Blanket statement: Friendships have to be able to withstand boundary-setting and communications that certain behaviors are not cool, like “You are hurting my feelings” or “That thing you did is not okay, could you stop?” If you are always biting your tongue when the other person hurts your feelings, what you have is not a friendship.

Example #888:

Ahoy Captain,

(Note: I am girl and use she/her pronouns. Also, I changed all my friends’ names).

So I’ve been having some problems with a friend, Jasper (also female). She’s been snapping at me more than usually, especially over little things ( saying “Your laugh really annoys me” and “Please stop singing. If you can pronounce this, don’t even bother trying to learn it.”). This criticisms have gotten so frequent that I feel like I need to stay completely silent all the time, lest I stand on a landmine.

She also never answering any of my messages, even though she talks with our other friends all the time on Skype. I then have to call her for any confirmations, which she snaps at me for and demands I keep it to texts (which she rarely answers). It got so bad one time, because I was essentially stuck at her house till 9 at night, waiting for an answer to texts. Meanwhile, she had picked up a couple of our buddies and they were hanging out in town, playing Pokemon Go. I thought this would change things, but she would still ignore my texts when I want to plan things.

My friends, Skellington and Steven, have basically told me that this is getting too much. Steven even said, “The last time we hung out with you and Jasper, I felt so awkward. It was like I was only invited just to watch her tear you down.” The only reason why they can’t speak out if because they can’t drive and usually Jasper is their ride.

I started taking measures to distance myself from Jasper, but a part of me really does hope we can reconnect in better, healthier terms. I have blocked her on everything (except her phone number because she never texts me) and I’m not gonna hang with her for awhile. I also started reconnecting with friends I use to have before I got completely absorbed by Jasper. I am building a team me around me (which already consists of my mom, Skellington, and Steven).

So what I really want, Cap, is a script for when I finally confront Jasper. I really do want to connect with her, but I know I need to tell her what she did was not right.I want to try to mend the fences before I have to resort to possibly burning a bridge. Can you help find the words to say to a toxic friend?

Sincerely,

Lapis Lazuli

Dear Lapis,

You are doing all the right stuff to take care of yourself (minimizing contact with Jasper, prioritizing other friends). Keep doing that thing and maybe time will do its work and let the friendship end of its own accord.

I don’t know that you can “mend fences” with someone who constantly picks at you, not to mention someone who avoids you. It doesn’t sound like she likes you or wants to be friends anymore, I’m sorry. I think the tactic here is to keep ignoring her until/unless she actively seeks you out, at which point you could either try having a big talk along the lines of “Hey, I don’t like how you’ve been treating me, what’s going on with the constant belittling one second and avoiding me the next?” (at which point one or both of you admits that you’re not really feeling the friendship these days) or you could try waiting until she does or says something unkind and then saying “Hey, that’s pretty unkind, could you not?” and seeing how she reacts.

I think the big talk where you confront Jasper is unlikely to have the outcome you want (unless the outcome you want is extreme defensiveness & blame). A better strategy is to call out a specific instance of bad behavior in the moment. Someone you can make peace with is going to say some variant of “You’re right, I’m sorry” and then stop doing the unkind thing. Someone you can’t make peace with is going to explain how you are misinterpreting or exaggerating and how it’s not their fault anyhow. Even if it doesn’t help you right now with Jasper, maybe you could practice this skill a little bit and learn how not to go silent in the face of conflict. One way is to start speaking up more in low-stakes interactions, even if it’s just stating preferences – “Steven, I like that sweater on you!” “No thanks, Skellington, I don’t want anything to eat right now.” “That meeting time won’t work for me, could we do something earlier?” The more you practice, the easier it gets, and the less tongue-tied you’ll be in higher-stakes interactions, like when your supposed “friend” is telling you they are annoyed by your laugh and you can say, “Really? My laugh? Why would you think I want to know about that?”

Example #889:

Dear Captain,

I have become friends with (Friend), a work colleague, over the last few years while they’ve been getting through a domestic crisis (separation from an abusive partner), through which I have provided some support and advice. Friend’s life is improving gradually professionally as well as personally now, and a few months ago she was promoted to a position of greater responsibility at work.

Unfortunately she has responded to this new position by behaving like a real jerk from time to time – not to me (I’m not in her area), but to people who are under her, and in no position to defend themselves. She will tell me stories about things she’s done to people, machinating against them, yelling at them, and so on. In the most recent one she yelled at someone over the phone at some length, who had made a minor and unintentional error. She tells these stories clearly because she’s proud of herself; she sees herself as standing up to bullies in these situations. She has no idea, as far as I can tell, that she is behaving badly.

I understand how her background in a lengthy abusive relationship would predispose her to be confused about what “standing up for yourself” really looks like, at the same time as it would make her really want to do that. But in fact she is behaving abusively herself, now that she’s got enough power to be able to do so.

I’m never around when these things are happening, to intervene; she tells me later. You could argue that it’s none of my business, but it is my business, in that she is telling me, and in that I am beginning to feel as if I don’t want to be her friend anymore if she’s going to be abusive to people who can’t defend themselves.

What do I say? How do I conduct an intervention here? Or do I slide gracefully into the woodwork and just stop being available to see her?

Yours,

self-righteous and judgmental church lady

Dear Church Lady,

If you were this person’s supervisor, there would be material for a long talk or series of talks about management styles, how to motivate people, how to communicate when someone has made a mistake, and other “How To Be A Manager” topics. It sounds like she could use some training around all of this stuff, at very least. Perhaps that uncomfortable talk is coming in her near future. Let’s hope, for her direct reports’ sake!

Not being her manager, your reaction can be less about “documenting incidents for HR” or “finding the teachable moment” and more about “being an appalled human being,” for instance:

  • “I don’t know how to react to this story; it doesn’t present you in a good light.”
  • “Wow, that seems like a really harsh reaction to an innocent mistake by (employee).”
  • “Wow, it sounds like you yell at these folks a lot. What’s that about?”
  • “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. Why are you telling me this?”
  • “Wow, that story is pretty uncomfortable. What does your manager say about how to handle things like that?”
  • “Am I missing some context here? It sounds like you are the one who is out of line.”
  • “How does (employee) react when you spoke to them that way?”
  • “How is it ‘standing up to bullies’ when you are the boss and the one with the power?”
  • “Wow, that story is also disturbing. Are you noticing a pattern here? This seems like way too much conflict for something so innocuous/simple.”

I would not bring up her recent personal relationship history or psychology or reasons you think this might be happening. That way lies Extreme Defensiveness Town, Population: There Is No Winning Any Arguments Here. Keep your response focused on the specific story she is telling you and the specific behaviors. Maybe float something like “There has been so much conflict in the stories you’ve been telling me lately. Have you thought about getting some management training or asking your boss to help you lessen the amount of conflict in your department? As your friend, and someone who knows your work well, I think you could use some support/some new tactics/to give people a break/some strategies for keeping your cool.

If this is how she treats her staff, you’re probably taking a trip to Defensiveness Town anyhow, so your question about fading into the woodwork is on point. Make yourself less available, and when you do see her, disengage from serious topics and inviting confidences & keep your conversations very light. It sounds like your friendship was very helpful to her during a difficult time in her life, but you are no longer wanting to serve as her chief work confidant. Do what you can to steer your conversations away from “Here is the dirt!” to “Seen Ghostbusters yet?

tl;dr If the person truly is your friend, engage directly with the crappy behaviors and trust that the caring you have for each other and your friend’s innate goodness will carry the day. “Not cool, friend” does not mean “I hate you!”

If they are not your friend (or their “goodness” is particularly “deep down” of late), engage anyway, and take the risk of a conflict that ends the friendship.

In any case, “appalled silence” is not working. It is too easily mistaken for assent.

 

 

 

Hi Captain,

(Pronouns, Her,She)

I changed my name two years ago. I changed both my first name and last name and removed my middle name. My previous name was fairly innocuous although it more obviously denoted my heritage (Irish). My current name is also fairly innocuous and my first name is also quite similar in many ways to my old first name.

Most of the people in my life have adapted very easily and respectfully to calling me by my new name.

My mom struggled but she mostly tries and sometimes does a mashup of my old and new names. I just remind her of my new name and she takes the reminder well.

I have a problem with my aunt though. She believes that I need to give her a good enough reason for why I changed my name before she will call me by my new name. My reasons are entirely for spiritual growth/soul thrill but most people are going to be weirded out by that so I just say because I feel the name suits me better as a person (which is also true).

She’s not someone who would be respectful of my spiritual beliefs anyway.

I just don’t know how to approach this claim that she needs to validate my reason of my name change! My reply at the time was a swift F you and EXIT SCENE LEFT THROUGH DOOR THAT DID NOT SLAM PROPERLY… but I would really like to wrap my head around it and be able to stand up for myself more calmly.

Thank you so much for your time whether you post or not!

Best,

Someone who loves my new name!

Dear New Name,

I don’t know how much you hang out with this aunt after the Day of The Unsuccessful Door Slam, but when you cross paths again, if your name becomes an issue again, try this:

I don’t know that there is a reason that will satisfy you. It was important to me to do it and it makes me happy to have done it. I don’t want to fight with you or keep having to justify a decision that’s mine to make. Do you want to have a relationship with me, New Name, or not?

If Aunt still refuses to call you by your name, then you know she’s chosen “or not.” It’s your human right to name yourself, and it’s a really hostile & rude thing to purposely and continually call someone by the wrong name.

I hope the next time you see her it all goes better.

 

 

Hi Captain!

I am hoping you can give me some scripts and tips regarding an incredibly awkward work trip that is approaching in about a month. I have been with my company for many years, but have obtained a promotion a year ago and am now remotely supervised. My boss also has another employee is in the same office as her, they have worked together longer, and seem to have a tight relationship, whereas I have only met my supervisor face to face three times. My former supervisor always gave me a lot of encouragement and feedback, but since my current supervisor is so far away, and she doesn’t give me much feedback, I feel like I have no read on how she feels about me or if she approves of my work.

My supervisor has worked hard to obtain a scholarship for an amazing multi-day training conference across the country for all three of us. She has also mentioned how important it is to develop relationships as a team during this time. It is possible that my co-worker’s sister, who works in the same field, may join us. My supervisor has let me know that due to funding restrictions, I will definitely be sharing a room with her, and all four of us may have to share a room. My supervisor is aware that I am an introvert and has joked that I should get as much alone time as possible before, since we may be all crammed into one room.

On top of this, I am terrified of flying and this is going to be a long trip and I can’t sleep on planes even with the anti-anxiety prescription I take when I fly. I tend to need more sleep than many people (nine to ten hours), and if I don’t sleep, I often get physically sick. The thought of the exhaustion of being with other people 24/7, being the odd one out when everyone else has established relationships, and trying to establish a professional relationships with everyone has sent my anxiety about this trip through the roof.

So I am asking advice on (1) how to recharge/complete self-care when there might not be any alone time, (2) good scripts to develop professional relationships, and (3) any tips on how to not completely break down physically and emotionally while traveling, since this is a professional trip and I really want to make a good impression. On the bright side, both my supervisor and co-worker seem like genuinely nice, kind human beings, so I expect them to be forgiving, but I still want to remain professional.
(she/her pronouns)

Sincerely,

Terrified of Trip

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Dear Captain,

I have been retraining/job searching for at least 2 years.

My psychiatrist expressed that it would great if I could help with filing and organization. This is something my previous job (that I RAN from, as to develop other skills) utilized my talent to the point of burnout.

In the past few months our office visits have been… bizarre. All of the regular staff is gone, and patients that I recognize are manning the desk.

While I have no problem with that at all (I have things to work out, no reason I can not be an admin) I am beginning to worry.

Last time I visited her as a patient my psychiatrist was the only person present, and has unofficially made texting our main form of communication.When I came in to speak about about job responsibilities (which we scheduled via text) my psychiatrist was disheveled and definitely not dressed for either visitors or a professional interaction. Her office is in her home, and she had probably just woken up, but it still took me aback.

I continue to receive text messages that I cannot make heads or tails of. Typically they are accusations or word salads that I cannot understand. I have mentioned that these messages scare me and think that whatever is happening sound more like a police matter.

I know something is up, but I care for my Psychiatrist because of the help they provided in my darker times.

What can I do to help? I don’t want to judge but this is causing me tons of anxiety.

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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.🙂

 

 

Hi Captain & Goat Lady,

My husband is a wonderful, smart, well-educated and hard working man.
We both have careers and make about the same amount of money at
separate jobs, but it might be worth it to note that I used some
connections to help him get the job he has today. He used to enjoy his
job very much, but over the last two years has come to loathe it
thanks to a terrible boss.

The problem is that he doesn’t think he can find another job. He’s not
very confident in himself and keeps pointing to how I “had to” help
him get this job in the first place. Yet he’s been promoted twice and
is clearly an asset to the company.

He’s hardly applied to anywhere, and the last time he sent out
applications he declined 2 of the interviews he got because he really
just wants to stay where he is, but have it get better.

It’s not getting better.

I love my husband and admire how dedicated he is to his work, but now
his hostility toward his job has become toxic. Every day he complains
about it, and I’m getting to the point where I don’t want to hear the
same things over and over again.

I want him to quit, to find something else — ANYTHING that will make
him happy. Even if it’s staying home for a while and job hunting. But
I know he feels a lot of pressure to contribute to the household,
while I’d rather tighten our belt for a while and make everyone happy.

He brings his negative attitude home, and it’s becoming difficult to
be around him sometimes. I’ve suggested therapy, but he shot that
down. I feel like I’m at the end of my rope.

How do I show my husband what a great person/worker he is? How can I
handle the constant negativity?

Thanks!

It’s awful that your husband is in this situation and it is also okay for you to hit your limit of how much you can be listener/cheerleader/career-coach around this one topic. Your husband doesn’t have to go to therapy, but he does have to find an outlet that is “not you” to deliver the daily download of complaints & process his feelings about his work situation. Whether that’s calling a friend, writing a diary made of Strongly Worded Letters that he never sends, a career coach, an online community where he get anonymous peer support, a daily run or swim or bike ride or after-work kickboxing session where he pounds out his frustrations, a hobby totally unrelated to work, or a daily session of cathartic blowing things up with a gaming controller is totally up to him. I don’t know what will make him feel better, but we do know that telling you about it all day every day is not making the situation at work better and it is also draining the life out of the time you spend at home.

Nothing’s going to happen overnight. It’s going to take a couple of serious talks and then some day-to-day boundary-setting  & reminders (& the ongoing discomfort that goes with that) before it gets better.

You’ve had Serious Talk #1, but if you want to try it again, it might look something like this:

You: “[Husband], you are so competent and talented & I believe in you utterly. I know you feel very stuck and frustrated by work, and I want you to know that if you need to [leave your job and take some time to regroup][work with a career coach][take a class to upgrade your skills][have some more time, space, & resources to pursue a hobby or side project] I will do anything I can to make that happen, including carrying the financial responsibilities for a while. In fact, let’s cut back on [expenses] for the next month or so and build up a financial cushion so that we have some peace of mind if you end up taking some time off later this year.

 

Husband:You are so good to me but in fact I suck also if I could just figure out how to to [change the thing that’s obviously not changing] it would be so perfect” (In other words, he will start to cycle through his current grievances and reservations in an all-too-familiar way).

You: [interrupting the cycle before it gets going]Okay, I just want you to know that the offer is open. Can you put some time into thinking about it? 

Serious Talk #2: 

The way this has gone down in my house in the past couple years only less coherent and with a lot of crying:

Me, to him:Babe. BABE. Did you realize that you come home every day and rant for hours about work, sometimes using the exact same words in the exact same order as the day before? I have never seen you so unhappy and also the ranting is freaking me out and making me super anxious – I DON’T EVEN WORK THERE, WHY DO I HAVE TO HATE EVERY SECOND OF YOUR JOB WITH YOU? I can’t take it. You have GOT TO find someone else to talk to about this and another way to manage it, because I CANNOT listen to this every single night.

Him, to me:I don’t care what you do next, but you have GOT to quit that job. I have been listening to the same rants about adjuncting for 4+ years now and it’s not going to get better. It grinds you down and makes you crazy and you have to stop. Just stop.” 

He has long since quit that job and I’m still an adjunct professor so the end results have been mixed here obviously but the message WAS delivered that there is a limit to how much we can each listen to the same exact cycle of complaints about work. Either change the situation or find a way to put up with the situation; whatever you decide, find another outlet for processing the situation.

If you want to adapt this in a less “freaked out/at wits end/YELLING!” way, try this:

You:[Husband], I know work is terrible lately and I’m sorry your day/week/sleep was ruined by [AssBoss] again. But right now, we’re not at work, we’re at home, and I need us to set some limits on how much we talk about work at home. Is there [a friend you could call][ a way you could write down your frustrations and try to get them out of your system?]” 

Or: “[Husband], that sounds really frustrating, I’m so sorry you’re dealing with that. I’m going to stop you there, though, because you’ve told me all of this before and you already know what I’m going to say. I’m so sorry, but I’m out of bandwidth for talking about work stuff today.”

After you say stuff like this, it will very likely be awkward for a little while. You will have just violated the unwritten rule that partners should be each other’s sounding boards, and you will have disrupted a ritual that has become “normal” in your marriage. It might provoke a shame cycle [I am not good at anything/why are you even with me/I can’t do anything without you] or a why-can’t-you-be-more-supportive cycle [I listen to YOUR work issues/sorry if I’m boring you with my LIFE/you are being selfish].

Try to ride out whatever the immediate reaction is without getting drawn deeper into a discussion about work you don’t want to be having – by which I mean do not argue the specific points that he brings up, even if they are really unfair or problematic. Picking a fight about a side issue, or being manipulated into hearing about work YET AGAIN because you want to prove you’re not “selfish” or reassure him of his value is the thing we are trying to avoid. So if he comes back with “You’re so selfish! Can’t you see I’m hurting?” or “You’ll probably leave me because I’m not good at anything, ” try to de-escalate:

You: Sweetheart, I know that’s not the answer/support/response you wanted from me today, but I want to [watch some dumb TV with you][go for a walk together][read quietly and unwind from my hard day alone for a little bit][have sex with you][beat you at Soul Calibur]. I’m not saying I don’t care about you, or the situation, but I am saying I need a break from processing every work detail with you at the end of every day.

In other words: “I’m sorry you are hurting/frustrated, you’re not doing anything wrong by wanting to tell me about it. You need someone to talk to!  Totally fair! But I need a break from hearing about it/I need a break from spending every evening & weekend talking about this/I need this to not be the central thing we talk about when we spend time together.”

That’s a fair request, made lovingly. You can’t control whether he’ll get a new job or how he feels about himself at work or in his career. You can’t control whether he goes to a therapist. But you can say, “Hon, I’ve reached my limit for the day” and “My dear, I really think you’d benefit from talking to someone besides me about this. I know you’ve vetoed a therapist, but can you call your brother/a friend/your work’s EAP support line/your D&D group/your old mentor from grad school and get a good sounding board?” and “Hey, we said ‘no work talk’ remember?” + [plays “zombies” on a triple word score].

I hope it gets better soon.

 

Hi Captain and Goat Lady:

I love my sister but she has a tendency to be negative and critical. I’ve tried to address these issues directly in the past (“e.g., when you nitpick me I don’t want to be around you”), so she’s started using her five year old son to side-step my boundaries. This allows her to disown any comments “he” makes and allows her to get angry under the guise of protecting him if I try to talk to her about it.

For example, one weekend I canceled plans with my sister and her son because I had a migraine. She told me that her son was worried I didn’t love him anymore. She will also tell me he has said things like “Aunt Anon got an apartment too far away” or “Aunt Anon is too fat” which directly mirrors what she likes to pick at me about. I’m certain he doesn’t actually say these things, but if he *does* say them it’s not a huge deal and she should be able to explain to him that yes, Aunt Anon does love him and it’s unfortunate she had to get an apartment so far away. How can I talk to her about this without inciting any protective outrage?

Thanks.

(She/her please).

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