claimed I must be feeling resentment for our breakup, and that it wasn’t any “psychobabble” about feeling vulnerable or rejected, he’s obligated to help out any friend that asks for help. And ranted in this general vein at me for a bit. While also saying, as he ranted, that we didn’t have to have this “whole talk” about this, but he…kept talking? And talking, and talking. I tried to acknowledge his feelings, but I also didn’t want to keep discussing it, and basically listened until he wore down.

We ended it with him feeling better, I guess? But I felt worse. More so because I felt like I was trying to give a sincere apology and recognize his feelings and then we could move on, but it turned into him becoming more annoyed, and that line about being “obligated” really hurt, I thought he was just being friendly, but it now that gesture feels tainted somehow.

Captain, I don’t think it would be helpful to talk to him about this, I think I have to accept that this is just my friendship with him. But I’m confused, why did he get so annoyed? Is there a way I could have apologized better?

Confused Navigator

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My 50+ y/o housemate has a problem, and I don’t know how to help. Sounds stupid but her pants are always falling down. At any given moment inch(es) of her rear crack are exposed. It started years ago, most often when she would bend over, but it has progressively gotten worse–any time she stands up or walks about. I’m not sure of the cause. She does wear a belt. I can only guess that her pants–jeans 90% of the time–and skivvies are the wrong size or cut. She is pretty flat back there. Yet that’s only part of the problem.

The real problem is that she is hypersensitive about it, and any attempt to bring it to her attention, either subtly or more directly, elicits only an angry response as if it’s a disability that she can’t do anything about. She’ll bark “I know!” when either she really didn’t know or doesn’t know the extent of it. At one point, long ago, I even took a few pictures when she wasn’t looking, so she could see what the rest of us have to see, but, of course, she got really angry and missed the point entirely.

I mostly wouldn’t care except it has led to very awkward situations. For instance, she recently had a contractor come in to give an estimate for some floor work. Her pants were halfway off her ass, which the guy noticed when she turned around. I tried to get her attention without calling more attention to it because I knew she’d flip out at me. Later, she said she felt like the contractor was acting funny and had an attitude. I did not say, “Of course he did! Your ass was almost fully exposed the entire time he was here!”

Lest you think it’s some kind of weird quest for attention, I just want to say that it happens all the time, in public, at home, when nobody is around and when everybody is around. At one point a few other friends started calling her Buttcrack Betty to her face, but that fell by the wayside because I think we’ve all concluded that she sort of *can’t* do anything about it? There was a point where I know she became paranoid about it, and was constantly grasping at the waist of her pants or pulling down her shirt, and she probably got tired of enacting that nervous tic all the time, but this still brings me back to why does it happen in the first place?

Aside from social awkwardness, this issue could also be dangerous. I can just see someone getting provoked by it one day. How does one address a situation like this? Seriously, how? I feel compelled to start with something like, “Look don’t take this personally, but I want to bring up a safety issue with you.” Then what? This such a weird problem, I know. Any advice or suggestions?

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Hi,

I live in an area that is under a shelter-in-place order due to COVID-19. A few of my friends have been inviting me to activities that violate the order. My go-to excuse (and the truth) has been bringing up that I live with a high-risk individual, so I’m going to stick to the shelter-in-place order. Thing is, the invitations are still coming, and sometimes with encouragement along the lines of “none of us have symptoms” or “I have hand sanitizer so you’ll be fine.” Any advice for turning down these kind of invitations once and for all while also keeping friendships intact?

Thanks! (she/her)

Hello! Thank you for your timely letter.

Mr. Awkward made something for you over the weekend in honor of his sister, an ICU nurse who can’t stay home. Samuel. L. Jackson is also on the case.

I wrote this (full of scripts) for Vox  last week. Please allow me to respond to all the people who have dug up my personal email to express their indignation since:

1. My editor assigned the story to be about younger adults trying to get through to their parents and grandparents, because that is a thing that is happening. If they had assigned me the story targeting young people or “everyone, everywhere,” I would have written that one.

Me: “X is a problem, here’s what you can do about it.”

My Inbox: “But what about Y? Why are you IGNORING Y?”

Logic: “Weirdly, both X and Y can be problems at the same time.”

Good news, everyone: The suggested scripts & strategies in the piece can probably be adapted for people of all ages, since I wrote “You can be asymptomatic but still spread it to other people, so I’m erring on the safe side” not “You A BABY-BOOMER AND YOU ALONE can be asymptomatic ONLY OLDER PEOPLE, NOT YOUNGER PEOPLE, DON’T READ THIS OR LISTEN but still spread it to other people HAHAHA ONLY THE OLD, so I’m erring on the safe side DON’T READ THIS, YOUNGS.”

2. If you are staying at home, good! Also, maybe this doesn’t apply to you and you are not being personally called out and you do not have to personally let me personally know?

3. “You said ‘stay inside‘ but our GrEaT NaTioN has MaNy AcREs of wILdERnesS and NaTIOnal ParKS which are technically oUtSiED

Ha, you really got me there! Question: Can you get back and forth to one of those without stopping along the way for gas, food, beverages, bathroom breaks, or needing to interact with any staff of anything anywhere? P.S. Life comes at you fast.

Also, I got enough emails with this specific take that I have to ask: Was there a meeting? Or a club? If so, please unsubscribe me from your newsletter.

4. Fully half of you are writing from Florida where your politicians have decided to imitate the Mayor in JAWS. I promise I was not the one keeping beaches open where you live, so if you’d like to yell at someone who was, here is your governor’s contact info. I know you know how to write indignant emails, so, get going! Or, maybe he will find video easier to digest.

If I sound upset it’s because I am. I haven’t lost anybody I personally know as of today,, but people I love are sick, and death is creeping in inexorably around the edges of my circles and making itself at home there. I want to live. I want you to live. I want everybody’s most dipshit friends and family members of all ages to live. I even want the people in power who say “relax, don’t panic, go out and have fun” when they mean “keep spending money, STONKS! may depend on it” to live, okay, yes, it’s mostly so I can see them tried at The Hague for their crimes against humanity, but I still want there to be a tomorrow for them. There are things that we can do to stem the tide, so let’s fucking do them already.

Which is why I say, bluntly, Letter Writer, the longer your friends stay addicted to magical thinking, the more people are put at risk and the longer all of us will have to stay inside. Their justifications are bullshit:

So my recommendation for you is, if polite demurrals aren’t working, maybe…don’t be polite about it anymore? Like, at all? “No, I’m not coming, also WHAT ARE YOU DOING.” Stop trying to figure out the nice way to say it, don’t watch your tone, forget hints. You can’t be serious.” 

You may get your “let’s put the social in social distancing with game night, at my place!” buds to reconsider their behavior. You may make them so angry that they keep having gatherings but don’t invite you to things anymore. Your job is not to soothe them or smooth it over, your job is to live through this. I know you want to keep your friendships intact, but to do that, you and they and everyone they know needs to actually be alive. Probably 99% of the time I am of the school of “my personal life choices aren’t a comment on yours, live your life, Friend, I’m not doing this At You” but this is an exception. You can’t control what your friends will do, but you can absolutely refuse to validate it, enable it, or pretend it’s okay.

I know my fellow country-people are hardcore bright-siders who think “overreacting” is the worst thing a person can possibly do and whose favorite activity is to debate about the exact correct level of reaction one should have to every possible stimulus, but let’s risk it this one time, okay? Experts are saying: REACT.

If they’re wrong and I’m wrong, I’d love to be wrong, being wrong would be the absolute best-case scenario, we can celebrate how wrong I was and how silly all the scientists were together someday when there’s a vaccine and a reliable anti-viral, i.e. the next time I will be able to safely leave my house. We can stand uncomfortably close, lick each other’s faces, and rub our sticky hands on all the railings and lampposts we see, I’ll show you my quarantine birdsnest hairstyle and babysit everyone’s children so y’all can go on dinner dates.

Until then!!!!!!!!: Be the weird mask person and hard core shut-in you want to see in the world, without apology.

Hi Captain,

My mother and I have always wanted different frequencies of interaction. After I moved out for university, at a holiday party my mother announced the only gift she ever wanted from me was daily phone calls – even her friends were incredulous. She tends to call any hour of the day, hitting redial up to a dozen times if I don’t answer. Calls can be about anything, from “are you free tonight” to an extended vent session about my father or brother (who still lives at home). No call has ever been an emergency – I found out my father broke his wrist a week after it happened, via Facebook, despite my mother and I talking in-between.

Over the last few years, I’ve become better at enforcing manageable levels of communication – proactively calling her on weekends for a chat, making up vague excuses, explicitly saying I won’t answer/call back unless I’m free. This had the side effect of every conversation starting with how I’m too busy and don’t prioritise family. After the first few hour-long complaints, it’s now usually only a throwaway comment per call.

With COVID-19, we’re all under Shelter-in-Place. Now she knows I’m not busy and she wants the daily calls again. Additionally, she wants to use them to teach me her native language. Even if I didn’t find daily calls with my mother draining – daily phone calls that require homework and family/diaspora guilt?

I know we’re in anxious times and we should all reach out and connect with each other. I am also worried about my parents – my father is likely high risk, my brother maybe so, and my mother is a healthcare worker (not frontline, but still in a hospital).

I’ve tried suggesting using a language app/online course and having weekly conversation practice – no dice. I’ve tried suggesting weekend catch-up calls without the homework, but then comes the guilt. We text occasionally with pictures of the garden, but that doesn’t cut it. Digital game nights and Netflix-parties are also out.

I’m tired and stressed and I want to connect with my mother – but not at the expense of my own mental health. Suggestions? Scripts?

– At home doesn’t mean on-call (she/her)

Thank you

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Answer 1: On Crushes

So, you have a crush on a friend.* But everything is terrible/uncertain/stressful.

Send the love poem. Say the thing that’s in your heart. If not now, when?

What’s the worst that can happen? They don’t love you back, i.e. the status quo?

What’s the best thing that happens? They do!

The thing you’re torturing yourself about – “Do I do it in a phone call? Do I send a text? Do I yell it from 6-10 feet away?” – You know this person best and you know you best.  Your way is going to be the right way if they feel that way about you. If they don’t love you back, they don’t love you back. It’s not because you said it wrong. (Read this poem). If your instincts are telling you now is not the time, then you are probably right about that and having just the right words won’t change it.

Practice Round: Tell the people you don’t want to smooch how much you love and care about them, too. Yell “thank you” to the trash removal people from the window. Tell the grocery delivery person and the pharmacist what a good job they are doing. You’ve got excess love so give it away.

Answer 2: On Closure

Hey remember that friendship/relationship that ended very badly and they told you not to contact them again and to stay away?

You were doing okay, you were taking your feelings to the gym or the bike trail or the knitting project or the social circle.

But now the world feels like it’s ending and you’re suddenly obsessed. What if you could talk to them just one more time and make yourself understood and focus on “what’s really important?”

“Fix this,” your jerk of a brain whispers, “And maybe you’ll fix the world.” 

“You can’t fix the world,” your absolute dillweed of a brain reminds you. “But what if you could fix this one tiny thing?” 

Beloved, write the letter where you get to say everything you want to say. Get it all out on the page. Do not send this letter, but do write it.

Now, write yourself the letter you wish they’d write back. Imagine them saying everything you most want to hear, imagine them telling you “I am sorry” and “I miss you, too,” and “I love you” and “I forgive you.” Spare no emotional expense. Include every good and kind and loving thing remember this person ever saying to you, every compliment, every private joke, every happy memory you can think of. Write the happy ending to the story that you wish you had.

Burn the first letter.**

When you feel obsessed and lonely read the second one back to yourself.

The good times you and this person shared were real. They still happened to you. What shone then shines now. The things they loved about you are still in you. That’s all still yours, even if this one person is no longer in your life. They are not the boss of how you get to be loved or whether you deserve love, just as you are not the boss of whether you get to keep trying to demand it specifically from them. We can wish people well and send love in their direction and still follow separate paths.

After you re-read the good letter, channel the feelings into action that doesn’t harm anybody or further obsess you. Do something that is physical, mundane, and and an act of care for yourself and the others in your home environment: Scrub the bathroom down, clean out the bottom drawer of the fridge, dust the baseboards. Call your elected officials. Find something you’ve been putting off and do it.

Finally (do not skip this step), get in touch with someone who always does want to hear from you, someone who is always glad to let you in, somebody you don’t have to work at. The absent person isn’t the only love or friendship you will ever have in your life. You have excess love right now, so give some away.

 

*Advice does not apply to crushes on an employee/assistant/student/a roommate you are quarantined with/somebody you have power over, or any person who has to be nice to you because of where they work or because they can’t get away from you. Leave your barista/pharmacist/grocery worker alone. 

**Safety first! Shredding it into tiny pieces or making elaborate paper snowflakes is also a dramatic and symbolic act of destruction.

 

Dear Captain,

I had a friend I first met about 15 years ago. We got on amazingly well: mutual friends called us “one mind in two bodies” because our personalities were so similar. We understood each other almost perfectly and could talk and laugh for hours about things nobody else quite got. We then had an extraordinarily intense romantic relationship: we were ridiculously in love and had an incredibly deep connection. It ended because I was super needy and honestly wasn’t ready for that sort of relationship. We were both heartbroken and intended to get back together one day, but life took us in other directions. We tried to stay friends but I wanted too much from him; he felt he had to keep me at arm’s length. I told him I had too many messy feelings to have a healthy friendship, he begged me not to go, I said I hoped to be back one day, there were tears on both sides and we went our separate ways. This was in 2008. Resolving to take something positive from what happened, I worked hard on myself, addressed the co-dependency issues that had driven ALL my previous partners away, and now I’m married to an awesome guy I’ve been with for 10 years.

This January, we finally got back in touch. I apologised for some hurtful things I’d said when I was in a lot of pain over losing him. I told him how I’d changed for the better. I said if he forgave me for being a jerk I would love to rekindle that awesome friendship if he wanted to, now Other Feelings weren’t an issue any more. He replied to say it was a lot to take in (naturally) but he would answer via email, not to worry if that took him a while and, in the meantime, how was I?

Since then we’ve exchanged several messages but often he takes days, even weeks to reply so we haven’t really got a good conversation going (except one night when we texted about random stuff until 2:15am, which showed we still have that great connection and same weird sense of humour). Because communication has been so sporadic, it’s hard to gauge what sort of friendship we might have if at all. When he does reply he’s warm and affectionate, laughs at my jokes and sends me cool stuff he knows I’ll like. But because of our complicated history I’m unsure how well I can walk the line between “yikes, co-dependent ex-girlfriend is messaging too much!” and not having enough contact to re-establish a friendship.

I’m trying to give it time – maybe he’s just not ready and could be navigating A Swamp of Unexpected Feelings himself. But I feel with this sort of situation it’s important to be honest and open from the start about what you want, like I was in my first message to him. I gently reminded him he said he’d email me and while he didn’t have to, I’d appreciate knowing where things stood between us. He said he was busy but could do it next week… which was several weeks ago now and don’t feel I can ask again. Me badgering him when he needed space was why we stopped being close in the first place.

I’m feeling a bit lost about how to handle this situation. At the moment I’m playing it by ear, replying to messages when they come, trying not to send too many back, giving him space when he doesn’t reply. But while I’m thrilled to be back in touch, there’s this elephant in the room, it’s…uncomfortable, and I don’t believe he’s going to send me that email – it’s been nearly 2 months. How can I figure out what the relationship is between us without making him feel pressured to talk about things he clearly doesn’t want to talk about?

Hopeful Friend

PS I searched for similar letters but the closest I found was you advising not to reach out to an ex for friendship until your feelings reached the point of “oh yeah him, I wonder how he’s doing, would be fun to catch up.” Which is what I did… but now I don’t know what to do next.

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Dear Captain,

I have read and enjoyed your advice site for several years and appreciate all the work and thought you put into each situation and your response. That being said, as someone who is on the far side of 50, I have noticed that the vast majority of your current audience seems interested in relationships with SOs or with parents. I’m wondering idly if you are anticipating a shift in the focus of questions (toward parenting, menopause, etc.) as your audience ages, or whether you expect they will move on to different sites? What would you most like to happen?

I ask in part because so much of your advice is stuff I have found useful as a parent myself: ask directly/no one can read your mind, you can be angry at someone but not abusive, respect someone’s desire not to communicate, don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, etc. Just as relevant for me and my middle-schooler and high-schooler as for anyone.

And yet there are some things that kind of squiggle around the edges. Sometimes as a mom you HAVE to take one for the team. Be the alarm clock. Give the last piece to the kid. Sacrifice needed sleep to weekend matches. You DO have to snoop in your kid’s phone if she’s just out of suicide watch or has been self-cutting. etc.

There is always going to be some grey, in part because teens flip back and forth between toddler and adult about every 90 seconds. And the stakes are so high. My mom friends and I are constantly counseling and consoling each other over real or imagined parenting mistakes. And we are always asking each other the magic question: “What Would A Normal Mother Do?

But here’s a problem — how can we set firmly the principles and boundaries of self-care when our roles are to protect and nurture? You can’t go no contact with a kid. You can’t refuse to feed or drive to school a kid who just called you a fucking bitch two minutes ago.

Or here is a problem a friend (for real) called me with today. My friend and I both are very pro-choice, intersectional feminists. Her oldest daughter (in college)has decided that she is “feminist but pro-life,” and has spent all of today at a pro-life rally, while simultaneously bombarding her mother (my friend) with pics, of ultrasounds, signs, pics of dismembered fetuses, etc., and texting her about how she has met “real” feminists today, and how strong and brave they are.

My friend is devastated and furious and hurt, of course. But she doesn’t know at all how to handle this. Does she grey rock/broken record/refuse to discuss the topic? (My recommendation.) Is it her responsibility to argue with and further educate her daughter? (Her inclination.) And where to draw the line between meeting her daughter’s need to bait her and get her attention versus meeting her own needs for some calmness and serenity?

This situation is in my mind a bit simpler because my friend’s daughter is a fledgling adult, though all her bills are still paid by her parents.

But beginning from infancy, this kind of dilemma emerges and while it changes faces, it always comes down to the same question. To wit, what guiding principles and strategies are most useful when trying to keep one’s own boundaries sturdy, and yet keep up your obligations and duties to whomever you are parenting?

A child is a sacred trust. It must be. If you choose to take it on, that child’s needs must always be considered first whenever possible. But where does that leave parents?

I’ve learned an awful lot from your site about how not to be a terrible parent. But I’m hoping it can tell me more.

Thank you so much.

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