I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.
Thank you all for the kind words and end-of-year donations and patronage that have flowed in over the last week or so. I’ve been traveling and kind of made a point about not touching my laptop for a week or so, but I read everything and I’m very grateful. ❤
Everyone’s doing decade-retrospectives and my brain is melting at the thought of it. Ten years ago, I was still technically a grad student/adjunct teacher, I lived with roommates, I’d just finished my very last student film, Captain Awkward Dot Com didn’t launch until January 2011, and I didn’t meet Mr. Awkward until 2012.
But let’s do a 2019 round-up, yes? Here were the most-viewed/shared/discussed posts from the site in 2019:
First, a timely seasonal carryover from the very end of 2018, “#1162: Is there room to compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving?“ (Answer: Why not set the default at “Don’t drink and drive”? I made a chart and everything.)
Let’s please stop asking people about their intense private life stuff out of passing curiosity, the idea of politeness, or because we think we’re entitled to know. When people have big news about babies, THEY’LL TELL U.
While the rest of the world catches up, this post has lots of strategies for answering (and deflecting/de-escalating) potentially fraught “small-talk” questions that can unknowingly hit real sore spots.
P.S. Letter Writer #1228 you’ve been in my thoughts and the offer to fight your family in real life if necessary is still incredibly open.
Third, #1219: “My friend’s boyfriend keeps ‘negging’ me.”
This post has THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE comments strategizing about whether it’s okay to tell a serially annoying dude “Look, could you stop?” and is often re-shared/cited for mention of “Schrödinger’s Autist,” a theoretical construct who only comes out in Internet discussions of cis men behaving badly toward women as a way to pre-excuse bad behavior (and has nothing to do with actual autism).
Fourth-most viewed is #1186: “How do I restore trust in my relationship?“
Like the faux rank of “Captain” Awkward, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups” is a self-assigned comedy title because it’s one of my life’s missions to tell
my younger self young people, especially young women, that a partner who keeps letting you down and leaving you wondering in the early stages of a relationship is probably not going to change for the better, and there’s nothing you can do to “love somebody more” into being who you need them to be.
It’s okay to want love, to risk, to try to make things work, but working at somebody who isn’t doing any work to be a good partner to you is a lonely and disappointing bet.
Fifth, #1218: “Irritability and constant criticism in a marriage.“ The post and comments are a good roundup of previous discussions of verbal abuse and safely extricating oneself from a draining and damaging partnership.
Good “Could this be abuse?” guideline: When someone who is supposed to love you is constantly mean and you start asking yourself “what’s wrong with me that’s making this person be so mean, how can I fix myself?” it might be time to visit LoveIsRespect.org from a private browsing window and start making plans.
Notable for link to description of “insecure overachievers”and how capitalism hijacks anxieties and perfectionism in search of star performers, not caring who burns out along the way or how unsustainable and unhealthy the culture can get.
VERY GOOD NEWS: This Letter Writer sent me an update and is doing MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER. ❤
I had the worst time moving on after breakups (rejection sensitive dysphoria, yaaaaaaaay) and learning how to let people go was one of the hardest and best lessons I ever learned. I’m proud of this heartbreak omnibus and hope it can make a difference to others. There are enough ballrooms in you, Letter Writer, and I hope you are in much better straits now.
Eighth, #1194: “I’m moving in with my girlfriend and now my homophobic parents want to disown me.“ One of a series of posts on family estrangement and how to close doors to protect yourself and leave some open in hope of better things. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” Letter Writer, your parents don’t deserve you and I hope your new home with your girlfriend is a cozy and happy one that is everything you want it to be.
People have choices about how they treat you, and relationships don’t get messed up overnight or for no reason, so when a parent wants you to have a “closer” relationship, does that obligate you to try to repair things in some way? Can they acknowledge why distance made sense at the time?
Probably one of the most personal posts I’ve made on the site, this brought up lots of stuff for me and was very much on my mind during holiday visits with my folks. When people talk about the past, my mom says “I don’t remember that” a lot ( A LOT) in a sharp, pointed way that clearly means “So, obviously it didn’t happen.” She’s telling the truth (she doesn’t remember) but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or that my memories are lies. I still don’t know how to ever ethically tell our story or tell her about my writing here, but I know our story lies at the heart of many of the things I write here.
In tenth place, several posts around the topic of “WEDDINGS, WHY ARE THEY SO WEIRD?” came in within 100 page views of each other so I’m re-sharing them all:
- “It’s Mother-Effing Wedding Season Again So Let’s Chat. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your friendships, your partnership, your body. It does not have to be your sole creative act that communicates your exact social class and crafting ability.
- #1223: “Feminist Etiquette Wedding Help”. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your relationship, your body, or the world. It’s a party so try to throw a good one that makes you happy and invites your guests in to what you want vs. trying to argue with each of them about why you’re allowed to want what you want. “Oh thanks, but we’re all set!” is a very useful phrase.
- #1188: “Grief and empty chairs at the wedding feast. “Maybe the idea of ghosts first sprang from the divided vision of grieving people, the way we can both see the party as it’s happening and see the echoes of what the party should be like, our longing giving shape and color to the empty spaces where our loves should be.”
- #1189: “Fox News, Immigrant Family, and the F**ing Wedding Invite List.” Probably the Uncle could have behaved himself for one day, but this thing where we tiptoe around bigots and keep negotiating with non-bigots for “more tolerance” toward bigots has gotta stop. We can work on tolerating/convincing/courting them once we’ve out-organized and out-voted them, let people who aren’t their direct targets run interference for a change.
I should also highlight the awesome series of guest posts from Lenée aka dopegirlfresh aka the GOAT who filled in for me during surgery in the spring. I plan to have her back in 2020, as well as some other exciting guests (Rae McDaniel has volunteered to peek into the inbox to answer questions about gender, we’re just trying to get a meeting on the calendar to figure out the logistics).
The blog motto for 2019 was “Quit working so hard on relationships that aren’t working for you” and I’m still ruminating on 2020’s. How do people feel about “Do even less work than that and see how you feel?”
Love and good New Year wishes to all of you in Awkwardland, comments are open.
Got an update for us (never an obligation, but we love to read them)?
Is there a post from the past year that you found especially useful?
Did you kick ass at setting a difficult boundary this year?
Did you decide to put in “less work” with a thorny relationship? What happened?
Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.
We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”
Hey Captain Awkward,
Here is my dilemma:
I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.
She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.
She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.
After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.
Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.
Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.
I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.
I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?
Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.
You gotta leave M. alone.
I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and you tried to be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. would talk it over one more time and maybe give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone.
We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.
That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every single past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her again.”
Her silence now is a way of making that space when asking didn’t work.
Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space (a thing she tried several times), but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. What is there to explain? She’s been pretty consistent with you from the start and it’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.
Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out just outside the gates trying to have just one more conversation about what kind of fish to put in the moat.
So where do you go from here? You can decide that M. is incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.
In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic to “punish” her. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at considerable expense? 😉 And let her do the same, without having to manage your feelings!
Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.
As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. It won’t go back to how it was before, a little friendliness from her absolutely will NOT be an indication that she’s changed her mind and is now Into You That Way, but chances are it won’t always be quite so tense. If and only if: You give her space.
(And if you hear that she’s broken up with her boyfriend at some future point? KEEP GIVING HER SPACE. We don’t forget when people close to us tell us they are in love with us, if she ever wants to talk about that again you will know because she seeks you out and brings it up. If she doesn’t talk about it, assume she’s not feeling it.)
I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out, turned out the lights, and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.
Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?”
The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.
Behind a cut for mention of consent violations.
#1230: “Help Me Not Judge Myself If A Guy I Sleep With Turns Out To Be An Asshole Later”
I (she/her) have become rather adept at spotting red flags and parting ways when necessary. However, when I’m looking for casual sex, sometimes it takes away from the excitement if I’m getting to know the guy at length first. It’s, like, ‘let me interview you to know I like you as a friend before we have the not-so-spontaneous sex‘. It’s cool, but sometimes it’s not what I want.
I’d rather have the amount of interaction that builds up to a sexy situation, then go for it. Then, if the guy turns out to be an asshole for some reason, I can cut ties with him and it’s not a big deal. But I’m worried I might end up judging myself along the lines of ‘you should have known better’ (and essentially internalising the judgement of family members / other people). Help me get looser!
Lady on the Loose
Dear Lady On The Loose,
Respectfully, I don’t know how to tell you how to have a conversation between you and you, and I don’t think we can prevent our feelings even by thinking about them a whole lot in advance. “How do I stop myself from feeling ____” is a very common question in my box (right after ‘How do I tell people things they don’t want to hear but without making them upset?’) and the answer is the same: I don’t know, but I agree that it would be awesome if we could!
What I have for you are questions: If you accidentally come across an asshole, it would be incredibly okay to feel bad about that, right? Assholes are unpleasant! What a crappy disappointing ruiner of your fun time!
If you felt so bad that you started judging yourself, what would you do?
What, if anything, would you change about your behavior and approach to casual sex and meeting men?
If your friends and family judged you, what, if anything, would you change?
Would you take a break from meeting people for a while? Would you institute stronger/slower/longer screening? Would you chalk it up to experience and keep going? You have options for adapting to new information, and feelings are one kind of information, so what’s the worst thing that happens if you trust yourself and say, “Hello, Self! I’ll definitely change it up if this stops working for us”?
Be rigorous about safer sex practices and testing, and make sure you keep doing your due diligence re: safety and red flag spotting, but otherwise? Maybe getting what you want from this entails some risk, and this is one of the risks, and if it comes it comes, but you got what you wanted more times than you didn’t.
Hi Captain Awkward –
TL;DR: one of my partner’s friends became my Cool New Friend, right up until he abruptly pulled back and implied I had romantic feelings for him. I do not. He seems to want to keep hanging out (??!) and I don’t want to make it awkward but this really upset me and I have no idea how to feel or behave.
I (32, she/her) am in a very happy relationship with wonderful Partner (31M). Earlier this year I hit it off with Partner’s friend “Bob” (30??M). Bob is funny and interesting and well-read, and Partner suggested Bob and I could see movies together (Partner has a low tolerance for silent films). Over 6 months, Bob and I ended up hanging out every 2-3 weeks. Periodically one of us (usually Bob) would suggest we meet for a movie or a meal. We’d hang out for couple of hours and talk a lot. Bob seemed surprisingly comfortable being open early on (family, health, a recent breakup), and taking my cue from him, I found myself talking unreservedly to him like a close friend. (I cringe now to think of this.) Partly I think Bob needed to process the denouement of his romantic relationship, but we canvassed lots of other things, so I wasn’t just the Designated Woman Listener. And, well, I am in a conspicuously happy relationship with Partner, while Bob is dealing with feelings for someone else. No When Harry Met Sally problems here!
Then Bob abruptly cancelled a dinner he had suggested, before a movie he had suggested, via text message, because he was “uncomfortable” and felt like we had been “going on dates.” After some prodding, Bob divulged that he thought I had romantic feelings for him. Bob is a great guy and I would have no hesitation setting him up with a friend, but I do not have feelings for Bob. At all. (Bob did not help matters by subsequently demanding text confirmation of this for “reassurance”. What?)
Unfortunately, Bob stepped right into a bear trap of my anxieties. Making friends has always been hard for me. It makes me feel so pathetic in retrospect, but I’d been really excited about my awesome new friend. I also have a history of damaging friendships through thoughtlessness or terrible boundaries – behaviours I *thought* I’d grown out of. I was embarrassed, upset, and increasingly, angry. Bob basically cast aspersions on my commitment to Partner – who literally laughed out loud at the idea when I told him.
Captain, we’ve hung out twice since, and it was awful. I’m stilted and uncomfortable; Bob seems to want to pretend nothing happened. But I’m not comfortable behaving like before, because clearly that gave Bob the wrong idea! Being so wildly misread really sucks, and I’m torn between wanting to know how Bob got this idea, and never wanting to hear it because oh nooooo what did I doooooo.
Bob is still doggedly suggesting movies. I really don’t want to screw up Partner’s social circle and part of me wonders if any friendship is salvageable. But I don’t know how much of this is my fault and I don’t know how to behave around Bob anymore. Also, now I’m back down to zero people to watch weird old movies with. I have no idea how to address this situation. Help??
Other people don’t get to tell you what your feelings are, full stop.
Additionally, I consulted Occam’s Razor (I keep it next to Occam’s hand lotion, Occam’s minty morning mouthwash, and Occam’s Big Paisley Tie) and it indicated that Bob possibly became weird because HE was developing a big old crush on YOU. Your hangouts felt like dates…to him. And instead of either ruefully admitting it or dealing with it quietly (“I’ll just keep being her friend, it will pass“), he projected it all onto you.
A second possibility that still has nothing to do with anything you did wrong: The person Bob is actually pursuing romantically looks askance at the friendship between you, either because they are jealous of you, specifically, or because they are one of those people who are convinced that men and women can’t ever be friends (au contraire, mon frère) and unfortunately Bob is also sort of one of those people but was making an exception for his Silent Film Buddy. Maybe your hangouts looked like dates to that person, so that person made it weird for Bob, who in turn made it weird for you. The demand for text confirmation makes me imagine Bob saying to this person, “See? I asked her and she doesn’t feel that way. We just go to the movies sometimes.”
Third possibility: This is like one of those things where you get really upset at someone in a dream and you wake up and you’re angry at them in real life but only for stuff they did in the dream. Maybe Dream-You got horny for Dream-Bob one night, which, fine, except, Not Fine, because Awake-Bob crossed the dream streams and broke up your film club dream team.
Fourth possibility: Say you accidentally did or said something that made Bob feel uncomfortable, like a line was being crossed. You didn’t hit on him, but the intimacy of your conversations, for whatever reason, felt like Too Much for the level of movie buddies he wants to be. Or he felt like he was sharing too much private information with you and wanted to pull back from those kinds of conversations. In that scenario a friend might reasonably want to regroup a bit, like, “Note to self, these friend-dates are starting to feel like date-dates…to me…maybe I should change something up here” but that can be done without blaming you or asking for a notarized statement of your lack of pantsfeelings. Crushes happen, misunderstandings happen, but we don’t tell our friends they have feelings and then, like, punish them for their feelings that we made up in our heads and told them they had.
So what to do now? To truly clear the air, Bob would need to admit what he did and apologize to you. “I’m so sorry I insisted that you had feelings for me. What actually happened was I was feeling ________ about ________ and I projected all that on to you.”
You could attempt to clear the air. The next time he suggests a film, you could say, “Dude, I want to go to the movies but not until we talk about the very weird thing you did. I never had romantic feelings for you, and you made me INCREDIBLY uncomfortable when you insisted I did. If I did or said something specific that made you uncomfortable, please tell me what it was so I can apologize and not ever do it again. We can go back to acting like it never happened once you tell me, honestly, what the hell was that about?”
I realize asking him directly is nerve-wracking for you, both because of your history because you can’t necessarily trust him to be honest or self-aware enough to not double down and try even more projection. But please know, you’d be entirely within your rights to do it.
You could let Partner intervene on your behalf. I generally advise letting our partners handle their own friendships and not getting in the middle, which seems to be your strategy as well, but maybe next time the two men hang out solo your Partner can throw up a “Dude, [LW] doesn’t have feelings for you and you made her incredibly uncomfortable about that whole thing. What was UP with that?” and a “Well, you probably need to apologize before you try to plan any more movie nights.”
You could also take a break and hang with Bob only at bigger Partner-social-circle events. You’re not “screwing up” anybody’s social circle, you just don’t have time right now to go to the movies with your Partner’s friend who you thought was a cool friend but who is actually a super-presumptive and demanding friend who you didn’t enjoy seeing movies with the last two times you did that. Make a rule going forward: “For every 10 minutes I spending navigating The Bobness, I will spend 10 minutes finding (or founding!) a women-watching-old movies-together meet where I live.” Go to screenings alone sometimes. Wear an incredibly fancy and fetching hat. Say hello to the other regulars in the crowd (there are almost certainly regulars in the crowd). If your town has silent film screenings, plural, you and Bob are not the only people in that scene. Meet the other beautiful nerds.
You can also join Bob for an occasional film/joint exercise in pretending it didn’t happen, and see if it gets better with some time. Bob’s persistence in making plans is an indicator that he does like you and want to go to the movies still. But look, I’m bilingual in both English and acting like the elephant is not in the room, so I want to be clear: Bygones are a gift. If you never bring this up again, if you try to hang out with Bob like it never happened and give the friendship some time to recover, that is a favor you are doing for him. You are letting him save face after the weird thing he did, with a silent message of: “Friend, I’m trusting that was a one-time thing and you had your reasons, reasons which you will sheepishly acknowledge someday, maybe to me, maybe to your therapist, and I like you enough to give it another try. Don’t fuck it up.”
The most important thing, to me, is that you stop blaming yourself and get off the back foot. Climb out of your shame-hole. You’re in a weird situation not because something’s inherently wrong with you but because your friend Bob put you in the impossible position of denying a negative. Bob’s gonna Bob. It doesn’t mean you’ll never again pass a pleasant afternoon together watching a restored print of Nosferatu while a live orchestra plays the score, but it does mean that the closer friendship you thought was happening is not entirely possible within Bob’s limitations.