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MzHeather

Hello,

TL;DR: I purposely drifted away from a toxic friend. She emailed me saying she didn’t know what happened, gave a vague apology, and wished me the best. Should I respond?

I (32/F) was friends with “Karen” (32/F) since high school, but we became closer after high school. We were in each other’s weddings and hung out often.

I was running a photography business, and she started learning photography and asked if she could join me. I thought it would be a good opportunity for us to learn from each other, and neither of us were doing it for the money, so I agreed. At the time we were early 20’s, neither of us had kids. She had always been vocal about not wanting kids, which I respected. She talked about it frequently, and I often agreed with her point of view and thought that I might feel the same way.

Over time, our friendship started to revolve around photography. The business wasn’t booming or anything – it had just become an intense hobby/interest for her. Within a couple months, she had gotten top-of-the-line gear. She had a great job and was married to a wealthy guy and could afford to throw thousands of dollars at gear on a whim. I was financially stable, but not enough for extras to that extent. I felt like this was when I noticed the first change in her. A week after getting her new camera, she told me, “Your pictures will never come out as clear as mine since your camera just isn’t as good.” Honest, but ouch. She started doing other subtle things: when we did a photo session together, she would only post her own photos on our social media and never any of mine. She would make little sarcastic comments about the way I edited photos, referring to one of my methods as “unprofessional.” When we put all of our photos together to present to a client, she would tell me I needed to edit x, y, and z before my photos would be good enough to present. She would make weird jokes during a photo session, in front of clients, where she’d treat me like her assistant and say things like “Can you please hold my camera,” then as soon as I took it, she’d say, “Yeah that’s right bitch, hold my shit.” She changed the location on our social media pages to the city she lived in (a 45 minute drive for me), even though we’d agreed to keep it listed as a central location for both of us (I did confront her on this, changed it back, then found a couple weeks later she changed it again.)

I kept telling myself I was being too sensitive or that I was being paranoid. I mean, she referred to me as her best friend. She even asked me to get bestie tattoos with her (I didn’t.) I was there for her through a lot of hard times in her life and knew she could be going through depression, and I wanted to continue being a good friend to her.

Our photography partnership lasted about 5 years. During that time, I also became pregnant with my first child. This is when things really escalated, and looking back I wish I’d said something. She became passive aggressive, constantly making comments that seemed to imply bad things about me and about kids, and often moving the conversation to the topic of every reason why she doesn’t want kids. The few times I confronted her, she said that wasn’t what she meant. Things she said during and after my pregnancy included:
– “I hate parents, they’re all so selfish.”
– “Can you believe that person up ahead with their stroller in the middle of the sidewalk? Parents think they’re better than everyone and I am not moving over. She can go in the grass, it’s not my fault she has a kid”
– “I would never have kids because I don’t want to ruin my body / oh you don’t look as bad as I thought you would after having a kid / having a baby changes your body only in negative ways”
– “Sometimes [husband] says his wants kids but then I remind him he doesn’t want some stupid little asshole making everything dirty and ruining our lives, and I like having expensive things”
– A week before I was due to give birth, she posted a study on social media that said having a child is worse than divorce or the death of a loved one. I told her I think that study is flawed, and she argued back and forth with me insisting that it’s 100% true. She knew I was about to have my first kid!

I’d started to complain to my husband every time I came home from seeing Karen or doing a photo shoot with her, always telling him that I felt drained and like she was putting me down the entire time.

One time when I was hanging out with her, she was showing me a video on her phone. At that moment, a text from her husband came in where he was making fun of my physical appearance. Apparently she sent him a picture we’d just taken and then they starting poking fun at how I look.

I decided to drift away from her. She noticed and asked me if I was ok and if I was avoiding her. I told her “I’m feeling uncomfortable and honestly not sure if our friendship is compatible because I have a kid and you despise children. I don’t like embarrassing people so I never confronted you about things you said that hurt me, I just kept telling myself that you probably weren’t trying to be mean.”

In her email response, she said:
“It was never my intention to make you feel as though you couldn’t talk to me about [kid’s name]. But to say you avoid conflict for the sake of others isn’t entirely true either; you do that for yourself. You don’t know how someone else will feel or react – some people welcome conflict. Some people have no idea that they’re hurting someone and prefer others to be direct with them. It’s you that doesn’t like to feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, etc so you choose to leave things unaddressed. So, let’s just keep things honest, yeah?” then she unfollowed and blocked me on all social media.

Apparently I was selfish for not confronting her? I mentioned that I had seen the mean text from her husband about me, she apologized, we met up and talked and I thought things were left on a good note. I still wasn’t planning to be close with her, but I was ok with having peace. I still talked to her frequently and I told her that I was pregnant with my second child. It was a scheduled C-section, so I told her the date too. And go figure, she ghosted me during that time. When my second kid was 2 months old, she finally sent me a message and asked “how is the little one?”. Having a kid is, I don’t know, a big life event. One that I would expect any real friend of mine to acknowledge, even if kids aren’t their thing. I never replied to her message. Months later, I received an email from her asking what happened. Based on all of her other passive aggressive moves, I wondered if she had purposely ghosted me to really show how much she doesn’t care that I had a kid.

If I write back to her, I’m afraid I would just be venting, that I would make her feel horrible (sure it would be satisfying briefly, but I don’t want to set out to hurt someone), or that she would come back at me and list off reasons why I’m actually the bad friend. Even if I gently told her the truth, is there any point in doing that?

Sincerely,
To Write Back or Not to Write Back

Dear To Write Back,

You don’t owe this lady shit.

She “doesn’t know what happened?” Horseshit. What is there to explain? It’s not a mystery! Yo, “Karen,” eventually you can act like enough of an asshole that people want to stop hanging out with you. You already gave her an answer when you didn’t respond the first time.

She was a terrible business partner, a terrible friend who was routinely mean to you and who ghosted you during important life events, so you stopped hanging out so much. But you still tried to be nice?

Then she asked you why you weren’t as close, and you told her. And you were, again, consistently, way nicer than she deserved. So her plan was to yell at you for not being more honest(?) and block you(?!?). What? Did she think you’d chase her down?

Hahahahaha, after I typed that question, I realized, EUREKA! She assumed you’d chase her down eventually and apologize to her for your “lack of honesty.” And then you didn’t. And now there’s a pandemic on, so it’s harder to hang out with people in general, plus as everybody gets older and wiser it gets much harder for toxic people to break in new victims. I would bet you actual folding money that she’s recently had romantic relationship problems or a rift with another friend and she’s getting nostalgic for the bad old days when you were (in her mind) her willing sidekick.

Her “why” email after all this time is a baited hook: It’s a combination of an excuse to be a jerk to you again and a test to see if you’ll keep putting up with her bad behavior.

If you reply honestly (“What’s unclear? You’re a sentient Superfund site, let’s not be friends!”) she gets to blame you for the rift, put you in the role of the mean, rude one, and reopen a dynamic where she gets to tear you down one last time. If you reply politely, she’ll try to worm her way into your life again because she misses having someone around who she feels superior to.

Please know, I’m still laughing at her audacity and how bad she is at this. If she actually wanted to reconnect in a meaningful way, or was actually good at manipulation at all, she’d at least bait the hook with an actual apology. You’d feel 75% more obligated to write back if you had to run a realistic “But what if she’s changed?” scenario first. (She hasn’t).

If you want to respond before you block her on every conceivable platform (“Yeah, we’re not doing this again. Have a good life!”), I won’t judge you, there’s a lot to vent about and The Last Word feels good sometimes. But if you skip directly to blocking her, you will actually be giving her some valuable information: She’s free to be an asshole for the rest of time but that doesn’t make you an asshole rehabilitation-and-rescue nonprofit. You’re free!

To celebrate your freedom, I suggest giving yourself an enormous pat on the back for getting her out of your life the first time and calling any one of your good friends who don’t make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells for a nice long chat.

P.S. People who are actually good at photography don’t have to brag about their equipment, good grief. Sexy big sensors and crisp lenses are nice to have, but you can make beautiful images with any camera, and I bet your stuff was routinely and consistently better than hers. If you love photography I hope you’re still doing it, she didn’t have anything to teach you about being professional. I mean, even if you HAD been her assistant, people who bully their assistants front of the client are failing at so many things simultaneously. 

 

 

MzHeather

Please note that all times listed in this post are in Australian Western Standard Time (UTC+8). People from other parts of the world are very welcome to join us – and I’d particularly like to invite any Melbourne readers who are in need of a friendly virtual catch up right now.

Fans of Captain Awkward online meetup

When: Sunday 9th August 6.30pm – 8.00pm AWST

Where:
Discord voice (& text) chat – I will add the link to this post 5 min before the start of the meetup. (Downloading Discord is not required as you can use it through a computer web browser)

Details:
Come and have a chat with other fans of this blog. If there are enough people interested, there may be a game of Drawful starting around 7 pm.

Note: The same standards of behaviour that are expected here at captainawkward.com are expected at the meetup.

MzHeather

Dear Captain,

The situation: I (she/her) am a homemaker and mum to a toddler. I’ve suffered from depression, anxiety, and fibromyalgia for eighteen years, aka my entire adult life and then some. I’m on meds and pretty much a self-care rockstar, but I still spend LOTS of time and energy coping with pain, fatigue, dizziness, panic attacks, mood swings…you get the picture. Thanks to many years of this, my resume is absolute shite, so my husband is the sole breadwinner.

We’re both creative types. His preferred art is theatre, directing and acting. I also love the stage—I assist with costumes, take on small roles (sometimes larger ones as well), and am generally involved, but my bigger aspiration is writing. I’d love to be a published novelist. Unfortunately, my illnesses have consistently sapped me of the kind of energy this requires, for years. Having a small child doesn’t help, although I adore him.

I feel guilty about never getting around to writing in the way I want to. I feel resentful when my husband has energy to direct and act in plays and I have none for my creative pursuits. I feel stymied in so many areas: I’d love to work from home or as a freelancer, to go back to school and gain skills that would help me do that, to run an Airbnb or Etsy shop, to diy around the house, to bake my own bread, to sew my own clothes. To write.

It sucks being a driven person with tons of ideas and heaps of motivation and no energy.

(Actually, it’s taken a long time to realize that’s what I am and why I feel so frustrated; for decades I assumed I was just lazy and unmotivated, and only recently realized if I were, I probably wouldn’t find my forced inactivity so awful.)

Maybe in a few years things will start to change, once my son is in school, but there’s no guarantee I’ll have sufficient energy even then. In the meantime, I feel stymied, frustrated, guilty, and resentful. I’d love to have another child, but I don’t want to end up resenting my child(ren) for making me put off creative stuff even longer.

Do you have any words of advice? Ideas on how to find creative fulfillment without wearing myself out or neglecting my family? Or how to stop feeling mad at them and myself when I can’t? Am I being a whiny navel-gazer? Or do I just not have enough drive to be a writer, after all?

-Chronic Creative

PS I would like to mention that my husband is a darling about helping with housework, etc. when I can’t keep up. We have a traditionally gendered division of labor, but it’s out of choice/necessity (see: shite resume) rather than assumption. And I don’t think it’s fair to ask him to curtail his activities because I have to, even if I do get envious and grumpy about it sometimes.

Dear Chronic Creative:

Some guest-posters recently supplied scripts for re-negotiating free time, childcare, and household labor when everybody is working from home during the pandemic, and you might find it helpful to revisit some strategies for turning off your “Mommy is interruptible” settings when you want to get some writing done.

We won’t always be in pandemic mode, and your child is going to grow and go to school someday in a way that gives you lots of weekday time back to write, study, start a home business, and try out some creative pursuits. Every mom I know felt it would never end for a while,  and every mom I know who’s made it to the school-age years would tell you: It won’t be like this or feel like this forever, but it will for a while yet (and it definitely will if you do have another baby).

So maybe let’s talk about what can be done right now to reclaim something for your dreams?

Is it really so impossible that both you and your spouse could have roughly equal, dedicated time every week to be “off duty” from parenting and household chores in order to do your own thing? Parenting a very young child is going to limit both of your free time for a while, but does it have to be as unbalanced as it is right now? And does it have to stay that way forever?

Because I would argue, if your husband has time to work, parent a small child, do some household things, and do some theater, then you have time to parent a small child, take care of the house, rest your body as necessary for your health, and also carve out some time to learn, make, and do some things you’d like to do. Art is important to our family, so we make time for each other to do some,” and “We make accommodations for people’s disabilities” are pretty good family values if you’re handing some down.

You asked me how to make good art and almost everything I have to say here is about time. Art takes time, published art that makes money takes just as much time as unpublished, unprofitable art does, and bad art takes just as much time as good art does.

If you knew, starting tomorrow, that you had a certain amount of predictable, normal, routine time every day or every week to  to step out from the costume shop or the supporting cast or the nursery and be the writer, director, and star of your own tale, where would you start?

Think: 30 minute blocks to be absolutely alone to focus on things that interest you. What could you do with half an hour to yourself?

Think: Blocks can be scheduled in advance each week, as in, when rehearsals go on the family calendar your writing time does, too. It’s great that your husband helps out a lot, but for this to work, it has to be scheduled and consistent.

Think: Blocks can be stackable. Do you need some time to marinate on that blank page once a week, or do you write better in quick bursts? Do you need some time to try both?

If your husband gets 2 hours one Monday evening every week for a Zoom rehearsal for his new radio play, do you want 2 hours to yourself the next night or do you want 30 uninterrupted minutes first thing in the morning before the baby wakes up or right after dinner while he puts the baby down and cleans up the kitchen after dinner on the other four weekdays?

Think: Closed doors. Noise-cancelling headphones. Teaching your child that the exact same set of boundaries that exist when Daddy’s working apply to Mummy. The off-duty parent has expectation of total uninterrupted solitude and the on-duty parent will handle whatever it is.

Things that absolutely do not count against your respective balances of free time: 

  • Work that earns money
  • Housework
  • Yardwork & Maintenance
  • Food preparation & meal planning
  • Bill paying, financial management
  • Childcare
  • Sleep
  • Couple-leisure time: Date nights, sex, hanging out together
  • Social time with friends and family
  • Self-care, including exercise, physical therapy, medical care, other kinds of therapy, and including necessary daily rest & recovery time for a chronic pain patient. You said it wasn’t fair to take time away from your husband, but it’s not fair to automatically steal time from you, either. You must pace yourself and rest a certain amount in order to be okay, so, build it in.
  • Interruptions, especially “Honey, where is the _____?” or “How do I ______? questions. There’s an entire Google full of household task instructions and step-by-step recipes that don’t need you to stop what you’re doing to look in the same spice cabinet that your husband can also see and read the labels to determine if any of them are paprika. He can either improvise or wait.
  • Making to-do lists, negotiating,  planning or holding mental space for how anything above this bullet-point is getting done.

If you decided to try something like this, the conversation with your husband can probably be pretty straightforward: You need some regularly-scheduled free time to look forward to every week, you’d like to build it into your weekly schedule, and you would like to apply the exact same conditions you already put in place to keep him distraction-free and able to focus whenever he is doing his thing to your own free time, i.e. at the appointed time, you plan to hand him the small person and virtually disappear.

“Can we negotiate 30 minutes here, an hour here, so I can hear myself think, and I’ll keep doing the same for you when you have creative commitments?” isn’t the hard part, unless your husband is a total asshole (in which case THAT’S the hard part), but it doesn’t sound like he is. He probably takes you for granted, especially the way you shape things behind the scenes so he can have his artistic outlet *because you’ve decided that his art-making is important to him and that’s important to your family*, and it might not occur to him independently to do the same for you *because you have not so far decided your art-making is also equally important to your family,* but if he knew for a fact that you needed him to make some specific effort in that direction, is it so unlikely that he would accommodate you?

You’ll never know if you don’t ask.

Here’s the hard part: You have to decide that your creative process is important and that you get to have this time independent of whatever markers of success or productivity your beautiful jerk of a brain currently thinks you need to achieve in order to actually deserve this time.

Here’s your jerkbrain loud and clear in your question (bolding mine): “Do you have any …Ideas on how to find creative fulfillment without wearing myself out or neglecting my family? Or how to stop feeling mad at them and myself when I can’t? Am I being a whiny navel-gazer? Or do I just not have enough drive to be a writer, after all?”

Is your husband “neglecting his family” when he does theater stuff?

That’s actually a tricky question:

-No, he’s not, because when he’s working on his creative stuff there’s a whole-ass other parent stepping in and making sure diapers get changed and boo-boos get kissed.

-Yes, maybe a little, because if his art-time is coming at the expense of you getting to do any of yours, that’s something that needs at least a little rebalancing.

So which is it? If you’d be “neglecting your family” to demand some time for your art, then obviously your husband is “neglecting his family” now. If he’s not, then it follows that you won’t be either. So where is this message coming from?

Are you being “a whiny navel-gazer?” I don’t think so, but say you were: Where is it written that you are never allowed to have dreams that are important to you, feel anxious about whether they will ever come true, speak honestly about how you feel, seek outside perspectives, or look inside yourself for answers? Why are you expressing that as an insult about yourself?

You see so clearly that what creative stuff your husband does is important to him, and yet you set yourself up to silently resent that forever instead of asking for the same consideration. Why is “stay angry & resent them forever” a more obvious possibility than “ask for the situation to change and then change it”?

Do you “just not have enough drive to be a writer”? Who fucking knows? That’s a deeply, deeply unanswered question. If you’ve never had the space or time to actually try writing, without feeling like your brain is being torn in fifty different directions, how could you even know the answer to that? Is how productive you are when you’re still probably dealing with diapers and literally trying to stay alive during a global pandemic where you can’t safely hire a regular babysitter or lean on extended family or friends, on top of a bunch of disabling health conditions, particularly representative or decisive about your personal potential and your future capabilities?

One thing that might help you: Before you talk to your husband, spend some time deciding whether spelling out exactly why you want the time when you ask for it  (“I want some regular time to work on my art” vs. “I need some predictable, sacred time to myself where I don’t have to be “Mommy” or “Honey” or Mrs. Anybody) constitutes good pressure or bad pressure for you. 

For instance, I’ve heard rumors that for some people, claiming a thing out loud is motivating: “I want x time/week to work on my novel. I’ll never be a real novelist if I don’t commit to it. Step One: I will make an outline of my chapters. Step Two: I will knock a book out one chapter at a time.”

For these people, who apparently exist in real life, I imagine having a supportive spouse check in every day with a cheerful “How’s the book coming?” is a nice, caring perk that promotes accountability and not a paralyzing shame-weight full of fear and unrealized potential.

Howabout you? Would you find that motivating? Howabout your husband? Do you think he’d get overly invested in a weird way, or resentful or lax about picking up the slack unless you were producing at a certain level? Be honest about this and set yourselves up to succeed. “I am finding that I need a consistent dose of alone time to look forward to each week, can we balance your theater time with the same for me?” is a good enough reason on its own.

For other people, maybe people who are beating themselves up whole bunch about whether they have the necessary “drive” in the first place and also wondering if it would be entirely “fair” to re-negotiate some workloads around the house so that all the adults get equal room to marinate in their creative juices, proclaiming that you need x amount of time “for your novel” is entirely too much pressure. As in, right now, if you set up “be a successful published novelist within x time period” up as the price of your newly-won and precious free time, you are basically inviting every single one of your doubts to come hang out during that time and haggle with you about whether it’s really worth it like some accursed Mr. Clippy set to High Patriarchy:

Sexist Mr. Clippy: You look like a woman who is trying to make some art. Are you sure that you’re really worth all this fuss?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you’re not really cut out for this? What if the problem all along, despite being a new parent and keeping your household running and doing a ton of theater on top of having a disability, just proves that you lack drive?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you just write crap?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you never finish anything?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: I’m not sure this is good enough for how selfish you’re being about your family.

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if nobody ever publishes it?

Sexist Mr. Clippy: But what if you neglected your family and you don’t have anything to show for it? Your husband works hard, he really needs his creative outlet. Not like you.

Sexist Mr. Clippy: Did you remember to take out the stuff to defrost from the freezer? Are you sure? It will just take a minute to check. And when was the last time the dog had fresh water? And is it trash day already? Oh look, your little guy is so cute, he’s not gonna be this small forever, you better cherish it while you can.

Letter Writer, so far in my experience unfortunately there is no Good Mr. Clippy who appears to writers like a  prophetic white bird in an old painting of The Annunciation and says, “Lo, you are Good Enough, you will definitely succeed at all of this, and Now it is Time for you to have uninterrupted writing time without guilt or worry that you should be doing something else, we can confirm absolutely that it is your Destiny.” 

You are a parent, you are a mother, and you exist in a world where there is always something supposedly more important you should be doing than following your own train of thought wherever it leads you and writing that down. You are always going to have to steal time from around the ends of naps, from before the school-bus comes home, from when it’s not tech week at the theater, from when there’s no soccer or parent-teacher conferences or scout meetings, from your good days when you can sit pain-free in a chair and focus on a page and the bad ones when you need to stay down or your body will put you there. Nobody is ever going to just give it to you, unprompted and unburdened, not even your sweet husband who from what I can see has so far not asked you, “Hey babe could you use a little more time to yourself? I really appreciate how you make it possible for me to do my theater stuff, I really want to return the favor.” Even once you ask, once you make him see, it is always going to be about catching what lightning you can in the bottle you’ve got, without a guarantee that you’ll ever feel sure.

You asked me about art, and good art, and I keep telling you about time. You’re putting so much pressure on yourself about success and worth and “drive,” but what if I told you that the time of “failed” women artists, the ones who were never published, the ones who never finished a thing they were happy with or showed their work to a living soul, the ones who were sidelined by childcare and eldercare or sewing on the buttons or getting the cows milked on schedule, the ones who gave up, the ones who died before their time, the ones who were laughed out or raped out or undermined out of their creative fields, even the women who make shitty ugly art that could fill up whole Regretsy Shops of the Damned, what if I told you that all their time spent creating their work and dreaming their work was just as valuable as the time of every single man in the history of the world who has ever picked up a brush or a guitar or a pen, successful, famous, published, or otherwise?

‘Cause listen, if you end up negotiating an agreement with your husband that means you get to stare into space for an hour every day for a year, then on the last day you write a single sentence on a page in the morning and burn it in the fireplace that same night before starting all over again, I would add it to our side of the scale, it would be enough. It would count. Do you understand? Women as a group have never been granted permission to “waste” time on making art that we could conceivably be spending taking care of other people. We must steal it, like fire from the gods.

If you want to make good art, make *some* art. If you want to make some art, make time for it.

If you want to make time, EVICT PATRIARCHY-MR. CLIPPY. From your marriage. From your mind. You are worth the fuss. You are worth a shot. If you turn out to be wasting your time? Waste enough time to be sure. Then waste some more. In fact, waste so much time on imagining new futures and making things that make you happy that the whole neighborhood talks about you behind your back. Then you can go to sleep at night knowing that you wrote so many stories you finally turned into one.

MzHeather

The subject title is the content warning. No graphic details, but the situation is exactly that bad.

Dear Captain Awkward,

Three years ago my sister (she/her:31) and I (she/her:36) met a man (he/him:29) while we were out. I hooked up with him a few times, but ended it on bad terms after a night when he drunkenly tried to force sex. He apologized the next day, and it was clear that our acquaintance was over.

My sister continued to spend time with this person without telling me until I found out. She overrode my concerns about that despite her being aware that I’d ended the hook-ups after he’d been drunk and things had gone really poorly. She started hooking up with him over the next year and a half (she overrode my concerns about this) and eventually told me that she intended to date him. I asked her not to since I view him as a predator. Can you imagine what she did? She has been resolute that she loves him, and although she mourns the loss of our closeness, she wants to find a way for us all to work things out.

I haven’t seen this man or spoken to him since the day he apologized for repeatedly trying to force himself on me. My sister is aware of all of the circumstances at this point, but we haven’t been able to come to any kind of agreement moving forward.

I do not want to deny my lived experiences by “getting over it” and making nice with a person I don’t feel safe around. It’s been over a year since she’s told me he’s the partner she wants, and we’ve been strained ever since.

I feel as though I’ve said everything I can to her, but maybe you know the Magic Words to ask my sister to choose me this time.

Thank you so much for your time.
– What’s the Plan?

Dear What’s The Plan?

I am so sorry this happened to you and that it keeps happening to you. I think what’s left to you is to hold on tight to your “WTF?” instincts and not allow your sister and her rapist boyfriend to complicate an incredibly simple thing:  If your sister wants to “work things out” and be “close again,” it’s actually pretty easy! There are two incredibly obvious steps!

1. Dump that guy.
2. Apologize to you profusely. 

Until that happens, she’s the second biggest asshole you know in love with the biggest asshole you know. Again, I’m sorry.

Asshole #1: This dude is not sorry for what he did. Contrite, regretful people don’t do a sex crime and then text back “Sure, let’s hang out!” to their victims’ baby sister.  People with even a shred of conscience or self-awareness hear, “Stay the fuck away from me you, rapist piece of shit,” do the math that says that there are 7.8 billion people on the planet, and make the obvious choice to attempt their redemption arc on some other family’s time. No. The fact that he’s okay with any of this is diabolical.

Asshole #2: I can’t tell if your sister just doesn’t believe you, believes you and doesn’t care, actively gets off on twisting the knife in your back, or is one of those absolute soulsuckers who think Being In Love justifies anything they say or do to other people. (Hint: People fall in love with unsuitable people all the time and have to break up with them for all kinds of reasons. If your one chance at true love means dating someone who tried to rape your sister, BE SINGLE.)

She’s almost certainly being lied to and manipulated by Asshole #1, he’s almost certainly going to mistreat badly her at some point, and she’ll probably need someone to help her crawl out of this romantic and ethical sewer in one piece someday. But whatever number he’s running on her, she has choices, like the one she made back when he was Just Some Random Guy From The Bar and she knew what he did to you and texted him back anyway. No.

He may be trying to run the abuser’s playbook and isolate her from her family, and you don’t want to let him “win.” But right now, your safety depends on keeping your permanent, icy distance from both of these people. When she actually leaves him, you can decide if you are up for helping her. Until that happens, please, please, please choose yourself. 

Given the circumstances, if you want to talk to her about this again, my script advice is allow yourself to be as angry as you actually are and name the behaviors in plain, specific language. 

Rapists, abusers, and people who shield them from accountability use vague language, passive voice, subjectless sentences, and ambiguity to minimize and obfuscate. Think: All those “campus rape epidemic” headlines where nobody ever mentions any rapists, or all those chemical weapons that deploy themselves at protesters every night in U.S. cities.

Every single time somebody who carries out (or excuses) sexual violence says the words “It’s complicated…” with that little ellipsis right after it, it is a very, Very, VERY good time to stop right there and un-complicate it with short sentences that contain a clearly defined subject and direct object connected by action verb: [PersonA][Raped/Groped/Forced/Hurt/Threatened/Overpowered/Assaulted][PersonB]. Everything is complicated, life is complicated, but rape is way less complicated than rapists and those who want to keep excusing and enabling them pretend it is.

You mentioned in a longer version of your letter that you have kind of a third parent role in your sister’s life, so you’re probably used to smoothing the way for her and being The Reasonable One. It is time to stop doing that. If she’s going to choose him? Make her reckon with what she’s really choosing. Name his behavior. Name hers. You didn’t have “a hookup that ended incredibly poorly,” you fended off multiple rape attempts, told your sister about them to warn her and keep her safe, and she dated the guy who did that to you.

Now she is telling you she misses “being close” and is pressuring you to “work it all out somehow.” What does that mean, like, exactly? Is she asking you to spend time with your rapist for her sake? ‘Cause if so, that’s an easy one: NO. Is she asking you to pretend, for her sake, that this doesn’t actually bother you as much as it does? Bippity-boppity-nope!

In your longer email you mentioned that you had asked your sister what the plan is for telling family why you aren’t ever celebrating Christmas together again or why you won’t be going to her eventual wedding, and what I’ll say about that is: Never, ever lie for or cover up for this man.

You don’t have to detail your own trauma to your family to justify your decisions about your own safety, so if certain people get told “We’re not in touch right now,” “She knows why” or “You’ll have to ask her” because that makes you feel safer, so be it. But you do not have to keep secrets for rapists and you do not owe your sister silence about this, ever. “I love weddings, but I’m gonna skip the one where my sister marries a guy who tried to rape me” is an unimpeachable reason to check “No” on the little RSVP card and redirect your dyed-to-match bridesmaid-dress-and gift-toaster budget toward a relaxing getaway or therapy co-pays. Straight up forever you are allowed to say “Nana, the reason Sister is disinvited from Christmas this year is because several years ago when we all first met, her boyfriend tried to rape me, I told her what happened, and she dated him anyway. I don’t break bread with rapists or let my family knowingly do so.” 

Also, you’re allowed to claim Christmas and other holidays. “Sister, I want to see our family over the holidays, so please plan to take The Rapist somewhere that is else this year.” Your sister knows exactly what your ground rules are, and she will just have to figure it out, and also, fuck that guy running for thinking he could roll up to YOUR family celebrations and expect to be fed anything but broken glass.

I hope the rest your family isn’t shitty about it, but if you keep focused on being as angry as you actually are and using plain language, I even think you can fend off the usual apologia.

“But it all happened so long ago!” “Yup and when I’m done being mad about it I’ll let everyone know, but this is not that year.”

“But she’s your only sister!”  “Yes, I noticed that too, which is why it hurts really bad that she’s inflicting my rapist on everyone in our family.”

“But he’s such a great guy, come on, this can’t be right?” “Right, I thought he was a great guy, too, and then I found out he really, really wasn’t, and now you’re finding out, too, which is no fun, to be sure, but I sure wish I could have found that out during an awkward conversation.

“But surely you don’t your sister and her boyfriend to be alone on Christmas!” “They’re not alone, she gets to hang out with the love of her life, my rapist, and my rapist gets to hang out with the sister of someone he tried to rape, it’s a love story for the ages.”

I’ve been watching I May Destroy You all week, which is a new show from Chewing Gum creator Michaela Cole where she uses fiction to reckon with her own real-life sexual assault. The show refracts stories about sexual consent and harm across many situations within the same friend group and one thing I appreciate is how incredibly clear-eyed Cole is about the absolute obvious wrongness of violating someone’s sexual consent. It shouldn’t be so revolutionary to remove the ambiguity and euphemizing and second-guessing from depicting sexual assault, but it is.

In the five episodes I’ve seen so far, she has held up a mirror to every single sketchy situation where a person might be like, “Wait, was that….rape? Like, RAPE-rape? Or was it just ‘a misunderstanding?’ Did they really ‘mean’ to do that? Am I remembering it right? I mean, I consented to having sex with this person, just not that, specifically. It’s probably nothing, I’ll be fine” and then held up a city-block-sized dramatic and comedic BILLBOARD that says “Look, can we stop pretending about this? It was absolutely rape, it was wrong, the person who did it knew it was wrong when they did it, it’s actually really hard to ‘accidentally’ sexually assault someone, it doesn’t actually matter if you remember it perfectly, it doesn’t matter if you were high or drunk or sleeping around, you didn’t deserve any of it, and it’s okay if you are not fine about it.”

It’s tough going and I have to space episodes out and pause it frequently to breathe (seriously, ALL THE CONTENT WARNINGS apply, if you think this isn’t for you, probably go with that instinct ) but even so as a survivor I have been very moved and felt very seen and loved and valued by this piece of art. I’m not to the end, but I can already see that this is somebody who has decided to reckon with truth and reckon with harm in a way that is truly rare.

Anyway, Letter Writer, prose is starting to fail me in processing the sheer amount of WHAT THE FUCK fury at your sister and this absolute moral abscess of a man so I am gonna try poetry for a minute. Perhaps in rhyme the gall of these lovebirds being all “Sister, why are you so unfairly not letting us treat you like shit forever?” will become so absurd that I will find that exact headspace where hysterical crying turns into hysterical laughing and I can sleep tonight.

If you don’t want to see classic poems rewritten so they are about not dating the dude who tried to rape your sister, stop reading now.

The Road Not Taken (in homage to Robert Frost)

…Two paths diverged in a yellow wood
And sorry I could not travel both
J/k, I’m not sorry
I picked the one marked ‘no rapists allowed!”
And that has made all the difference.

 
This Is Just To Say (in homage to William Carlos Williams)

I have stopped dating
the guy
who almost
raped you
and who
you were
probably planning
to avoid forever
Forgive me
he was an asshole
so selfish
and so gross

 

Thirteen Ways Of Not Dating A Rapist (in homage to Wallace Stevens)

I.
Among twenty possible choices
The only right one
Was to not date your rapist.

II.
I was of many minds
Like a planet
with 7.8 billion people who aren’t your rapist.

III.
The rapist manipulates and lies
It was part of the pantomime.

IV.
A man and a woman
Walk into a bar
The woman walks right back out of the bar
It was full of rapists.

V.
I do not know which to prefer
The peace of mind
Of knowing I’m no longer dating a rapist
Or the peace of mind
Of knowing I’m not being an asshole
To my sister.

VI.
Icicles filled the long window
Maybe when the rapist stopped by
One would fall
And stab him in the eye
And then a blackbird would poop into the hole
At just the right moment
Nature is beautiful sometimes.

VII.
O readers of Captain Awkward
Why do so many people try to justify
Hanging out with abusers?
Do they not see how they ruin everything?

VIII.
I know big words
And how to make long sentences
But I know, too,
That one can just break up with rapists.

IX.
When the rapist fucked off forever out of sight
It marked the first moment
It was possible to believe
That he might actually be sorry.

X.
At the prospect of meeting rapists
Across the holiday table forever
It would be okay to scream
“Fuck you, I will not.”

XI.
He rode over boundaries
He rode over good sense
He mistook our family for his hunting ground
Time he was corrected.

XII.
His lips are moving
The rapist must be lying.

XIII.
It was not inevitable
It was a series of decisions
And one obvious decision
Is to not date your sister’s rapist.

 

Dear Letter Writer, you are awesome, these people are terrible, you can’t fix them, I’m so sorry, you have been very patient and honest and tried to behave with as much grace as humanly possible, there are no magic words, sometimes WHAT THE FUCK IS WRONG WITH YOU are the only words that make a lick of sense. ❤

MzHeather

Sometimes your brain just wants to be obsessed with somebody for a while.

Hi Captain,

My now ex (he/him), and I (she/her) broke up at the end of May. It was pretty much mutual. He asked if we could stop being exclusive for a while (we were long distance). I was already having other problems with the relationship, so I hit the self-destruct button and told him we should just break up.

I was still heartbroken after the whole thing, but it’s been a couple months, and I’m doing okay? I told him I wanted to go no contact until September, and we’ve both stuck to that. I have deactivated pretty much all of my social media to stop myself from staring at his stuff. We left the door open to be friends down the line (hence the specific time period for no contact). However, I’ve realized in the last couple months that he isn’t really a person I want in my life. I did A LOT of the work to keep our relationship going (doing most of the visits, practically begging at times just to get a short phone call, etc.). He was also really thoughtless, and not super great with boundaries, which usually ended up with me getting hurt. I don’t hate him or anything, but honestly? I would be fine never hearing from/ speaking to him again.

However, we both belong to a really tight knit community that is spread around the region. This community is made up of smaller groups that have gatherings a few times a year. While there will be no gatherings for a while because *gestures vaguely at the state of the world*, I’m assuming that there will be a large get-together next May.

These gatherings aren’t big enough that I can just avoid him. We have mutual friends. I’m worried that if I don’t reach out at some point, it’ll make things awkward when we do see each other again. It doesn’t seem like a huge issue, but my brain is turning it into a BIG DEAL, and I’m worried it’s only going to get worse as the event slowly creeps closer.

Is there some way I can not fixate so much on this? Should I reach out before hand? How should I act at this event? I’m not really interested in friendship with him, but I don’t want to straight up ignore him the whole time.

Signed,
Can we just pretend it didn’t happen?

Dear Can We Pretend,

Exes do not disintegrate and pass from this plane of existence once we break up with them and I understand why your brain is picking at this particular anxiety sore spot, but what if I told you:

  1. I copied your email subject line verbatim as the post title, but you don’t *have to* see your ex next year. If it’s still troubling you as much then, you could decide to skip the whole thing, you could make an agreement with him to trade off every other gathering, you could do other things to see friends in that social group.
  2. You don’t have to ever be friends. Bumping into him at social stuff and remaining polite doesn’t mean you’re automatically friends again. “Oh, yeah, we broke up, and while I want to stay friendly for the sake of group stuff, I wouldn’t call us friends.” 
  3. If you both do go, it will be weird when you see him whether or not you do anything to prepare or mitigate it. That’s just how feelings work, you can’t decide what they’ll be in advance and you can’t control what shape they’ll show up in.
  4. My prediction for the exact flavor of weirdness is “anticlimax” crossed with “surprising pleasant acknowledgement of your own growth,” something like, “Wait, what? I was IN LOVE with THAT GUY? I was worried about what HE thought about ME?” 
  5. I may be wrong about the flavor, but I still predict that the weirdness will be both less and different than anything you could possibly imagine now, simply because when more time has gone by, he is going to be so much less important in your life than he is right now.
  6. On the day itself, if you run into him and say “Oh hey, nice to see you” and make the smallest of small talk for 30 seconds as you walk by on your way to hang with other people, you can cross “Did not act like a complete asshole to my ex in front of everyone we both know” off your 2021 to-do list. Ice broken!
  7. When in doubt, don’t aim for “cool,” or for evoking some kind of emotional response for him, aim for neutral & polite. Think of it as giving everybody a second chance to meet and form a pleasant, peripheral acquaintance. Would you say whatever it is to the nice stranger handing out drink tickets and skee-ball tokens at the info desk? No? Then probably don’t say it to your ex. As long as he is polite, respond in kind. That’s all you have to do.
  8. If you see him at the thing and he does act like an asshole, may I suggest saying “Nope!” and turn your attention back to whatever you were doing. You can start polite but you don’t have to pretend.
  9. There is a maneuver where, if someone holds out their arms to try to hug you and you don’t want to hug them but you don’t have time to say anything, you can take one of their hands in a handshake and lock your elbow to keep them at a distance. If they keep advancing for the hug, keep holding their hand as you sidestep or duck under the arm you’re holding onto like it’s a dance move, and then keep moving past them. I figured this out once from sheer ‘NO HUG’ instinct but practicing with a friend makes perfect!
  10. Even if you could somehow anticipate and prepare for the exact weirdness formula, you don’t have to do any work about this. You really, really don’t. Do you think he’s going to do any work about this, even though he is equally free to text you before the thing and say, “Hey, can we get the weirdness out of the way?” and try to take care of your feelings and make stuff easier on you? He isn’t.
  11. The beauty of breaking up is that you don’t have to work on or fix anything about the relationship anymore. You were together for a while, it ended, you still have feelings about that, it’s okay, but there’s nothing else to work out. You get to be done worrying about what he thinks, how he feels, how to be around him.
  12. Speaking of work, he sounds kinda passive, if not downright lazy, an incompatible-with-you quality in a partner but an attractive quality in an ex you don’t actually want to spend any more time with. If he’d spent your whole relationship being super-Intenso guy DETERMINED to DEMONSTRATE his UNDYING LOVE, I’d have different advice, but this is a man who is historically cool with letting you make all the effort, so he sounds unlikely to chase you around the event venue or try to force a confrontation or serious talk. I think this frees you to be a basic amount of polite and breezy and watch as he gratefully follows the path of least resistance.
  13. If you really need plan ahead, put “schedule time to worry about Ex” on your to-do list today, open your calendar to April 30, 2021 and write “Possibly text Ex to see if he’s actually going to [Thing]?” on it, and then cross “schedule time…” off your to-do list. You can make a decision then about whether it’s more or less awkward to text him before the thing or wait ’til you get there for your 30 seconds of awkwardness, maybe this will trick your brain into thinking it’s handled.
  14. You’ll have lots of friends there who can be nice buffer-friends, so whatever happens, you won’t have to go it alone. “It’s my first time seeing my ex, and while I’m pretty sure it will go fine, can you stick close to me the first day so I don’t have to be alone with him? I want to get through the ‘Oh hey’ part of things as quickly as possible.” 
  15. Thirty seconds of weird. Most likely you’ve gotta get through 30 seconds of weird. After that you’ll know if he’s a “comforting old friend” kind of ex, like that hideous puff paint panda sweatshirt you forgot you owned, a “bullet-dodged” sort of ex, or just another face in the crowd.
  16. You can’t avoid, plan, or stress your way out of that thirty seconds. If he’s there and you’re there, you’re getting that one awkward “Uh…hi!” moment. You will survive it. 
  17. How much of the next year of your life do you want to invest in that thirty seconds of potential weirdness? Thirty seconds that, depending on pandemic stuff, might not even happen? Rewrite your initial question as “I am not over my ex and my brain thought would be fun to have an extinction burst of excuses to obsess about him.” No shame! Brains make jerk moves sometimes! You are doing all the right stuff to take care of yourself, so please continue with your VERY healthy boundary-setting and being-nice-to-yourself strategy. This will pass.
  18. Imagine an electric fence around your brain, and thoughts of your ex as intruding locusts. “Oh, look, another intrusive thought about my ex.” ZZZZZZAAAAAPPPPPPPPP.
  19. Imagine thoughts of your ex as Space Invaders and imagine you on the ground all “pew pew pew” as you disintegrate them one by pixelated one.
  20. Imagine the thoughts of your ex as wispy little cirrus clouds evaporating away when the sun comes out.
  21. As you scoop the cat box, imagine each “clump” is a thought about your ex, ready to be double-bagged and coming soon to a dumpster near you.
  22. This WILL pass. You will not feel this worried or this obsessed forever.

❤ and awkwardness.

Readers, comments are open for one specific purpose:

If you have a brief, extremely anticlimactic, un-dramatic, “I was worried about what it would be like but it all went perfectly fine, considering” story about running into an ex for the first time after a breakup, perhaps the Letter Writer would like to read some of those?

 

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