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Dear Captain

My fiancé and I were supposed to get married this April but the wedding was postponed until May 2021 due to the pandemic. We are both in our early 30s. He’s always been keen to start a family, I’m open to having a baby but really want to be married first. This is very important to me but he doesn’t understand why, as my belief in marriage before kids doesn’t come from religion. It’s more the importance of having a secure family unit, my parents weren’t married and my dad took off without a second thought.

When I try to explain this my fiancé says “I’m not your dad though” or “it’s not like you’re a virgin!” He’s desperate to have kids now as he’s concerned we’ll be too old when they’re grown up. (He also hasn’t seen his family much during shelter-in-place – and has been frustrated by their lack of adherence to the health guidelines – so I think he’s also a bit lonely and wants to fix his sense of distance from his parents and siblings by creating a family of his own.) He doesn’t get my point of view and I don’t understand his either as if we waited till next year to start trying we’d be mid-30s at the latest when having a baby.

Bringing the wedding forward isn’t an option for various boring reasons I won’t go into. Can you help us communicate better? I’m firm on not getting pregnant before marriage and I’m frustrated he keeps nagging at me.

Hello there, thanks for the question.

If you don’t want to be pregnant, don’t be. That’s a good enough reason.

You’d like a recognized legal tie with the other parent first: That’s also a good enough reason.

Pick a reason, any reason: Your personal pandemic risk-assessment says: Not quite yet? Great reason. (By the way it is okay if your risk-assessment is subjective, unfair, not what anyone else would do, might be perfectly safe, cleared by your doctor, etc. “I’m not ready yet” or for other readers, “This is the right time for me!” is a good enough reason on its own.)

Having a kid to fix your loneliness is a highly suspect reason to become a parent and you’d rather make that decision from a joyful place? Reason logged.

You don’t want to be pressured into pregnancy before you’re ready: EXCELLENT REASON, THAT.

This is really, really tough, because you love this person and you do want to marry him and start a family, just, not quite yet.

But what you’re perceiving as a communications problem about getting your reasons across better is reading to me like a consent problem. And that is a relationship-shaking sort of problem that isn’t about finding just the right words. What happens if we step back and assume that actually, you’ve been explaining yourself just fine so far?

If you have to give your fiancé a good enough reason that you don’t want to be pregnant yet before he’ll stop pressuring you about this, and he shuts down and pokes holes in any reasons you supply, where does it stop?

Does he actually understand that you get to say “no” to this until you are absolutely ready, even if you never supply a good-enough-for-him reason?

Does he truly think that people who can become pregnant get to be the boss of when and if they ever do that?

This is not a negotiation. You actually do get the final say on when and if you do want to start a family. So let’s stop treating it like a debate tournament where if you lose* the Lincoln-Douglas session in the afternoon you get a baby you aren’t ready for instead of a runner-up trophy with your name misspelled.

My immediate recommendation is to lock down your contraception situation to a method that only you control and one that does not require your fiancé’s participation to implement successfully. Also, stock up on emergency contraception methods for just-in-case. I would suggest this even if you aren’t currently having sex (or having sex yet). Contraception & reproductive choice is one of those Girl Scout Motto situations: Be prepared!

You do not have to consult your fiancé or even inform him in order to do this. Forgoing contraception & trying for a pregnancy should be a joint decision with consent from both partners, but preventing one isn’t actually up for negotiation. You get to be the sole decision-maker about that.

And I have to say this: If he does find out on his own or because you do want to discuss it with him, and he increases pressure or tries to punish you or accuses you of “breaking his trust” or blames you & shames you ’cause you made a medical decision about your own body, your next step is: RUN. Get a door, a city block, a tri-state area, or an ocean between you and a man who yells at you about birth control, ’cause that’s not a fiancé, that’s a coercive ex you just dodged signing expensive paperwork with.

Does that seem extreme? When a communication issue is really a consent issue, reckoning honestly with the ways that can turn into a control issue is part of protecting yourself. If your fiancé would never actually yell at you about this or sabotage your birth control or get lax about condoms or pressure and wheedle and coerce you break whatever “let’s not get pregnant just yet” protocols you currently use, then, great! That’s by far what I hope will happen, that it’s a total non-issue anticlimax with zero friction.

Shoring up your situation doesn’t actually hurt any of that, but it does default to protecting you if something does go wrong. And enough guys who “would never do something like that” actually do do “something like that” I feel ethically obligated to at least point readers to the possibility.

Now for conversations.

I think your script next time this comes up could be something like:

I don’t want to get pregnant yet, so the answer is, we’re not doing that right now. I’ve told you my reasons, and I’m not going to argue about them anymore. I need you to accept my decision and I need you to accept that I’ll be the one to let you know when I’m ready to try for a family. I predict & hope that will be sometime after our wedding next year, if we do get to go ahead as planned, but I need you to take the pressure off completely.” 

He’ll say a bunch of stuff, you can hear him out, but don’t budge. “I understand how much you want this and why you think it’s a good idea to get started now, but the simple fact is, I don’t want to yet, and since I’m the one who has to be pregnant, that’s a good enough reason. You must stop pressuring me about this.” 

Stop asking for permission or trying to find just the right supporting arguments. Stop negotiating. Stop treating it like a decision where he gets the final say. You have been treating it like a respectful joint collaboration all this time and he’s been trying to steamroll you, so it’s time to stop assuming that there is a secret mutual decision that makes everybody happy if you just word your “nope” gently enough. You know your own mind and heart and “I don’t want to” is a good enough reason.

I know you love this guy, and you want to be gentle and reasonable and be on the same team and not create ultimatums or escalate conflict. But some decisions really do have to be this simple: You are the boss of your own body and your own reproductive choices, and anybody who is going to love you and marry you has to treat that as the bedrock for the decisions you make together. His feelings about his own readiness to be a parent and his family can be whatever they are (and he can work through those with a therapist, a friend, a relative, a pastor, a mentor, etc.), but the intensity of his feelings don’t compel you to do something you’re not ready to do. Feelings are information, not the deciding vote. You’ve got the uterus so you’ve always got the quorum and the floor in the “pregnant y/n?” discussion.

You do not have to find a gentler, more reasonable, more logical, more airtight way to communicate with him about this because your logic is already airtight. He’s the one who needs to fix this, he needs to get it and stop pressuring you, and he needs to take you at your word. I sincerely hope he does and I do wish you every happiness. ❤

P.S. * “It’s not like you’re a virgin” = BIG YIKES

That is an automatically losing argument with a side of YEESH, NO, AAAAARRRGGHHHHH, WHAT THE FUCK?

I reiterate for the record that you’re not the one who has to do any work on communication skills & practices in this relationship.

Hi there,

My husband (27M) and I (27F) have been married for 3.5 years and we live in the US. Generally, we click on just about everything major – kids, faith, goals, finances, etc. We have the same type of humor, can laugh together and all-around can just have a good time together.

To be frank tho, we argue almost all the time… about really dumb, insignificant stuff. Sure, we go through short periods of no arguing, but it always comes back around to bickering constantly. We’ve made great strides in the way we communicate with each other, me tending to be more emotional and working to overcome them as we work through issues, and him tapping into his emotions, but I just don’t understand why we argue so often.

There is one thing to note – my husband started taking anxiety meds about a year and a half ago, as well as ADHD medication a year ago (I won’t go into all the details). Overall, his mental health has vastly improved. The only downside to this, is that he has a very difficult time achieving orgasm during sex, and all around just doesn’t really have a strong sex drive. I can’t say that this isn’t a contributing factor to our constant bickering…

However, my husband feels that I make a big deal about everything – small and insignificant things – that lead to us arguing. He’s not entirely wrong… I do feel like that’s something I really need to get better at. Letting small things roll off my back and not letting stupid stuff affect me. This is where I need advice. I’m not sure how to get better at this.

Thanks!

– Stressed Wife

Hello Stressed Wife:

The changing sex drive thing is hard and is going to take time and patience to find a new normal that works for both of you. My advice about that is to remove pressure wherever possible, I wrote a ton about specific strategies for that here. Short version: Explore ways to have good sex with yourself, find a way to enjoy and share touch without expectation that it will always turn into sex, find a way to enjoy the sex you do have without being so goal-oriented around his orgasms.

The real reason I snagged your question today was your last paragraph and the shared assumption that the problem in your marriage is that you’re “too emotional” and that your concerns are almost always trivial ones. The assumption that whoever cares the most or feels the most strongly about something can’t possibly ever be the most right about it has got to go. It’s got to go on the macro level, it’s got to go on the micro level, it’s got to go when it shows up as racism, it’s got to go when it shows up as misogyny, today we fight it in your marriage so that tomorrow we can fight it in newsrooms that assume black reporters are “too biased” to cover protests about white supremacy (true story). (Oh hey, also, men aren’t naturally “more logical” than women, stop that).

Mismatched sex drives, a sudden change in your sex life with a beloved partner is a big deal, actually! One that requires a lot of patience and care and adaptation from everybody!

What if the other things that you need and the other things that bother you are also actually pretty important, and the fact that they are important to you is what makes them important? I’m not suggesting that you mine every possible activity of your shared life for conflict and an excuse to criticize your partner (pls. don’t), but I am suggesting an experiment where you stop pre-dismissing the things that are bothering you as automatically unworthy of mention, and where you stop automatically assuming that your emotions should be discounted as important information about what you need.

Most of us are taught some version of The Golden Rule (“Treat other people as you would wish to be treated”) and that is a very useful ethical guideline, until it’s translated as “I would be fine with this, so what’s wrong with you if you aren’t also completely fine with this?” Stuff that bothers you doesn’t have to bother your husband in the exact same way for it to be real, and the exact way he would approach a problem doesn’t have to be your way.

If you find yourself picking fights or escalating fights about other things because of your unhappiness at the change in your sex life, yep, that’s a problem, stop it. If you pressure a partner about sex and punish them (with sulking, silent treatment, fights, bickering) when they don’t want to or can’t have sex with you, it creates a very, very bad cycle. You’re smart to want to interrupt it now.

But is every argument you are having totally baseless or a proxy for something else? Are you ever allowed to say, hey, this is just really my preference, so can you do x/stop doing x as a favor to me, because it would make me happier this way, and have your husband say, “Sure thing, honey, that seems reasonable, I’ll do my best”?

If you can find a marriage counselor who does video/telemedicine, this is probably worth taking to an outside referee who can work with you both over time.

If you truly feel like the problem is that you and you alone are extra irritable right now, you know for sure that you’re picking fights about things that wouldn’t normally bother you, and you’re looking for ways improve your overall distress tolerance so that you can choose your marital battles better, then work on your own mood and emotional well-being to the extent you can.

If it’s somewhere in the middle (which I suspect it is), try an experiment for a couple weeks:

  1. When something is bothering you about husband/husband’s behavior, try taking a wee time out before you speak up about it. Walk around the block, comb the dog, wash your water glass, visit the rest room, count to 100. Is it still bothering you? It’s okay if it’s still bothering you, you can now know for sure that it is vs. beat yourself up for “over-reacting” in the moment.
  2. Can whatever is bothering you be expressed as a positive preference vs. a criticism? “I really like when you do x, more of that please!” vs. “Why don’t you ever do x?”  This doesn’t work for everything (nor are you obligated to only and forever express upset feelings as net positives and win-win situations, we’re just trying something out), but even when used as an exercise for thinking through how you want to talk about something, this can be a tool for both practicing assertiveness and for de-escalation.
  3. My art teacher stripes are showing here:  If you can’t express it as a positive assertion, can it be a question? “Is there a reason you’re doing x that way (instead of how I assume it should be done?)” can yield valuable information. Only do this if you can make it a genuine question, everybody knows that “Interesting choice with the lighting there, what prompted that?” probably means “Your lighting: not amazing.” 
  4. When you take your time out, think about what you actually want out of a conversation with him. Are you communicating a feeling? Are you asking for his input on how to solve a joint problem? Is there something you’d like him to do differently? Think of it as gently applying the thing you’d want from a good friend – “Do you want advice or are you just venting right now?” – to yourself.
  5. When you do argue or raise an issue, can you try not automatically taking the blame for overreacting or assuming that you are “making a big deal out of nothing” or whatever the prevailing narrative in your house is? Skip the part where you pre-apologize, skip the part where you start sentences with “It’s probably nothing, but could you just _____.” If you’ve made it through steps 1-4 and the thing is still bugging you, it’s not nothing, so you don’t have to apologize or set yourself up as a supplicant.
  6. Listening skills review! Sometimes when we get along with somebody really well and we’re on the same page about mostly everything and we’ve known them forever, we get into habits of assuming things about them, like what they really mean when they speak and what they’ll say next. When things get tense, it’s easy to start reacting based on our assumptions and stop listening to their actual words. If you’re arguing or having a tense discussion, before you respond to what your husband says to you, try mirroring it back to him before you add your input. “What I’m hearing you say is that you  feel _____/want ______. Is that correct?” [Then actually listen to the answer and adapt as necessary]. “Okay, in that case, what I really need is _____.” 

Is this just quarantine-close-quarters irritability? Is this a need to work on your own reactivity and anger and make an effort to be more intentional in your communications? Do you both just need a reminder to slow down and be really, really nice and kind and polite to each other? Who can say? Not me! But I do have some confidence that if you try these communication strategies for a few weeks, at very least you’ll have more information about what’s happening here* that can point you in the right direction for what to do about it. Good luck and thanks for the question!

*STRONG HINT: If you do get much more thoughtful about choosing your battles, and if you remove the automatic “it’s probably nothing but…” framing from your conversations but your husband keeps putting it back there? That’s not a you-problem. ❤

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hey Captain!

I (she/her) really appreciated your response to Miserable In Quarantine. My partner (he/him) and I are fortunately getting along better than ever. It’s nice to remember that we are friends first with all this extra time. Even with (especially with) all this extra closeness, my partner and I totally agree with the importance of alone time. Here’s the rub: we have young kids. Five years old and two years old. They are delightful but they are also small yet loud bundles of need. So for one of us to get that coveted alone time, the other has to be on kid time.

Here’s an example: let’s say partner has six hours of meetings in a row. I’m with the kids, keeping everyone alive. He comes downstairs after work is done, genuinely says thank you and acknowledges my labor of caring for our kids. Then he asks if he can go for a run. I look at him like he asked me to walk on lava. I need some alone time! I’ve had a little monster attached to my boob most of the day! But I also realize, work calls are not alone time. Phone meetings are the worstttttt. He also needs time to recharge and be a human. There’s so little time in the day to give each other what we need, and we are floundering a bit. We are both committed to making sure we each get work time and self-care time, but sometimes commitment doesn’t make up for the logistical challenges to quarantining with young kids.

We recognize we are super fortunate and privileged to have this be our big issue during COVID-19. But I also believe that in order to sustain the mutual aid we’ve been doing, we have to make sure that we take care of ourselves as well. You’re so good at hacks and systems for dividing housework fairly and compassionately. Any tips for those of us stuck at home with sweet little bundles of need?

Thanks,

Please stop touching mommy for two minutes

Hello, (Please Stop Touching) Mommy!

I asked two of my favorite moms to weigh in on your question, and before I post their suggestions I will offer several observations about co-habitation & co-parenting conversations that the pandemic has made clearer and more urgent.

People often write to me looking for the one big meta-conversation they can have that sets up the parameters for How The Relationship Should Work From Now On so they can skip over the annoying day-to-day conflicts. Surely, we can both Outline Our Needs and Agree To A System for How This Should All Go, and once we do that, Nobody Will Have To Be Hurt Or Feel Weird Again! It’s so efficient!

Please know that I love everyone who thinks like this, I see you, I get you, I AM YOU. There are some people and some relationships where this kind of thing works – “Let’s agree to the big picture so the small picture will be easier!” – and when it does it’s so very lovely! Agreeing to ground rules and setting clear expectations is a useful skill, it gives everybody a starting point and a chance to be heard, it’s a useful project for figuring out how compatible people are, and trying it probably won’t worsen anything that’s already bad.

And yet!!!!!!!! (There’s always a yet) I also know without a doubt that there are people and relationships and topics where this approach 100% doesn’t work and might never work. You can have the big picture conversation, everybody can nod and agree, and you’ll still have to sweat some or a lot of the small stuff some of the time. The guy setting fire to his toilet paper in the office bathroom was never going to notice or respond to a general review of policies or guidelines, passive-aggressive notes (“Can we all remember not to create fire hazards in the office bathroom, thanks so much! 🙂 🙂 Cheers!!”), or the horrified and shocked faces in the neighboring cubefarm every time he needed to move some product. It was always going to take someone saying, “Hey you – SPECIFICALLY YOU – Do! Not! Light! Things! On! Fire! In! The! Bathroom!” every single time he does it until it stops or it happens enough times that he’s fired.

It’s easy to laugh at ol’ T. P. Burns in the office loo or think of all the ways that we are not like One Single Pancake Guy, but truly, stress doesn’t generally make people better at noticing things, and it’s even harder to extrapolate and apply knowledge to future behaviors, especially if – theoretically – all one’s extrapolation energy has been temporarily re-routed to catastrophizing worst case scenarios in an endless anxiety loop.

By which I mean, if you’re waiting for your partner to notice that you need respite from kids or waiting for a housemate to notice that a household task is piling up, you might wait a long time, and you’re probably going to have to ask, poke, gently remind, etc. even if you think you already had a good system going, even if you thought the other person got it, even if you think it should be obvious, even if in the other person’s shoes you would definitely notice and step up in that moment. If you’ve been stewing for a while about an ongoing thing, that’s valid, I believe you that there’s a reason for it and I recognize and honor your frustration. But it’s possible the other person doesn’t know about the psychic debt they accrued during the lengthy brining process and stewing-time for full grievance marination, and that their clock starts (and restarts) whenever you tell them it’s a problem.

If you’re usually the non-noticer in your household for whatever reason, no judgment, no shame, this is a great time to work harder on specifically that skill. At very least, if somebody you live with asks you to handle something, a) Probably…do…the thing? b) Do it between “now” and “soon” so they don’t have to keep reminding you? c) See what happens if you mentally add “from now on” to the request even if they didn’t say that, and act accordingly, by which I mean, do that thing/make that your task from now on unless you hear otherwise? d) Consider thanking them for telling you instead of resenting them for “nagging” you? e) Just, like, own the fact you’re not always on the ball about x and that reminders are necessary sometimes? f) If hairs are to be split, split them in the direction where you pick up more of the slack? Cool? Cool.

If you’re the designated noticer, I think that both the kindest, and the most productive way to handle this with people you like and love is to 1) be very direct about what you need to happen right now 2) without attaching the baggage of the past and what should definitely have happened there, to the extent you can manage that, and 3) experiment with not assuming that each request will automatically carry over to the future, like when you cancel the weekly exercise class you optimistically put in your online calendar back in January and the app helpfully asks if you want to cancel all future events and you pretend that you don’t, every week, literally forever. If you want a thing to happen from now on? Say “from now on.”

When I said “the most productive way” I meant: The way that has a chance of getting the person to do the thing you want them to do with the least friction or delay.

If you feel that Exasperated Parent Voice coming on in reference to another adult, like “An adult should know by now that ____” or “We’ve talked about this already, they should have learned by now!” you might not be wrong about what should be happening (toilet paper + fire = a general no-no even before it was legal tender for all debts public and private) and it’s okay to have a feeling about that, but – and I cannot emphasize this enough – when whatever should be happening isn’t happening, sometimes it’s a hierarchy:

  1. I need X to happen
  2. I need Y to realize that X should happen
  3. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me telling them or having to remind them
  4. I need Y to realize that X should happen without me reminding them, do X on their own, and also I need to express my feelings about Z
  5. I need Y to realize that X should happen, process Z feelings, and also repeat this reliably in the future without conflict or work from me.

What we generally want  – both practically and deep in our souls – is #5, all the time, always #5, the best number on this list is #5.

I am not a parent but I have 12+ years teaching adults to do complicated things with a steep learning curve and expensive, breakable equipment, and it is from that experience that I say: With the best of intentions on every side and every skill you possess, you can tell a person something that they deeply want to know, show them what to do and how to do it, give them many resources, references, and examples about how and what and why it’s important, remind them how and what and why and when, and then send them off to execute all of it on their own and it can still not quite take.

When that happens, shame, blame, exasperated reminders of what should have happened, “But how could you not knowwwwwwwwww,” “Come on, it was on the syllabussssssssss!” actually do literally nothing to change it. What sometimes changes the dynamic is going back to #1, breaking it down to the smallest next step, keeping expectations VERY small and VERY gentle, and trying to build up again from that.

Is it wise to build a permanent committed interdependent life with somebody where, you need #5, would be cool with #2-4 a lot of the time because nobody’s perfect or a mind reader, but with this person you feel like you always have to go back to #1, downgrade your expectations, and start negotiating again from scratch, especially when applied to the daily tasks of domestic life? No! Abort! Nobody is that sexy! (Letter Writer, fortunately this is not you, but it is definitely for some people in the Inbox.)

Does that mean you always have to be chill and never express frustrated feelings? Also no! Sometimes the answer to “do you want this to get done or do you want to be mad” is emphatically BOTH, and maybe exactly how pissed off you are is important information.

But when “please just get it done, preferably now (and from now on)” is the priority for survival or well-being, the gentle parent-voice, the one that uses lots of encouragement for good stuff and avoids shame, is the one you want, not the one that makes you secretly worry that you’re turning into your [most critical parent].

My inbox, my experience, and every single instinct I possess are all speaking with one voice about this kind of thing these days, and that voice says:

1) Yes, a global pandemic requires resetting lots of things, and the perceived value and gendered division of household labor and caregiving has got to be one of them.

2) Deep, involved, meta-conversations about How Should Our Relationship Work From Now On? and What Is The Platonic Ideal of Co-Parenting? can drain more energy than they save in the long run, or more accurately, drain more energy than everybody currently has budgeted in the short-run, and also become a magnet for all the upset and anxious feelings swirling around. With that in mind, a conversation you want (specifically you, Letter Writer) in your toolkit can be as simple as interrupting your husband’s runward trajectory, saying “Actually, can you pause your run until after dinner, I have got to hand you this baby for at least 30 minutes or I’m gonna freak out, thank you.” 

If you do that, probably what will happen is you will hand your partner the baby, and he will run later. And you may have a great bigger-picture conversation using the guide our guest posters outlined below about, hey, let’s figure out how to rebalance this load.

But also, you might have to renegotiate some of it every single day even if the big conversation goes great, if that makes sense, like some days he will definitely remember that it goes Work, Give Partner A Kid-Break, THEN Run and some days he might go on autopilot, some days you may schedule it all out and then his work will be extra sucky and he’ll be like “Please, please hang in for 1 more hour and then hurl the baby in my direction as you go to the room with the door that shuts, I got u, but I MUST run this off” and it’s not ’cause he doesn’t care or he secretly hates you or deep down he thinks it’s not really his job or because you didn’t Make It Clear Enough. Yep, it’s a deeply gendered issue, and yep, one can be both a Tool Of The Wretched Patriarchy and A Pretty Good Dude, and yep, until The Revolution comes sometimes you gotta take it one day – and one specific thing that needs to happen right now – at a time.

I will now turn you over to Actual Moms.™ First up is Mikki Kendall, code name @Karnythia, author of Hood Feminism and Amazons, Abolitionists, and Activists: A Graphic History of Women’s Fight For Their Rights, gorgeously illustrated by A. D’Amico.

Mikki says:

It’s great that your partner thanks you, but your partner also needs to recognize that he doesn’t get to extend your workday in order for him to decompress immediately after work. If he wants to get off work and take a run? This is why jogging strollers were invented. Or taking turns on who gets to take a run first at the end of the workday. Because frankly caring for kids is work too, and your alone time should not be sacrificed because of 6 hours of meetings. He got to talk to adults (however ridiculous because honestly most meetings should be emails) while you dealt with breastfeeding and whining and neediness. He can spend an hour with at least two parts of that, and then take a run after you have a chance to take a break.

5 & 2 are super challenging ages, but only if you don’t start making them do some things without you! Five is a great age to be expected to play with your two year old sibling long enough for either parent to go to the bathroom or make a call. 5 & 2 are old enough to be assigned some chores too. Like sorting laundry or picking up toys. Bigger chores can be done together to keep them busy and engaged when they are awake (I actually cannot stress this part enough because so much of what you’re describing sounds like the kids aren’t doing as much for themselves as they could be) and kids will not fall apart if they are expected to contribute and then entertain themselves quietly in a room.

And yes, they get restless being inside all day. So, a dance party to tire them out mid-afternoon so that they will nap. My favorite trick, when our kids were little and January was a deep freeze that meant no time outside, was to get those glowsticks that you snap, turn off the lights and throw a baby rave in their bedroom with all of their favorite songs on a loop. I would cheat and put snacks & drinks in unspillable containers to minimize the need to leave the party. Finish up with a trip to the potty and wind down with softer music (and those lavender scented candles/sprays if that’s your bag) and you buy yourself an hour or two of afternoon nap. Do not spend nap time on chores. Spend nap time on yourself, whether that is eating a meal in peace or a shower or just staring into space, treat that break as sacrosanct.

Also, honestly now is a wonderful time to consider weaning your toddler. It sounds like you are consistently touched out and there is no reason to sacrifice your own emotional health in this way when you can start taking back your body. Yes, even from your child who loves to nurse but doesn’t actually need to do it to access good nutrition. You need to be kinder to yourself in general and gift your family the wonderful experience of doing more to take care of themselves without relying on you for literally everything. Also, though I don’t know your partner’s work environment, he’s going to need to step up and push back on this back to back meeting expectation whenever he can, because honestly no one should be subjected to 6 hours of phone calls during a pandemic.

Thank you Mikki! Your books are great and everyone should read them.

Next up is my dear Commander Logic:

CommanderLogic (she/her) reporting for duty. My kids are 5 and 7, MrLogic has a job that a) he can work from home and b) earns enough to support the family, and I am currently unemployed and therefore fully responsible for remote teaching the kids. We are lucky as HECK.

Letter Writer, you don’t say if you are also trying to work; it sounds like you have a similar situation to me. Lucky as it is, it’s still FRIKKIN’ HARD. There is a reason I did not choose teaching as my profession. There’s a reason that, even when I’m seasonally unemployed, we still pony up for childcare and camp and stuff. I love my children, but I am a better mom when I have some time entirely to myself. Right now, as I’m writing this, my 5yo is asking me “What should I doooooo?” while shooting down every option I give him, and my 7yo is trying to wheedle me into making a snack for her that she has known how to make herself for 2 years. They’re the best, but they are a lot.

When my first kid was first born, I had three months of paid maternity leave, and MrLogic and I had a biiig discussion about this:

  • Kids are a FULL-TIME job (and then some)
  • Keeping house is ALSO a FULL-TIME job
  • One (1) job is also a FULL-TIME job
  • And I could handle about 1.5 jobs.

In talking it over, we planned for when we were both employed (sooo much daycare money, y’all), and we planned for when one or the other of us was out of a job. It looks the same no matter who is the stay-at-home parent.

When your partner asked if he could go for a run, it’s the SAME as if, after his marathon of calls his boss had said “Oh, and I’m sure you wouldn’t mind one extra 2 hour presentation?” You are working. It is a job that we HIRE and PAY (not enough) for: teachers and nannies and babysitters and housekeepers and therapists and cooks (through the magic of takeout) and and and.

I suspect that it wouldn’t have been so bad if at the beginning of the day, your partner had said he wanted to go for a run after work. You could have planned! You wouldn’t have been expecting the sweet release of Not Being In Charge at that time! You could have said “Yes, that’s fine if you’ll watch the kids right now while I go [do what you want].”

Your time is equally valuable to his. You have a workday. You need to not be at work sometimes, too, and it’s even harder for you because right now your work IS your home.

You and your partner sound like a good team, so this isn’t necessarily an argument, so much as a series of questions you need to talk through:

  • Do we agree that childcare and house management are two full jobs? (I MEAN OBVIOUSLY, but asking the question makes it a discussion instead of a lecture)
  • How do we schedule those jobs to give us both some downtime?
  • What would each of you want if your roles were reversed?
  • Is there a way to create a kid-free zone in your home? That either of you can use?
  • How do we create time for just the two of us together?
  • What are the rules of downtime?

If you’re both trying to work, there’s additional issues:

  • How do we schedule so one of us is the on-call parent for half each day?
  • What do we do if we both have a critical meeting at the same time?
  • What are the rules that your kids (may) understand about “I’m working”?

Early on in the lockdown, I was making lunch for everyone, and MrLogic watched me for a minute and said, “I feel really guilty that you’re making me lunch and doing all the kitchen stuff on top of teaching the kids.” And I said, “Well, this is my job right now, and I do it so you can do your job, so it’s ok. But DO PLEASE keep feeling guilty, and make dinner this weekend.” And he did. He’s really good at it.

Thank you Logic and LogicHaus!

Fun fact, MrLogic is the Dungeon Master for our weekly D&D game (now remote) and the NPCs all sound like he’s reading us a storybook and doing All The Voices, Dad-Style, and it’s just the best. My character doesn’t really like killing things, especially intelligent beings (D&D is so goblinist!), so I keep asking everyone and everything we meet its name both because I think it helps with persuasion and because once you Have A Name maybe we don’t have to have Teh Violence, and it’s very fun to make him have to brainstorm names on the fly, which is how you get an entire squad of bugbears named Steve, Other Steve, and Steves III-V (who we did NOT kill, though there was some unfortunate wounding). ❤

Letter Writer, I hope somewhere in there is a framework to hang these conversations on and get yourself some respite. You sound like a great mom and partner and I’m glad things are going mostly okay. You also get ❤ emoji.

There is literally no way I  – a non-parent – am moderating a parenting discussion on these internets in the year 2020 even without heightened pandemic anxieties, so, Awkward out, and ❤ emojis for all.

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.

Thank you all for the kind words and end-of-year donations and patronage that have flowed in over the last week or so. I’ve been traveling and kind of made a point about not touching my laptop for a week or so, but I read everything and I’m very grateful. ❤

Everyone’s doing decade-retrospectives and my brain is melting at the thought of it. Ten years ago, I was still technically a grad student/adjunct teacher, I lived with roommates, I’d just finished my very last student film, Captain Awkward Dot Com didn’t launch until January 2011, and I didn’t meet Mr. Awkward until 2012.

But let’s do a 2019 round-up, yes? Here were the most-viewed/shared/discussed posts from the site in 2019:

First, a timely seasonal carryover from the very end of 2018,  “#1162: Is there room to compromise when it comes to alcohol and driving? (Answer: Why not set the default at “Don’t drink and drive”? I made a chart and everything.)

Next: #1215: ” ‘So…about your private reproductive decisions’ and other ‘small’ talk.” 

Let’s please stop asking people about their intense private life stuff out of passing curiosity, the idea of politeness, or because we think we’re entitled to know. When people have big news about babies, THEY’LL TELL U.

While the rest of the world catches up, this post has lots of strategies for answering (and deflecting/de-escalating) potentially fraught “small-talk” questions that can unknowingly hit real sore spots.

P.S. Letter Writer #1228 you’ve been in my thoughts and the offer to fight your family in real life if necessary is still incredibly open.

Third, #1219: “My friend’s boyfriend keeps ‘negging’ me.” 

This post has THREE HUNDRED AND EIGHTY ONE comments strategizing about whether it’s okay to tell a serially annoying dude “Look, could you stop?” and is often re-shared/cited for mention of “Schrödinger’s Autist,” a theoretical construct who only comes out in Internet discussions of cis men behaving badly toward women as a way to pre-excuse bad behavior (and has nothing to do with actual autism).

Fourth-most viewed is #1186: “How do I restore trust in my relationship?

Like the faux rank of “Captain” Awkward, “The Marie Kondo of Breakups” is a self-assigned comedy title because it’s one of my life’s missions to tell my younger self young people, especially young women, that a partner who keeps letting you down and leaving you wondering in the early stages of a relationship is probably not going to change for the better, and there’s nothing you can do to “love somebody more” into being who you need them to be.

It’s okay to want love, to risk, to try to make things work, but working at somebody who isn’t doing any work to be a good partner to you is a lonely and disappointing bet.

Fifth, #1218: “Irritability and constant criticism in a marriage. The post and comments are a good roundup of previous discussions of verbal abuse and safely extricating oneself from a draining and damaging partnership.

Good “Could this be abuse?” guideline: When someone who is supposed to love you is constantly mean and you start asking yourself “what’s wrong with me that’s making this person be so mean, how can I fix myself?” it might be time to visit LoveIsRespect.org from a private browsing window and start making plans.

Sixth, #1198: “How do I deal with work burnout and make my partner* happy?” (*My partner = my boss, who is *a* partner in the law firm where I work)

Notable for link to description of “insecure overachievers”and how capitalism hijacks anxieties and perfectionism in search of star performers, not caring who burns out along the way or how unsustainable and unhealthy the culture can get.

VERY GOOD NEWS: This Letter Writer sent me an update and is doing MUCH, MUCH, MUCH BETTER. ❤

Seventh, #1197: “He broke up with me but hasn’t moved out yet. How do I not ruin our last chance to make this work?” 

I had the worst time moving on after breakups (rejection sensitive dysphoria, yaaaaaaaay) and learning how to let people go was one of the hardest and best lessons I ever learned. I’m proud of this heartbreak omnibus and hope it can make a difference to others. There are enough ballrooms in you, Letter Writer, and I hope you are in much better straits now.

Eighth, #1194: “I’m moving in with my girlfriend and now my homophobic parents want to disown me. One of a series of posts on family estrangement and how to close doors to protect yourself and leave some open in hope of better things. “Forever is a long time, Sally.” Letter Writer, your parents don’t deserve you and I hope your new home with your girlfriend is a cozy and happy one that is everything you want it to be.

Ninth, #1233: “Is it ever safe to take a parent off a low-information diet?” 

People have choices about how they treat you, and relationships don’t get messed up overnight or for no reason, so when a parent wants you to have a “closer” relationship, does that obligate you to try to repair things in some way? Can they acknowledge why distance made sense at the time?

Probably one of the most personal posts I’ve made on the site, this brought up lots of stuff for me and was very much on my mind during holiday visits with my folks. When people talk about the past, my mom says “I don’t remember that” a lot ( A LOT) in a sharp, pointed way that clearly means “So, obviously it didn’t happen.” She’s telling the truth (she doesn’t remember) but it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen or that my memories are lies. I still don’t know how to ever ethically tell our story or tell her about my writing here, but I know our story lies at the heart of many of the things I write here.

In tenth place, several posts around the topic of “WEDDINGS, WHY ARE THEY SO WEIRD?” came in within 100 page views of each other so I’m re-sharing them all:

  • It’s Mother-Effing Wedding Season Again So Let’s Chat. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your friendships, your partnership, your body. It does not have to be your sole creative act that communicates your exact social class and crafting ability.
  • #1223: “Feminist Etiquette Wedding Help”. Your wedding doesn’t exist to fix you, your family, your relationship, your body, or the world. It’s a party so try to throw a good one that makes you happy and invites your guests in to what you want vs. trying to argue with each of them about why you’re allowed to want what you want. “Oh thanks, but we’re all set!” is a very useful phrase.
  • #1188: “Grief and empty chairs at the wedding feast.Maybe the idea of ghosts first sprang from the divided vision of grieving people, the way we can both see the party as it’s happening and see the echoes of what the party should be like, our longing giving shape and color to the empty spaces where our loves should be.”
  • #1189: “Fox News, Immigrant Family, and the F**ing Wedding Invite List.Probably the Uncle could have behaved himself for one day, but this thing where we tiptoe around bigots and keep negotiating with non-bigots for “more tolerance” toward bigots has gotta stop. We can work on tolerating/convincing/courting them once we’ve out-organized and out-voted them, let people who aren’t their direct targets run interference for a change.

I should also highlight the awesome series of guest posts from Lenée aka dopegirlfresh aka the GOAT who filled in for me during surgery in the spring. I plan to have her back in 2020, as well as some other exciting guests (Rae McDaniel has volunteered to peek into the inbox to answer questions about gender, we’re just trying to get a meeting on the calendar to figure out the logistics).

The blog motto for 2019 was “Quit working so hard on relationships that aren’t working for you” and I’m still ruminating on 2020’s. How do people feel about “Do even less work than that and see how you feel?”

Love and good New Year wishes to all of you in Awkwardland, comments are open.

Got an update for us (never an obligation, but we love to read them)?

Is there a post from the past year that you found especially useful?

Did you kick ass at setting a difficult boundary this year?

Did you decide to put in “less work” with a thorny relationship? What happened?

Hello again! Patrons have sent short questions. I have attempted to answer them. Installment 1 is here.

This round: How do I deal with my mom’s anxiety about my life, how do I tell a roommate that their helpfulness is not actually helpful, how do I preserve a friendship over distance, how do I build a family relationship over distance, and for a little #ThisFuckingGuy seasoning: I planned a birthday celebration for my mom and now my StepDad has made his own totally conflicting plans.

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Patrons of the blog have sent in short questions. Surprising nobody, I have written answers between “medium” and “epic.” This is Part 1 of 2, the rest will come later in the week.

In this batch: A friend is ghosting me to my face at work, I want to reconnect with a friend I accidentally ghosted, my downstairs neighbors complained to me about walking too loud, I need my partners to be more/differently supportive about depression and anxiety, and I’m about to burn out at work, will it kill my career if I take time off?

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There was a lovely update in my inbox last week, from LW #1204, who was adjusting to hearing loss and having to drag-adjust everyone else in her life. Shared with permission:

“I got my hearing aids a couple weeks ago, and since then my life is inestimably better!  I can hear everything so well, I feel like Daredevil.  I’d never realised that the clock in my lounge (which I’ve had over 8 years) audibly ticks, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

With regard to husbandly, he realised how important subtitles were to me when he wanted to introduce me to a film.  We tried it without subs at first, and I was straining to hear the voiceover (Morgan Freeman’s voice is better than warm caramel, but it’s also kind gravelly and quiet!) – so he switched the subs on.  I was able to watch, and hear, and fully engage with the rest of the film.  It was beautiful and made me cry.  We talked about it the next day and he asked what I would have done if the subs hadn’t been on.  I told him – truthfully – that I would have given up on engaging, and gone to bed.  He then set subtitles to be on as the default option every time we watched anything together, and apologised for sometimes switching them off if he was watching something on his own after I’d gone to bed and forgot to switch them back on, until I got my brand new shiny magic ears.  Now I don’t even need the TV as loud as he does.

With regard to not-my-step-mother (yes, I’m deliberately creating a distance between her and me in my mind, it might not be the healthiest thing to do but it helps me), hubs and I have agreed that she will not be invited to our house again.  Any interactions that we have with her will be at a location we can – and will – walk away from.  That might be a nice restaurant, or my dad’s house, or recently a garden centre, so we can hang out and have nice “family times” but also we decide when time’s up and that’s when we walk away.  We also sometimes see my dad on his own; he understands that she can be frustrating, and isn’t going to force us to spend time with her for the sake of it.

I’ve chosen not to engage with any hearing impaired communities, online or offline, for the moment at least – but I know the option exists, so I might in future.  There is someone at work in a similar situation so I’ve reached out to her for advice on equipment that helped her with using a phone headset with hearing aids (I work in a call centre, and any time I cover my hearing aids – including with a headset – I get feedback…equipment is coming, it’s going to take a few weeks maybe, apparently it’s the best thing since sliced bread).”

What a relief! I never push for updates, since what people do with the advice is their business. I want people to use what’s useful to their own situation and feel totally free to reject what isn’t, and I don’t want to create pressure to have life come out a certain way or on a certain schedule. But I’m always excited when I hear someone is doing better, so, thank you for letting us know and I hope things continue getting better for you.

I am also pleased to report that your husband has graduated from #ThisFuckingGuy status and will be known as a #ThisFuckingGuy no more now that he both apologized and fixed the problem.

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

My fiancé and I (male and female, respectively; late 20s) are getting married next year. We are both so happy and in love and so excited to be taking this next step in our relationship. Our issue is that we want to alter some elements of our wedding and are facing judgement from our family and friends. I am admittedly the prototypical liberal feminist who enjoys interrogating materialism, capitalism, and the patriarchy for sport. My partner is easy-going, but he understands my beliefs and has open dialogues with me on a variety of weighted topics. I can admit that most of these wedding-related changes are my ideas, but my partner supports me and understands why I feel so strongly.

I’ve told my family and close friends some of our ideas for the wedding, like:
We don’t want gifts and want folks to donate to a charity on our behalf if they so choose.
We’re not having a full wedding party, but using our siblings instead; my brother will be my “man of honor” and my future sister-in-law will be the “groomswoman”.
I don’t want my father to walk me down the aisle because I think that is too patriarchal. In my mind, it looks as if one man is passing ownership of me to another man. Instead, my parents will walk down the aisle together and I will walk alone.
Our family and friends are often shocked that we’d consider straying from the “traditional” wedding etiquette, like wedding registries and my father walking me down the aisle. We’ve heard from multiple people on multiple occasions “why even have a wedding if it’s not going to be traditional?”. My response so far is to say that this is mine and my partners’ day to celebrate us, so we should be able to have the wedding we want and our friends and family should support us.

I try to be as open minded to suggestions as possible. We’ve gotten feedback on our venue, the date, and even if it should be inside or outside. We’ve heard these suggestions and made adjustments to our plans in the spirit of making our guests comfortable. The suggestions I listed above are more about representing who my partner and I are as a couple, at least in my mind.

For what it’s worth – my partner sticks up for me as best he can, but we’re both at a loss for words. The judgement is coming from both sides of our family/friends…and take from this what you will, but the judgers are primarily female.

As we get deeper into the planning process, I anticipate that I will want to put my personal spin on even more wedding elements, and we will continue to be judged for our choices. Can you either help me put this in perspective, or provide some responses I can say to my family and friends? I don’t think that any of my suggestions so far are that radical, and I struggle seeing other people’s perspective on why our ideas are so strange. Of course this is not the biggest deal in the world, and I know we are lucky to be able to afford a wedding and to have found our partner for life. I want to enjoy the next several months of planning and represent who my partner and I are without judgement.

Feminist Bride in a Patriarchal World

Hi there,

We covered a lot of ground with weddings earlier in the year, but your question is so interesting to me because it’s a case of someone trying to be thoughtful and inclusive and ask for feedback and really discuss things (all lovely qualities) and it’s backfiring all over you. It’s time to bring certain decisions inside to a small internal audience and stop running things by everybody or explaining them.

How do we get there?

Offbeat Bride and A Practical Wedding are going to be your best buds right now.  Most of what you need will be there.

Click for my plan for making the process less argumentative.

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Hello, it’s the monthly feature where patrons of the site can ask short questions.

Q1: Thanks to years of reading your blog I finally learned how to call out -isms when they happen! But now I’m stuck at the next hurdle, where people who get called out are so mortified they go into an over-the-top apology loop and keep it up until the apology gets more annoying than the original transgression. Do you have any scripts for when people go way too hard on the apologies after being corrected? (she/her/hers)

A1: INTERRUPT!!!!

I know, we’re taught that interrupting is always rude & wrong, but honestly, it’s so useful at times, like when you ask someone to stop doing something and they take it as an opportunity to process all of their feelings about whatever it is at you. Thanks, Stu, it was so fun to experience your misogyny at work, now, bonus I get to be your personal sexism therapist, translator, and Interpreter of All Women, ooh goody! So glad we had this talk!

Multiply that by infinity for white people who freak out when we are reminded that a) racism exists and b) racism isn’t a bone in our bodies and isn’t about our personal intentions or goodness. Robin DiAngelo coined the term “white fragility” to describe this phenomenon, and says that the “splutterings,” (extreme defensiveness, shouting, crying, disbelieving people about their lived experiences, compulsively shifting the topic to historical events (politicians who remind everyone “I marched with Dr. King!” when asked about racism now) or unsolicited non sequiturs about how cool we are about race stuff serve a purpose that isn’t just the personal shame of getting something wrong or cognitive dissonance at the magnitude of white supremacy and injustice.

“These splutterings ‘work,’ DiAngelo explains, ‘to reinstate white equilibrium as they repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy.’ She finds that the social costs for a black person in awakening the sleeping dragon of white fragility often prove so high that many black people don’t risk pointing out discrimination when they see it. And the expectation of “white solidarity”—white people will forbear from correcting each other’s racial missteps, to preserve the peace—makes genuine allyship elusive. White fragility holds racism in place.”

These overshares, even when the person is sincerely upset and ashamed, have a structural, ritual purpose. Ever ended up apologizing to someone who actually owes you an apology, but when you asked them to stop doing whatever it is that hurt you, they get so upset that you feel bad about saying anything in the first place and pressured to comfort them…about the bad thing…they did… to you? Yeah. Like that. But on a grand, national, and global scale.

So where does that leave us?

If you mess something up, and we all mess up sometimes, I think one good practice is to do whatever we can to not dwell on ourselves in that exact moment. Whatever our intentions were, we said something that hurts. Our feelings of shame and worry that we messed up can be real, but they aren’t THE immediate problem. Being corrected isn’t about our personal epiphany or learning to be a better person (that can wait!), it’s about stopping the harmful behavior with minimum fuss and adverse impact, and making a commitment to get it right going forward. Apologize, correct the behavior, and move on. From this piece on accidentally using the wrong pronouns:(bolding mine):

You are talking about someone who goes by “he/him” pronouns. “She is a great student. I’m sorry, I meant to say he is a great student. He’s been reading all of the assignments very thoroughly and it’s been a pleasure to work with him.” You don’t have to make a big deal out of your mistake or draw a lot of attention to it. You mostly need to fix it. You might have a follow up conversation with the person you referred to incorrectly to apologize or see if there’s something else you can do to correct it moving forward besides doing better. Making it a bigger deal in the moment is not necessarily helpful and could be harmful unless that’s what the person who was incorrectly referred to wants. Depending on the situation, you might be worried that people think you aren’t friendly towards transgender people because you made a mistake, but generally it’s good to avoid making the situation about you and your intent. A good way to show you are friendly is to get it right in the future and to act upon some of the other guidances you may find through this website or other resources.

Critique is an investment in the relationship. If someone is taking the risk of telling you you messed up, it doesn’t mean “YOU ARE THE WORST PERSON WHO EVER LIVED, PLEASE DIE NOW” it means “I care about this and I’m trusting you to get it right.” If you feel awful and embarrassed, that’s normal, just, those feelings are for you to take to your journal or a therapist, not to process in real time with the expectation that the person you offended will hang out and help you do it.

Anyway, dear Querent, here’s your shame-spiral interruption script to adapt into your own words as the situation demands.

“Hey _____, let me interrupt for a second. These conversations are awkward for everyone. I appreciate the apology, and as long as you [do the good thing/stop doing the bad thing] from now on, we’re good.” 

Interrupt. Translate their apology into a promise for better action in the future. Keep Awkwarding.

Q2: I recently joined a beer and philosophy meetup. I enjoy the group and the discussion, except for one person. Her comments are often neither brief nor relevant, with her talking as much as everyone else combined and going on tangents that don’t connect to the topic. She seems to be friends with the organizers and while they’re otherwise great, they don’t seem interested in reining her in; is there anything I can do? (she/her/hers)

A2: Since you’re new and she’s a regular, this is tricky. Almost certainly you’re not alone in feeling as you do about this person, but you don’t know who your allies are and if you complain about her to the wrong folks you will come across as the jerk.

One tactic I might try is suggesting that the big group break into smaller groups for discussion, maybe switch/rotate every 10-15 minutes, or chew on a question in small groups and have each group report back to the big group at the end. “Can we break into smaller groups next time? I love hearing from everyone and talking about the work, and with the big discussion circle we sometimes only get through a few people.” 

You can also channel group discussions with aggressive “Yes, And!” action. You don’t have to let her finish every paragraph. Wait for a pause or the end of a sentence and then speak up and throw the discussion ball to someone else in the group. “Interesting point, Alex! Phil, weren’t you talking about how ___________ leads to _________ last week? Do you think this is the same sort of question?”

That way you’re not interrupting to talk over her, you’re including other people in the conversation. Be strategic and choose someone talkative if you do this, the shy quiet people will not catch your ball and it will go right back to her.

Q3: What are your favorite ice breaker/ getting-to-know-you questions? Spouse and I trying to get out and build a bigger community. I’m not great at spontaneous chat with new people and would love a few more conversation starters to add to my bank beyond the not-great “what do you do?” (She/her/hers)

A3: Commander Logic, enthusiastic connector, has been going with “What are you nerdy about?” of late, and having great results with it. She is also great at asking people for recommendations for local things and getting them talking about their neighborhood. “Do you have a favorite bakery or coffee joint?” “If you ever have out of town guests, what’s a place you love to take them?” 

I try to think about both context and subjects that are low stakes but that people have strong opinions about. You’d be surprised at how well “What is your favorite sandwich?” at an event where people are eating, people get very excited about sandwiches.

The “what five objects would someone use to summon you” or “what would create an irresistible You-trap, like, if you walked by this place on the street you’d have to go in and check it out” threads that go around sometimes on social media are pretty good stuff.

I don’t like “Would you rather ____ or _____?” questions or “Let’s generate some debate!” type questions for this stuff, I like questions that get the person to tell me a story about themselves. If you celebrate, what’s the best Halloween costume you ever saw/wore? What was your first ever job? Did you have an imaginary friend when you were a kid? What’s a word that you knew what it meant but never knew how to pronounce? If the universe could give you back one lost item, what would it be? When you were little what did you want to be when you grew up?

Q4: I’m slowly pulling myself out of a Depression Hole where one of the biggest problems has been executive functioning. (Got a therapist, working on the medical side.) My issue is that I have a ton of deep seated shame from a childhood filled with notes sent home for missing homework assignments, getting yelled at for being late, etc. How do I avoid the shame spiral/impostor syndrome around ordinary mistakes? (She/her)

Hi there, friend! When I got diagnosed with ADHD in my early 40s on top of the anxiety & depression, there was a giant period of grieving. What would my life be like if I hadn’t been struggling so long with all the “little things” that add up to so many unfinished “big things” and so much avoidance and disorganization?

You asked how you can avoid the shame spiral/imposter syndrome around ordinary mistakes, and the answer is, you probably can’t avoid/prevent/control your feelings. That’s not a thing we can do, even though it’s a thing that people desperately want to do.

What I think we can try to do (thanks, therapy!) is practice ways of feeling the feelings without letting them sink us. On a certain level, feelings are just information. We can have the feelings, observe the feelings, name the feelings, make a note of the feelings, and make decisions about what, if anything, we want to do about the feelings. We can have compassion for ourselves about them, we can hold space for them, and maybe they don’t have to be the boss of us all the time.

One thing I do is make note of feelings that come up when I’m trying to plan my day or my week. Is a task getting moved day after day without getting finished? What are the feelings about that? It’s not magic, I still struggle with executive function stuff despite medication and therapy, but it does actually help me to know, if I’m avoiding or dreading something, why? And sometimes I’m able to say, hey, Buddy (my internal monologue is addressed as Buddy), it’s obvious that you’re procrastinating about that, so do you actually want to do it or not? What’s going on here? And that’s enough to help me get to the “I will feel better once this is done” place and get that little nugget of momentum and satisfaction from crossing it off the list.

Those narratives built in childhood about how “lazy” I was hurt really bad, and changing the narrative to, I wasn’t lazy, I just had a different brain that made it harder to do certain kinds of things, has been a process. The past affects us, but we can’t undo it, so what do we want to do with today? May your process be healing.

Q5: My friend has a bad habit of complaining to me about stuff that they know stresses me out, pausing mid-rant to say “sorry, I know you don’t like hearing about this stuff” and then continuing right on again. For Reasons I don’t want to shut them down completely, but how can I ask them to A) dial it back and B) stop apologizing when they have no intention of stopping? (she/her/hers)

A5: This is a hard one, because I think at a certain point you are going to have to shut one of these rants down so that the discomfort this person is making you feel is returned to sender. Boundaries have three steps: Deciding where your boundary is, telling the other person where it is, and then enforcing it.

This could mean interrupting one of the rants:

  • “I’ve told you I don’t like hearing about this stuff, so, let’s not do this today, ok?”
  • “We talked about this. Please find a different sounding board for ____.” 
  • “I’m sympathetic, but I’m really not up for this today.”
  • “I need you to check before you go into download mode, and I need the answer to be actually meaningful, so, not today.”
  • “Hashtag gentle reminder, hashtag please vent to someone else about stuff like this and hashtag but please come back when you want to go get ice cream.” 

And it could mean, when the fauxpology comes, holding up your hands and saying, “You always apologize, but you never actually stop doing the thing, so, can we not?” 

And it could mean that the conversation is cut short and things get very awkward and you feel enormous pressure to just give in and let it happen. But it sounds like you’ve been perfectly clear (they know you don’t like this and they do it anyway), so probably this person needs to feel the full “This is what ‘nope’ feels like” effect at least once. I can’t think of a gentle, more subtle “dial it back” way that you didn’t already try.

Whether you put this into practice or not is up to you, I just want to emphasize: It’s not mean to to tell someone ‘no’ inside a friendship.

Q6: What’s something romantic I can do for my husband serving in Afghanistan? I send him random silly stuff and we can chat and Skype and text. I’m not feeling very creative. We’ve been married nearly 20 years. (I am she/her/hers husband is he/him/his)

A6: Have you and he ever written paper letters to one another? There’s something about a tangible object that you can carry with you, something that can be read and re-read, something written quietly and intentionally to the person that has a magic to it. Maybe find a list of questions like these (not necessarily these exact ones, adapt to your purposes) and trade answers on paper over time? Could you read the same book together and have a long-distance book club (or each pick out a favorite book to assign to the other person to read) and talk about it?

Readers, what kinds of things keep you connected in long distance relationships?

Part 2 is coming.