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forced teaming

As promised…more “If you’re ‘not allowed’ to say no to someone, they are not acting like friends” content. I have kept the Letter Writer’s subject line as the post title so that readers too can have the “Wait, where is the part where this person is an actual mom” “Oh wait, phew, this person isn’t anyone’s actual mother, that would be even more horrifying” realization that The Goat Lady (my trusty inbox sorter) and I did.

Dear Captain,

I (she/her) have a friend, “Mary” who is, by her own admission, a “mom” friend. Mary is very kind– but emotionally overreaching. She feels responsible for making sure her friends are well cared for. Mary has even joked that if it weren’t for her, her friends would buy nothing but junk food and toys at the grocery store, instead of groceries. When we get together, Mary will insist on cooking, even when somebody else volunteers to cook instead. If one of us DOES cook, Mary will hover, or “help” by essentially taking over the cooking–adding ingredients and more or less pushing the other cook out of the kitchen. Mary will consistently cite any accident or mistake any of us have made as an excuse to swoop in. Then she will complain that she is always the one stuck with the cooking.

Mary also feels very much–if she thinks her friends are upset or potentially upset, she will become upset for them. (For example, I have been very stressed at work and with personal projects, and Mary started crying because I “am going to burn out” and that I am “such a perfectionist that you are going to hurt yourself!”) If I complain to Mary about anything, be it annoyance over traffic to a problem with a coworker, it becomes a “problem” and Mary is quick to give me unsolicited advice, get defensive for me or otherwise volunteer to help me solve this “problem.”

If she knows I am struggling with something, Mary will constantly bring it up (probably in an attempt to reinforce what she thinks is the “positive” message), or turn even a casual comment (“I wish could sleep for five years,”) into a big referendum or discussion on my mental health. If we have a difficult conversation or discussion, it will end with Mary crying, clutching me like I am some sort of child and even kissing the top of my head while I am just feeling frustrated. If I try to establish boundaries (“This isn’t a topic I am willing to discuss with you, let’s talk about something else”), my boundaries are immediately overridden. In fact, it seems as if my attempts to establish boundaries are interpreted by Mary as a further excuse to involve herself in me and my life!

I know that Mary is coming from a place of love and care. What reads to me as “manipulative” and “immature,” aren’t necessarily that–it’s just that it is to me! (Ed. note: IT’S NOT JUST YOU) I care very much about Mary but I am reaching the end of my rope. I understand this is part of the “mom” friend aspect, but Cap, I HATE being mothered. My own mother doesn’t even “mother” me. It has never worked on me, and will never work on me, no matter how many times Mary tries to become my surrogate mom. I’m trying hard not to become a hallmark-movie-style troubled teen and start yelling “You are not my real mom!” at her.

Sometimes, I just need to vent or talk about my issues without needing a “solution” or it turning into an “argument.” I feel like I have to walk on eggshells around Mary because even a casual joke (the kind that everyone in our generation and friend group makes!) becomes an emotionally exhausting exercise where I am left feeling emotionally infantilized and I start to resent Mary’s lack of maturity.

On top of this, Mary is attending therapy and seems to think herself the authority on all matters now–she declares herself an expert on conflict resolution but her form of “resolution” is to cry until she gets what she wants or can manipulate the narrative to seem like she was correct (in case it wasn’t obvious by now, Mary has an INTENSE martyrdom complex.)

I don’t want to lose Mary as a friend, and I can’t really get away from her for now. I don’t know how to explain to Mary that I don’t need a “mom” or a “mom friend,” and that her “mothering” is making it impossible to just be “friends.” How do you get a “mom friend” to stop “mothering” her friends?

I don’t know how to ask Mary to emotionally detach herself from me and my problems without making it seem like I am asking her to get out of my life. I also don’t know how I could possibly have these difficult conversations with Mary without it turning into an emotional meltdown on Mary’s part that she then projects onto me, as further evidence that I “need” her. Can you help me find a script to deal with Mary?

Thanks,

She’s not my mom (friend)

Optional P.S. Neither of us are parents, apologies if it was confusing!

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This is going to be the first of a two-part series on how people who can’t hear the word ‘no’ are not your friends.

Hey Captain!

I (she/her) just moved out of a group house. I lived with five other people in the house, including a couple (Elsie and Jenna). Elsie (she/her) and I are pretty good friends and have known each other for a few years. I met Jenna (she/her) through Elsie when they started dating. before we lived together, I would have said we were low-key friends and that I thought she was cool, but I had never hung out with her without Elsie and we only ever saw each other in group contexts.

Elsie and Jenna’s fairly stable, two year long relationship became super rocky during the year we all lived together due to a lot of factors. During this period, both Elsie and Jenna, but especially Jenna, deeply relied on me for a lot of comfort/help/emotional processing. I like helping people and I think of myself as a comforting person, and I don’t mind helping, but this got out of hand incredibly quickly and soon I was spending all my free time processing Jenna’s emotions. This only got worse when they eventually broke up and Elsie moved out. Jenna would wait for me to get home and immediately come to my room to process for hours. I work two jobs that both require a lot of emotional labor and was struggling with depression and did not have the bandwidth for this. It made my living situation a personal nightmare for me, and I dreaded coming home. I attempted to set up boundaries (telling her I wasn’t interested in talking about it anymore! saying I was tired! locking my door!) but she was pushy and I didn’t stick to my guns enough. She also did a lot of unrelated things that made me uncomfortable in the breakup aftermath, such as trying to date a bunch of my friends/literally anyone I brought to the house to hang out, which made my friends uncomfortable so I felt like i couldn’t have friends over (a whole separate weird issue). Eventually, I just moved out of the house because I couldn’t take it anymore. I now live in a much better situation and feel much happier.

Since my move Jenna has reached out to me constantly about hanging out/spending time together. Three times in the last week, she has asked me to attend an event I was already attending with other friends, invited herself, and then brought a date along and made a HUGE deal about the fact that she was bringing a date (which is a part of her whole weird “I’m single and horny” thing she’s doing right now). She talks constantly about how much she misses me and is always asking to spend time together. I suspect part of this is because I’m a connection to Elsie (every time we hang she asks me about Elsie/talks about Elsie and I try to shut it down, but she just does it the next time anyway), and the other half is because she wants to keep using me as free therapy. I want out! I need space! We are not actually friends, she just uses me as therapy. I thought it would stop when I moved, but it hasn’t.

How do I nicely express to this girl that:

A. I refuse to process this breakup with her anymore
B. I wish she wouldn’t invite herself to plans I already made with other people
C. Its weird and unnecessary to bring dates to every interaction we have
D. I need her to hang out with her actual friends and give me some fucking space already

Thanks!!

Sincerely,

I’m not your personal live in breakup therapist

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My teenager has informed me that their father told them he plans to mail me jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Their father and I have been divorced for nearly a decade and a half and I’ve been in three committed, long-term relationships in that time. I have less-than-zero interest in my ex-husband romantically (or even platonically) and while I am able to be polite/civil with him, I am quite looking forward to the day I no longer have to take his calls. He is not a nice person. (He was abusive during our marriage, used custody issues to punish me, treated our children poorly, etc. etc.)

Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues, he’s been acting far too friendly over the phone. A few months ago he told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever really loved and said he thinks we should still be together, which I responded to with “You know, life moves forward and though my path has been rocky, I’m happy with where I am now, thanks. Gotta go.” Ever since that revelation from him, I’ve made it a rule to do my best to keep any calls very short and to the point, if possible, and I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all. I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together. Ugh. (I did let him know, through text, that what he did there was not okay and that was not what I meant by support, etc., and he did apologize to them eventually.) So, now since the “talk about our kids” topic no longer works, if he texts, “Hey, do you have time to talk?” I ask him if he has something pressing to discuss, as I’m quite busy, and it’s usually “No, just wanted to chat,” so I tell him I’m too busy to chat. If he calls, it goes to voicemail and I decide whether or not it’s appropriate to call back based on the content of voicemail.

Since I’ve been brushing him off, he has been reaching out to my teenager more than ever. They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes. During recent calls with them, their father told them that he really thinks we should have stayed together as a family, etc. It makes my teenager really frustrated and uncomfortable that all he seems to want to talk about with them is me and how he wishes we were still together.

I’m so irritated with him for the way he is treating me and my teenager, but not surprised, as he’s never been one to respect people’s boundaries.

[Don’t know if this is relevant or not, so I’ll add it just in case: He is in a relationship with a woman who is really kind and sweet (and a nice buffer/ally for my teenager when they visit their father), but who recently moved out of his house after having lived with him for about a year. His overly-friendliness started before she moved out. His behavior would be frustrating no matter what, but it’s even more exasperating that he’s doing this while in a relationship with another woman, no matter how rocky it may be.]

So… what do I do when he inevitably mails me jewelry? It makes me queasy just thinking about opening the box. Do I mail it back? Say thanks but no thanks? I don’t want him to get the idea that it is okay or in any way desirable for him to send me romantic gifts. Thankfully, he lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t have to worry that he’ll drop by with the gift. (Fingers crossed. Don’t want to jinx it.)

Over the years since our divorce I haven’t pushed back too hard or spoken my piece about his bad behaviors since he kept custody issues pretty contentious for some time and I never wanted anything to be misconstrued and come back to bite me. It’s been hard to break out of walking on eggshells with him and taking the step I noted above to let him know how he hurt his teenager with the nasty comments about their college fears felt good, but was terrifying.

Help, please!

(If you have some scripts for my teenager, too, for when their father starts up with his pining for me thing during their phone calls or laying on any other guilt trips that would be wonderful.)

Thank you!

My pronouns: she/her

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Sorry about the premature postulation of the draft version yesterday.

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve just said yes to marry my Mr Right. Our friendship is the most important part of our relationship, so although there are some imbalances in the emotional workload, these are usually corrected after a stern talking-to – which can be delivered by either one of us. He often discourages me from giving favours to people ‘not worth the time’; e.g. friends who won’t return the favour, or a task that’ll cause me grief. He encourages me to stand up for myself, and is equally infuriated by the fact my mother thinks our wedding wishes are optional/plan B.

My mother started off small: changing the time of year from January (our anniversary) to May because of the weather. I agreed and my fiancé and I agreed on a Friday before a Bank Holiday weekend. When I told her this, she told me to change it again… *deep breath*… because my sister (currently in university) is going to be a teacher and wouldn’t be able to make it on a Friday. I told her hard cheese. Friday suits me better because cost, availability, plans etc. I said that if being there for me on my day wasn’t important enough for my sister to book a day off work that she’s not even got yet, I didn’t want to inconvenience her by asking her to come. Mother tried guilt tricks but as fiancé’s mum is also a teacher and said it wouldn’t be a problem; that issue has been shut down.

My mother then told me that I had to change the venue if I wanted a Catholic wedding. I said that it was important for my fiancé and I to marry at the venue we’d chosen… she spoke to my home parish priest behind my back and is leaving me to deal with the fallout of that.

Now, she wants to organise my bridesmaids. She doesn’t know them well and there are two she would rather I didn’t include. When I lived with them, their idea of clean and mine were on completely different planets, causing my mental health to depreciate. Unsolicited, she has suggested a way I can exclude them without upsetting them: ‘Sorry, my sister is going to be my only bridesmaid.’

There are a couple of flaws in her plan. First, I actually want my friends to be standing up with me on the happiest day of my life. Secondly, my sister is one of those people I would not like to have standing up there with me.

Due to past (still raw) issues that I have with my sister, I have said she will not be MOH. We are (I am) trying to mend these issues but I cannot trust her to have my best interests at heart nor be happy to give up her time helping me plan a day that is not about her. Did I say happy? I can’t trust her NOT to be upset about planning a day that isn’t about her.

She criticised my fiancé to me, claiming she would start to like him when they have a close relationship. She expects him to put in all the work to their relationship, which is also how she expects me to improve our relationship. Fiancé’s response: hard cheese.

She is totally unaccountable and has not apologised for recently telling me I would be a terrible mother to any children I might have. The last time she spoke about this argument: ‘You’re my sister and I know you can take it. In that moment, I just wanted to hurt you, but I don’t anymore so we’re okay, right?!’

Because of my fatal flaw as THE REASONABLE ONE, my mother believes that I’m the key to fixing this relationship. There is no expectation for, I don’t know, my sister growing a freaking conscience!

Despite this, I am prepared to accept my sister in my wedding party because she is my sister and if the situation was reversed I’d still want to be there for her. I am only comfortable with this because of said friends volunteering to buffer for me in case issues arise. I need TEAM ME to be strong because I will try to make the smoothest route and I don’t want to negotiate with my mother over MY DAY. But it seems that my mother wants to scatter TEAM ME and recruit me to team sister. This makes me angrier that I can even express. I’ve taken steps to start creating boundaries with both of them but with wedding planning all this progress seems to have flown out of the window.

This is just the start of my planning process. I’m sure that there will be a million other decisions my fiancé and I make that my mother will try to change. I’m sure there’s also a million freaking hurdles my sister will expect me to jump to guarantee she doesn’t get hurt feelings. There’s definitely a sense that I’m getting married AT HER, as she’s never had a boyfriend.

So, scripts. I need one that will help me avoid issues with my sister while being able to enjoy myself because this is the one day I’m going to get where I can demand that it’s about me. I’ve been trying scripts with my mother but whenever I talk about how important things are to me, she reminds me that it’s ‘tradition that the bride’s parents pay’. Translation: if I don’t like it, your father isn’t paying for it.

The last script I have yet to try is also the one that will hurl me from the family tree: “You’ve had two weddings, let me have one!”

Sincerely,

Don’t want to be my own something blue

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Hi, Cappy! I recently discovered your column and am so grateful for it. You’re amazing and helpful!

I really could use some situational advice, but it’s a long and complex story, sorry!

I’m a single parent of a 1st grader. Child support basically doesn’t happen.

3 years ago I was (thankfully) laid off from my research position. I’d worked hard after grad school to achieve success in an almost exclusively male-dominated and competitive field, but it was hard to raise my daughter working the crazy hours and with the amount of travel required for my job.

As a result I returned to school for graphic/web design; a field I thought would provide me with a more flexible schedule, increased job opportunities and potentially more money. I started a two year program at a technical school, with tuition and childcare 100% paid for by government benefits.

Enter “Donny”. Donny was a friend who was a neuroscientist at the University I’d attended and worked at. Despite having very different values, he had become a trusted friend. Romantic interest in Donny = 0. Divorced and childless, he is middle aged. He seemed kind and supportive when I really needed that. He was also the only positive male role model that my daughter had. He was not very involved in our lives at this point.

Donny started a tech company outside of his university position and became wealthy enough to retire from the University this year. He has a low emotional IQ, lots of anxiety and few friends. However, Donny loves my daughter and dotes on her. I don’t think he has ever said “no” to her. I’ve never had weird “vibes” about his relationship with my daughter. She was like the daughter he’d always wanted.

Back to me. Two years ago, after finishing year 1 of my program, Donny convinces me to drop out of school and work with him at his tech company instead. He says I am wasting my time at school and that he, the wealthy and successful entrepreneur, would teach me “real-world skills” and his special coding “secret techniques” from start to finish. He told me people would pay lots of money to learn his secret and that I was lucky he was willing to share this very profitable knowledge with me. He started paying me to do small projects, such as writing copy and some print work for his company. I was thrilled, thinking I was embarking on a new, lucrative and fulfilling career.

Fast forward to a year ago. Donny has stopped sending me any work but continues to pay me a barely livable wage each month to essentially do nothing. Projects are always just over the horizon but wind up “falling through” at the last minute or he doesn’t have the time to teach me anything because it’s a rush job, etc…. I make barely enough to cover my bills most months, but through decreased spending, I can still live check to check. I am ridiculously busy parenting (with no breaks), trying to stay organized, maintaining/improving my small house so my daughter has an un chaotic place to live, and being involved with my daughters activities while occasionally making stuff, but I have no social life (unfortunately that often goes along with single parenthood). I would like to make more money, but confess I am also enjoying the opportunity to be there for my daughter since I am her only family and her whole world. We are very close.

Donny continues to point out how rich he is, but keeps my pay at poverty level. He is also increasingly manipulative and controlling with his money, even believing he is entitled to having input in decisions I make about my and my daughters life, parenting, my house, friends, etc. He is by nature condescending and a master mansplainer. I ignore him and avoid confrontation because after 3 years of rarely seeing my daughter I still feel lucky to have this opportunity.

A month ago I ask Donny for more money for the first time because bills are mounting. I know I need to start a job search, but have been putting it off because —what the hell do I do now?

Donny tosses out a figure 33% higher than I’ve been getting monthly. He says he could even pay off my student loans “if he wanted to”. (They are not getting paid because I don’t make enough to pay them.) He tells me to send him the amount I owe and he will pay them off because he “doesn’t want the government to play any role in my life” which sounds generous, but is actually paranoid and a little conspiracy- theory ish. I send him the figure and he ignores me. All three times. I don’t rock the boat, but never even get a response. When that month’s check arrives its less than the amount he’d promised. I don’t say anything, feeling grateful to get anything at all, but irritated that he has changed the amount without mentioning it.

This months check was even less, back to the original too-low amount. I finally tell him (at 11:30 at night, probably sounding crabby) that it is hard for me to budget when I don’t know how much money I will be getting. At the first sign of what he perceives as questioning him or “conflict”, Donny flips out and says he could easily pay me more money but that he wants me to “work for it” by doing sales for him, which I’ve been clear from day 1 that I was 1) not good at and 2) not interested in doing or I would have pursued a sales career.

Then starts the classic rhetoric all single Moms hear: that I CHOSE to be a single parent and that I CHOSE to have a baby with that person, that my current situation is all my own doing. Followed by hinting that I am lazy and that I need to take “personal responsibility” for my predicament. He then drops a bomb by asking “how long am I going to do this?” I get mad and remind him that I was halfway through my degree which was PAID for and that I had wanted to finish, but that he was right, it was my fault that I had believed his promise to train me and give me work, which he not followed through on in 2 years. So now I have no money and no skills– nothing but some extra time to be a good parent to my daughter.

Then Donny says “I wanted you as a partner, but now Im not so sure,” which had failed to ever be mentioned to me. Apparently I had no say in that either. I got mad and told him not only do I not have time for any relationships, but that we have nothing in common, which we don’t- he voted for the One Who Is Not to be Named -not to mention a hearty “no thanks!” to all the boundary-crossing behaviors I put up with like never knocking but just walking into our house unannounced and at varying degrees of earliness to keep me guessing I guess. Locking the door makes him crabby. I have tolerated these behaviors because 25 years ago he emigrated from a culture where personal boundaries are not a priority, so I thought I was being understanding.

I have not heard from him in 6 days now when normally I get multiple texts per day. I assume he is pouting and will contact me with reasons why I am an ungrateful and overall crappy person. I actually feel enormous relief at not being scrutinized or controlled but am frightened for my financial situation.

What I want to know is: was it wrong of me to go along with this arrangement for so long? What if he contacts me and wants to continue this arrangement for more money? I intend to secure my own employment temping or something, but I am really regretful that I didn’t complete my education. Donny has been really generous, but at this point I feel so manipulated and disrespected that I don’t know if a can have any sort of friendship with him, whether he continues to pay me or not. He will see me as ungrateful and leaving because the money dried up.

I have been very appreciative and grateful and thank him constantly for his generosity, but it never seems to never be enough. He tells me I should just “be a good parent to my daughter,” which I am. I and my daughter make things for him and involve him with my daughters activities, but it’s still not enough. He is feeling under appreciated but doesn’t actually know what he wants. Donny has done a lot for us and I don’t think his behavior is conscious. I believe he is emotionally stunted for some reason. However, i cannot handle any more controlling and condescending bullshit. I am also aware that I am equally to blame for my situation. My motive was wanting to be able to be a good Mom for my daughter, no matter how short-lived. Finally, Donny was the only male figure in our lives my daughter could depend on, but I also don’t want to set a poor example by being manipulated and controlled by Donny.

Scripts for what to say to conflict- averse Donny if and when I hear from him would be greatly appreciated!

-Master Builder of Gilded Cages

she/her pronouns please, he/him for Donny

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m a decade younger than my sister, who is in her mid-30s. After moving cross country, I feel so liberated and energized with the distance in place between me and my entire family.

I have played many roles for my sister…it was a draining pattern. Even as I have put distance between us, a good friend back home let me know my sister seems to have a new man in her life (spoiler: she doesn’t). How do I know she does not? With this latest new man, she’s forwarded me their exchanges. My sister is enthralled by striking up emotional affairs with male co-workers. She boasts how much these men reveal to her; how little they talk to their wives and girlfriends; or how these men don’t mention their wives/girlfriends to her. She’ll forward unsolicited text exchanges (I don’t want to see them, ever). The exchanges are basic who/what/where updates. She withholds communication (which is a relief, frankly) when I point out things like…ummm why should you know about their SOs in the first place? All of this strikes me as bananas. I work long hours in a male-dominated work place…I’m never privy to or pry for SO updates or information.

I’m at the point where I feel like I will lash out and say something that will really hurt my sister. Am I overreacting? Maybe this is an entertaining way to pass the hours while at work? Yet I want to broadcast: “Go pay for pricey therapy like I did! ” How do I communicate I’m no longer interested in hearing about her fantasy relationships and imaginary play-by-plays? Now I’m being judgmental, but I also think it’s sad to carry on a series of unfulfilling relationships. I don’t think there’s actually a way to help her, especially as I have spoon-fed her therapy resources and information, at her request. This was entertaining when, you know, I was in middle school and she was in college. She has never had a relationship and says she hates dating even though she was 18 when she went on her last date.

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