Content Note: Violent death, mentioned in passing.
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
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?
Single and Stressed (she/her)
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?
Not up for a debate
Every month (thanks to nice Patreon supporters!) we examine the things that people typed into search engines to find this place.
1. “My bf is younger to me by two years and is half bald..but still he criticizes my looks.”
Criticizing your partner’s looks is not a good dynamic. What would it take for both of you to decide “I like the way you look and will say only nice things about that“? Because that’s what you deserve.
2. “My husband hates when I masturbate.”
Has he explained why it bothers him? How does he know when you do it? Does he masturbate? What’s your sex life like together? What would happen if you masturbate anyway?
I think that the relationship you have with your own body is your business and even if he is uncomfortable with it you should still do it! But before anyone issues ultimatums or makes “rules” for the other person, it’s worth getting to the bottom of what this is really about. Control? Envy? Feeling left out?
3. “Tried to be friends after relationship but it didn’t work.”
Sometimes it just doesn’t work. Here’s a poem:
4. “How can I make my make my male crush whom we’ve been been chatting come visit me?”
There is no making, there is only asking. “Would you like to come visit me?”
5. “My boyfriend keeps following me wherever I go.”
This is creepy and smothering. What would happen if you told him you didn’t like this and asked him to stop?
If the thought of asking him to stop is scary to you – you can imagine him being furious or refusing to stop or “punishing” you somehow – think about calling a trained person and talking through some ways you can safely get away from this guy and his behavior.
6. “How to write a long overdue apology.”
Keep it simple. “I realize this is long overdue, but I want to tell you how very sorry I am for (what I did). I hope you are well. Sincerely, (you).”
Don’t ask the person for anything, don’t justify, just say you’re sorry and be specific/take ownership of what it is that you did to hurt them.
7. “How to say no after you’ve already said yes.”
“I know I said I would (do the thing), but I thought about it more and it turns out I won’t/can’t/don’t want to/won’t be able to. So sorry for the confusion/inconvenience/change of heart.”
8. “Husband always asking if I’m okay.”
Some questions come to mind:
Are you okay? Is everything okay?
Is there a question you wish he would ask instead?
Is there an elephant in the room?
Does he think that you seem tired/sad/down in the dumps/cranky/not quite yourself/are you behaving in a way that would make it seem like something is not okay?
Is HE okay? Like, is he asking you if you are because he wants to talk about something but doesn’t it want it to seem like his idea? Is he a particularly anxious person?
This could be an annoying tic he has or it could be that he’s observing something about your health/happiness and wanting to check in. Figure out the subtext of what this question really is.
9. “How I can creep sex my friend.”
a) Watch this video. Put on your Halloween costume. Ask your friend to put on their Halloween Costume and if the two of you can have sex with you while you both have your Halloween Costumes on. Creepy, right?
b) Go to Scarleteen. Read every article on the site. Especially look at anything about “consent.” Don’t have sex with anyone until you fully understand consent.
10. “Short story on boss seducing his junior wife for promotion.”
I think the site you are looking for is called “Literotica.” It should have come up on the first page of search results, but, anyway, you’re welcome.
11. “Why does my mom find something negative in all my boyfriends?”
I don’t know, maybe but it’s worth asking her this directly. “Mom, why do you find something negative to say about all my boyfriends?” It could be she thinks that you have terrible taste, it could be that she thinks that you want her opinion, it could be a control thing. Has she noticed this pattern?
12. “Staying with him just because he was your first sex.”
Staying with someone maybe needs more/better reasons than that? Ongoing, current reasons, like being in love and having a healthy, good relationship that makes you feel great in the present day?
13. “A guy who is still on dating sites after he proposes to you.”
This is definitely worth talking about. “Why are you still on dating sites even though you want to marry me? Can you help me understand?” Make sure you both have the same needs & assumptions around monogamy, commitment, what “cheating” is and isn’t, transparency, flirting, etc. and that you’re both comfortable and on the same page with this before you get married.
If he says he’s just looking for “new friends,” please remember: MeetUp.Com exists. There are ways to find new friends that are not dating sites and that don’t make you feel suspicious and uncomfortable.
14. “How to tell your son his girlfriend is not right for him.”
Realize that you only really get one shot at this, and that the end result might be your son distancing himself from you instead of leaving her. Is she mistreating him? Is your worry for him worth the risk of having him turn away from you?
“Son, I know you love (girlfriend), but ever since you have been with her you seem really unhappy. There seems to always be conflict in your relationship, when I’ve seen you together she doesn’t seem to treat you with kindness or respect. I know as an outsider I don’t have the whole picture, but as someone who loves you and wants you to be happy, I don’t feel right staying quiet when I can see that you are suffering. I love you, and I’ll try my best to accept (girlfriend) for your sake as long as she’s in your life, but I hope you’ll think about what I said. You deserve to be with someone who treats you well.”
15. “9pm to 4am sexing”
Change your dating profile name to “Diligent Night Owl”?
16. “When a boyfriend wont introduce you to anyone in his life.”
This is never a sign that things are awesome, is it? Either something is fishy, like, he has another partner or spouse and you are a “side” relationship, or something is really messy with his family & friends and in trying to “spare you” the “drama” he is making you question his commitment and your place in his life, or he wants to keep you a secret for some reason. If you aren’t a Capulet and he isn’t a Montague and your families aren’t mortal enemies bent on mutual death and destruction, ask to be introduced. If he won’t introduce you, ask him directly, “Why not.” Maybe stop seeing him if he refuses or if the answer does not satisfy you.
Oh Internet, I see we’re having this discussion again. I’m not gonna drive traffic to it, but I am gonna remind every dude who is like ‘HOW WILL ANYONE EVER MEET ANYONE IF I CAN’T WAYLAY BUSY WOMEN WHO ARE WEARING VISIBLE ‘LEAVE ME ALONE’ SYMBOLS TO TELL THEM MY THOUGHTS, THO’ and ‘I’M JUST TRYING TO BE FRIENDLY!’ that you could just greet a nearby dude, maybe one who is not wearing headphones, instead. Friendliness! Peace on earth! Meeting new people! #Dudesgreetingdudes!
Edited to Add: I Have Decided To Marry My Catcaller And This Is Our Wedding Registry (McSweeney’s)
I know we just talked about this, but this showed up in the box this morning and I want to show side-by-side how PREDICTABLE and DELIBERATE this kind of emotional abuse is. A partner who harps on you about your appearance is not a good partner. In other news, it’s about to get very crowded in the center of the sun.
Dear Captain Awkward,
My partner is worried about my overweight. It’s their most important issue, to the extent of regular arguments. One sided arguments, since they are right. I am overweight, and should be thinner. All our friends are thinner, so my partner is less attracted to me. My partner will not know what to do without me when I die early because of my overweight, so is only arguing for my benefit. Anything I could say is just an excuse. Including that I am the one with a job. That my partner isn’t any thinner. That I get up every day an hour and a half earlier to play with our 3 year old, quietly, so as not to wake my partner, until day care opens and I bring them there, so my partner can sleep late. That when I come home from work, my partner hands over the kid, while they rest by watching television. That after I put the kid to bed, I am asked to bring my partner food in bed, usually sweets, or fats which I am asked to fry. Those are just excuses, because my partner is unique in wanting to sleep late, and the kid is charming so playing shouldn’t make me tired, and my partner’s eating shouldn’t make me eat, and a few times in the past when my partner did let me go to the gym some mornings or evenings or weekends it didn’t have a major effect, and I should be able to get my exercise when playing with the kid anyway, and weight loss really is more about not overeating than about exercising. And anyway I shouldn’t be be blaming everyone else in the world for my problems instead of taking responsibility for them myself. So I don’t say any of that (which is a problem in itself, because then I am either behaving like a wall, or just agreeing to make the argument stop, but not getting any thinner). I do occasionally ask my partner to exercise with me, but they had a hard day, so I shouldn’t nag, and it’s not their job to fix my overweight. And since I know how important my weight is to my partner, whenever I overeat or eat sweets or carbs I must do it for spite, not because I need comfort for myself.