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emotional abuse

Behind a cut for mention of child abuse, sexual abuse, and abuse from a therapist. See also, bullying about weight and fat-shaming. Basically a bingo card of triggering, problematic shit and a very awesome Letter Writer trying to handle it all gracefully. ❤

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We are overdue for the blog feature where I answer the search strings people typed in to find this place as if they are questions. Let’s do it!

First, as is traditional, a song:

 

RIP to one of the coolest, realest artists I was lucky enough to share the space-time continuum with.

:cries for the 100th time this week and it’s only Tuesday:

:cracks knuckles:

Let’s do this.

1 “How to tell someone you don’t like talking on the phone.”

I’m not a phone person – can we take this to [text][email][chat] instead?”

“I can’t do a phone call right now, can you text/email/message instead?”

It’s okay to have strong preferences and needs around how you best communicate, and it’s also okay if those preferences are flexible and negotiable depending on who you’re communicating with, your mood and energy levels at any given time, what people in your life has access to, their strong needs or preferences, etc. You absolutely don’t have to have one blanket rule for everyone in your life or strive to be fair about this.

I wasn’t the biggest phone person before, but it turns out I prefer it vastly to Zoom (there’s a reason for that), and I’m enjoying catching up with people like it’s 1991 again, flat on my back with my feet up, twirling the charging cable around my finger like it’s an old spiral phone cord.

2 “Is it normal to hate talking on the phone when dating?”

It’s normal – or at least not uncommon – to not enjoy the phone or prefer different means of communication (see above).

I think the necessary follow-up question here is: Is it the medium or is it the conversation partner? If you don’t usually like talking on the phone, but your companion makes a normally difficult thing fun and easy, that’s a good information. If you don’t usually like talking on the phone and this person makes the prospect even less appealing, or if you do like talking on the phone with friends and family but not with this person, that’s interesting information about chemistry, compatibility, communication styles, etc.

Social distancing means that in-person dates are on hold for now and people can’t rely on non-verbal chemistry so much so figuring out how and whether you can have a comfortable, connected, enjoyable conversation with somebody is front and center for the time being. I think it’s always good to pay attention to your own enjoyment and comfort levels, especially when first getting to know someone, and “am I actually enjoying this” is perhaps a better question than “am I weird for not enjoying this as much as I think I am supposed to.”

3 “It it appropriate to put a sign on door to let neighbors know you’re resting.”

I love looking at a posted sign – especially a highly-specific rule – and wondering “What’s the story that prompted this?”

This question is a bit like that. There would be no need for a sign if these specific neighbors weren’t prone to interrupting during rest periods, right?

In that case, a sign that’s like “I work nights, please do not disturb” or “Don’t wake the baby” and then redirecting anyone who would be tempted to knock or ring a bell to another means of communication (email, text, leave a note on one of those dry erase boards people hung on their doors in the dorms) might work. “Leave your calling card on the silver tray in the hall, Jeeves will see to it.” 

Sometimes people see general “To Whom It May Concern” notes and think, “Ah, but they don’t mean me,”  so consider having a conversation with said neighbors along the lines of “Please text or email vs. just stopping by and I’ll get back to you when I can, or leave whatever it is on the mat, I’m often resting during the day and would prefer not to be awakened unless it’s a true emergency.” 

4 “My husband teases me always about my health problems.”

NOT COOL.

If you’ve already had one sincere “Stop it, that’s off limits for jokes” conversation and he’s still doing it, your husband could be afflicted with Irredeemable Asshole Problems.

Post-quarantine I’m envisioning a National No-Fault Divorce Day, with flower crowns and maypole dancing like in Midsommar as everyone celebrates being freeeeeeeeeeeeee. There will be pro-bono lawyers working the crowd, and judges at kiosks throughout the park, and in the parking lot a giant swap meet for household items as everyone tries to rebuild a functional kitchen from their half of what’s left behind. “I’ve got two blenders and a bread machine I never use, trade you for a cordless drill and a decent cutting board?” “No cutting board but there are three jars of coriander in my spice cabinet, I can throw in the drill, some placemats, and a home brewing kit?” “Done!”

Maybe see you there?

5 “Grown men who only want to smoke weed and play video games.”

If you meet an adult man who likes doing this *and only this* with his free time, probably assume that this is pretty much how he is. Weed is relaxing and video games are fun and there’s no upper age limit where that’s not true of the people who find that to be true. Assume that he has chosen freely and leave him to it!

If this is not how you are (just guessing from the “grown men” phrasing), look for partners, friends, housemates, co-parents (!!!), etc. who do things that you enjoy (or at least don’t find stinky, ridiculous, and annoying).

How a person actually is at their current age > How you think a person should be by a certain age, so select for current compatibility, not imagined future potential. You will be so much happier if your relationships aren’t ones where you see yourself as the responsible, permanently irritated parent sniffing everyone’s hair to see if it smells of concerts and view the other people in your life as permanent Large Adult Sons with bloodshot eyes who need to be motivated and molded into something else.

6 “My parents text me too much.”

If you’ve tried asking them to cut this down and it hasn’t worked, or if the pandemic is bringing out old anxieties and old habits that you thought were settled, try responding pleasantly at regular, predictable intervals when you have the energy and capacity to reply, and completely ignoring non-emergency communications from them the rest of the time. They may not like it (and may temporarily increase the flurry or test your resolve) but they will very likely adapt to it if you stay consistent.

You might slightly reduce conflict even further by changing any conversations about this from “You text me too much! Jeez!” to being more about you and your own self-care habits.  “Oh, I’ve been putting my phone on silent so I can read in the afternoons.” “I’m trying to not be glued to the news and social media, so I’m logging out for big chunks of time every day,” “A good window to reach me is between 5:30 and 6:30 pm, if I don’t respond right away I’ll try to check in around that time every day.”

My folks are not frequent texters but this seems like a good time for the story of how I was in class & meetings all day with my phone off and then went to the movies without checking messages since I just needed quiet, and the dark, and solitude, and Thor: Ragnarok on the biggest loudest screen I could find.

I came out of the movies, went to a solo dinner, and finally turned my phone back on to find a bunch of texts and voice mails from my mom along the lines of “Please call when you get this.” “Still trying to reach you, get in touch when you can.” It’s like, 8:30ish my time so 9:30 pm on the East Coast, everybody should still be up, so I call my mom’s cell back. No answer. I call my dad’s cell. No answer. I call the house line. No answer. I leave voice and text messages everywhere, and start to worry. There is zero chance that they are not home at 9:30 on a random Tuesday unless something’s up, so what’s up?

I call my older brother’s cell – is there an emergency? – no answer from him. Now I’m really worried.

Does my aunt know what’s up? She at least texts back that she knows of no emergencies but she’ll check.

When I finally hear from Mom, she tells me she called and texted because she has a question for me. Oh? Ask away! I’m dying to know!

The question? She wants to maybe buy a machine to convert Dad’s extensive VHS collection* to DVD or computer files as a holiday present and did I know which one was good? Otherwise maybe we’d have to find him a new VHS player on eBay because his most recent one gave up the ghost and he had nowhere to watch his stories. And sorry about not picking up phones, they’d both fallen asleep on the couch watching TV as had my brother.

When my heart rate returned to normal, we made a family agreement that thenceforth A LITTLE CONTEXT with any “please call me” texts or messages was ABSOLUTELY MANDATORY.

*Lest you thought I was the most intense cineaste in my family, my dad’s deep attachment to his VHS collection tells a different story. ❤

7 “My husband is not re-evaluating his life at all since the corona but I feel that I must leave because he has shown me that he has no empathy at all.”

There are going to be a lot of divorces in the next two years and that’s probably a good thing and I promise am not making light of how painful that is with all my party planning earlier in the post. (“Two, no make that three, working can openers…who’s got a bread knife?”) 

People get married for lots of reasons, one of those reasons is “You are the person I’d most like on my team when the rough parts of adulting come for us” (sometimes summed up in vows as ‘…or for worse’ ‘In sickness and…’ and ‘…and for poorer’). A partner who knowingly and uncaringly makes a crisis harder on you? Somebody who shows you that they are not on your team? Isn’t the right match for what comes next, even with the best of hopes and intentions. I’m so sorry, I hope whoever searched for this is staying safe and being very kind to yourself and making solid plans for a safe landing.

8 “My partner wants to go everywhere with me is that healthy.”

Pandemic life is making it so nobody is getting a balanced, preferred, comfortable, safe, ideal mix of alone time and togetherness, but in general,  if you’re dating someone who wants a different amount of togetherness than you, it’s 100% an issue of compatibility and 100% worth discussing, like, “You seem to want to do everything together, but I need a certain amount of alone time and one-on-one time with my other friends and family to be happy. Can we agree that I’ll be more proactive about inviting you along when I want to do stuff together, but if I just say ‘I’m going for a bike ride,’ it’s neither an automatic invitation nor is it a rejection?” vs. “Hey, I have a lot of anxiety about being invited, included, excluded, and not reading the room about that stuff so can you make it really really clear when you are inviting me and is it okay if I ask what you mean? I promise I’m not trying to pressure you if the answer is no, I just can’t always tell, and everybody who has ever told me they ‘need space’ broke up with me within a week so it would reassure me a lot if you could be way more specific than that.”  

Maybe from there you can figure something that works for everyone, but “Nope, together, always, or else you don’t love me right!” definitely isn’t the default setting.

Insisting on constant contact and togetherness with a partner (which often goes hand in hand with excessive monitoring of their activities) is a means of control. If this applies to you, I recommend looking at the resources the good people at LoveIsRespect.org have put together as a way to start planning a safe way out of a relationship where this is the norm. 

In either case, “Healthy,” “normal,” etc. aren’t reliable markers of what you’re allowed to need and expect. If someone convinced you it was perfectly normal and healthy to want to do literally everything with you, and this is how all other couples everywhere interact, like “We’re in love now, Google it” and you didn’t want that? Then you’re the boss of you and your needs are important whether or not they match a template. ❤

9 “How to respond to a guy on online dating who asks ‘what are you looking for on here?'” 

I’ve answered versions of this many times before, whether sincerely (Be very honest about what you are looking for, including “I don’t actually know” or “I’m hoping I hit it off with someone who will want to get married and have kids someday” and “I am looking for a bag-pipe playing sex unicorn with large feet and a larger trust fund” if those are what’s true for you) and jokingly (“I’ll know it when I see it.” “A willing patsy for a Double Indemnity-type situation.” “Hmmm, you seem like you have an answer prepared, so what are you looking for?”)

Can we be very, very honest today?

I haven’t online dated since 2012 but I did a ton of it before then and I’ve done a lot vicariously through my friends and all of you in Awkwardland.

“So…what are you looking for on here” is a very basic question, an obvious question, and it should be a fairly neutral, easy question with an obvious answer (“I’m looking to…date…people?”). I shouldn’t be mad at it. People are testing the waters, it’s understandable, it’s like “so…what do you do?” in the pantheon of American small-talk. The oatmeal of questions. Not everything has to sparkle, goddamnit.

And yet, I’m pretty sure I’ve never once had an actually good date where I wanted a second one with anyone who has ever asked me that. Just seeing it in my search terms month after month makes me want to yell SWIPE LEFT at it.

Theories as to why it bugs me so much:

  • I didn’t use online dating to meet women (browsing in feminist bookstores while sporting a strong shoe-and-glasses game worked for that), so my online dating experience is 99% with straight cisgender men and this immediately reads to me as a question that a guy asks every single person they write to right off the bat whether or not he’s read your profile. The dude who was just playing a numbers game of sending the same message to everyone to see who bites? That dude had nothing for me, nor I for him.
  • It’s not a connecting sort of question, it’s a weed-out sort of question that makes a flirtation suddenly and immediately feel like a job interview.
  • I feel like there’s always a secret question in that question, and it’s never a cool secret question, it’s more like:
    • “I can’t think of anything else to ask and I have no idea what I’m doing.” Honestly, fine, this is the most benign, salvageable version of this, let’s just get through this in one piece.
    • “Let me zero in quickly on whether you are looking for the same stuff I am, but in a way that makes you put it out there first.”
    • “Let me zero in quickly on what you’re looking for so I can pretend that’s what I want, too, just long enough to possibly have sex with you with the minimum effort on my part.”
    • “Let me zero in quickly on what you’re looking for in a way that makes you try to guess what I’m looking for and tailor/audition your wishes to what you think I want.”
    • “I get more casual sex when I pretend that I’m looking for a relationship and less when that becomes apparent so I like to keep my wants ambiguous until I know what I’m dealing with.”
    • “If I know what you are looking for, I can selectively edit my life correctly to seem like I fit the bill long enough to entice you to overlook the sketchy stuff like how ‘separated’ means ‘I absolutely intend to tell my wife someday that I want to separate, once I’ve met the right new woman’ and ‘single’ means ‘separated.'”
    • “Let’s not waste time with small talk, a total stranger I just walked up to in a virtual bar. Are you going to try to trick me into making babies with you right away or are you going to be cool and let me date you for 8 years while I wonder if parenting is really right for me and then leave you when it’s too late for you to make babies because I got my 23-year-old assistant pregnant on last quarter’s sales retreat and now I think it’s time to really follow my dream of being a dad?”
    • “You’re not going to try to gold-dig my $27,3000/year salary like all those other lying vultures who couldn’t appreciate a REAL MAN who is NICE, right?”

It’s an obvious question so the answer should be obvious, too, right? So why is it a constantly recurring question in my inbox and my search data?

I think at least some of the anxiety about answering it is about sensing there some kind of a test being administered by someone who is already showing they haven’t put much thought into things. Like, there is clearly a right answer, something they are looking for, so why won’t they just say? Or, it gets asked so often, like one of those job interview questions like ‘what is your greatest weakness’ so surely someone has written a guide to turning it around, like ‘my greatest weakness is actually how awesome I am,’ so can someone put out the cheat codes already?

“It’s just efficient for figuring out if you’re on the same page or not.” You know what’s efficient? Actually reading people’s profiles and only messaging the ones who seem like they might like you and vice versa. See also: Leading with what you are looking for.

If you have asked this question in the process of dating, or love someone who did, I don’t think you are inherently boring or bad. “Do we want the same stuff y/n” is an important question for finding someone who is compatible with you, so please do not feel the need to share examples of how this is good, actually, I blanket-believe you and blanket-support you in your happy love story and I will die content in my theory that it worked out because you quickly skipped past this awkward question the way people fast forward past “so what do you do” and found something meatier to talk about when the formalities were over.

But my answer to the general “how should I answer this?” is, now and forever:

Answer it literally however the fuck you feel like answering it at the time. Do not worry about giving a “right” answer, secret or otherwise, because there isn’t one. There’s only what you actually want and how it intersects with what the other person wants.

However you answer, it will either lead to a fun conversation where you learn something true about each other (because everybody starts asking & answering more specific questions), or it won’t and you’ll probably never have to talk to the person again.

If you fail a total stranger’s boring secret test? OH WELL, GUESS YOU WANTED DIFFERENT THINGS FROM LIFE.

Please never, ever worry that you will get this wrong somehow or that there was some magical, maximally palatable way with just the right mix of reassuring and fascinating and sexy but unthreatening way – like the hot girl taking off her glasses at the end of a 1990s movie about prom dates and becoming the Objectively! Hot! Girl! for a moment and then putting them back on and becoming accessibly hot once more-  that  you could have answered  that would guarantee that the person would have fallen in love with you if only you had known what it was.

Thank you for coming to my Ted talk.

10 “What to say when someone says ‘why should I date you.'” & “What does ‘Give me one good reason I should date you’ mean in online dating.”

I had just typed the answer to #10 and then dipped back into the search terms to see if there was anything else, and found…this. Okayyyyyyyyy.

Why should I date you?” 

SWIPE LEFT

Why should I date you?” 

Sounds like a you-question.

Why should I date you?” 

Sir/Ma’am, this is a Wendy’s.

Why should I date you?” 

SWIPE FASTER. LEFT! ONLY LEFT!

“Give me one good reason I should date you.”

You…messaged…me? I don’t actually know who you are? Wat?

“What’s one good reason I should date you.”

Lol, I’m not going to date you, but I’ve got five minutes, so be honest – does that actually ever work? Do people actually start listing reasons like they’re trying to convince you that you should take a chance on them? Tell me all about that!

Look, there’s an outside chance that “what are you looking for in a relationship/ on this site” is a sincere question with no hidden messages or tests, we all start somewhere, basic is always better than mean.

“Why do I actually want to date this person” is a question to ask oneself, definitely explore that.

“Why should I date you?” is what you ask when you think Alec Baldwin is the hero of Glengarry Glen Ross and you practice the speech in the mirror to yourself in the morning when you think no one is looking but hope that at least one of your housemates is awake enough to overhear how hard you nailed it today and you jerk off in the shower to the tantalizing prospect of a worshipful secret audience while your housemate desperately googles “Best earplugs for total silence.”

“Why should I date you” is for when you are actually contemplating becoming a contestant on The Bachelor and you know that the dullard-of-the-month-club is 100% going to ask you that on camera and you need to find the right mix of charm and smarm to snag your rose and the opportunity to go on a humiliating hot air balloon ride “solo date” while America watches you resist your impulse to toss this polo-shirted absolute void out of the basket like excess ballast and rise, rise, rise forever into the sky, victorious and alone like some avenging Valkyrie, in which case, carry on.

“Why should I date you” is a “neg”, in my opinion, which is a gross, pathetic pick-up-artist strategy designed to manipulate you into auditioning for being worthy of someone who would ask you THAT instead of wondering wait, why the hell am I auditioning for this person’s approval? Can’t they see I’m hot and cool and nice? Is this actually a job interview? I don’t actually want to be on The Bachelor?

Friends don’t let friends reward negging. Never answer this question. It’s a trap.

Comments are open. Be gentle. Be gentle specifically with me, I’m rusty. ❤

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

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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.

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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.)

Next: #1215: ” ‘So…about your private reproductive decisions’ and other ‘small’ talk.” 

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.

Sixth, #1198: “How do I deal with work burnout and make my partner* happy?” (*My partner = my boss, who is *a* partner in the law firm where I work)

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. ❤

Seventh, #1197: “He broke up with me but hasn’t moved out yet. How do I not ruin our last chance to make this work?” 

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.

Ninth, #1233: “Is it ever safe to take a parent off a low-information diet?” 

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?

Ahoy Captain,

This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).

Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!

The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.

In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.

We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.

Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?

Signed,

Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag

Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.

Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.

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Whenever I write about difficult parent stuff (like yesterday) my inbox immediately gets filled with more difficult parent and family estrangement stuff, which makes sense because, people find out they aren’t alone and I have quite a lot to say about difficult parent stuff. It takes…a lot…to write about my family and I know I am not going to be able to answer all of these the way they deserve, so I want to gather some advice and resources in one place. I’m also going to make this an open thread where people can talk to each other about difficult family stuff.

Archives:

Here are a some of the Captain Awkward Difficult Family Greatest Hits. The tags parents, boundaries, family, faaaaaaaamily  and emotional abuse will get you more.

Common Themes and Recommendations:

  • If your childhood and parent relationships are impacting you heavily in the present (a good indicator is, you start an advice column letter with “ever since I was a child” or talk a lot about your childhood as it impacts a present-day situation), consider therapy. It’s not perfect, it’s not for everyone, but if it’s useful for anything, “placing our history in perspective so the past doesn’t have to keep eating the present” is one of those things.
  • Your parent may not want to get a therapist or make friends but it doesn’t mean you have to be their therapist or their only friend. (You might also want to read about parentification, a form of child abuse where the parent expects the child to take care of their emotional well-being and assume an adult role in the family.)
  • If you’re dreading upcoming holiday gatherings, what if you skipped all of it this year and did something you could look forward to? What does a Happy Holiday actually look like to you and could this be the year you make one?
  • You don’t owe abusive people a deathbed reconciliation, endless chances to hurt you, access to their grandchildren, a continuation of every single family tradition in the exact way they would prefer it, or a story of a happy childhood that makes everyone look good.
  • Predictable rituals and structures can help sometimes. For instance, if you’re being overwhelmed with constant contact from a needy or intrusive parent, try channeling it into a weekly phone call (or some other way of staying in touch – the form doesn’t matter as long as it’s something you can sustainably do).
  • You don’t owe your family every scrap of information about you. People who judge and punish your choices maybe don’t get to be in the loop about your choices anymore.
  • You’re the boss of your body: what you eat, what you wear on it, who gets to touch it and how, how you treat illnesses and problems that occur, how you feel about it. You. Nobody else. You.
  • The first time you say no or otherwise set a boundary is the hardest. Expect an “extinction burst” and other attempts to test and get around the boundary, expect to be chewed out for being selfish, rude, unreasonable, ungrateful, etc. If you can weather this storm and hold fast, it will almost certainly get easier from there. Never easy, but easier. Be consistent over time and see what happens.
  • I’m generally pro “let’s hash this out honestly and straightforwardly ask for what we need!” but not everybody is capable of that and not everything gets better by talking through it in detail. There are things in life that we might never get to the bottom of.
  • Be wary of the word “should” coming from someone who is routinely not nice to you. Does your family want connection or do they want a performance? Lots of things “should” happen. What is happening. Start there.
  • Be wary of people who think that being related means they get to skip all politeness and kindness when it comes to you.
  • Be especially wary of people who think that being related means they don’t have to make an effort to be kind but you have to make effort to please them at all times. “But we’re a family!” claims that are all about what you owe them and nothing about how they are supposed to treat you are hollow bullshit.
  • If you interview to work somewhere and they tell you “we’re just like a family here!” it means: This place sucks at boundaries and will suck you dry. Maybe you need this job, but…don’t get too comfortable. Nobody who ever says this about work is talking about a cool, good, supportive family.
  • Roads, planes, and phones work both ways.
  • People have choices about how they treat you.
  • People can be “doing their best;” their best can be not what you need. Not all help is helpful, intentions aren’t magic, people can mean well and do not so great. “I meant well” and “I did my best” can be true, that doesn’t mean it was okay and that nothing has to change.
  • If someone tells you they aren’t in touch with a parent anymore, before you tell them they’ll regret it or “you only get one mother!” or open your mouth to say anything about “forgiveness” or reconciliation, consider just how bad something would have to get for this to be the safest decision. Estranged parents like to pretend they get ignored and abandoned willy-nilly, my inbox tells the story of adult kids who have been auditioning for basic love and kindness for decades and not getting it and who still want desperately to connect.
  • If someone gives you the silent treatment, instead of chasing them and auditioning for their approval and attention, try changing tactics: Enjoy the silence for a change. It’s painful and stressful but isn’t it a tiny bit better than the constant criticism/screaming/disappointment/pressure?
  • That said, it’s okay to still love your family, to still want a family, to still want to try, even when the history is bad. You’re not silly for caring about this or wanting to fix it even if the expectations need to stay low for safety’s sake.
  • You don’t have to be perfect or communicate your needs perfectly in order to deserve kindness and consideration. One of the most healing things I ever did was to let out how upset and angry I was feeling without strategizing about what would convince the other person that I was allowed to feel that way.
  • Repeat after me: “I can live with my family’s disapproval, but I cannot accept their unkindness and abuse.”
  • Some relationships will never become healed, “normal,” good, “close,” or resemble what they “should” be like. Some shit is unfixable. Let’s honor that. For some of us, “slightly better” is a win. “Not completely awful” is a win. Sometimes you can build on that. Let’s honor that, too.

Questions Within Questions: 

If you’ve written to me because you live with difficult family members and your home life is your chief source of stress, my #1 piece of advice is: Move out as soon as you can manage it. Abusers do not change as long as they have easy access to their targets. Put 95% of your energies into finding a different living situation – maybe with a different family member, maybe with friends or roommates, maybe on-campus housing, maybe a house-sitter or caretaker-type situation, maybe public housing/assisted living where that’s available, leave no resource un-tapped or un-researched to get yourself out – and like, 5% into changing the dynamic at home. The dankest closet in a place where nobody yells at you can be a paradise. Some how-to info is here. More here. I realize that not everyone can move out, or move out right away, so here is some info about how to endure in the meantime.

I hate that I don’t have more to offer people who must live with mean people. I wish I had approximately 100 million dollars to start a series of chill queer communes with fast internet, robust counseling and disability services, quiet spots for introverts and gathering places/weekly events for extroverts, highly-paid household help so nobody has to fight about cleaning the toilet ever again, highly-paid free-to-residents childcare on the premises, we’d just incorporate and buy the best group health insurance for everyone, plus there’d be a maker space full of art supplies and craft tools and carpentry stuff, and a “Call The Goat Lady And Her Army Of Assorted Internet Aunts” hotline to remind you to eat a food and take your meds. We would set them up one by one in swing districts and be like, “Congratulations, your city council is run by gay socialist unicorns now.” :throws glitter:

If you’ve asked me, “When it is it okay to go low- or no-contact with a parent, how do I know it’s bad enough, how do I know I’m being fair,” here is your answer:

You don’t have to decide all at once, forever, right now. You don’t have to be fair. If you think taking a break from working on your relationship with your family or spending time with them would make you feel better and give you some peace from the stuff that’s bothering and hurting you, try it out. Be less available. Don’t visit. Skip The Holidays™ this year. Do less work. Take some time for yourself. Work with a therapist if you can, dump all the feelings out in a journal if you can. Volunteer less information. Hide/lock down your social media and reclaim your privacy. RSVP “no” to family events for a while. Then see how you feel. If things get better and you feel better, if you miss them terribly or want to try something else down the road, try that. They will probably notice and have feelings about whatever it is you’re doing, people don’t to wait like flies in amber for you to be ready to engage with them again, but you don’t need to ask for permission or make a dramatic statement to slow fade for a while and see how you feel.

If you’ve asked me to help you explain to your parents precisely why you are cutting them off in a way that will make them understand your decision, here’s your answer:

Reasons are for reasonable people. The probability is that no matter what you say, parents who have driven you to the point of cutting them off won’t ever understand,  won’t ever apologize, and they won’t ever change, so tell them literally whatever makes you feel like you got it all off your chest and then go have some peace. If that’s “nothing,” tell them nothing. If that’s “I need some space, I’ll get in touch when I’m ready, until then please respect my privacy” tell them that. If you’re thinking of this communication as a way to get them to see how they fucked up and apologize and fix it, I am so sorry, but that’s a recipe for disappointment. They won’t get it, but do you still need to say it? Keep your expectations low about what they’ll do and be good to yourself.

Outside Resource:

The best book I know about difficult family dynamics, estrangement, and boundaries is Karyl McBride’s Will I Ever Be Good Enough? You don’t have to be a daughter, you don’t have to be concerned about a mother, and nobody has to be “narcissistic” for the tools on how to navigate setting boundaries and possibly going low contact or no-contact with a parent to be valuable. From a past rec:

“The one takeaway from that book that sticks with me to this day, 5+ years after reading it, is that while you can sometimes reset a difficult relationship with someone who has “all about me!” tendencies to be more pleasant overall, you cannot expect to necessarily have an emotionally authentic relationship and you should let go of the prospect of either a reckoning with the past or a self-aware admission of how the person created and contributes to the dynamic between you. McBride suggests grieving for what was lost and what you should have had, keeping your expectations low, and disengaging without guilt when self-care demands it.”

Discussion Guidelines:

  • Treat people like the experts on their own experiences. If your family is happy and kind, then, respectfully, you might not know what we’re talking about and it’s okay to just read without commenting, especially if the alternative is trying to come up with Good Reasons™ an abusive family member could reasonably be behaving that way. “You look good today” can be a compliment or a mortal insult depending on the context, trust that the letter writer/commenter/storytellers know the context.
  • Read the site policies, especially if you’re new and it’s been a while.
  • Logistical Note: The spam trap eats legit comments all the time. I clean it out as soon as I can. I know it’s very annoying, but generally you don’t have to send repeats if something didn’t post the first time.
  • If recommending a book, article, community etc. you’ve personally found helpful in the comments, along with any links please include a sentence or two on what the recommendation is about and why, personally, you think it’s valuable.
  • Re: Above point, remember, we don’t have to audit or debate people’s personal recommendations to come to an objective standard of what is valuable – everybody can read reviews and do due diligence and use what’s useful and ignore the rest.

I love this community. I love us. We can’t fix it but we can be here for each other and bear witness for each other. Thank you. Comments are open.