Dear Captain,

I had a friend I first met about 15 years ago. We got on amazingly well: mutual friends called us “one mind in two bodies” because our personalities were so similar. We understood each other almost perfectly and could talk and laugh for hours about things nobody else quite got. We then had an extraordinarily intense romantic relationship: we were ridiculously in love and had an incredibly deep connection. It ended because I was super needy and honestly wasn’t ready for that sort of relationship. We were both heartbroken and intended to get back together one day, but life took us in other directions. We tried to stay friends but I wanted too much from him; he felt he had to keep me at arm’s length. I told him I had too many messy feelings to have a healthy friendship, he begged me not to go, I said I hoped to be back one day, there were tears on both sides and we went our separate ways. This was in 2008. Resolving to take something positive from what happened, I worked hard on myself, addressed the co-dependency issues that had driven ALL my previous partners away, and now I’m married to an awesome guy I’ve been with for 10 years.

This January, we finally got back in touch. I apologised for some hurtful things I’d said when I was in a lot of pain over losing him. I told him how I’d changed for the better. I said if he forgave me for being a jerk I would love to rekindle that awesome friendship if he wanted to, now Other Feelings weren’t an issue any more. He replied to say it was a lot to take in (naturally) but he would answer via email, not to worry if that took him a while and, in the meantime, how was I?

Since then we’ve exchanged several messages but often he takes days, even weeks to reply so we haven’t really got a good conversation going (except one night when we texted about random stuff until 2:15am, which showed we still have that great connection and same weird sense of humour). Because communication has been so sporadic, it’s hard to gauge what sort of friendship we might have if at all. When he does reply he’s warm and affectionate, laughs at my jokes and sends me cool stuff he knows I’ll like. But because of our complicated history I’m unsure how well I can walk the line between “yikes, co-dependent ex-girlfriend is messaging too much!” and not having enough contact to re-establish a friendship.

I’m trying to give it time – maybe he’s just not ready and could be navigating A Swamp of Unexpected Feelings himself. But I feel with this sort of situation it’s important to be honest and open from the start about what you want, like I was in my first message to him. I gently reminded him he said he’d email me and while he didn’t have to, I’d appreciate knowing where things stood between us. He said he was busy but could do it next week… which was several weeks ago now and don’t feel I can ask again. Me badgering him when he needed space was why we stopped being close in the first place.

I’m feeling a bit lost about how to handle this situation. At the moment I’m playing it by ear, replying to messages when they come, trying not to send too many back, giving him space when he doesn’t reply. But while I’m thrilled to be back in touch, there’s this elephant in the room, it’s…uncomfortable, and I don’t believe he’s going to send me that email – it’s been nearly 2 months. How can I figure out what the relationship is between us without making him feel pressured to talk about things he clearly doesn’t want to talk about?

Hopeful Friend

PS I searched for similar letters but the closest I found was you advising not to reach out to an ex for friendship until your feelings reached the point of “oh yeah him, I wonder how he’s doing, would be fun to catch up.” Which is what I did… but now I don’t know what to do next.

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Dear Captain,

I have read and enjoyed your advice site for several years and appreciate all the work and thought you put into each situation and your response. That being said, as someone who is on the far side of 50, I have noticed that the vast majority of your current audience seems interested in relationships with SOs or with parents. I’m wondering idly if you are anticipating a shift in the focus of questions (toward parenting, menopause, etc.) as your audience ages, or whether you expect they will move on to different sites? What would you most like to happen?

I ask in part because so much of your advice is stuff I have found useful as a parent myself: ask directly/no one can read your mind, you can be angry at someone but not abusive, respect someone’s desire not to communicate, don’t set yourself on fire to keep someone else warm, etc. Just as relevant for me and my middle-schooler and high-schooler as for anyone.

And yet there are some things that kind of squiggle around the edges. Sometimes as a mom you HAVE to take one for the team. Be the alarm clock. Give the last piece to the kid. Sacrifice needed sleep to weekend matches. You DO have to snoop in your kid’s phone if she’s just out of suicide watch or has been self-cutting. etc.

There is always going to be some grey, in part because teens flip back and forth between toddler and adult about every 90 seconds. And the stakes are so high. My mom friends and I are constantly counseling and consoling each other over real or imagined parenting mistakes. And we are always asking each other the magic question: “What Would A Normal Mother Do?

But here’s a problem — how can we set firmly the principles and boundaries of self-care when our roles are to protect and nurture? You can’t go no contact with a kid. You can’t refuse to feed or drive to school a kid who just called you a fucking bitch two minutes ago.

Or here is a problem a friend (for real) called me with today. My friend and I both are very pro-choice, intersectional feminists. Her oldest daughter (in college)has decided that she is “feminist but pro-life,” and has spent all of today at a pro-life rally, while simultaneously bombarding her mother (my friend) with pics, of ultrasounds, signs, pics of dismembered fetuses, etc., and texting her about how she has met “real” feminists today, and how strong and brave they are.

My friend is devastated and furious and hurt, of course. But she doesn’t know at all how to handle this. Does she grey rock/broken record/refuse to discuss the topic? (My recommendation.) Is it her responsibility to argue with and further educate her daughter? (Her inclination.) And where to draw the line between meeting her daughter’s need to bait her and get her attention versus meeting her own needs for some calmness and serenity?

This situation is in my mind a bit simpler because my friend’s daughter is a fledgling adult, though all her bills are still paid by her parents.

But beginning from infancy, this kind of dilemma emerges and while it changes faces, it always comes down to the same question. To wit, what guiding principles and strategies are most useful when trying to keep one’s own boundaries sturdy, and yet keep up your obligations and duties to whomever you are parenting?

A child is a sacred trust. It must be. If you choose to take it on, that child’s needs must always be considered first whenever possible. But where does that leave parents?

I’ve learned an awful lot from your site about how not to be a terrible parent. But I’m hoping it can tell me more.

Thank you so much.

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Dear Captain Awkward:

Well, not exactly. First, some background: I (she/her) am a member of a Face Book group for fan-fiction readers and writers. I’m a longtime writer of both original work and fan works, so I like to leave comments when people post questions about plotting, characterization, etc. Trouble is, I commented on one post a couple of weeks ago, and now the original poster won’t leave me alone.

It wasn’t so bad at first. She private messaged me within about an hour of me leaving the comment, specifically requesting elaboration on what I’d said. Sure, fine, not the first time this has happened. We kept chatting, about the fandoms we were in, that sort of thing. Hey, great, maybe I’m making a writer friend, I’ve been looking for that. And then she dug a little deeper into what I liked- did I read/write mostly G rated or X rated, was it mainstream stuff or fringe, etc. For the sake of the story, we’ll say that I ended up saying, well, I mostly like m/m, I sometimes like f/f, and I’ll only read m/f if it’s really special, and that I really like reading when men tie other men up and have sex with them. So she starts sending me bits and snippets of stories she’s been writing, and most of them turn out to be m/f, where the woman is being tied up to work through childhood trauma. And in between there are questions- “if her legs were tied like that, would she be able to stay in that position?” “would he check in with her at this point, or would he just keep tying knots?” I’ve tried to answer and respond in good faith, but it’s becoming draining. Worse, as all this has progressed, I’ve realized that the writer herself probably has childhood trauma surrounding being tied up, and she is using the writing, and by extension me, as free therapy.

I didn’t sign up for any of this! I was never even asked if I was up for (or even interested in) so much as being a beta reader, let alone this mish-mash of editor and therapist that I’ve been shoehorned into. I’m generally a big fan of “use your words” but this situation has me speechless. Can you recommend any scripts to disentangle from this boundary-challenged person before I say something I’ll regret?

Thanks for all you do!

Dragooned

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Hi Captain!

I (she/her/hers) am a business partner with Partner (also she/her/hers). We have been running a small business for a few years now. We had one employee who just retired, and we finally hired someone part time. We are equal owners in the company. We went to grad school together and I thought we were friends.

I am more of the sales face of the business for various reasons. I enjoy the networking and advertising part and I calm down any angry customers. She puts in more of the bookkeeping time than me and prefers to be behind the scenes. We equally share in other admin stuff that our new employee cannot manage. I have been making more commission than her for about two months, but it used to be equal.

I have been dating someone for about a year now (he/his/him) who has moved in with me. He and I have a pretty significant age difference (I’m early 30s, he just turned 50). For whatever reason, our relationship… works. We click – and I’ve never felt like this about anyone before, to be honest. Notably, he is more right-leaning than me politically, and I’m more left-leaning… but I studied political theory in college and he works for a lobbying group. We have actually bonded over our differences politically and enjoy engaging in civil discourse about theories, current events, etc.

Sig Other and I do not talk about politics with our friends. We’ve mutually agreed to let sleeping dogs lie on that topic, and typically cheerfully redirect someone (unless we know they’re cool with a discussion on current events!). Neither of us push ideologies on outside parties.

When we had our old employee, Business Partner used to micro-manage their every move. She was constantly checking hours and emails and keeping tabs on her, and complaining to me about things that weren’t done properly. Employee retired… and since then, Business Partner’s focus has been on me.

She gets upset if I leave early to take a cat to a vet appointment. She checks my hours and reviews my work like I’m an employee, constantly texting to see where I am if I’m not in the office and she is lurking around. She works later than I do because (as she’s acknowledged) she goes home alone at night and would prefer to be in the office getting work done. She does leave early for hair appointments and nail appointments, and sometimes for other personal stuff, but she typically rolls in about 10 am, works until 8 pm, and works all weekend. I work 8 am to 6 pm weekdays and I do not work weekends by choice. If there are big projects or a big deadline coming, I will come in on the weekend, but it is not a routine practice for me.

She does take days off for vacations and family travel, but lately I’ve noticed her scheduling ME for appointments when I have travel plans or days off planned. She works bank holidays and guilt-trips me when I don’t do the same. She scheduled an appointment for me when I had a lunch planned with a colleague very high up in our local food chain, and made snide comments about how people in the field, “seem to like [me],” but don’t seem to invite her out. (Colleague called me up specifically to talk shop, invite was clearly only for me – but it’s an opportunity to grow the business!) The tone of the remarks felt… envious. I tried to brush it off.

My work gets done. I pull my weight. But I have a life. I have a lot of close family in the area and I like to take a little time for Sig Other in the evenings. I started my own company with her so we could benefit from schedule flexibility, work for ourselves and our values, and make more money than at our old jobs.

I did not change my schedule when Sig Other moved in. I work the same hours I did before he moved in with me.

A friend of mine recently overheard her in public in a cafe complaining to a group of our colleagues that she’s upset because I make more commission pay than her and work less hours, and complaining that I took three days off after Christmas to meet Sig Other’s family and was traveling out of state. Friend seemed to think she was planning to take some kind of action, but she spotted him and immediately stopped talking. I didn’t confront her about this because I wasn’t sure how to approach the topic. And I wasn’t sure what action she would take.

We used to share a friend group, and now I don’t get invited out with that group. She made an offhand comment after telling me she was going to meet a group of our (mutual?) friends for dinner recently, along the lines of: “Well… nobody wants to hang out with your middle-aged republican boyfriend.” I typically don’t extend invitations to him unless I know ALL significant others are invited, and I don’t believe he’s ever talked about politics with them, but she’s also made it clear she doesn’t approve of my relationship. It felt really awful to clearly not be invited above and beyond any feelings about Sig Other’s political leanings.

I was out on a date with Sig Other last week and ran into them all at a surprise party for another friend’s birthday. It was AWKWARD. Super awkward. And when I mentioned seeing them at the restaurant at work on Monday, she shrugged it off as, “I didn’t do all of the invites, and I didn’t think you were a good fit for that crowd. [Sig Other] is a lot older than everyone else.” But why wouldn’t I want to celebrate a birthday?

I feel a little sabotaged at work and micromanaged by someone who is supposed to share equally in the process of running the company. The general vibe I get is envious, but that sounds so juvenile to say that she’s ‘just jealous.’ I made a commitment to myself to have a better work-life balance this year, and she seems to take it personally when I take time off or don’t work until 8 pm every night.

What’s going on here? What do I do? Am I the jerk somehow that I’m not seeing? Is she actually envious? Do I dissolve the business and start over? Or is there a way to set up professional boundaries and say goodbye to the friendship?

Losing Friends and Losing Business

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I am torn and hoping you may have some options that could help me make a decision. I’ll do my best to keep it brief, but I want to do my best to give you as much to go on as possible.

Around 10 years ago, I met my future wife, we’ll call her “E.” Things started out pretty fast, she is very introverted and I am pretty extroverted, so I think we were both intrigued in learning each other’s ways and trying the other’s interests. Within about 3 months, things became pretty physical, pretty fast, if you know what I mean. This lasted for a little over a year, where we spent most of our time together, and most of it was alone. We tried going out with my friends, but she didn’t like them or going out, and I was okay at the time to split time between her and what I like to do, probably a 70:30 split.

After around 1.5 years of being together, I moved away to grad school, something I had been planning since we first met, so it was no surprise to her, but I was not ready to move in together and she was not ready to move and find new work, so we became a long distance relationship. We talked each night, but quickly ran out of topics, sticking to a 45 minute limit on conversations because we seemed to run out of things to say and I hated just sitting on the phone listening to each other breath.

We saw each other about 2 times a month, just for a weekend, which was typically spent mostly in the bedroom. She would become very upset about not moving the relationship forward when she heard of friends getting engaged, and often brought up marriage. When it came time for me to graduate (around 4 years into the relationship) I knew I either had to commit or break it off. I should’ve realized that having that thought was probably not a good sign, but I thought maybe it was cold feet and normal. I felt committed to her and didn’t want to hurt her, as well as this was as good as I had felt in other relationships, so what would be different if I ended it and tried starting new. I never felt that “falling in love” feeling I’ve see on TV/movies, or heard about from friends, and I have never been openly emotional or enjoyed PDA or even the DA part when 1 on 1 with a girlfriend. I have just never been super excited or felt thrill with the people I have been with.

Once we got married, she moved in, we got a puppy, she got a new job, and by the time a year almost rolled around, we were house hunting. Everything was just moving so fast, there was never much time to think. A month later, we found a home, moved in, and found out we were pregnant. Things were crazy for a year, but we both expected it, especially since the closest family is several hours away. She stayed home with the baby for 2 years before starting to look back into work. She also stayed in the guest bedroom every night for that whole period, insisting she would wake me accidentally when listening for or getting up with the baby, even though I encouraged her to come back to our room on day one. It was around the two year mark that I realized how bored I was with our life.

Sex had become a routine, once a week on Fri or Sat night, only after she had showered. It was even to the point she made jokes about how routine it was, I would try to spice things up or change it up, but she said she liked our routine. Our talks consisted of the baby and work, I would try to come up with things to do but she enjoyed just staying home and cleaning. I feel so anxious when I don’t get out, that I would take our daughter and do things with just the two of us, or on the rare occasion, just get out for an hour or two by myself.

This went on for another 2 years, slowly feeling like we were becoming more and more distant, barely talking, the only physical contact was our routine sex once a week. Sometimes I would pretend to not feel well to skip it because I just couldn’t get in the mood. I was afraid this was what my life would be like for the next 14 years and then what would happen when it was just the two of us again? But what else could I do? I considered divorce for at least a year, but I felt I had no good reason other than being unhappy, but I was growing used to the idea of divorcing and just doing life alone and with my daughter on the days I would have her. But also, would there even be a point in getting myself into the same situation with someone else if I never really felt that strongly for anyone before, I am in my mid-30’s by the way.

Then in June 2019, a female at work began to grow close, we’ll call her “L,” occasionally texting, chatting more than normal when at work (she only worked part-time, 0-3 days a week). But I noticed I would miss her on the days she was gone or when I didn’t hear from her. In July, the texting picked up to daily and throughout the night, to the point I would get notifications that I had burned through my data limit, and have stayed up past midnight, when normally I would’ve been in bed at 7:30 and asleep by 9. She was going through a divorce and dating, but I began getting jealous of her going out with these guys. Texts and talks seemed to get flirtier, until the point where she sent a topless photo, unprovoked, to see my reaction. I felt wanted for the first time in many years, and actually felt excited for the first time I could ever remember and I could not stop thinking about L. We had so much in common, it was like we could read each other’s minds. I had never felt a connection like this before, not even at the best moments with my wife or any other girlfriend. I felt happy around her, elated, like a whole new person, even just when texting her, it was an odd feeling for me but it was intoxicating to feel this way, I couldn’t stop, it was addicting. I wanted to be my best person for her, to improve myself, and spend every moment with her. My efficiency at work even declined because I was with her so much when she was working.

In August, L began to make statements about ending our talks, since she knew I would never be able to give her my all and vice versa, as well as become physical with her, and I felt my heart break. She helped arrange an after work party to give me an excuse to hang out in person, outside of work, and as a “last hoorah”. She came dressed in what might as well have been lingerie, and I felt like we were the only two in the bar. When we moved to another bar, she reached for my hand and I felt like I was floating, how could I have realized I that I was missing out on a feeling that was so incredible, why have I never felt this before, and why has my wife never made me feel this way before.

After a few drinks at the next bar, we both headed towards the bathroom and she told me she would not make a first move because I was married, but when I came out and saw her waiting for me, I couldn’t help it, I had to experience a kiss with her, and I had never felt anything like it. We fooled around under the table the rest of the night, and more in the car after. I ignored texts and a call from my wife and eventually took L back to her friends home. They invited me in, but I knew I had to go. After that, we began fooling around at work.

By September, she ended things because she knew it couldn’t go anywhere, and I spent that night sleepless and physically sick, I knew she was working the next day and avoided her area for hours longer than usual. Once I did go down there, I felt worse seeing her. It was extremely awkward and painful. By the end of the work day, she texted and asked to meet up, I did, and we talked about how horrible we both felt, and fooled around again. Not long after, she arranged another “work party” and we made love after, twice, something I had also never felt an urge to do before. I say “made love” because this was how it felt, this amazing connection, a type of sexual connection I have also never felt before. Usually after sex, I just want to clean off, and have some space, with her, I wanted to cuddle, go again, and never let her go.

I began “going out” more and started just going to her home when her kids were with their father. We would make love multiple times in only a few hours, something I had never been able to do before, nor felt the desire to do, I knew I had fallen hard for L but I was afraid to tell her because I thought it would scare her off. I would take days off work in secret from my wife, and spend them with L. I would have PDA with her everywhere we went, also something I never enjoyed before, but it was tunnel vision with this woman and I didn’t care about getting caught or not. I even hoped to get caught, to give me a reason to end things with E, I never hid my texting habits from E, and L and I both wondered why E never seemed to notice how much more distant I was becoming or how much I was communicating with someone else.

During all of this, I had been making excuses with E as to why I was not having sex with her, claiming migraines, stomach pains, etc., but one night in early Oct, I ran out of excuses, and it came a fight about why I hadn’t in months, so we tried to have sex, but I could not even keep it up, all I could think was I was betraying the person I really love. I discussed it with my new love later, only after L had asked about it, and she was of course hurt, but understanding that it would’ve had to have happened at some point since I was still married. I tried to explain that I couldn’t even finish, much less really perform due to how strongly I felt about L as well as how poorly I felt about my wife, and she seemed to understand and told me it was okay.

However, a few days later, she called and said it was over, I was distraught and felt sick again. I apologized for hurting her and said how much I didn’t want to lose her but knew that I had no say in any of this as I was the cheating husband and not her boyfriend like I wished I could be. A few minutes after ending our talk, she texted how she felt horrible because she was in love with me, this was the first time either of us had said it, I told her that I was in love with her as well and had been for months, as well as everything I loved about her. After a long talk, things seemed to be okay.

We made love one or two more times after that, then she became more and more distant, and eventually ended it mid October. The next day was similar to the first time, where we ended up catching each other by the end of the day and kissing but then she told me she could not keep doing this and was starting to date again. The following day, I thought things may have been okay and tried to kiss her when we were alone, but she pulled away, I never felt so hurt and like such an ass at the same time, I knew it was time to try to figure out my life or lose the person I love. L also told me the same thing, that I needed to figure out my marriage, if not for me, then for my daughter, to try to save it for her, because L wished she could have saved hers for her kids.

It was not long before I told my wife that I did not like how things were and wanted to go to couples counseling. She disagreed and said everything had been perfect for her, that this is the best her life had ever been, and did not understand why I was saying these things. All I could really say was almost the entire truth, that I had fallen out of love with her, it had been getting worse over the last 2 years, and I’m at a point where I’m depressed and don’t know what to do. This went over horribly and started many fights, but as I told her more and more about how I felt like we grew apart and were just roommates, giving her many examples such as; she hadn’t sat in the front seat with me but 3 times that year (because she always chose to sit in back with our daughter), and those were the 3 times my parents were in town and we went on a “date.” Dates consisted of groceries once, a movie and back once, and then shopping once, I pointed out how she showered every other night or sometimes went longer, she had not gotten any new clothes in over a year and only wore the same two outfits to bed which were falling apart, she never tried to dress up for me or show that she cared about how she looked with me, that we had not held hands in ages, etc. After many fights, she seemed to finally get it, and agreed to counseling a month later.

Counseling has been difficult as I really want to say that I cheated and am in love with someone else, that I haven’t ever felt so loved and so happy, even at the best times with my wife. But even as much as I want to end things, I don’t want it to be because I cheated as I know that would be held over me for the rest of my life (as it probably should). When asked if I want to make things work, I just agree, but wish that I had the courage to say I just want to be with someone else, and if that’s not possible, I’d rather be alone.

As Nov passes into Jan, at work I hear about L’s new partner, he calls during work and texts all the time, it kills me to see the smile and laugh he gets from her, I loved being the one to get that and still do, it’s torture, but I can’t stop being near her. I tried my best to avoid her, but then she seemed sad and asked me if things were awkward, that she missed me and us but that it couldn’t have worked because of me being married and she didn’t want to be the reason I ended my marriage, to be the “other woman,” to have my daughter know it was L’s fault that her parents split, etc. I told her I was trying, but she knew the problems I had with my wife prior to getting together. She told me it was not fun to be divorced, and to just make it work.

L started to text me more towards the end of Dec, something which confused me, but made me so happy at the same time. I was in almost daily fights with my wife, to the point E told me she knew I wanted a divorce and to just do it, I was excited when she said this, but scared of the reality as well. But I didn’t know how to respond and said that we should discuss it in counseling. By the time we did, E had already changed her mind 15 times.

During Jan, I met with L several times outside of work, but only as friends and never tried anything more than a hug. We talked about missing each other, her boyfriend, my wife and issues, our kids. I even told her how at one point during all of this, E had talked about killing herself because she was so upset with me and our life. L and I had become so close, she was my best friend while we were lovers and I was just so happy I had a piece of her back, I didn’t want to lose it.

Since Feb, my wife and I have gotten back into the “safe” routine of only talking about our kid and work, counseling has become more fluff than real topics, and we tried a weekend trip in which the best 4 hours of the trip was our drunkest in which we discussed what we would do if we divorced, killed each other, or something happened to the other. This was the most talking we had done in years, and the happiest I think either of us had been together in years. However, it still felt to me like talking with a friend, no romantic feelings, no desire, no real want to even continue the night after that talk.

Once we had gotten back to the room, we discussed how neither of us wanted sex still (we have not been together physically since I was unable to perform in Oct.) since she knew I didn’t love her and wasn’t attracted to her, and that was how I felt too. That ended the night and made for an awkward morning and quiet trip back.

I’m pretty sure I don’t have a chance with L anymore as things have been going steady with her new boyfriend for several months now, as well as I don’t think she would trust me even if I was divorced and poured my heart out to her, as now I have the label of cheater, even though she is the only person I ever thought of cheating with. Before her, my sexual dreams only involved my wife, but after her, I have not had a dream about my wife since, and had nightly dreams about L for months, and even now I have them every couple of nights, but they aren’t even sexual, they’re dreams of laughing together, hanging out in public places, eating dinner, and I always wake up in such a great mood from them, until I remember it was just a dream but I do my best to hang onto that memory as long as I can.

I don’t think I have a chance at happiness with my wife either, as I cannot get L out of my head, nor all the horrible things my wife has said to me and the horrible things I have said back, as well as how horrible I know she feels every day, knowing that she is with someone who is no longer in love with her nor attracted to her. She is a good person and does not deserve this, and my daughter deserves to see us both happy, for hers and our sake.

I’m at a point where I think being alone may be the best decision for my daughter and I, giving her mother a chance to find happiness with someone else sooner. Then maybe I would be able to reflect more on myself and what I need, if someone could make me feel so amazing before, I need to find that high again or just settle for being alone to be happy. I’ve also recently come to the realization that I have always had very close female best friends (none of them were ever anything physical nor anything I wanted to become physical, except when L came into my life) and I believe now this has been because I have never felt like any woman I have been with was my best friend and I sought that out in others. I would also like to add that I’m still surprised I have never felt guilty about the affair with L, only guilty about the one time being sexual with E and that was guilt for betraying L.

I apologize for the length of this, and thank you for reading through it, although I know it’s as clear as mud. Please, any thoughts/opinions on what to do are greatly appreciated.

Sincerely,

Torn

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Hi there,

I’m hoping to find some scripts/strategies to employ when I run into someone I’m happy to chat with, like a friend or one of the super friendly baristas at a coffee shop I’m always in, and they ask “so what’s new with you?” or “what have you been up to this week?” when the honest answer is often something like “I managed to leave the house every day” or “Well my house is still messy but I did write 70 thousand words of erotic fanfiction in the past few months” or “I’m sorry but my depression seems to be leaning hard on my memory lately and I have no idea what I did yesterday, let alone last week.”

Sometimes I even have done something I could talk about; there might be a knitting or art project I picked up, I try to take small trips to see friends when I can, and of course plenty of my friends would be happy to talk about the weird fanfic I’ve been writing. But in the moment I rarely remember any of this.

I don’t know if you’ve ever been at a bar and forgotten the name of every cocktail you have ever enjoyed or even heard of the moment you get the bartender’s attention, but that’s what this feels like. I’m a deer in the headlights and can’t think of something that’s even vaguely interesting and not some form of “I’m super depressed so I can’t remember, sorry.” That’s fine to say sometimes, I know, but I don’t want that to be my response every time someone talks to me in person.

I am getting as much mental health support as I can; I have a good therapist and meds that seem to work as well as anything else could (I tried some new ones last year and it was a disaster), but I’m still struggling a bit; I don’t mind being honest about that, in many circumstances, but I feel so dull and boring when these questions come up and at times it impacts my confidence around other people. I’m trying hard right now to get out more and connect with people because I know that’s good for me but I keep hitting this awkward roadblock. Any thoughts?

Thanks,
I Promise I’m Not This Boring, For Real (he/him)

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Dear Captain,

I looked through the archives and I couldn’t see anything on this particular topic, but apologies if I missed something. It does seem connected to the Geek Social Fallacies though.

My question is about how to deal with awkwardness and anxieties over the dreaded Group Chat.

I have a group of friends who are not particularly close but they are friends I see a few times a year. I am pleased that they want to be my friend. We live in the same city. Over the past year, however, there have been some issues around differing expectations over the Group WhatsApp Chat.

Basically–there is a Group Chat. Actually now there are FOUR Group Chats. There are seven of us in it, all from this friendship group. The other six people use the chats constantly throughout the day to update each other on their movements and what they are doing. There used to be one chat but because of the high volume of chat traffic they split it into four: General Chat, TV (what people are watching), Logistics (about them meeting up), and Rants and Raves (where you can complain about stuff that happened to you). There is now a high volume of chat on all four groups.

The issue is that I can’t keep up with the chats. I am a remote worker and so I am in Slack groups for my work. Apart from that I don’t like chatting online in group chats, especially not with people who live in the same city as me, as I prefer to catch up in person and have an offline chat with them even if it is not frequent. I find that more social. The expectations of this group around the chats are very high. They literally update it with their movements, like “I’m having a coffee now” or “Just popped out for some milk”, or “omg I sat next to a smelly person on the bus just now, eww” and “just cooked some sausages”, this goes on all day. They post photos of these activities too and if they go on vacation, the chat gets filled with many, many vacation photos and videos that they get upset if I don’t look at or watch and then comment on. The TV and Rants chats are also very busy where they say “Just put on the TV, surfing the channels now” or go into more details ranting about the smelly person on the bus and so on. Basically they are narrating their lives in the chats, I don’t enjoy doing that and I don’t like reading it either…does that make me antisocial?

However the other six Chatters are upset that I do not participate in the chats. One guy literally told me that he did not understand what I did all day (I’m working..also why does he care??). We recently all met up in person and when they complained that I do not talk on the chats I tried to explain that I prefer to catch up in person with people rather than say everything online since then when we meet we have nothing to say because we already typed it… online… And they were offended by this, they seemed to take it as a personal rejection. It isn’t! I like catching up with them over a coffee or beer and finding out what’s new, it’s nicer in person. During the meetup they literally all sat on their phones chatting about the meetup on the group chat even though they were all there, apart from one person. They took photos of each other and posted them to the chat… When I asked them what they had been up to recently, they said that “if I had read the chat, I would know…”

I don’t get it.

I have muted the chats because otherwise my phone was pinging every couple of minutes. At the end of the day when I look at the chats there are a few hundred messages that I didn’t read. I feel overwhelmed just looking at it so I don’t read them usually and if I do all I learn is that someone went out for milk and there was no semi skimmed in the store. After the MeetUp where they suggested that they were offended and hurt that I didn’t talk on the chat I tried to join in by saying hi in the chat and asking what people were up to, but they were upset with me there, saying “wow nice of you to drop in”. So I gave up. I’m not ignoring them or shunning them, I just don’t want to type on my phone all day about what I am doing…

What can I tell them? I don’t want to offend anyone, and if I quit the chats they will not tell me when they are meeting up, so I will not see them again. I am an introvert who however enjoys group interactions (as long as I can be alone afterwards to decompress) so it’s not that. I just don’t get this group chat thing. Any ideas for how to tell them nicely without losing friends?

Whats Up With WhatsApp

Hello there!

Friend groups can become cultures unto themselves, and the culture of this one is to be constantly connected in a low-intensity way with social media. It’s not right or wrong – your “Ugh, too much!” is their “This is my little daily anchor for feeling less lonely in the world” and both reactions are just as honest and just as true. I think the less we make value judgments or appeal to “Manners!” and the more we cast this as a difference in style and/or compatibility, the more helpful I can be. One form of communication isn’t necessarily more genuine or deeper than any other, so what we’re dealing with is 1) their strong preference vs. yours 2) whether there’s a way to make these preferences more compatible 3) whether the affection between you is strong enough to make it worth the effort to try.

Example time! Imagine you’re out in a restaurant at breakfast time, and you see a family on vacation, and everyone is on their screens during the meal. It’s easy to think “Such disconnection, why can’t they just talk to each other like people used to do?” but I look at it and think, hey, look, they are all reading and nobody is yelling at anybody, how relaxing, I wish I’d been able to read at the table sometimes when I was a kid. We’re only seeing one snapshot, not the whole of this family’s communications with each other, maybe mealtime screen-time is a vacation-only treat, maybe their family’s first language is “judgmental screaming” and “quiet disconnection” is a serious upgrade, not all faaaaaaamily mealtime conversation is good or desirable or automatically more polite.

A second example: Recently I got to hang out with a friend I’d seen in person maybe once in probably 20 years. We went to school together in the 1990s, worked at two of the same places, lived a few doors down from each other in the same apartment building, had “Family Dinner” every Sunday night, met each other’s families, and it’s not an exaggeration to say we we talked close to every day between 1997 and 2000. Then I moved away and I didn’t see him again until last week. If you need proof of true friendship, he once moved most of my belongings into an un-air-conditioned 4th floor walkup on a 100 degree day. But what made our friendship work was hugely, hugely based on proximity: “You are a person I like to do a lot of nothing with, and hey look, you’re right here, let’s hang out!” When it was easy to hang out, we did, all the time. When it was hard due to geography, we didn’t. It doesn’t mean we’re not friends, it just means that friendship fits into a particular shape, and “pen pal” isn’t that shape. That dynamic might not work for everyone (or even anyone) else, and that’s okay. The WhatsApp dynamic might be a way these folks maintain that feeling of proximity, whereas the LW prefers physical proximity, and they live in the same town so why not go with that? How does proximity affect our friendships is a useful question, I think, for lots of Geek Social Fallacies-adjacent and “Why am I friends with this person again?” questions in addition to today’s post.

Another possibly more relevant example: My experience with this “how can you not know when we share everything with each other online?” dynamic dates back to the days of LiveJournal, where I had a post go ridiculously viral and I ended up putting something in my profile to the tune of “‘I like ______’ and ‘I want to read ______’s every waking thought (and show them all of mine)’ are not the same thing at all” and then I pruned my friends’ list to people I was actually actively reading and engaging with and unfriended/refused literally everyone else. Some people I knew locally found this really confusing and painful to parse, like, “If you like me, why don’t you like me all the time, in every possible medium, as much as possible?” and the answer was (and still is) “I don’t knowwwwwwwwwwwwww, but I know that it’s true of me. I read as way more extroverted than I actually am, I have a bigger ‘friendliness’ footprint than I have attention units and that’s just how it is.” 

Previously I’d tried using filters for both what I posted and what I read, since there were people I liked in meatspace but didn’t want to interact with much online (and you better believe there was both a vice and a versa with that one), and there were people all over the world I made forever-kindred-spirit-friendships with just ’cause we read each other’s internet diaries, and lots and lots and lots of in-between.

Sadly, the thing your friends identify as a problem was actually a problem when it came to people I knew both online and locally in Chicago: By using filters and limiting my reading, I wasn’t keeping up with people’s lives in the way they assumed I was, and that definitely had repercussions in my local social scene. It really only takes saying “You must be so excited about the baaaaaaaaaaaby!” (because that was a detail I sort of remembered about a nice-but-not-necessarily-close-person in the brunch circle) once and hearing Don’t you fucking read?” hissed by someone else into the horrified, echoing silence after the sadly-not-pregnant-anymore person fled the restaurant weeping, to learn some important lessons:

  1. Pregnant people will tell you if there is anything new to tell, if they don’t mention it, STFU, nope, shut up, always be shutting up.
  2. I, Jennifer, should not try to half-ass stuff out of social obligation that I cannot keep up with from the heart, it will only end in tears and 17+ years of shame-echoes.
  3. If this online-offline hybrid social life we’ve made has any hope of working, I need to know my limits and stay inside them.

Now we have the excuse of both privacy filters and the algorithms* straight-up not showing us certain people’s stuff when we do want to follow their lives, but the problem remains the same: With so many apps and points of contact to share and absorb a constant stream of everybody’s thoughts and doings, how do we keep up with what’s actually important? And where/how do we set the expectations? And how do we account for the fact that what goes on social media is necessarily an edited & curated version of people’s life events, so the most important stuff might not be visible? Everybody is navigating this a little bit differently and there is no one right way.

(*I’ve lost count of what example we’re on but in the last year I’ve completely missed at least one friend’s divorce and another’s life-threatening accident – and these are people I avidly follow on social media but don’t see face to face often or talk on the phone with. If not for in-person catch-ups and asking questions, I would literally never have known what was going on. Information does not equal knowledge part the millionth.)

As a person who does a lot of her living inside the internet, it’s helped me to assume that possibly nobody knows anything about me until I actually tell specifically them what’s going on. I might Tweet or blog here about a thing, but that doesn’t mean my friends who aren’t Extremely Online saw it or know about it or care about it, so if I want them to know I tell them. If that means repeating myself, oh well, they’ll interrupt me and it will be fine. If I haven’t seen you in a while, I will ask you questions in that vein, like, “You’ve probably told Facebook or Twitter all about what’s new lately but I miss a lot of things, would you mind giving me the friend-recap, I’d love to hear all about everything!?!”

Again, not everyone is me or thinks like me or needs what I need, so I’m not saying that this should be the standard for others, it’s not “what you should do” it’s “what I am actually doing, maybe that will help somebody?” For me, social media interactions are real interactions, internet friends are real friends, but not everyone switches between modes of communication with the same speed and enthusiasm as me, so I am happier in face-to-face interactions when I assume nothing and default to asking (and telling). So that might be a script for you – “I’m sure you’ve posted all this in the group chat, but please tell me again! I want to know! Thank you!” 

All this to say, I can see why your friends are like “But I put literally everything about me in the chats, if you really wanted to know what’s going on with me you would know and you are like “Ok but there were 12,000 updates about breakfast cereal and which episode of Inspector Lewis you’re watching, so forgive me if your life-changing promotion was a blip, if you really wanted me to know you’d tell me when I asked you what’s new and not lecture me about keeping up with the chats when I’ve already told you that I can’t.”

[To harken back to Ye Olden Times On The Internets and show you how little has changed: I have been u! “Hello Granddaughter, I forward jokes, un-fact-checked stories, MP3s of songs it takes four hours to download, and crackpot racism from the Rancid Old Man Internet to everyone I know and all our members of Congress to keep in touch Fwd: fwd: FWD: fwd:” vs. “Okay Grampa, but look, unless you’re emailing specifically me to tell me something that you wrote, I might not write back.” vs. “Well then I guess I just won’t BOTHER you anymore.” vs. “I mean, you can always call me but actually if you don’t forward random emails anymore that would be great, thanks!” vs. “Fwd:Fwd:FWD:Fwd: How DEMOCRATS are like VioLEnt TerrORist ABortioN GANGS the REAl story The MEDIA won’t TELL you FWD:FWD:FWD:fwd:>>>>>>>>>>fwd…. Love, Grampa Oscar”].

It’s okay to have different preferences. And I make fun, but being mutually dismissive of each other’s preferred communication styles will not help people who like each other actually hang out and remain friends. We can all say WTF? at the guy saying ‘he doesn’t understand what you do all day’ (WORKING AND NOT DOCUMENTING THE OL’ MORNING POTTY BREAK ON THE OL’ WHATSAPP, THAT’S WHAT, KEVIN, MAYBE TRY IT?), but you saying “Ugh, I don’t really get it” or calling their affectionate way of being with each other “from hell” won’t fix it either. Trading “If you really wanted to ______, you would DO _______” never goes anywhere good. So how do we break this impasse?

I don’t think you are going to be able to change the overall culture of the group, so let’s talk about what you can do to preserve these friendships.

One option is to continue as you are. Pop into the chats only when you feel like it, focus on the “Logistics” channel to see if there are any hangouts coming up, before you hang out in person maybe do a quick skim of the past day or two’s updates so you can ask topical questions. You will miss some things that are going on with these people and it’s okay to be honest about that – “I like you so much but I will never, ever be able to stay on top of the chats, so can I get a quick recap?” This is a way to recognize that you are dealing with a culture that isn’t your natural medium and you are doing your best to meet them where they are. If they can’t accept that? Then maybe they are incompatible with you and that’s sad but it’s good information to have. As you meet and befriend new people, you can prioritize closer ties with people who share the kind of communication style that makes you most happy and comfortable. For best results, cast it as your own preference, like “I know it makes me an outlier, but the group chat is just really not my thing, however, YOU are my thing, so, hang out on Friday?” 

I think you’ve been very clear that you find the chats overwhelming and prefer to catch up in person, and there’s nothing stopping you from periodically calling or meeting up with these folks one on one or arranging your own outings, right? So another option is to uninstall WhatsApp from your phone, call or email or text or use whatever other form of communication you have to get in touch with one person in the group – your favorite person, the friendliest person – and say, “Hey friend, I’ve tried but I can’t keep up with the Group Chats and I don’t want to argue about them ever again. I like you so much, I like everyone in the group so much, and I hope you’ll let me know when you all get together next so we can catch up face to face, but if there’s something you want me to know about or come to for sure, here’s my #.” 

If you do this will there be shock, surprise, hurt feelings? Will they talk about you behind your back? Will the friendships drift? Yes. 100%. But nothing will drift that isn’t already drifting. What you are doing is removing the fiction that you are ever going to participate in these chats again or keep up with every coffee break or bus ride with these people.

Which brings me to Part 2:

Whether you stay casually engaged with the chats or decide to go cold turkey, if you want to maintain these friendships, you’ll need to get in touch with folks – individually and as a group – and invite them to do things with you. You’re opting out of the way they do things and you’re the one who wants a change, therefore the initial work falls to you.

Whenever there is a group dynamic that’s iffy, I really encourage people to stop engaging with The Whole Group as a monolith and start engaging with people in ones and twos.  Sometimes we outgrow friendships, sometimes we outgrow friend groups, but sometimes there are relationships worth preserving even if the idea of the group fades, and sometimes there is necessary pruning to be done.

Inviting people out means taking on some work that The Group used to handle for you on its own, but it also means letting your own pleasure and enjoyment guide you and learning more about how you like to do friendship. If you host events like, “dinner and movies at my place, and hey, this is just my quirk, but let’s put our phones away for a couple of hours,” who shows up, who makes you feel good, who gives you what you need, who is willing to try it your way some of the time? Once you start initiating plans suit you, you can see who likes you enough to meet you halfway, and from there you can see what can be saved and what can be built.

Before people comment I want to reiterate: If a social media platform or way of staying in touch with people makes you feel dread, don’t do it. DON’T USE IT. Delete it. Nobody is making you, so…don’t? Use the tools that you enjoy using, and make case-by-case exceptions when affection and connection truly compel you, like, “okay, the only way to interact with this person I REALLY want to interact with is phone talking so for that one person I am a grudging phone talker, everyone else is text only.” Our preferences are just that, preferences, and we’re all making compromises all the time. “I prefer in-person hangouts, texts are just impersonal!” vs. “Well I’m disabled so good fucking luck with that” IS A THING, it might be an insurmountable thing for two particular people, but it is a real thing and pretending that there is only one best way to interact is doomed. The Letter Writer’s friend group is doing a thing they enjoy that works for them. It doesn’t work for the Letter Writer. That’s okay, good news is we can find that we are incompatible with other people without anyone being a jerk, this ain’t Reddit, this site doesn’t exist to archive rants or tabulate votes that apportion blame correctly. Cool? Cool.

What I do want to hear from readers about: When you & somebody you care about have vastly different preferences about how to communicate, what works to keep you connected? And how did you figure it out?