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Dear Captain Awkward:

My 27 year old son has been in a relationship with his girlfriend for about 18 months. He was living with a friend until a couple months ago, when he and his girlfriend moved to an apartment. Before the move, his friend came to see my husband and I to talk about the situation. He said that the girlfriend is a total loser and the two of them fight constantly. He said many of their friends can’t stand her, and that the two of them drink and smoke weed, i.e. enable each other’s recreational drug use. They are both broke most of the time, although they work full time at low level jobs. My son was barely able to cover living expenses before, and asked us for financial help from time to time. When we heard about his plans to move in with her, we were not happy but came to grips with the situation, accepting the fact he is an adult and has to make his own decisions. Since then, we have stopped all flow of cash to him, hoping the living situation and the relationship will eventually fall apart and he will start over.

We do not want the girlfriend attending all our family gatherings. It’s too stressful for me to converse with her because I feel she is a terrible influence on him. The problem is, she’s manipulative and puts on a very phony act around us. I see right through her, as my son can also be that way. I can see how they feed off each other and it drives me crazy. She seems to rule his life and is very self centered. I’ve wondered if there is some sex addiction going on, because for the life of me I can’t understand his attraction to her otherwise. I just see a toxic relationship, like his friend told us.

I am struggling with how to handle a family gathering at Christmas. She was with us at Thanksgiving and that was too much for me. Should we tell him it’s family only, or should I just decline to attend????

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Dear Cap’n,

I don’t know how best to help my DH. This message follows us having a long, slightly drunk but happy and loving chat about his life.

DH’s family history is complicated. His upbringing includes some things which, when we talk about them, he agrees were “probably abuse”, but explains that he’s somewhat normalised what happened to him, and tends to say it totally matter-of-factly, as though this were just how things are. His feelings – or lack of – are complicated by guilt. DH was born a sickly child, with complex medical needs that put a lot of strain on the family. His parents divorced partly due to the stress of it all. He did not cope well with his deformities or medical needs and his childhood was a mixture of being a bullying victim, being a bully, having serious anger issues and acting out. I’m sometimes amazed by the wonderful, loving, mentally balanced person he’s become without therapy or help.

DH doesn’t seem to know what sort of relationship he wants with his parents. He is amicable with them, visits his mother about once a month, enjoys talking to his father… but he won’t initiate contact, and he gets anxious if, for example, his mum tries to ask him to visit on short notice. At the same time, he’s just naturally bad at maintaining relationships and has asked me to help him keep in better contact with his gran and siblings. He’s never confronted either parent and even apologised to his father recently for being a “difficult child”.

At the same time, the abuse has only come out over a long time in small parts. and by the time I started to get the picture, we’d been together years and had started to build closer relationships with his parents. His mum in particular, who is always very kind and concerned and helpful, and I don’t know how to feel about her, or the FIL, or any of it. To be fair, DH doesn’t isn’t certain how he feels. He’s given me permission to ask his big sis for more info on their childhood, because his memory can cause him problems. She lives abroad though, and I’d feel weird asking by email.

Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones. But I don’t know how to do this where his parents are concerned. I don’t want to pressure him to get closer than he feels comfortable, but I also don’t want to be the woman that drives him from his family into hers, as his father’s second wife has started doing with him.

I’d love some advice please!

This statement: “Because of his relationship and memory difficulties, it’s my job to help him maintain contact with loved ones.” from your letter set off my Yikes-o-meter. Yikes!

Here is my advice:

Do not volunteer to be the carrier for his communication and relationship with his family, or to sort out these memories. Do not email his sister. It is only “your job” if you choose it, and you get to choose to not make it your job.

You can be a sounding board.

You can be a listening ear.

You should not be an ambassador or a manager. And you don’t have to feel any particular thing. HE doesn’t have to feel any particular thing.

Even in much less extreme situations (history of abuse, memory problems, disability) men sometimes expect that women will do the emotional work of the relationship, up to and including remembering everyone in HIS family’s birthday and buying presents/sending cards/keeping in touch. I think this sets a bad precedent, where his messed up family issues are now something that are the present stuff of your relationship. I’m sure he feels great after this chat you guys had; he just transferred all responsibility for sorting out his messy past over to you and now you’re writing me for advice on how to do it when really HE could write in for advice (not necessarily here, but somewhere) on how to do it.

This is HIS family.

This is HIS history.

This is HIS thing to solve.

I think it is admirable that you want to help your husband, and admirable that he wants to get back in touch with people and start sorting things out. And I think there is no one perfect way that he has to feel about a history of abuse. It is possible for people to have very dysfunctional relationships as children that grow into much more mellow relationships as people age, get power and autonomy, and create a series of positive interactions to build on.

But it is on HIM to contact his sister, sort out his memories, and deal with them (with the help of a professional, if necessary), and keep in better touch with his gran and his siblings. “Terrible at maintaining relationships” isn’t an actual condition, it’s a series of choices that have turned into a habit.

The best way to get in touch with people you haven’t talked to in a while is to send a greeting. People love getting mail that isn’t bills, so maybe write a postcard. “Dear _____, I hope you are well. I read/saw/ate/experienced this thing recently that made me think of you and remember the time that we _________. (Wife) and I are doing well, here is a thing that is new with me. Have a happy (upcoming holiday, season of the year), Love, Husband.” Keep it light, and remember, if communication has really lapsed, the other people don’t know what to say or how to begin either, and will be grateful for you breaking the ice. Make the effort, say something brief and kind, and then keep sending responses when they respond back. It is honestly that simple: If you want to, you will do it. If you don’t want to, then don’t do it, but don’t expect your partner to magically make it happen for you. Either admit that you don’t want to do it and make peace with that, or work on the “I want to want to, I just haven’t figured it out yet” stuff with a therapist.

You can help by dropping stuff in the mail, or picking up postcards, or hunting down addresses, or even helping him come up with things to say, but you shouldn’t manage the entire process.

The problem of making an adult relationship with imperfect relatives is not unique to this guy, it’s something we all have to figure out for ourselves.

My advice is that your mantra becomes “I am always here to listen, and I will support any decision you make, but I am not comfortable (emailing your sister, sorting out your past, taking the lead on how you interact with your family).”

I’m sure the community will have alternate perspectives to my initial “AW HELL NAW” reaction, I hope it will be helpful.

Hello Captain and Friends,

I come from the type of broken home that looks shiny on the outside. The one bright spot in growing up with my neglectful (but not abusive towards me) parents was/is my big brother. We’ve always been very close and have essentially been each other’s best friends since some rather cruel fallings-out we had with our respective friends groups in high school. I wouldn’t say we tell each other everything, but definitely the important things.

My brother finished his Master’s last spring and decided to spend the six months after that traveling. He was doing the student-backpacker thing, so we didn’t keep as closely in touch as we normally do, mostly postcards and brief calls and the occasional email. So imagine my surprise when he came home at the end of December with a fiancĂ© I’d never even heard of.

I’m pretty hurt by this and I think I’m justified. I’m sure that his boyfriend is a great guy, but our parents’ New Years’ party was the first place I met him and also the first time I’d seen my brother in six months. My parents went through the roof, my dad (his step-dad) especially, who has never really accepted that my brother was bi and who used to occasionally express that non-acceptance with his fists when we were younger. There was a huge fight at the party. My brother and his boyfriend left early. Ever since, whenever I talk to my brother, all he does is complain about how he knew mom and dad would react that way and tell me all the horrible things they’ve said to him since. (Apparently they’ve bombarded him with voicemails and even roped other family members into it.)

Obviously I mostly nod and tell him they’re jerks (because they are), but I also want to make it clear to him that they’re not the only ones upset and that I’m hurt too. I’m afraid that anything I say will be seen as taking their side or come across as homophobic or petty. (For the record, I’m totally fine with his bisexuality and have met and approved of past boyfriends. It’s the speed and being kept in the dark that are upsetting me here.) I mean, I know things happen on long trips that seem awesome and then you come home and things change. I don’t want him to get hurt, but also, yeah, I’m pissed he didn’t tell me he’s marrying a stranger.

How can I tell him all this without turning it into him accusing me of siding with my parents? I want to support him, but he’s been through a lot and I’m really worried.

-Wary Sister

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Ahoy thar.

Cliff notes time! Over the past four years, I:
– dropped out of high school for Multiple Reasons
– got a fantastic very-part-time clerical job which, although I don’t **LOVE** it 24/7, has great co-workers and doesn’t take up too much brainpower (which is good because I have a history of overloading myself and panicking)
– realised my Dad was full-on abusive towards me for much of my life (physically and emotionally), and more recently realised that my Mum was at best ignorant about what he did and at worst complicit, and has also been abusive at times (much more minorly, but still).

I’m still living with my parents. Having talked it over with my wonderful psychologist and with a friend who is also a survivor of abuse, I’ve starting to think that I have to Get Out. ASAP.

My problem is that I have no idea how to do that. My friend has offered either to help me by giving me some money or by putting me up for a while, but the latter would mean leaving my pretty-damn-decent job to move to another city.
The former? Well, Dad often liked to tell me, “You’re a failure who will never amount to anything and you’ll be a burden on society all your life,” so I’m sure you can understand why I don’t want to take anyone’s money unearned (I did check, by the way – I’m not eligible for government assistance because I’m not studying full-time, able to work 15 hours a week, theoretically able to pay bills, over 18… You get the picture). I’d do the same for hir, yes, but when it’s me? Jerkbrain says no.

I’m the biggest introvert I know, so I don’t think a sharehouse would be a good idea for me, but I don’t know that I can afford to live on my own, both financially and because I forget to eat when I’m not around people. And the rental market is not too keen on first-timers at the moment. Besides, the most I’ve ever been responsible for in my life is a mobile phone bill and some goldfish. Exaggerating, but you get my point.

I don’t know what to do. Have you any recommendations? Stay at home just-for-now, find a flat immediately, move cities, try and find a friend to share with? Take someone else’s money to escape, or use my own (rather limited) funds? Those are my only options, I think.

Also, the fact that I don’t even have a high school certificate makes job-finding harder. Just to make things extra tricky!

Yours sincerely,
Ms Kittenwhiskers (because that’s a much cooler name than my real one!)

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Dear Captain and Awkward Army,

My husband and I live a few hours from my extended family and often go to visit them, staying with my aunt and uncle. My parents live out of state and also stay with my aunt and uncle when they come to visit, but they will be moving closer to these relatives very soon. My aunt has commented sadly that no family members will stay with them anymore (they are great hosts and love hosting), since my parents will have their own house and, everyone presumes, we will go stay with my parents when we come to visit.

The issue is that I would much prefer to continue to stay with my aunt and uncle because my mom keeps their house ICE COLD. She seems to have the idea that since she hit menopause, this gives her complete and unquestionable control over the thermostat. As an example: On my WEDDING DAY, I was in my dress at my parents’ house before going to the church, and I was so cold my fingers were turning purple, and when I asked my mom if I could turn the temperature up, she said, “I turned it up earlier, but I got too hot, so I had to turn it down again.”

My dad is cold like me but just deals with it with thick sweatshirts and what not. This says a lot about their relationship, but that’s a separate issue. My husband has also told me how much he dislikes staying at their place because of the cold.

My mom is extremely sensitive to criticism and also can be passive-aggressive. Meanwhile, my aunt is always super-concerned about hurting people’s feelings, so I think she would feel horrible about having us stay at her house if she thought my mom was going to be hurt in any way.

So as I see it, our options for visits will be:
1) Stay with my parents, freeze, continue to suffer in silence.
2) Insist that my mom turn the heat up if we are going to stay with them, deal with the backlash, then deal with passive-aggressive comments about how hot she is the entire time we’re there.
3) Find a way to continue staying with my aunt and uncle and run the risk of damaging several family relationships.
4) Stay in a hotel, which we can’t really afford and which is kind of silly when there are two homes with rooms for us.
5) Not visit family anymore??

Are there other options I’m not seeing? Any suggestions for how to have the necessary conversations with my mom and/or aunt for minimal backlash?

Sincerely,

Frozen Out

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