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manipulation

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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Dear Captain,

Nearly 2 years ago I joined a MMORPG community for the first time. Through a series of events, I met a guy who has become one of my best friends. We are bizarrely similar at times and he’s really been there for me. It started out just online but we now have each other’s numbers and text A LOT throughout the day. He has never had a girlfriend and I was raised in a religious, sheltered household and have never had a boyfriend either. (For context, I still am religious and I would NEVER be intimate before marriage and would never marry outside my religion. I admit I’m not doing everything right spiritually but this is not “just my parents’ religion” to me. My only close friend is also of this religion and I feel I cannot talk about this with her because I’m sure she would encourage stopping all contact.)

He’s been there for me so much and really understands me. But I think he’s in love with me…and it’s not mutual. I care about him as a friend but I don’t feel that way about him and some of his comments are starting to make me concerned. In the year since we started texting, he has told me about a ton of dreams about me (including one where he was my date at that friend’s wedding and after I caught the bouquet, we were at the altar – he described this dream as being especially vivid). He has asked me, very embarrassed, to not casually mention if I’m getting in the shower because it “gets him excited”. He’s also mentioned that he’s going to start saving up money to come visit me, which my parents are EXTREMELY not okay with. They have mostly hesitantly accepted the friendship but are very wary and my mom is really worried about it turning into something more. I’ve hidden behind my parents not wanting him to visit but the truth is that I don’t want to meet him. I’m good being texting buddies. But when he mentioned this plan and I said “I don’t know how my parents would feel about that” he responded “what, me saving some money?”. (He once also mentioned he believes he “accidentally found” my address somehow. I was afraid to ask how and did not ask him what he thought it was to confirm or anything. My parents don’t know this. I was very clear that he cannot send me anything.) His family teases him and calls me his girlfriend, and while he tells me he denies it, I worry hearing that from them isn’t helping.

We are both overweight and have incredibly low self-esteem. I don’t know how to clearly tell him I don’t want to be in a romantic relationship because this kind of attention is brand new to me. While I’ve tried to head some of it off, I feel like every text I send him is leading him on and making this worse. I know him well enough that I know it would break him if I cut this off and I don’t really want the friendship to end either. I’m afraid there’s no way I can be painfully clear that I don’t want more and not ruin everything.

(As a freaky side note, there’s another weird side to this: he has a lot in common with my dad. Not really personality-wise – though they’re both pretty big know-it-alls – but they have the same first name, birthdays 2 days apart, and middle names different by just 1 letter. I still call this friend by his (female) character name from the game because of this. Just in case you were wondering if the situation could get even weirder…)

Please help me,

I just don’t feel that way

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Good afternoon Captain Awkward!

I have a friendship quandary.

My good friend Donna and I travel somewhat regularly for work and for fun. She and I are both cat owners and we have fallen into a routine where we take care of each other’s cats when one of us is out of town.

A couple weeks ago, my near-life-long dear friend Vivian invited me on a trip to come see her for a weekend in the early fall and she generously booked and paid for half the plane ticket. The other half I’m booking and paying for, and the exact timing of that is a little up in the air right now for job-related reasons.

When this trip came up in casual conversation between myself and Donna, Donna said that she had travel plans that same weekend. “Oh, cool. That’s a bummer you won’t be around to take care of my cat,” I said. I thought nothing of it.

The next day, I received a number of text messages from Donna telling me that she was extremely upset to find out that I had made other plans for that weekend and she won’t be able to “let this go” without saying something because evidently, I had agreed to take care of her cat that same weekend.

I had zero recollection of this and I told her so. I admitted that it was entirely plausible that she and I had a discussion about it and I forgot (my life has been on absolute fire this month, so a few things have fallen through the cracks). She then sent me a screen shot of a text exchange that happened between us several weeks ago where she inquired about my availability for the weekend in question. I replied that I “should be” available. And after my reply, she changed the subject. She said that’s the extent of the conversation on the matter and says that we did chat about it in person before I asked her to text me the dates in that conversation. (Seems like something I would ask her to do)

I apologized profusely and let her know that it was an oversight on my part and, for whatever reason, the cat sitting weekend didn’t make it onto my calendar or stick in my brain — perhaps because it felt tentative to me or perhaps because I was distracted by the giant flame pit of my personal life. And I went on to say that, even if it had made it into my calendar, we’d still find ourselves in this situation because I definitely want to go see Vivian that weekend and that’s the weekend that works for both my work schedule and Vivian’s — so Donna and I would be out our regular cat sitters regardless.

I told Donna that the main difference would be how I would have handled it which would have been to acknowledge Donna’s travel weekend and let Donna know immediately instead of two weeks after Vivian and I made our own plans (because I wouldn’t have forgotten). I apologized again and also reassured Donna that she and I still have plenty of lead time since our trips aren’t until the fall and I was confident we could find someone else or secure a spot to board our cats.

Donna wrote me back and said that she found my response both upsetting and disturbing. She said it was disturbing that we had different ideas of how firm these cat-sitting plans are. She said that it was deeply upsetting to her that I would even consider outright canceling in scenario where our plans were in fact firm and Vivian’s invitation came up because “plans are plans” and plans should only be cancelled if there was an emergency. She said further that she’s very concerned because now she has no one to take care of her cat, she has never boarded her cat before and doesn’t know how the cat would tolerate that, and the possibility of putting her cat in an unfamiliar environment gives her a lot of anxiety. She said that now, because of all this, she may not be able to go on her trip to see her dearest friends.

Donna asked me if I would consider changing my travel plans/re-booking my flight to coincide with her travel plans.

This felt excessive to me and I told her no (aside from the logistical nightmare that would be given the world of discount airfare). I told her I would be happy to help her find another cat sitter (especially seeing as she and I are in the same boat) or, if it came to it and she ended up needing to board her cat and there was some conflict where she and I were vying for the same booking, I would gladly cede it to her. I also said that it felt to me like emotions were running pretty high and I’d like to discuss her concerns more fully, but maybe at another time.

She didn’t really address these options and instead wanted me to a) define what “confirmation” is for me and explain why what we did wasn’t confirmation so we avoid an incident like this in the future and b) tell her as soon as I nail down my travel plans so that maybe we can work out something where I can take care of her cat half the time or before or after my trip if my trip is shorter than hers. I replied that follow-up helps me with confirmation and that I would get back to her on my travel plans.

Things are palpably hostile between us now, which sucks because I do consider her a very close friend and we have many mutual friends. Here’s the thing, Captain. When I think about “avoiding an incident like this in the future,” I think that I don’t want there to be a future cat sitting exchange anymore and I want to avoid this happening again by never doing this again. I don’t know why, I just feel suddenly done and I’d rather hire a sitter through the internet for my cat. I feel really bad about all of this. She seems more outraged than hurt and I feel myself shutting down about it. When I stretch and think about this, I could see why she might be mad that I totally spaced her travel plans.

And, yet, I am also out of fucks to give about it. Am I a jerk?

I think, for me, inquiring my about my availability isn’t quite the same as making plans, especially with no follow up. But even if it was, on my end, my assumption for her has always been that she is doing these cat-sits as a favor to me, free of charge, and always at our mutual convenience. So I get this wonderful service for free that some people have to pay for. I suppose I never thought these were ever 100% set-in-stone plans until we started approaching the window of time where it would be near impossible to find other accommodations because I don’t view Donna as beholden to me or my cat to provide a free service for us if it doesn’t 500% work for her.

And in the two weeks or so leading up to our departures, Donna and I have a little routine where we confirm that we each have one another’s house keys, have a travel itinerary, and so on. So even in a world where I completely blew it and stayed utterly silent about my own trip and she never once spoke of her trip ever again aside from that one text message, the situation would still be salvageable two weeks out — one way or another (and yes perhaps outrage would be in order at that point).

But we aren’t in that situation and if the current situation were reversed and more than two months before my trip, Donna forgot about my travel plans and spontaneously decided to take a trip to see her Vivian equivalent, I would tell her to go have fun and I would find another cat sitter. I get that she’s mad, but I guess it’s not that big of a deal to me. Annoying and inconsiderate of me, yes. “Disturbing” and deeply “upsetting” and “anxiety” provoking and unable to “let this go”? I feel almost manipulated by the intensity of those feelings.

I figure that when you have a dependent of any kind, you always have a plan B and that’s part of your plan A. For example, my mom hated hiring random sitters and always preferred to leave me with people she knew. But occasionally, a random sitter had to be hired because someone flaked/spaced/had a sudden conflict/etc. I just find Donna’s stance that there’s “no one else” not only implausible, but not very wise planning since I could just spontaneously combust one day and no longer be available to her and her cat anymore. Donna isn’t the only person who I could think of to call on to care for my cat.

As I said, things are very hostile. Donna is stonewalling me now. What do I actually owe Donna at this point? Is there more I should do? Scripts I should say?Why do I feel so “done” and over this when she’s clearly still very upset? Am I justified in no longer wanting to exchange cat-care with her? I am getting the strong vibe that this is a friendship-ending or friendship-permanently-altering thing that I have done…yet she still seems to want me to take care of her cat.

Signed,
A Tail of Two Kitties

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Hi Captain!

Tl:dr – What do you say when someone needs you to tell them that you care about them more than you do care about them? Is there a way to be honest but not make them feel like you actually dislike them? Is there a way to lie so that they actually believe you? Is there a way to get them to knock off asking you?

Longer-then-400-words-version:

My partner has a long-time friend who is lonely, isolated, sporadically employed, and who has some mental health issues. Friend is smart, funny, usually well-meaning, and knows how far to push friendship and charity without pushing too hard. My partner gives Friend lots of time and occasional money.

None of this is a problem. Friend doesn’t intrude on our family time too much, and my partner’s friendships are theirs to manage. Partner doesn’t bring Friend into every conversation or insist that Friend is at all of our events. Friend doesn’t usually inconvenience me at all, and if they do it’s in ways that I’m happy to do to for my partner, and because I have goodwill to Friend and I don’t mind hosting them or hanging out.

My problem is that Friend will sometimes initiate conversations with me about what a burden Friend is to me, and how Friend feels ashamed to be included in events that are important to me when they are Partner’s Friend and not My Friend. I don’t think Friend actually wants to be my friend – they don’t usually ask how I am, or talk to me when my partner isn’t around, or seem to care about me except as someone to listen to them (although they are like that with my partner, too, because Friend is very self-absorbed). I think that Friend would like it if **I** really felt a true friendship-like connection to Friend that would cause me to **really** want to invite Friend to stuff not as a charity, and to **really** want to hang out and chat with Friend, even though I don’t think Friend feels that way toward me or wants to feel that way toward me.

Friend is very smart, and certainly is very sensitive to how people feel about them and react to them, so Friend knows that, in fact, I don’t feel those ways. I feel charitable good will, Friend isn’t an unbearable pain to have around, and I love my partner and don’t want to keep someone out of our home who matters to my partner. Friend also knows when I’m lying.

So when Friend asks me these things, I usually do some combo of lie and deflect. I say that Partner and I both brought lots of our own friends and family to the relationship, and that we each hang out with and play host to each other’s peeps. I say that it’s my pleasure to have Friend over. But even though both of those things are true, I’m not answering Friend’s real question, which seems to be something like “don’t you care about me,” or even “why don’t you love me.” I do think that my partner loves Friend. Love is a wonderful mystery, because I can see that Friend is not a very good friend in a traditional sense, but that if you love a person, you just do love them. I don’t love Friend, and I like Friend only in a casual way.

Friend’s need to be loved and to be reassured both touches me and also annoys me. Friend is not good with social conventions like “don’t make people choose between lying or saying mean stuff,” and when they ask me these things I usually fall back on really strict social conventions like, “I am at best saying empty nothing right now and at worst lying because That’s What We Do,” but I don’t like it. Moreover, it doesn’t give Friend any of what they need – it’s neither honest nor kind.

Is there a better, more honest, kinder way to respond?

– Not Your Friend, But Not Mean About It Either

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