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saying no

Hi there,

I have a bit of an odd quandary. I am divorced, and I divorced young. My relationship was a very bad and abusive one, and that was a dark time in my life. I have gotten therapy, learned a lot about myself, and I think I’m doing well. It’s daily work to deal with lingering issues, but I typically feel most comfortable addressing those to my therapist or close family who knew me then. It’s intensely personal to me, and revisiting it in casual conversation isn’t something I’m interested in doing. I have PTSD, and it coming up usually sets me up for a good day of feeling anxious and awful.

I’ve since moved across the country and none of my new friends really know much about my divorce or that I was ever married. I don’t hide it, and a more in-depth peruse of my social media probably holds some clues, but I don’t proactively bring it up. I’m an age where many of my friends are getting married and navigating serious relationships for the first time, so it’s very plausible and even likely that none of this ever happened. People assume that (I never lie), and I don’t correct them.

That said, I’m fortunate that some of these relationships are becoming closer, which raises two issues:

1. It is normal to not tell a minor acquaintance your life story, but it is starting to feel like a purposeful omission to people whom I see often and confide in me. I know I’m not obligated to share it, but occasionally they’ll find out and when they do there’s a bit of “whoa, that was a pretty big thing to leave out.” I stammer and ineffectually mumble some sort of half-apology, but I have no idea how to even start. I don’t feel like I need to apologize, but I always feel like I kind of lied, even though I didn’t.

2. I’ve been asked, directly, a few times – “were you once married?” and I don’t want to lie. I also, however, want to be clear that it isn’t something I enjoy talking about without disclosing more about the relationship than I’d like to.

I want to set a boundary, I don’t want to lie, and I don’t want to sensationalize. I feel like I need to give a reason why I never said anything, but that gets into self-disclosure I’d rather avoid (“Yes, I was, but it was a difficult and painful time and not something I talk about” generally creates pity and curiosity and gossip and more prying, all awful.) Not giving a reason or changing the subject generally creates a weird, stilted conversation or doesn’t adequately communicate that it’s off-limits so then it comes up again.

I need a polite way to communicate that this is not a secret but not something I talk about without making it into a bigger deal than it is and not making anyone feel as though I’ve slighted them by leaving that out. I’d love to have scripts for either of these instances because right now I’m just floundering, it’s awkward, and it’s starting to become the elephant in the room, and I’m sad I can’t think of something better to say.

Thank you so much. She/her pronouns.

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It’s been a long time since we’ve looked into the abyssthe internet’s unfiltered Id… the words that people type into their search engine windows in order to find this place. Good news, Patreon contributors met the first monthly goal, and this will be coming back as a monthly feature. Shall we dance?

1. “Colleagues surprised I got promoted.”

And they point out their surprise? To you? Depending on my comfort level & closeness with the people in question and the likelihood that they’d have the grace to be embarrassed, I might say something like “Thanks for that astounding vote of confidence, Marian!” to help everyone laugh off the moment. I might also call no attention to it and pretend I didn’t notice, based on the fact that sometimes people have weird reactions to things when they first find out about them and do better when their first reaction can be private.

Now, if they keep bringing it up after that first announcement, like, “I was so surprised they promoted you and not Andy…” – it’s time for a wicked smile and “And yet…here we are!” (+ subject change).

2. “Can I ask neighbours not to be on my drive.”

Yes? “Please don’t use my drive, thank you.

3. “My mother died without resolving our strained relationship or saying thank you.”

We all die in the middle of something unfinished.That SUCKS and I’m sorry for the loss of your mom and for the loss of the chance to make things right between you. It sucks to be grieving someone when you’re bouncing back and forth between grief and anger and regret.

I hope you will honor your mother’s memory and your own experiences with your mom (the ones that made you need to keep your distance) someday when some more time has gone by. Write her a letter of all the things you wanted to say to her, but didn’t. Write the letter back to yourself that you wish that she would send you, the one where she says, “Thank you” and “I’m sorry” and “I understand.

Be kind to yourself.

4. “Why would a man tell you he will take you out for coffee once in a while, even after breaking up?”

Maybe this man has some idea that you’ll still be friendly. Only he knows for sure, so before you say yes you might ask him: “Hey, was there something in particular you wanted to talk about over coffee?”

Before you go, ask yourself:

Do you want to go out for coffee?

Do you want to stay in contact, or would you benefit from a clean break?

Do you want to go even if it doesn’t really mean anything special about your future together?

5. “People who care about grad school too much.”

Duuuuuuuude. Seriously. What is it with grad school, being all expensive and intense and competitive and interesting and stuff.

(I have no good answer, sorry. Grad school: It’s absorbing.)

6. “She says, ‘Not now, sorry’ when I want to talk with her.”

My best guess is that she is busy and doesn’t want to talk right now.

Try saying, “Ok, let me know when it’s a good time” and then going and doing something else with your time for a while.

In a good [romance][friendship][artistic collaboration] she’ll come find you when she’s ready.

7. “My brother is an insufferable ass.”

You can’t choose your family. Can you limit the amount of time you spend in his company?

8. “If my boyfriend forces me to change my appearance”

Is this one of those fill-in-the-blank scenarios?

“If my boyfriend forces me to change my appearance, and it is not a matter of life and death because we are on the run from an international spy ring, then I should dump him for being a controlling jerk!”

People who “force” you to change important things about yourself are not on your side, Young Googler. Please love yourself enough to get away from this person.

9. “Why is my boyfriend really aggressive about me wearing makeup?”

The simplest explanation is that he does it because he is a controlling asswipe. See #8. He is literally trying to control your face. 

10. If a family member shuns you, do they ever think of you?

Maybe? Sometimes? Without action on their part, it’s hard to know.

11. “I found my grandmother’s sex toys.”

Yes! GET IT, GRANNY!

My best suggestion is: Put them back where you found them and act the way you’d like Nana to act if she stumbled across your sex toys (i.e. “quiet” & ” discreet”).

12. “‘Sorry I can’t date you’ message.”

I like replacing “can’t” with “don’t want to” or “am not interested,” if you feel safe to do so. “Can’t” implies circumstances beyond your control, like, “I would totally date you, but this tornado just spirited me away to the land of Oz, so I can’t.” That little window of ambiguity can send a persistent lover into a tizzy of looking for ruby slippers that will click you back to Kansas when really you just want them to leave you in this Technicolor world where it’s not the Great Depression. Whereas, “It’s nice of you to ask, but I am not interested in dating you” is clearer and more specific.

13. “Are all bad girls confident?”

Marie Claire’s former pillock-in-chief Rich would have it so. I need a better definition of terms. What is a ‘bad girl,’ exactly?

14. “How many times should I invite myself to stay as a house guest?”

This is my personal house-guesting code as a 42-year-old white American lady with a job. It does not have to be your personal house-guesting code.

With a close friend or family member,

Where I have a good history of reciprocity,

And I trust them to say an honest “no” if it’s not a good time or whatever,

And the dates of my travel are pretty well-defined (nobody likes “sometime” hanging over their head) and short (1 night – a few days);

…I may ask once or twice or every now and again. More likely when I know that the hosts have a guest room and a habit of saying “Please come visit, we have a guest room and we’d love for you to stay with us!,” in which case, they have invited me and “inviting myself” is more about suggesting a specific time. Much less likely when there is no guest room or guest bed and I’d be taking up someone’s main living space. Not at all likely when the prospective hosts are brand-new parents of a baby or enmeshed in other big deal life stuff. Definitely not if a suggestion of staying there is met with any hesitation; one may askIs it okay if I stay in your guest room for a few days?” but one must not try to convince the hosts.

This was all more fungible when I was 25 and used words like “crash” and traveled more internationally and AirBnB did not exist.

15. “How to ask friends not to invite themselves over?”

“Hey, friend, I love your company, but when it comes to my space, can you wait until I invite you over? Thank you.”

16. “I don’t want to be friends with ex-boyfriends.”

You don’t have to be!

17. “A message to write to a friend to tell some one they are of value to you even if they have gone broke.”

“Hello, friend, I know times are really hard right now. I just wanted to say that you are important to me and I’m hoping things get better for you. Can I fix you dinner sometime soon? I’d love to see your face.” 

18. “What is Captain in sex?”

If you’re lucky, there’s a recorder solo.

19. “Should teenage boys have sex toys?”

I’m neither a parent nor a legal expert, but my instincts say, “Why the hell shouldn’t all teenagers have access to information & resources to make themselves feel really really good in their own company?” I wish to hell I had grown up with Scarleteen and a waterproof, adjustable-speed vibrator.

20. “Do therapists want to hear how their former patients are doing?”

People in the helping professions sow a lot of seeds without expecting to see the blossoms, so, I say “yes” if you had a good relationship and the information is conveyed in a medium that doesn’t demand work from them. Think of it the way you’d write to a former teacher you wanted to thank in a short note, like, “Dear Therapist, I just wanted to let you know that things are going better at work thanks to your suggestions for managing my time and anxiety better. I hope all is well with you, thank you again for your help. Sincerely, Your former patient.” If you find yourself generating paragraph upon paragraph of text, maybe make an appointment?

21. “Stop meddling and being a matchmaker!” 

Yeah, knock it off, Emma! 

22. “Me and boyfriend break up because we never have sex.”

Breakups are HARD, even when they are the right thing to do. I hope you are both happier with a little time and distance, and may your next partner(s) be more compatible with you in that way.

23. “Should it bother me that my husband wants me to party with alcohol & cocaine knowing I have seizures and interactions with medications could be harmful?”

I find it useful to replace the word “should” in talks I have with myself. When we’re talking about feelings or big decisions, what “should” happen is not so helpful. The better question is “what IS happening?”

“Should it bother you…”

==>

DOES it bother you? It sounds like it bothers you. (It bothers me!) And, since you are the sole boss of what substances you put in your body, you are the sole decider of what risks are unacceptable for you. “Husband, I don’t want to ‘party’ with you. I don’t want to have a seizure or a bad interaction with my meds. Please stop asking me.”

24. “My roommate leaves the bathroom door open when he goes to the bathroom and showers.”

“Dude, close the door!” (+ open the window!)

 25. How to get your boyfriend to look after himself?

Any answer I give is going to generate an automatic “But it’s more complicated than that!” or “But I love him!” response, and rightly so, but I’m going to talk to my younger right now and let everyone listen in. If it’s not applicable then it’s not applicable.

Hey, Young Jennifer, I’m so sorry, the Time Machine did not get me back here in time to stop you from falling in love with [Hot But Troubled Boy]. I had the dial set for 1990, which is why I have all these catalogues for women’s colleges and a bass guitar in here with me, but I can see that I’m a couple years late.

I know you love Boy. His skin feels like magic and when you touch each other it feels like the microscopic space between you is filled with stardust. He smells like two angels fucking. You can stay up all night talking and fixing the world together. You are unstoppable…except for when he is very stoppable.

Boy has a condition called depression. You have it, too, and you should go and get checked out for that. Where I come from you didn’t figure that out for another 5-7 years, and I can’t help but wonder what would be different for me/us if you knew. Depression doesn’t mean you’re unloveable, it just means that it can take medical help and concentrated effort to manage the condition. When Boy hates himself, and stops going to work or class or washing his clothes or wanting to do anything with you, when he has mood swings and gets dark and mean, when he tells you that he doesn’t deserve you and wants you to go away, and then the next day tells you that he’ll die if you leave him,  it’s at least partly a manifestation of an illness. It’s not your fault, it’s not something you are doing wrong or not doing enough of. What that also means is that you cannot love him out of it. You can’t fix him or fix it for him. He’s got to do it himself.

What I know now that you don’t know is that the time you are spending, tidying his space for him, worrying about him, talking to your friends about what to do about him, trying to coax him to eat or shower or go see a movie with you, wondering what he’s thinking about, making sure you always look pretty when you see him, keeping track of his schedule and his deadlines, processing the stuff he says to you in and out of his mood swings, taking care of him, trying to lay your love and your body down into all his cracks and fill them, time spent biting your tongue not wanting to make him sad or angry…this is time that you will never get back. You are stealing these years from yourself and offering them up to him, to no one’s benefit.

I know, you love him. I know.

And I have unfair knowledge, because I know stuff that you can’t know now, that maybe you wouldn’t have ever learned if you didn’t try and fail at this.

But I’m from the future, and if I could tell you what to do right now I’d tell you to have one conversation with him where you ask him to seek help for his troubles and to start being nicer to you. If he does? Great, maybe you can have that love story you’re so sure this is going to be. If he won’t? Especially the part about being nice to you? Then I’d tell you to bail. It’s too late for the women’s colleges, but it’s not too late for the bass. Take it, find some other awesome women, start a terrible punk band, and use all the painful things he’s said to you as material for lyrics. Hold out for someone who is always kind to you, someone who doesn’t need to be fixed or parented.

P.S. In 1997, when your friend I. offers you a chance to work at her internet startup but you’re going to take the job at the non-profit instead? WORK FOR I, FOOL. She’s gonna sell that thing to Yahoo right before the crash in 2000, and you can donate your millions of dollars to the non-profit.

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Dear Captain & Crew,

This is a question about Xmas boundaries + the ever-awkward subject of money. I know, it’s completely ridiculous to be worrying about Xmas in July… I don’t want to think about Xmas before Turkey Day! However, Husband’s family starts planning Xmas far in advance, and they’ve started poking us about Xmas plans alread. Cue holiday anxiety!

After a blow-up at Xmas time 5 years ago by MIL (who is generally very sweet and kind), I have become very anxious about holiday plans with Husband’s mother and his extended family. MIL insists on spending waaaaay too much money on us, especially at Xmas time. For last year’s extended family visit, MIL bought our plane tickets ($2K+) before I’d agreed to the dates, paid for the rental car Husband and I used ($500+), insisted on paying for all the meals, and bought everyone a ton of gifts.

MIL’s trend of insisting on covering all expenses makes me very uncomfortable and anxious. 3 years ago, we all agreed on a Secret-Santa arrangement for Husband’s family, and set a spending limit of $40. Although MIL agreed, she bought gifts for everyone and blew right past the $40 spending limit per person.

I am increasingly uncomfortable with how much money MIL is spending on me. While it’s her money (and her choice to spend it), I really dislike how she insists on paying for everything whenever we see her. I really want to speak up about it. However, because of my own “I want them to like me!” issues, I feel like my mouth is glued shut & can’t speak up in the moment. I also know that my Husband really doesn’t want me to “rock the boat” by contradicting his mother.

I’m reaching my wits’ end in this situation, and I’m hoping you can offer me some scripts. I want to find my voice again and have agency in this relationship.

My questions:
1) After setting spending-limit boundaries in advance, how do I enforce those boundaries in the moment when everyone (but me) is all “yay, gifts!” on Xmas day?

2) If I can’t speak up to MIL in the moment about #1, what can I say to her after the fact to gently+firmly express that all the money she’s spending on me is making me really really uncomfortable?

3) What can I say when we go out to eat and MIL insists on paying? (Saying “we’ll get the next one” doesn’t work because she stubbornly insists on paying at every meal).

4) What do I say to Husband when he pressures me to keep quiet about Xmas/general over-spending?

Signed,
Stressing and Exhausted about the Holidays Months in Advance (DAMMIT)

(she/her pronouns)

Hi Stressing,

I’m sorry, I don’t have good answers or scripts to your specific questions. You are already doing & saying the right things. I think your best choices going forward are:

Go. And go knowing what you’re in for, including too much money spent on you, awkward gifts, & her picking up every check. Go wholeheartedly and try to enjoy what there is to enjoy about your in-laws and the way they celebrate. After this many years, you are not going to change your Mother-In-Law. She already knows how you feel. You can refuse to accept the gifts, fight every restaurant check, make a point, etc. but she is still gonna roll how she rolls. Choose your battles (like, making travel arrangements around YOUR schedule). Let your husband take the lead in all interactions, bring a really good book with you, stick to your own spending limits, and peace out of looking for middle ground where there is none. When you feel uncomfortable, go for a walk or go to bed early to read or go to the movies by yourself for a little while and give yourself some space.

Vs.

Don’t go. Celebrate the holidays your way, according to your preferences & values. Create a holiday tradition of your own with just you and your husband. Be low-key and thrifty and quiet and relaxed. Visit your In-Laws another, less-gifty time of year. In the meantime, let the guilt-trips and the “It just won’t be Christmas without you!” furor and the prospect of too-expensive gifts sent in the mail wash over you for the next half a year.

My recommendation would be “Go sometimes as a gift to your spouse, don’t go sometimes as a gift to your own well-being.” Reminding yourself that it’s a choice will hopefully give you more feeling of control. You went last year, so this seems like a good year to respond to the questions about your plans with “We’re planning to stay put this year and do Christmas with y’all every other year.” This is your husband’s family, yes? Then let him be the one to deliver the news and sail his non-rocky vessel through the guilt-storms.

P.S. “It’s July, I haven’t decided yet/I’ll let you know when that changes” is a perfectly fine answer to all winter holiday inquiries btw. Leave out “It’s fucking July, WTF fam?” part for best results.🙂

 

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I should probably start off by saying that I come from a culture (one of many) where family ties are super close, and family members getting into your business is acceptable and if you complain about it you’re ungrateful and aggressive.

I am now going to be working in another country (my country of birth) for the summer, and my aunt and grandparents are also here, staying in their home. I’m living alone (hallelujah) in another apartment, but i go over there once in awhile to see my grandparents.

However, something very strange is happening. I’ve been on my own pretty much, or trying to be. My aunt, however, decides to accompany me back to my dorm whenever i leave their home, even though I do not ask her to do this. She also decided, unilaterally, that she would accompany me to meet the person I’m working for. So she came in and SAT IN THE MEETING, and she did all this at the speed of light, totally ignoring my attmepts to divert her and giving me no chance to say hey, maybe you don’t need to be here. The job is acutally an internship and has been in the works, and this was not my first impression on the person I’m working for, so I’m not as mortified as I would be. The interviewers are also from the same culture, and appeared to understand the dynamics of the situation, for which i’m thankful.

That’s not the weird part. The weird part is that on the way back, as we went our separate ways, she told me that I needed to be more independent. I had no idea how to respond, besides “uh, i’m perfectly capable of being independent, except when you all foist yourselves into things that don’t concern you.” This is a common pattern in my family – be overbearing and steamroll people, then proclaim that they are too dependent and can’t live on their own and NEED the intervention of people constantly trying to dictate things to them.

What i’m wondering is…..what on earth do i do here? If i object to their meddling it’s considered rude. If I accept their “help” without comment, they use it against me to claim that I need their help, when i never asked for it. What. The. Hell.

Signed,

Trapped in a Feedback Loop

Dear Trapped in a Feedback Loop:

I want to introduce you to my favorite word right now and it’s not “no” or “wow” or “really?” as you might suspect. It’s “okay” and I’ve found it useful whenever someone is projecting something onto me that isn’t really about me at all.

Family Member: “You really need to be more independent!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “If you don’t listen to my intrusive advice, terrible things will happen!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried that my stream of anxiety about you will actually come into being!

“Okay.”

Family Member: “I’m just worried our family won’t see it as a ‘real wedding’ if there is no religious aspect.” (True story, y’all)

“Okay.”

It’s a different version of “Sure, I’ll think about it!” where you will think about whatever it is (and then not do it if it doesn’t suit you). It’s a non sequitur/feigned agreement way of saying “I heard you and I am not particularly ruffled by your concerns but I also don’t want to fight with you.” It doesn’t work in every situation, but try it out and see what happens. Sometimes it stops the conversation in its tracks because there just isn’t any place to go from there.

Another way to deal with the “You need to be more independent (while I totally undercut your independence at every turn)” Auntie is to ask her what she means. “Auntie, I’d love to be more independent. Can you help me understand what you mean by that?” She’s not gonna gain sudden self-awareness about how her intrusion on your job meeting or walking you home every single night conflicts with that wish, but it might help to know her specific concerns and get an idea of her point of view about everything. Don’t argue with her when she answers you even if what she says is very unfair, just hear her out and tell her you’ll think about what she suggested. Then, over time (not during that particular conversation, just, when another intrusion comes up organically in a specific situation), gently and inexorably refer back to that conversation. “Auntie, I’ve really taken to heart your advice about being more independent, and I’d like to handle work meetings by myself.” “Auntie, you’re very kind to escort me home, but for the sake of being more independent, I’d like to go by myself tonight. Thank you!” Think of it as boundaries-Aikido, where you are channeling her aggression away from yourself. In that sense, the “Be more independent!” advice was a gift she gave you to help you start gently maintaining your boundaries. It gives you a way to say “Thank you, but thanks to your excellent guidance,  I got this!” and carve out some space in a constructive way rather than lapsing into a teenaged-sounding “QUIT SMOTHERING ME!” (even if that’s legitimately how you feel around these folks).

She will not disengage quietly, so know going in that it will probably take many attempts. Go slow and avoid ultimatums to the extent that you can.

 

Dear Captain Awkward,

I couldn’t find anything like this in your archives, so I hope you don’t mind me asking for advice.

I’m a 23 year old woman and I’ve never been in a relationship. It just doesn’t particularly interest me, and I identify as an aro-ace and I feel satisfied by all my platonic relationships. I have dated in the past, which has clued me in to things I like and don’t like, and I’ve also come to realise that dating people I don’t know makes me really uncomfortable with the thought that they will want things I don’t.

During school, my friends told me that a guy at a party had been hardcore flirting with me and I hadn’t noticed. I’ve been messaging him on and off since and we’ve gone on two dates, and I don’t know him well enough to want to go on more – I want to know him as a friend before we try more dates. The problem is, one of my friends is meddling to try and push me into a relationship with him, and I just want to run the other way. Despite not hanging out in five years of school, she’s asked me twice in two weeks to hang out and if I decline to save money, changes plans conveniently so that I don’t have to pay anything. I know she’s meddling, and another friend has admitted as such. All she’s doing is making me want to duck my head and hide – the more she pushes, the less I want to know this guy at all.

I don’t know how to tell this guy that I want to know him as a friend before we progress without hurting his feelings, and I really need to tell my friend to stop meddling because it makes me really anxious and uncomfortable, but I have no idea how. Do you have any advice or scripts that might help?

Thanks,
Happily Single and Being Pressured

Dear Happily Single:

Be blunt and let them know where you stand. It’s actually the respectful, friendly thing to do. You can do it!

“Friend, stop meddling. I will work things out with this guy in my own way and at my own pace. You’re driving me bonkers right now and making me feel pressured and annoyed. Knock it off!”

“Guy, I like hanging out with you and I’d like to maybe be friends. I don’t think I want to go on any more DATE-dates for the time being, though I will let you know if that changes. Is that cool?” 

“I’m happy being single.” (Repeat as necessary, to the point where the conversations become very boring because you default to saying this every time the topic comes up). “But won’t you give him a chance?” “I’m happy being single.” “But he was flirting with you!” “Cool. I’m happy being single.” “I just want you to be happy.” “Good! I’m happy being single.” “But I thought you liiiiiked me.” “I do like you as a friend. I’m happy being single.” “I just want to help you.” “But I don’t want help. I’m happy being single.”

You already know what I’m gonna say: I’m happy being single.

Guy and Friend(s) will feel whatever they feel. Maybe Guy won’t be interested in hanging out just as friends. Maybe Friend(s) will deny their meddling or be offended that you don’t want them to do more of it and be miffed for a while. Maybe they will get it and apologize and stop pressuring you. You can’t magically prevent people from doing stuff that annoys you, but you can have a conversation where you let them know how you feel about it. Stop silently accepting their annoying behavior. You are not “being mean” or “causing trouble” by stating your needs and boundaries. 

You got this!

 

 

Dear Captain Awkward:

This is (hopefully) behind me now, but I could use help understanding it, and strategies to prevent it happening again. I work at a small nonprofit, where I am a department of one. So I was excited when “Mark,” whom I’d met a few times at events related to my work, emailed saying he wanted to help out. He wanted to use us as a case study for his coursework, and while this was not an internship (his grade was dependent on his case study only) he was very clear that he wanted to help in other ways: “I have the time, and I’m happy to help with anything from IT work to giving rides.”

First sign of trouble was his frequently cancelling our weekly meetings, or showing up 15+ minutes late. Sometimes he’d text to cancel just minutes before our meeting time, after I’d already arrived. Sometimes his reasons sounded legit, other times it was “I don’t have much for us to talk about today so I’m gonna keep working on these overdue assignments instead.” I told him we could change the time or frequency of our meetings if he wanted but I didn’t appreciate having my time wasted. He promised to do better but nothing changed.

Sometimes Mark would take 5-6 days to respond to an email, then the response would be full of apologies, TMI excuses about his personal life, and EMPHATIC statements about how excited he was to be working with me and how great it was gonna be from now on!! As if he could dazzle me with so many exclamation points that I’d forget everything before. Then if I didn’t respond to his email immediately he’d start texting me, asking did I get his email?? It felt lopsided and annoying.

Then he no-call-no-showed for a big event where I’d assigned him an important role. After hearing nothing from him for two days I emailed saying I was disappointed and I needed to see more follow-through from him if we were going to keep working together. He apologized, then told me his marriage is falling apart, then said I also owed him an apology because sometimes I cancel our meetings and I don’t respond to his emails fast enough. I reminded him what I’d told him from the start: my work life is chaotic and there are lots of demands on my time, that for us to work together I needed him to be reliable, not another factor in that chaos. When we met next he again told me way, way too much about his marriage troubles. I tried to change the subject several times but probably not forcefully enough. The whole thing felt very weird.

Shortly after this I learned he’d also been flaking on commitments to our volunteer coordinator, leaving her scrambling to find a substitute. So the next time he was late for our meeting (texted 5 minutes before start time saying he’d be half an hour late, showed up 50 minutes late), I told him how frustrated I was with this pattern. He became indignant, said I’ve been patronizing toward him from the start, he’s a grown man (37!) and doesn’t need to be lectured, he’s in two grad programs and has a family and also I’m a hypocrite because I also cancel our meetings or am late sometimes. I told him he’d signed up to help me and my organization, and instead he’d been an ongoing source of stress for me. He began to complain about all the time I’d spent “venting” to him about my job. (Um, you mean, telling you about the ins and outs of my job, for you to write your case study? I thought that’s why you were here?) Then about how I picked this meeting place, which is far from where he lives. (Um…what?) There was no whining or beseeching in his voice. He was angry. I cut things off there, then later sent a restrained, professional email making it clear that our collaboration was over.

I’m left feeling very unsettled. I think it’s clear Mark has problems with boundaries and professionalism. (He also repeatedly demonstrated what I’d call a high degree of white fragility and entitlement, just shy of being outright racist. We are both white but in our context I still found it very weird that he would say such things to me.) But being called a hypocrite gnaws at me, no matter the source. We’re all lefty radicals and not big on hierarchy, but I still feel like he expected a degree of reciprocity that was not reasonable, and not how I said from the beginning things would need to be. But maybe I was treating him poorly by enforcing a power differential between us, just because I could? I need help getting my head around this so I can learn and move on, and also I’m wondering what I can do to nip this kind of thing in the bud if it happens again. Without being an authoritarian asshole about it. FWIW I am a woman and 5 years younger than Mark.

Sorry so long. Cut as needed.

Signed,

Not your supervisor

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