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Tag Archives: Boundaries

Hello, monthly feature with short questions from patrons continues from the previous chapter.

Q7: I am single in my 40s and have never had a serious long-term partner. I used to think I hadn’t met the right person yet but have recently come to understand that I’m aromantic (and probably demisexual – not ace but I don’t really feel like chasing after sex, either). I don’t know how much of this to share with the world, specifically my late-70s parents who would need the aromantic crash course. Thoughts? (he/him/his)

A7: You know your parents best, so you know how much energy you want to invest and how likely they are to be receptive. You don’t owe them (or the world) the details, on the other hand, they’ve surely noticed by now that you don’t seek long-term romantic attachments. If you do decide to speak with them, maybe that’s the context to use, like, “Parents, I’m sure you’ve noticed that I’ve never been that interested in romantic relationships, I just found out that a lot of people feel this way and there’s a word for us – aromantic – pretty cool, right?” 

You’ve been reading a lot about the topic, so possibly pull together some of the resources that made it easier for you to describe your identity so that if your parents say, “How interesting, I always noticed that about you but didn’t want to pry, tell me more,” you’re prepared and if they say, “What’s that? Kids these days!” you’re also prepared.

As for the world, probably the best thing I can do is ask our readers: Got a favorite community or other resource for aromantic info and peer support? This place seems pretty active and detailed, from what I can tell, but I’m not a member.

Q8: I am coming to terms with the fact that my boundaries are… not great. Being a Ravenclaw, my first instinct is to seek out books. I found the seminal BOUNDARIES by Cloud & Townsend, and while it confirmed that yep, boundary problems abound, this book is a terrible fit for me because I have a lot of trauma around religion and every other sentence is a Bible quote. Can anyone recommend other great boundary books? (She/Her)

A8: Who wants to recommend some non-religious books about boundaries?

Q9: I love my wonderful boyfriend so much and find most of his quirks delightful. But his breathing irritates me a lot. When we’re resting on the couch or in bed, he holds his breath for long periods of time and then lets it out really loudly. When we’re cuddling, he breathes in my face and I have no air to breathe. We’ve talked about it but he often doesn’t realize he’s doing it. Any ideas? (She/her/hers)

A9: There’s no good way to tell someone, “You breathe wrong,” but I do have some ideas.

First, if your boyfriend isn’t already seeing a doctor about this, it’s time. Habitually holding the breath can be a stress reaction, it can also be a sign of a medical condition (apnea, sleep and other kinds, for one example). We can’t & won’t diagnose strangers via blogging (fortunately you have a working search engine and can look up specific possibilities and symptoms in detail) so I’ll just say as someone who was diagnosed with asthma as an adult specifically because a partner said, “You’re breathing weird, I’m worried about you (& annoyed), please get it looked at.” He was right, I had developed odd, subconscious, habitual workarounds to try to control coughing and get enough air and it took someone else being around all the time to notice. Your script can be some version of “Hey, this breathing thing might not just be a quirk, so can you please make a doctor appointment and at least rule out the prospect of something serious?” 

In the meantime, look for cuddle positions where he’s not breathing in your face (big spoon, little spoon?). If he can’t control whatever this is or he always forgets, you can remember and take steps to make sure you can always breathe. It won’t be a mystery as to why, he knows why, flip over when you need to so that you can still be close and minimize face-to-face time while he gets checked out. Hopefully he can get some answers and both of you can get some relief.

Q10: Last year, my sister was killed in a very public accident. I’ve been struggling with how to tell friends and acquaintances that I speak to intermittently what happened. I don’t know how to bring it up, and get emotional when I do. Can you give me some scripts to follow so I can explain the situation and (maybe) not fall apart while doing so? Thank you so much. (she/her/hers)

A10: Oh, how awful, I’m so sorry! The loss of your sister + the newsworthiness (constant reminders + people’s need to speculate) must have been a special kind of hell.

I always fall back on two strategies for communicating bad news that I’m nervous or stressed about sharing.

First, it’s okay to use email, text, social media, etc. and share the news before any planned hangouts, and tell people exactly what you told us:

“Friend, you may not have heard this, but since we saw each other last, my sister was killed in [incident]. I get very emotional when I talk about it and I never know how to bring it up, so I thought I’d send you a note before we [have drinks][go birdwatching][resume our opera subscription] this week so you’ll understand if the ‘So, what’s new with you?’ part of our conversation gets a little messy.  I’m really looking forward to seeing you and catching up.”

You could do this one-on-one, you could do this in batches, or all at once, whatever works for you. Ideally, you’ll feel better not dreading having to deliver the news in person, and your friends and acquaintances will appreciate knowing that this huge thing happened to you and having a minute to [privately react][privately Google what happened and refresh their memories/satisfy curiosities][privately react again] before you see each other.

Second, enlist the connectors/planners/hosts/organizers in your social and professional groups to spread the word for you. The kind of people who take it upon themselves to organize a book club or a college reunion or networking event often see keeping up with everyone’s news as part of the role, you can absolutely message them or call them up and ask for their help spreading the word. Maybe something like:

“Hi [Nice Person], I hope you’re well. Can I ask for your help with an awkward task?

You may or may not have heard the news, but I  lost my sister in an accident last year. As I emerge from just being with my family, I’m realizing that a lot of people don’t know, and I have this recurring problem of having to break the news again and again. I’m looking forward to catching up with all of you at [upcoming event], so would you be willing to quietly spread the news of what happened for me before we all get together?

Then tell people what you want them to do/not do about your news. For example:

“I’m looking forward to [discussing the book][rehearsing the play][building the marketing plan for the North East region][registering new voters] and hearing what everyone’s been up to, and it would really ease my mind if I know every “so what’s new with you” conversation won’t be a rehash of events and that people won’t be surprised if I’m a little down or easily flustered. Thank you.”

You’re going to get some “I’m so sorry,” and shoulder pats and hugs when you do see people, but this way hopefully every time you run into people it won’t be a Run, Lola Run! or Groundhog Day-style montage of surprise and grief.

Q11: Hi Captain, here’s my question: I am Childfree by Choice, and I used to think kids just stressed me the fuck out. Turns out I was mistaken – I’m quite comfortable in situations with babies/kids, where their adults are supervising them well, and I know the boundaries about how and when I should intervene if I’ve noticed something unsafe before the other adults have. It’s the more ambiguous situations that stress me out. So like, if a crawling baby is making a beeline for something dangerous and I’m the first one to notice, I am a-OK with going over and picking the baby up, distracting them, and pointing them another direction. That’s my duty as a friend or auntie.

But with bigger kids, especially if it’s clear that their caregivers are aware of the situation but not responding they way I think they should be, that really stresses me out. Like when there’s roughhousing that is getting mean and the smaller kid isn’t enjoying it anymore, or some kind of play that’s pretty much guaranteed to end up with somebody getting hurt, and the caregivers are just giving half-assed verbal warnings and not following up when they’re ignored. But they’re not my kids and I’m just a friend or relative of the parents, so my impulse to physically wade in, tuck a child under my arm like a bad kitty, and remove them from the situation, is probably unwelcome. What is the correct course of action in a situation like that?

A11: I would say, mostly, if the parents/caregivers are nearby/available and the kids aren’t coming to them for adjudication or comfort and it’s not a “you are seriously going to injure yourselves/each other or break something expensive” situation, grabbing & tucking the child like a football is going to be overkill. From my Not-A-Parent observation deck, when there’s an adults-and-kids-who-aren’t-toddlers-anymore gathering going on, there are some skills being learned and practiced on both sides:

  1. Kids are learning to play together and have some autonomy without coming to adults every five minutes, and to self-soothe and self-regulate if they don’t enjoy something.
  2. Parents are learning to find balance. What’s the right mix of socializing with fellow adults, keeping an eye on kids, but also letting everybody have a little space?The “correct” amount of supervision is always in flux. If something bad does happen, there will always, always, always be a subtext of “why wasn’t somebody watching them more closely” but like, sometimes you can be RIGHT THERE and the kid can still shove a nickel up her nose or decide that she can fly.

As a Not-Their Parents observer, there is no “the” correct course of action but there are a few strategies, which I’m adapting from “bystander intervention” training, where the emphasis is on de-escalating difficult situations while still respecting everyone’s autonomy, often expressed as “D’s” (3 Ds, 4 Ds, depends on who you ask):

  1. Direct: Your scoop-up-a-kid instinct would be classified as direct intervention, as would telling the aggressors to knock it off. A matter-of-fact reminder of what you want them to do (“Hey, Buddy, let’s use our inside voices and keep our feet off the furniture, thanks”) (All kids and pets are addressed as Buddy) can work better than lots of non-specific “Quiet down!” reminders.
  2. Distract: If you do intervene, don’t necessarily do it by “rescuing” the smaller kid or admonishing the bigger kids, jump in with a distraction instead. Ask a question, show them something cool on your phone, get them to help you with a task. It’s part of bystander intervention generally, where ‘confronting’ people is risky (and can escalate a bad situation), but engaging the target in friendly conversation communicates ‘you aren’t alone, there’s someone here to catch you if you fall.’
  3. Delegate: Get a parent. “Are they allowed to jump on that?” “Hey, I think that the fun screaming might have turned into the not-fun kind.” “If we’re every hanging out and I see some roughhousing that crosses a line, or some of the kids being mean, would you like me to come get you or jump in there myself?” It’s okay to be selective about who you ask and how you ask, if you know that certain friends are easily riled or take questions like this as implied criticisms, you’re the best judge of how likely someone is to hear you. Also, turf matters: In your house, or where you are the host, it’s okay to be more active (“Please don’t touch that/jump on that/eat that/open that/Please use inside voices so the neighbors can’t hear us/Don’t pick up the cat she doesn’t like it,” etc.) Think of it as communicating “Party Rules” vs. “Correcting People’s Parenting.”
  4. Delay: Kids (like kittens) can get pretty rough in short bursts and be totally chaotic and then snap back to being best buds in an instant. Sometimes you can’t prevent whatever it is, but it’s okay to hang back, let it resolve itself and check in with the kid who was on the bottom of the pile, “How are you doing, Buddy? Wanna come sit by me?” If the kid was really upset by something, give them the opportunity to tell you about it.

This stuff can be so fraught so again, there’s no one approach. If you get really stressed out by certain friends’ parenting dynamic, maybe take breaks and schedule some adult-only time to give everybody a chance to grow out of whatever “difficult stage” is happening now. It’s okay to enjoy being around children sometimes and also to be stressed out by them sometimes, it’s okay to find some people’s parenting style kinda stressful and wish they’d supervise their kids more closely at gatherings without having any particular obligation to Do Something about it.

Q12: So, how can I (F) respond to the “just relax” I get from guys when they’re being disruptive, and I raise an objection. My two most recent examples: 1) coworkers in the back of the room at a staff meeting, cutting up and being so noisy I couldn’t hear what our boss (the department head!?) was saying up front. “Guys, can you quiet down, please?” “Oh, just relax.” 2) Thumping and banging and screaming and yelling coming from upstairs neighbors. (Sounds like, when I was a kid, would occasionally accompany black eyes and broken bones.) Saw them out in the parking lot, asked, “Everything okay?” Dad got incredibly defensive and, after a shouting argument, muttered, “Just relax.” I thought this was common enough to be a Thing, but I don’t find any discussion of the phenomenon online.

A12: Things I know about the command “Just relax!”

  1. It is often used by people who want to manipulate you into doing something you don’t want to do and people who want to punish you for being right when they know they are in the wrong.
  2. It has never, in the history of the world, made anyone actually relax.
  3. One possible response is a flat “I am relaxed” and then continuing to expect what you expect and need what you need (Workbros to shush already, “I am relaxed, I’m just making sure everyone’s okay, it sounded pretty rowdy last night. Have a great day.”)
  4. When men say it to women, they want us to be quiet and afraid of appearing “shrill,” so another possible response when circumstances warrant is to selectively and strategically show them what EXTREMELY UNRELAXED looks like and then snap back to “Ok, so, what were we talking about? Right, I’m gonna need you to _____.” Neither examples you shared warrant this strategy yet (you don’t want to escalate with scary neighbor), but for habitual offenders who you don’t work with? Sometimes reminding people that they have choices and that you also have choices can snap people into coming correct.
  5. As for the neighbor situation, his defensive reaction is right out of the textbook, so read the bystander intervention stuff up thread and think about de-escalation, especially distraction. This has a nice short summary (probably don’t call the police unless it’s an immediate life-or-death situation, check in with the other parent subtly). You could also talk to a DV resource like LoveIsRespect.org for more guidance.

Thanks for the interesting and challenging questions! We’ll be back with more in about a month.

Hello, Captain!

Could you talk about how to be good at setting boundaries in a non-situation-specific way? You get a lot of letters from people who are having trouble with someone else not respecting their boundaries, and obviously that is not the time to say “are you sure you really communicated what you meant?” But I (she/her) am someone who is GREAT at respecting “no,” but really, really bad at understanding deflection and being ‘politely’ ignored. I sometimes worry that people may generalize your excellent advice for a specific situation –

1) Express boundary
2) Hold firm on boundary
3) Minimize contact

to –

A) Gently hint at boundary
B) Gently hint at boundary again
C) Walk away.

Because that is definitely a thing that has happened to me. Not all friendships/relationships are meant to be, of course, but I really enjoy being able to be friends with people who see the world differently than I do, even when it requires a little extra communication work. So I’m wondering what you think the best way is to check in with oneself early in a relationship, when things are just barely irritating (when you, Captain, are very unlikely to be getting letters), about whether the actual, literal word “no” (or “stop”) has been said and ignored? Because I’m also pretty sure I’ve been on both sides of this, because who loves provoking conflict? Not me!

A Libra Who Doesn’t Really Believe in Astrology Except For That Balance Thing Which Is Awesome

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Ahoy Captain,

I (she/her) was recently dumped by a guy (he/him). It’s now been about a month since we broke up, and we only dated for a few months. Since we split, I’ve been reflecting on some things that I wish I had handled differently in our relationship. We got lunch together a couple weeks ago and then he asked that we not talk for a couple weeks. I’ve respected that, but the end of the couple of weeks is coming up and we were hoping to be friends again. Should I try to apologize for things that I wish I’d done differently? Or is it better to just let it go and assume he doesn’t want to talk about it anymore? I don’t want it to turn into re-hashing old difficulties, and I don’t want to apologize if the only reason is so that I feel better. But if it might help him and our future friendship, I want him to know that I realize I wasn’t perfect and I aim to do better.

The longer version, if you want it:
I’ve mostly had polyamorous relationships in my life, and when I went into this one, I made an effort to show him positive aspects of polyamory and give him resources he could use to learn about it more as an option. At the time I’m not sure I was entirely clear even in my own head about what I wanted, but in retrospect I think that I would have been happy being either polyamorous or monogamous (we were monogamous throughout our relationship and I was happy with it). What I wanted was for him to make an effort to learn about and consider options other than monogamy, because I didn’t want to treat monogamy as the default, and I wanted to feel that he had some understanding and respect for my past relationships (e.g. didn’t think that polyamorous relationships couldn’t be serious and committed, when I’ve had serious and committed polyamorous relationships). Instead I gave the impression that, while I was happy with our relationship and willing to be patient, being polyamorous was ultimately important to me. This ended up making him feel like he was solely responsible for deciding whether or not he wanted to be polyamorous, and that our relationship couldn’t continue if he decided polyamory wasn’t for him (which is ultimately what he decided). He spent a while being anxious about needing to make this decision, and I’m afraid I didn’t listen to him enough in that time.

So basically what I want to tell him is: I’m sorry I put you through all that anxiety and made you feel like you had to figure it out on your own. I think I kind of assumed that I knew what was best for the relationship, and if I’d been a bit more humble, I would have approached it more as something we could figure out together. I know it’s too late for our relationship, but I think in the future, I’ll make a lot more effort to approach this issue as a discussion where we both consider different options and decide together what works best for us. I appreciate all the thought and effort you put into this, so I just wanted you to know that I acknowledge that and I wish I’d made it easier for you.

Does that sound at all helpful and constructive in moving forward? Or does it sound like it’s mostly self-serving on my part, and would mostly just re-open wounds and re-ignite arguments?

Thanks Captain.
-Ambiamorous Apologies

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Hi Captain!

I live in a largish city and participate in fairly distinct professional and hobbyist circles. Every so often – maybe once a month or so – I meet a new person in one of them, who will swear up and down that they have seen me before, or that they have met me before, or that they know me from somewhere. But I’m pretty sure that they haven’t met me! I have a good memory for faces, and I’m quite sure that I have never met this person in my life. I know I’m not infallible, but I’m really, really sure.

It’s kind of weird and I’ve started using it as a way of knowing when I need a haircut – if I maintain my usual style well, it’s a little more distinctive.

My usual response to this is to politely but firmly insist that I don’t know them, because I don’t want to play that game of ‘where do I know you from’, where the other person lists all kinds of possibilities, knowing that it will never lead to a satisfying answer. I usually say “I think I just have that kind of face”, which is my actual current working theory about this. This seems to be sad and off-putting for the other person though, who is some perfectly reasonable stranger who shares at least some common interest with me, who I probably would like to get to know better, and here I am doing a thing that sort of shuts the social situation down and doesn’t leave the other person a way to get to know me. (I realize that sometimes folks will use this as a pickup line, but this doesn’t seem like that kind of situation.)

How can I politely disabuse someone of the notion that they know me from somewhere, without coming off as totally unfriendly? It’s awkward and I want to take the awkward away without pretending that it is possible that I may have shown up to a stamp-collecting meetup two years ago or something.

Also, if any of my doppelgängers are reading: perhaps this is good advice for you too, and I’m very sorry for any inconvenience I may be causing you.

Thanks,
Generic-looking white lady in her late thirties I guess
pronouns: she / her / hers

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Hi Captain,

I (she/her) am 39 years old and haven’t had a real friend since I was 23. Due to numerous instances of abandonment and rejection before and since, I’ve developed a form of Social Anxiety where I panic whenever I think someone important to me might, well, abandon or reject me. I’m working on this with a lot of self-help and meditation, but I need some help with my current situation.

Two years ago, I met a guy my age at work, who is very successful, a young executive at our very large, you’ve definitely heard of it company. Upon discovering that we have a lot in common, and I was struggling with a miserable job situation at the time, he quickly became my mentor, and from there, we’ve become friends.

Here’s where it gets weird. Despite the fact that we talk about deep, personal, obviously non-work related subjects, including things like God, anxiety, self-doubt, spiraling down into dangerous depression, etc., he has refused to meet me outside of work. These deep meaningful conversations occur in 30 minute scheduled meetings once a month in his office. He won’t even give me his personal cell phone number, using his work mobile instead. (P.S. it’s not because I’m a married woman and he’s a married man. We had that conversation. Also, most of my invitations have been for us to do things with our spouses in tow, and my hubby is fully supportive.)

Background on him, he was formerly a soldier in Iraq, and his best friend was killed there. It messed him up pretty bad, and he did go to therapy. He has stated he has no friends (and supposedly he likes it that way). I suspect he erected these walls to protect himself from ever experiencing that kind of pain again. I think he is struggling because I’ve managed to get through his defenses, and he cares about me. He always genuinely appreciates me being a good friend- checking on him when he’s sick, sending him goofy memes to cheer him up when he’s stressed out (which has been a lot lately), etc. The verbal and written work/life barrier has been thoroughly crossed. He just won’t cross the physical work/life barrier.

Anyway, it’s been taking him longer and longer to say no when I invite him out, and it’s obvious to me that responding to my invitations causes him tremendous anxiety. It’s like he really wants to say yes but talks himself out of it. At our last meeting, after turning down my latest invitation (with a “probably not” following a full week of deliberation), he said that he was now willing to meet outside of work, but it has to be something really small, like lunch (which is impossible with his schedule). So far I haven’t found anything small enough, and he’s made no suggestions.

Because of my anxiety, every time he tells me no, I freak out and spend a day or two crying, unable to sleep, etc., until I’m able to get a handle on the negative thought train and shut it down. I’ve considered giving up on him numerous times, but I can’t do it because he gives excellent advice, I feel so comfortable talking to him, he understands my pain, he makes me feel good about myself, basically I need him to talk to, and I feel like he needs my help too. Everyone needs a friend, and I might be the only person persistent enough to keep trying with him, BECAUSE of my anxiety. And he’s SO CLOSE now. Admitting he would go out was huge. But I’m also frustrated and tired of the roller coaster ride of emotions (as is my husband.) To make matters worse, I turn 40 in two months and all I wanted was to be surrounded by friends, but I can’t even get one friend and his wife to go somewhere fun for an hour and have dinner after. I’m having a hard time staying positive. What should I do?

-Best Friend by Default

Dear Best Friend by Default,

I preserved your email subject line, for the most part. There is…a lot…going on here, and I am going to try to be as gentle and helpful as possible, and I am going to turn off comments (you…do not…want to read them, trust me), but I do not think you are going to necessarily like anything I am going to say.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I did not grow up in a house that did conflict- I joke (but not really) that I wish my parents had fought in front of their children. Because there was never an emphasis on healthy conflict, all conflict equals bad conflict. While I feel that I can talk to my dad about issues, the real problem is my mom.

When my mom calls (every day/every other day), I go through a nerve wracking thought process. If I don’t pick up the phone (because I had a long day, because I don’t want to talk to her or anyone), she’ll become more and more anxious and escalate communication attempts. I find myself yelling to the phone, ““What do you need!?!” as it rings and before picking up. If I do pick up the phone, immediately she’ll ask, “What’re you doing?” in a tone that implies I’m doing something bad. When she calls, it’s rarely about anything time sensitive or an emergency- it’s mostly just to chat.

If she calls when I’m in traffic, and I pick up the phone and say I can’t talk, I’m dealing with driving, her tone is disappointed. However, sometimes driving is the best time to call her, because I can say that I’m home now so I have to go.

For example: I had a very busy day at work. My mom texts me a general “How’s your day going?” type of text. Nothing time sensitive, not an emergency. I see the text and ignore it because I’m in meetings all day and don’t have the brain space to deal with it right then. That evening, I go to a bookclub that my mom and I are a part of. She sees me, and immediately has a wide eyed expression, and exclaims, “Didn’t you see my text? Why didn’t you answer???” Then I have to reassure her that I was busy all day, and besides, I would see her that night.

Recently her most passive aggressive text: She posted in the family text chain, “Any recommendations for a Pandora running station?” at 5:00pm on a Sunday evening. No one responded that night, and the next morning, she posted, “Thanks fam!”

I feel that I’m good about getting back to her- I usually respond to a text within a couple of hours, and never more than 24 hours.

I’ve seen her and my dad every weekend for the past month (which is way too much in my books, but it included some family event things). When I’m at their house with my brother and sister, I find myself constantly making sure that she doesn’t feel neglected or teased. If she feels that we are not bonding as a family as she’d prefer, she lashes out and becomes mopey and angry.

I’d like to not go full nuclear and destroy the relationship, but I’m tired. I’m tired of constantly checking my phone, because if I miss a call I’m going to hear about her anxiety and how much she freaked out. If I miss a text and don’t respond for a couple of hours, I’ll get a “You ok??????” type of text and escalating from there.

What I really need: a way to tell my mom that her constant need for contact and communication is too much. Basically my mom has no chill and low boundaries, plus a heaping dose of mother anxiety. Help me!

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