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Ahoy, Captain Awkward!

Looking for some relationship advice and hoping you can help.

Background: Boyfriend and I met through a mutual friend, I’m in my mid 20s(first serious relationship) he’s in his late 30s(and been around the block a few times, though never married). It’s been an awesome two years and we’re looking into moving in together(though for the record, I haven’t slept in my own bed since March and it’s now July). I’m excited about the whole situation save for one major issue; his ex, M.

M and boyfriend basically grew up together and have always been very close. They dated for a couple years but broke it off because (according to him) it was too much like siblings dating.

She has a history of serious panic attacks and boyfriend seems to be the only one who can calm her. She was suffering so badly at one point that her baby daddy got boyfriend a job in their state(2 states away from where boyfriend was living) to help calm M down. While this was all before my time, it always struck me as odd that they were all so close.

M has always had constant contact with boyfriend the entire 2 years we’ve been together, whether it be emails, FB posts, texts, calls, kissy emoticons, etc. And now with another wave of serious panic attacks brewing, the phone calls are getting more frequent and the visits more lengthy. I’ve talked to boyfriend about maybe suggesting professional help for her as M’s constant contact is taking its toll on him(to the point where he says he’s exhausted and he’s starting to freak out a bit just listening to her freak outs). But he brushes it off with “People who’ve never suffered don’t understand” and “She’s family. I can’t just ignore it”.

Don’t get me wrong, M is super sweet but it also feels like she’s co-dependent on boyfriend and he either doesn’t see it or just chalks it up to being “family”. M, baby daddy and co have since moved back to their home state (5minutes away from boyfriend). And having been here for 3 or so years, M has yet to make any friends of her own, hence the tight hold she appears to have on boyfriend to help her deal with things.

All that to say, what do I do? I love boyfriend and I’ve always heard you marry the man, you marry the family, but am I wrong in thinking this is too much family? I want to build a future with this man but I don’t know if I’m ready to build a future with him AND M. Previous relationships he’s had he said “worked” because the women were “mature” enough to understand the relationship he and M have. So am I not being mature enough? Do I try and make some sort of ultimatum? Break it off til he gets his priorities back on the relationship?

-Sidelined In California

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Hello, nice people of the internet!

I took your generous Pledge Drive donations and finally bought myself a reliable, working computer. I CAN WRITE AGAIN!

February is over and my 2-week sinus-infection-shitbeast-respiratory-thing-from-hell seems to be lifting. I CAN WRITE AGAIN!

HI IT IS NICE TO SEE YOU ALL I MISSED YOU AND HOPE YOU ARE OK

Today’s question comes up in a lot of forms, so let’s kill many birds with one stone, or hey, can someone find a new, less horrifying metaphor that means that same thing?

Dear Captain and Crew,

 2006-2008 I was dating a grand master Darth, “Ben.” The details of his darthiness aren’t particularly relevant, except in that they were generally either “micro-aggressions” or happened without witnesses. For example, in public he’d make a lot of subtle comments to undercut my self-image and competence in order to get me to do what he wanted me to. Which on their own were fairly *eye roll* move on-y, but added up were extremely detrimental to my emotional health.  In private he was downright manipulative and abusive.  

In 2008 I took a semester off as an escape strategy, which gave me the confidence to break up with Darth.  Unfortunately at the time I nurtured a misguided belief that when you break up with someone the “mature” “adult” thing to do is to maintain a friendship with them.  And so we did, and in this “friendship” he maintained the same darth-y behavior of our relationship.  Additionally twice he pressured me into living with him so it wasn’t even that much safer than in the relationship. 

Finally, I moved 3000 miles away.  For a while he would still send me manipulative electronic and phone communications, but eventually I developed a “Team You” in my new city, who convinced me to cease all communication with him and not look at any contacts he makes.  This was probably the most stress relieving decision of my life.

The problem: we still have many mutual friends from my former city.  While some of the people in our friend group also felt abused by Ben, many have stayed friends with him. So I’m trying to figure out how I navigate situations such as weddings or reunions, in which I know Ben will be present.  I wouldn’t want to miss these occasions, and I don’t feel like I would be in any danger, but I want ways to address two issues:  (1) How do I communicate to my friends that my relationship and subsequent friendship with Ben were abusive and detrimental and as such I have cut ties, but they are free to do with him as they please, so long as they don’t require us to sit next to each other on a seating chart or something and (2) If I do end up “cornered” by Ben at one of these events, how do I communicate: I have cut ties with you, I am willing to be cordial and polite but I am not willing to engage any further than that.  

For (1) I’m worried about having to “prove” his abusiveness, which could quickly get to an awkward place if I discuss the awful things he did in private, but would be hard to do only describing the micro-aggressions because these were really only problematic because they built up so much.  For (2) I know he would say that logically I OWE him an explanation and try to manipulate me into such so I’d rather get away from the topic/him before he starts using his finally honed tactics.

Wanna Be Hans not Luke 

P.S. I am a lady for pronoun purposes

Dear Han/Hans:

Hans and Franz from Saturday Night Live, also, I'm old.

We are here to awkwardly pump you up.

Han Solo looking sheepish yet relaxed

Who *wouldn’t* want to be me?

Learn this phrase. Love this phrase. Repeat this phrase:

“Actually, ‘Ben’ and I aren’t friends anymore.” 

For most reasonable people, that answers the question. If anyone asks you why? or whyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyyy?

“You know, we tried to keep in touch for a while after we broke up. But the more we interacted, the more I realized that I just don’t like him.” 

I know that it is tempting to seek 1) justice, 2) validation of your memory and perspective from people who are in a position to bear witness to what happened, and 3) deserved shunning of the dude by all things associated with fun and goodness in the world, but being brief and direct should get you around any “proving” that what he did was wrong, “sufficiently” abusive, whatever. You don’t have to prove squat; you just don’t like him, and the boss of such decisions and feelings is you and you alone. If people ask “what happened” or “why?” (or whyyyyyyyyyyyyy?) you can decide how much detail to go into.He was constantly shitty to me in a million small ways that are hard to really describe but that add up to a portrait of ‘yeesh’ and ‘never again,'” vs. “Eh, I don’t necessarily feel like recapping it,” + “I can be civil in small doses, though, so, let’s talk about exciting stuff like YOUR AWESOME WEDDING!”

Don’t justify it more than that if you don’t want to. You just don’t like him. This is the insidious aftermath of abuse in geek social circles: You think you need to show some kind of cause for not liking someone, even when the person has mistreated you. Even if Ben (or a proxy) could somehow win the argument that you are being unfair in not wanting to hang out with him, would it make you like him and want to be around him again? Howabout we change the terms to “I, Han/Hans do sincerely despise ‘Ben’ with all my soul. I will be civil for the sake of others because that’s what party guests do, but honestly, he can eff right off.”  People can draw whatever conclusions from that they want to. If they need his flaws “proven” to them before they’ll accept your opinion, you can lump them in with old Benji in the Yeesh-bin of history.

“Heyhowsitgoing” + Being Elsewhere is your current plan for encountering actual Ben at these events, correct? Hopefully that will work. Probably that will work. If it does work, then rejoice: he has gotten the message that you don’t want him in your life and is keeping a respectful distance. This is how adults who don’t like each other handle social situations.

If it doesn’t work, and he insists on having some kind of conversation, try the Broken Record approach and then physically move away. Repeat as necessary:

  • “I don’t want to talk, Ben.”
  • “You’ll have to excuse me.” 
  • “I’m here for [Bride/Groom] and [Bride/Groom], not you. Let’s drop it.” 
  • “Yes, I am avoiding you, and I want to keep right on doing that.”
  • “You are making me very uncomfortable. I’m walking away now.”
  • “I’m not actually interested in repairing this friendship or working anything out. Not sure I can be any clearer than that. Howabout we drop it and just celebrate with our friends?”

If he is a certain flavor of Darth, he will use “clearing the air,” “apologizing,” “making things right,” etc. as a way to come across as a bemused, hapless good guy who can’t understaaaaaaaaaand why you just won’t give him your time and attention so he can talk at you. He will enlist others in this cause. “I just want to make things right, but she won’t talk to me. Can you help us clear the air?” This sounds like what you are (reasonably) worried about.

Keep these scripts at hand should you meet Ben’s Middle Child Wingman and Carrier of Geek Social Fallacy #4:

  • “I appreciate the apology.” + “You’ll have to excuse me.”  You can “appreciate” it the way one does a work of art or a fine wine or well-performed production of Hamlet. You can also do that appreciating from a safe distance.
  • “It’s nice that he wants to discuss things, but I’m just not interested.” + “You’ll have to excuse me.” 
  • “There’s nothing to actually work out, since he’s not a part of my life anymore. We’re just two random guests at the same party.” + “You’ll have to excuse me.” 

In case of a scenario that came up once upon an inbox question that I never got time to answer, where it’s the host of the event pressuring you to “make peace” or “forgive” “because it’s my wedding!” or “do it for meeeeeeeeee” consider the following responses:

  • Wouldn’t you rather have some cheese knives?”
  • “Loathing another human being with all my soul is not, actually, like, negotiable.”
  • “I am really glad you want me here to celebrate your wedding. I am so happy for you! Can’t we leave ex-boyfriends out of this and just celebrate the day?”
  • “The less ‘Ben’ and I interact, the better I’ll like him.”
  • “It’s not fixable because there is nothing to fix. He’s not a part of my life anymore, beyond us being guests at the same party. You are a part of my life, though, and since I’m back here so rarely I don’t want to waste our precious time talking about stupid ex-boyfriend stuff.” 

“You need to feel x way about y person as a favor to me” is not actually a favor that people get to request!

One of the ways manipulative people get their way is through the tacit threat of “making a scene,” as in, Ben might approach/corner you and say something that would sound innocuous to people who don’t know your history, in the hopes that you’ll flip out and appear unreasonable by comparison. This is how unreasonable people use “keeping the peace” and the social contract against reasonable people.

If by some chance you “made a scene” to get away from your abusive ex-boyfriend who would not leave you alone at a party, it would not be the worst thing in the world. It would not be your fault, and, while stressful to contemplate, honestly I think we could all benefit from more “scenes” of this type. After all, you survived years of your constant emotional abuse, is an awkward moment at a party is supposed to scare you? Seriously? While you don’t want to give this guy too much room in your head at a function you’re supposed to be enjoying, practicing what you’ll say, thinking of escape routes ahead of time, etc. can help you feel more grounded if something should come up. But go ahead. Go ahead and imagine the scene, where you say “SRSLY, what part of me not calling or writing you back for seriously YEARS at a time did not sink in? You’re gonna follow me around our friend’s wedding like a kicked puppy and try to ‘make’ me talk to you? Is that what today is about for you? I’d feel sorry for you if you weren’t so creepy.” + executing a perfect pivot worthy of Beyoncé + leaving a room of stunned people behind you without a care in the world because they can’t touch your courage and your awesomeness.

In the past readers have suggested the most excellent strategy of having someone serve as your official party comrade for occasions like this: someone who is in the know about the dark, shitty history and can be a buffer in situations when you need an easy out (“So sorry to interrupt! Han(s), can you come help me with (conveniently invented task)?”) and a not-so-easy out (“Dude, she said she didn’t want to talk to you. GET THE HINT ALREADY!”). Since there are others in that same friend group who are wise to Ben’s antics, you should have no shortage of people who are also trying to avoid that dude and can summon you to solve urgent dance floor emergencies.

Dear Captain Awkward:

An ex (X) asked if I had reservations about X hooking up with a mutual acquaintance (A). I told X my reservation/opinion. X then told A what I said. A is angry and upset

On one hand, I gave an opinion when asked based on my knowledge of situations involving A. But on the other, regardless of my intention, A got hurt, and I do not know A that well, so what I said could of course be totally wrong. I wish A had not been hurt, and it was not my intent.

I am thinking it over and trying to figure out if there is something I should have done instead. I am really stupid about human relationships (so often I don’t grasp what people find stunningly simple/common sense), and I would like to know how to address situations like this correctly in the future. Any insight or advice you have is truly appreciated. Thank you.

Honest but Awkward

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Dear Captain & Friends,

A while ago, I had a falling out with a lover I’d had for a relatively short time. They are in the habit of not speaking to people when displeased with them, and my last contact with them was to say that I would contact them when I felt like I was in an emotionally good place to talk again. I also made it clear that they could contact me before then, and I’d be open to scheduling a talk at that time.

After some time and hearing some of the hurtful things they said about me to my primary partner, I’ve decided that I don’t really want to talk to them. Some of my actions and habits were clearly misinterpreted, and while I don’t think this former lover is a bad person, I also don’t think they use their words enough for me to feel comfortable around them. I use my words A LOT, and I’m pretty direct about discussing what bothers me, why, and if I think it needs to be changed or it’s something I know I need to relax about. They didn’t choose to communicate their boundaries or feelings to me, except for a little bit at our falling out, when it was already too late for us to talk about fixing things. That’s not the kind of (lack of) communication style I want in my life. I’ve already started taking a look at how I was misinterpreted and deciding what I want to do differently in the future, with other people, to avoid that issue the best I can.

There are two problems with this.
1) I feel guilty because I said I’d say something when I personally felt like the rest of my life was going smoothly enough for me to talk. I don’t care for going back on my word.

2) We share a (large, to be fair) social circle, which they’ve been in far longer. I get anxious when considering going to events I know this person will be at, not knowing what they may have said about me to other people (they spoke poorly of one person they were *still sleeping with* when I was seeing them) and also fearing what people will think if they notice me and this person avoiding each other/not speaking.

What do you think? Should I offer to schedule that talk, or at least say I don’t care to? What kind of script could I use? And how can I deal with going to the same events?

Thank you for your time.

Going for Calm & Responsible

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I’ve been in a relationship with a kind, caring man for the past two years. This is my first serious relationship (yay!) and his second. I’ve had some experience with casual dating and casual sex prior to meeting my boyfriend, but he hasn’t had as much, so his previous relationship is his main point of reference. “Stephanie” was his first kiss, his first sexual partner, his first girlfriend, the first girl he introduced to his family…and they still work together, 7 years later. I’m trying to be understanding since anyone’s first relationship is a formative experience, and they also have to get along because they work together. I’m monogamous but generally not jealous; I’m friends with most of my exes and I assumed he’s friends with at least some of his. However, I don’t understand what’s going on here.

Just a couple weeks after we started dating, he broached the subject with a text message: “I can’t wait to see you…I had a rough day. big fight with my ex/coworker. I was upset all day.” This was the very first he had mentioned her, and I thought it was inappropriate but he was trying to express affection, so I ignored it. Soon after he started explicitly comparing me to her really often and drunkenly told me that I had “stiff competition” from her. Now and then when the subject of exes came up in conversation in a group of people, he would say that she had made him come alive, that she taught him how to feel emotions, she opened his eyes and changed his life, etc. I think that’s the kind of puppy love stuff that people say while they’re in a relationship, but not 7 years afterwards. Certainly not in front of their current significant other. On the other hand, their relationship was a rocky one, so whenever he was gaslighting me (another issue we had) he would compare me to her and say, “Don’t cause drama. That’s the kind of thing Steph would do. I thought you were better than that. We don’t need drama.” She was simultaneously an angel whose example I could never live up to, and the epitome of a terrible girlfriend. Another red flag was that during their relationship they did a shit ton of drugs together, and I’m not comfortable with the amount of drugs he uses now. Last summer she sold him a bunch of LSD which he later pressured me into taking, and I worry that his nostalgia for her overlaps with his nostalgia for his crackhead phase.

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Dear Captain Awkward:

It’s been an interesting week for me. First, I found out that my abusive ex-boyfriend has gotten his new girlfriend pregnant. (Unrelated to the question, but adding to the weirdness: I’m a massage therapist, and she got scheduled with me for a pregnancy massage, I mean, wtf? I did not end up massaging her, but only because I happened to ask a coworker to take the massage.) This threw me for a loop – since I found out, I have been thinking about him a lot more, remembering the relationship, having weird dreams about him/the situation, and generally kind of being triggered? I’m frustrated. The relationship ended over 3 years ago, and the only contact I have with him is when I occasionally Facebook stalk him to see if I can find something to be superior about (mature, I know). I don’t want to think about him anymore, I don’t quite know why I still even care, and I REALLY don’t know why knowing that his girlfriend is pregnant is causing a resurfacing of the crazy.

Secondly. I’ve been in a relationship now for about 2 years with a sweet and gentle man who has made it his business to make me as happy as I can possibly be. He’s kind and sweet and blah blah blah I don’t want to gross you all out – you get the picture. Over the course of our relationship, we’ve discovered that neither one of us is all that sexually possessive, and so our agreement has been that if we find someone we really want to have sex with, we can go ahead and do it. However, until yesterday, I thought neither one of us had really taken advantage of it – I’ve done a bit of online flirting with his knowledge and approval, but nothing physical. And then yesterday happened.

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Hi Captain,

I’m in a bit of a pickle, so I’m hoping you might be able to give me some advice. I broke up with my boyfriend about two years ago, after being in a relationship for about as long. Now, unfortunately, he sent me an email asking me which job to pick (one is approximately 4000 miles closer to where I am) and whether there was any hope of getting back together and that he would never be able to love anyone else and to please explain why I left.

To recap our relationship, we met while I was on an exchange program and I ended up going to grad school there to keep my visa. He was very, very committed to the relationship and talking about marriage from the very beginning, and I was miserably alone in a foreign country. He was very good at talking, arguing his point of view, rationalizing; it was impossible to ‘win’ against him in discussions. In hindsight I feel sort of like I completely lost sight of who I am, what I value, what I need and want while I was in this relationship. The day-to-day stuff was pretty happy though and we usually got along quite well, but had fairly infrequent but massive fights in which he called me selfish, self-centered, fickle, second-handed, immature, etc. until I cried my eyes out. To be fair, I was at the time an undiagnosed depressed, anxious, generally messed-up Aspie, so it was not easy to live with me, and I probably shouldn’t have got into a relationship at all, let alone one so serious.

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