saying no

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?

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.


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.


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!


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


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


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)


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?

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.


Not your supervisor

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It appears to be Dude-B-Gone week at Captain Awkward Enterprises. Also, re: confusing post numbering (850/849), sometimes I write a bunch of answers at once and schedule them ahead of time and they post out of order. We’ll carry on somehow!

Dear Captain,

I’ve found myself in a weird situation and I’d love to have your advice. I’m a graduate student and I have a visual impairment (I’m not in the US, but if I were I would qualify as legally blind). A few months ago I happened to meet a fellow graduate student at my institution who has a similar disability. I thought he was an interesting person and I was excited to meet a fellow student who shared that aspect of my experience, since most of my friends are sighted.

We arranged to meet up for coffee. I thought this was just as potential friends, but during the course of the conversation it became clear that finding a girlfriend is very important to him and that he saw it as more of a date. He also did a few things that made me quite uncomfortable: for instance he insisted on sitting very close to me and on touching and hugging me (I really don’t like being touched by anyone I don’t know well, partly because like many Blind/visually impaired people I often have to deal with strangers trying to touch me when I’m out in public places). Shortly after this he asked me on a date. I said no, but he kept asking and I did agree to meet him for lunch a few weeks later. I was hoping I could make it clear this time that I was only interested in being friends, but the same thing happened with the touching, and the whole event had a very date-y vibe even though that was not what I wanted.

After this I decided I didn’t want to see him again. Fortunately I had never given him my phone number, so I simply unfollowed him on social media and stopped replying to his messages and emails, hoping he would take the hint and stop sending them. They didn’t stop coming, though, and some of them were quite odd – for instance, he sent one asking who the men in some of my Facebook photos were (mostly members of my family and male friends, but I suppose he couldn’t have guessed that). On two occasions he also turned up at the place where I volunteer and hung around outside waiting to talk to me. Kind fellow volunteers dealt with him on both occasions, but I was still sufficiently freaked out by this to unfriend and block him on social media.I think this was probably an overreaction, since I never told him I didn’t want to be in touch and he may have been understandably confused.

Following this we had a few weeks of silence, but then I received an email from him on my university account, asking if he had offended me, and if anything was wrong with our ‘friendship’. It’s clear from the email that he has a lot more invested in our relationship than I do and that he sees us as close friends, whereas I would characterise us as barely more than acquaintances, as we’ve only met five times in person, counting the coffee date, the lunch and the turning up at my volunteering place. That strikes me as an unhealthy imbalance and frankly it would make me want to stop seeing him even without the odd behaviour which went before.

Am I obliged to respond to this email and reassure him that he’s done nothing wrong? What, if anything, do I owe this man? I know I should have been clearer about not wanting to date him and about cutting off contact. I’m sure he never intended to do anything creepy, although it’s clear that he is isolated and his social skills are very poor. I want him to be able to expand his social life and be happier, but on the other hand his apparent inability to recognize boundaries makes me want not to be in touch with him. I’m worried that if I don’t respond to him he will interpret this as rejection and lose the confidence he needs to make more friends. Aside from that, I feel like I’ve failed to show solidarity with him as someone who shares his disability. What should I do?

Yours in confusion,
I Volunteered, But Not For This

P.S. I am a woman and use ‘she/her’ pronouns.

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Hey Capt,

I find myself in a delicate situation regarding my best friend of 2 yrs Julie (23f) and her fiance, Jon (23m).

Julie met Jon and became engaged to him this past summer; they’d been seeing each other 4 monthes in a LDR. There had been many issues (Jon was unwilling to commit for awhile, struggles with alcohol, has bipolar and a dark past), so there side-eyeing and lost friendships over the course of everything. At this point, the dust has settled. Julie and I are still close, but there are few she’d call close friends.

Before she met Jon, we were at that comfortable “let’s hang out pretty much everyday in sweatpants or meet up between classes” type of friendship. I figured that we’d get much less time together once she started dating; I wasn’t expecting the engagement, but I tried to be as supportive as I could. She tells me often that she appreciates my support, though I have expressed concerns re: Jon’s past, issues, etc. I’ve read all your darth articles quite a few times.

However, it’s getting hard to do this because almost every time we have plans beyond coffee, Jon is suddenly suicidal or “worried he’s in a bad place” or “more down than usual”.

Julie is very sensitive to this, and will promptly cancel with many apologies. I’m fine rescheduling coffee or lunch. When it’s a day plan though (birthday party, sleepover,etc), that bothers me. Add that to the fact that she’ll be texting with him because he’ll feel ignored otherwise, and I don’t know how to approach this.

It feels cruel to suggest she not tend to her partner when they’re going through a hard time ,but it bugs me that his hard times always fall on days where we’re supposed to be having plans, It also makes me feel like I can’t express frustration or hurt, because how selfish is it to want to see your friend when their SO is in a bad place?

It’s gotten to the point that any time she bails, I can be sure Jon is the reason behind it. I want to support her, and be there if she needs me, but I also want to be able to schedule time without constantly being trumped by Jon’s emotional issues.

What should I do, and how can I talk about this without making her defensive?

I Miss My Friend

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