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making up

Dear Captain,

Over the last year, a once close friend of mine and I have been experiencing the African Violet of broken friendship. We had been through a very intense multi-year creative work project together, and after the project finished and she moved onto another job, we kind of drifted apart. For my part, I felt that sometimes she could say very unkind or cruel things. I noticed about two years ago that I was working very hard to win her approval, and felt very anxious if I didn’t get it and recognized that this friendship had become a bit unhealthy. I still valued many things about my friend, and thought that by setting some boundaries I could change the dynamic. After any incident where she said something unkind (for example, that half of the work on my part of the project was not my own work, which really hurt my feelings) or been judgmental (for example, negatively commenting on the dynamics of my relationship with my partner or how much I was eating and snacking during the intense project), I would take some space. Over the last couple of years my confidence has grown, not just in this area but in many other areas of my life, and I have been able to deal with some anxiety issues I had and learn how to set boundaries.

She started mainly hanging out with some different friends, and although we were still in touch, our conversation was becoming more and more surface-level. Anytime I suggested meeting up she would be really vague or say no. I was quite hurt at the time that she didn’t seem to want to hang out with me anymore, but I knew that we had just been through a really intense period in our lives and maybe she needed her space. There was always room for our friendship to get renewed further down the line. Before yesterday, we hadn’t been in contact for about four months. There wasn’t anything particularly negative about our last contact, it just tailed off.

I recently got a new job that I am very excited about and yesterday, in a whatsapp group she is also part of, someone congratulated me on my new job. About an hour later I got an feelingsemail from my friend. It’s not a nice email. It’s basically a bitter rant about how I have changed as a person. She said she didn’t recognize me anymore and how she had become fed up of what she perceives as my faults, and me being distant, over the last two years. She said that she didn’t deserve this kind of behavior from me and that she had never thought I would cut her off like this, although she had seen me do it to others (I don’t know where this comes from, I haven’t cut any one off apart from one girl back in high school which was 15 years ago!). In her mind, I am the bad guy, and it doesn’t sound like she is open to listening to anything else. She did say congratulations about the new job at the end.

I want to reply in a kind and compassionate way, because there were many things I valued about our friendship. We were so close, and I miss her. However, I don’t know what to say or how to respond to this email. I understand she sent it in a fit of overwhelming feelings, and underneath the accusations and manipulative statements, really she’s just sad about the loss of our friendship. I am open to being friends again, and rebuilding our relationship but it can’t be like this. I want to acknowledge the email, but I don’t want to get caught up in back and forth about who did what, or act in a way that says I think this email is acceptable, or apologize for things I haven’t done. How should I respond to this feelingsbomb? Should I even respond? How can people respond kindly and compassionately to feelingsmail in general?

Best wishes,
I’ve got feelingsmail

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It’s time for the monthly ritual where I answer the questions that people typed into search engines to find this place.

1 “I have a crush on a guy who treats me badly.”

Crushes can be fun, but unlike what you’ve seen on Buffy The Vampire Slayer and every other show/movie/comic, love doesn’t turn assholes into acceptable boyfriends. My recommendation: Fantasize darkly about dirty-hot-hate-sex with him at your leisure, but save your actual affections and time outside your head for people who are kind to you.

Now more than ever we must hold the line and not waste our time with charismatic assholes.

spike

Admire my cheekbones from afar. Do not waste your precious life trying to turn me into an acceptable person to date.

2 “Talk about sexual relation first time.”

There is a site called Scarleteen. It is a national treasure, and while it was built so that teenagers could get non-judgmental, scientifically accurate, kind and sensitive sex advice, adults should read it, too. This topic is covered amply in their archives and forums.  The creator of the site, Heather Corinna, wrote a book called S.E.X. It’s great. They also have volunteers who answer questions confidentially.

While we’re on the topic, here are some other good books about sex:

Probably more recommendations in comments.

In the movies, sex just, like, happens. People stare at each other intensely and then grab each other and kiss and suddenly clothes are off and it’s all seamless and softly lit.

In real life, it’s important to talk about things with the person you plan to have sex with, especially when one or both of you is new at it. Everything from what consent looks like to “What are we gonna do about contraception (if that’s an issue in your pairing) and safer sex?” to  “I think I’d like it if we….” to “Definitely please do not ever….” to “That doesn’t feel good, please stop!” to “That feels really good!” Real life sex is awkward, and vulnerable, and that’s part of what’s great about it. Get thee to Scarleteen.

Happy talking! And everything that might come after!

3 “Working with the person you had an affair with now its awkward.”

Aw, buddy.

Without knowing the particulars (relative power structure in company, how it ended, what the feelings were and still are, how much time it’s been, did anybody know, what was the fallout, how much each person respectively likes/needs this particular job, etc.), some smart steps that you can control might be:

  • Keep your distance. You probably work in somewhat close quarters, which is how the whole thing started in the first place, and you can’t fix that or at least fix it right away, but you can start to mentally work on keeping your distance. Stop keeping track of the other person – their moods, quirks, likes, dislikes, what they ate today, who they talk to, where they go, reading their horoscope, etc. Stop fixating on them. Use the Bene Gesserit Litany Against Fear to distract yourself, if necessary, or just say to yourself , “We broke up, it’s not my business, la la la” when you find yourself getting obsessed.
  • Step up your professional game at work. Pay attention to the “little things,” like tidying your workspace, paying attention to dress & grooming, making sure you’re on time every day, being reliable & correct in your communications, keeping your boss updated on your projects, keeping small talk with coworkers very light and not revealing of personal life. I don’t think there is shame in crying it work – it’s a natural human response to stress and anger, and we shouldn’t be as dismissive of it as we are as a culture – but if you’re someone who is trying to keep an intra-office breakup private, try to do your crying in private. Put your best foot forward, even if you don’t feel like it right now. If you look to others like you have your shit together, it can sometimes help you keep your shit together.
  • Polish that resume. Look for another job, or an assignment in another department. I know, it’s not fair that you should have to leave your job, but it might be the simplest way to cut the cord of awkwardness. Join a networking organization for your profession if there is one. Make some new connections. Take a class and boost your skills in something. Maybe you feel like you can’t or don’t want to leave your job right now, but reminding yourself that you have options can’t hurt. Anything that reminds you of your own value is gonna feel good right now.
  • If there is stalking or harassing behavior of ANY kind, document & report it if you can. Whatever happened happened, but you don’t deserve to be terrorized or retaliated against professionally.
  • Give it time. Like the pain of all breakups, this too shall pass.

4How to break up your daughters gay relationship.”

Try these search terms instead:

“How do I show my daughter I love her and accept her?”

“How do I stop being a homophobic asshole?”

 Okay, speaking of affairs:

5 “What do you say to a married man’s wife who you have an affair with when she confronts you?”

Start with “I’m really, really sorry” and DO NOT try to justify or explain. The aggrieved spouse has probably saved up some things to say, so, just listen while they speak their piece. You don’t have to answer questions – “You should ask your spouse about that” is a good script if you start getting an interrogation, and if at some point you gotta end the conversation say, “I’m so sorry” again and refer the person back to their spouse, like, “I’m so sorry, I hear you, I know I hurt you. I don’t have answers for you, you should talk to (spouse) directly about this.

There’s nothing GOOD you can say, so, focus on not making it worse.

6 “Husband doesn’t believe his mother hates me.”

What if you said, “You don’t have to believe me, but when we’re around your mom and (this specific behavior) happens, I do need you to (defend me/shut it down/back me up/leave with me).

Focus not on the emotion (she hates you) but on the behaviors (the specific things she does that hurt your feelings or annoys you), and give him an idea of how he can best support you when those specific behaviors arrive. Choose your battles, and do what you can to minimize time with her. Annual Reminder: Nobody HAS to go home for the holidays.

7 “What to say in a Xmas card to a sister you did not talk with in five years.”

“Merry Christmas! I hope you’re doing well. Here’s [email/phone/the best way to contact me], can we catch up sometime in the new year?”

Take the pressure off to come up with something eloquent. This moment is literally what greeting cards are for – short, non-emotionally-charged communications. Give her a way to contact you and then leave it in her court. She’ll call/write or she won’t.

8 “Boyfriend does no chores and never wants to spend his free time with me.”

You could dump the boyfriend and get a cat. It wouldn’t do any chores, but least the cat would be cute and hang out with you sometimes.

male-model-cat-1

9 “Happy birthday to a friend you had a misunderstanding and now friends again.”

Say/Text/Facebook Wall: “Happy birthday!

Do you really want to rehash the misunderstanding? In someone’s birthday greeting? No. You don’t. Bake them a normal cake, not a shame-cake, and be glad that you mended fences about whatever it is.

10 “Boss upset I quit and I feel guilty.”

Your boss will get over it. Or they won’t, but you won’t work there anymore, so you don’t have to care.

11 “How to start the baby conversation with partner.”

“Partner, I’m thinking a lot about having a baby, and I’m pretty sure I want to start that process soon, with you. What do you think about that?”

Or, “I’m pretty sure I don’t ever want to have kids, so I wanted to see how you feel about that.”

Full disclosure, here’s how this conversation goes in my house:

We hang out with Commander Logic’s freaking adorable smart amazing children, aka, The Gateway Babies.

Spouse: “Someday, you know, my/our kids will….”

Me:

Repeat for a few weeks.

Me: “You keep mentioning these kids that will be doing stuff someday. Are these real kids or hypothetical kids?”

Spouse:

Me: “So, hypothetical. Ok.”

Spouse: (lots of stuff about parenthood and money and anxiety)

Me: (corresponding anxiety-brain-vomit)

Me: “If you really want kids, I’ll have your kids! I’ll have kids with you.”

Spouse: “That’s not exactly a ringing endorsement.”

Me: “It’s what I got. I can be happy either way.”

Both of Us:

Me: “Talk again in six months?”

Spouse: “Sure. Good talk, everyone.”

12 “What does it mean when a guy tells you ‘I cant ask you to wait for me’?”

It means, “don’t wait for me.” You have been or are about to be broken up with.

13 “A guy likes and comments on everything on Facebook stalker.”

You can: Set your posts using privacy filters so he can’t even see them.

You can: Unfriend his annoying ass.

You can: Block him so he can’t even know you exist on Facebook.

When/if…okay probably when…he contacts you through other channels to ask “Are you okay?” or “Did I do something wrong?” here’s your script:

“I wasn’t enjoying our online interactions so I stopped them.”

Monitoring a person’s every online breath is stifling and creepy. You don’t have to tutor him as to why.

14After party with my former students sex stories.

twitchy

No.

15 “My toddler seems lonely but I hate playdates and playgroups.”

From what I understand from my friends who are parents of young kids, EVERYONE HATES PLAYDATES. The other parents hate it as much as you do. They are going through the motions because they want their kids to have friends and be socialized. They are something you suck up and do until you find some other parents that you a) can stand to be around while the kids are very small and drop-off/self-play isn’t possible b) can trust with your kids as they get older so you can take turns dropping off the kids and getting a few hours to yourself.

Do you have a co-parent? Can they take some of the play-date and play-group pressure off? Like, if you both hate that, can you take turns sucking it up for the sake of the kid?

Can you find more structured stuff – craft things, a local children’s museum, story time at the library, swim/dance classes – that allow your kid to interact while you check out and read your phone in the bleachers?

You’re a good parent because you’re noticing your child’s loneliness. You’ll do the right thing. And this won’t be forever.

Dear Captain Awkward,

My brother died suddenly in an accident in May. He was my only full sibling. The only sibling I grew up with and lived with. I also have 3 older half siblings from my father’s first marriage- we’re not super close, we see each other at holidays and text quarterly updates. After the funeral, I had to plan my wedding happening just 8 weeks after my brother’s death. The trouble starts when I am texting with T (the oldest half sister) and say that I am having a hard time because my mother is emotionally unavailable due to her grief. T has a tense relationship with my mother and uses this moment to tell me how unreasonably angry my mother was acting when she last saw her. I am LIVID and stop responding. T says “sorry, it just made her sad.” I lose a day of wedding planning to being angry and trying to figure out how to respond. I give up and send no reply.

In the following weeks, T sends a message explaining her behaviour and then tells me that I am acting unacceptably. I tell her that I need some time and space. My other sister K is sent to get some answers and I tell her to mind her own business. T gives me 10 days and then tells me I’m being abusive and I’m just mad because her siblings are alive and mine is dead, that everyone was at her wedding and my brother won’t be at mine. She doesn’t want to come to my wedding because she’s not sure if I even love her anymore. I tell her that needing space was about me not her. At this time she also makes a plea to my parents to get them to make me talk with her- they say she should just leave me alone. My father sobs and begs T to attend the wedding.

At the wedding, T shows up late and leaves early. I generally avoid them and have a fine time. After the wedding she blocks me and my parents on facebook and gets her husband and mother to do the same. I text T that I am available to talk now, but understand if she needs space. No response. I text K and say apologize for being snappy and telling her to mind her own business. She blasts back demanding I take responsibility for everything – for making my “wedding into a battle ground”, shattering all of the relationships, and “single handedly tearing our grieving family apart”. I’m at a loss. Am I selfish? Are they? How much of this is my fault? Should I just cut my losses? Help?

-One wedding and a funeral

(Preferred pronouns she-her)

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Blanket statement: Friendships have to be able to withstand boundary-setting and communications that certain behaviors are not cool, like “You are hurting my feelings” or “That thing you did is not okay, could you stop?” If you are always biting your tongue when the other person hurts your feelings, what you have is not a friendship.

Example #888:

Ahoy Captain,

(Note: I am girl and use she/her pronouns. Also, I changed all my friends’ names).

So I’ve been having some problems with a friend, Jasper (also female). She’s been snapping at me more than usually, especially over little things ( saying “Your laugh really annoys me” and “Please stop singing. If you can pronounce this, don’t even bother trying to learn it.”). This criticisms have gotten so frequent that I feel like I need to stay completely silent all the time, lest I stand on a landmine.

She also never answering any of my messages, even though she talks with our other friends all the time on Skype. I then have to call her for any confirmations, which she snaps at me for and demands I keep it to texts (which she rarely answers). It got so bad one time, because I was essentially stuck at her house till 9 at night, waiting for an answer to texts. Meanwhile, she had picked up a couple of our buddies and they were hanging out in town, playing Pokemon Go. I thought this would change things, but she would still ignore my texts when I want to plan things.

My friends, Skellington and Steven, have basically told me that this is getting too much. Steven even said, “The last time we hung out with you and Jasper, I felt so awkward. It was like I was only invited just to watch her tear you down.” The only reason why they can’t speak out if because they can’t drive and usually Jasper is their ride.

I started taking measures to distance myself from Jasper, but a part of me really does hope we can reconnect in better, healthier terms. I have blocked her on everything (except her phone number because she never texts me) and I’m not gonna hang with her for awhile. I also started reconnecting with friends I use to have before I got completely absorbed by Jasper. I am building a team me around me (which already consists of my mom, Skellington, and Steven).

So what I really want, Cap, is a script for when I finally confront Jasper. I really do want to connect with her, but I know I need to tell her what she did was not right.I want to try to mend the fences before I have to resort to possibly burning a bridge. Can you help find the words to say to a toxic friend?

Sincerely,

Lapis Lazuli

Dear Lapis,

You are doing all the right stuff to take care of yourself (minimizing contact with Jasper, prioritizing other friends). Keep doing that thing and maybe time will do its work and let the friendship end of its own accord.

I don’t know that you can “mend fences” with someone who constantly picks at you, not to mention someone who avoids you. It doesn’t sound like she likes you or wants to be friends anymore, I’m sorry. I think the tactic here is to keep ignoring her until/unless she actively seeks you out, at which point you could either try having a big talk along the lines of “Hey, I don’t like how you’ve been treating me, what’s going on with the constant belittling one second and avoiding me the next?” (at which point one or both of you admits that you’re not really feeling the friendship these days) or you could try waiting until she does or says something unkind and then saying “Hey, that’s pretty unkind, could you not?” and seeing how she reacts.

I think the big talk where you confront Jasper is unlikely to have the outcome you want (unless the outcome you want is extreme defensiveness & blame). A better strategy is to call out a specific instance of bad behavior in the moment. Someone you can make peace with is going to say some variant of “You’re right, I’m sorry” and then stop doing the unkind thing. Someone you can’t make peace with is going to explain how you are misinterpreting or exaggerating and how it’s not their fault anyhow. Even if it doesn’t help you right now with Jasper, maybe you could practice this skill a little bit and learn how not to go silent in the face of conflict. One way is to start speaking up more in low-stakes interactions, even if it’s just stating preferences – “Steven, I like that sweater on you!” “No thanks, Skellington, I don’t want anything to eat right now.” “That meeting time won’t work for me, could we do something earlier?” The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the less tongue-tied you’ll be in higher-stakes interactions, like when your supposed “friend” is telling you they are annoyed by your laugh and you can say, “Really? My laugh? Why would you think I want to know about that?”

Example #889:

Dear Captain,

I have become friends with (Friend), a work colleague, over the last few years while they’ve been getting through a domestic crisis (separation from an abusive partner), through which I have provided some support and advice. Friend’s life is improving gradually professionally as well as personally now, and a few months ago she was promoted to a position of greater responsibility at work.

Unfortunately she has responded to this new position by behaving like a real jerk from time to time – not to me (I’m not in her area), but to people who are under her, and in no position to defend themselves. She will tell me stories about things she’s done to people, machinating against them, yelling at them, and so on. In the most recent one she yelled at someone over the phone at some length, who had made a minor and unintentional error. She tells these stories clearly because she’s proud of herself; she sees herself as standing up to bullies in these situations. She has no idea, as far as I can tell, that she is behaving badly.

I understand how her background in a lengthy abusive relationship would predispose her to be confused about what “standing up for yourself” really looks like, at the same time as it would make her really want to do that. But in fact she is behaving abusively herself, now that she’s got enough power to be able to do so.

I’m never around when these things are happening, to intervene; she tells me later. You could argue that it’s none of my business, but it is my business, in that she is telling me, and in that I am beginning to feel as if I don’t want to be her friend anymore if she’s going to be abusive to people who can’t defend themselves.

What do I say? How do I conduct an intervention here? Or do I slide gracefully into the woodwork and just stop being available to see her?

Yours,

self-righteous and judgmental church lady

Dear Church Lady,

If you were this person’s supervisor, there would be material for a long talk or series of talks about management styles, how to motivate people, how to communicate when someone has made a mistake, and other “How To Be A Manager” topics. It sounds like she could use some training around all of this stuff, at very least. Perhaps that uncomfortable talk is coming in her near future. Let’s hope, for her direct reports’ sake!

Not being her manager, your reaction can be less about “documenting incidents for HR” or “finding the teachable moment” and more about “being an appalled human being,” for instance:

  • “I don’t know how to react to this story; it doesn’t present you in a good light.”
  • “Wow, that seems like a really harsh reaction to an innocent mistake by (employee).”
  • “Wow, it sounds like you yell at these folks a lot. What’s that about?”
  • “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. Why are you telling me this?”
  • “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. What does your manager say about how to handle things like that?”
  • “Am I missing some context here? It sounds like you are the one who is out of line.”
  • “How does (employee) react when you spoke to them that way?”
  • “How is it ‘standing up to bullies’ when you are the boss and the one with the power?”
  • “Wow, that story is also disturbing. Are you noticing a pattern here? This seems like way too much conflict for something so innocuous/simple.”

I would not bring up her recent personal relationship history or psychology or reasons you think this might be happening. That way lies Extreme Defensiveness Town, Population: There Is No Winning Any Arguments Here. Keep your response focused on the specific story she is telling you and the specific behaviors. Maybe float something like “There has been so much conflict in the stories you’ve been telling me lately. Have you thought about getting some management training or asking your boss to help you lessen the amount of conflict in your department? As your friend, and someone who knows your work well, I think you could use some support/some new tactics/to give people a break/some strategies for keeping your cool.

If this is how she treats her staff, you’re probably taking a trip to Defensiveness Town anyhow, so your question about fading into the woodwork is on point. Make yourself less available, and when you do see her, disengage from serious topics and inviting confidences & keep your conversations very light. It sounds like your friendship was very helpful to her during a difficult time in her life, but you are no longer wanting to serve as her chief work confidant. Do what you can to steer your conversations away from “Here is the dirt!” to “Seen Ghostbusters yet?

tl;dr If the person truly is your friend, engage directly with the crappy behaviors and trust that the caring you have for each other and your friend’s innate goodness will carry the day. “Not cool, friend” does not mean “I hate you!”

If they are not your friend (or their “goodness” is particularly “deep down” of late), engage anyway, and take the risk of a conflict that ends the friendship.

In any case, “appalled silence” is not working. It is too easily mistaken for assent.

 

 

 

Hi, Captain,

My mom and I have had a fraught relationship for most of my life. Her parenting was often verbally and emotionally abusive, she spent much of my adolescence self-medicating with alcohol, and she’s both extremely volatile and prone to interpreting criticism as an indictment of her entire being (so, for instance, “Mom, I feel like you don’t really listen to me” is met with “Well, I’m SORRY that you have the WORST MOTHER in the WORLD!” and similarly manipulative, derailing crap).

Because she’s very conscious of how others see her, she’s a pro at turning on the Cool Fun Mom routine, which she used to win over most of my childhood friends. Any time I was critical of her parenting or expressed frustration about not having my needs met, she would invalidate me by pointing out that my friends thought she was awesome, and therefore the problem must be me. It made me feel terribly alone and doubtful of my own perceptions, which of course was the point.

Our relationship is marginally better now that I’m an adult and we live in separate states, but lately she keeps trying to pressure me into a closer relationship that I’m frankly not interested in. After years of reaching out to her and being rebuffed, her newfound zeal to be my pal feels like too little too late, and very one-sided. Like, “I know I was checked out for most of your childhood, but please get over it because being your mother is finally convenient for me.” I also can’t help but notice that the way she talks about being closer always necessitates me changing to accommodate her, but never includes any explanation of how she plans to meet me halfway by, say, addressing her anger issues and constant need to criticize with the help of a therapist.

As far as I can discern, her vision of our new and improved relationship basically amounts to me giving up my boundaries for her comfort. Example: I asked her to stop prying into my dating life because a.) it’s annoying and b.) it’s not a subject I feel comfortable discussing with her, and I assured her that if there was anything she needed to know I would clue her in. She responded by telling me how hurt she was that I wouldn’t be more open with her and then asking if I was secretly gay.

Occasionally she’ll get tearful and ask why I won’t give her more of a chance. This is a trap, because then if I try to explain (“Well, Mom, you’re relentlessly judgmental and kinda mean, you refuse to admit fault for anything, and you won’t respect my boundaries, all of which makes you not a lot of fun to be around”) the inevitable outcome is a heated, defensive lecture about why my feelings are wrong and her toxic behavior is totally defensible.

This does not make me want to be closer to her.

Captain, I would like to have an amicable, well-boundaried relationship with my mom. I would like for Christmas Eve to never again involve “IT’S OBVIOUS THAT YOU HATE ME!” being shrieked in my face. I would like to be able to work through disagreements with her peaceably instead of getting baited into a shouting match over who’s right and who’s wrong. But I don’t get the sense that my mother is prepared to do her share of the emotional heavy lifting that building a better relationship would require.

What do?

Difficult Mom Is Difficult

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