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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??

Hello!

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.

Hello again! Patrons have sent short questions. I have attempted to answer them. Installment 1 is here.

This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.

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Patrons of the blog have sent in short questions. Surprising nobody, I have written answers between “medium” and “epic.” This is Part 1 of 2, the rest will come later in the week.

In this batch: A friend is ghosting me to my face at work, I want to reconnect with a friend I accidentally ghosted, my downstairs neighbors complained to me about walking too loud, I need my partners to be more/differently supportive about depression and anxiety, and I’m about to burn out at work, will it kill my career if I take time off?

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Hello,

I’ve (she/her) been dating my boyfriend (he/him) for one year now, we are both in our late 20s and sadly both still living with our families due to student debt.

For context, we also both have anxiety and he struggles with depression.

It can be very difficult for me to bring up any issues I have with his behaviors, because no matter how small they seem to turn into a big fight because he sees it as me criticizing him. He tells me how unfair it is that i’m always criticizing him when he never criticizes me. He seems to think there are loads of things that I dislike about him and that there is nothing he dislikes about me. Truthfully, I think he’s a wonderful person and a wonderful boyfriend and I tell him that constantly.

It also feels unfair to put me on a pedestal. I for sure do things wrong, I often run late (although due to living situations the burden of transport is always on me).

No matter how gently I approach him he still finds a way to make me an antagonist and then wallows for days (he won’t go out or do anything, he’ll cancel all his plans). I feel like by telling him how I feel about something I am pushing him into depressive moods, and it makes it hard to bring anything up.

Its not as if i’m being overly critical or focusing on the little things. It’s things like him wanting to cancel a date last minute to go play a game with his friends and me trying to say that it makes me feel like i’m not a priority (we have set date nights 1-2 times a week depending on his work schedule, I am very busy and if we don’t have set nights I won’t have any free time to see him). He also tends to respond in extremes “fine then i’ll never try to do anything else on a Tuesday ever again” it makes it really hard to feel as if we’re having a productive conversation.

He also works a part time job in a store while he’s on break from school and I work a full-time job in an office (i’ve graduated). He likes to game with his friends and stay up all night, which I can’t do if I want to be a functioning employee. So when I sleep over at his place (2 nights a week usually) he’ll hop in bed with me for ten minutes and then get up to game all night. He does it because he doesn’t want to feel trapped in bed all night (I get that, I lived with a boyfriend who wouldn’t let me leave the apartment without him and who expected me to go to bed at a certain time and stay there) but often him getting up as I’m falling asleep wakes me back up and makes me feel both a little sad and annoyed (I can sometimes hear him gaming and talking to buddies online although he tries to be quiet, also, is spooning me really that much of a chore?).

I feel as though I can’t talk to him about this without him going off the deep end, I wonder if its best to just stop having sleep overs. I really love him, I just feel as though he takes things so hard that I can’t really trust him with how I feel.

-June Wants to Spoon

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Hi Captain!

As I’ve tried to make better friends with her, I’ve realized that my roommate’s GF is a very negative person. Several times in a conversation, small talk will be shut down with very honest but also very negative responses that make it hard to move the conversation forward. Some examples:

Me: I heard you and your parents are going to [nice restaurant] next week, that’ll be so fun!
Her: It’s actually not very nice there.
Me: Oh, really?
Her: No.

Roommate: I think I’ll start taking Spanish classes.
Me: That’ll be fun! And it will definitely help in your line of work.
Her: I speak 3 languages and it’s never helped me.

A few points:
1) These are conversations that take place, for example, while we’re all sitting around in the den before we all scatter to do separate things. That is, she and I are not hanging out one-on-one or having intentional heart-to-hearts, it’s ‘we’re both/all sitting here, let’s not sit in silence’ vibes.
2) She has apparently told her BF she wishes she were better friends with me, so it’s not that she’s trying to shut me down and I’m missing the hint. I would have stopped trying by now if I didn’t know she apparently wanted to be friends.
3) I recognize that my pattern is to try and put a positive spin on things, and clearly she doesn’t appreciate that… but I have no idea how else to make light small talk, especially when she doesn’t seem to be introducing these negative angles in order to confide in me or something. It just makes the conversation die.

While I do want advice for how to manage this particular friendship better because this person is constantly hanging around my house, I realized that this is also a bigger question, and one I thought you’d be particularly suited to answer because it comes up quite a lot from the opposite side in questions here. What do you do when you’re the person trying to make the small talk that the other person apparently finds annoying or offensive (accepting as a given that they aren’t just trying to make you go away)?

best,
Chatty Cathy (she/her)

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Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.

 

 

 

 

Behind a cut for emotional abuse, misogyny, and discussion of these things as specifically related to recent gun violence and the possibility thereof, which is not what the Letter Writer asked, but definitely something I saw in the question.

I did a giant dump of cat photos for patrons if you need to click on over that way. ❤

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