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Tag Archives: Boundaries

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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Hi Captain,

I am an adult (early 30’s) child of two wonderful people who are going through some turbulence in their marriage–that thing of having an empty nest/rediscovering each other/discovering they have communication issues that have just been sitting there for 30+ years and are now blowing up. They’re going to get counseling, which hopefully is step one of getting this all resolved, but in the meantime, I need some advice about navigating things with my mom. We live in different parts of the country, but we are on very good terms with one another, and talk on the phone a couple of times a week.

The current problem I have is that my mom calls me to vent about how hurt and despairing she is about her marriage, how my dad unintentionally really got under her skin or triggered her PTSD (she grew up in an abusive home). I should clarify that neither she nor I think that my dad is abusive; he just sometimes doesn’t understand what’s wrong or how to fix it. He gets hurt that she’s mad at him for reasons he doesn’t understand, then she gets hurt that he doesn’t understand, which restarts the spiral, etc. etc. etc. And then I get to hear all about the fight and how upset she is. The fighting is not constant, but it cycles around from time to time, and when it happens, it’s pretty intense.

She has been talking to me about this stuff for years–starting from when I was honestly probably still too young to deal with it–and it is super, super hard for me. I love, like, and respect both of my parents, and it feels like a punch in the gut to hear about them hurting each other, especially because I know they both deeply love each other and are trying to do right by each other. I don’t want to deny my mom the basic emotional support that friends show each other when going through a rough time. But when she talks about her marriage, it’s so hard for me, because that’s my dad. I guess for this part I feel like I need to get better at either a) not getting so rocked when we talk about this, or b) asking my mom to leave me out of it in a way that won’t absolutely crush her–especially in light of the fact that it’s been going on so long.

So that’s the current problem; the potential future one is that my mom has floated the idea of leaving my dad if things don’t get better, and she would want to come move in with me. She is disabled–still pretty independent, but unable to work, and living on her own would be a real struggle. My other sibling is kinda flaking out on the world right now and is not an option; my mom’s side of the family is the reason she has PTSD and is therefore also not an option. And as much as I love (and like!) my mom, and as much as I’d love to live in the same state again, it hurts so much to think of her moving in with me because of leaving my dad. And it would substantially disrupt my life to accommodate her. It’s not completely unworkable–but man it would be hard. If my dad died–or abused her or cheated on her–I would take her in a heartbeat with no complaints and no hesitation. But knowing that she was staying with me because she and dad gave up on each other feels very different. I worry about what it would do to my relationship with my dad. I worry about what it would do for my financial and living situation. If she decides she would be happier living with me, well, maybe she’d be right–but I’m pretty sure I’d be less happy, and I’m not sure she’s done the math on that, and I’m not sure how to tell her without making her feel rejected.

They’re adults, and are not beholden to me, so I know that pulling a “think of your (grown) children” talk would be beyond inappropriate. But–it would directly affect me. And of course I want them to work it out. I can’t tell where healthy boundaries end and selfishness begins here for me.

I guess the biggest underlying struggle I have is that I am my mom’s closest friend, and the person she trusts most in the entire world. I know this because she has told me so, repeatedly–starting when I was probably a bit too young for that to be entirely cool. And as much as I am grateful that she believes I love her and like her, it kinda scares me to be the only one she really trusts. She’s recently been seeing a therapist (thank GOD–seriously, that took years to talk her into), so I am no longer the only person she talks to at all, but I’m still the one she trusts most.

Practically speaking, I am almost certainly her only option for somewhere else to live, and I’m not sure there’s much to be done about that. Emotionally speaking, I am the only one she’s fully willing to lean on–and I feel like that part is not quite so inevitable, and also not spectacularly healthy, but I don’t know how to fix it without being really devastating to her.

Again, I love and like my mom so, so much, and I’m willing to knuckle down and do the right thing even if it’s costly to me–but I also don’t want to be shouldering burdens that I shouldn’t be taking on.

Any advice/scripts are greatly appreciated.

Signed,
Boundary-Challenged Adult Daughter

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