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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.

 

 

Deleted user

It’s time for that recurring feature where the search strings people typed in that led them here are answered as if they are real questions. No context! Snap judgments! Let’s do it! 

First, as is traditional, a song: 

I cannot believe I haven’t used that one before. It was right there! 

1 “Mom found my sex toy.”

I’m assuming that she found it in your bedroom or other private space and not floating in the punch bowl or bzzzzzbzzzzzbzzzzing out of the centerpiece at a family event, so the obvious right thing for her to do was to leave it (or put it back) wherever she found it and leave the entire subject alone as well. Your body, your assistive devices! It’s none of her business!

Since you know that she found it, I’m guessing that’s not how it went. But you don’t have to discuss it with her. “Mom, that’s private, I’m not discussing it with you.” If she’s insisting on making it weird, then approach the conversation on those terms.”Mom, why are you being weird about my personal stuff? It’s none of your business.” 

FYI, if you are a teenager living at home with parents, Scarleteen has a lot of content about this. 

2 “Don’t feel guilty about quitting your job.” 

Actually, feel however you want to about it, but probably don’t let those feelings get in the way of doing what’s right for you. There’s a reason you’re leaving. If you’d had the power to fix whatever made you want to leave, you would have already fixed it. 

If applicable, before your last day, create a document with a brief status report on all your current projects and notes on where the essential files and contact info can be found. Email a copy to your manager and team members and put a hard copy in your desk drawer. (When leaving good jobs I thought of this document as doing the best I could for the person coming after me, when leaving bad jobs I thought of it as the “don’t call me” file: If I thought it was important, I wrote it down. If I didn’t write it down, probably ask someone else, since I don’t work here anymore, bye!)

If possible, give notice according to your employment contract or usual industry standards (two weeks is common in the United States). If it’s not possible, because you’re leaving a toxic or abusive workplace, and you need to go immediately, you will not find judgment here.“Quitting without notice will ruin your future career!” Maybe so, but why would I assume that a boss who makes threats like this, or a company that is so toxic that I’m willing to burn a bridge to get away from it, was going to give me a *good* reference or help my career in any way? Sticking it out because of fear has never once helped my career, but the few times I  could just get up and walk away from toxic situations and abusive bosses improved my well-being pretty much immediately. 

Then go! In a few weeks you’ll work somewhere else, with new people, and with brand new guilt about insufficiently feeding the capitalist death machine with your fragile human body. 

3 “Should I let my friend have sex with my gf” 

The word “let” is the record scratch that really ties the whole mess together.Yikes! 

First, delete the word “let” from sentences about who your girlfriend has sex with, since that’s something she decides. Next, please, do some reading about non-monogamy, and get on the same page with your girlfriend about this (that page could be, “this is not for us,”), before anybody does anything they’ll regret. Sex with people outside your relationship is either a thing you and your girlfriend are happily exploring together, or it’s a no-go, either because you choose to remain monogamous or you break up. Same deal for your friendship! Whose idea was this? Do you actually want this friendship to include sexy stuff? How does your friend and your girlfriend want that to work? How do you want that to work? 

From there, the answer you seek is probably in your question, since your reaction doesn’t seem to be “This will be a great for everyone, I’ve checked, and I’m absolutely sure that everyone is into it, and my friendship and relationship will be even better after this happens, yay!” If anyone – including you – is not actively welcoming and participating in whatever sexy stuff you have planned, especially when some element is brand new/outside the usual norms you’ve negotiated, then don’t do it! 

4 “How to convince a long distance crush to believe in a future.”

There is no convincing, there is only asking.

If you want a future with this person, tell them how you feel and describe what you have in mind. Then listen to what they have to say about it. If the answer isn’t, “yes, I feel the same way, let’s give it a try,” or something like it, accept their refusal as gracefully as you can and drop the subject. People don’t tend to forget when a friend says “I’m in love with you and I want us to be together,” so if they change their mind, they know how to find you and tell you all about it, no convincing required!

If it is a “no,” be gentle with yourself, give yourself time and space to grieve for the beautiful daydream you had, and give your crush space, too. There is no airtight case guaranteed to make someone love you back, and there is no loving somebody without treating them like the authority on their own wants and needs. 

5 “My mom doesn’t want to meet my boyfriend.” 

If you generally get along with your mom, and you don’t know why she’s so reluctant, I think it’s worth asking her outright, one time. “I’ve been so excited to introduce two of my favorite people, is there a reason you don’t want to meet him? Help me understand.”

If she has a good reason for her reticence,  it’s time she spelled it out. Sometimes people who aren’t all hopped up on the good love chemicals can see red flags more clearly, like the time my grandmother was perfectly pleasant and welcoming to a college boyfriend, but doomed the relationship the moment she casually (and accurately) noted that “he starts all his sentences with ‘I,’ and I could not unsee it. If the guy had truly made me happy over time, she would have never said anything about it again, but when he started to suck in other ways a few months later, the ice-cold garden hose that Grandma’d sprayed all over my burgeoning attraction made it less of a shock and more of one more reason to get gone.

If your mom has bad reasons (Such as racist/homophobic reasons? Controlling you reasons?), then at least you’ll know what you’re dealing with, and can make some choices. These choices are less about convincing her to see things differently or forcing your mom and your boyfriend into proximity, and more about deciding what you will and won’t put up with. For instance, if she really forced the issue, would your attendance at family events and celebrations where it would be normal for people to bring romantic partners become conditional on whether he’s included as well? Is leaving your boyfriend at home when you have to see your mom actually the best way to be kind to yourself and protective of him? A little of both? Trial and error? You don’t have to decide all at once. 

The key is, ask her one time, let her answer, and then drop the discussion. If she’s mildly wrong? Your happiness over time will be its own evidence and she’ll have a chance to change her mind. If she’s badly, badly, unkindly, rudely wrong? Then you’ll have permission to stop trying to fix any of it and to focus on what’s best for you. 

6 “Husband doesn’t let me have hobbies.” 

Again, that word “let.” Yuck. 

Anyone who thinks that they get to control all of your free time and dictate what you can and cannot do for fun cannot act surprised when looking for a good divorce lawyer in your area becomes less of a hobby and more of a vocation. 

7 “Boyfriend won’t take care of bad credit.” 

That’s his choice, and I don’t think credit scores carry moral weight or determine who is a good person, but it can also be your choice NOT to combine finances or households with someone whose choices risk making your life more precarious. It’s okay to want a romantic partner who approaches money with the same seriousness and care as you, and it’s okay to hold off on any and all romantic milestones that are as much about joining finances and the boring logistics of making a happy, functioning household as they are about love and other feelings.

Script: “If you’re serious about [complicated future step] with me, then we need to be able to talk about money, and right now I need you to start getting a handle on your credit so that we can [goal]. If you’re not ready to do that, I understand, no shame, no judgment, you’re the boss of you. I just want you to understand where I’m coming from, that taking care of myself means not turning “my” money into “our” money until there’s a plan in place that doesn’t put me at risk.” 

8 “Out of town friend keeps inviting herself to stay.” 

The word you’re looking for is “no.” 

“No, that won’t work for me.” 

“No, I don’t want a houseguest this week.” 

If you’ve always acted like you’re okay with her visits in the past, then she’d have no reason to think you were unhappy, so focus on what you want to happen from now on instead of accounting for past grievances that she didn’t know about. Script: “Can we talk about ground rules for visiting? We’ve gotten into a habit of you inviting yourself and me accepting, and I never made a fuss because I really like seeing you. But it’s not always convenient for me to have guests, so can I do the inviting from now on?” 

Then, if you like her and want to see her, seek her out and invite her, and remember, the word “no” never shattered a friendship that didn’t already have a few cracks in it. 

9 “I’m not really dating right now meaning” 

A translation: “I sense that you want to date me and the answer is no.”

It’s a soft rejection, but it is a rejection, and I generally recommend not being the Verizon Guy of dating about this stuff. (“Are you dating now? Howabout now? Are you ready now?”) We carry magical communication devices in our pockets that let us span the world instantaneously, so if things change and the person wants to date you at some point, they can find you and let you know. 

10 “How to respond when a boyfriend asks what kind of a person do u think i am?” 

This is what is known as a loaded question, where you sense that the asker already has a hoped-for (or dreaded) answer in mind, or that the text of the question has an iceberg of subtext hiding under it. 

I generally don’t like it when people cast me in playlets they’re writing inside their heads, where they’ve already decided what my lines are but neglected to tell me, so my usual approach to loaded questions is to get the person asking to tell me what they actually want as quickly as possible.

Most times, especially if it’s someone I know well and like very much, I go right at it. “Babe, you seem to have something in mind, can you elaborate?” “What kind of person you are covers a lot of ground. Can I get a for instance or some subcategories?” This isn’t adversarial, it’s an invitation:  Hey, buddy, tell me what’s really on your mind. 

Sometimes I ignore the subtext and answer the question in the most literal possible way. “What kind of person do you think I am?” “A tall one?” If they want something else, this is their chance to clarify. “No, I meant, do you think I’m a good person?” In my experience, this is a good tactic for dealing with passive-aggressive people, especially if that momentary frustration at you for not following their script prompts them to spit out what they actually want.

When I get the feeling (from context, history) that a person is asking me a loaded question as a formality so that they can tell me what they think or get me to agree to something I’m not sure I want, I skip ahead: “I need to think about it for a minute. Why, what do you think about that?”  Pass! Your turn! 

For example, I’ve noticed that people trying to sell or evangelize have a whole Q & A pattern where they ask questions that set them up for the answers they’ve already planned to give, a pattern that doesn’t allow a lot of room for the words “Oh, no thank you.” I’m also pretty sensitive, if not downright allergic, to people who attempt to test me or pick fights or try to do end-runs around informed consent by asking a trick question so they can pounce when I answer “wrong.” Tell me what you’re after, Perry Mason, but I’m not taking the pop quiz first!

Context and history with a specific person matters, since “What are you doing this weekend?” can mean “I would enjoy hearing about your weekend activities” from some people and “Get ready, I’m about to ask you for a date or a complicated, time-consuming favor in a way that’s hard for you to back out of because you just told me you’re free!” from others. Spend enough time with people in the second group and you’ll forever answer “What are you doing this weekend?” with an automatic “Oh, this and that. Why do you ask?” 

A thing I don’t do anymore at my big age is assume or guess (out loud, at least) what the person wants. If someone wants reassurance or insight or a favor or to deliver a sales pitch, that’s fine, let me make it safe for them to ask the real question. Otherwise, if there is some secret, expected answer that “everybody” is supposed to already know, I’m just fine with asking for a quick review. If someone is operating in good faith, inviting them to clarify will only improve communication. If someone gets mad at me for asking for clarification, it’s a good sign that something else is going on. 

That’s this month’s roundup, comments are….drum roll… OPEN.

Deleted user

Dear Captain Awkward or associate,

Firstly, thank you so much. I’ve devoured your page in the past two weeks. I’m currently scrolling down in the archives, way back in 2015 at the moment. I’ve seen, and benefited from, my main problem being answered on your forum several times. Maybe this is a twist on it, I hope it is so I’m not wasting your time. Whether you answer or not, thank you so much for reading!

I (she/her) have been suffering the past few years from friends who drain me. Not the exciting roller-coaster kind, but the ones I say “yeah we should hang out sometime!” only to find myself being messaged every few days or weeks with potential hangs. In the past it has taken me some time to realise this pattern, or I have realised they drain me but figure it’s best to just try to space it out as much as possible and who knows, maybe sometimes when I need a friend it’ll be good to coincide both of our needs. Well, I have learned that when the chips are down and I try to hang out with friends like this, I come out the other side feeling absolutely exhausted, trampled all over, and furious. I might sound a bit cocky about myself, but I can say that I’m sociable and fairly good with people. The problem is that people assume it’s no effort, and then they make it extremely hard for me to ask for what I want.

They overstay their welcome, they don’t listen to me, or they listen to me too much and require far too much engagement. They extend the hangs beyond what I originally wanted. They essentially push the boat out. I can’t stand rudeness or awkwardness, and I can’t stand when I know somebody is uncomfortable and I could make it better, so what I do with these friends is I spend the entire hang emotionally spackling over their awkwardness or rudeness. Then my friend leaves the hang feeling like “wow that was so much less awkward than usual” whereas I’m absolutely wrecked from doing all of the social heavy lifting. I’m a mostly extroverted, and these friends seem to take my sociability for granted and never seem to consider how their words and actions affect me. One of them recently asked to try on a shirt I own to check out the colour on her, then she marvelled at how big it was. She, the tiny friend, and me having always been very open about my weight insecurity. It offended me but because she’s very chatty and requires everyone to be super honest and open all the time, I decided I didn’t want the hassle of trying to explain this to her, especially when I can’t accuse her of deliberately trying to make me feel bad.

Well, I recently did an admirable thing. I began slow fading from these friends. The tiny friend who was rude about my shirt has tried multiple times to meet and every time I have been busy. I feel good because I think she’s finally gotten the message. I’ve started slow fading from a male friend who I do not believe will ever get the message, judging by how he still thinks other friends who have faded on him are best friends. I’d feel bad, but the last time we hung out he spent three hours telling me everything about a girl who’d recently turned him down, including some personal stuff I doubt she’d want shared, and INTERRUPTED ME every time I tried to change the subject, or tell him about the date I’d been on the night before. I initially had guilt about this new tactic, but I read a lot of your stuff and I think the executive decision I made will be a very healthy one in the long run.

I was feeling great. Enter Amy, an old college acquaintance. She recently moved to my city and messaged me asking if I would be around some day to hang out. I was cautious, because I remembered her sometimes being rather a lot, but I also hadn’t reminisced about our old college class in forever and I suppose with her being new to the city and me being so active on social media, it would be rude for me not to reply. We went for a walk one day after I got off work. She was okayyyyy. Very shrill and a little bit rude to the staff in the cafe where we got a hot drink before the walk (not mean-rude but didn’t say thanks, interrupted them, talked to me very loudly inside the shop). On the walk itself, she was okay but she doesn’t really let me away with anything. If she thinks I’ve said something odd she like SHRIEKS. I feel very exposed in public with her being so loud. She wants to catch each other up on our old college friends. I am interested in everyone she brings up, genuinely, and try to remember the ones I can’t remember etc. When she orders me to think of someone I have any updates on, and I bring someone up that she didn’t know much/doesn’t care about, she loudly interrupts, telling me that she doesn’t care about them. I survive the walk but decide to keep my distance.

Since then she’s asked me three times to hang out, and I’ve said I was busy each time. Until today, when she messaged me that she has reservations for a table for two at a restaurant two weeks from now and will I join her. I really felt like I had to say yes, because she told me she had nobody else at all to go with. She also booked me two weeks in advance! I wish I’d said I was busy. I asked if I could bring my other friend, who had privately agreed to be a buffer, but she said “well only if you’re absolutely sure that they’ll come because I’m not going to call and ask for another seat at the table if she’s going to cancel!” so I just dropped it. I get that she’s being practical, but I don’t feel that we’re close enough for the way that she is comfortable speaking to me. Now I’m dreading the hang, and really just annoyed at myself. I feel I took one step forward then two steps back. I was exhilarated and hopeful about my future and now I just feel bogged down again. I’ve done this to myself, but I have been told that I’m her only social connection in this city. I wish I could talk to my therapist but she’s on maternity leave, and I do feel healthy in every other aspect of my mental health, but I’m just angry with myself and feeling powerless.

I’d love some advice, if you have any to give. If not, I feel better having even written to you, so thank you very very much for that! And thanks for everything you’ve already written on your site, I have been linking articles to my good friends left, right and centre since I discovered your page.

Love and lots of respect,

People Assume I’m a Golden Retriever When Really I’m a Bit Like a Sensitive Cat

Hello, Sensitive Cat: 

Thank you for the kind words and entertaining visual in subject line, now immortalized in the post title.

Surprised Pikachu meme with caption text: "That was not fun. Let's definitely do it again sometime!"

Now, down to business.

Text Amy right now, and cancel that fucking dinner. “Amy, I’m so sorry, but I’m going to cancel dinner. It was nice to catch up about old times the other day, but I’d rather not get together again. Good luck settling into the new place.” 

There’s no perfect way to tell somebody a thing they don’t want to hear, so don’t procrastinate or get caught up in trying to convince her to feel okay about it. Amy will feel bad when you cancel, and you will also feel bad because it sucks to let someone down. This is not avoidable, but it will pass, and then you will be free, because “we hung out once and it didn’t go well, let’s not do it again” is an excellent reason to not be friends. Amy’s lack of other friends to go with is an Amy problem, but she’s new in a town full of beautiful strangers, some of whom might find her bluntness or whatever charming. Restaurants let you sit and eat while you read a book.  She will be sad, mad, whatever, but she will figure it out. You are not her sole shot at fancy food or human companionship.

Cancel the dinner. Send the text. Do not reply. Unfollow/unfriend/block her everywhere the second you send the message. Don’t be friends. It can be that simple. 

I’m serious. Stop reading, come back when you’ve cancelled that dinner with Amy. She needs to figure out another dinner date, and you need a practical reminder that the world won’t end if someone you don’t like ends up not liking you. It’s good that you are learning more about what you need from friendships, so use that knowledge before you write in two years from now: “Dear Captain Awkward, I have this one bridesmaid, Amy, from college, btw we’re also roommates who run a business together…”

Once you’ve cancelled, it’s time to radically redefine what makes a person “social and good with people” and “polite.”

Because “friend” is not a word for “everyone you vaguely know and don’t actively hate who isn’t family or a romantic prospect.”

Because saying “Yeah we should hang out sometime!” and then getting mad at people who take you at your word isn’t more polite than“Thanks for thinking of me, but no.”

Because it’s not a crime for people to like you more than you like them and not be able to tell the difference between feigned enthusiasm and the real thing. It’s not their fault that you have porous boundaries! 

Because faking friendship with people while barely holding in a volcano of unexpressed fury can be a lot of things, none of them pleasant or particularly “polite.” 

Because being an extrovert who recharges in the company of other people doesn’t compel you to seek out all other people, including crappy ones. 

Because life is too short for this NiceGirl™ shit where seeming  polite is more important than being honest, kind, or happy. 

Sensitive Cat, you are simultaneously giving these people way too much power (“I really felt like I had to say yes”) and zero credit. Why would you assume that other people want to spend time with someone who dreads their company? You are trying so hard to prevent anyone from ever feeling even a little bit bad that you are fostering situations where you are guaranteed to feel bad, and setting up dynamics where people invest in a relationship with a pretend version of you. “I couldn’t stomach disappointing you for 5 minutes, so I’ve decided to disappoint me/you/everyone, forever!” How…???…is that better???? Consider that you owe people a version of courtesy that doesn’t come at the expense of integrity. 

You’ve recognized the pattern and made some progress, and The Slow Fade isn’t mean. I generally think it’s fine to stop initiating or accepting plans with people you don’t gel with anymore and see what happens, sometimes the drift is mutual. However, when you’re trying to fade, and the other person keeps dutifully trying to do Good Friend stuff, then it’s a kindness to set them free from chasing you. Once you’ve canceled on Amy, you could respond to Tiny Friend’s last invitation. “Sorry, I know I keep declining plans, but I haven’t felt much like hanging out. Howabout I get in touch when I’m up for it?” “When I’m up for it” could be never, it could be in a few weeks when you decide you miss her or have the bandwidth to talk about what upset you, this doesn’t have to be ironclad.

Now, a person getting that message might reasonably wonder if they’ve done something to upset you and ask about it. Awkward, yes. Disastrous? No. A deliberate attempt  by your friend to test your resolve and will to live? Also no. Asking is a way of showing care, as is telling the truth.“Well, to be honest, I didn’t have much fun the last time we hung out, and the way you kept making fun of ‘my enormous shirt’  really hurt my feelings.You know I’m sensitive about body stuff!”  

Maybe Tiny Friend will sincerely apologize, maybe you’ll take a little break from each other, maybe you’ll figure out if there’s anything repairable. Maybe she’ll get super upset and mean, or be like “Fine, let’s not be friends then!” and stomp off, which…okay? When you are trying to leave a relationship, don’t chase after people when they do you the favor of leaving first.

Lately there has been a whole series of Letter Writers who are extremely anxious about disappointing others and getting overwhelmed socially. And lots of people who don’t actually like their friends. I suspect it’s partly free-floating anxiety looking for a new vessel, partly “wait, how do I people again?” adjustment, and partly because habits of people-pleasing are taught, through families, and through cultural, racial, and gender expectations. Just, generally we are just not good (collectively speaking) at teaching certain people to say a direct “Oh, no thanks!” and certain other people to accept this with “No worries, thanks for telling me,” with a healthy shared expectation that everyone will merrily continue on with their lives.

Letter Writer, there is a reason you learned to handle things this way, probably somebody ( or a lot of somebodies) in your life taught you lessons like “If you can’t say anything nice, don’t say anything” in ways that rooted and metastized in your brain. You’re not the only adult who has had to learn how to say simple, obvious things (“Thanks but I don’t want to have dinner”) while suffused with the imaginary fear – or very real memory – of being punished for having needs. If persistent dread around “low stakes” stuff like declining dinner invitations from people you don’t like is fucking with the quality of your life and your ability to have authentic relationships, then take it seriously, and take advantage of any therapy resources you can access. (I can’t say whether *you* meet clinical criteria, but I can say that social anxiety is a common, treatable thing; maybe it doesn’t have to be this hard.)

In the meantime, I mentioned the other day that a former therapist gave me an assignment to help me break habits of over-scheduling myself. Letter Writer, if you’re willing, I think an adaptation of this might level up your skills in the area of not over-scheduling yourself…specifically with people you don’t actively enjoy hanging out with. 

Step 1: For the rest of the summer, make your default answer to social invitations some version of “Thanks for asking, let me check my schedule and get back to you.” “I don’t know, I need to check my calendar. When do I need to get back to you?” 

Automatically give yourself a 24-hour buffer before you say yes or no. You need to interrupt that people-pleasing impulse that prompts you to agree to everyone’s face and seethe later.

Step 1A: Overall, try replacing “We should definitely hang out sometime” with something that doesn’t get you into so much trouble. “It’s so nice to see you! You look great!” “Got any good travel coming up?” “Let’s hang out sometime” is not an invitation, but there are lots of other ways to say something pleasant. Find some.

Step 2: Actually check your calendar. 

Step 3: Much more importantly, check your feelings. On a scale of one to ten, with ten being “Ecstatic, can’t wait” and one being “I’d rather do laundry, at least then I’d have clean laundry” how much do you want to go to this thing with this particular person? 

Your feelings and enthusiasm levels, not theirs. Not “Oh, but they’ll be disappointed.” Not “Oh, but they don’t really have other friends.” Not “Oh, they’ll think I’m mad at them.” Not “I owe them because they made plans last time.”

If this is too hard, try flipping a coin, heads you MUST go, tails you absolutely CAN’T go, and check your feelings again. Do you feel relieved? Filled with dread? Excited? Can you translate that into a number between 1-10? Can you roll a d10? (You do not have to obey the coin toss or dice, it’s just a device to force you to make a decision about the feeling). 

Step 4: Use your feelings-score and your calendar to make a decision.

9-10 and a good fit with the calendar? Accept with pleasure.

6 and below = decline, no matter what the calendar says. If the answer is not “Hell yes!” then default to no thanks! Don’t try to talk yourself into shit you don’t enthusiastically want to do. There’s plenty of “maybe” to work with in the 7-8 range.

Step 5: RSVP and practice not over-explaining or compulsively apologizing. I noticed a pattern in your letter of using “Sorry, I’m busy” to deflect, like you have to actually be busy or else you’re not allowed to decline any invitations, but you’re not a deli counter who has to serve the next number no matter what. Instead, replace telling people what you can and can’t do (which might prompt them to suggest solutions) with information about what you will do: “I wanted to let you know I won’t be there, sorry.” “Thanks, but that won’t work for me.”  

Step 6: Is really Step 1, again. If you say no to an invite, and the person immediately suggests an alternate day or plan (which is reasonable, polite thing for them to do, especially if they do not know you have only been pretending to like them!)  don’t panic! You’ve built in a buffer for yourself where you don’t commit to anything until you’ve checked both your calendar and your feelings, so do it again. “I’m not sure. Let me double-check and let you know.” 

Step 7: If somebody you already feel sort of “meh” about asks you to do stuff several times in a row, and you make excuses every time, and you do not feel motivated to initiate plans of your own in the interim, then it’s probably past time to replace “Oh, sorry, I can’t, I’m busy, another time?” with “Thanks, but no.” 

Step 7a: When you run into situations like this, unfollow/mute/snooze this person’s social media and deploy filters so they aren’t all up in yours. 

Step 8: Can be done anytime, in any order. When you arrange hangouts, prioritize only people you adore who make you feel extremely great. If that means you see the same delightful, beloved faces again and again, and that a lot of your outer-acquaintanceships drift? Good! Let go of the idea that you need to be fair about where you spend your time and affections, and resist the notion that if someone invites you someplace you must automatically reciprocate, regardless of whether you actually want to see them. 

Step 9: Re-adjust and re-calibrate, a lot, and give it time. Changing habits is really hard! You had a setback when Amy came along, but that doesn’t mean it’s all over. These steps are meant to help you practice changing patterns that are making you unhappy, you can come back to them again and again when you need and disregard them completely when you don’t. 

I think that’s enough homework for one summer. We can save the part where you practice interrupting dudes who mistake you for their on-call therapist right back another time, but also, did you know that you could delete that one guy’s phone number and close off your social media connections right now, today, for the low, low price of absolutely free? 

So, we’ve had a rash of these questions, and it’s been fun to sink my teeth in and try to get to the bottom of it,  but this is the last “parties/awkward social hangs/friend vs. acquaintance anxiety” answer for a good while. There are tons of steps here and in the archives for practicing the art of no and cultivating the friendships you want to keep. It is okay to be friends with people you like a whole lot and to avoid people who make you feel bad. It is okay to outgrow friendships that don’t work for you, and nobody has to be evil for this to happen. It is not mean to set limits with friends you really like. 

It is impossible to do these things without ever making anyone feel bad. There is no secret magic incantation where you both act on stuff thats’s bothering you and guarantee that nobody else is bothered. However, the solution is not for you to sign up to feel bad forever, as if your long-suffering, accommodating, avoidant, secretly-furious nature is some gift to other people. It isn’t a gift to them, it’s terrible for you, plus, other people will never, ever give you credit for all the times you stayed silent that they didn’t know about. Good people (however irritating or incompatible with you) do not want you to fake friendship with them or tie yourself in knots to withstand their company. The only people who want you to never disagree with them or have any needs are assholes, i.e. people who are guaranteed to never give you credit or appreciate you about this! It is a losing game. 

If planning supposedly fun things is stressing you out beyond belief, you might need a therapist to unpack why. If your existing friendships are more about habit than they are about affection, you might need to seek new ones. If your existing friends punish you for having needs and make you feel like you have to swallow your tongue in order to be accepted, you should definitely seek new ones. None of that is easy, but it is profoundly worth doing, especially if the alternative is perpetually faking it… for fear of disappointing people… who make you feel bad. Life. Is. Too. Short. for this NiceGirl™ shit where seeming  polite is more important than being honest, kind, or happy. It’s time to find a way to stop faking it, and I think I’ve spelled out pretty much everything *I* know about how for the time being.  

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