This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”
I’ve gotten a bunch of letters about family weirdness and estrangement and boundaries (weird, almost like there was a series of events in the last month that forced a lot of family togetherness, can’t think would have caused all these old wounds to re-open at the same time? 😉 ) and I’m going to put up a series of them this week. This one is about the aftermath of cutting ties with a parent and the still-present worry that running into them will be awful.
Hey Captain Awkward.
I read some of your responses to other writers who had concerns about their partners’ finances, and I feel like this is related but not quite the same.
I’m stressed about my boyfriend’s money management skills and how I can help him without getting myself into a bad financial situation. I also recognize that he’s probably embarrassed on top of being stressed, so I’m trying not to make him feel ashamed. He was raised below the poverty line and when he made it “big” in his industry, he was earning huge salaries, so I think he’s allowed himself to fully enjoy it. Now he’s unemployed but is still living a “huge salary” lifestyle.
About me: I’ve always lived pretty frugally. I’m kind of a prepper in some ways – I buy a lot of dried or bulk foods, and I park nearly a mile away from work and walk every day so I don’t have to buy a $400 annual parking pass, plus I get some exercise which is hard to come by in my 9-5 cubicle lifestyle. My mortgage is manageable, 90% of my furniture is thrifted (thank god eclectic/Boho decor is “in” right now), I pay my bills on time, I have a modest emergency savings, and I have excellent credit — with a little bit of revolving credit card debt. My house is my first home purchase, and in addition to receiving some assistance from my grandparents, I participated in a federally funded first-time home buyer program and saved for years to come up with the down payment. My house isn’t fancy, but I love it because it’s mine goddamnit, and after changing addresses every year for 18 years, I finally get to lay down some roots! I‘ll hit my one-year anniversary of homeownership next week. Yay.
I do not typically seek out partners with tons of money. In fact, I’ve been known to date transient wildlife biologist types who briefly stay in the area to work for six months out of the year, and then squirrel their earnings away to get by the other six months. I just happened to fall in love with my BF who – up until last summer – was successful in his career, made a lot of money as a senior level designer with some recognizable household brands, and was promptly relieved of his duties the same week we met. He felt it was a blessing in disguise because he’s burned out on doing design for a living and wants to pursue his passion of selling rare European cars.
BF was earning a gratuitous salary last year, and while he lived within his means, said means were extravagant and now unsustainable: he owns two houses and has 7 cars (or 8? I actually don’t know anymore). Again, cars are his hobby/passion, as well as his side business, so some of this is to be expected. Two of them are “investment” items that will continue to appreciate in value, two are for driving, and the rest are “projects” that he plans to sell… but as you might imagine, this ties up a lot of capital in non-liquid assets.
BF is hemorrhaging money, but not cash, and is putting a lot of charges onto credit cards. He justifies this by saying that most entrepreneurs fund their businesses through credit. BF also owes his best friend a sizable amount for a recent generous loan which seems to have strained their friendship a little.
Three months ago, BF put his second house, which is in a popular resort town a few hours away from where we both live, on the market. He’s received multiple offers on the second house, but due to complications beyond his control, they continue to fall through, and so it remains on the market. BF was relying on the sale of this second house to kick-start the car business.
His monthly expenses (e.g. mortgages, private school tuition for his two kids, and commercial space for his new business) are over $5k. Not included are utilities, groceries, gasoline, health insurance, pet expenses, or anything else fun/recreational like an occasional meal out or outing to the nearby large city. BF has very little income right now except for infrequent freelance design work which he loathes and the car side hustle. Currently, he sells a car every 4-8 weeks and each sale results in a few thousand dollars. I in believe he’s receiving unemployment, but I’m not sure that he’ll qualify for much longer.
I told him he could sell his primary house and move into mine if he wanted. My mortgage is literally half the size of his, and if he paid HALF of my mortgage he’d still save $2k/month. However, he doesn’t want to sell his primary residence for a lot of (legitimate) reasons, and he wants to keep trying to sell the vacation home that’s been on the market for four months. OK, I get that… But right now, it’s just him and his dog occupying a 3,000 square foot space. He wants me to rent out rooms in my house and move in with him (I would contribute to his mortgage, which would only cover 25% of his monthly payment). I am considering it, but I’m also so happy to finally have a home of my own… it would make me sad to move out of my first home so soon.
I know he’s filed for bankruptcy once before, and he recently said he doesn’t want to do that again (he said it semi-jokingly, so I don’t know how much of a real possibility it is for him). He also told me early on that he thought I’d be a good influence on him as far as spending habits go. These were yellow-orange flags for me at the time. Now, he’s asking me to go with him to a cousin’s wedding on the absolute opposite side of the country in two months. We both have airline miles that will cover the trip, but it’s honestly not how I want to use those miles — the whole reason I got a credit card that gives airline miles is because he suggested I get one so we can travel overseas together this year. I wouldn’t have taken out a second line of credit if I didn’t think we weren’t going to use it for an *international* vacation. Plus, the wedding trip in two months becomes more expensive when you add up the other items that will not be covered: lodging, dining out for five days, hiring a pet sitter for our two dogs, rental car, etc. And I’m also just feeling less and less secure about out future together as the weeks roll by. Like what kind of message would I send to his family by attending this big family event if I’m not sure how into/secure I feel about the relationship by the time the wedding rolls around?
He has also half-joked about how I should have offered to pay for a recent ticket he got because he’s so broke. (He wouldn’t have received the ticket in the first place had he agreed for us to take my car that morning — which gets twice the MPGs — instead of his… but he insisted on taking his car. It apparently didn’t have a front license plate which resulted in a ticket.) The irony is that I almost offered to pay for it as a “sorry you’re broke, happy belated birthday” gift… but after he said that, I thought “NOPE. Nevermind; I don’t owe you shit.”
Let me preface that BF is the closest I’ve found to “my person”, if you get me — our connection, chemistry, and compatibility are mind bending. I’ve dated a lot of people in my day and never felt about them the way I do about him. I want to live with him at some point, get married, and maybe even have a child. How can I communicate my concerns to him without compounding his stress and sounding like a tightwad? (Also… Am I a tightwad? I’m starting to doubt myself and my saving habits…) And how do I support him without getting myself into a bad financial situation of my own? I don’t want to lose my savings, wreck my good credit, or be his cash cow, but I do want to be there for him in a way that empowers, not enables. I can see a future with him… so do I just sit tight through this rough spot and hope it all works out soon, or am I aboard a sinking ship and just don’t have the perspective to see it? Also, is there a way I can get out of attending this wedding?!
Thanks Captain Awkward!
Hello! I am so glad you wrote!
And congratulations on this month’s award for “burying the lede”! I retained the subject line of your email as the subject line of the post because I wanted readers to ride the same “oh, only 7 cars? Or is it 8?” roller coaster I did. 🙂
You have been so candid and such a good advocate for yourself that it makes my job very easy. My advice is:
- Do not jeopardize anything about your finances or housing to “help” or “support” a man with 2 houses and 7-8 cars.
- Re-examine the idea that it is your job to help him figure out his money & his relationship with money.
I’ll elaborate but here are some scripts:
- “I do not want to move out of my house.”
- “I do not want to move out of my house to make housing payments on a house I don’t own.”
- “I’d rather save my miles and money for a vacation than go to that wedding, and I can’t afford to do both, so you’ll have to fly solo on that one. I’ll have to meet your family some other time.”
- “We approach money really differently, and I do not think it will be good for either my credit score or our relationship if we combine money or housing, especially while you’re still getting your business off the ground.”
- “I want to help you through this, but ultimately it’s your money and your decision, so one way I can ‘help’ is by having really clear boundaries especially around financial decisions that affect me.”
Additionally, scriptwise, be very blunt and specific about money in your dating life. Do not let this flounder in expectations and hints, get in the habit of nailing stuff down like where are we going, what is the anticipated cost, who is paying. When you are offering to pay, make that offer up front: “Can I take you to ____ tonight? Dinner’s on me.” (This is a good thing to do anytime you are treating a known poor-er person, the anxiety of guessing and mentally running the budget numbers is just awful and fun-destroying). When you are splitting costs or expenses, settle up right away. “The bill is ______, do you want the waiter to split it for us or do you want to pay and I can Venmo (etc.) you my half?”
This may seem unromantic and tedious, and it might bring out some weird shame behaviors and avoidance in him, but do it anyway. If you can’t afford something, say so. “That sounds nice but pricier than I can handle right now, can we save it as a treat for next month and stay in tonight?” Make this shit matter-of-fact and normal. Make yourselves a couple who can talk frankly about money in mundane, routine ways that doesn’t require big negotiations or emotional processing.
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.)
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.
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. ❤
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.
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?
This past year I (31/F) finally received a diagnosis for what I’ve been struggling with for over half my life. I have Complex PTSD/PTSD (I’ll spare you the differences and overlaps) (Ed. Note: No worries! I, Jennifer, will link people to a basic explainer.) Encouraged by my therapist I shared the PTSD with my parents. The main reason being because, with the enthusiastic support of said therapist, I am pursuing a service dog (SD).
Being able to acknowledge that yes, I have experienced multiple traumas and that I deserve to seek help and healing in a way that’s actually beneficial has been huge for me. I am very fortunate that my dog turned out to be an excellent candidate and I am owner training with the help of a professional service dog (SD) trainer. For the first time in forever, I can even sometimes think positively about the future!
The problem is that my feelings of being valid and deserving of help are new and fragile. My mother is extremely dismissive about my having PTSD, deciding to go the SD route, and the legitimacy of my dog being a service dog in training (SDiT). It often gets to the point of being triggering. And when I tell her she’s being hurtful she says she loves me, has good intentions, and somehow I end up apologizing for getting upset.
In the past I had her/the family on a very lean information diet, particularly when it comes to mental health stuff. I am worried about introducing my dog as my SDiT and it making the family feel as entitled to information and judgement as my mom. They mostly follow her lead when it comes to me. Although there have been times when my dad will privately admit mom is super critical of and often cruel to me, he has no intentions of intervening.
We live in different states so Holidays mean my siblings and I return to my parents’ house for several days. If it was just a dinner, I might be able to get through it, but I doubt I can last days in close quarters without utilizing my SDiT and I’d prefer not to lie since the truth will come out anyway.
Do you have any scripts for navigating what is essentially a medical treatment plan they don’t/won’t agree with? Tips on how to introduce my dog as my SDiT and have that be respected?
Letting the Service Dog out of the Bag
Hello there! Captain Awkward here with a beta-read and practical service-dog suggestions from The Goat Lady. I hope we’re reaching you while there is still time to cancel or radically alter your plans for this upcoming trip to see your folks.
Because that’s my practical advice: Strongly consider cancelling the trip and probably DON’T talk more in detail about your diagnosis or treatment with your mom right this second if you don’t think it will be safe or productive. More words/context/recommendations after the jump.
Quick aside: I really like your switch to allowing comments only on select posts. It makes the whole site somehow calmer and more inviting. Being able to read your writing without the distraction of subconsciously wondering what sharp poky things might turn up at the bottom is relaxing in a way I wouldn’t have predicted. So thanks!
Of course, now I’m going to ask a question that might benefit from commenter input. Or not?
One afternoon a year and one Christmas present a year are the entire extent of the contact I and most of the extended family have with a 10-year-old niece (an only child, daughter of my spouse’s sibling). What kind of present would be the most helpful and most grounding for a child whose parents are out of touch with reality even on their best days and who are now separating and using her as a pawn?
More frequent communication is impossible. Parents are paranoid and intelligent: giving their child a book called “Your Parents’ Booze and 420 Abuse Is Not Your Fault” or “You’re Not Wrong: Most People Don’t Actually Say Whatever Lie Comes into Their Head Just to Get What They Want Right This Second” or “We All Sure Hope the Dream Fairy Who Told Them Their Bipolar Meds Were Poison Changes Her Mind” will be seen for what it is and may sever all communication with them entirely. I don’t know that the child is a big reader anyway.
Despite the fact that their daughter’s emotional needs don’t seem to be of interest to either of them, they seem to love her to the extent that they can, and she seems to have food and ice skating lessons and clothes that fit, and I see no evidence of physical abuse. They don’t live near any of us, so who knows, really, but I don’t have anything to report to her school (if I even knew what school) or CPS.
The child is intelligent and relatively outgoing and wants to be a part of things. It is heartbreaking to hear her asking desperately confused questions and to hear them answer with baldfaced lies in front of us.
She is so young and so dependent on them, and we have no means of contacting her, even through her parents, 364 days out of the year. What can we do to support her from afar, through gifts that won’t set the parents off?
Auntie Out of State
Dear Auntie Out Of State,
Re: Your Quick Aside: I am very relieved to hear this. Sometimes I really miss comments and the community culture, and I know others do, too, but it became absolutely unsustainable for me to read 10,000+ words every time I wanted to write any words or deal with the 1% of people who are A Problem (but who absorbed 99% of moderation time and energy). I’m still experimenting with the right mix of discussion vs. just writing, and I hope people who value in-depth discussions will take advantage of the reader-led forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com and the subreddit. Thank you so much for reading and hanging in.
As to your question, I am not going to open comments on this because in my strong opinion gifts aimed at “fixing” or “helping” tend to suck unless they are specifically asked for by the recipient, there is no “right” Christmas gift that will fix or make up for or counteract your niece’s present home life, nor do I wish to curate a bunch of links to extremely specific toy and other gift suggestions, no matter how thoughtfully recommended. Your “Holiday Gift Guide For Possibly Sad 10-Year-Olds” Princess Is In Another Internet Castle.
Fortunately, I know from experience that good presents from a faraway aunt one never sees can actually foster a permanent “Aunt _____ LOVES ME and is AWESOME!” feeling in nieces and there is one method that works, namely:
Get your niece the MOST FUN stuff you can think of while she’s a child.
It’s okay to ask her parents for ideas as a courtesy even if you aren’t close, and to briefly check stuff like clothing sizes and favorite colors. If they’re forthcoming great, if not, no worries, you can also ask your friends who are parents of similarly-aged kids what their kids go apeshit for. Stuff like:
- Art supplies! Craft kits! What is shiniest/glossiest/has the most colors? Glitter pens? Stickers? Beautiful notebooks? Do that!
- Books! – BUT ONLY FUN, ADDICTIVE STORYBOOKS, NOT “HELPFUL” BOOKS! If you’re stumped your local librarian will probably know what they can’t keep on the shelves in the children’s section, and they’ll also probably know what extremely fun stuff will fly under the radar of, say, strict conservative parents who are Terribly Concerned About Wizards. Graphic novels absolutely count as reading, Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl might be good places to start.
- Toys! The prettiest dolls if she plays with dolls, the best Legos, Lincoln Logs, and other “building” sets (there’s this one that has magnetic balls and multi-colored rods that is like, my favorite thing ever though maybe it’s a better fit for littler kids and middle aged people like me, who knows), the niftiest action figures and spaceships or robots or dinosaurs or dragons or fancy horses.
- Costumes/dress-up clothes in her size! The little girls I’m around most these days are in the 6-8YO demographic but they show zero signs of slowing down with questions like “can I be princess, a firefighter, a princess who is also a firefighter, a scientist (who secretly fights fires)(and is possibly the heiress to a mythical royal family/a unicorn)?” 2) I know the princess thing can get tedious and hella gendered, but honestly, who doesn’t need a sparkly floor-length purple velvet cloak and a tiara in their size? Not me! Wait, I mean me! (As in, I might need that).
- Tech/Games/Videos – If you come across whatever the coolest 10-year-old you know can’t put down, and get inspired, do that.
Don’t overdo it, pick one or two special things every Christmas, and put a gift receipt inside to make exchanges easy. If it’s something that makes you squee inside because you would have loved it at her age? So much the better. That’s a genuine connection and pleasure you are handing down, even if it’s invisible, even if it’s not the exact thing she already thought of to want. You’ll probably have some misses but more hits, and over time your niece will notice and remember that you and your spouse love to give her presents.
Throughout the year you could also be the Aunt Who Sends Postcards – silly ones, ones with beautiful art or from wonderful places – write a few innocuous greetings that communicate some version of “Hello there, we like you!” on the back and don’t worry about getting a reply. If you’re only allowed a few crumbs of interaction now and then, think of holiday gifts and the odd postcard as safe, no-pressure bread crumbs that might lead her to your door someday when she’s older and more in charge of her family relationships. If not, they won’t make anything worse than it already is. Sometimes “not making it worse” is all you can do.
Edited To Add: Reader Suggestion! In addition to fun gifts, you and other family members could quietly divert some $ from the toy budget into a savings account or savings bonds for your niece every year. Don’t put anything in her name now (the parents might not let you, and they would 100% have access to it while she’s still a child). It could be a lifesaver someday when she’s old enough to leave home.
How I Know That Fun Works: My dad’s sister, Aunt Mary, lived in Ohio most of my life and we rarely saw her in Massachusetts. But she sent the best Christmas presents every year, you cannnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnottttttttttttttt imaginnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnne the anticipation with which we opened the annual package from her knowing that if there were clothes they would be cool, trendy, name-brand clothes that we would wear into rags alongside our hated Toughskins, and if there were toys they would be fancy toys that we’d want to go to bed with that night so as not to be parted from them even for a second.
Aunt Mary didn’t necessarily know us or our changing interests well, and she never bought anything from our lists painstakingly compiled out of The Sears Christmas WishBook complete with SKU# or based around whatever Star Wars movie was out at the time. Her daughters were much older than my brothers and me, so I think she asked our parents about our sizes and her friends who had children our age “What’s the coolest thing your kid wants for Christmas right now?” and then went with that.
She’d get enthusiastic Christmas Day thank-you phone calls from us when we were kids and hearing she was coming for a visit or we were going to Cleveland to see her was always incredibly exciting. She died in the early 2000s (fuck cancer) and I just have to say, all “blah blah gifts are soooooooooo commercial and distract from the real meaning of the season” aside, every memory I have of my aunt is based on a) 20% how funny and delightful she was when we did hang out (I’m so glad I got to see her one last time when she was pretty much on her deathbed, and she was still the life of the party cracking up the whole room) and b) 80% childhood memories of my siblings and I staring at the boxes with her return address on them in hungry anticipation all week, trying to ask “Can we open Aunt Mary’s presents first?” on Christmas morning without hurting our parents’* feelings, and then wearing or playing with the well-chosen things inside until they disintegrated.
Above all, I knew she loved me. She didn’t have to re-parent me from afar to get that across, her gifts weren’t competing with my parents, they were just chosen with obvious enthusiasm, and that’s why I wanted to tell you about her, my lovely Letter Writer. You are so limited in what you can do for your niece right now, but I think you absolutely can do this one thing well by following fun and joy and pleasure rather than concern.
Honestly, now that I think of it half the “holiday survival” stuff in my inbox for adult relationships boils down to “Can’t you just please like me and enjoy today with me without trying to fix me/my life” in some fashion, so here’s your chance to start young. 😉“I like you so much and want you to have fun on Christmas!” is a message that will go deeper and linger longer than any “I’m very worried about you and I pretty much hate your parents” “solution” or “message” could possibly hope to do.
*I should note, cursèd E.T. statues are outliers in my family (and the aunt who made that for me was a solid A+ present-giver every other year and obviously genuinely thought I would love it). My parents are great gift givers and definitely the “Aunt Mary” to their nieces and nephews, to such a degree that someday I should collect all the home videos of little cousins’ mouths dropping open in awe as they unwrapped whatever Uncle Frank and Aunt Anne brought them this year. It would be a joyful montage indeed.
Y’all I have another Vice piece dropping soon and I have to confess I am HOLIDAYED TF OUT RIGHT NOW. Let’s talk endings. Breakups. My wheelhouse.
We’ll call the first one #1240: “How do I approach a friend who doesn’t want to talk to me anymore?”
Hey Captain Awkward,
Here is my dilemma:
I am currently in my second year of college. At the beginning of last school year, I became friends with a girl [M] and we both hit it off. We instantly became best friends and spent a lot of time together, including with my family (I live close to school). We grew close and so I decided to shoot my shot and ask her out. I was politely turned down and said she wanted to just be friends. She was really cool about it and never made me feel uncomfortable about the situation.
Over the course of the last year we got extremely close to each other and were inseparable. I never really did lose feelings for her and that became a problem eventually.
She was in a relationship with someone from back home, but they were constantly on the rocks and had even been on-and-off over the year. This left me with the slightest bit of hope that things might change. That being said, I was always respectful of [M] and her relationship. I rarely asked about the situation or pry into her relationship — I always let her bring it up.
She went away for the summer (abroad) and I was ok with the distance — a lot better than I thought I would be. So when we came back from summer break, I tried to pursue other people (romantically), but I never felt the same connection I had with [M], with anyone else. I then talked to her about it and that led me to telling her my feelings, to which she had no response other than being gracious for my kind words. Things were seemingly normal for the next couple of days, and we made no mention of the discussion.
After a few days, she did not talk to me or text me. This was not normal at all.
Once I talked to her (a whole two weeks later), she let me know that she felt uncomfortable about what I said and that I had crossed a line, “Something a friend doesn’t do.” Noting how her relationship with her boyfriend was rocky but was committed to him. I apologized profusely, admitted I made a mistake and crossed a line. She accepted and said that she was unsure how to proceed with our friendship and need time/space. Especially since I knew that she had a boyfriend and already turned me down previous.l I agreed and admitted that I put myself in an emotionally unhealthy situation, by spending so much time with her if she was never going to be interested in anything more than a friendship.
Since then, we have not spoken to each other beyond a greeting and in class we don’t say hello to each other (she sits in front of me in class). We go to a small college and have a class together, but it was as though we had never known each other. When we pass each other around campus, a greeting is barely shared. This has left me confused, hurt, and sad.
I am not delusional and expect us to become best friends again, but I don’t think we have to ignore each other and pretend we don’t exist. I feel like I have no closure about the situation which hurts the most.
I have no idea what to do. I want to at least talk to her and see what she was to say about the situation, now that it has been over a month since we last talked — at all.
Do I try to talk to her or let things be and just try to get over it?
Thanks for reading, any help is greatly appreciated.
You gotta leave M. alone.
I know you are hurting. I know you tried your best to be a good friend and be respectful of her boundaries and you tried to be a good manager of the feelings you were developing for her. I know it would sting slightly less if M. would talk it over one more time and maybe give you hope that something is salvageable. Still: You gotta leave M. alone.
We don’t, as a culture, have a good template for scaling down or ending friendships (and let’s face it, our collective romantic breakup skills ain’t anything to brag about, though obviously I’m working on it). It’s okay if both you and M. are muddling through this and don’t know quite how to act.
That said, I feel strongly that there is no conversation you could “approach her” about that would send the message “Hey I want to be respectful of what you need and not bother you, but what the fuck, can we talk for just a second and clear the air?” that communicates “I will leave you alone if that’s what you want” better than actually leaving M. alone like she wants. Every single past interaction you describe in your letter eventually leads to a conversation where what M. wants most from you seems to be “more space” with a side of “never talking about your feelings about her again.”
Her silence now is a way of making that space when asking didn’t work.
Maybe it’s not a smooth way of making that space, an “I gotta let him down easy” way of making that space (a thing she tried several times), but as messages go, but freezing you out is hardly an ambiguous way of claiming space. What is there to explain? She’s been pretty consistent with you from the start and it’s extremely clear what’s going on, the way it’s clear that a cat who hides whenever you walk into a room is a cat who doesn’t want your snuggles. The only way to ever get the cat to come out without being a ball of needle-claws and yowls is to ignore it until it comes out on its own. You’re probably not going to make a situation any worse than it already is by applying the same principle to humans who indicate they’d prefer to be left alone.
Things might not stay this chilly between you and M. forever, once enough time goes by, but the thing you can do to give the situation the best possible chance of a thaw is to realize that the only way your former friend’s shoulders are going to come down from around her ears when you’re around is if you show her you will give her space…by giving her space…and not hanging out expectantly waiting for her to explain herself or suggesting that if you could just talk about all of it one more time that will fix it somehow. When someone sets a hard limit, we show we are safe people who respect boundaries by retreating back behind the boundary and staying there until invited to cross, not by hanging out just outside the gates trying to have just one more conversation about what kind of fish to put in the moat.
So where do you go from here? You can decide that M. is incompatible friend material for you at the present time without talking through it with her. She decided that she didn’t want to be friends anymore, which is a thing she gets to do without taking a vote, and you also get to decide, hey, I need friends who want me around, she’s not that person, it’s time to stop trying to make this happen.
In the class you share, say ‘hello’ if she says ‘hello,’ try to match her energy where possible, don’t double down on the awkwardness by giving her the silent treatment or doing anything dramatic to “punish” her. Find a different seat if you can, actively seek different study buddies and lunch companions, don’t lurk around her conversations, don’t monitor what she does or who she talks to, try to think of her as just another stranger in the room. When you get tempted to dwell on her during class, dare I say it, re-focus your attention on the material you’re there to learn at considerable expense? 😉 And let her do the same, without having to manage your feelings!
Outside of class, put your energy into other connections that aren’t so fraught. It’s a small campus, but women you have a crush on and a failed friendship with aren’t the only people on it. M. has already occupied a lot of a school year you’ll never get back, I wonder how many hangouts with other people did you forgo to hear more about the dude back home she likes better than you in the hopes that today would be the day she’d either love you back or you’d become finally immune? It’s time to break that cycle, stick the landing on your finals, enjoy the holiday break, and next semester or quarter, get yourself a fresh start. Join a club or two, try something new, and make some friends who aren’t her. In both friend material and future crush/romantic partner material, start selecting for people who enthusiastically want you around and who want the same thing you want.
As for M., one last thing: It actually takes a ton more effort to ignore someone and actively freeze them out than it does to be casually pleasant, so This WILL pass, I think, if you give her space. It won’t go back to how it was before, a little friendliness from her absolutely will NOT be an indication that she’s changed her mind and is now Into You That Way, but chances are it won’t always be quite so tense. If and only if: You give her space.
(And if you hear that she’s broken up with her boyfriend at some future point? KEEP GIVING HER SPACE. We don’t forget when people close to us tell us they are in love with us, if she ever wants to talk about that again you will know because she seeks you out and brings it up. If she doesn’t talk about it, assume she’s not feeling it.)
I’ve learned the hard way that you can’t persuade people into loving you back or letting you in even if you use all the best words. It took so many times and so many words for that to sink in, but it never stopped being true if I’d only let myself see it. What I’d love to hand down to you, my dear S., is the knowledge that the closure you give yourself is the closure that ultimately heals you in the end. Giving M. space, walking away, and choosing to prioritize other people is the kind of closure that lets you stop auditioning in an empty room where she walked out, turned out the lights, and shut the door behind her. It’s the kind of closure where you find the story you can live with, the one where you tried your best. Time does the rest, if you’ll let it.
Now, onward to #1241, “Is a person ever entitled to direct communication?”