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Valerie L

Dear Captain—

I thought you might like a 100% abuse-free question, so here you go:

I have an older sister whom I love dearly. Sometimes we annoy each other, as sisters do, but our relationship is largely functional. However, there is a habit that my sister has that I’ve put up with for quite a while that has gotten worse over time. I seem to have reached the kind of breaking point that has me writing to advice columnists about it.

A little background: My sister is an artist in an unusual medium, so let’s just say she makes [things]. She’s been making [things] for a very long time. It’s not her full-time gig, but she does make some cash from it. A  particular Person of Note bought a [thing] from her and from there a courtship blossomed and they’ve been happily married for over a decade.

Her husband is Kind Of A Big Deal in fandom, and knows a lot of other Big Deals. Some of them are even people-your-grandma-has-heard-of kinds of Really Big Deals. My sister has had a lot of encounters with Big Deals through my brother-in-law.

And now, the issue—my sister is a chronic name-dropper and humble-bragger about the Big Deals she’s met and dealt with. She likes to make and give [things] to Big Deals (and gets positive responses, don’t get me wrong) and will talk about how much they liked it. She will casually mention the people her husband knows and how well she knows them.

She’s always been this way, when I think about it. In ancient days when the word “fandom” had a slightly different meaning, our family (we have other siblings) were Kind Of A Small Deal in fandom at that time. She took pride in being an [our surname]. She’s even made a deal about being my sister! (I’ve had a few encounters with non-fandom Really Big Deals.)

I don’t know what she’s trying to prove to whom, and I’ve put up with it for a very long time so I’m not sure about the best way to ask her to knock it off. I’m not envious in any way—I take it in stride that she Knows People, and most of those Big Deals aren’t big deals to me. I’m happy for her, but I don’t care. Is there some way I can break such a long silence (decades!) and ask her to chill out about it?


Tired Little Sis

Dear Tired Little Sis,

If a random acquaintance you only bumped into occasionally were doing their best impression of Tahani from The Good Place or the fame-obsessed mom from The Other Two, I might drop you a link to The Best Time I Pretended I Hadn’t Heard Of Slavoj Žižek and tell you to have fun with it. If you say,“Right on! Remind me again, who is that?” every time she name-drops you’re not technically being rude, but you risk a) having to commit to the bit for the rest of your natural life and b) having her patiently explain who these people are to you for the rest of your natural life. This is unlikely to make you less irritated and it’s not exactly the kindest course of action, so we should probably find another way.

With any source of recurring minor annoyance within a relationship you’ve chosen to remain in, there are pretty much only ever three paths:

1. Speak up and see if the other person is willing to change their behavior or work with you on a compromise.

2. Decide that it’s not worth speaking up, do your best to tune it out, and focus on what you enjoy. Very useful for when you sense the person is unlikely or unable to change or that attempting the cure might be worse than the disease.

3. Adjust your own behavior over time and see if that results in getting more of what you want and less of what you don’t. You can’t control other people’s behavior, but you can adjust your exposure levels.

These are all incredibly context dependent and carry varying risks and degrees of difficulty. You don’t need me to continue right on with #2, so let’s focus on #1 Speak Up and #3 Adjust.

#1 is easy: In most situations I think directness is kindness, but in your case this isn’t where I would start. The degree of difficulty and risk/reward ratio of elevating a minor irritation about a minor, non-malicious personality quirk into lasting hurt feelings and a perpetually renewable argument seem incredibly not in your favor. In fact, I checked in the back and I’m all out of diplomatic ways to tell your sister that her enthusiasm for sharing her art with artists she likes, you know, that thing that forms a core piece of her identity, is honestly a little cringe and you wish she wouldn’t talk about it it so much. I’m a diplomat, not a sorcerer!

If you’ve ever seen The Good Place, then you’ll know that Tahani’s compulsive name-dropping is the saddest reminder that narcissism begins as a wound. Worst case, if this is an unconscious tic borne of insecurity or wanting to claim her rightful place in the pecking order of your famous-ish family, calling attention to it will make your sister even more self-conscious, but that’s unlikely to translate into the kind of self-awareness that would metabolize your attempt at constructive criticism into anything but a personal attack.

If this has less to do with insecurity (hers, at least) than it does with her impressive knack for self-promotion in a world where attention from better-known creators can be literal currency for emerging artists, then it will feel like you’re tearing her down every time she celebrates a success. And since she is actually friends with a lot of these people, it risks turning into the fight called, “Fine, I guess I just won’t tell you anything about my life, then. Sorry for assuming you’d be happy that I’m happy.” Nobody ever wins that fight. And, because this is a style preference/unconscious personality quirk where she’s not doing anything deliberate or malicious, it’s really hard to come at this without criticizing her entire personality. Nobody wins that fight, either.

My guess is that you know this and that’s why you haven’t tried bringing it up before. If your sister had a sense of humor about this and you were good at pushing each other’s buttons without smashing them, by now the two of you would have seventeen running in-jokes where you name-dropped increasingly famous people to the point that your whole family rolled their eyes at both of you. You always have the option of saying, “Hey, you’ve been telling me all about interesting people who aren’t here, but I came to hang out with the most interesting person in this room, right now, so can we talk less about your famous friends and more about my cool sister?” and seeing how it lands, just like you have the option of continuing to tune it out. Sometimes you just gotta let the chips fall and have the fight about it already. If you’re not sure, then maybe try out option #3, where you adjust how you react and see if it helps. I’m gonna tell you what to do and how to do it first, and then tell you why.

Allow me to suggest an experiment. The next time your sister does the thing where she gushes about how someone famous liked something she made, see what happens if you follow these three steps in roughly this order:

Step 1: Validate her. “That’s wonderful, you must be so pleased.” “What a nice compliment, that must have been great to hear.” “I know you’re a big fan of [Famous Person]’s work, that must feel so validating.” “How cool!”

The only rule is you must be nice for real. You can keep it brief, but you absolutely cannot be sarcastic, roll your eyes, make back-handed compliments or use this as an opportunity to make fun of her.

Sometimes with an entrenched relationship like family, it helps to ask yourself what you’d do if anyone else behaved the same way. If a friend told you they had an awesome day at work, would you shit on their excitement? Heck, if a complete stranger you got stuck next to on a plane told you all about the time their favorite musician’s bus broke down outside the diner where they worked and they ended up slinging hash for the band and their roadies, would you roll your eyes or would you say “How neat! I hope they were big tippers!” and ooh and ahhh over 3-5 photos before changing the subject? Think of this as an exercise in granting your sister the same grace you would to a total stranger who was excited to share something that made them happy.

Step 2: When it’s time to shift the conversation, don’t steer away, steer *through.* Say your sister will not shut up about the cross-stitch Beyoncé loved (or whatever). If you’re bored with celebrity endorsements, direct your praise and at least one question toward the part of the story that belongs to your sister alone: The thing she created.

If she’s a visual artist and she told the story without sharing an image of the thing, then that’s easy: Get her to show you  the art and then talk about what you see. (“What a lovely shade of green,” etc.) If she shifts gears to try to talk about the famous person again, ask her another question about the work itself and the process of creating it. (“How intricate, did you nail on the first try or did you make a few drafts/prototypes first?”)  Every time you do this, you have an opportunity to reinforce the message that her work is not interesting because of who likes it, it’s interesting because she made it.

People are afraid to to do this because they don’t wanna be trapped. But you’re not trapped! Once you’ve said one true compliment about the work or asked one genuine question and listened to the answer, you are free to move on.You have officially Demonstrated Interest. The conversation will either get actually interesting again because your sister has interesting things to say about her work that make you want to go deeper, or she’ll end up in a side conversation with someone else in the group who wants to learn more and you can drift away, or you will have completed the circuit where she wanted to be seen and you saw her and it will feel natural to talk about other stuff.

Step 3: Don’t wait to be asked before you talk about the stuff that’s interesting to you. Maybe you feel annoyed and frustrated sometimes because your sister gets so caught up in talking about her work and what other people think about it that she neglects asking you about your life. You don’t have to sit there forever quietly resenting it, and you don’t have to wait to be asked. If there’s stuff going on in your life that you wish your sister would ask you about, tell her about it. “Thanks for filling me in all your good news. My turn! Here’s what’s up with me.”

If you try this consistently over the next year or so, I predict that your sister will still name-drop famous people because (let’s be fair!) her work and her life bring her into contact with a whole bunch of ’em. But if you can create a ritual where she automatically gets consistent validation and praise without having to work so hard for it, hopefully she’ll chill out somewhat. Plus, if you have a reliable mechanism for changing the subject gradually, hopefully you’ll feel like a less captive audience. Doing it this way doesn’t require a ton of effort that’s different from whatever you’re doing now, and it doesn’t add friction to the situation by making your sister feel criticized, embarrassed, and attacked.

Before we go, I do not want to minimize how annoying it can be to be talked at about something that does not interest you with seemingly no regard for your level of enthusiasm or participation. This is in no way meant to be advice about how you are mean if you don’t wanna listen to your sister talk about famous people endlessly or how you shouldn’t set boundaries about how much you’re willing to engage. However, this advice is based on decades of experience of learning again and again that obsession feeds on attention. Once it has its teeth in, it doesn’t discriminate between negative attention and the positive kind. Gushing over someone’s latest crush counts as attention, but so does arguing with someone about how their special interest is inherently annoying or unhealthy. Depending on how obsessed they are, they might not need your participation so much as your presence to convert noncommittal platitudes into attention (which at least requires very little effort from you). But if someone is trying to sell you on sharing their obsession, convincing them how deeply uninterested you are counts as attention. Evangelists of every stripe positively thrive on negative attention, which is why you sometimes have to become the grey rock that they can’t build their church on.

True story, I once shared a cubicle with a woman who was fixated on getting me to go on the same series of fad diets,  come to church with her, and also join Christian Mingle to “find someone to settle down with” for most of a calendar year, hitting my personal trifecta of “not technically a hostile work environment in the legal sense, but hostile enough!” I was a temp, she was staff, I was in my mid-20s and she was about to turn 30, and she saw herself in a wise mentor/cool older sister role. Roundabout the second time I told her thanks for thinking of me but I wasn’t interested in any of that and could she possibly stick to work topics from now, she burst into tears and I got a pointed call from my agency about how if I wanted to keep working then I needed to “be a team player.” Her boss would rather replace me than have to deal with her crying in his office, and I would rather keep eating and paying rent than try to force her to do her crying in his office vs. mine, so from then on whenever she jabbered at me I pretty much stuck to saying, “Right on.” Sometimes I switched it up to “Sounds fun, but I have plans” if I sensed an actual invitation so I didn’t accidentally “Right on” my way into a double date at a suburban megachurch.

“”I really like guys that value spirituality and family.” “Right on.” “I met the greatest guy on Christian Mingle.” “Right on.” “You should sign up, there are many high-value men there.” “Right on.” “My fiancé, who I met on Christian Mingle, is driving up this weekend.” “Right on.” “He’s bringing his college roommate with him.” “Right on.” “I was wondering, do you maybe want to come to church with us and then go out to eat afterward?” “I have plans, but you have fun.” “Ha, I didn’t even say which day I wanted to meet up!” “Right on.” “That restaurant has tons of salads, it’s won’t be unhealthy.” “Right on.” “We could do it either Saturday or Sunday if you wanted.” “I have plans. But you have fun!” “It wouldn’t even have to be a double date, you could just go as friends.” “Right on, but I have plans. You have fun!”

Did this make her stop talking to me? Better question, would anything short of death or an unfortunate medical event have made her stop talking to me? If I was the only person she knew who might be Christian-Mingle-weekend double-date-at-church material, then clearly we had very different views of reality, and staying non-committal and not giving her anything to latch onto or nurture into a grievance was the safest path of least resistance I could find.

That’s an extreme example,  but I honestly cannot stress enough how helpful it has been to chalk whole categories of conversational topics up to “This person and I simply get excited about Different Stuff, and that is Okay.” Their level of interest and complicated feelings are not my problem to sort out, how hard I am possibly judging them inside my head is not their problem to fix as long as I keep it inside my head, we can just coexist being interested in different stuff without me having to do anything in particular about that. There certain topics where I can neither manufacture nor feign any interest, polite or otherwise, and people I simply do not like enough to try, and the full grey rock is for when I am disinterested in both the topic and the relationship to the point that I don’t care if my inattention comes across as hostile as long as they fuck off. In the case of the chatty coworker, I pulled it out only when being more direct backfired and it was not safe to escalate.

But the grey rock is not for people I want to be close to. If I’m interested in the person, then it’s worth the effort it takes for me to be interested in something simply because they are interested in it, at least for a little while. If they’re interested in me, then hopefully they’ll deal with hearing about the new Shōgun adaptation or The Adventures of Amina al-Sirafi or whatever I’m geeking out about this week. As long as we take turns and do not pressure the other person to take an equal interest in our obsession independent of their affection for us, then we can be interestingly bored and pleasantly boring together. That all leaves plenty of room to set reasonable limits such as, “Hey, that’s so exciting, but now it’s my turn to talk!” or “Fascinating, but I should warn you that have reached capacity for [topic] for today, and we need to either find another topic or plan to pick this up another time” or even “I know you want me to read your favorite book very much, but I’m not gonna and you can’t make me, so you need to stop pushing or we are definitely going to fight.” That’s all going to be easier within a context where you’ve demonstrated that you are willing to take some interest for the other person’s sake.

If your sister is hungry for attention when she shares these tidbits with you, you can try withholding it in order to teach her to look for it elsewhere, at which point she’ll work harder, and then you can starve her even harder, and then she can try harder, and then….what’s the endgame? Politely ignoring her does not seem to be slowing her down. Hence the experiment where you spend your budget of praise and attention freely and see what happens when she finds out that she doesn’t have to go hungry and you find out that you’re not trapped inside her hungers. Don’t look at it as her being ookily obsessed with fame, it’s just that you’re interested in different stuff, and that’s okay. Like the Emily Dickinson poem says, it’s exhausting to be Somebody all the damn time. You want your sister to relax and be comfortable being Nobody with you. To do that, maybe you gotta let her feel like a Somebody, just for a ,minute. Not just any Somebody, she’s your Somebody, and you love her enough to let her bore the shit out of you every once in a while. Not precisely in those words, but you get the idea.

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

I (24, he/they) have been with my partner (24, he/she/they) for almost about a year now. We’ve had a great relationship and we get along together really well, my partner has an amazing sense of humor, cares about me a lot, is creative, very passionate and just all around an amazing person. I love him very much but it’s also hard to be with him. 

It’s especially hard when they’re upset, because I feel like there’s nothing I can do. They tend to spiral and feel hopeless about everything. Words of encouragement don’t work. Trying to say stuff like “oh you must be feeling xyz” just feels like I’m stating the obvious to them. And I get it. We are physically distant (not super far, just different houses), so we text most of the times and are only able to meet each other once or twice a week. 

I’m not good at comforting people. I don’t know what I can do to help. I’ve asked if they needed anything from me during those moments, but they don’t know what helps them either, so I end up saying things that don’t help or make things worse, or I don’t say anything at all and that also makes things worse. They end up feeling like they’re not compensated for their suffering, I end up feeling incompetent. They start calling everyone useless. They start feeling worthless because they feel like I’m not doing enough. I hear words like “nobody loves me”, or “nobody cares enough to understand me”, or “I’m always alone and I have to rely on myself.”

The problem? He’s right about me! I haven’t been able to do anything. All I’ve done is make stupid little mistakes like being late and forgetting my lunch and inconveniencing him. I know he has a low tolerance to stuff like this, especially when it comes to inconveniencing him, but I keep messing up no matter how hard I try. I want to be reliable for my partner but he doesn’t trust me anymore. Sorry doesn’t cut it because I’ll keep messing up again. He doesn’t like it when I apologize. And proving that I’m really sorry doesn’t feel like something I can do because I don’t trust myself to not make the same mistakes again.

I’m forgetful, I’m clumsy and I keep planning things badly. I’m passive and I don’t take charge enough. They’ve told me this both directly and indirectly. I’ve been called inadequate at times, and they’ve said hurtful things like they “don’t think its within my ability to do xyz”. I hate that I’m like this because it hurts him. I hate that he’s right. He’s incredibly independent. He does things very quickly and efficiently. He plans well. He does everything right. I’m just a doormat and I feel useless. 

It also hurts because I’m trying my best, but I can’t. I try and try and try but we always end up arguing about how I’m not doing enough and my efforts don’t reach her. She says that she doesn’t feel like I care about her, but I do. I try to be as attentive as I can be, I try to be there for her as much as I can. I keep doing research and trying to talk to her and understand her side of things, but we always end up in circles. I’m constantly thinking of what I can do for her but we both don’t know what makes my partner feel comforted, so we both end up hurt. 

They don’t have anyone else to turn to either, so it’s just me. But I have so much to deal with outside my relationship at the same time that my head hurts. 

It’s a lot easier when we’re physically together because I can do something. I can buy things or talk and be there in their presence and they eventually feel alright. But through text I just don’t know what to say, and it hurts to see her in pain. I know I can’t control how they feel. I know I can’t cheer them up sometimes. But if I can’t do anything about it then I’m not doing enough.

I’ve been hating myself more and more and I don’t know what to do. I get distracted at work and I’m snappy at my family because them being upset causes me so much stress and anxiety. We’ve almost broken up a few times now, but every time we’re almost there, I either back down or don’t bring it up at all, because in the end I still love them. He cares about me a lot until he’s upset and lashing out. Then it’s mean and hurtful words. Or maybe I’m just sensitive. Then I feel terrible because I didn’t do anything about it because I was frozen thinking about what I can do.

I ended up in a panic attack once because I forgot to talk about something serious. And yes, that was my fault, 100%. I own up to that. But they were so callous and cold about it that I started shaking. At that point, they were also very upset. They said that “all you can do is panic and cry.” They’ve since then apologized and said they were lashing out at the time but it still hurts. 

Breaking up feels like running away. It feels like giving up, but talking only makes us go in circles. I’ve already done it once and that was definitely me running away from my problems before we patched things up. But it’s exhausting because I’m constantly worried about my partner being upset over me or someone else. And she already expects me to fuck it up anyways.

The good is amazing, but the bad makes me want to die. I keep swinging back and forth between feeling angry and feeling happy, and lately I don’t know what I feel anymore. I don’t know if shes just being mean and lashing out, or if I really just am a terrible partner who can’t do anything right. Am I just that selfish? Am I inconsiderate? Is what she’s saying true? Am I really just trying to run from everything?

I don’t know anymore. I keep thinking about this and mulling it over and I don’t know what’s going on.

I’m sorry this letter is all over the place. My head is a mess too and I don’t really know what I want from this either. I’m confused and hurt and I don’t know if I should even be mad at my partner for lashing out at my mistakes.

I just want to stop feeling like I’m going crazy.


Very Sad Boyfriend

Dear Very Sad Boyfriend:

Thank you for your letter. Please allow me to describe the physical sensation of reading it for the first time.

I had a sinking feeling when I read that your “amazing” partner expects you to serve as their on-call unpaid personal therapist and improvisational court jester responsible for fixing their bad moods. I’m pretty sure the phrase “compensated for their suffering” turned at least some of my hair permanently white, and things sunk further when you revealed that everything you do to try to help them when they suffer gets used as an excuse to blame and punish you. Which is it, you’re the only person on earth who can possibly help them or you’re the worst at helping? They don’t seem to know what might make them feel better or be able to give you any direction about what they need, nor do they have any other plans  to mitigate these low mood spells, and yet they are extremely certain that everything you do is wrong. Could it be that manufacturing opportunities to blame you whenever they feel bad isn’t the bug, it’s the feature?

Then I read about when you had a panic attack, your partner had nothing to offer you except contempt, and you feel like that’s your fault, too. When I got to the words “all you can do is panic and cry,” all the blood that is currently inside of my body rapidly switched places with other blood. Did all the color want to drain dramatically from my face until I was white as a sheet or did it want to puff my cheeks out like a choleric beets? Yes, extremely both, NOW. I was telling Mr. Awkward about your letter over lunch and it happened the same way again. “All you can do is panic and cry.”  He got completely still and said “Beg your pardon?” in that too-quiet voice people use in old timey westerns right before someone flies out a saloon window boots first (if they’re lucky). And there it went again, all the blood from my brain just fell down through my jaw and pooled in my clenched fists, and all the blood from the lower body rose like an elevator through my trunk and bloomed out of my cheeks like fireworks. We were both so angry on your behalf that I couldn’t close my hands all the way and he couldn’t move his face for a few seconds. We were angry because that is not how people talk to people they claim to love.

I beg your pardon, but NOTHING ABOUT THIS IS YOUR FAULT AND YOUR PARTNER IS NOT “RIGHT ABOUT YOU.” What if I told you that somebody could be clearly going through it and also making choices to devalue and mistreat you, and one does not cancel out the impact of the other? Mean is a choice. You don’t always know precisely what to say when they are upset, but I guarantee that you don’t insult and berate them, blame them for everything that’s wrong in your life, or use their most vulnerable moments to find the cruelest thing a person could possibly say under the circumstances. This person consistently kicks you when they’re down, they kick you when you’re down, and now you’re in my inbox wondering if maybe you just need to work a little harder on the relationship. The automatic self-blame more than anything is the marker for abuse for me, because it means you’ve internalized the idea that on some level you deserve to be treated like everything you do is bad and that being emotionally drained and crushingly unhappy is just the price you pay for love. It certainly is convenient for them if all your mistakes are your fault and all their mean bullshit is also your fault. You clearly value accountability, but you’ll never make up for what your partner lacks by supplying more of your own.

The good is amazing, the bad makes me wanna die.” To borrow from a past column, if I make a giant pot of delicious chili and hide a tiny cat turd in it, that’s eight quarts of Shit Stew now. There’s no safe serving size for abuse and no amount of amazing that someone can be that cancels out how mean they are  If you can’t trust that just yet, then trust how bad you felt when you wrote in. Any relationship that made you feel so exhausted and confused that you wanna die would have me looking around for exits, not fixes. I’m so sorry if you thought you were gonna get scripts for working on your bedside manner and instead I teleported to your house like the Terminator. “Come with me if you want to live.” But it is that bad. I’m sorry.

You say that breaking up “would feel like running away from your problems” as if running away from people who hurt you and make you miserable is a bad thing. I get it, our terrible culture means that any time you talk about quitting literally anything, someone’s gonna show up with a persistence narrative. “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” “Relationships take work!” “No pain, no gain.” Like leaving our book club for a hobby we might enjoy more is the only thing between us and putting another Nobel Prize on the shelf where we keep our EGOTs.

Whenever someone suggests that the best and only way to deal with a situation where you are unhappy is to invest even more time and energy, I want you to ask: 1) What do they win if you keep doing something that hurts you? Since the person applying pressure here is you, what do you win besides more feeling helpless, unsupported, unappreciated, and blaming yourself for all of it?

2) If you were to stick with it, when do you get to the good part? Be specific. “In the first couple of episodes of Schitt’s Creek, they need to make the mayor grotesquely unbearable so that the family will seem sympathetic by comparison, you can skip or fast forward through his parts without missing much.” I can (and did) work with that. When do you get to enjoy your relationship instead of feeling like it’s a job where you’re perpetually on a performance improvement plan? It’s been a year. More effort from you has not made anything better, it has only gotten worse. That’s because you cannot love another person into being okay, and you definitely cannot love someone who treats you like shit out of treating you like shit. It is very convenient for abusers to frame “running away” as something you’re not allowed to do, which is why I suggest running away from them as often as you can just because you can. “You can’t simply  run away from your problems!” Let’s find out!

If you need a how-to review for breaking up with someone who might not let you go quietly, here are some suggestions:

  1. Make a safety plan. Leaving an abuser is the most dangerous time. Better to have the plan and not need it than need it and not have it. Everybody’s safety plan is gonna look different. One thing I might add to yours: If your ex threatens self-harm, what steps could you take to stay safe and stick to your boundaries? I know you worry about them, but there is no problem on earth for which your compliance and continued exposure to someone who hurts you is the cure.
  2. Box up any stuff of theirs that was in your living space and get it ready to ship. With your safety plan in mind, if you can stealthily snag anything of yours that’s at their place without alerting them to the imminent breakup, do it, especially any important documents. Anything that can be replaced is probably their stuff now, write it off as the Cost of Freedom.
  3. Make a list of ways they have to get in contact with you: Phone numbers, social media handles and platforms, email addresses, etc. Make a note of any mutuals who might be tempted to play peacemaker or help them get around your blocks.
  4. Compose a breakup message. Sample: “I’m so sorry, but this is not working for me anymore and I am ending our relationship. I’ll drop your stuff in the mail by [date] and send you tracking info. After that, I need a clean break, so I won’t be replying to messages, and I’d ask that you not contact me. I’m sorry things didn’t work out and I wish you well.”
  5. I know people think that texting a breakup is cruel and that people we love are always owed at least one face-to-face conversation. If this were a relationship where you weren’t being abused into being this person’s on-call crisis support and punching bag, that might make more sense. But you’ve tried to break up before and been sucked back in, and they know that they can use their own suffering to summon you whenever they like. If they don’t wanna break up, how you did it will just become part of the story of how you left them because you are mean and selfish, etc.Sometimes you gotta choose what’s safest and least painful for you and let other people tell the stories that they need to tell about why you did it.
  6. Communicating the decision is more important than arguing your reasons. If you want to supply reasons for the breakup, make them all about you. “I’m so sorry, I love you, but I know that I am not happy with how things are and this is the right decision for me.” “This isn’t working for me and I think I will be better off if we stop trying.”
  7. Please know that you’re never in a million years gonna convince this person they were being abusive. I’m not sure I convinced you that they are abusive, but if I convince you of one thing today let it be that it’s okay to break up with someone who doesn’t make you happy even if they are not abusive, and if I convince you of two things let it be that if you even breathe the a-word in this person’s direction they’re gonna DARVO-reverse-Uno you until you apologize for being abusive to them.
  8. When you’re ready, send the message. Then you can either block them or use filters to make sure that their messages do not show up for you.
  9. Tell mutuals what’s going on. Sample: “Ex and I broke up as of today, and I’ve asked for a clean break with no further contact. I’m letting the people who care about both of us know in case you want to check on them and so that you know not to pass on messages or news about me to them or vice versa. Sorry to make it awkward, thanks for your understanding and support!” Tell your support system what’s going on without the part where they might wanna check on your ex.
  10. Mute notifications on your phone for the rest of that day, take yourself out for a treat, and drop their stuff in the mail on the way.
  11. Expect an extinction burst where they try everything they can to make you respond and pay attention to them one last time. You are accustomed to being their caretaker, and it’s going to be the hardest thing to just tune them out. It will feel terrible, like you are turning your back on them. If guilt doesn’t work, they will demand closure. But you can’t give other people closure. Closure for them starts with believing you that it’s over and you want to be left alone. They will get that (or not) in their own sweet time. The more you try to fix it instead of staying gone, the longer it will suck.You must disengage and let whatever they do run its course. Reminding them of your decision counts as engaging. If they send you 27 messages with no answer and you respond to the 28th one to tell them to leave you alone, now they know it only takes 28 messages to get your attention.
  12. Over the next several months, be very gentle with yourself. Let people who care about you pet you and tell you how smart and pretty you are. If you can access therapy, this is a very good time to do that.
  13. Grieve. For the good parts of being with this person, of which I do not doubt there were some. For yourself, a person who was working so hard to take care of everybody he forgot to take care of himself.
  14. Heal. Let anger do its work. Let time do its work. Both are cleansing if you let them be.
  15. Down the road, when you’re ready to date again, try to steer clear of people who expect a lot of emotional and crisis support from you out of the gate and people who have no other friends or social connections. They might be perfectly lovely people, but until you remove the invisible “How can I help?” sign on your own forehead they are maybe not your safest bets. There’s more to loving and being loved than being useful.
  16. Always steer clear of anyone who is mean to you or mean to other people in front of you, especially anyone who tries to explain why they were mean or why what they did wasn’t mean instead of saying “I’m sorry.” Those were never your people.

You can’t run away from every problem, but you can break up with people who don’t make you happy.

Valerie L

Hi Captain!

I (she/her, 20) am the youngest of three sisters from a very close family. My oldest sister, Shouter (26, she/her), is a lovely, kind, caring person. She’s really generous, and thoughtful and loves our family and her partner deeply. But she has always had a short fuse, especially when she gets anxious or stressed out, and can be wound up or teased easily.

Shouter has been going out with the lovely Partner (27, he/him) for about 4-5 years now. They love each other very much, and in general I think they are very good for each other. However, they have always been a couple that bickers, and occasionally (probably about once every trip I take to visit them) this will turn into a fight, which normally means Partner teasing/joking a little too hard, and Shouter ending up, well, shouting at him, seemingly out of nowhere. I have never seen Partner shout back, he normally just leaves the room and lets her cool off, seeming to find the whole thing kind of funny because of the absurdity of the outburst.

Obviously, these interactions make me (and my other sister who is usually also there when we see each other) feel very uncomfortable. Shouter can change the mood of the room very quickly, and we find it hard to know how to react without feeling like we are getting involved in someone else’s relationship. This is especially tricky because we are often part of the “joke” which sets off Shouter, but Partner ends up the only one getting yelled at. For an example, on the most recent occasion we were joking about Other Sister bringing a bed frame from our family home when she drove up to help them move, even though Shouter has already said she didn’t want her to bring the bed frame. Annoying, but harmless. As with most of these occasions, I understand the emotion behind the outburst – in this case Parter genuinely hasn’t been helping prepare for the move properly and is leaving a lot of tasks up to her. 

I tried to talk to her about this with Other Sister the morning after the shouting. We tried to keep the conversation focused on how it makes us feel uncomfortable, without speculating on how Partner feels or their relationship. She got very defensive and was upset that we didn’t understand why she had been stressed/upset/wound up/out of control. She said she felt she had been disrespected and undermined. She also said she never reacts like this to Partner except when we/our parents are around. I tried to explain that we understand she is under a lot of pressure at the moment but I don’t think it’s ever really justified to talk to Partner like that. She didn’t take this very well and the discussion was ended.

I love my sister very much, but she is a grown adult acting like a child. In future, I am going to try and be more aware of how jokes between her sisters and Partner at her expense might make her feel (ganged up on?), but this reaction is definitely unjustified. She has previously been to therapy for a short period over her anxiety, and Other Sister and I think an outside person to talk to about how to communicate/react in these situations would be useful, but I don’t know how to have productive conversations with Shouter about this. We are usually a very close family, but it is hard to approach her about this without making her feel ambushed or like we’re all against her. Do you have any suggestions or scripts? 

Thank you!!

Silent Sister

Dear Silent Sister:

I get very uncomfortable around yelling even when it’s not directed at me, and I think you handled things pretty well when you told your sister how uncomfortable it makes you. I do have some advice, but first, a (hopefully funny) story about siblings and when one person is notoriously easily provoked and when emotional reactions you observe don’t seem to add up.

When we were kids, my older brother Roland used to spend the entire 8:00 a.m. Sunday Mass at St. Joseph’s In The Pines in Charlton, Massachusetts dropping the rankest silent-but-deadly farts in human history. If I reacted to the stench by flinching, covering my mouth and nose, or trying to wave to dispel the noxious cloud, I got in trouble for acting up. If stealth mode failed and he accidentally let out an audible squeaker or rumbler, he would dramatically turn my way, mime gagging and doubling over, and pretend I was the terrorist. If I tried to mime-defend my honor by waving the cloud back at him, I got in trouble for acting up. If I tried to defend myself in the car after church, I got in trouble for tattling.

We didn’t always have hot dogs and baked beans on Saturday nights, but whenever Roland’s methane reserves were low he had other tricks: Droning hymns in an Elmer Fudd voice (“Bwess us oh Woahd we awe poow in spiwit, bwess us oh Woahd ouw God…”) or subbing in our last name (rhymes with “Jesus”), doing a weird secret handshake where he tickled my palm with his pinky during the “peace be with yous,” slowly edging closer and closer to me whenever we knelt down for the long Eucharistic prayers until his whole weight was leaning on me like our Great Dane did at home, daring me to flinch. I tried to dissociate as much as possible, keeping my eyes trained on the distressingly ripped Jesus (kinda like this but even more Rizzen) on the life-sized photorealistic crucifix that hung above the altar and praying that either a stranger-danger kidnapper would steal both my brothers away or that David Bowie from Labyrinth would come and propose a deal. It never worked.

We always sat in the front left pew closest to the altar, with Roland on the far left by the aisle, then me, then our mom, then my younger brother all the way to the right closest to the center aisle. Usually there were a few empty pews behind us (can’t imagine why) before the rest of the early worship regulars arranged themselves sparsely through the nave, mostly old people and the families of the altar boys. Meaning, everybody in the building could see the show except my mom. The Old Gold Filters she smoked back then had destroyed her sense of smell (a mercy in this case), and when her focus was divided between reverently participating in the service and keeping one eye on our hyperactive younger brother while he bounced off the pew walls, picked the scabs off any recent bug bites, tried to stop the bleeding with tissues from her purse, and then compulsively shredded the tissues plus any unsecured church bulletins or collection envelopes he could get his hands on into a nest of sticky, bloody paper, her peripheral vision could only catch me, not Señor Skunkass to my left while he expertly wound me up and set me off, week after week after week.

My adult relationship with my brother is very different, and I don’t think that either you or your shouty sister are playing the exact same roles we did back then. I thought of this story because your sister said that fights with her partner like this happen only when your family is around, only when her partner has been making jokes at her expense, and only when you all join him in ragging on her. In other words, these fights only happen when there is an audience. A very specific audience. If you’ve ever seen the movie Gaslight (George Cukor, 1944) that spawned the term we all know and can’t get away from (because once you see it you realize it’s everywhere), then you’ll know that the abusive husband terrorizes his wife where nobody can see and then expertly engineers it so that her moments of maximum emotional distress unfold in front of others. Their servants, the neighbors, her doctors, her friends and the guests at a fancy party don’t see what he did to provoke her, they just see her breaking down “seemingly out of nowhere” and how calm and concerned and charming he is by comparison.

My brother didn’t treat me like that when we were alone. It was only fun for him with an audience. My mom did get often get mad at me if I failed to “just ignore” either of my brothers when they antagonized me at home, but she was a specific kind of extra mad when my failure to pretend that nothing bad was happening reflected on her in a place that was important to her like church. She would always say, “Your brothers only do it to get a rise out of you, giving them attention is just giving them what they want.” And she wasn’t wrong, or at least, not completely. There are many instances where making a conscious decision to be boring and withhold attention from difficult and annoying people starves them of the stimulation they seek and (hopefully) motivates them to either find a different way of interacting or fuck off and go find someone else to bother.

But our mom was missing a crucial piece of the puzzle: My brother’s real prize was her attention, harnessed and expertly wielded at me. He won when he could make me furious enough to annoy and embarrass her without getting caught, he won again whenever she whipped her head around like a cobra to give me the special glare that meant ‘you will NOT be getting a donut after church, Young Lady’ while he gazed angelically ahead at Buff Jesus, and he won yet again in the church basement if he could drag out eating his Boston Kreme from Dunkin’ in tiny, tiny nibbles like he was fucking Stuart Little or something while staring directly into my hungry eyes. (Catholics aren’t supposed to eat before Holy Communion, so we ate breakfast after church and cruised through Mass on the fumes of last night’s dinner. Sometimes the only thing louder than the farts was the sound of my own stomach growling). Sometimes if I could look pitiful enough, like some desolate urchin (a skill I cultivated and nurtured like only someone raised on the Compleat Werks of L.M. Montgomery and Frances Hodgson Burnett could), one of the old people might take pity on me and sneak me whatever donut holes or waxy crullers were left after the good donuts were gone to hide in my pocket for later. If I failed the stealth check, Roland would never stoop so low as to tattle on me. He’d get our younger brother to do it, knowing that if I got caught with forbidden purse-Munchkins or embarrassed our family by lunging at his stupid face and pummeling it into the peeling linoleum floor in front of the whole congregation, I would be in trouble all day and he would get off Scot-free.

I am not saying that your sister’s partner is secretly a movie villain who is pulling all of your strings like puppets. And you know these people, I don’t, so if you are concerned about her yelling then you’re probably right to be. Hopefully your sister heard you and will seek some help to lower her overall anxiety levels.

But I want to probe the perception that your sister acted the way she did “seemingly out of nowhere.” The fact that your sister’s partner slacked off in prepping for the move and then found it funny when she melted down from the stress in front of everyone does not exactly read to me as “what a super chill dude that is, how unfairly he is treated.” And I want to gently suggest that if everybody in a room is joking about one person, and that person not only isn’t laughing but gets visibly more and more upset the longer it goes on, then those jokes are not funny and I’m not even sure we should still call them jokes. You undoubtedly meant them as jokes, but they sure didn’t land that way. The “you” in here is more a question for her partner than for anybody else, but if you know someone you love is stressed to the max, easily provoked, and sensitive about a certain topic, then why would you push that particular button and invite others to take turns jabbing at it? As much you wish your sister reacted differently that night, where was anybody’s reaction to say, “I am so sorry, we were trying to be funny but I can see that we really upset you. Are you okay? How can we help?”

You can’t control what your sister does in the wake of your heart-to-heart, and you can’t control how she and your partner handle their relationship going forward. If it’s all as good as you say and this is out of character, then they will be fine. But here’s what you can control: You now have information that your sister does not enjoy being roasted when you all get together. She feels ganged up on and disrespected. What do you want to do with that information? The roles you played as kids and have been playing up to now don’t have to be permanent. What if, for the duration of one dinner, you yes-anded her jokes and only her jokes for a change, just to see what happens? Let’s assume that her partner isn’t weaponizing your presence to kick her when she’s down, but what if it’s as simple as, next time you’re all together and he starts in on her, you decline to join him? If this really is all in good fun, then he will follow you to a shiny new topic. If he doubles down, like, the only thing he wants to do when you’re all hanging out is gang up on your sister, then that’s interesting information. Since they’re known to bicker, and you know you don’t love that, remember that you also have the option to make yourself scarce. “Oh, are you guys doing foreplay again? Ew. I’m going to bed.”

The story about my brother and St. Joseph’s of the Sacred Fart is a funny story now (at least to me) because I’m the one telling it and because I’m telling it now. Looking back, I can have compassion for how deeply feral and strange my siblings and I were. Our poor mom, jonesing hard for an Old Gold and just wanting one peaceful hour a week to commune with her muscular and forgiving Lord (28 minutes if Father Holland was presiding). The poor congregants who wanted the same, especially any unwitting newcomers who sat behind us and then moved back a pew every week until they found a zone of safety. The littlest altar boy whose job was to ring the bell during the Eucharistic prayers when the priest raised his hands in a certain gesture, but he was so terrified of missing his cue he’d ring the bell as loud as he could any time the priest even looked like he was gonna raise his hands above his waist. I can laugh now because as adults my brother and don’t treat each other that way, not ever. We rag on each other plenty, but never to the pain, and never as a performance to entice other people to join in. But back then, when it was still happening? It was excruciating to not be seen or believed.

My brother isn’t the only  bully (reformed) I’ve ever met, and part that has never quite healed is the déjà vu hangover from all the times I have been minding my own business, somebody went out of their way to mess with me, and bystanders who didn’t have shit to say about the jerk’s behavior are suddenly certain that anything I do that isn’t “stare silently at the proud nipples of the Savior and hope it passes” is proof that I’m “too sensitive” and that is somehow worse than anything anyone could possibly do or say to me. I’m a big lady anyhow, but if my atoms had physically expanded every time some useless adult told me to “stop overreacting” and “be the bigger person” when I was a child begging someone, anyone to even acknowledge what I was reacting to, I would block out the fucking sun.

Letter Writer, that’s my baggage, not yours, but this is me disclosing that I am extremely sensitive to this dynamic. In my experience, people rarely snap “out of nowhere,” and the key word in “seemingly out of nowhere” is “seemingly.” So if I see someone get very upset in a way that seems out of character for them or have a big reaction that seems out of proportion to the circumstances I observed, this is what I wanna know, pretty much in this order.

  1. Are they okay?
  2. Is there anything I can do right now that would help? (A glass of water, a snack, personal space, quiet, a break, separation from the person they are fighting with, somewhere to sit down, a hug, getting someone else who can help)
  3. Once they are calmer and able to talk, “Can you tell me more about what just happened?” No assumptions or implied criticism, because I can’t possibly know how reasonable their reaction was until I know what they were reacting to. There is a reason for what they did even if I don’t know what it is, and I’m only seeing a small part of the picture. If what I observed does not explain what happened, then what does the rest of that iceberg look like?

There can still be accountability once you know more. Maybe their reasons don’t add up, or maybe you decide that your own boundaries mean opting out when anybody behaves like that no matter the reason. But we’re never gonna make things worse by approaching each other with more curiosity than judgment.

In closing, I don’t think you’re wrong to be concerned about your sister’s behavior, and if someone were screaming at me the way she screamed at her partner, I’d want the other people present to notice and not pretend that everything is fine. But I think your sister actually gave you a ton of information about what she needs from you, and now you have the option to show solidarity in more directions than one.

Valerie L

Hi Cap, 

Do you have any advice for removing oneself from a WhatsApp group, while wishing to remain in touch irl? 

I’ve read your advice on how to leave a friend group, and plan on actioning it if needed, but on reflection I realise that my main source of discomfort is one particular WhatsApp group chat, which I find to be negative and depressing, as most members only use it to vent or rant – there’s never any positive commentary or much support or interest shown in one another. 

I realise (thanks to you!) that it’s on me to decide what and who I want to give space and energy to in my life, and to communicate that appropriately. But I’d love to try continuing with the 2-3 irl meet ups we have a year, without the weekly exposure to a depressing WhatsApp group. 

Some background: I (she/her) joined a new parents group five years ago. The people, it turns out, aren’t ‘my’ people for a variety of reasons, some of which (like political views) complicate things more than others (like a differing sense of humour). I was going to list them, but I realise (thanks to you!) that saying ‘I’m not sure these people are right for me’ is enough of a reason. 

I also now see that new parent groups are a terrible idea!! (for me personally). Parenting IS hard, and I do need support and advice occasionally, but a bunch of other people who are in the exact same boat isn’t all that helpful to me – it’s just my issues, times five. I get far better support from friends with more parenting experience that know me well, know my flaws and love me anyway. Added to this is that fact that during the years when new parent groups traditionally become close (by hanging out at the park or coffee shop during those long childcare days), we were in a pandemic. So we didn’t really get to bond – I had hoped that as our children grew and the pressure eased slightly, we might be able to grow closer. We only really know each other as struggling new mothers in a pandemic, so haven’t really got the chance to get to know each other in a real or more holistic sense. 

For what it’s worth, I don’t vent or rant (it’s just not ‘me’, and it makes me feel worse). I do have other friend groups that are supportive and helpful when I’m having a tough time. For my part, I try to stay positive and supportive. But after five years of messaging “I’m so sorry to hear that, that sounds so tough. Would it be helpful if I did [supportive thing like picking up groceries]?” only to hear about the same issues cropping up again and again, year after year, without any action taken, I’m approaching being done.

The group organises about 5-6 irl meet-ups a year, of which I normally attend 2-3. A few years ago I got some pushback over not making it to all of the meet-ups, but I made it clear that I would make it to what I could manage and held that boundary. This experience gave me general anxiety with this group as I felt they were asking too much of me for how close we are(n’t). What little time and energy I have is precious.

I neither love nor loathe our irl meet ups, they are always just ‘fine’. I return home a little flat from all the venting, but happy to have got out of the house. I’m curious to know if I would have more energy for meeting IRL if I wasn’t already depleted from reading about all their woes all the time. I also feel that it’s relevant to mention that the group tends to be driven by one person, who pushes to organise most meet ups, while one other individual is the source of most of (but not all) the negativity, and that I may not be the only one feeling this way. I considered being more proactive in developing individual relationships with other members of this group, in the hope of developing more nuanced relationships with them, but I don’t have the time or energy for that at the moment. Again, they may feel the same about me – potentially interested in developing a friendship at another time, but not right now while life is so busy. After all, they haven’t reached out to me individually either. 

For what it’s worth, I work in a public-facing role in my city centre, and see everyone I know including these people, at work on a regular basis. So I would prefer not to lift out of the group entirely, though I appreciate (again, thanks to you!) that that is an option, and that I could leave the group and still have pleasant interactions with them when inevitably I run into them at work. 

How do I even communicate my wishes? Do I say that I’m taking a break from WhatsApp groups and to message me directly (ie just one of them) if there is a meet up happening? Is that rude, like “I don’t want to know about your day-to-day but I do want the (supposedly) ‘fun’ bits of our friendship”? I’d be adding an extra complication to organising meetups too, which I don’t love as I prefer to be respectful of peoples time and I never organise anything myself, so it seems rude to make it harder for those that do. 

I suppose the tldr is that I have a group of friends that could be nice to see a few times a year, but the wonders of WhatsApp make me feel like I’m seeing them every week – and that’s too much. What to do about this very 2024 dilemma? 


Hopeful But Realistic 

Hello Hopeful But Realistic:

I mean this as a compliment: Your letter is like if Hamlet delivered his famous “To Be Or Not To Be” soliloquy but it was about experiencing FOMO related to an infrequent, completely optional social activity he does not enjoy with people he does not really like. Like Hamlet, your self-awareness is only matched by your awareness of the inherent ironies of your situation. For instance, the way you (correctly) recognize that if you leave the place where the group gathers and makes plans, then it will be on you to make the effort to organize alternatives and then (correctly) admit that you won’t be doing that? Brava, sincerely.

Now that the little Hamlet who lives inside me recognizes the Hamlet in you, let’s get you out of this sea of opposing troubles without anybody having to take up arms.

Part 1: Taking Leave

First, pick two people in the existing WhatsApp group, ideally a) the person that that you like the best and would be most likely to want to hang out with someday when things are less hectic (but not really) and b) the person who does the most work to plan events and keep everyone connected. If there are more than two, that’s okay, just start with two for now. If you spend more than five minutes thinking about this, pick the first two people who come to mind.

Once you’ve got your picks, you’re going to send them versions of the same private, direct message.

Sample, for the organizer: “Hey, I wanted to let you know that I’m taking a break from our group chat, so if you want to reach me or if anyone asks, the best contact is ____________. I so appreciate the work you do to keep us all connected and I look forward to seeing your face the next time we’re all in the same place at the same time.”

Sample for the potential friend: “Hey, I’m taking a break from our WhatsApp chat for the time being, but I don’t want to lose touch with all the great people here between now and the next big gathering. Can we trade info? The best way to reach me is _________. Have a great week and hopefully see you around!”

Adapt those in whatever way makes sense to you given what you know about the people you’re writing to. The key talking points are:

1. You’re not leaving, you’re “taking a break.” Maybe you’ll be back at some point, maybe you won’t, the beauty is that you don’t have to decide right now. Pro tip: Sometimes people say they are taking a break from social media to avoid giving offense, just keep in mind that only really works for if you–and the people you’re taking a break from–are not heavy social media users in the first place and if you are not connected on other platforms.

2. Why are you taking a break? Irrelevant. Not only are you not required to show your work, I strongly recommend against offering reasons and I recommend against it even harder in the unlikely event that someone actually asks. I doubt any of these people are thinking about you all that much unless you are directly in front of them, and if any of them are, they should get used to disappointment. Your critiques of a group you’re leaving anyway are neither helpful nor necessary, and your complicated feelings about the intersections of public-facing work, parenthood, and social life are your own business. You’re getting what you want (namely, peace and freedom) out of this, so don’t fuck it up on the landing! “Fixing” relationships and group dynamics is for stuff you want to participate in.

3. You’ve really enjoyed getting to know so many great people, and you’d love to trade contact info so that you don’t lose touch completely. You look forward to running into them via work or at a future meetup or whatever occasion and venue seems most likely, and in the meantime people can reach you at _______________.

That’s it.Once you send those messages privately, you’re free to delete WhatsApp from your phone knowing that you’ve done your part to make sure that nobody has to wonder where you went or feel obligated to check on you, you’ve expressed genuine appreciation without expectation of anything in return, and you’ve left a door open so that anybody who wants to find you knows how. Pretty much all you have to do is be pleasant when you do run into everyone else in the course of your work, and you’re free at any point to invite people you actually like to attend stuff you host for your real friends on a case by case basis and see what develops.

Part 2: Only Connect

Speaking of real friends: Even Hamlet had his Horatio. When was the last time you texted yours? For the love of all that is sacred to you, before the week is out, I beg you to contact a person from your life who likes you and whom you like back in an uncomplicated way, someone for whom making an effort does not summon forth your inner Hamlet. Parenting is hard, making friends as an adult is hard, sustaining connections over time and distance is hard, but we’re all we’ve got and right now your loneliness is as palpable as your anxiety about this specific group of Not Quite Your People. Remind yourself what it’s like to just be silly and relaxed around somebody who doesn’t live in your house. Please.

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

I’m in a relationship for the last year. We started out as best friends for two years and it slowly evolved into a relationship. We have similar interests and he started hanging out with my son early on and doing fun things together. We never labeled anything and just sort of let it happen. My son just turned 12 and his father passed away when he was young and he has no memory of him. My boyfriend is the first man I have ever trusted around my son and if it didn’t work out there would be no new men in our lives and my boyfriend (CJ) would always play a role in his life.

My son just asked me if he can call CJ dad and said he’s tired of being the only kid without a father. I told him we can discuss it but that CJ is in our lives and loves us both regardless of what they call each other. I also explained that some moms have lots of boyfriends over the year and being a boyfriend doesn’t automatically make men a dad. He said that CJ does dad things with him and loves us both very much so that makes us a family. CJ said he would do whatever my son wants to feel happy but I want to make sure we do the right thing. CJ’s family adores us and his parents treat him the same as their grandchildren from their other son, and they treat me equally (better actually lol) than his brothers partner.

Should we let him call CJ dad??

Thank you.


Here’s your periodic reminder that I’m not a parent, so any advice about what’s best for your son is gonna be sheer guesswork coming from me.

Maybe here’s where I can help: What’s the right move here for you? 

In your heart of hearts, when you wrote to me did you want to be talked into letting this happen or talked out of it?

Feelings Check: If you were to say yes, does that make you feel warm, excited and hopeful or does it make you feel something else? Grief for what might have been, perhaps? Guilty that you “owe” your child a dad and you’d be letting him down if you prioritized your misgivings? Pressure to escalate or define a relationship you’re not quite ready to define? And are your misgivings more about protecting your son from being let down or disappointed or are they more about protecting your heart? Feelings are weird. They are also information. Try to pull yours out and look at them without judging them or yourself.

You say of your relationship with CJ, “We never labeled anything and just sort of let it happen.” I love a good friends-to-lovers tale! I’ve also read many, many letters where one person wants some kind of formal recognition of their relationship (everything from claiming a boyfriend/girlfriend/partner label, hearing/saying the words “I love you” out loud, being “social media official” or otherwise public about the relationship, being exclusive or committing to being non-exclusive together, to stuff that carries legal and financial implications like marriage, adoption, shared housing, business partnerships, or artistic collaboration) and the other person has a more relaxed approach along the lines of “It’s just a piece of paper” or “But labels shouldn’t define us!”

The person who wants more clarity is often afraid to push for it out of fear of ruining a good thing, which begs the question, if telling the truth about what you want from a relationship can “ruin” that relationship then you might have bigger issues. The person who claims it’s not a big deal rarely has a good answer for “Well, if it’s not a big deal either way, then why not just do what the other person wants?” aka a sure sign that something is in fact A Very Big Deal and worth approaching with care and caution until everyone is sure about what they want.

In that story, are any of those people you? Are any of them CJ? Right now you seem to be justifying the decision as “I guess nothing will fundamentally change if we add this label” but is that actually true? Maybe it’s time to do more accurate labeling all around. For example, CJ said he would do whatever your son wanted, but he didn’t say what he wanted. Do you know what he wants? Does he? Is it your hope/plan/wish to co-parent together in an official sense down the road? Could either/both of you make a list of things that would change and would not change if the word “Dad” entered the chat, and do your lists overlap?

If I could wave a magic wand right now I’d send you and CJ away for a long, lazy weekend alone together somewhere to pamper the shit out of yourselves and have the “So, I know we’re doing this, but are we DOING THIS-doing this?” conversation about your relationship timeline and goals that I can feel fermenting underneath your question.Once you and CJ are on the same page with each other about how you want things to work, then you can figure out the right stuff to tell your son. The kid is absolutely trying to Step-Parent Trap you and the least you can do is make sure the adults aren’t divided before they’re conquered. 😉

For the record, I think how you explained things to your son demonstrates that you listen to him and respect his feelings enough to be honest with him, and that’s lovely to read. Whatever decision you ultimately make about the word “Dad,” your son is clearly surrounded by people who love him and who are able to collaborate in his best interest, and that can only be a good thing. Of course you want your son to be happy, but there are lots of possible happy endings out there for this story, and none of them work unless you are happy. Are you happy? What would make you happiest? The more honest and aware you are about that, the better decisions you’ll make.

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