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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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It’s time for the monthly ritual where I answer the questions that people typed into search engines to find this place.

1 “I have a crush on a guy who treats me badly.”

Crushes can be fun, but unlike what you’ve seen on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and every other show/movie/comic, love doesn’t turn assholes into acceptable boyfriends. My recommendation: Fantasize darkly about dirty-hot-hate-sex with him at your leisure, but save your actual affections and time outside your head for people who are kind to you.

Now more than ever we must hold the line and not waste our time with charismatic assholes.

spike

Admire my cheekbones from afar. Do not waste your precious life trying to turn me into an acceptable person to date.

2 “Talk about sexual relation first time.”

There is a site called Scarleteen. It is a national treasure, and while it was built so that teenagers could get non-judgmental, scientifically accurate, kind and sensitive sex advice, adults should read it, too. This topic is covered amply in their archives and forums.  The creator of the site, Heather Corinna, wrote a book called S.E.X. It’s great. They also have volunteers who answer questions confidentially.

While we’re on the topic, here are some other good books about sex:

Probably more recommendations in comments.

In the movies, sex just, like, happens. People stare at each other intensely and then grab each other and kiss and suddenly clothes are off and it’s all seamless and softly lit.

In real life, it’s important to talk about things with the person you plan to have sex with, especially when one or both of you is new at it. Everything from what consent looks like to “What are we gonna do about contraception (if that’s an issue in your pairing) and safer sex?” to  “I think I’d like it if we….” to “Definitely please do not ever….” to “That doesn’t feel good, please stop!” to “That feels really good!” Real life sex is awkward, and vulnerable, and that’s part of what’s great about it. Get thee to Scarleteen.

Happy talking! And everything that might come after!

3 “Working with the person you had an affair with now its awkward.”

Aw, buddy.

Without knowing the particulars (relative power structure in company, how it ended, what the feelings were and still are, how much time it’s been, did anybody know, what was the fallout, how much each person respectively likes/needs this particular job, etc.), some smart steps that you can control might be:

  • Keep your distance. You probably work in somewhat close quarters, which is how the whole thing started in the first place, and you can’t fix that or at least fix it right away, but you can start to mentally work on keeping your distance. Stop keeping track of the other person – their moods, quirks, likes, dislikes, what they ate today, who they talk to, where they go, reading their horoscope, etc. Stop fixating on them. Use the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear to distract yourself, if necessary, or just say to yourself , “We broke up, it’s not my business, la la la” when you find yourself getting obsessed.
  • Step up your professional game at work. Pay attention to the “little things,” like tidying your workspace, paying attention to dress & grooming, making sure you’re on time every day, being reliable & correct in your communications, keeping your boss updated on your projects, keeping small talk with coworkers very light and not revealing of personal life. I don’t think there is shame in crying it work – it’s a natural human response to stress and anger, and we shouldn’t be as dismissive of it as we are as a culture – but if you’re someone who is trying to keep an intra-office breakup private, try to do your crying in private. Put your best foot forward, even if you don’t feel like it right now. If you look to others like you have your shit together, it can sometimes help you keep your shit together.
  • Polish that resume. Look for another job, or an assignment in another department. I know, it’s not fair that you should have to leave your job, but it might be the simplest way to cut the cord of awkwardness. Join a networking organization for your profession if there is one. Make some new connections. Take a class and boost your skills in something. Maybe you feel like you can’t or don’t want to leave your job right now, but reminding yourself that you have options can’t hurt. Anything that reminds you of your own value is gonna feel good right now.
  • If there is stalking or harassing behavior of ANY kind, document & report it if you can. Whatever happened happened, but you don’t deserve to be terrorized or retaliated against professionally.
  • Give it time. Like the pain of all breakups, this too shall pass.

4How to break up your daughters gay relationship.”

Try these search terms instead:

“How do I show my daughter I love her and accept her?”

“How do I stop being a homophobic asshole?”

 Okay, speaking of affairs:

5 “What do you say to a married man’s wife who you have an affair with when she confronts you?”

Start with “I’m really, really sorry” and DO NOT try to justify or explain. The aggrieved spouse has probably saved up some things to say, so, just listen while they speak their piece. You don’t have to answer questions – “You should ask your spouse about that” is a good script if you start getting an interrogation, and if at some point you gotta end the conversation say, “I’m so sorry” again and refer the person back to their spouse, like, “I’m so sorry, I hear you, I know I hurt you. I don’t have answers for you, you should talk to (spouse) directly about this.

There’s nothing GOOD you can say, so, focus on not making it worse.

6 “Husband doesn’t believe his mother hates me.”

What if you said, “You don’t have to believe me, but when we’re around your mom and (this specific behavior) happens, I do need you to (defend me/shut it down/back me up/leave with me).

Focus not on the emotion (she hates you) but on the behaviors (the specific things she does that hurt your feelings or annoys you), and give him an idea of how he can best support you when those specific behaviors arrive. Choose your battles, and do what you can to minimize time with her. Annual Reminder: Nobody HAS to go home for the holidays.

7 “What to say in a Xmas card to a sister you did not talk with in five years.”

“Merry Christmas! I hope you’re doing well. Here’s [email/phone/the best way to contact me], can we catch up sometime in the new year?”

Take the pressure off to come up with something eloquent. This moment is literally what greeting cards are for – short, non-emotionally-charged communications. Give her a way to contact you and then leave it in her court. She’ll call/write or she won’t.

8 “Boyfriend does no chores and never wants to spend his free time with me.”

You could dump the boyfriend and get a cat. It wouldn’t do any chores, but least the cat would be cute and hang out with you sometimes.

male-model-cat-1

9 “Happy birthday to a friend you had a misunderstanding and now friends again.”

Say/Text/Facebook Wall: “Happy birthday!

Do you really want to rehash the misunderstanding? In someone’s birthday greeting? No. You don’t. Bake them a normal cake, not a shame-cake, and be glad that you mended fences about whatever it is.

10 “Boss upset I quit and I feel guilty.”

Your boss will get over it. Or they won’t, but you won’t work there anymore, so you don’t have to care.

11 “How to start the baby conversation with partner.”

“Partner, I’m thinking a lot about having a baby, and I’m pretty sure I want to start that process soon, with you. What do you think about that?”

Or, “I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to have kids, so I wanted to see how you feel about that.”

Full disclosure, here’s how this conversation goes in my house:

We hang out with Commander Logic’s freaking adorable smart amazing children, aka, The Gateway Babies.

Spouse: “Someday, you know, my/our kids will….”

Me:

Repeat for a few weeks.

Me: “You keep mentioning these kids that will be doing stuff someday. Are these real kids or hypothetical kids?”

Spouse:

Me: “So, hypothetical. Ok.”

Spouse: (lots of stuff about parenthood and money and anxiety)

Me: (corresponding anxiety-brain-vomit)

Me: “If you really want kids, I’ll have your kids! I’ll have kids with you.”

Spouse: “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.”

Me: “It’s what I got. I can be happy either way.”

Both of Us:

Me: “Talk again in six months?”

Spouse: “Sure. Good talk, everyone.”

12 “What does it mean when a guy tells you ‘I cant ask you to wait for me’?”

It means, “don’t wait for me.” You have been or are about to be broken up with.

13 “A guy likes and comments on everything on Facebook stalker.”

You can: Set your posts using privacy filters so he can’t even see them.

You can: Unfriend his annoying ass.

You can: Block him so he can’t even know you exist on Facebook.

When/if…okay probably when…he contacts you through other channels to ask “Are you okay?” or “Did I do something wrong?” here’s your script:

“I wasn’t enjoying our online interactions so I stopped them.”

Monitoring a person’s every online breath is stifling and creepy. You don’t have to tutor him as to why.

14After party with my former students sex stories.

twitchy

No.

15 “My toddler seems lonely but I hate playdates and playgroups.”

From what I understand from my friends who are parents of young kids, EVERYONE HATES PLAYDATES. The other parents hate it as much as you do. They are going through the motions because they want their kids to have friends and be socialized. They are something you suck up and do until you find some other parents that you a) can stand to be around while the kids are very small and drop-off/self-play isn’t possible b) can trust with your kids as they get older so you can take turns dropping off the kids and getting a few hours to yourself.

Do you have a co-parent? Can they take some of the play-date and play-group pressure off? Like, if you both hate that, can you take turns sucking it up for the sake of the kid?

Can you find more structured stuff – craft things, a local children’s museum, story time at the library, swim/dance classes – that allow your kid to interact while you check out and read your phone in the bleachers?

You’re a good parent because you’re noticing your child’s loneliness. You’ll do the right thing. And this won’t be forever.

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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Hi excellent captain,

Firstly I wanted to say that your blog has been, like, profoundly life-changingly important for me.

I have two parents who are both, in their different ways, abusive. My mum has had a difficult past but can’t control her outbursts of destructive rage, and my dad is the more cool, calm, evil genius type of abuser who thinks really hard about how to twist the knife while appearing totally rational. They are divorced and used me and my sister as weapons in their proxy war for years.

Coming to realise that they were abusive was really important and useful for me, but it also drastically reduced my tolerance for their bullshit. Earlier this year my mum started some weird guilt-trip stuff about me moving in with my partner, and it was one thing too many and I ended up slow-fading her. This weekend, my dad and I got into a row about him being needlessly aggressive – I told him I didn’t want to hear from him until he was willing to apologise, and instead he sent me an appallingly offensive drunken rant about how insufferable I am – which he ended with that Oscar Wilde quote about losing your parents. I know, right.

So I’m now, for the moment at least, without parents. I’m 25. I’ve just started training in a career I love. I have a stable living situation and a caring partner (who incidentally has an absolute cinnamon roll of a mum). But I don’t know how to deal with this emotionally. There aren’t many protocols for how to get over a break-up with your parents. I feel relieved to be rid of them but angry they treated me so badly and it’s all a bit mixed up.

Can you help? Your guides for how to get over romantic breakups are so good, so real, so true, but I feel like they don’t quite apply here in the same way.

Oh, and one more think – my dad has a nine year old son, my half brother. I adore him and he adores me; he’s the only bio family member I have who just unproblematically loves me and likes to be around me. He lives in another country with my dad and doesn’t have a phone of his own yet. Every time I think about what I’m going to do about that, I cry. Can you give me a nudge towards knowing what to do?

Fleeing the Toxic Trash-fire

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Hi Captain,

I realize my problem isn’t as serious as other letters you’ve answered, but I figured I should try writing anyway since I don’t really have anyone to talk to about it.

I was friends with someone I’ll call “Oakley” from elementary school through high school. It was very rare for my parents to allow me to hang out with friends, so I really only got to spend time with Oakley if I was in one of their classes. The lack of contact outside of school didn’t exactly cultivate a deep friendship, and I didn’t keep in contact with them after graduating even though we only live a few miles apart.

This past weekend, my mother ran into Oakley’s mother at a movie theater, and they talked about getting together for lunch in the near future to catch up. I’m worried this catch-up-lunch is going to end with an obligation for me to hang out with Oakley.

I have nothing against Oakley personally, it’s just that: 1) School wasn’t a nightmare for me, but it wasn’t a great time either, and I imagine it being at least a little painful to have to reconnect with any part of it. 2) While I remember Oakley fondly, they’re essentially a stranger now, so what’s the point? And 3) I have no interest in socializing with *anyone.* (I made more “friends” in college and the following internships/jobs, but I avoided spending time with them outside of those contexts. I do wish I had real friends, but the idea of socializing makes me extremely anxious.)

I already asked my mother not to set up any “play dates” between me and Oakley (she was surprised and said it was a good thing I told her). I’m not sure what else to do or what she could say if Oakley’s mother brings it up. Any thoughts or advice?

(Note: I realize Oakley might not be interested in seeing me at all either. I’m just imagining a worst case scenario where Oakley’s mother tries to reconnect us.)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

All my adult life, I’ve been an adventurous eater. My partner and I love to cook and try new dishes. We invite people over for dinner parties a lot, and our friends and family love to reciprocate. We also really enjoy trying new restaurants with them.

Unfortunately, I recently underwent allergy testing to find the source of a mysterious rash, and it turns out that I have a delayed-action sensitivity to some of my favorite foods and some common food preservatives. This is probably the cause of the rash. My doctors told me to eliminate these foods and preservatives from my diet. (This gets even more complicated because they told me I can slowly, eventually start to re-introduce them one at a time to see if some of them cause worse problems than others, or if they are OK in small quantities but not large ones.)

I hope this wouldn’t be true of the folks who love me, but I know some people are really, really weird about strong food preferences and allergies. They often take it personally when someone can’t eat food they have prepared. I have even heard of situations where a host secretly feeds a person whatever they have claimed to be allergic to, so that they can feel superior if that person does not have a bad reaction. Of course I won’t have a bad reaction right away — I’ll just get a horrible rash the next morning! On top of this, eating food prepared outside of my own kitchen will now require me to ask really specific questions of the person who prepared it (did you prepare this with bleached or unbleached flour? did you use a mix?) that I am worried will come off as judgmental. Plus, what will people think when I’ve made a big deal to them about not being able to eat a certain food, and two months later they see me happily chowing down on it for lunch the break room, as I re-introduce it to my diet? (This is especially concerning in cases where the person is a casual acquaintance or co-worker — good friends will get updates about all this stuff from me as it happens.)

What should I do? Send out a mass email? Inform people on a case-by-case basis? And how do I make myself feel better about suddenly having to be so careful about my diet?

Thanks,

Reluctantly Picky

(P.S. “She/her” pronouns are fine.)

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