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manipulation

Dear Captain Awkward,

My teenager has informed me that their father told them he plans to mail me jewelry for Valentine’s Day. Their father and I have been divorced for nearly a decade and a half and I’ve been in three committed, long-term relationships in that time. I have less-than-zero interest in my ex-husband romantically (or even platonically) and while I am able to be polite/civil with him, I am quite looking forward to the day I no longer have to take his calls. He is not a nice person. (He was abusive during our marriage, used custody issues to punish me, treated our children poorly, etc. etc.)

Since he heard that I had to leave my most recent long-term relationship quite hastily for safety issues, he’s been acting far too friendly over the phone. A few months ago he told me that I’m the only woman he’s ever really loved and said he thinks we should still be together, which I responded to with “You know, life moves forward and though my path has been rocky, I’m happy with where I am now, thanks. Gotta go.” Ever since that revelation from him, I’ve made it a rule to do my best to keep any calls very short and to the point, if possible, and I always try to shift any conversations that get personal back to talking about the children we have in common.

That tactic recently backfired, leading to my teenager getting frustrated with me for talking about them with their father at all. I had told their father that they were feeling very anxious about college decisions and I’d been trying to help them feel less pressured and he turned around and told them I said they were being a “word-I-would-never-use” about going to school and that they need to stop being “that-word” and get their “expletive” together. Ugh. (I did let him know, through text, that what he did there was not okay and that was not what I meant by support, etc., and he did apologize to them eventually.) So, now since the “talk about our kids” topic no longer works, if he texts, “Hey, do you have time to talk?” I ask him if he has something pressing to discuss, as I’m quite busy, and it’s usually “No, just wanted to chat,” so I tell him I’m too busy to chat. If he calls, it goes to voicemail and I decide whether or not it’s appropriate to call back based on the content of voicemail.

Since I’ve been brushing him off, he has been reaching out to my teenager more than ever. They hate talking to him, but feel guilty not talking to him sometimes. During recent calls with them, their father told them that he really thinks we should have stayed together as a family, etc. It makes my teenager really frustrated and uncomfortable that all he seems to want to talk about with them is me and how he wishes we were still together.

I’m so irritated with him for the way he is treating me and my teenager, but not surprised, as he’s never been one to respect people’s boundaries.

[Don’t know if this is relevant or not, so I’ll add it just in case: He is in a relationship with a woman who is really kind and sweet (and a nice buffer/ally for my teenager when they visit their father), but who recently moved out of his house after having lived with him for about a year. His overly-friendliness started before she moved out. His behavior would be frustrating no matter what, but it’s even more exasperating that he’s doing this while in a relationship with another woman, no matter how rocky it may be.]

So… what do I do when he inevitably mails me jewelry? It makes me queasy just thinking about opening the box. Do I mail it back? Say thanks but no thanks? I don’t want him to get the idea that it is okay or in any way desirable for him to send me romantic gifts. Thankfully, he lives hundreds of miles away so I don’t have to worry that he’ll drop by with the gift. (Fingers crossed. Don’t want to jinx it.)

Over the years since our divorce I haven’t pushed back too hard or spoken my piece about his bad behaviors since he kept custody issues pretty contentious for some time and I never wanted anything to be misconstrued and come back to bite me. It’s been hard to break out of walking on eggshells with him and taking the step I noted above to let him know how he hurt his teenager with the nasty comments about their college fears felt good, but was terrifying.

Help, please!

(If you have some scripts for my teenager, too, for when their father starts up with his pining for me thing during their phone calls or laying on any other guilt trips that would be wonderful.)

Thank you!

My pronouns: she/her

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Hi Captain!

My quirky, genius, self-centered, deeply insecure, pathological boundary pushing mother took my 5 year old “out” without telling me while we were visiting over the holiday.

I didn’t know where he was, he was in his pajamas (it was 40 degrees out), she did not have a jacket for him. She did not have a *carseat* for him. I ran around her house and yard in a panic trying to find him before my sibling suggested she might have him. She wouldn’t answer my texts or calls but did answer when sibling called her, she said she would drive slowly on surface streets (so it’s totes fine!), and that she was coming right back. My dad worried I would over react and send her into a depressive episode.

When I asked my 5 year old about it he said he wanted to tell me before they left, but she seemed mad when he suggested it, so he thought he should just do what she said.

So husband and I decided she’s so fired she can’t ever be unsupervised with our kids, and probably we won’t stay at their house anymore. But setting this hard of a line puts awkwardness on my (mostly) rad dad, and some amount of awkwardness on the rest of the family who think I’m taking it too far.

I did tell her “Never Again” and “I Can’t Possibly Think Of Every Boundary That Needs Setting” and “I Don’t Know How To Feel Safe With You Around My Kids”. She says she’s very sorry and just that she didn’t want to deal with the logistics of taking kid out for an adventure. She says she didn’t realize my anxiety was that limiting (spoiler, I don’t have an anxiety disorder). When I said if something happened to my kid while with her that “would be the end of our relationship” she said she didn’t realize the stakes were so high. But Captain, the stakes are absolutely that high.

I don’t think I’m over reacting, but am I over reacting? Or is my mom the most fired? Can we just decide never to stay there again and let the chips fall? She does a many rad things but they don’t cancel frequent Super Bad Judgment Boundary Smashing. Can I still accept gifts from her that don’t smash boundaries? Why does my mom suck this hard?

Sad, Hurt, and Angry

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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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