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manipulation

This letter contains emotional abuse of people, potential physical harm of animals (now stopped/interrupted/not ongoing/the animals are ok for now!, but still I know some people can’t safely read about that), and enough WHAT THE FUCK that you’ll need a comfy chair and a cold washcloth, at minimum.

If you want the teachable moment without reading the whole story, here it is: When a romantic partner wants you to do something that is terrible for you to make life easier for his ex-wife  the lady he’s very much still married to and choosing to prioritize, 1) SAY NO! 2) RUN AWAYYYYYYYYYYYYYY.

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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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Dear Captain Awkward,

A couple of months ago, one of my best friends (we’ll call her Beth) and her partner (we’ll call him Dylan) broke up. Beth and Dylan had been together for six years and living together for five. They seemed to have a pretty good relationship, although Dylan dominated the apartment with his belongings, said he couldn’t marry her until he was a “real adult” (at 34, while doing nothing to move toward his definition of “adulthood”), and was generally kind of moody. Beth did most of the adult work in the relationship, including keeping a job she didn’t love in order to support them financially and doing all the emotional labor because Dylan wouldn’t go to counseling, individual or couples’.

They broke up because Dylan deleted their anniversary on Facebook. When Beth asked him about it, he confessed that he had been secretly dating a coworker and no longer loved Beth. She was blindsided, not least because she was very good at checking in on the relationship and he had essentially gaslit her into believing that everything was fine for months. Dylan moved out of their apartment and Beth actually packed his boxes for him. I did everything I could to support her and tried very hard not to set Dylan’s things on fire and to discuss my deep contempt for him with mutual friends instead of with Beth. Eventually it came out that the coworker was married and she created a lot of drama and misery for Dylan, and I thought, Great! He’s getting his and I don’t have to do anything.

Unfortunately, now that his little fantasy didn’t work out, Dylan has decided that he DOES love Beth after all, and he is insinuating himself back into her life and her apartment. She told me yesterday that they were having sex, but that he “can’t make any promises right now” and he says, “We shouldn’t be doing this” (while still managing to fuck her), which is basically the sexiest thing someone can say. Beth, heartbroken and holding out hope that he’ll come back to her and they can make it work, isn’t doing anything that I haven’t done myself, but I am furious that Dylan is taking advantage of her feelings so he can have AND eat ALL THE CAKE. But of course when I tell Beth that, I become the Bad Guy. Captain Awkward, I don’t know how to support my friend while also making it clear that there’s no fucking way this guy is getting back in our good graces, especially not with this behavior.

Thank you for your time!

Hard-Hearted Harpy Wants Friend to Be Happy (she/her pronouns)

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Hello Captain:

There’s a bit of tedious backstory to this, and a few other co-problems (which I think I have some scripts and strategies for, thanks to your incredibly useful archive of GSF/friendship posts). But the main gist is:

Our child (Anna) has a very good Friend (Elsa). They are both 4-5 years old, if that helps. I first met my child’s friend’s mother (Juno) at playgroup, and we bonded over shared hobbies and interests. It helped hugely that the kids really got along, and for the most part, as parents, we shared many parenting values. The problem is the one parenting value we don’t share.

Elsa is incredibly sensitive. And her mother (Juno) makes it my child’s job to manage her child’s emotions. For example, here’s what typically happens:

The children are playing rambunctiously and my child gets hurt – in a trifling way (a bump, scratch etc) and through no real fault of anyone. It happens! That’s life.

My kid gets sad, mad and sometimes, both. Wailing ensues. This is also normal, and I tend to respond by validating the feelings (You feel hurt/Bumping your knee is pretty ouchie sometimes!/etc) and offering a cuddle.

The Elsa gets upset that my kid is upset. Sometimes, Anna is inconsolable (wailing too hard to make any sense, again, this is normal and understandable). Elsa then begins to wail EVEN HARDER (“I tried to say sorry and Anna didn’t stop crying!”) like, Elsa gets upset because my kid is upset. This is – a bit much when it’s all going off and I haven’t quite finished my coffee – but also understandable. Elsa is very empathetic and that’s a great thing! I should also note here that it happens a lot. Like every play date. Over many minor events.

However, this is the problem. The mother of the kid (Juno) takes it upon herself to fix her kid’s (Elsa) emotions by sort of shaming my kid (Anna) into accepting an apology, or comforting her kid. Juno tells elsa to “go tell your friend how she made you feel sad” and “if you’re feeling upset, you should tell your friend how you feel”. She makes the situation all about Elsa, and Elsa’s emotions and how we restore Elsa to happiness. I’m like – hey my kid got hurt! Let her be!

Typing this out, it maybe doesn’t sound as bad as it is in the moment. But it’s hard to express how this is TOO MUCH for a wailing 4yo to process.

I want to yell HEY KNOCK IT OFF. YOUR KID’S EMOTIONS ARE NOT MY CHILD’S TO MANAGE. I mean, I am trying not to raise an asshole – in fact, I’m pretty sure my kid is not one. She’s not perfect, but she’s trying! We talk a lot of about being kind and considerate. But in the moment, when my kid is in pain, is maybe not the time for a guilt trip. And I do not think it’s a good idea to teach your kid how to guilt trip their friends into making them feel better! To me, this smacks of manipulation.

Yet, when it’s all chaos and tears seems a really bad time to also add to the fire. So please help. Is this a big deal? And if it is, do you have any scripts for me to use in the moment to deflect Juno’s attempts to guilt trip my child without fanning the emotional flames of the situation? And any scripts to talk about it afterwards? I wasn’t raised w great boundaries and feelings talking skills, so I’ve largely through therapy, your blog, and hard life experience taught myself as an adult to do all this. And now I’m lost.

And here is some of the tedious backstory. My friend Juno has battled social anxiety and depression, and has terrible boundaries/communication skills. I am trying to fade out the friendship – which in itself is a challenge due to small town/tight knit social group/many overlapping hobbies/no way to actually end the friendship. But I am trying to preserve contact for the sake of the kids (and the husbands, who also like hanging out a lot). Previous attempts to talk about the issues (my friend has a tendency to sulk/storm off/dole out the silent treatment/expect everyone to manage HER emotions) have resulted in some super awkward and unproductive circular conversations.

For example:
Me: Storming off and taking the car keys was not cool. And then not texting us to say what you did was even less cool.
Her: I can’t control my emotions. I was upset.
Me: OK, I’m sorry you were upset. But storming off without even a text is still not cool.
Her: I was upset!
Me: ….

(That was the day I decided that this friendship wasn’t as awesome as I had thought. And that she wouldn’t be allowed to watch my kid again, ever.)

So I foresee that a calm, productive post mortem of our parenting techniques is unlikely to happen. Still, I’d like to try, as moving town is not an option lol. I have to find a way to make it work. Or if not work, protect my child/descalate situations as needed.

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Sorry about the premature postulation of the draft version yesterday.

Dear Captain Awkward,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Don’t want to be my own something blue

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Dear Captain Awkward,

My husband (“Mike”) has been married before, but he and his first wife (“Sarah”) divorced many years before I (she/her pronouns) met him. Mike has never given me any reason to be jealous of Sarah, and for the first several years of our marriage I made a point of being friendly with her. As might be expected of two women who married the same man, she and I have similar personalities in some ways, so it wasn’t difficult to hang out with her. And besides, it seemed like the right thing to do for my husband to foster friendly relations with someone with whom he was partnered for many years. They never had any children, so really this wasn’t very complicated, especially as Sarah was as gracious and cordial to me as I was to her. She and I even got together without Mike there sometimes. (In case it matters, I should say that we never discussed how she and Mike broke up or the details of either of our marriages with him.)

But then something weird happened. Last year I found myself in an unhappy professional situation, and Sarah offered to recommend me to her employer. I enthusiastically accepted her offer. While this would have been a new field for me, the company sounded like a nice place to work and had a mission with which I felt comfortable aligning myself. At her request, I gave Sarah my resume and then revised it slightly on her suggestion. A while later she ran into Mike downtown and told him I would be receiving a call from someone at her company and that they would ask me my salary requirements. Although under company rules she was not supposed to reveal it, she confided her salary in Mike so as to give me an idea of what the company paid.

I got really excited and discussed with family what I should ask for. I settled on a number that was about 2/3 of what Sarah had said her salary was (for a position with responsibilities that would grow to be like hers). The salary I wanted to ask for was well within the range of what I have earned in previous positions, but when Sarah heard my number she said it was too much, since I didn’t have a background in this field. I pointed out that I had other professional experience that would serve me well in this field and expected to work long hours that would justify premium pay. But I also asked her what I should say instead — like, if there were a magic number that I should be considering if I really wanted this(?), but she refused to say. And then . . . I never got a call from her company.

After that she was kind of vague about what had happened, but when I finally cornered her (by sheer chance, I ran into her downtown) she said she had decided I probably wouldn’t really like the job, so she had told her colleagues not to recruit me after all. I told her she was wrong, that the job really appealed to me, and that I hoped she would correct the record with her colleagues. She grudgingly agreed to do so, but then she disappeared for a few months — as in not responding to Mike’s birthday wishes and dinner invitations. Then just recently she suddenly turned up in our email as though the whole thing had never happened. She said she had been quiet so long because of being busy at work; and asked if we wanted to go to a show with her.

My problem is that I feel humiliated by what happened. She put me in a position where I was making a case to her that I was very unhappy with what I was doing at the time (and am still doing) and would love (love!!!) to work at her company. After I confided to her that my whole career wasn’t as fulfilling as it appeared on the outside, she basically withdrew her help. She indicated she didn’t think I was worth the salary I wanted to propose, a salary that was tens of thousands of dollars less than hers. And maybe that’s true, maybe the company could find someone with superior skills who would ask for less money. On the other hand, maybe the whole thing was a set-up for her to convey to Mike and me that her s**t is far more together than mine. I feel as though she encouraged me to be vulnerable with her and then found a way to use that vulnerability to undermine me.

I should note that Sarah did something similar once before. She offered Mike and me a valuable gift and later withdrew the offer with the explanation that she had the impression I didn’t really want it. But I did want it! And I argued hard that I would love the gift, but she refused to be convinced. The incident was annoying, but since Mike believed in my sincerity I wasn’t really harmed so overlooked Sarah’s odd turnabout.

Mike says this is just kind of the way Sarah is (and one reason he divorced her), but I know he would still prefer to have all of us be friends. On the one hand, I feel guilty and petty for not being able to forgive and forget this job debacle; on the other, I feel too embarrassed by the whole episode to be able to hang out with Sarah anymore. I can’t say for sure that she set out to hurt me. It’s possible she meant to do me a favor and then realized she had promised more than she could deliver and couldn’t find a graceful way to stand down. But that’s not what she chose to indicate to Mike and me, and I’m afraid if I give her another chance to socialize with us it will ineluctably lead to more of these (passive-aggressive?) incidents. Now I just want to be done. Am I justified in saying I’m finished being friendly with the ex-wife, or should I suck it up for Mike’s sake, or is there, perhaps, a third way?

Thanks for reading this and also for all you write, which has been incredibly helpful to me in rethinking my issues with my faaaaaaamily-of-origin.

Best wishes always,

(Wife) #2

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Hi Captain Awkward,

Let’s call me Elizabeth. My dad and I have a strained relationship, and was not really much in my life for a good year thanks to my decision to have little to no contact. Why? He’s an emotional abuser, and so for the sake of my health I made boundaries. Just getting phone calls, or even texts were skyrocketing my anxiety. But…slowly…I have begun to interact a little more with him, my placating mother, & most importantly my little sister (who wasn’t speaking to me for cutting off our parents, because she didn’t know my side of the story or see the worse of how our dad treated me).

So in May, to my surprise my dad told me he was willing to go to counseling. In the past I practically begged him to go to counseling with me, but he wouldn’t have it. I talked to my therapist, and they were frank that based off what I’ve shared about my dad and their experience in family counseling that they doubt his intentions are genuine. I tried telling my dad, “how about we see how things go with how they are now, & try counseling if old problems come up.” I wasn’t entirely honest, I didn’t want to go to counseling at this point, I’d moved on emotionally a while ago, but couldn’t bring myself to be that direct (cause dad can be scary). He insisted, and next thing I know I’m looking up family therapists, cause I WOULD NOT let him pick a therapist cause I don’t trust him.

I found a family counselor (still seeing my regular one though), and have been dragging my feet every step of the way. I’ve met the therapist too now, and given their business number to my dad so he could make an appointment months ago, as we’re suppose to start going in separately for them to evaluate our different needs and perspective independently of each other. This was months ago, and dad has not seen the therapist yet, and claims to have called em but “the number doesn’t work”. I checked it works.

I’m now irritated, and anxious over this while trying to make progress in being the best version of myself in other areas but now feel held back. I haven’t even heard from dad in 4 weeks since giving him the number a 2nd time. I need scripts for when I eventually hear from him, or see him again, and he inevitably brings it up. I NEED HELP SAYING A CLEAR AND FIRM NO, WITH PREPARED SCRIPTS FOR PUSHBACK!

-Elizabeth

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