saying no

Dear Captain Awkward,

Here’s an awkward situation for you.


My acquaintance gave me a mattress in the summer, because it wasn’t working for her back.

I paid $260 for the movers. Unfortunately, they turned out to be creepy and unprofessional.

She’s convinced they stole things from her. At first I believed her, but now I doubt. They allegedly took a hard drive she had in storage, as well as her car keys. She’s sure they took more, but “can’t remember what.” She claims that she saw them come back 4 months after the move to attempt to go through her car…hmm. A great number of her complaints were regarding the fact that they didn’t speak English in front of her, so I had kinda been thinking she was having challenges with racism.

Current situation:

She contacted me a week ago, convinced that they swapped out the mattress in transit. I reassured her that this was not so.

Unfortunately, this opened conversation. Since giving me the mattress, she has discovered that she has stain protection insurance. She is having back issues again, and doesn’t like the new mattress she purchased.

She wants me to stain this mattress, have it cleaned, “discover” that the stain won’t come out, then have insurance replace it so that she can have the new one and I can get the one she’s using now.

It’s a completely different firmness. I’ve researched what she’s offering, and it’s entirely unsuitable for people of my weight and sleeping style.

Although she has assured me that she doesn’t blame me for the mover situation, she’s now exerting some significant pressure on me. She’s outlined in great detail how much money the situation has cost her, and has told me that the reason she’s pushing me is that she’s “fighting for her health.”

I feel sympathetic to her back issues, and I want to be a good human in this scenario.

But I’m currently unemployed and can’t afford to purchase another mattress if the one she’s offering doesn’t work. And I’d rather not commit insurance fraud.

We have many mutual friends. I feel like I’m stuck with her plan if I don’t want her to badmouth me.

More importantly, I don’t know the right thing to do.

No Such Thing As Free

(she/her pronouns)

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Hi Cap’n. 

Here is issue: My partners’ ex, and boundaries.

I have great relationships with my exes, I think it’s healthy and awesome. This is a new and different world, apparently.

My partner’s most recent ex is in our lives a LOT. There are good reasons for this that go beyond their ongoing friendship, but the upshot is that Ex has visited and stayed at our house approx. 1 week out of every month for the last four months. Ex and I get along… mostly. But we would likely not be friends in real life. She’s great in lots of ways but also incredibly different from me. To be honest I find her exhausting and sometimes horrible: a vain, high maintenance, superficial, demanding, selfish Regina George type. She calls other women “ugly”… a lot… she keeps everyone waiting for Makeup Reasons. She wants us to go to clubs and wears shoes she can’t walk in. Etc.

She also has radically different ideas about appropriateness from me: the first time I met her she walked topless past my partner, dropped trou with no warning and peed in the bathroom right next to me, etc. It’s not just her, they fall into these patterns together- he carries her purse, invites her to sleep in our bedroom (and bed!) to “be courteous to our roommate”, keeps me waiting at the house while they eat nice lunches, delays our special two day mini-break (for my birthday) for hours to do her sudden huge favors.

He knows this is shitty when I calmly (or occasionally shakingly) point it out. But he doesn’t anticipate it, and doesn’t predict the cumulative awfulness of it or why it means he should cool it on inviting her along on trips with us. He does feel terrible, and is incredibly patient and loving when I have an “I’m now an awkwardness alien who can’t fucking Person anymore” freakout. Never does annnything resembling deflection or gaslighting.

At this point I need a big, fat break from this person. And to take approximately ten thousand baths.

So tell me, how do I stop feeling like I have to constantly be the Boundaries Police, and do you think that’s even going to be possible?

(Not pictured: frequent references to their past, all their orgies and predictably boundaryless sex life. I’m all for fun group things, but I need to soberly discuss them before they happen. Again, he gets this, but has yet to demonstrate that as a practical behaviour before I find myself in a position of awful panic.)


Ps, he is otherwise a dream, best partner I’ve ever had, no question. Just, ack. This is not nothing.

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Dear Captain,

I have been thinking about this one for some time now, and I’m stuck: What is a good response to “What are you up to tonight / this weekend / next Thursday?”

I loathe this question, and I’ve been getting it a lot lately. I get it from friends (who usually just want to find a time to hang and that’s not so bad), my cousin (who usually wants me to babysit), my mom (whenever she wants to invite me somewhere), and people I’m chatting with on dating websites.

This is why I hate the question:

1. I don’t want to give you a rundown of my plans. They’re private and you don’t need to know them. I kind of resent that you assume I will tell you.

2. I feel like it’s asking me to say yes or no to an invitation / commitment before I even know what it is (like, if you’re having a party I might be free, but my babysitting quota is full for the month so no to that). Ugh.

3. In the case of friends and dates, I feel like sometimes it’s a slightly manipulative way of getting me to do the actual asking / planning. Like, you want to hang out with me, but don’t want to ask me straight up. Why not? Just ask!

4. I don’t understand the point of the question. Usually, the asker will tell me why they asked after I answer, no matter what the answer is (busy, not busy, don’t know). No matter what I say it’s, “okay, well I was just gonna see if you wanted to [actual invitation / request]”.

I usually end up saying something noncommittal like “I might be doing xyz, but I’m not sure yet – why?” and waiting to see what the actual deal is. But I hate this because then I have to pretend to wait while I figure out if my original “plans” are going through before I give them an answer. Or, if I tell a potential date some generic things (oh, probably reading and writing a lot) and add that I’d like to take a break so they know I’m open, I’m engaging in the same coy behavior that’s bothering me in the first place.

It all feels like a gross, stupid game I don’t want to play. I know it’s a common question and I’m sure most people don’t mean anything bad by it. But it puts me on edge every time I hear it. Is it just me? Should I keep doing what I’m doing? Or is there a better way to handle this?

Thanks Captain!

Free for the Good Stuff

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Dear Captain,

Longtime lurker, first time LW. Thanks for providing such a safe, thoughtful & humorous space for thinking through life’s issues.

My ex-stepfather (XSF) is elderly, ill & failing. I foresee him dying sometime in the next year or so. I do not wish to go to his funeral, but I believe many members of my family will view that decision as unforgivable. Allow me to elaborate:

XSF & my mom were married for about 13 years, but since their divorce they have had an on-again, off-again relationship. I lived with them both for six years, then left the state for college & grad school, never to return. He was financially generous (more than my bio father was able to be at the time), but that is the only positive thing I can say about him. My mom, who had worked since age 12 in a difficult industry, stopped working when I was in high school. XSF paid for everything: a beautiful home, clothing, vacations, etc. I accepted these things without question. He paid for half of college-I paid for the other half. I went on to borrow for grad school, pay for my own wedding & home, etc.

Unfortunately , XSF was and continues to be unapologetically misogynistic, racist, homophobic, alcoholic, verbally abusive, and paranoid. I grew up in a culture which actually embraces many of these qualities, & while I fled the state out of gut instinct to get the hell out of there, it was only with time & growth that I recognized that I needed to get him out of my life. This was pretty easy to accomplish because even when living in the same house, our relationship was managed through my mom. To give you a flavor of our relationship: XSF is fond of nicknaming people: one of mine was “Mouse” because I (uncharacteristically) was always so quiet around him. Another of my nicknames was “Sprout”, in reference to my developing breasts. Need I say how utterly impossible it was for me to have a real relationship with this man? My younger brother has always had a better relationship with him, since XSF had no other sons & my brother was eager to bond with a father figure (bio dad was largely absent).

Since the divorce XSF has made no effort to contact me. My long-suffering stepsisters (with whom I never lived) made minimal efforts as well, which was fine with me. At the time, it seemed to me that if my mother was allowed to divorce & not speak to him, I was also entitled to do so. It was a huge relief to not spend time with him during my brief visits home.

During times they have been back together, I made a few gestures (some big, some small) to reach out to him & establish at least a civil relationship, for Mom’s sake. She convinced me to invite him to my wedding (to a man of a race he frequently mocked while I was growing up!), because they were once again dating, & she wanted him there. Fortunately, he behaved civilly.

Since XSF has become more frail, my mom has become one of his primary supports: cooking, shopping, cleaning, etc. He is rude to health care providers, refuses basic supports such as physical rehab, & continues to be verbally abusive to his daughter & (probably) my mom. In short, he has not changed. Despite this, during a recent social event with friends, Mom characterized XSF as “a good stepfather” to my brother & me.

I fear that when the time comes, I will go to the funeral out of a wish to support Mom, be a “good” daughter, avert conflict, “pay my respects”, etc. I want to have a preemptive conversation with Mom, saying that I think it will be more awkward for everyone if I attend. She tends to believe in doing what is socially expected, rather than being true to oneself, but she fully knows how strongly I feel about XSF. I know she will be sad if I don’t go, but I think that sadness is really grief about the relationship XSF & I never had.

I guess what I need is a succinct way to explain to friends & family why I am not going, without coming across as a bitter, ungrateful, disrespectful grudge-bearer. They all know he is a jerk, but “he gave you so much!” In a culture where the standards for male behavior are so low, he is viewed as a “Good Ol’ Boy”. But….I just can’t.

Thanks ,

(She-her pronouns)

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Dear Captain,

This is a pretty low-stakes question, but I was wondering if you and your lovely commenters could help me out here? I’m a young, disabled woman working in a hyper-competitive, male-dominated, rank-obsessed industry. I recently started a job at a new company, and in my department there’s a potluck every fortnight at one of the senior people’s houses. It’s pretty much expected that you attend — which I have pretty mixed feelings about, because, like, what if you have kids or other home responsibilities? or if you don’t drive and don’t want to have to rely on your possibly-drunk co-workers for rides? — but they do seem to be good fun and are a great networking opportunity.

Because of my disability, I can’t stand up for long periods of time, and I have pretty severe fatigue issues, so cooking is not in the cards for me. So, the night before the potluck, I go to a posh grocery store, buy some super nice potluck-appropriate food in a reasonable quantity, and bring that. Sounds good, right?

Nope. Basically everybody has told me that I should be bringing something home-made, with comments ranging from discreet, well-intentioned warnings to super-aggressive in-your-face attacks.

I have so many issues with this, including: (1) most of the food is made by my co-workers’ stay-at-home wives, not them themselves, grr patriarchy, (2) a lot of the home-cooked food is legitimately terrible, whereas my grocery store stuff is at least tasty and unlikely to give anyone food poisoning.

I don’t want my disability to become general knowledge, I probably shouldn’t rage against the patriarchy, and I don’t want to insult anyone else’s food, but I need a script to get people to stop being weird about this. With the people I outrank I typically make a joke about how all I do is work all the time, but I don’t actually like doing that, because promoting overwork is bad and also I’m female and super-young for my rank so making a big deal out of my job title is a whole new level of awkward. And otherwise I just try to change the subject? But that’s not really working?


Making lasagne is not in my job description

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Dear Captain,

This seems like a very minor thing to be asking for help with, I know. But I feel like even if there’s no solution to my “problem”, getting the input of a bunch of neutral parties (particularly neutral parties with solid understandings of boundaries) would make me feel better, and if you feel like this letter is a waste of time you can just delete it, no harm done.

I do not own pets, for a number of reasons. I feel like it shouldn’t matter, but in case it does, in no particular order those reasons are: 1) My husband is deathly allergic to cats/dogs. 2) My husband very explicitly does not want pets even if he wasn’t allergic. 3) I have had pets in the past and found that no amount of wanting to be a good pet owner changes the fact that I am not a good pet owner (I am not patient, consistent, or stable enough). 4) I am an extremely high strung (or anxious) person, and being in a constant state of panic (did pet just eat something they shouldn’t have!? Is pet sick!? What if their collar slips off while I’m walking them!? If I go to a dog park, what if pet runs away and I can’t catch them!?!) would be awful for both me and the pet. 5) I’ve now lived for a couple of years with no pets, and oh my goodness, I have learned to love not having fur everywhere so much.

I have 2 adult sisters, who have 2 dogs each. They are very much the “this dog is my baby” sort of people. They consistently ask me to care for their dogs while they go on vacation (which happens several times a year each). Years ago, I almost always acquiesced. When I moved in with my husband, however, I mostly stopped agreeing to pet-sit. I cannot bring the dogs to my place because my husband is allergic, so pet-sitting always requires driving 30 minutes across town, several times a day, or straight up living at their house for however many days they’re gone. In addition, these dogs are not well trained. The dogs are extremely food aggressive, they get into fights, they beg, they jump on people, they destroy furniture, etc. etc. etc. Hiring a professional would be too expensive, they say, although I also feel like part of the problem may be that a professional would not accept caring for aggressive dogs.

I have made it clear that I do not want to pet-sit. But they keep asking, piling on the guilt any time I say no. I am, at this point, known for being a terrible, selfish sister because I won’t take care of their dogs. I do not work, so they point out that they’re willing to pay me, and I have plenty of free time, so there’s no reason I can’t pet sit for them. I have turned them down several times this year, but yesterday my sister came over to “catch up and chat”. Turns out, that was just an excuse to ask me in person to pet sit for 4 days while she and my other sister went to Vegas together for a holiday vacation. She knew I wouldn’t be able to say no in person, and she was right. Now I am pet sitting next week. I guess I have a few questions for you and your commenters: Am I in the wrong for turning them down just because I do not want to pet-sit, when they’ve offered to pay me and I do have the free time ? Obviously I and my husband are pretty biased and think I shouldn’t have to regularly take on responsibilities because someone else has pets, but it seems like every pet owner we know disagrees and thinks we are just selfish, lazy people. (As a side note, I have no problems helping them with non-pet related things; I regularly edit resumes and help with landscaping projects and help decorate for parties, so it’s not like I’m refusing to ever lend a hand with anything.) Are there any scripts you could recommend for saying ‘no’ to favors for family, especially when saying no means potentially ruining major plans for them? And finally, is this just a thing I need to get over and stop being annoyed at (people are always going to ask for favors you don’t want to do, and you’re always going to be considered the bad guy if you turn them down, too bad, so sad, stop complaining)?

Thank you so much for your time,
Not a Willing Pet Sitter

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Dear Captain Awkward,

How is a good way to let a friend know that her mildly homophobic comments are hurtful to me before I move in with her?

My friend Ella would probably be offended if she knew her comments come across as ‘othering’ to me (I’m a bisexual woman, not yet fully out to her, and only newly out to myself). Nonetheless, the things she says make me feel I can’t be fully myself around her.

When Ella heard I’d been on a date with a woman, she grilled me about my sexuality at a point I was feeling uncertain myself and unready to talk.

Now when we go clubbing, Ella will grind up against me, pant against me and generally invade my personal space in a way I don’t like while looking at all the men near us. It makes me feel like she’s trying to ‘put on a show’ to attract men, and I don’t like being a part of it.

Ella has often said things that make me think she views sexuality as very binary – a female friend of ours was once in a three year relationship with a woman, and is now with a man. Ella immediately dismissed the previous relationship as “just experimenting”.

Ella has low self esteem and is dealing with anxiety right now, which is why she wants me to live with her. She’s a nice person and I think it could be really fun to live together, but not if these things that make me uncomfortable continue.

How can I respectfully and kindly assert what I need, Captain Awkward?

Sincerely yours,

Not in Kansas anymore

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