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manipulation

Hi Captain,

My mother and I have always wanted different frequencies of interaction. After I moved out for university, at a holiday party my mother announced the only gift she ever wanted from me was daily phone calls – even her friends were incredulous. She tends to call any hour of the day, hitting redial up to a dozen times if I don’t answer. Calls can be about anything, from “are you free tonight” to an extended vent session about my father or brother (who still lives at home). No call has ever been an emergency – I found out my father broke his wrist a week after it happened, via Facebook, despite my mother and I talking in-between.

Over the last few years, I’ve become better at enforcing manageable levels of communication – proactively calling her on weekends for a chat, making up vague excuses, explicitly saying I won’t answer/call back unless I’m free. This had the side effect of every conversation starting with how I’m too busy and don’t prioritise family. After the first few hour-long complaints, it’s now usually only a throwaway comment per call.

With COVID-19, we’re all under Shelter-in-Place. Now she knows I’m not busy and she wants the daily calls again. Additionally, she wants to use them to teach me her native language. Even if I didn’t find daily calls with my mother draining – daily phone calls that require homework and family/diaspora guilt?

I know we’re in anxious times and we should all reach out and connect with each other. I am also worried about my parents – my father is likely high risk, my brother maybe so, and my mother is a healthcare worker (not frontline, but still in a hospital).

I’ve tried suggesting using a language app/online course and having weekly conversation practice – no dice. I’ve tried suggesting weekend catch-up calls without the homework, but then comes the guilt. We text occasionally with pictures of the garden, but that doesn’t cut it. Digital game nights and Netflix-parties are also out.

I’m tired and stressed and I want to connect with my mother – but not at the expense of my own mental health. Suggestions? Scripts?

– At home doesn’t mean on-call (she/her)

Thank you

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Dear Captain Awkward:

Well, not exactly. First, some background: I (she/her) am a member of a Face Book group for fan-fiction readers and writers. I’m a longtime writer of both original work and fan works, so I like to leave comments when people post questions about plotting, characterization, etc. Trouble is, I commented on one post a couple of weeks ago, and now the original poster won’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She private messaged me within about an hour of me leaving the comment, specifically requesting elaboration on what I’d said. Sure, fine, not the first time this has happened. We kept chatting, about the fandoms we were in, that sort of thing. Hey, great, maybe I’m making a writer friend, I’ve been looking for that. And then she dug a little deeper into what I liked- did I read/write mostly G rated or X rated, was it mainstream stuff or fringe, etc. For the sake of the story, we’ll say that I ended up saying, well, I mostly like m/m, I sometimes like f/f, and I’ll only read m/f if it’s really special, and that I really like reading when men tie other men up and have sex with them. So she starts sending me bits and snippets of stories she’s been writing, and most of them turn out to be m/f, where the woman is being tied up to work through childhood trauma. And in between there are questions- “if her legs were tied like that, would she be able to stay in that position?” “would he check in with her at this point, or would he just keep tying knots?” I’ve tried to answer and respond in good faith, but it’s becoming draining. Worse, as all this has progressed, I’ve realized that the writer herself probably has childhood trauma surrounding being tied up, and she is using the writing, and by extension me, as free therapy.

I didn’t sign up for any of this! I was never even asked if I was up for (or even interested in) so much as being a beta reader, let alone this mish-mash of editor and therapist that I’ve been shoehorned into. I’m generally a big fan of “use your words” but this situation has me speechless. Can you recommend any scripts to disentangle from this boundary-challenged person before I say something I’ll regret?

Thanks for all you do!

Dragooned

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Hey Captain,

I (she/her) am getting married in May! Besides all the awful that is wedding planning, my fiancé (he/him) and I are excited and happy to celebrate this milestone.

His parents had a short, violent relationship that resulted in their divorce and going no-contact with each other when my fiancé was a child. I, perhaps naively, assumed that they would be able to navigate their own discomfort in order to be present for my fiancé on his wedding day (it’s been 20 years, after all!). We invited both of them to the wedding.

Now, we have been informed (indirectly) that his father will likely not come if his mother is there. My fiancé is wrecked. He doesn’t want to be in the middle or have to choose and it is bringing up old hurts for him.

I want to support him, but I also don’t want to fall in the trap of us telling one or both of his parents to suck it up because faaaaaaamily, ya know? It’s not our decision and I don’t want to pressure anyone into seeing someone who had hurt them in the past… but I get why he feels kind of betrayed by the people who are supposed to put him first.

Any advice for scripts? I’m out of my depth on this one.

Thanks,
Three degrees of separation

Hi Three Degrees of Separation:

I am making an exception to my “not publishing letters where a woman is writing to sort out a man’s problems with his family/friendships/work situation” practice because I do want to help you sort this and because this letter is a textbook case as to why I/we need to make this shift.

Your fiancé’s relationship with his parents is HIS issue to sort out (hopefully with a licensed therapist) and the more you muck around in it without the knowledge of how it got this way or take it upon yourself to manage it, the more counterproductive it will be. You can be supportive by 1) asking your fiancé “How do you want to handle this?” and “What do you want me to do, if anything?” 2) listening carefully to the answers and then 3) figuring out where your boundaries are and what you can or even want to do about it. Your future spouse is the boss of how he handles his relationships with his family-of-origin, please do not default to a role where you navigate this stuff for him (or instead of him) or decide that it’s your job to be the peacemaker in a war you didn’t start or even witness. Cool? Yes? I’m glad you wrote, I’m not upset with you, you didn’t do anything wrong, but the “I must help” instinct is so strong and the cultural narrative that “ladies exist to help men be emotions” is so prevalent that I gotta fight it wherever I can, and “great, have him write to me” is one way I am trying.

Here’s what you know: You invited both parents. That was a nice impulse. They get to take it from here. I get the whole “Can’t you show up for one day to make your kid happy?” impulse but like, maybe they literally can’t, and you tried your best but it’s not happening. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix everybody’s family, you can’t possibly present your fiancé with a tidy bow on his parental situation, so what’s the worst that happens if you do literally nothing about this information? It’s second-hand from a relative (the dad isn’t even communicating with his son directly), and until you get the RSVP card back or website checkboxes checked, it’s not even something you know for sure. If the Dad isn’t coming, he’s made the choice for you about what comes next. He won’t be there, and you don’t have to rescind the invitation to the other parent, or broker a peace deal, ’cause it’s already done.

The Dad has choices like, I don’t know, just off the top of my head, calling his son on the phone and talking about it, finding an alternate way to celebrate (“Howabout I get the rehearsal dinner and Mom gets the ceremony?”). He’s not made any of those choices, so…it’s not your job to fix it and it’s not your fiancé’s job to track the dude down or to give into a manipulation attempt if the dad’s goal is to punish the mom or get her disinvited or make it difficult for her or even just to make his son chase him and agonize about it. It will be sad if both parents can’t be there mostly because it’s sad when two people have a relationship that deteriorated to this point.

If your fiancé were here, he could answer questions like “Who was violent to whom during this short violent marriage?” and “Is/was going no contact about dislike or about safety?” If the dad abused the mom, I would say all of the above applies even harder, and I would see this as a power play to try to force his son to disinvite his ex-wife to punish her. If the mom was violent to the dad, then the polite routing of issues through a relative is about protecting the dad’s safety and was actually a way of being kind and not forcing the issue while also not opening himself up to be abused more. “I invited both you and your abuser to the same party, that’s a neutral thing to do” isn’t actually neutral at all nor is it precisely a party-planning sort of question. If your fiancé doesn’t know what happened between them maybe it’s time he found out? (Again, and I cannot stress this enough, this is a very good problem to take to a therapist). He was a child when they split and it’s completely, completely understandable that he wouldn’t know the whole story, it’s completely understandable that his parents would want to protect him from the full picture of what happened, but without this context, all we can do is speculate. I would 100% back him up if he decided “Hey, my wedding is not the time to excavate this whole deal, Dad said he probably won’t be there, let’s take him at his word and move on.” 

The situation sucks, it’s not weird or an overreaction to be very upset, but I would encourage you both to remind yourselves that one party – even one very meaningful and wonderful party – isn’t going to be the thing that made their relationship awful and it won’t be the thing that fixes it. Also your wedding will be a lot more relaxed if it’s not broken into two hostile camps, so maybe the Dad’s choice to bail is a gift and the right thing to do is to accept it without comment and let the older generation make up their own minds about what they can safely and comfortably do. Your impulse to want to help and support your fiancé is a good one, but these were people who were never able to co-parent effectively and civilly, clearly it hasn’t changed, fixing that has always been out of anyone’s hands but theirs.

What you can both actually do is remove pressure from yourselves to fix the parental relationship or further engineer the guest list. You’ve sent the invitations, it’s time count the replies and rent enough chairs for the people who will be there.

My wedding gift is a few scripts your fiancé could use if this keeps being a problem between now and the day:

  1. For the relative who acted as a go-between. “That’s sad to hear but Dad should call me himself if he wants to talk about this.”
  2. For the Dad (but only when and if the Dad contacts him, DO NOT CHASE A DAD WHO WON’T EVEN CALL HIS CHILD ABOUT SAID CHILD’S WEDDING): “I will be very sad if you can’t make it, but I understand if it’s just too painful for you to be around Mom.We’ll miss you but thanks for letting us know!”
  3. For the situation: “Weddings bring out the weirdness, right? But we are in party-planning mode, not family-therapy-excavate-my-whole-childhood-and-fix-my-parents’-horrible-marriage mode, so, how many people said they wanted the salmon?” 

And one script for you, for your fiancé:

  • “We invited them both, that’s all we can do. The rest is up to them, and this sucks, but at this point we’re not disinviting anybody to please somebody else.”

Congratulations in advance, have the best day and the best marriage.

P.S. If both parents do show up, your wedding photographer is your ally and has seen every possible “these two aren’t speaking so we’ll need to repeat certain photos” scenario before.

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

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Hey Captain Awkward.

I read some of your responses to other writers who had concerns about their partners’ finances, and I feel like this is related but not quite the same.

I’m stressed about my boyfriend’s money management skills and how I can help him without getting myself into a bad financial situation. I also recognize that he’s probably embarrassed on top of being stressed, so I’m trying not to make him feel ashamed. He was raised below the poverty line and when he made it “big” in his industry, he was earning huge salaries, so I think he’s allowed himself to fully enjoy it. Now he’s unemployed but is still living a “huge salary” lifestyle.

About me: I’ve always lived pretty frugally. I’m kind of a prepper in some ways – I buy a lot of dried or bulk foods, and I park nearly a mile away from work and walk every day so I don’t have to buy a $400 annual parking pass, plus I get some exercise which is hard to come by in my 9-5 cubicle lifestyle. My mortgage is manageable, 90% of my furniture is thrifted (thank god eclectic/Boho decor is “in” right now), I pay my bills on time, I have a modest emergency savings, and I have excellent credit — with a little bit of revolving credit card debt. My house is my first home purchase, and in addition to receiving some assistance from my grandparents, I participated in a federally funded first-time home buyer program and saved for years to come up with the down payment. My house isn’t fancy, but I love it because it’s mine goddamnit, and after changing addresses every year for 18 years, I finally get to lay down some roots! I‘ll hit my one-year anniversary of homeownership next week. Yay.

I do not typically seek out partners with tons of money. In fact, I’ve been known to date transient wildlife biologist types who briefly stay in the area to work for six months out of the year, and then squirrel their earnings away to get by the other six months. I just happened to fall in love with my BF who – up until last summer – was successful in his career, made a lot of money as a senior level designer with some recognizable household brands, and was promptly relieved of his duties the same week we met. He felt it was a blessing in disguise because he’s burned out on doing design for a living and wants to pursue his passion of selling rare European cars.

BF was earning a gratuitous salary last year, and while he lived within his means, said means were extravagant and now unsustainable: he owns two houses and has 7 cars (or 8? I actually don’t know anymore). Again, cars are his hobby/passion, as well as his side business, so some of this is to be expected. Two of them are “investment” items that will continue to appreciate in value, two are for driving, and the rest are “projects” that he plans to sell… but as you might imagine, this ties up a lot of capital in non-liquid assets.

BF is hemorrhaging money, but not cash, and is putting a lot of charges onto credit cards. He justifies this by saying that most entrepreneurs fund their businesses through credit. BF also owes his best friend a sizable amount for a recent generous loan which seems to have strained their friendship a little.

Three months ago, BF put his second house, which is in a popular resort town a few hours away from where we both live, on the market. He’s received multiple offers on the second house, but due to complications beyond his control, they continue to fall through, and so it remains on the market. BF was relying on the sale of this second house to kick-start the car business.

His monthly expenses (e.g. mortgages, private school tuition for his two kids, and commercial space for his new business) are over $5k. Not included are utilities, groceries, gasoline, health insurance, pet expenses, or anything else fun/recreational like an occasional meal out or outing to the nearby large city. BF has very little income right now except for infrequent freelance design work which he loathes and the car side hustle. Currently, he sells a car every 4-8 weeks and each sale results in a few thousand dollars. I in believe he’s receiving unemployment, but I’m not sure that he’ll qualify for much longer.

I told him he could sell his primary house and move into mine if he wanted. My mortgage is literally half the size of his, and if he paid HALF of my mortgage he’d still save $2k/month. However, he doesn’t want to sell his primary residence for a lot of (legitimate) reasons, and he wants to keep trying to sell the vacation home that’s been on the market for four months. OK, I get that… But right now, it’s just him and his dog occupying a 3,000 square foot space. He wants me to rent out rooms in my house and move in with him (I would contribute to his mortgage, which would only cover 25% of his monthly payment). I am considering it, but I’m also so happy to finally have a home of my own… it would make me sad to move out of my first home so soon.

I know he’s filed for bankruptcy once before, and he recently said he doesn’t want to do that again (he said it semi-jokingly, so I don’t know how much of a real possibility it is for him). He also told me early on that he thought I’d be a good influence on him as far as spending habits go. These were yellow-orange flags for me at the time. Now, he’s asking me to go with him to a cousin’s wedding on the absolute opposite side of the country in two months. We both have airline miles that will cover the trip, but it’s honestly not how I want to use those miles — the whole reason I got a credit card that gives airline miles is because he suggested I get one so we can travel overseas together this year. I wouldn’t have taken out a second line of credit if I didn’t think we weren’t going to use it for an *international* vacation. Plus, the wedding trip in two months becomes more expensive when you add up the other items that will not be covered: lodging, dining out for five days, hiring a pet sitter for our two dogs, rental car, etc. And I’m also just feeling less and less secure about out future together as the weeks roll by. Like what kind of message would I send to his family by attending this big family event if I’m not sure how into/secure I feel about the relationship by the time the wedding rolls around?

He has also half-joked about how I should have offered to pay for a recent ticket he got because he’s so broke. (He wouldn’t have received the ticket in the first place had he agreed for us to take my car that morning — which gets twice the MPGs — instead of his… but he insisted on taking his car. It apparently didn’t have a front license plate which resulted in a ticket.) The irony is that I almost offered to pay for it as a “sorry you’re broke, happy belated birthday” gift… but after he said that, I thought “NOPE. Nevermind; I don’t owe you shit.”

Let me preface that BF is the closest I’ve found to “my person”, if you get me — our connection, chemistry, and compatibility are mind bending. I’ve dated a lot of people in my day and never felt about them the way I do about him. I want to live with him at some point, get married, and maybe even have a child. How can I communicate my concerns to him without compounding his stress and sounding like a tightwad? (Also… Am I a tightwad? I’m starting to doubt myself and my saving habits…) And how do I support him without getting myself into a bad financial situation of my own? I don’t want to lose my savings, wreck my good credit, or be his cash cow, but I do want to be there for him in a way that empowers, not enables. I can see a future with him… so do I just sit tight through this rough spot and hope it all works out soon, or am I aboard a sinking ship and just don’t have the perspective to see it? Also, is there a way I can get out of attending this wedding?!

Thanks Captain Awkward!

Hello! I am so glad you wrote!

And congratulations on this month’s award for “burying the lede”! I retained the subject line of your email as the subject line of the post because I wanted readers to ride the same “oh, only 7 cars? Or is it 8?” roller coaster I did. 🙂

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Image: A certificate for excellence in “buring the lede in an advice column letter”

You have been so candid and such a good advocate for yourself that it makes my job very easy. My advice is:

  • Do not jeopardize anything about your finances or housing to “help” or “support” a man with 2 houses and 7-8 cars. 
  • Re-examine the idea that it is your job to help him figure out his money & his relationship with money. 

I’ll elaborate but here are some scripts:

  • “I do not want to move out of my house.”
  • “I do not want to move out of my house to make housing payments on a house I don’t own.”
  • “I’d rather save my miles and money for a vacation than go to that wedding, and I can’t afford to do both, so you’ll have to fly solo on that one. I’ll have to meet your family some other time.” 
  • “We approach money really differently, and I do not think it will be good for either my credit score or our relationship if we combine money or housing, especially while you’re still getting your business off the ground.” 
  • “I want to help you through this, but ultimately it’s your money and your decision, so one way I can ‘help’ is by having really clear boundaries especially around financial decisions that affect me.” 

Additionally, scriptwise, be very blunt and specific about money in your dating life. Do not let this flounder in expectations and hints, get in the habit of nailing stuff down like where are we going, what is the anticipated cost, who is paying. When you are offering to pay, make that offer up front: “Can I take you to ____ tonight? Dinner’s on me.”  (This is a good thing to do anytime you are treating a known poor-er person, the anxiety of guessing and mentally running the budget numbers is just awful and fun-destroying). When you are splitting costs or expenses, settle up right away. “The bill is ______, do you want the waiter to split it for us or do you want to pay and I can Venmo (etc.) you my half?”

This may seem unromantic and tedious, and it might bring out some weird shame behaviors and avoidance in him, but do it anyway. If you can’t afford something, say so. “That sounds nice but pricier than I can handle right now, can we save it as a treat for next month and stay in tonight?”  Make this shit matter-of-fact and normal. Make yourselves a couple who can talk frankly about money in mundane, routine ways that doesn’t require big negotiations or emotional processing.

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The letter contains brief mention of the roommate either accidentally or accidentally-on-purpose leaving a pet outside for a while during a mental health episode. The pet was fine and this is neither the point of the letter nor the oddest thing in it, but readers have mentioned animals-in-peril stresses them out, so I’m including both a heads’ up and a cut.

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