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Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

I regret getting married. It seemed like a good idea at the time–about two years ago now. My husband (29yo he/him) and I (26yo they/them, but he sees me as a woman) are an opposites-attract type of couple. At first I felt like he was a good influence on me–he’s more outgoing, more spontaneous, more playful, more relaxed. He’s a good catch–hardworking, stably employed, loyal and caring, the works. He continues to be as loving and attached as he’s always been. But in the last six months, our differences in values and interests are getting to be too much for me. I’m not attracted to him any more and I feel like I’m lying when I say “I love you, too.” There was a point at which I wanted to be attracted to him again, and I tried the nurture that. But now I’m at a point where if I ask myself what it would take to make this marriage work, the only things I can come up with are “companionate, non-sexual, open marriage” which is basically just roommates with tax benefits. I fantasize about living alone.

Is this just the beginning of the end? If he were only my boyfriend I’d break up with him, but we own a house and have partly joined finances. Is there a point in going to couples’ counseling? Do I kon-mari this relationship that no longer brings me joy? He knows I’ve been generally unhappy lately, but how do I tell him that I’m this unhappy in our marriage and not just unhappy in general? I can’t imagine waiting this out more than a few more months.

Cheers, and thank you,
P.

Dear P.,

It sounds like you’re done with being married, so what happens if you let yourself be done? Assume that it’s not a question of whether you’ll end the marriage, but when.

I recommend that you take at least a few days to yourself to think through the process of ending the marriage, such as:  researching how legal separation and divorce work where you live, consulting an attorney, thinking through how to best disentangle your finances and housing so that everybody is in the most stable possible position, and planning out your own next steps. Part feelings, part logistics, think about questions like: How can you be kind and gentle to your husband and to yourself on your way out of this relationship? How would you want him to treat you if your positions were reversed? You fantasize about living alone, so what are the actual steps for getting there? What kind of support from friends and family would help you land on your feet? Do you know where all your important paperwork lives? In a perfect world, what should happen to all your stuff?

If there’s a supportive friend you can stay with or a place you can go to get privacy and space as you think this through, that will help. Having the beginnings of a plan in mind for how to do the thing you need to do is a good way to get your courage up to actually do it.

Then, when it’s time, tell your husband what’s up.There is no good way to tell someone news that they definitely do not want to hear that will magically prevent them from feeling hurt, so I suggest keeping it short and straightforward: “I’m so sorry, but I don’t want to be married anymore and have started investigating the best way to dissolve our partnership.”  

He’s probably going to ask why, which is a fair thing to do, and you may be tempted to start listing reasons in an attempt to build an airtight case that will make him understand and eventually agree with you. Can I suggest not doing that? Those reasons end up being the kind of thing that sticks in the mind forever, and if he hasn’t done anything wrong and has mostly held up his end of the bargain, there’s no need to list out enough shortcomings to “prove” why this needs to happen.”Wanting to leave is enough,” it is the reason.“I’m so sorry, there’s no one reason or satisfying explanation, and it’s not anything you did wrong, I just know that my feelings have changed and I would be happier if we separated.” “I’m so sorry, but you know I’ve been unhappy lately, and I know this isn’t going to work out between us.”  

In my opinion, couples’ counseling isn’t a great idea when one partner has already decided to leave the marriage. Why drag everyone through an expensive, wrenching pretense of fixing a relationship that one person already knows is unfixable? Some people who know their relationship is pretty much over try it anyway because they want to know (or demonstrate) that they tried every possible solution before walking away, and some people want a witness/referee for how bad things have gotten, or a divorce doula who can facilitate difficult conversations about parting ways, which, legit! But an individual counselor could help you make good decisions just as well, and one benefit of breaking up with someone is that it frees you from the obligation of “working on” the relationship together.

When the dust settles you’ll be one more human who made a loving, hopeful choice that didn’t work out quite like you planned. Your taxes will be weird next year. Somebody will have to buy someone else out of the house, or you’ll sell it and split the proceeds. Everyone will be sad, mad, or both for a while. There will be a gauntlet of people saying “Holy smokes, really? But you *just* got married!”  that you will both have to navigate, and you’ll have to find a bunch of ways to say “I know, this did not turn out how I planned, either! It’s sad, but I know this is the right choice for me.” These are not pleasant or easy prospects, but nothing here is insurmountable.

Between now and then, there will be many conversations with your now-husband as you hammer out logistics, but the one that communicates “I have decided to leave, plan accordingly” is the most crucial one. What does your husband need to know right now so that he can make good decisions for himself? Start there.

Valerie L

Hi Captain!

I (they/them) am firmly in BEC* mode with someone in my friend group, and I’d like to figure out how to get out of it. 

(Captain’s Note: BEC is short for “Bitch Eating Crackers,” from a meme about how when someone annoys you, everything they do starts to annoy you, no matter how innocuous.)

The friend group in question is a Discord server of around a hundred people total, with a much smaller active user group. One of them, whom we’ll call R (she/her), went through a period a year or so ago where she seemingly just couldn’t pass up the chance, in the words of another friend, to be a real boot to me. Examples: One time she critiqued an apology I was giving while I was in the middle of giving it. One time, I admittedly misunderstood something she said and called her out for being rude and she jumped immediately to personal attacks (implying I’m a selfish monster, basically, for venting about something scary I’d seen in a rants channel), to the point where I had to get the mods involved to get her to back off, and other people were jumping in to defend me. One time I was spinning a story in a creative channel and she kept commenting to say she thought the idea was stupid. Throughout all of these I was checking in with other friends who confirmed that she was being unnecessarily hard on me. (I have autism and can’t always tell if what I’m feeling is fair or not.)

So anyway, I’m at the stage where everything she says makes me irritated, and every time I reveal anything personal I’m afraid she’s going to jump in and insult me. But she’s a semi-active member of the group, and other people like her, and I’d like not to be on edge every time she posts. Do you have any advice to stop seeing the cracker crumbs everywhere?

Thanks!

Trying To Tune Out The Chomping

Dear Trying To Tune Out The Chomping:

I like the image of Personality-Based Misophonia your letter is conjuring.

You asked how to climb out of the mode where everything R. posts irritates you. My theory is that you will like her slightly more when you interact with her much less, and one way to do that is to block or mute her within the Discord server.

What’s the worst thing that would happen if you did? You’d miss out on some snippets of group discussion here and there, but you could free yourself from seeing the vast majority of R’s posts. If she tried to say something mean to you, you’d be in your rights to shut it down directly, but this way you might not even see it. And if either R or your mutuals noticed your lack of response and cared enough to ask why, you could say, “R and I have never really meshed, I figured this way we could both hang out with the people we really like and leave each other in peace.” It sounds like R. has gone out of her way to be mean to you more than once and you have good reason to not like her. It also sounds like she’s done it publicly enough and regularly enough that it shouldn’t really surprise her – or anyone – if she’s not your favorite person. She’s never apologized to you for any of her behavior, from what I can see, so there’s no need for you to do a bunch of work on your own tolerance and capacity for forgiveness here.

Some people get really weird about the entire concept of blocking someone on a social platform, like it’s the worst thing you can do, or insist that a person has to be objectively awful or definitively cross a certain line and be tried by a jury of their peers before they “earn” a block, or else it’s “unfair.” I think that your affection, attention, and time do not have to be distributed “fairly” to everyone you meet, so if someone routinely sets your teeth on edge, if someone makes you dread encountering them in spaces you otherwise enjoy, especially if you find it hard to resist engaging even when you know it’s a bad idea, then blocking them is a kindness to yourself.

Geek Social Fallacy #1 and #4 carriers, especially, can get very concerned when people they like don’t get along with each other, and sometimes they take it upon themselves to make peace and try to force the people to come together and talk over their mutual antipathy. I vote for the path to peace where you talk to and about R. so much less than you currently do. If you were at an in-person social event, you might muster 10 seconds of routine “heyhowareya” and a nod of acknowledgement of R.’s shared humanity on your way to the jukebox for the sake of group harmony, but Discord gives you curation tools so you don’t even have to really do that. “She’s mean to me and I don’t really like her. There’s nothing to fix.” “I got tired of arguing with her about every little thing so I decided to stop.”  Be like digital ships in the night! Be free!

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

I fear I put my boyfriend into uncomfortable situations over my friendships with others.

I (she/her) have a close friend (he/him) that I am very cuddly, friendly and open with. My boyfriend (he/him) and I have been together for many years and we have great trust, transparency and communication. We discuss boundaries and help each other feel comfortable always, including on this topic. I was always »cuddly« with my friends in other settings, and in my main friend circle, it’s always been the norm. He never felt bad about this.

However, I moved to a different country, and I’ve been struggling with expressing my non-romantic affection. Since it’s a new environment, I don’t have as many close friends, and I mainly spend my time in the company of my boyfriend or my best friend. People who don’t know me / us so well sometimes ask really inappropriate questions about me and my friend. They make remarks about our chemistry, ask us why we’re not together, »ship us« and I know it really hurts my boyfriend. He mentioned it multiple times, and he says it’s not my fault, but I really don’t want him to feel bad over this.

I understand that some people reserve certain behaviours for romantic relationships, and that casual friendly touch can be interpreted differently. But I don’t want to stop being cuddly with my friend, or telling him I appreciate him openly in front of others when it’s relevant. We are university students, we spend a lot of time doing group projects together, and we like to stick together. I have never hidden or obscured the information that I am in a long-term committed relationship – I speak of my boyfriend enthusiastically and frequently. But often remarks come where people say »Oh, I thought you and -best friend- were a thing. You guys really confused me.«

There was a really bad situation where an ex-friend that I haven’t seen in a long time saw me interact with my best friend and went to rant to my boyfriend about how horrible I was for ignoring him. This really hurt my boyfriend.

Am I in the wrong for being affectionate? Is it cultural difference? Do you have suggestions on how to shut these remarks/questions down without coming across as too defensive or making them worse?

Signed,

Cuddly and Sad

Hello Cuddly and Sad,

Story time! I once made a student film about a mother and a daughter that was loosely based on a true story. I cast age-appropriate actresses who strongly resembled each other. The film did a small festival run, and every single time I screened the film publicly, during the audience Q&A someone would mention how well-cast the sisters were, how much chemistry they had together, etc.  It was an early lesson about the limits of intention. Whatever I intended, people would inevitably draw their own conclusions from what they observed on screen and how that compared to their own experiences and other stories they’d seen, and I wouldn’t be able to personally “correct” every single person who saw the film.

Over time, when it became clear that absolutely nobody was reading the two of them as parent and child, on the advice of my teacher, I changed the synopsis and marketing materials so they would be sisters in the official version, too. If it were absolutely important to me that this be a mother-daughter story, my other options were: 1) Remake the movie, and run the new casting by multiple people before locking the actors into roles to make sure they were seeing what I was seeing 2) Leave the movie alone, and find a way to be okay with multiple people not fully getting what I intended. 

Another story: I’m adopted, neither of my parents is a biological relation. But whenever I’d be out and about with my mom as a kid, people who met us would remark on our resemblance to each other. “The spitting image!” “I’d have known you were her daughter anywhere!”  Mostly, we would not correct people. My mom would wink at me, and we’d smile and say thank you, and go on with our day. What did it matter? It didn’t change what we knew about our relationship if a passerby was slightly wrong about us. But with people who were closer to the family, people we knew we’d see often (teachers, pediatricians, Scout leaders, Mom’s co-workers), my mom would indicate that I should tell them the truth, or she’d say something herself, “Oh, that’s so funny, she’s adopted, but we hear that all the time.” No big explanation, no implication that the person was wrong to make the assumption they did, just, “Here’s why you might have assumed that, but no.” 

I tell you these stories because people who observe you and your best friend together can’t see your intentions or the agreements you’ve made with each other or with your respective romantic partners, they can only see your behavior.  When you get consistent, across-the-board feedback that people are having the exact same set of assumptions about a well-defined set of behaviors, that’s probably worth paying attention to while you craft your strategy going forward. If you can’t control what people will assume about you, what can you control, and what is it worth even trying to control? 

Some options: 

A) Let people assume whatever they want. People will make assumptions, you know what your own boundaries and agreements are, and as long as you know that you’re behaving with integrity, maybe everybody you meet doesn’t need to hear your whole life story. “It’s weird to assume that every opposite sex friendship or act of physical affection between friends is sexual.”  “It’s weird to pay this much attention to how much two people who aren’t you touch each other.” “Why do you care so much anyway?” 

Not all opinions or uncomfortable feelings require action, and other people’s opinions and uncomfortable feelings definitely don’t always require your action. 

B) Dial back the touching during Group Project Study Time. If what you want is to actually change people’s assumptions, changing the behavior that reliably generates those assumptions is the most obvious way. Is that fair? Maybe…a little…yes? 

As both student and teacher, I’ve observed many an awkward vibe when a pair of close childhood friends or siblings or an actual couple are in the same group for every single class project. Even if nobody’s doing anything technically “wrong,” when two people are utterly inseparable and direct all of most of their attention to each other while in group settings, they can come to operate (and be treated) like a single entity in a way that throws off the balance in the group and can inhibit each member of the duo’s ability to collaborate and form relationships with other students. It’s not…dire? But it is definitely A Thing. 

Your classmates aren’t passing strangers, so if this is coming up a lot in your interactions with them, it might have less to do with “My boyfriend’s okay with it, don’t worry!” than with your peers communicating some version of, “Whatever, but it’s all a little distracting while everyone’s trying to get work done.”

Could they mind their own business? Sure. Could you also not touch your friend during study sessions, while still maintaining a close bond and getting tons of hugs at other times? Probably also yes. Do with that information what you will. 

C) Find a routine way to correct people that doesn’t gaslight them or punish them for daring to wonder.“We hear that a lot, but no, just friends.” “I can see why you’d think that, but no, I’m just a big snuggler.”  Be very boring and consistent. Don’t get into the details. Change the subject often. “I thought you and x were a couple, you really confused me.” “Oh, it’s understandable, especially since you haven’t met [Boyfriend], but no, we’re just close friends. How are you enjoying the course?” 

It’s fine to acknowledge both cultural differences and personal quirks. “I realize that here only boyfriends-girlfriends are like this, but at home I’m like this with all my friends of all genders and orientations.” “I’m considered pretty touchy-feely by some people back home, but I’m used to it.” Then change the subject to what you wish you were talking about. 

For people who get weird about it (to the point of “shipping” you and your friend), it’s okay to be like “You know we’re just friends, so please stop being weird about it.” “That’s an inappropriate question.” “Yikes, this again?” “I’ve already answered that.” “It’s insulting to assume that men and women can’t be friends, or that I’m a lying cheater, stop bringing this up.” The speculation isn’t coming from nowhere, but once you’ve dealt with it, you can put a limit on how much you’re willing to discuss it. 

D) Periodically review the situation with your boyfriend and with your friend to make sure the people closest to you are still cool with all of it.

It sounds like your former friend was just being a nasty shit-disturber by raising the issue with your boyfriend, but “It’s not what I think, it’s what other people might think” is a classic way of displacing concern when it feels too risky to say, “I wish you would ______.”  If your boyfriend is expressing dismay about this topic “multiple times,” it’s probably worth asking him, does he actually feel ignored or sidelined? What (if anything) does he want you to do that might give him the reassurance he seeks? Before you change up your whole deal to anticipate and manage his feelings, invite him to spell out what he actually wants, and then decide whether whatever it is something you’d be willing to accommodate.

Is your bestie comfortable navigating this whole study abroad experience while literally joined at the hip? It’s fine to be a (consensually) snuggly person, but that doesn’t mean that all situations are ideal or appropriate, so maybe one way to think about this is: How often is he the one who initiates the public cuddles vs. accepting yours? When the weird speculation cascades happen, how does your friend handle it? Does this come up as a friction point in his romantic relationships with others? Is he getting asked about it by peers the way you are? In a perfect world, how would he prefer to handle all of this? 

In the end, you cannot control everything that other people will assume about you, and you don’t have to manage how your boyfriend or your best friend feel about every passing incorrect assumption. But if this is coming up routinely in a way that’s hurting people’s feelings, or making your university life be more about “Will they or won’t they?” than about your research and ideas, then that seems like a sign to at least make sure the existing agreements are still holding steady and check that the people whose opinions you care about are all operating with the same information.

 

 

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