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forced teaming

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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Hi Captain –

I have a question about keeping yourself sane while trying to get out of a bad situation.

I’m trying to leave my job. Everyone I work with is too. I’m at a very small startup, and the main person in charge is both incredibly demanding and extremely volatile, which makes it virtually impossible to succeed. For a variety of reasons,* I can’t just quit, but I am actively looking and trying as hard as I can to get out.

The problem is that, for me at least, job searching is stressful too, and I’m much better at it when I’m in a good place mentally. Unfortunately, our head honcho makes this really difficult. It’s not just a matter of ignoring or deflecting manipulative or unkind comments; it’s that they’re in touch constantly, with all of us, making it hard to even get the time or space for reflection. They don’t have a lot of family and have devoted the last few years to making the company work, which means that they constantly want engagement and validation (even if they’re berating us), and they won’t stop trying to engage until we cave and give them the answer they’re looking for.

For example: they’ll ask, on a weekend, if a previously-undiscussed deliverable can be done by Monday. If I say it can’t, they’ll ask why we’re not working on the weekend when everyone else is working “like mad.” They’ll then keep messaging me asking what it is that they haven’t explained properly about the opportunities before me, and what they can do differently so that I understand it, and then ask if I’m receiving the messages. If I don’t answer, I’ll receive a talk on Monday asking what it is that can be done to make sure a situation like that, in which we’re unreachable, doesn’t happen in the future. (This is often followed by “I’m tired of arguing with you and want to make this work, but I don’t know what else I can do.”)

So my options boil down to either a) completely acquiesce to all requests, regardless of their merit or any other factors, or b) have a pointless, hour-long conversation that consists mostly of being reprimanded. I should also note that they also want to hang out socially with all of us a lot, and pout if we won’t, which, as you can imagine, also affects the workplace dynamic.

I will be much, much better off if I can stay in this position until I find another one or am in a better financial position to leave. In the meantime, though, I’m so stressed and busy that it’s hard for me to do anything, including look for other jobs. Do you have suggestions for scripts I can use on *myself* here in order to keep myself going? My therapist says just to remind myself constantly that I won’t be here forever and that I am leaving as soon as I can, but the more frustrated I am, the less likely that seems. And I feel like this is a situation that a lot of people get into – cutting toxic people out of your life is necessary, but it’s so complicated.

Sincerely,

Working on Freedom (she/her)

*You can include these reasons if you want, but I left them out for brevity. I’m including them here to indicate that I really have thought about leaving, and really have decided that the best option for the moment is to stay until I get another job. Those reasons are:

– I have < 1 month of rent in my savings account, and am reluctant to borrow from my parents
– My job history has quite a few short stints, mostly due to coincidence and/or bad luck (yearlong grant programs, getting laid off, leaving a part-time job in order to take this one, and, yes, one where I was a bad fit)
– I’m in a weird specialized field where the work I’m doing is actually hugely beneficial to my ability to get a job in the future

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Update from LW below!

Dear Captain,

I love your site and have read 99% of your archive. I love the honesty and practicality of your responses and find a lot of helpful truth in them. This one, though, is stymieing me.

I have built a career that has been very successful and train people in complex aspects of my profession.

Since there are multiple cycles of the sessions required for industry certification, I get a lot of the same participants over and over, and one such is the worst energy vampire I’ve met in my entire life. I’m running out of ways to deal with her short of telling my boss to cut her out completely, thus hurting her career pretty permanently. I work hard to be patient, professional, and kind to everyone, but this woman, Emma, is beyond my capabilities.

Emma lives alone, and her husband either died under tragic and improbable circumstances or left her under equally tragic and improbable circumstances or there never was a husband at all; she was apparently adopted by a cruel aunt as a child, but that story has shifted as well and sounds suspiciously like Harriet Potter or at least A Little Princess. Each session now drags on as she rambles, and regardless of what we are discussing (usually content-specific and related to our set purpose) she finds an entry point to share irrelevant anecdotes incoherently and at length. With no exception, the other participants in each session despise this woman, and come to me privately to “deal with her.” She has been questioned on inconsistencies in her narrative by members of the group only to rail at how unfair everyone is to her and WHY WILL NO ONE BELIEVE THAT MY LIFE IS HARDER THAN YOURS. She never submits her assignments, and thus takes the sessions again and again and again (paying full price each time, so my boss just shrugs and takes her money) but the behavior never changes and it’s The Emma Show.

She has my office number due to its placement on my syllabi, but not my cell, although she asks me for it every single meeting so we “can socialize” because “you’re my sister from another mother!” She desperately wants to be friends on social media, and I have firmly told her I don’t do that with work acquaintances. She wants us to get matching tattoos. I have said no with increasing hostility to each of these overtures and repeatedly said, “Emma, I understand that you would like us to be friends, but I have to maintain professional boundaries and I know you’ll understand that I can’t breach those roles,” to which she will inevitably sigh, giggle, and pet my arm while saying, “Soon! I’ll graduate from the cycle and we can HANG OUT!”

Okay. I know that this woman is desperately lonely and probably struggles with the truth (even to herself), and I SHOULD be sympathetic. I have asked my boss to schedule her with another instructor, but my boss doesn’t want Emma in her own sessions again so I’m it. It’s to the point now that I don’t honestly know what to do short of open warfare.

Practical suggestions? A script? If I remove her from my roster it will have immediate and negative repercussions on her full-time employment and I don’t know if I can ethically do that to someone who, let’s face it, I just dislike. I strive to be a good person but my God she is testing this each time.

I hate how she eats French fries. (EVERY SESSION. LOUDLY. WITH MAYONNAISE WHO DOES THAT.)

I hate how she pronounces “nuc-u-ler.”

I hate how she monopolizes everyone’s time, in small groups, or pairs, or whole-group activities, no matter what I do, say, relocate, or attempt. (And yes, I know how to deal with teenagers with oppositional behaviors, just not forty-year-olds who insist they are grownups.) I move her seat; she cries and moves back. I tell her I can’t pass her due to lack of work; she blames her seat mate. I tell her not to talk tonight because other people need to share and work through their (work-related) issues; she interrupts and says her problems are more important. I feel impotent because my boss will NOT back me up.

(And I hate, hate, hate going to the bathroom after her, but that’s another story for never.)

Thank you! Just writing this helped a bit. VENTING.

~Emma, I Can’t Be Your Friend
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i.e. “Your Old High School Friend Is Not A Pacifier”

Dear Captain,

I have a dilemma I hope you can help me with. I seem to have acquired an internet friend with needs a bit beyond my capacity.

I’ve struggled with depression all of my adult life. Fairly recently I decided to go on medication, and wonder of wonders, it’s helped so much. Because of that, I’ve been able to make some healthy lifestyle changes.

I wanted to share about my experience, so I wrote a Facebook post. It was overwhelmingly positive. Many people reached out to me to share their experiences as well, including an extremely distant acquaintance from high school. Call him Fred.

Fred has also had challenges with depression. From what I can gather, he’s having some challenges with drinking and drugs too. Ever since my post, he’s taken to checking in with me every couple of days.

At first I thought that was nice–people supporting people in their shared experience. But his check-ins have turned into demands. Call me! I’m triggered! Call me! I’m suicidal! Call me! I’m in trouble.

I know how hard it is to ask for help. I get that he’s not in a place where he’s going to be graceful at it. I would really like to be supportive. He’s in a lot of pain, and he’s isolated. However, he’s stressing me out.

When he contacts me, it’s with demands that I stop what I’m doing immediately and talk to him. We’re not on equal ground–he isn’t willing to schedule a call to talk to me at a time where I have time and energy to pay attention. And his check-ins aren’t about me, they’re about me asking how he is.

Last night I stayed up (far past my sleep time) trying to get a sense of the territory of his dilemma. Two hours in, I asked him a question to try to understand, and he responded, “Plz stop analyzing it. It’s not helping!!!! You can analyze on your own time.”

Of course I am open to hearing that what I am saying is not useful. However, I’m not his therapist. I’m not even his friend. I’m just a concerned fellow citizen. This was at 1 am in the morning, after I had spent the entire afternoon worrying when he told me that he was drinking and thinking about killing himself. It really bothers me to be told that I am on payroll.

I don’t want to be a bad human here. I want to be supportive as I can. However, I need a way to set some boundaries so that I don’t have to feel worried, guilty, and sleep-deprived all the time.

Any suggestions?

Impromputu therapist
(preferred pronoun she)

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Captain,

I have a question about dealing with a Geek Social Fallacy #5 carrier, with a work-related twist.

I have a live-in position and a good working relationship with the other live-in staff members. Naturally we often spend our free time together, sometimes as a large group get-together but more often in smaller groups of the people we’re closest to / actually friends with.

There is one individual who generally gets on everyone’s nerves — she dominates the conversation and makes it all about herself, says slightly inappropriate things on a regular basis, asks people direct personal questions in front of everyone, etc. The problem is that she thinks that we’re all one big friend group and that anytime she hears that someone’s making social plans with another employee, it’s fine to invite herself along. She does not take hints at all, and no one wants to come right out and say, “You’re not invited to this” since this is someone we all have to live and work with on a daily basis.

From past experience, I have a feeling that trying to have an honest conversation with her would lead her to drop by everyone’s rooms to try to have hours-long FEELINGS conversations, and trying to shut that down will make her unbearable to work with. She recently renewed for another year-long contract.

Right now everyone’s strategy seems to be to make plans behind her back as much as possible, and then if she finds out and invites herself over/along, we suck it up and deal. Do you have any suggestions for a better strategy?

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Hi Captain,

I have a friend. He’s a reasonably good friend and has been there for me during some tough times. Which is why I feel guilty about what I’m about to say.

For the last year or so, we’ve spent a lot of time together chatting and hanging out. We had some sexual tension and a very brief romantic fling before deciding it was not to be. I am way happier now that we’ve decided this, but he – was and probably is still – a bit upset about it. So I have a lot of guilt over that. We chat quite a bit on FB and via text and at the moment it’s pretty constant throughout the day. However, the more we talk the more I kinda think – while I want to be friends, I want to pull back a little. Well, a lot.

The thing that is getting me down the most is that he’s so negative. Every message is about how much his life sucks or how much something hurts or how much he hates his job or his parents or how everyone else is stupid… Like I genuinely can’t remember the last time I had a positive comment from him. I know his health isn’t great, so he is being genuine. But it’s just so wearing.

I’ve tried making helpful suggestions (these go down like a lead balloon). I’m currently just leaving a while before replying (although that’s tricky cos he can see on FB when I’ve seen a message) and then saying something like “you poor thing” and either changing the subject or not really engaging further, unless the subjects shifts to TV shows or something neutral. Some days I just ignore messages altogether. But it’s getting to the point where I just don’t want to hang out with him any more – via chat or in person, because I just end up so depressed. But I don’t want to make him feel worse. I feel really guilty about all of this, because I know I used to participate in the negativity. Nowadays, I’m trying to be more positive – and seeing positive results from this – but I don’t want to just abandon him either like “my life is better now, yours isn’t, so bye!”.

The second thing is that he’s super clingy – and quite aggressive in his clinginess. He ends up scolding me about our friendship if I try to pull back a little. It starts out with if I don’t reply within an hour or so, I get a text asking if I’m mad at him. Whether I say no, or I try to be honest, he gets really really upset and starts attacking me – saying I don’t reply to him enough and when I do I’m being superficial and I’m not hanging out with him enough or when we do he feels like I’ve scheduled him in like everyone else and I’m making him feel bad… or else he brings up other stuff, about our brief fling or my new boyfriend… This sort of thing also happens if I mention something that I didn’t tell him about instantly – I get “ why didn’t you tell me?!” and then the rest of the guilt trip. If I get upset about what he’s said, he backtracks and tells me that I’m overreacting and that I “always do this” and I’m being ridiculous and that he’s just venting so “why do I always think everything is my fault?” This happens by text and in person – and in person he shouts. I’m really bad at confrontation, so as soon as he goes on the attack I forget all my words and just get upset.

I just find it all exhausting. I don’t want to be friends like this. But I feel really bad that I used to engage in all of this and suddenly don’t want to any more. I feel like a terrible friend and I’m just abandoning him when his life is still difficult and mine is getting better. I don’t know what to do.

Please help,

A Terrible Friend

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