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This is the last day of the Summer Pledge Drive, where I post the links for making a (non-tax deductible) gift  through PayPal or  via Dwolla.  Your generosity so far has been amazing and I am so humbled and pleased with the outpouring of support. A new computer will be within reach when this one goes. I will be able to pay down some debt and have a little bit of an emergency fund. And, I bought a ticket to see Janelle Monae at the Vic on October 21. Yes, YOU made it possible for me to see my dream show with my dream artist. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

These two letters are representative of many I have gotten in the inbox over the past few years, and I think a lot of you will recognize yourselves somewhere in here. I think I finally have a way to frame this discussion that is maximally reassuring and honest. Please allow me to suggest some background reading before you dive into this post: The Dirty Normal on Attachment Styles.

Hey Captain!

I have a male co-worker who I am friends with outside of work. A few months ago, his wife’s work schedule changed and since then my husband and I have been hanging out with my co-worker and his wife “Clara” frequently. I like them and they’re good people, but his wife is the kind of person I enjoy best in small doses; I am shy and reserved, she is very outgoing and can be overbearing. 

Lately Clara has been inviting me to do stuff with her 2 or 3 times every week. Usually it’s a 6+ hour event with a group of 3 other girls. She frequently talks about how close we are and how great it is that we’re such good girlfriends. The thing is we’re not that close yet. We’ve only been hanging out for a few months and I actually am much better friends with their husbands & boyfriends, all of whom are my co-workers (I work a heavily male-dominated engineering field).

I do like these girls, I appreciate being included in these plans, but it’s just too much! So, I’ve started to decline every third invitation or so. The problem is, Clara bends over backwards to accommodate me. If I say I can’t make it, she’ll suggest 3 other days. When I decline those, she’ll try to squeeze the event in between my morning rock climbing club meetup and my date night, for example. I find this very stressful because she obviously is trying hard to include me and I end up having to refuse the same invitation 4 times! I can tell it hurts her feelings when this happens.

I’m not sure how to handle this. I definitely want to cultivate more female friendships in my life, but I feel like I’m being forced into some kind of weird Sex In The City fantasy of Clara’s instead of the more casual way I prefer friendships to form, where different people make the plans every time instead of one person being the Designated Event Coordinator.

How can I kindly get Clara to back off a bit without burning bridges?

Thanks,

I’m Not Carrie Bradshaw

Dear Not Carrie:

This is a “classic” advice question that perfectly fits the paradigm of many questions we have around here:

Dear Captain Awkward:
A person is making me uncomfortable and doing stuff that violates my boundaries.
How do I stop them without hurting their feelings or making them feel uncomfortable?

And you guys are all so nice, and kind, and considerate, and working so hard to be fair to the other person! But the fact remains, if the behavior is making you uncomfortable, things are already uncomfortable. Often to the point that you might have to scorch the earth of the relationship if whatever it is keeps continuing, but you’re still looking for a way to let the other person down easy. There is a perception that speaking up for boundaries is somehow introducing conflict into a situation, or at very least, escalating it in an unkind way, like, everything was fine until you spoke up for your needs and now you made it weird.

So I’d like to perform a bit of a mind flip.

  • When your shoulders are going up around your ears…
  • When you are spending a lot of time strategizing about how you deal with a person. “I will accept every third invitation…
  • When you are avoiding someone you are theoretically supposed to be friendly with…

…things are already uncomfortable enough to speak up about them.

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Twice a year, I hold out the tip jar and invite readers who are able to kick in a few $ to support the site.

If you like what you read here and find it helpful, please consider making a (non-tax deductible) gift  through PayPal or  via Dwolla (for which you must be in the USA with a bank account).

In the past I have sent a short story, The Best Dog In The World, or a link to my short film (now publicly available on Vimeo) as a reward.  I don’t have anything specific to send out this year, but anyone can watch or download those, no donation required.

We now return to our regularly-scheduled programming.

Dear Captain Awkard:

So I’ve been dating this Sagittarian for 8 months. It was going swimmingly and due to his couple of months free waiting to get exam results and find a new job, along with me working for myself and being able to take loads of time off, we were intenso – inseparable for 3 months. Mix up his exotic hotness, ambition, brains, resounding (seeming) lack of baggage, patience, easygoing nature and ability to deal with me. Slather on some pretty great sex, a holiday in Rome, my friends loving him, lots of late night spiritual and philosophical convos and I was fully baked. He’s only 26 and I’m 28 but sure cool.

Then he gets the job he wanted. Head and neck surgeon and pretty full on, but only 8-5 and no weekends. I would have been fine only for 2 things: sex took a massive nose dive and he’s absolutely exhausted all the time.

I’m a Gemini. Fairly well-adjusted but I get bored of the trivialities of 9-5 life, that’s why I’m an entrepreneur. I also adore traveling and love my work, I see life as being about relationships and experiences. I feel as though he’s choosing his career over the rest of his life, including ME.

Now I’m a bitter hag about the sex, having asked if it’s because he’s gay (both honestly and nastily), or just doesn’t fancy me (ditto) or if he has issues about sex (not much experience/possible mother issues or whatever) and he swears it’s none of these things, he’s just tired. He also now thinks I’m a nympho, which is ridiculous.

He can’t seem to sleep earlier than 12 and gets up at 6 so I KNOW he’s tired but he has to take responsibility for that himself, I don’t force him to stay up or eat late! He’s trying different diets, gave up smoking 2 months ago for the first time in 14 years, getting exercise, is going to try yoga, but it’s not working so far.

I feel neglected, betrayed, disappointed. On top of that he’s not very romantic or good at expressing his feelings verbally. Not terrible but not great. We’ve entered a massive power struggle and are constantly bickering, mostly started by me. Throw in the fact that his 6 month contract ends soon and he may have to spend much of his career moving around the country. I am fairly free to go with him but my LIFE is here in London and I’m not the type of person who wants to be traipsing around after a man. I feel really badly towards him and I know that I’m pulling away because I don’t want to compromise myself and/or get hurt. Oh and I don’t like his mother.

Dealbreaker?

Dear Star-Crossed Gemini:

I consulted the stars, and they said that when a person starts an intense new job and makes a bunch of lifestyle changes all at once, it might take a few months to get into a new routine that works. Even with a relatively predictable schedule, working as a surgeon full time is no joke and it is not surprising that he would be physically and mentally exhausted as he tries to climb the learning curve. He’s spent most of the last decade training for this moment. It’s possible that you guys just have mismatched sex drives and would have found that out over the long-term anyway, but even people with very high sex drives are affected by stress and major changes. Whatever is going on, bickering and other “massive” “It’s your career vs. ME” power struggles are not going to make it better. I mean, what is the most sexy sex of all? Making a wild guess, it’s not the “I’m doing this to prove I’m not gay!” sex that you’re browbeaten into by a resentful partner.

Then the sun chimed in that you should stop describing anything as “exotic,” most especially a romantic partner.  One by one the planets nodded their assent.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

I have a pretty simple question. How do I nurture my own sense of romance?

A bit of background: I’m a twenty one year old queer girl. I was born in Mississippi, though I spent my teenage years in the north east. I’ve never dated a girl because of my own issues with repression. I’ve hooked up with girls, dated guys, and hooked up with guys. I’ve spent alot of time trying to be romantic guys, and have come to a place where I’m really happy with the friendship and sex I have with guys. (Yay!) I know thought that I want to be romantic with girls not guys, though, and I’m really confused on how to go forward with that. Let’s just say that all of the angst, self repression, disappointment, and forcing hetero romantic situations have left me a bit bitter. I’m not sure how to get what I want or even talk about what I want. I’m spent so much time being bitter and violent towards myself.

I’m basically just talking to girls I like and using the “you’re a person I’m a person maybe we could interact in awesome romantic people ways” rules to muddle through. Any advice on how to muddle productively? Do I basically just have to accept that I’m going back to being say where I was at fifteen with guys? On top of this I have the problem of not finding mainstream depictions of romance desirable- its all so based on magic and love fixing everything. Do you have recommendations for art that depict romance in a more nuanced and awesome way?

Onward latebloomers!
gallant_girl

Hi Gallant Girl, Elodie Under Glass here. This question! This is the sweetest question! Gallant Girl, it is so nice to hear from you.

Unfortunately, after the Captain gave me this question, I sat on it for four months. I discussed it with my friends while drinking wine in the Netherlands: “Where does romance come from? Particularly the kind of romance that we practice.” I asked friends who review books and friends who write books and friends who read books:  “What art depicts romance the way that we live it?” I asked queer friends, married friends, married queer friends, friends-with-kids, and people that just looked interesting. I started to lunge at people out of mailboxes: “HELP ME WITH THIS QUESTION ABOUT ROMANCE.

“How about Malinda Lo?” people suggested, “She did a thing. Or that movie where Piper Perabo and Lena Headley hold hands.”

“True, they’re good enough in their way, I guess,” I’d reply, “But I want, like, queer Dorothy Sayers banter, I want Tipping The Velvet but with a happy ending, I want stuff that isn’t stereotypical: I want stuff that will cheer Gallant Girl up.”

People said “Catherynne Valente! The L Word! A television show with dogs in it!”

All of which are wonderful but none of which quite touched the thing I wanted to tell you: that you’re right, that you should stop worrying if you can, that you’re doing pretty well.

 

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[Content note: purity culture]

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am married. My husband is a very lovely, supportive man, very devoted and considerate, and a great father to our small child. We’ve been together nearly a decade, and married for most of that time. We are a good partnership. He was the first person I ever slept with – the first person who liked me that way that I wasn’t either freaked out or repulsed by. Before him, I was a total wreck every time I liked-liked someone and, thanks to my religious upbringing and eating disorder, severely neurotic about the importance of sex and being naked and all that crap. After him, I’m a lot more relaxed about it, thankfully, and I’m not sorry he was my first (though I am sorry he was my ONLY), because he made it really easy. 

But our sex life is…problematic.

I have very little in the way of pants or OMG!CRUSH feelings for him any more. I’m not sure I ever did, really. I liked him enough to want to try it, and not so much that I was freaked out by it, and I enjoyed his company and being in a relationship, and I came to love him very much. I still do, even if I don’t particularly feel “in love” with him. But I also don’t particularly want to fuck him. Or rather, I can’t really be bothered to do the work of doing it the way we normally do it, because I’m tired and it’s not going to do much for me.

He was my first sexual partner, so I hadn’t ever had a chance to explore what I liked sexually except in the confines of my own head (more on that in a minute) or what it was like to have sex with someone I was burning with lust for. He, on the other hand, explored A LOT, so he came into the relationship knowing pretty well what he liked and what he didn’t, and what he likes is pretty vanilla. Admittedly, I haven’t been totally forthcoming on the things that might work for me, though when I’ve tentatively put out feelers for a bit more kink, he’s not really been keen. So I got shy and backed off, and we always default back to the same thing. I’m still really inhibited about talking about sex. And I hate to admit it, but I’ve faked orgasms for the whole of our relationship. I know, this is a bad, bad thing, but he was trying so hard, and at the beginning, it was all new and I just didn’t want to say “this is not going to happen” every single time. Or, you know, ever. So it’s become kind of self-perpetuating.

Additionally, my fantasy life has been fucked up in the extreme since I was an early teen. It was one of those “masturbation is bad, thinking about sex is bad, ergo the worse the fantasy is, the sexier it is”. I don’t put any moral judgement on the content of fantasies, so I don’t feel GUILTY about it, but I’ve found a lot of it incredibly disturbing when considered when not horny. I don’t actually want to play out any of my actual fantasies with him, because they’re more extreme than I think I would actually enjoy in real life. But I don’t get turned on with the stuff that we do, I don’t get turned on by him (though at least I’m not turned OFF by him), and I don’t know how to get that way.

And…I don’t want to spend the rest of my life never having pants feelings and never, ever really having great sex. But I don’t know what we would actually have to do that would result in mindblowing sex for ME, that could be a happy medium between what he’s comfortable with (and he’s NOT really comfortable with kink) and what actually turns me on, and I don’t know how to communicate that to him after all this time without completely destroying his trust and hurting his feelings. I don’t know how to talk frankly and comfortably about what turns me on without getting embarrassed because I’m freaky or how to deal with his reactions if he DOES think I’m freaky and doesn’t want to try anything else.

Captain Awkward, I really want to have pants feelings for him. I want to want to have awesome sex with him. I want to HAVE awesome sex with him. I want to stay married to him, I just want the sex part to be better. How do I move this forward so that I’m sexually satisfied without destroying our relationship as it stands? 

Help!

Liar Liar Pants Sadly Not On Fire

Hi Pants! This is Corporal Dianna here. The Captain asked me to write a response to this question in her stead, as I write frequently about this area. I’m going to answer this as I would if it came through my email, as I do get these kind of questions from time to time.

This is…a big question. But you’re not alone, so take heart. You are not somehow freakish or weird for discovering that your husband and you have some incompatibility after the wedding, especially if you were raised in a culture that forbid exploration until then, and you’re certainly not alone in questioning it and wanting to be satisfied.

You mention a religious upbringing, and some negative sexual messages during your formative teenage years, but don’t say what your religious beliefs are now, so forgive me if I make an assumption that’s incorrect. What you were raised in sounds like sex-negative evangelical purity culture – no sex before marriage (especially for women), and then promises of mindblowing sex after (which often results in a lot of disappointment). Additionally, purity culture has the trappings of no masturbation or sexual exploration by yourself, which forces many people into sexual repression.

Through my research of interviewing women like yourself, I’ve discovered a trend – one which atheist blogger Libby Anne documents here – in which women who experienced purity culture growing up develop extreme kinks or “disturbing (to them)” nonconsensual fantasies that scare them a little when they consider them outside of the fantasy world. I want to assure you, first and foremost, that this is surprisingly normal for someone raised in purity culture, and there are all sorts of longwinded reasons as to why.

Purity culture isn’t one that lends itself well to women speaking openly about their sexual kinks, fantasies or even basic desires, and you’re probably remembering some ingrained parts of that when you try to speak about it with your husband. That’s okay. That happens. I decided to throw off the shackles of purity culture years ago, and I still have latent embarrassment about a lot of those related things (the other day, I spent twenty minutes waffling over whether to mention menstrual cups in a conversation on Twitter. Menstrual cups!). But, using your words is pretty much the only way to solve this particular dilemma.

You can’t predict or control how someone else will feel about information you give them or discussions you bring up. Since this is not a workable situation for you, it is important that you say what you need to say. It is better, in the long run, to work with your husband to get to a point where you can both be sexually satisfied and figure out ways to increase compatibility, than it is to protect his feelings and fake orgasms for the rest of your life. Honesty, as they say, is the best policy.

So how do you communicate this? First, determine what needs to be communicated. There’s a lot of stuff in this letter that needs to be discussed, and it’s all wrapped up and intertwined. But I’ve teased it out into four main points that might help you boil things down:

  1. Dissatisfaction with the current way your sex life operates, which leads you not having pantsfeelings for him.
  2. A fantasy life that gets you off but scares you a little at the same time, making you embarrassed and afraid to suggest new things – leading back to #1.
  3. A history with your husband which suggests that he may not be comfortable with the things that you think might turn you on, leading you to back off, and returning you back to #1.
  4. A personal history/religious upbringing that further complicates what you see as “normal” in the sexual world, making you scared of your own predilections, which makes you embarrassed to talk about them, which leads us straight back up to #1.

See how all these different levels ultimately result in dissatisfaction, and there are various reasons for it? So there isn’t going to be one simple solution or script that will magically solve all these issues.

If you have the resources, seeing a couples’ sex therapist (one who is not religious in nature) may be useful for the both of you. This places the conversation in a safe, guided environment that will allow you to become more comfortable with the discussion and for your husband to understand your side of things better.

If that’s too much right now, or isn’t financially feasible (therapy is expensive), try to start with a conversation, away from and outside a hot and heavy situation. There’s no easy, set script for a situation like this, but doing it in a way that doesn’t spring it on him mid-coitus is probably a good strategy. In the interest of guidance, here are some do’s and don’t’s:

  • Don’t make it about how he “doesn’t satisfy you.” He needs to not see this as you blaming him for dysfunction, because you’re not doing that.
  • Do: Be clear you love him, want to stay with him, and want to work on this to make an already good marriage better by bringing the sex up to a standard that matches the partnership you feel you have in other areas of life.
  • Don’t feelingsdump. You hinted toward this in your letter that you try little bits here and there without success, so I think you’ll avoid this, but just as a reminder – don’t dump everything out all at once because that might be overwhelming and read like you’re asking him to solve all your sexual issues in a night.
  • Do be honest and approach this as a problem that can be broken down into chunks and worked on, together. Start small. Ask if you can do a little something different – nothing big, nothing too out of the ordinary for him, just different – and ask if he would be willing to try and see if that works. As always, mutual consent is paramount, so if he decides halfway through that it doesn’t work, make sure that’s a decision he feels safe making.
  • Don’t frame it as something where he needs to become comfortable with all your kinks or you’ll leave him. That’s coercive and makes for some very unhappy sexytimes.
  • Do frame it as an exploration, a journey you guys are taking together to make this work for the both of you. Since you, yourself, say that you’re not sure what actually works for you or not (just that you know you want something more than what you’ve been doing), framing it as an exploration of your sexuality as it functions together. This is his sex life too and you are two separate people who are developing this together.

Now, you have understandable fear that he’s going to be disappointed/sad/angry/upset that you’ve been faking all this time. And it is okay for him to feel those things, and the initial reaction may need some time for him to get over, depending on what reaction he has. But you also shouldn’t beat yourself up about it – what you did then was what worked for you, and now it’s not working anymore and you want to change things in order to make your relationship better. Apologize, affirm that his feelings are valid, and make it clear that you are being honest so that you can move forward in this as a couple. This sort of discussion is going to happen over several conversations, not just one.

This is, at heart, a communication issue that has a lot of emotional/religious baggage attached to it. Evangelical purity culture makes discussing sex openly and honestly –especially talking about compatibility issues – hard. But remember that you are not alone in having these issues, and this is something that you two can work on, together, to work toward the awesome sex life purity culture probably promised you.

I’ve just scratched the surface, but a helpful book for further reading might be What You Really Really Want, by Jaclyn Friedman. It’s an exploration of how to figure out your own sexual proclivities and explorations aside from what various different cultural influences are saying. As the great prophets say, know thyself.

______

Dianna Anderson is an author and blogger from South Dakota. Her first book – DAMAGED GOODS – is an exploration of feminist theology and sex-negative American evangelical purity culture. It is due out from JerichoBooks in early 2015. She blogs at diannaeanderson.net and tweets @diannaeanderson.

Dear Captain and co.

This is a not-quite problem that’s separated into two parts.

I’m not interested in sex or dating/relationships. I’m not comfortable at the moment categorising myself as asexual/aromantic, although maybe at some point in the future if I find it’s convenient. Essentially I’m happy with the ‘’it happens if it happens’’ mentality, but would also be happy if it never happened. I’ve been left cold by the few encounters I’ve had in the past, and would rather focus my social attention on platonic friendships.

Basically, I suppose I’d like some reassurance that this is ok. I feel like I’m so used to hearing about being single in terms of a problem that needs fixing, a personal failure or just a transitory period, without so much of the ‘’relationships aren’t for everyone, and that’s cool too.’’ (Possibly doesn’t help that I’m female and like cats, which is another stereotype that annoys the hell out of me.) Also, any advice on how I could convince people that it’s not a problem would be appreciated.

I think partly because of this, I have trouble comforting/offering advice to single friends who want relationships. I don’t want to sound dismissive and say something like ‘’but really, you don’t need to be with someone’’, but also don’t want to fall back on determinist cliches of the ‘’it’ll happen for you eventually if you want it to!’’ sort, and because I have no first-hand experience of seeking relationships, I can’t offer up anything in that score.

Thanks,

Cool cat lady.

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Hello Captain and Company!

About a year and a half ago I had my primary outbreak of genital herpes. It was excruciating, both physically and emotionally, but I’m finally starting to pick up the pieces and feel like myself again. I’m starting to feel like I maybe want to date again, finally (yay), but I’d like to be prepared for the inevitable awkwardness of telling a hypothetical partner about the herpes. It’s an awkward enough conversation to have when you don’t have anything communicable. Herpes isn’t the biggest deal as far as STIs go, but it isn’t kittens and rainbows, either. Being honest has always been important to me, but it’s even more important to me now since the person I got it from wasn’t– between telling me he’d been tested, that he’d tested negative over six months after my outbreak, and that he’d show me his test results, there was certainly a lie. Herpes doesn’t happen spontaneously, and his test results never materialized. So I really, REALLY want to be open and honest about it.

I’m not really super into PIV sex, but I really like to cuddle, and sloppy, sexy makeouts are fun! And low-risk, if pants stay on, which I kind of want them to until I’m sure that the person I’m making out with is someone I can really trust and connect with. I’d really like to be able to bring up the conversation waaaay ahead of time, and to maybe talk about the kinds of things I do and don’t want to do, and how to manage the herpes and be safe and really, to give the other person a chance to really decide about whether they want to have fun sexy times with me. I know this sort of thing probably just takes practice and will always probably be awkward, but do you have any ideas about how to have that conversation? Any advice for minimizing stammering and embarrassment during it?

In herpitude,
Dental Dams Are Your Friends

Hi Dental Dams. This is Elodie Under Glass here. I am so sorry that this happened to you, and so happy that you are getting better.

I am really glad that you wrote in. You sound like you’ve already got your feelings well in order, which I admire. And you’ve opened up a great new topic to tackle: STDs.

When the good Captain offered me the chance to answer your question, I was initially super-excited because it’s a really, really good question – but also pretty nervous, because immediately I was like “I am unqualified to answer this question, for I have rarely negotiated sexytimes/STDs with strange men!”  followed by realizing that this question, like all questions, runs far deeper than that.

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Dear Captain Awkward,

Over the last four years, my husband and I have narrowed our social circle to where we only have a few friends who we see regularly, most of whom were initially my friends rather than his. But basically, we’re each others’ social plans almost all of the time. This is especially true for him, because I have a couple of old friends I talk to regularly online as well as a lover. I think this has happened because a) we really enjoy spending time just us, b) we’ve moved a couple of times and c) my husband is extremely introverted/unjustifiably worried that people don’t like him. Also, maybe, d) we’ve both gotten weirder/pickier in certain ways over the years in ways that make it harder to click with people who might earlier have been natural friends. Like, we went to a friend’s party recently and her other friends were talking about their childhood standardized test scores and their political opinions in ways that are actually totally normal for our peer group but also obnoxious, and so we didn’t want to make friends with them. (Maybe we just have a new peer group now, but I don’t know where they are.) 

This is seeming like a problem. I am slightly lonely and my husband is super-lonely, and even though this is more his problem than mine, he’s not fixing it and I think I should try, since I’m the more extroverted one. But I don’t know how to go about this. Most of the ways I’ve met people since college are communities/groups he definitely wouldn’t be interested in. We also have old friends we just haven’t seen in awhile, some of whom I feel awkward contacting again because it’s been so long.

Should I just continue listening but not trying to solve this problem when my husband complains about being lonely and not having any friends (which is definitely an exaggeration)? Are there ways to meet people I’m not thinking about? I have this feeling that I used to be much better at this and I’m not sure what happened. 

Thank you.

Hello there!

I think that this letter is pinging some of the exact same places as #467, with some of the same generosity of spirt and some of the same entrenched gender stuff with Lady-As-Social-Glue.

Easy stuff first: Go ahead and reach out to those old friends. Send a postcard if they don’t live close, invite them to something if they do live close. “Friends, I’ve been thinking of you fondly and wondering what you’ve been up to. Would you like to come by and play board games some weekend next month?” I just had dinner with my high school friend, D., who I have not seen since 1991. We were not good at keeping in touch over the years, but he sent me a Facebook message that said “I will be in town, want to have dinner on x day?” and I said yes and it was great to see him and not awkward to be contacted. Yes, having proximity and regular time together helps people maintain friendships, but positive feelings don’t fade away if the connection and affection are real. People are busy and they drift apart without even realizing it sometimes. Your friends will probably be grateful to you for making the effort, and if they demur, you can know that those friendships drifted for a reason and let go of any guilt.

Next easiest: You are feeling lonely, so do what you need to solve that for yourself. I suggest picking one day/evening per week and go do something that will bring you in contact with new people. Don’t worry that it’s something your husband won’t like doing, in fact, it’s better if it is something he won’t like doing. You function great as a unit and love each other’s company, which is awesome, but it is ok and very healthy to have something that is just yours. Take a class, learn a skill, play a sport, sing in a choir, volunteer, try something you’ve always wanted to try, or reconnect with one of those old hobbies or groups you’ve let lapse. Meetup.com is your friend.

He can be alone for a few short hours every week, even if it makes him feel more lonely in the short term. Those lonely feelings and a little solitude to feel them in are actually helpful right now, because they can be motivating for him in actually seeking out a similar outlet.

Harder, but doable: When he expresses sadness and loneliness, ask him directly what he wants. “Husband, would you like me to to make suggestions or help with that in some way? What do you think would work best?” If he’s hoping you will just magically solve this for him, make him articulate that expectation. Him wanting that is not necessarily wrong or bad (or a sign that you have to do it), but if he’s been hoping his sighs will magically translate into some action on your part, it’s good to get that out in the open. Because if he successfully makes “Me not being lonely anymore” into “Your job,” if you do your work and he does no work and then he’s still lonely you set yourself up to be blamed when that’s the case. I think that’s not a good idea.

When you have this talk, and the expectations are out in the open, then you can make a suggestion. “Husband, I’m really enjoying (thing I took up recently) and I think you should find something similar. The best resource for me for finding stuff was (resource), maybe look into it and see what you come up with? You may not make friends, but at least you’ll learn knife skills/French/build a birdhouse out of wood/a wicked slapshot/see lots of plays/finally dance the Lambada/canvass for a political candidate/play Magic: The Gathering.”

You might throw a little money at this problem, too, by buying him a class somewhere as a gift for a birthday or holiday, but stop short of actually arranging “play dates” for an adult man.

If in response you get a whole litany of “that won’t work because” in response, wind down the conversation and come back to it another day. Whether it’s anxiety manifesting, or denial that having friendships takes effort, or a wish you would just magically do all the work, “that won’t work because” is just going to lead to a sucky conversation where he shoots every one of your suggestions down and both of you feel crappy. Don’t be surprised if that’s the initial reaction, but don’t engage too much with it. Let a little time go by, keep enjoying doing your thing and making some friends for yourself, and hope that he changes his mind and starts to make an effort.

I think this is all surmountable, but not “fixable” by you alone. Friendships and social life take effort, and most of that is enjoyable, rewarding effort, but you actually have to do stuff and try to connect with others. As we get older it seems harder – we forget how we did it once upon a time – but we’re communal animals. Put the effort out into the universe and trust that someone, somewhere will be super-psyched to connect with both or either of you.

Dear Awkwardeers,

I have a question that’s more a conditions-of-things and what-to-do-about it than really a question. I’m a third year college student at a selective university. We’ll start of the bat that I’m lucky: I get to go to college, I have a good academic scholarship, my family help me pay for part of it. I’m lucky that I have amazing classes and great adventures.

Not to put too fine a point on it, I’m pretty smart. I just winced at how braggy that looks but my grades/outside projects/employers would all attest to this. I was often bored in high school, and though I had good friends, we couldn’t debate environmental policy, discuss gender roles or use too many “long words” together. It was kind of lonely, but complaining about that kind of thing is a bit of an asshole move, so I won’t.

It’s not like I want to brainstorm about the national debt all day: I like parties, I love to dance and make music and climb on all the campus roofs and have midnight piggy-back races in the park. College is wonderful, because I’ve finally met people who want to hike and drink cheap beer and independently learn Russian with me, but I’ve also noticed that the vast majority of REALLY smart and multi-interest people I’ve met tend to be heavy drug users. We’re not talking some pot on a Friday night, I mean acid or coke or ecstasy on random Tuesdays.

I don’t attach a moral judgement to this choice, but it is one that I wouldn’t (and don’t choose to) make. No one’s pressured me or anything, but I only join the social group for non-hard-drug adventures. Where do I find people who want to go out on the weekend, but also love words/the lab/the studio/the outdoors? I feel really naive, like there’s something I’m missing. I have friends who are super-academic and are into learning for the sake of a grade, and I have friends who are multi-interest (like me) but hard drug users. Am I looking in the wrong places? Does this change when you graduate? Am I complaining about something that is such a privileged problem that I should just get over it?

-A.

Dear A.,

Finding out that the people you thought were your people are not quite your people is a problem lots of people go through – you leave schools, change jobs or cities, change interests, and outgrow each other for whatever reason. This is not the last time you’ll look around and think “I like these people fine but I need a new scene.”

Fortunately your super-selective-awesome college likely has things called “student activities.” They are designed to occupy people in a non-substance-using activity and introduce like minded folk. You may think that signing up for new stuff is for first year students and all the groups are set in stone now and it’s too late. Getting past this attitude is probably the best way you can solve your current problem and also set yourself up for dealing with this in the future; when the current situation isn’t working, throw yourself into something new and see what happens. Somewhere on your campus there is a club or clubs that do something interesting that you could go check out for a meeting or two and see if something clicks. Don’t worry that they already know each other or that it’s too late, just try it and see. Every time you go to something, make it your goal to talk to one person you didn’t know before. You don’t have to make friends (too much pressure!), just get out of your shell a bit and look around.

Your college is presumably also located in what is known as a “city” or “town” or maybe just a “place.” That place, no matter how small, has things going on and some kind of social life. So look at art fairs/working at a farmer’s market/volunteer work/kickball teams/a part-time job. Because another skill you are going to need is finding community among people who aren’t just like you and who don’t care how smart you are.

You don’t have to leave your drug-using friends entirely behind, you can find ways to enjoy their company in smaller doses and then leave them to their mind-altering stuff.

I know my advice was super-obvious, and I don’t mean to be patronizing. This is big, important stuff, and I hope you solve it. Sometimes when you grow up smart people assume you know how to take care of yourself emotionally. All the Russian, etc. you are learning in classes is useful; how to make friends and build community for yourself is equally useful. It’s a process, we aren’t born knowing it, it’s not something where being smart automatically solves it, and it is never too late to start trying.

Related posts:

Moving vs. Staying: Instructions for Finding Your People and Your Place

On Bouncing Back and Finding Community

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.

A man and woman dressed as Darth Vader holding hands on a crowded street.

Image from likecool.com

Hi there,
An online friend and I were innocent email buds. One day, we start DMing which leads to texting/phone call. It gets sexual. Tells me he has a live in girlfriend but doesn’t ever say “maybe we shouldn’t go there.” It progresses to constantly talking, texting, gchatting. 2 weeks after we started he flew here for a weekend.

Knew he had a gf, he told me they had major issues ever since she moved in. I asked him to please break up with her and figure that out ASAP. He went home and 2 days later he told me he would regret leaving if he didn’t try to fix their relationship. But wanted to try with me too. The waffling about what he wanted continued for 4 months. We saw each other again, talked constantly. We’d both try to cut each other off at points, it NEVER stuck.

Throughout I would threaten to tell her, push him to leave. I regret all the manipulation. In the fall, he decided that he couldn’t handle it. He cut it off, came crawling back. I let him. He’d become my emotional crutch. I fell into deep depression, constantly beating myself up. 

Finally he said I severely hurt him by threatening to tell her, he could never really forgive me, give me a real chance. I said I’m done, cut off contact. Though did demand he tell her. I wanted him to get left. He did tell her, they have stayed together so far.

So was left feeling insane and sad. I did some controlling things that I’m not proud of. Jerkbrain: I’m an awful person who not only hurt this man but someone else too. I acted absolutely unreasonable on more than one occasion with this situation.

How I can start to forgive myself? Some people may always think I’m seriously shitty and I have to get over that but having a really hard time being okay with everything. Especially because I really did care for him. We had some seriously intense emotional and physical chemistry and I really thought I loved him at one point. I know this pit of despair may eventually dissipate but I am so ashamed of myself and tired of feeling like I’m the bad one.

And her friends have openly cried for revenge against me and told me I should be scared. They have stayed together so I guess I can understand why I’m the target and not him but it’s really frustrating that that’s the tactic. Which is my other question, how do I reconcile my desire for justice against him? I am just so pissed that he’s essentially had no consequences.

Thanks.

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Dear Captain Awkward:

I have had a very complex life in the last couple of years. I have gone from having a fairly normal life in regards to health and then I went on dialysis. Since that point I now have a kidney transplant.

My girlfriend currently has a really hard time wrapping her mind around the changes in lifestyle that I have to live. She almost finds my precautions somewhat unbearable.

What should I do? She also makes fun of my situation or lightheartedly jokes about it.

Unfortunately they don’t offer empathy transplants.

Was your girlfriend with you since before the changes? Because I would imagine that watching a partner go through dialysis and a kidney transplant would make it sink in that 1) Hey, you could have DIED 2) Following your doctors’ recommendations carefully is  serious business. If she met you after the changes, maybe the seriousness of it hasn’t really sunk in. Which isn’t an excuse, but it gives you a place to start in deepening her perspective.

If you want to try to make things work with this person, I think there is both a Big Serious Talk to be had and some day-to-day scripts.

The daily script is, when she makes a joke, to say something like “Whoa, that really hurts my feelings.”

After you say that, be quiet, and listen to what happens next. There is going to be a very awkward moment, and it is not your job to smooth it over – the awkwardness is the way that you get to the resolution. If she stops, apologizes, and changes her behavior, that’s a good sign. If you’ve been putting up with the jokes for a while, it may take a few tries for it to sink in – you are subtly changing the “rules” of how the relationship works and some people don’t get it right away. You can openly acknowledge the rule change with “I know I usually let it go, but….” or “I know you mean that as a joke, but….” when you say things like that, it really hurts my feelings. Can we find another way to talk about x issue?

If after saying that her jokes hurt your feelings, she doubles down on the joking, or starts justifying why it’s okay for her to make jokes that hurt your feelings, she is pressuring you to ignore your healthy routines, she calls you “too sensitive” and tells you to “toughen up,” or for whatever reason the conversation ends with you apologizing to her for bringing it up and being upset, here there be Evil Bees.

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