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how to say no

Dear Captain,

About a year ago I was able to save just enough money to say, “F@&$ you!” to a really depressing living situation and moved cross-USA into my mom’s new house in the very expensive area near where I grew up. I’m lucky that my mom and I are fairly compatible personality-wise (and that my younger siblings are as well; the one I get along with best also lives here) and she doesn’t want me to pay her rent. After a few months of depression, followed by temp work, followed by getting into a great volunteer gig, a great part-time job, and re-entering community college to change careers (from the arts to a very applied science, which is un-coincidentally not viewed as prestigious or intellectual unlike my previous field), I’m finally starting to feel like I’m getting back on my feet emotionally and financially.

The problem is, my room is still crowded with unpacked boxes and is not very clean (I have pets which are creating messes I am slow to clean up). We bought paint and furniture months ago but I’ve been too busy and overwhelmed to put my room together and so I’m living out of laundry bags. I know this situation is untenable and unpleasant (for me) but I do try to keep the worst of the mess to my own room and to keep up with my pets’ needs. (UfYH has helped with that and is helping me keep the worst of the mess down.)

But I think my mom has been going in my space (expressly against my permission) and she keeps giving me bullshit ultimatums disguised as “help”.
Example: Mom non-sequiturs: “This weekend we are *going* to move your desk into the dining room so you can unpack.”
Me: “I don’t want to move my desk (because I have other more important things to do like laundry for work and eking out a little self-care and also I use my desk and also where TF did that come from?)”
Mom: “But you *can’t* live like this!”

Captain, I know it’s not great, but it isn’t a pigsty and I am already barely keeping up with my new responsibilities and I just don’t have the energy to do polishing touches on my room. There are too many steps to take before I am even close to that. My mom talks to me like an incompetent child whenever it comes to cleaning (or calling out sick from work!) and rags on me whenever I try to talk about the volunteer work I’m doing in my new field. She has *suggesti-told* me to quit whenever I say I’m tired (because it’s physical, outdoor work), and it makes me so, so angry. How can I tell her my priorities are different from hers and how can I express my feelings without her complaining that I’m just bad at managing my life? (I’ve been trying to keep her on an information diet because she’s been so critical but it’s backfired because now she thinks I have “sleep issues.” Which she just *told* me to see a doctor for, like that’s so easy or even the problem. I snapped back that my health is none of her business. Have I mentioned that I’m fat, queer, and happily single? I.e., failing at traditional womanhood?) I’m tired and overwhelmed because I’m still not out of my depression, but volunteering and working is helping, and if my room stays a mess for the next year it will still have been worth it for me! I know it’s her house but it is *my* room and *my* stuff she complains about.

I think part of the problem is that my new career is lower-status than what I originally went to school for (and declined to get an expensive Master’s for). I have heard her dismiss my work in conversations with family like she thinks it’s some sort of phase. Captain, I am in my thirties, I know I’m making good, sensible decisions for my future. I am “behind” my peers because I decided to start over, not because I’m incompetent. My life trajectory is different because I am different. I feel like my otherwise-lovely, supportive mother sees my room as visible evidence that I am a failure at adulting.

Thanks for any kind of scripts/assistance/creating this vaguely friendly void of an email account to scream my frustration into!

Darling daughter is doing just fine. (She/her)

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Hello!

I’m sorry, this is complicated. I am in my late thirties and have fallen in love for the first time in my life. We have been in love for a year. I believe he is the love of my life, which I have never believed about anybody, and he believes that I am his. He still lives with his ex-wife and their three children. This made me hesitant at first, but we have been so open, honest and intimate that I trust him.

His ex-wife suffers from depression which renders her unable to work, unable to care for the children, and unable to take care of household tasks. They have been living together, divorced, with him taking care of her and the children for several years. He does not like this, but believes it is best for the children. I am happy to live separately and I don’t want kids of my own, and I trust him, so I am fine with that situation.

However, his ex-wife is hoping that he will eventually come back to her. When we fell in love, he asked me to keep our relationship secret for a while, wanting to wait for when she was on an uptick so that he could break the news to her that he is seeing someone. He is also wary because one of the kids has explicitly said that he does not want his parents to date anyone else (although he hasn’t said that in the past year). So I agreed to keep us secret until the right time.

The other day, he came to me absolutely shaking, like he had just walked away from a plane crash or something. He told me that he tried to take up with his ex that he would like to start dating other people. His ex had a complete breakdown and told him that if he dates anyone else, she will move out and have the kids every other week. He couldn’t let that happen, partly because he can’t bear to be without his kids so often and partly because she won’t care for them when it is her turn. He was also panicking too much from her breakdown. So he promised her that he would not date anybody else.

Now he is asking me to keep our relationship secret for 10ish years, until the kids are grown. He feels extremely guilty for asking me this, and says he understands perfectly if I don’t agree to it, but he seems to think it’s the best option for the situation. I don’t think it’s good for the kids for a parent to keep such a huge secret from them, but that’s not my call to make. I also think this is preventing his ex from moving on with her life and her love life, but that’s also not my call to make. Having a secret relationship for 10ish years sounds horrible for both of us, and of course there is the risk we will be caught. I think his solution is terrible, but I don’t have a better suggestion. Does anyone have a better idea?

Sincerely,
A person with a she pronoun

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Hello, it’s on!

Patrons can submit questions here (advantage: 1st dibs, more words). Anyone/Everyone can submit on Twitter (@CAwkward, #awkwardfriday), questions close at noon Chicago time, I answer as many as I can and update as I go between noon and 1pm. Whatever I don’t have time for gets held over for next week. Comments open once everything is posted.

This is also the last day (for a while, at least) that I remind folks about supporting the site. You can become a patron or send a donation anytime, of course, but these biannual reminder drives really help me be able to plan out nice things! One of these nice things: I’m officially hiring a graphic designer and a proofreader/formatter to put the finishing touches on an e-book of previously-published columns called #ThisF-ing Guy (And How To Avoid Him), so I can make it available before the end of the year. Thank you so much for all the support so far. This site is a labor of love, but it is labor, and it feels so great to be able to say “I run a fan-supported advice website.”

Cue the jazz flute which, I confess I started out including as a humorous homage to the NPR and WGBH-Boston pledge drives of my youth and my middle-school bad flute playing, but then I ended up listening to a crapload of jazz flute on YouTube this week, and now I’m like “JAZZ FLUTE IS AWESOME, MOAR JAZZ FLUTE PLEASE.” Proving that irony will lose out to sincerity every damn time.

Let’s begin: Talking to the neighbors about misbehaving kids, KITTENS, ADHD and learning to take compliments, bickering family/feeling bad about interacting with family, crushes (it’s okay to just ignore them!), when do you know if couples’ counseling is working, how to therapy, when to say ‘I love you’, drop-in houseguests, parents who want you to be their therapist, compliments that aren’t compliments.

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Ahoy Captain,

I am a part of a lovely circle of friends that at its core is good and strong and free of toxicity.

If you graduate out a bit in the social circles, we have a couple of friends that kind of move in and out of the friend group that are prone to dramatics (openly untreated depression because they say no therapist understands them, say things like “I don’t know why anyone even wants to be my friend, I’m a terrible person”, have chosen particular diets but never bring their type of dishes to potlucks so they passive aggressively make comments about having nothing to eat OR the host will make a special dish and at the last minute flake. Probably due to the depression(s), their homes are also at various levels of hoarding/uncleanliness-literal bags of garbage in corners, filthy litter boxes, etc. offers of “are you doing ok? Do you need help with anything” aka reaching out are met with indignation and weeks of “can you believe they insulted me that way!”.

These folks also smoke a lot of weed. Inside their homes and outside at other people’s homes (although if you ask them not to at your home because of piss test concerns from secondary they will begrudgingly stop). I am terribly allergic to almost all kinds of pot. I can be around the liquid form in vapes for whatever reason, but raw burning weed gives me a full body migraine that can last for days. I’ve tried many a website to research what makes this happen, and even went o the doc once or twice – with no luck.

However not inviting these people to my home for gatherings would be…..well I don’t have the spoons to deal with the fallout. But when I don’t go to their house often enough for one of their parties, i inevitably get a message or text “why don’t you ever come over? Did I make you mad? I feel like you’re mad at me? It’s because I’m a terrible person isn’t it? It’s a wonder I have any friends at all” and literally I want to chuck my phone into the river from frustration.

Because I’m not going to be THAT PERSON and go to someone else’s house and demand they not smoke pot. But I also can’t be in bed for two days to protect someone else’s feelings. And as an addendum, my spouse does have a piss test issue so I worry about it showing up if they get checked at random.

Help?

Not a Narc, just got bad genes
(They/them for anonymity)

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Dear Captain,

I’m a woman in her mid-30’s who’s been dating a man a few years older than myself. We’ve only been together for about 6 months. Neither one of us has a very extensive dating history; he’s only dated one other woman, and I’ve only dated two other men. At first he seemed like the perfect match for me – we have the same quirky sense of humor, we share some similar interests, and we usually have a good time together. He’s also been very considerate of the fact that I’m extremely introverted and require a good deal of alone time.

I do have a major concern, however, and that is that we seem to have different ideas as to what our relationship boundaries should look like. For example, I’ve been saving up for the past two years to take a trip to Europe, and I finally have enough money and vacation time saved. I’ve been planning this trip long before I met this guy, and this is something that I’ve been looking forward to doing by myself. Also, I knew that he wouldn’t have enough money or vacation time saved up (his job gives much less vacation time then does mine). When I told him about the trip, however, he basically tried to invite himself along. When I tried to stress the fact that this was something that I had planned to do alone, he argued that we’re in a relationship now and we should be doing things like this as a couple. He went home and talked to his friends and his therapist, and apparently they told him that he shouldn’t be so upset that I want to go on this trip without him. So now he’s saying that I should go by myself, and have a great time – but he expects that we’ll talk on Skype every single day. I’m not entirely sure how open to compromise he’ll be on this – I was pretty upset about the whole thing – but I certainly don’t plan to call him every single day from across the globe.

(I had some concern about this a few months ago, when he basically invited himself over for Thanksgiving dinner when my parents were visiting. However, I wanted my parents to meet him, and everything worked out fairly smoothly, so I kept my mouth shut at the time).

I’m just having a lot of trouble with the fact that a) he tried to invite himself along in the first place, and b) the fact that now he thinks he can decide how often we’ll talk while I’m gone. I’m also aware that he’s going through a really rough time right now (he’s dealing with the recent death of one grandparent and taking care of another grandparent with Alzheimer’s, and his job situation is also not very good). So I’m trying to cut him a lot of slack. I’m also aware that I might not be communicating my expectations for our relationship as well as I could – I just never dreamed that he would react like this. I could really use some advice on how you think I should proceed from here.

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Dear Captain,

I have been thinking about this one for some time now, and I’m stuck: What is a good response to “What are you up to tonight / this weekend / next Thursday?”

I loathe this question, and I’ve been getting it a lot lately. I get it from friends (who usually just want to find a time to hang and that’s not so bad), my cousin (who usually wants me to babysit), my mom (whenever she wants to invite me somewhere), and people I’m chatting with on dating websites.

This is why I hate the question:

1. I don’t want to give you a rundown of my plans. They’re private and you don’t need to know them. I kind of resent that you assume I will tell you.

2. I feel like it’s asking me to say yes or no to an invitation / commitment before I even know what it is (like, if you’re having a party I might be free, but my babysitting quota is full for the month so no to that). Ugh.

3. In the case of friends and dates, I feel like sometimes it’s a slightly manipulative way of getting me to do the actual asking / planning. Like, you want to hang out with me, but don’t want to ask me straight up. Why not? Just ask!

4. I don’t understand the point of the question. Usually, the asker will tell me why they asked after I answer, no matter what the answer is (busy, not busy, don’t know). No matter what I say it’s, “okay, well I was just gonna see if you wanted to [actual invitation / request]”.

I usually end up saying something noncommittal like “I might be doing xyz, but I’m not sure yet – why?” and waiting to see what the actual deal is. But I hate this because then I have to pretend to wait while I figure out if my original “plans” are going through before I give them an answer. Or, if I tell a potential date some generic things (oh, probably reading and writing a lot) and add that I’d like to take a break so they know I’m open, I’m engaging in the same coy behavior that’s bothering me in the first place.

It all feels like a gross, stupid game I don’t want to play. I know it’s a common question and I’m sure most people don’t mean anything bad by it. But it puts me on edge every time I hear it. Is it just me? Should I keep doing what I’m doing? Or is there a better way to handle this?

Thanks Captain!

Free for the Good Stuff

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Four years ago, the first fling I had after I left my ex was with a guy at a large multi-day costume event in a far-off state. He came on really strong (in character) and as we have friends in common, I knew he was engaged and asked him about this. He eventually explained to me that he had permission from the fiancée to fool around above the waist, and as this is pretty common in our circles, I liked him, and I was about to go back halfway across the country, I figured what was the harm to have a little fun?

So we made out a little, and kept writing to each other flirtatiously after I went home. I wanted to come back for the final weekend of the event, and he offered to put me up at their home. I had been pressing him to tell her about us, and he said he was waiting for the right time, finally saying we’d all go out when I got there and he’d tell her then.

Long story short, “circumstances” intervened so that he never told her, she found out and chewed me out (with him standing there not stopping her), I had to find another place to stay in the middle of the weekend, and I was livid with him for ruining two potential friendships (with him and her) and cut off contact with him.

Months later she wrote me apologizing for yelling at me, said they had both worked everything out, and asked if I would consider being friends with him. I said yes, as long as he agreed never to flirt with me again.

Now he is a bit of an unusual guy. The characters he plays in these costumed events tend to be overly chivalrous and attentive to women (opening doors, pulling out chairs, getting the check) and that tends to carry over in his real life (he also has a lot of hobbies related to historical re-creation and crafts, and tends to like vintage things generally.) So what I might read as creepy boundary-pushing attention, due to the massive breach of trust he committed, others have just told me they see it as flirting/overpoliteness/old-fashioned aesthetic, and don’t really have a problem with it, just see it as harmless.

He tends to fall back on flirting-as-a-social-lubricant, because that is his comfort zone. He flirted with me a couple of times when we bumped into each other at a costume event after we had reconciled, but we also had drinks recently, out of costume, where he behaved himself.

As a modern woman, I don’t like pro forma chivalry in my normal life, but I can go with the flow of being “treated like a lady” at historical events if I know it’s all pretend. But with him, it rankles because I’m not convinced it’s all an act.

Recently I went again to the same event and spent a little time talking with him in character (during which he fawned a lot, flirted, and then apologized for flirting when I seemed to be bothered by it) and afterward, we went out with friends, during which he sat next to me, suggested we order stuff to share, and seemed to find excuses to brush up against me, which made me super leery. Usually, when he oversteps, I call him on it, but I didn’t do it during dinner because I didn’t want to have the big awkward conversation with friends there, and the breaches were slight enough that it felt like it wasn’t worth it to correct him.

So, since for the last few years he’d done little to restore my respect for him, or given me any consistent reason to trust him or his promise not to flirt, I made up my mind that I was done seeking out his company, although I’m okay with an occasional brief friendly interaction, and as we don’t run into each other very often, that’s not really hard to accomplish.

But he wrote me a couple weeks after that saying he’d had a dream about me being repulsed by him and was worried it was his subconscious telling him he had overstepped, and wanted to check if everything was ok between me and us. He said he admired my charm and talent and also liked me a lot, and that it was hard sometimes not to show it.

I’m not sure how to respond, or if I should. I’m going to be around his neck of the woods a lot next year and I’m worried about possible future interactions, especially since I like going to costume events in the area and we also share a group of friends.

A pretty timely problem to have, considering open and vocal disdain for creepiness is currently in the zeitgeist.

What do you think?

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