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Friendship

Hi Captain!

As I’ve tried to make better friends with her, I’ve realized that my roommate’s GF is a very negative person. Several times in a conversation, small talk will be shut down with very honest but also very negative responses that make it hard to move the conversation forward. Some examples:

Me: I heard you and your parents are going to [nice restaurant] next week, that’ll be so fun!
Her: It’s actually not very nice there.
Me: Oh, really?
Her: No.

Roommate: I think I’ll start taking Spanish classes.
Me: That’ll be fun! And it will definitely help in your line of work.
Her: I speak 3 languages and it’s never helped me.

A few points:
1) These are conversations that take place, for example, while we’re all sitting around in the den before we all scatter to do separate things. That is, she and I are not hanging out one-on-one or having intentional heart-to-hearts, it’s ‘we’re both/all sitting here, let’s not sit in silence’ vibes.
2) She has apparently told her BF she wishes she were better friends with me, so it’s not that she’s trying to shut me down and I’m missing the hint. I would have stopped trying by now if I didn’t know she apparently wanted to be friends.
3) I recognize that my pattern is to try and put a positive spin on things, and clearly she doesn’t appreciate that… but I have no idea how else to make light small talk, especially when she doesn’t seem to be introducing these negative angles in order to confide in me or something. It just makes the conversation die.

While I do want advice for how to manage this particular friendship better because this person is constantly hanging around my house, I realized that this is also a bigger question, and one I thought you’d be particularly suited to answer because it comes up quite a lot from the opposite side in questions here. What do you do when you’re the person trying to make the small talk that the other person apparently finds annoying or offensive (accepting as a given that they aren’t just trying to make you go away)?

best,
Chatty Cathy (she/her)

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Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.

Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)

A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?” 

You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.

As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.

Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)

A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?

Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)

A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.

First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?” 

In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.

Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)

A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.

I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.

First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:

“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”

You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.

Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:

“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?

You may or may not have heard the news, but I  lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?

Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:

“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”

You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.

Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.

But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?

A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:

  1. Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
  2. Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.

As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):

  1. Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
  2. Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
  3. Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
  4. Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.

This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.

Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.

A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”

  1. It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
  2. It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
  3. One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
  4. When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
  5. As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.

Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Yesterday night, seemingly out of nowhere, my husband “Andy” (he/him) got a message from a friend of ours, “Marc” (he/him). In this very long message, Marc wrote that he felt hurt and attacked by Andy during his recent (2-3 days ago) visit to our house. Marc used words like “venomous” and “vitriol” to describe Andy’s “ceaseless attacks” on him from the moment he came home that reminded him of how he (Marc) was bullied and abused as a child. Marc ended the message by saying he has always valued Andy’s friendship and hopes Andy would tell him if he’d done something to upset him. Andy called Marc twice last night and once this morning, in addition to sending him a message but got no
response. I also called Marc but he didn’t pick up my call either.

Some background. We are all in our late thirties/early forties. We met Marc through a mutual friend about 5 or 6 years ago, and both Andy and I have been friendly with Marc, especially for the last 18 months that we have lived in the same city. Marc comes over to our house once a week, and usually hangs out for most of the day. Marc is independently
wealthy and would like to do more travel, outings, etc. but Andy and I both work and are trying to save money to start a family, buy a house, etc and usually aren’t up for it. We’ve always enjoyed hanging out with Marc. He was at our wedding! I think both Andy and I would describe him as one of our closest friends in the city.

The message really hit Andy hard. Andy is one of the kindest, most considerate people I have ever met who will bend over backwards to help people. This is not just wifely bias, but lots of people, even acquaintances/colleagues will say that about him. It’s possible that Andy maybe made a joke or comment that hurt Marc’s feelings but nothing rising the level of the constant, vitriolic attacks that Marc describes. Andy wanted to get in touch with Marc to get some examples of what he said wrong so he can apologise and not hurt him like that again. Despite saying he values the friendship, Marc is refusing to
engage with us.

So here’s the tricky part. For the past couple of months, I’ve gotten a feeling that Marc may have a crush on me. It’s little things that are easy enough to ignore, complimenting the way I look or the food I make, suggesting a time to hang out when he knows my husband will be working. Nothing substantial but you know how women sometimes just
have a sixth sense for when men are flirting. Like you just know? I never said anything to Andy because a) Marc was never inappropriate with me, b) I enjoyed Marc’s company and so did Andy, c) people have crushes and I figured it would fade and things would go back to normal. Now I’m wondering if Marc is purposely burning the bridge or got upset with Andy because of feelings for me? Ahhh, even writing that makes me feel so stuck up. I promise I don’t think everyone is in love with me.

Two questions: What should Andy and I do, if anything to try to address this with Marc?Should I be honest with Andy about my theory on Marc’s behavior?

*I read your rules and I swear I’m not simply doing emotional labour
for my husband, but I feel like this is my problem too.

(She/Her)

Hi there,

I’m sorry you’re dealing with this. I’m going to suggest, bluntly:

Let Andy & Marc work it out (or not). Do not attempt to mediate, explain, intervene, or search your soul for reasons a man is behaving badly and how you might have caused it or somehow affect the outcome. Question of the century: What if we collectively stopped pretending that volatile and hostile men are everyone else’s problem to fix?

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Hi Captain Awkward,

One of my (32, she/her) very best friends (ditto, ditto), Sara, has been dating John, for about a year, and I’ve recently realized that I just do not like him much.

Most of the time, in either big or small groups, John doesn’t interact much with me or others at all; he’s in the “just kind of there” school of significant other-ing, which is understandable early in a relationship. We haven’t found any common interests (besides Sara) that could be an easy point of connection, other than me occasionally asking him about work in a small-talky way, which is too bad, but not a huge problem.

The problem is when he does interact with me unprompted, it’s often to “well, actually” me: things like “you don’t need bug spray, we’re on pavement” (yes I do) or “you say you’re avoiding sugar, but you’re drinking wine right now” (uh, OK?) or “you could take a rideshare for the same amount you’re spending on that drink, and then you wouldn’t need to stress out about taking the bus” (reiterating that I need to catch that bus is my way of signaling that this conversation will have an expiration date!). Or he’ll point out a flaw or foible in a sorta-joking way. Maybe he’s just a jerk; maybe he’s just socially awkward and is trying, badly, to join in the conversation. Either way, as another close friend, who has also not warmed to him, put it recently: it feels like he’s lightly negging us all the time.

I realize that part of adulthood is that my friends are going to date or marry people who are not necessarily my cup of tea, and that even if Sara and John break up, I will likely not be so lucky as to genuinely connect with every single person my friends ever bring around (though I’ve been pretty lucky so far). In these situations, what are some strategies I can use to forge some low-key social bonds, or at least manage to tolerate hanging out with, people who would not be my first choice to socialize with but matter to people I care about?

—I Could Probably Be Trying Harder Here Too

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I had family in town this weekend so got behind on these, hopefully you enjoy them! The questions were submitted here, there will be a July session later in the month.

Q1: When I’m walking down the street with friends who love dogs, they love to interrupt our conversations with screams like “OMG LOOK AT THAT DOGGO!” I end up awkwardly replying with something like “oh yes, nice dog” or “wow, it has three colors,” without managing to quite mirror the friend’s enthusiastic tone. Do you have any suggestions for replies that might make these interludes more satisfying without involving totally faking enthusiasm I do not feel? (she/her/hers)

A1: Once I was on the beach with a close friend and we both lost our minds at a scene of family cuteness that was unfolding in front of us and then realized: She was looking at the baby. I was looking at the puppy. Neither of us had really even clocked the other small cute being.

I guess my question is, why do you feel like you need to mirror their enthusiasm or fake it? Your friends can be very excited about dogs, you can be the friend who is not so hyped about dogs and who indulgently waits out Dog Excitement Time. Probably you will forever be slightly annoyed by the interruptions in your conversations, probably you will say nothing about this because the world is hard enough without policing the joy of people who get very excited about dogs. Dogs will be fine without your affirmation, dog-people will stay excited about dogs, so carry on with your dry “Oh, was that a dog?” natural human reactions, there’s no need to pretend!

Q2: I recently split up with my husband of fifteen years. We went to the same writing program in college, and always connected over books, writing, art (etc.). His opinions on same have always been strong and strongly expressed, which made me shrink as an artist & art-lover to fit into whatever space he wasn’t taking up (which wasn’t much). How do I rediscover my own taste and reclaim my former identity as a writer? Thanks! (she/her/hers)

A2: What a necessary and hopefully extremely fun project, truly one of the great rewards of breaking up with someone unsuitable is reconnecting with your own pleasure and tastes. Let me throw a couple of ideas at you, and, while could always take classes and workshops, you might need a real break from that right now, so I’m going to suggest NON-class/writer’s group/formal structure with an authority figure-type-things, ok?

  • Anything you enjoyed and learned from during your time with this person is still yours, you don’t have to disavow all of it if you don’t want to. You get to still have your favorite breakfast place and bar and vacation spot if you want them, too. You were there in your story when you found these things, they aren’t his.
  • Repeat after me: There are no guilty pleasures only pleasures. Read all kinds of genres meant for all kinds of audiences, don’t stick to what you’ve thought of as Important and Prestigious and Serious right now. When teaching first year film students in their very first moviemaking class, I sometimes did an icebreaker where I asked them to list five “desert island” movies, and I didn’t want their “coolest” or “impressive” movies, I wanted to know the ones they watched over and over again, the ones that comforted them when they were sick, the ones that remind them of particular people and memories, the ones they can quote every line, the ones that made them dress up as the characters for Halloween, the ones that will always make them stop if they see it on TV flipping channels. We’d get GREAT lists, the class would know more about each other’s frame of reference, but something important would be discussed, too, which is, there’s a reason you wanted to do this with your life, don’t let anyone talk you out of loving what you love. Hold onto the things you love, and add new things to that love, don’t feel like you have to “upgrade” your personal art friends that got you through to right now.
  • The Artist’s Way is a classic for a reasons, the morning pages, “artist dates,” and thought exercises are a good guide-map to getting unstuck and working out some things. Some people react very badly to the sincerity and “woo” factor but I think that’s part of the magic, like, nope, you’re gonna be a BIG OLD DORK about your art for a while, now make a puppet of your inner critic and tell it to fuck off.
  • Go back in time. What’s the last thing you were reading right before you met your ex? What are some things you loved as a child and very young woman? Revisit them.
  • Go sideways. What are mediums that your ex had no expertise on or interest in? What are things you can experience live where you live (music, dance, theater) and immerse yourself in a room and a performance and a community? Try out a theater subscription, dig through your old mix tapes. Cleansing.
  • Go visual. Part 1: Collect images that speak strongly to you – could be photos (even ads), film stills/screenshots, photos of paintings over the course of a few months. Part 2: Choose your 5 favorite ones, and find a way to print out or cut out color versions of them and hang them on a wall. Part 3: Once you have them up, look at them and see if they have anything in common – common motifs, themes, colors, subject matter, spaces, what do they remind you of, what feelings come up, what senses come up. Repeat this periodically. What’s changing? What’s the same? (I used to do this in groups and have the other students walk around and write what they observed on blank sheets of paper under each group of photos. It always went somewhere very cool, maybe try this with a few artist/writer friends?)
  • No career advice right now, just process. Follow Shaula Evans, (http://shaulaevans.com/) she gives the best prompts and questions, always something that makes me think and want to revisit my own work. See also Jami Attenberg’s 1,000 words of Summer project, where subscriptions are full but archives are there and you can jump in any time. Or play with The Storymatic. You’re just playing for a while, the stakes are low.
  • Write down a list of 10 art projects you might do, include things that are totally silly and “would never work.” Your wildest dreams. Your pettiest revenge. Your most self-indulgent fantasy. Revisit this often. The “that’s ridiculous” stuff will sound more and more likely the longer you do this, if my personal “ha, nobody will ever make a movie like this!” notebook from grad school is any indication.
  • Take something you wrote before and remake it as something else. Does it have to be a short story or could it be a poem or a radio piece or a play or a puppet show. What changed? What stayed the same?

That should hold you for a while!

Q3. I love my wife a lot, and I love “general” intimacy and being physically close to her. However, I find I’m not as interested in sex with her any more. We are poly and both have a healthy sexual relationship with other partners, but for whatever reason, I’m just not turned on by her like I used to be, and I don’t know what to do about that.

A3: I have a few thoughts:

  1. Has your wife noticed/is she bummed out/also disinterested in the home front and happier to get laid elsewhere for a bit? Has something changed in your overall situation that’s contributing stress? What does she think is going on?
  2. Every person I know in a long-term relationship who is still having good sex on the regular puts it on the calendar in some way. I think we just reach a point where ‘being spontaneous’ or ‘being in the mood,’ just doesn’t carry it (“You’ll still be here tomorrow, right? Maybe I’ll be in the mood then!”) and we have to make a little more effort to make it happen. Are you and your wife getting over-scheduled with other commitments and is this a time/effort/energy thing?
  3. When you do do sexy stuff with your wife, can you try making it “all about her” for now, whatever that means to you? (Getting her off and letting her fall asleep after without any pressure to reciprocate, focusing on things you know she likes, reading/watching sexy stuff you know she likes). Obviously check in with her before you launch some SURPRISE! WE’RE DOING SEX YOUR WAY! campaign, but I would imagine a turned-on lady with a lot of gratitude for being made to feel awesome is probably a pretty exciting lady to be around.

Be gentle with yourself and with her, hopefully that gives you some starting points to figure out if this is a temporary slump or a tectonic shift.

[MODERATOR NOTE: I don’t let polyamorous folks slide into questions about monogamous partnerships run amok with “well, have you heard the good news about polyamory?” so definitely we’re not doing the reverse. If your comment about this was deleted, this is why. Thank you!]

Q4: What’s your advice for “how to be on time” when I have 1) executive functioning problems 2) trouble task-switching 3) the kind of depression that tends to get me “stuck” and ruminating right when I need to leave 4) irrational anxiety about that ONE LAST THING that needs to be done before I go? I know there’s lots of advice on this but not a lot that isn’t shamey + understands mental health.

A4: This is one of my constant struggles, and it’s probably going to be a life-long struggle for me, even with lots of medication and support and self-awareness and life-hacks. First, I hope you’re treating your depression, anxiety, and executive function stuff to the extent you can, and my suggestions are not substitutes for medical care. Second, these aren’t meant to be comprehensive solutions or cover every eventuality, but there are a few things that help me do better with time:

I have magical thinking about time. To fight this, when I put an event in my calendar, like, “Meeting, 3pm” I also calculate the necessary travel time & route & directions & cost (+ add 20-30 minutes to that for good measure), and schedule a separate event called “LEAVE FOR [EVENT]” and set up associated alerts. It’s not perfect but sometimes redefining a thing from “I have an appointment at 3pm” to “If I want to take public transit, I need to be on the 1:55 pm 78 bus ($2.25 + $.25 to transfer), otherwise I have to get a Lyft by 2:30 ($12-$14), hey Siri remind me at 1:30 to get ready” does a better job. It’s harder to do the necessary breakdown when I’m already stressed and worried about being late, so doing it right when I schedule the thing helps break it down and incentivizes the earlier, cheaper departure time.

My laptop is a trap. Do you have a trap? I love my computer, it’s how I know literally all of you, hello! If I am honest with myself, I will not “just’ read a few emails and answer them and oh look, here are some comments to moderate and read. I will get sucked all the way in and task-switching will be very, very hard. So if I’m trying to get out the door at a certain time, especially in the morning, once I start getting ready, I probably can’t flip open my computer. What is the YOU-trap between you and getting ready or between you and heading out the door? Can you recognize it and neutralize it?

What is the “why.” Feelings, especially depressed/anxiety feelings aren’t the BOSS of me, but they are information. If I’m avoiding/dreading/procrastinating about heading out the door for something, why? Why am I going to this thing in the first place? Why am I choosing to go, do I have a choice, what do I hope will happen there, what am I expecting to enjoy, who will I see, what am I afraid of, what am I not looking forward to? Am I over-committed and need to say yes to fewer things? I know for years of dealing with depression and anxiety that sometimes I truly can’t go to a thing but also sometimes it just feels like that and I will be quite glad once I’m there so it’s worth pushing through. I also learned that I should stop saying yes to specifically social events I feel “maybe” about in the first place.

Sometimes making a note of the feeling helps me do the thing anyway. Sometimes reframing “I have to” things as “I want to/I am choosing to” things helps (not always possible, but worth a try, I think). Shame is useless. It really is. I’m not 100% at being on time but I don’t walk into every room pre-apologizing for myself anymore.

[MODERATOR HAT ON: If you are an organized person who does not struggle with timeliness, exactly zero of your “just lay your clothes out the night before and just put your keys in a findable place” are going to help. We know that stuff, that stuff is useful, but for us there is no “just,” it’s still hard. Requesting input from fellow time-strugglers only.]

P.S. A few great people I follow on the topic of #ADHD specifically and executive function generally: Dani Donovan, Eryn Brook, and Elise Kumar.

Q5: I have a friend (Zelda), who goes through one trauma after another (all genuine problems). Nobody wants to say anything to her because she’s having a hard time because of *latest disaster*.
How much leeway can you give someone because of something like this (it’s been YEARS, and it’s always something) and what to do when she e.g. forms a new social media group with all but one member of our friend group? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is one of those questions where I can tell there is a GIANT back-story here. I’m going to try to answer this without judgment of you or Zelda or even trying to guess what’s going on. I think it’s time for you to take stock of a few things:

  • Do you want to be friends with Zelda anymore?
  • Do you specifically want to be in these social media groups with Zelda from now on? (Are you the person who was left out of the new group? Does “Hey, did you intentionally exclude (mutual friend), what’s that about?” get this done?)
  • Assuming you want to stay friends, where would you most prefer to interact with Zelda (online, offline, occasional catch-up lunches or go to the movies, text, phone, sending funny postcards in the mail?)
  • Is Zelda asking people for specific help with these crises or is it background noise – everyone’s sharing what’s going on with them, and this is what’s going on with her? Is it that you’re unsure what she’s asking for/why she’s sharing whatever it is? (“Hey Zelda, are you just venting or is there something specific you need someone to pitch in on today?”) Sometimes it’s hard to ask for help (and people think sharing the problem is the same as asking for help), sometimes it is just venting and the person doesn’t want help or advice, she just wants people to know what’s going on, when in doubt, ask!
  • Is the “Nobody wants to say anything to her” thing a “Nobody wants to say anything to Zelda about [certain specific unwanted/unpleasant behaviors] because she’s usually in the middle of a crisis” problem?

Assuming you come out of that thinking process still wanting to be friends with Zelda, you could try a couple of things:

  1. Maybe these online groups aren’t your jam and you can take a break from them.
  2. If you’re feeling some trauma fatigue, maybe you’re not ‘process trauma’-friend at this time, maybe you’re ‘do gentle nice fun things’-friend right now. If that’s the case, think about what occasional pleasant low-commitment hangouts you might want to invite Zelda to that are within her bandwidth and where the subtext isn’t “you are a disaster and I am here to help you.” Think: lunch, Saturday breakfast, free night at the art museum, a matinée you’ve been wanting to see, the cat cafe, a nice walk outside. Does changing the venue change the vibe?
  3. If there’s some conflict or behavior you need to talk with Zelda about, if “everyone’s” been keeping quiet about it for a long time and getting steadily more annoyed, keep in mind that Zelda doesn’t know it’s a longstanding problem. So be gentle, specific, and treat it like the first offense – one that you quite reasonably expect her to reasonably respond to – and speak for yourself (not the whole group). I’ve observed ____, what’s going on there?”“I need you to ___.” 
  4. Related discussions. Good luck.

Q6: I love your dating profile suggestions! Do you have any wisdom for folks looking for friends on apps like Bumble BFF? (she/her)

A6: Thank you! This is the first I’m hearing of this service, which sounds pretty neat. I’m not sure I have any advice that that would be different from the dating profile suggestions: Be very honest, vivid, and specific about who you are, don’t try to appeal to the widest possible audience (you don’t want ALL POSSIBLE FRIENDS, you want friends who match you), look for reciprocity and matching enthusiasm levels, and seek out the people who make you feel safe and good.

It’s probably harder to reject people who don’t really match you when there isn’t the same obvious”I felt no attraction/spark” answer to fall back on, but friendship has a spark, too, so pay attention to that. You can have a pleasant time with someone and not want to be best friends.

Q7: How do I talk to newer friends about the depressive episode I’m currently working my way out of? I haven’t had one in years and have made new friends in that time. They know intellectually about my depression (I am pretty candid about it) but hadn’t seen it in full flow until this year. I tend to isolate during them and am afraid I scared new friends off. (she/her/hers)

A7: You’ve been here before, which I think will help you think about why do you want your new friends to know (duh, they’re your friends, they’d want to know what’s going on with you) and what do you want them to know (“My depression flared up and I’m in a slump right now, what that looks like for me is ______”) and what do you want them to do (“My tendency is to isolate so I might not be up for big group things or super-keen to make plans, but it helps me when friends do ________.”) Giving your friends something to do and telling them what depression means & looks like specifically for you will help let them know what they’re in for. I hope you start feeling better soon.

Q8: I came out to my family as trans a year ago and they took it poorly but not extremely so, normal I guess. Though they’re using my new name/pronouns they haven’t apologized, it hurts. I avoid phone-calls/meetings and send postcards instead. We were never close – there’s not a good relationship to fall back on. I don’t want to cut them off but this is exhausting. What are my options to try and move on? (he/him/his)

A8: I’m so sorry it went down this way, you deserve better. And the postcards are smart, a way to keep the channel of communication open but not demand any immediate reaction. If you need to stop with the postcards and stop working at this in general, that’s okay, they have choices about what to do here, phones, email, and the post office work both ways, they can reach out to you if they want to. Can you throw your energy into friendships and community who are supportive and accepting and put this burden down for now?

If you want to make a last-ditch try (either now, or after you’ve taken a break from trying), if you’ve never sent them to the PFLAG site for some reading material you might do that (though definitely vet whatever specific links you’re sending yourself), and you might also say, “Hey, I want to be closer to you and figure out how to have an adult relationship, but I’m having a hard time with it. I’m so glad you use my name and pronouns, but I’m still raw from some of our early conversations around coming out. It would mean a lot to me to hear an apology about [be specific], is there a way we can clear the air?” Is it a “real” apology if you have to ask? I don’t know, but if you need it maybe you need it, and maybe they’re also flailing and trying to figure out what to do. Also, it’s come up before, but are there cousins/aunts/uncles who are supportive? Our families can seem like monoliths but they are made of people.

My friend (codename: Lieutentant Trans) wrote a guest post here long ago, and he has some wisdom for you, I think:

“Relationship essence can be boiled down to three qualities: presence, support, and approval. I think we often seek approval first, or even second, but the reality is it almost always comes last, if it all. With my parents, I learned I didn’t need their approval to have a relationship with them: we can still learn to accept each others’ presence and support. Now, the support will be limited during the periods of learning acceptance, so things will still be draining for those of us seeking a close relationship with parents, when one day you will reach a point of exhaustion, you no longer will want to focus on what’s not working, you don’t want to beat your head against the wall any more…

…And while your father might be ignorant about queer counterculture, he knows as well as you that you don’t have a relationship, that you are not close. What you need to determine is if he also wants to go beyond what you currently have. If so, spend time focusing on positive interactions, things you have in common. Talk about food, the weather, start following his favorite sports team, tell him about TV shows you’re watching. I’m not suggesting swallowing or ignoring the bad parts, I’m emphasizing work on building up the good (and mundane) parts with just as much as energy as you use on the bad parts.”

Basically: Find very mundane, non-loaded ways to interact and be present and see if that helps push the fraught history further back in time and gives room for something else to grow. I hope it gets better. But they might never be the parents/family you really needed, and you can definitely stop working at it for a while if you need a break.

Q9: I’m trying to reconnect with some of my busy and/or geographically scattered friends. I could use some words to remind myself that people are unlikely to mind one “hi, I miss you, here’s what I’m doing, how about you?” or “you suggested hot chocolate, how about a week from Thursday?” I started okay, then got stuck after the second person didn’t answer. (she/her/hers)

A9: It’s good that you’re doing this and most likely your friends (who are not a monolith, they are separate people) do not mind this at all and are in fact grateful! Keep trying for a bit, and then stop working at the people who don’t respond (though make allowances for mental health stuff and accessibility), and enthusiastically make plans with the people who do. I especially like your style of inviting people to specific things on a specific day (where they can suggest an alternative if they can’t make that thing), and inviting them along to a thing you’re doing anyway where it would be great if they could join you but it’s not the deciding factor. You can also add gentle RSVP deadlines in – “I’m trying to buy tickets by Monday, can you let me know by Sunday night” – and stack invitations – “[Reliable mutual friend whose attendance you’ve already secured] and I are going to take some books/knitting/crosswords/board games to x centrally-located cafe/bar between y and z o’clock on [date], drop in and have a drink with us if you can?” 

Don’t build your whole schedule around these things happening until you get affirmative commitments, remember that things didn’t get “scattered” overnight and they won’t get un-that way overnight, so I think you’re doing everything right, and it’s just going to take a little while.

P.S. If your friends have small kids, bring the party to them.

Q10: Many forms of self-care for anxiety are distractions from that anxiety (listening to music, etc). But sometimes I’ve found that I’m anxious about a solvable problem, and “distraction” types of self-care end up just being procrastination; I actually feel better after I do the thing I put off. Tips on knowing yourself or your anxiety well enough to know the difference between anxiety you need to just wait out vs act on? (they/them)

A10: I personally hate most meditation and “mindfulness” strategies and other calming down techniques, they only ever stress me out because now I’m probably Breathing Wrong on top of everything else, and I generally feel better when I convert my anxiety into action. (Especially around political stuff, where anxiety is a reasonable reaction to a situation, and “what can I dooooo” a matter of urgency (see the series of Half-Assed Activist posts).

I also (touched on in today’s Q4) started tracking feelings along with tasks and schedule stuff. If a task keeps rolling over from previous day’s to-do lists, or I’m having a hard time motivating to go to a specific thing, what are the feelings going on here? What am I avoiding? Is it something that absolutely has to be done or can I just admit I’m never doing this totally optional thing I thought I was going to do and delete it from my “should” list?

I think distraction works best when you’re stuck somewhere that you can’t leave, or where you can’t take action about whatever it is. You’re stuck in traffic or it’s taking forever to de-plane. You’re at work and obsessing about something happening at home or vice versa, or you can’t get started on the thing that’s making you anxious until you clear some other tasks first. Or, you’re at a party and there’s no house dog or cat to quietly pet in a quiet room. Then yes, breathe differently, listen to music, look at cute animals, brew a cup of tea, play a little Tetris on your phone, repeat “We’re not IN traffic, we ARE traffic,” whatever those temporary calming mechanisms are that work for you, bring it on!

From there, one possible test for you to try with your anxiety, if distraction isn’t working, when you’re in an anxious mood, maybe do a thing (anything) and see if it helps? I know UFYH often suggests setting a timer for 5 minutes and decluttering or cleaning 1 tiny surface as a starting point. There’s also this great post about Breaking The Low Mood Cycle where taking action even when you’re not in the mood can sometimes get you to the mood.

That’s all for this week (though there is now bonus content on schedule + to-do lists + feelings, thanks for the great questions!

 

Hello, Captain!

Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.

Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!

A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome

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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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