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Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.

The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?

For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:

>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””

In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’

Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.

Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.

– A Weary Woman

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Hi Captain!

Longtime reader, very rare commenter but I think you generally give excellent advice so I’m giving it a shot. I’ll try to keep this relatively brief – I’m having an existential problem surrounding life milestones, etc. I’m 25 and have generally been pretty successful in my life – I’ve been academically successful, I have a law degree and a good job, and I have a really good group of friends, most of whom have been in my life for many years.

What I haven’t had is a whole lot of romantic relationships. This is generally fine with me. I really value my personal space and don’t generally crave the kind of constant companionship that comes with serious relationships. I’ve dumped people for “liking me too much” (ie, coming on too strong, wanting a kind of closeness I wasn’t comfortable with, etc). I’ve had one relationship that I would classify as “semi-serious” with a much older man that I met several years ago (we are still close and sometimes physically involved but not currently “in a relationship”). This relationship used to cause me a lot of emotional pain but I’m at peace with it now and don’t consider it a source of stress in my life. Additionally, I am kind of wary of men (I haven’t been raped or abused, fortunately, but have had the same experiences as a lot of women – sexual harassment, etc, lots of friends who are survivors) and am generally not one to give men “benefit of the doubt” when I’m uninterested or uncomfortable.

The problem is, certain family members seem to consistently insinuate that I need to “fix” my dating life. I’ve made the mistake of mentioning that I eventually might be interested in marriage/kids, which has apparently given these family members permission to ask about why I’m not dating, give unsolicited advice about my dating life or lack thereof, and critique the way I interact with men. These family members did not approve of my previous relationship (and I understand why, although it’s truly none of their business) and seem to be motivated by a desire to see me “move on” from it. I always feel like they’re trying to tell me there’s something wrong with me for not being all that interested in dating; I’m also a pretty private person and don’t tend to talk about people I casually date/am interested in.

I’m at an age where a lot of my friends are in serious relationships and some are married, and the pressure is starting to get to me. Eventually, a relationship would be nice. I love kids and would like to have some of my own someday. But I need to do it on my own timeline, when I’m comfortable, when I figure out what I want and what I need. I’m not even 100% sure that I’m not bisexual. Scripts like “I don’t want to talk about my dating life/relationships” have only been interpreted as an invitation to “push” harder from these family members, and this lack of respect for my boundaries seems to be fraying my familial relationships that are really important to me. I want to be close with my family but I’m also an adult and need people to mind their own business, and I don’t know what to do. Any advice?

Best,

Single and Stressed (she/her)

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Oh captain, my captain!

I have been with my partner for 5 years and our families get on well. For the past year we have been living in his parents house, but up until about two weeks ago his parents were living abroad and we were looking after the house while trying to save money. Now we’ve found a home and are moving in very shortly.

My partner says his parents love me and for the most part they have been great to us, helping give us a head start in our adult lives.

There is however, one point where me and his mother really butt heads; she was raised in a predominantly catholic country with anti-choice laws and is anti-choice/pro-life, I am pro-choice and work for an abortion provider.

We have gotten into some hot debates about this before (all initiated by her) and I have purposely dodged the subject and not bought into it when this subject has come up. When I first started working where I work I told my partner not to tell her where I work, and was perfectly prepared to never tell her as I was worried about her reaction, somehow she figured out where I worked and hasn’t made an issue of it though(until tonight).

But just a couple of hours before writing this email we had a pretty bad one.

It started with us having a nice chat about general topics including family. She bought her pro-life views up a couple of times and I either ignored it or moved us to a slightly different subject because I could feel the topic moving in that direction and desperately didn’t want it to. At one point she said ‘we wont get into a debate again’. Guess what happened.

She accused me of having no emotion about the issue, of not having the facts, of misunderstanding the women I’m trying to help, of not providing the sort of help they really need, of buying into propaganda, of being passive aggressive, continually interrupted me, firing questions while not answering mine, raising her voice, continually said “your lot” and “you people”, insinuated that the post-partum depression my friend suffered from was due to an abortion she had 10 years earlier, telling me she’s done her research on the issue and knows what she’s talking about whereas I haven’t (ironically when I suggested asking one of our nurses a question on development on her behalf she said that they would just tell me what I wanted to hear) and basically just telling me she’s right, I’m bad at my job and don’t know what I’m talking about.

She at one point pointed out that I was “getting nervous” because I was being faced with “the facts” I told her I don’t like confrontation and she insisted this wasn’t a confrontation. (Actually the reason I was shaking is the outside door right next to me was open and I find it noteworthy that she didn’t back off despite noticing nervousness in me).

At another point I said, somewhat lightheartedly hoping to salvage the conversation, “you said we weren’t going to have a debate” and she accused me of back pedaling because I was being faced with questions I couldn’t answer.

It ended after a particularly hot point in the argument where she refused to accept the answer I gave, she went quiet for a moment and it seemed to end so I said “can I go to bed now I have work tomorrow” and she said “there you go, passive aggressive, you lot are always so persecuted aren’t you, I wasn’t keeping you here love” and left the room.

I think in many ways my possible-future-MIL is a tremendous woman and I respect her very much. But I don’t ever want to have this sort of conversation with her again. I am fine with accepting that we will never agree on this issue, i’m not the sort of person who needs everyone to agree with me. I do not like confrontation and up to a certain point someone having a different stance on an issue is something I can deal with just fine. But tonight it felt like she hates me. Once I got upstairs I felt angry, sick and kind of like I was going to cry. It felt like sheer contempt. I have an anxiety disorder which doesn’t help the whole confrontation thing and I feel like i cant bare going downstairs tomorrow. Because I was raised to respect my elders and she’s possibly-my-future-MIL i’m sorta scared of her (p.s. this is the same woman who told me if I got pregnant with ‘her grandchild’ she would “let” me have an abortion or put it up for adoption) and don’t know how to/want to bring this issue up with her.

Do you have any scripts/survival tactics for my situation?

Thanks,
Not up for a debate

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Dear Captain Awkward:

A girl I’ve been seeing for 5 weeks broke up with me and it hit me really hard. It took me a night to realize that I had attributed a lot of emotional weight to staying over at her place on week 4, when she asked me to come over and stay the night . So when we had the break up talk the week after that, I felt completely blindsided.

In my mind, staying the night means we are Officially In A Relationship. I was already imagining meeting her friends and hopefully eventually her family, stuff like that. In the days following that night, she invited me to a gathering with her friends and also to a dinner her friend invited both of us to, so it seemed like my expectations of what that night meant were holding true; up to that point I hadn’t met any of her friends. And then a week later she wanted to break up.

I told her my feelings about that night during the breakup, and her response was the typical “you built up too much of this relationship too fast, maybe slow it down in the future.” But I really don’t think I can change how I feel about staying the night with someone. Based on talking to some friends, it seems like people my age don’t attach nearly as much weight to this as I do, as it’s just one of Those Things You Do in a new relationship. Is there anything I can do to resolve this disparity in the future when dating someone new?

Basic background: I’m 28 years old and I didn’t start dating until I was 25. The longest relationship I’ve been in was 6 weeks. I’ve read about attachment patterns in adults and I solidly fall into the anxious-preoccupied model.

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Dear Captain,

I’m a 20-year-old college student and I don’t drink, nor will I likely ever drink in the future. My father is an alcoholic, and every family member on his side has some form of substance abuse problem. I know that having a drink now and again will not necessarily hurt me or lead to a drinking problem of my own, but I’ve decided to just abstain completely anyways.

Most of my peers/classmates, however, like to drink and will often talk at length about it. I’ve been asked multiple times about my beer preference or some other alcohol-related question, to which I simply reply I don’t drink. For some reason, most people can’t seem to accept this and will ask me why not, or even try to convince me how great drinking is if I say it’s because I’m not interested. I don’t have a problem with other people drinking or listening to stories about it, but I don’t know how to explain my “disinterest” to other people.

I really don’t want to be a huge bummer in front of other people and say outright, “I don’t drink because my dad is an alcoholic,” but I don’t know how to get people to stop asking questions. “I don’t drink for personal reasons,” also feels like either a bummer or might lead to people asking what those reasons are.

So, Captain is there any way I can sidestep these questions without having to divulge my personal circumstances or bringing down the mood of the group?

Thanks for any help,

Sober in South Florida (she/her)

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Hi Captain Awkward!

I have a younger sister (very close in age – Irish twins). She is beautiful, talented, intelligent, witty and fun — one of those life of the party types, kind of universally beloved. I am more of an average person, and had a tough time growing up under my sister’s shadow. My family is very competitive and I always came up short. One hilarious/tragic example is that my first two (TWO!!!! BOTH OF THEM! as if this happened more than once!) high school boyfriends both told me that they only started dating me to get closer to my sister since she’s the one they were actually crushing on. Other high school kids called her “the hot one.” I was not. People in my grade would invite her to parties but not me.

This was not her fault! She didn’t ask other people to be cruel. She did kind of act like your typical popular teenage girl, though, and we were pretty bitchy to each other — but I don’t think it was any worse than normal teenage siblings. I just took it really hard. My parents tried to be understanding, but they also have very high expectations and growing up I just always felt out of place, didn’t feel like I belonged or was valued.

Anyway, the result is that in my midtwenties, I now live very far from the rest of my family and try to limit my time with them. I see them three times a year at major holidays. I call my mom almost every day and I have a good relationship with her one-on-one, but I always feel sad when I have to spend time with my extended family — in fact, the sad feelings last for a couple weeks even after I return to my home in a different city. I also notice that when I’m with my family, I have trouble being my best self. After moving away I became an outgoing, happy, well-adjusted, confident person, but as soon as I get home I turn into a shy sad little clam (although I think they would describe it as sullen and ungrateful).

My sister has grown up into an accomplished, non-teenage jerk-y person, and she has a GREAT relationship with the rest of my family — they all live in the same city. The issue is that my mom regularly bugs me about why a) my sister and I aren’t closer (we don’t talk to each other apart from holidays, although it’s definitely always civil); b) I don’t come home more often; c) why I choose to live so far away.

My question is just … how to deal with this?? For my own sanity, I’ve kind of taken the “run awaaaay!!!” route and it’s worked for me. I’m happy when I’m not around them. I’ve got a great “chosen family” of friends that I’ve made since leaving home. But I realize that a lot of my family drama is my own issue now, and my mom’s feelings especially are hurt that I don’t spend more time with them so we can be a happy close family that does all kinds of stuff together. For example, soon I’ll be in their area for a weekend with my boyfriend (for a non-family event), and my mom keeps asking “but I just don’t understand why you won’t just stay with your sister?!?? they have a spare room!” (he and I have booked a hotel room instead).

It’s hard for me to just say “Hey, I’m just going to be home for Christmas for a couple days but then I’m going to travel” when it’s not really THEM that’s dysfunctional, it’s me. I think my mom is getting increasingly twitchy about this because we’re approaching marriage and baby-making age, and also she and my dad are getting older so she worries about us staying in contact when they’re not around anymore.

Do I have the right to just set these boundaries for myself even though I’m pretty sure I’m the messed up one here? If so, how do I do this kindly and appropriately while still taking care of myself?

Thanks!
Sibling Rivalry Up the Wazoo

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