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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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Hello, Cap and friends! I have a couple of questions about boundary-setting with people who don’t believe in boundaries.

The Awkward team’s advice and scripts on setting boundaries have been so wonderfully helpful in my life, but what (if anything) can you say to people who believe that setting boundaries in a family is controlling?

For an example, there are wonderful scripts you linked from the SPLC center, on how to set boundaries with family members being bigoted:

>”Your ‘jokes’ are putting unnecessary distance between us; I worry they’ll end up doing irreparable harm. I want to make sure those ‘jokes’ don’t damage our relationship.” “You know that respect and tolerance are important values in my life, and, while I understand that you have a right to say what you want, I’m asking you to show a little more respect for me by not telling these ‘jokes’ when I’m around.” “I don’t want this rift to get worse, and I want us to have a good relationship. What should we do?””

In my family (parents + siblings, I’m 30), the responses are simply, “There wouldn’t be a problem if you just laughed” and “You’re trying to control what I do by saying that. It’s manipulative to say that I’m disrespecting you if I keep saying [awful insults about minority groups, or about me personally].” I mean, in a way they are kind of right? I am literally attempting to control discourse to a degree, but somehow that feels like they are missing the forest for the trees in a way I can’t articulate. Especially since they get offended if you don’t laugh at their ‘jokes!’

Is there any way to rationally respond to people that think that attempting to set boundaries (or tears at being insulted) is “childish and manipulative”? They see that as a truly deeply harmful thing, and it would be really wonderful if it was possible to get them to understand the idea of **mutual** respect.

Thank you so very much for ANY ideas.

– A Weary Woman

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Dear Captain:

My parents get along pretty well with my father-in-law, let’s call him Peter. He is a widower so they usually invite each other to visit, my husband and I included. We usually have lunch, some bottles of wine and everyone has fun. Last time my parents visited Peter my mother stumbled across an old newspaper. It had a eulogy for my mother-in-law (let’s call her Nora). She was a great woman, a social worker and activist. Unfortunately, she passed away before I met my husband.

After my mom read it, Peter came back with some printed documents and handed them to my parents. They were some poems written by Nora, that he found after her death. My mom started immediately to read them and after finishing the first page said if I wanted to read them too.

Peter and Nora had had problems during their marriage. By the time of her death, they barely speak to each other, and were practically divorced. For that reason I think Peter probably didn’t know what Nora wanted to do with her writings.

So I said “Thanks, but I don’t want to, it makes me feel uncomfortable.” And everyone asked why. So I said “well, because I don’t really know if Nora wanted them to be public. Maybe is personal stuff, and it feels wrong.”

Awkward silence ensued and then they replied the following:
Mom: “It’s no big deal sweetie, I’m sure Nora wouldn’t mind”.
Peter: “Well, it doesn’t matter much because she’s dead”
Dad: “But the only reason people write poems is to be published, isn’t’ it?”

They insisted, but I kept firm and refused to read anything. But as my parents read them and I didn’t, I was the one that ended up feeling out of place. (In case you wonder, my husband was taking a nap and missed the conversation.)

I’m super defensive about my privacy and the idea of being exposed terrifies me. My mom and I used to have big arguments about this topic. Some of the things she did include: Throw away T-shirts claiming that they made me look fat. Open bank slips with my name on it. Go to my University and asked my teachers about my grades. She finally stopped doing these things long time ago, but I still feel threatened when she starts asking me personal stuff or comments on photos or personal things I have around in my house.

And I also used to write a lot during my twenties. I have at least a dozen handwritten notebooks, with tons of personal stuff: poetry, therapy tasks, ideas, cooking recipes, drawings, rants about people, etc. I really would hate if someone reads them but I don’t have the courage to toss them.

So, I honestly don’t know if I did the right thing or if I just got defensive and missed a chance to get to know Nora better. Would you please give me your advice and opinions? And also, what can I do with my notebooks? Any ideas?

Thanks a lot.

Privacy Champion.
(she/her pronouns)

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Now that my spouse and I have purchased a house, my mother (who is a difficult person, reminiscent of Alice, but with her own special nuances) is constantly sending us my family’s old junk.

Here’s how the conversation goes: Mom says (for example), “I have all of these lawn ornaments that have been sitting in a box in the basement for 15 years. Do you want them?” I say, “No, we really just want to choose our own stuff.” She says, “Think about it.” The conversation closes. Then, the next time we talk, we have EXACTLY THE SAME conversation. Then, she sends it to me or brings it with her when she comes to visit. And I take it to a thrift store. When she visits, she looks for the previous stuff she has given me, and becomes either sullen and pouty or aggressively angry when she can’t find it. It makes visits extremely stressful.

None of the stuff on offer is anything with which I have a sentimental connection. All of those things—stuffed animals, correspondence with friends, books—my mother got rid of a number of years back (and not by giving them to me). Additionally, during my childhood, my mother took away things I liked away as a form of punishment for (often imagined) bad behavior. This happened over and over again with basically anything I had a connection to, eventually extending to pets that were re-homed and with friends that suddenly became “bad influences” that I wasn’t allowed to see. So I have a weird relationship with stuff in general and with stuff from my childhood in particular.

And now there’s this wave of childhood stuff coming at me. And it sort of feels like an apology? But there’s another part of me that thinks she’s using me, so she doesn’t have to feel guilty for throwing all this stuff away. So she transfers the guilt to me.
She’s a boundary-ignorer and a grudge-holder and a non-apologizer. What do I do?

Drowning in Junk

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