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Valerie L

I never want to pressure Letter Writers to send in updates, but it’s nice to receive them. In late 2022, the writer of #1358 sent in some great news and authorized me to post it here:

“I have wanted to write in with an update for a little while now, and now I can, because I finally got this news I was waiting for: Today I found out I passed my state’s bar exam!

My life has changed so much since I wrote in last fall. I graduated from law school. I took the bar exam. I moved back to my hometown, into my own apartment. I started my first job as a lawyer, as a professional instead of a student.

I found a therapist who taught me how to set reasonable boundaries and schedules, how to deal with the horrible feelings and memories I couldn’t make sense of. I got diagnosed with PTSD and OCD pretty quickly. I got therapy and meds that helped me feel more even-keeled. I am starting to learn how to stop hurting myself. I found some good doctors, and I got diagnosed with some other chronic physical illnesses that developed, apparently, as a result of truly harmful physical stress on my body for so long. They’re hard to deal with sometimes. But I deal with them. I take my meds, and I try to cook things that are good for me, and I go for long walks and I go to the gym, and I go to bed early, and when I panic I try to just wait it out, and mostly I feel safe.

I got an apartment that’s in my own space but near my parents. I go over to their house for dinner once a week or so. I call my mom to tell her how my days are. I help my dad with projects he’s working on. I listen to REM like he always did when I was a kid. I’m not totally sure about going back to church yet, but I can sit near my window and pray. I have a quiet, clean, perfect little space where I live with my dog. My bed is covered by a quilt my grandmother made me. My boyfriend comes over sometimes (my boyfriend!) and he is solid and steady and kind, and I think that maybe I can still love. Every day I wake up and take my dog outside and look at the river and feel the wind and listen to the geese, and I feel safe.

I got a job where I have my own little office, with a big window and a door that shuts if I need it to, and I get to do what I’ve been trained to do and what I’m really good at now. I work on a small team, and my coworkers are kind and smart and friendly. My boss sends me home if I stay even a few minutes past 5 p.m. He doesn’t call me at weird hours. He doesn’t mind if I have to leave for an appointment during the workday. He doesn’t corner me. He lets me work at my own pace, he lets me work how I like to work. Sometimes people at the office tell me I’ve done a good job on something. I’ve learned that I like to talk to the people I work with; I’ve learned that even when I’m feeling anxious, it’s okay to go to work and sit in my office and focus on breathing and maybe only do a little bit that day. Nobody seems to mind. My boss makes me laugh, I think because he’s trying to get me to chill out a little bit, and I feel safe. 

When I was a kid I begged my parents for horseback riding lessons, which were short-lived but the most free I’ve ever felt. I started riding again — I found a riding club and a family willing to lease me a horse on the weekends. I ride with them on Saturdays, and I bake cinnamon rolls to bring them as a thank you, and I talk to friends from all over, of all different ages and occupations, and I love them. I get to literally gallop across open fields, I get to let it take my breath away, and I feel safe.

Things are still hard. It’s hard to take care of myself sometimes. Some nights I wake up terrified, not breathing. Some days I still can’t call what my professors did “abuse”; some days I still can’t call what that other student did “rape.” Sometimes I’m so furious about what they did to me I think it’ll kill me. But for the most part, that fire in me doesn’t burn me to death. For the most part, it keeps me alive. My friend told me once that I can be like the burning bush: aflame but never consumed. There isn’t really an “old” me to go back to, a version of me from before all of this that I can access. But there is a version of me that gets to choose what she does, and she is choosing to connect with the things she always loved, and she feels safe.

I passed the bar exam, and I’m a lawyer now, and that means the escape plan I set in motion years ago without really knowing why I felt like I had to escape has finally, finally, finally come to pass. I did it. They can never blow my life up ever again. I know what they did to me. I didn’t have any power over it. That hurts. But I get to say what I was made for. I get to say what I do. I don’t know if I’m making all the right choices yet, but I’m the one making the choices. I’m going to bed tonight without something clawing at my chest. Thank you (and Amy) for giving me the words and the tools I needed to make that happen.”

Congratulations on passing the bar. Congratulations on saving your own life. Congratulations for building a life where there is fulfilling work and also dogs and horses and love and quilts and days of working on projects and listening to music with your dad. And thanks again to guest adviser and badass author Amy Gentry, who knows a little something about harnessing the fire inside. ❤

Valerie L

Dear Captain,

I have been very happily married for eleven years while also happily having an affair, without my husband’s knowledge, for ten years. The truth is it doesn’t take a web of elaborate lies to hide something if your partner doesn’t push to know the hidden life you don’t want to reveal. That has given me the freedom to enjoy holidays with my lover as well as my husband. Both of the men in my life are successful, handsome and love me, as I love them. And the sex is great with both of them. Of course, the women whom I consider my friends hate me for this and also think I am squandering the lives of both men I am happily entangled with. The truth is they both make me feel special and happy and I carry that into both of my relationships. If my husband found out tomorrow that I have had a lover for this past decade, I think he would forgive me as my lover would forgive the occasional fling I have without his knowledge. I’m happy but am I destined to always live under the negative judgment of other women?

I’m curious, so I’ll bite, but I have more questions for you than answers and you might leave with the judgment of your friends + the entire internet in your back pocket instead of whatever “You go girl!” encouragement you were maybe hoping for. If you’d like more questions and opinions than suggestions, read on!

I don’t hand out scarlet letters around here. People are messy, and I don’t necessarily think all cheaters are inherently evil or irredeemably broken. But if I had to pick three things that cheaters, especially serial and long-term cheaters, are extremely good at, those things would be 1) magical thinking, 2) making excuses, and 3) magical thinking and excuses specifically about consent, and those three things are all over your letter.

My ethical problems with cheating have nothing to do with church or state, they’re pretty much consent problems. Relationships between consenting adults require the full, informed, transparent consent of everyone in them. If you also value consent, then what’s stopping you from telling your husband about your lover and asking outright for an open relationship? You say you’re pretty sure he would “forgive” you, though forgiveness isn’t the same agreeing to continue a relationship in light of new information. But if this is all so harmless, if everyone’s so blissfully happy, why not negotiate an agreement where everybody knows the risks, everybody has agency, everybody can be maximally protected, and nobody has to lie? As long as your husband doesn’t know what he’s really agreed to, then you don’t have his consent.

Then, you’re giving us the classic argument, that as long as your husband is happy, what he doesn’t know won’t hurt him. And that is incorrect on so many levels. Bluntly, if your husband believes the two of you have been each other’s only sex partners for the last decade, and you’ve let him continue believing that this whole time, then you’ve been risking his health, and possibly his life, without his consent. (And since you phrased it that your lover “would” forgive the occasional side quest, not that he *did* forgive them, you’re on shaky consent ground there as well).

If you’ve been scrupulous about regular testing and strict about condom use and other safer sex practices for the last decade, I’m relieved (skeptical, but relieved). If there haven’t been any STI scares so far, then I’m very relieved. But that’s doesn’t mean it’s all fine, it means you’ve been lucky, so far. Your husband can’t possibly make good decisions about his own sexual health, his own risk tolerance, or how to best protect himself if he doesn’t know about potential risks posed by your lover, your flings, their lovers, their flings, etc. If he doesn’t know what he’s consenting to, then he can’t consent.

Plus, consent isn’t just about sex. Your friends have called you out for “squandering the lives” of both men you’re involved with, and I don’t know all the details, but I can visualize their point. There are married people who lie about their intentions, and if you’re one of them, that’s a problem. But let’s assume that your lover has always known that you’re married and plan to stay that way and nobody is stringing anyone along. That means that over the the last decade, your lover has been able to make informed choices about how he wants to invest his time, effort, money, etc. into a relationship with you. What happens if he meets someone else, what happens if one or both of you decides you want or don’t want children, what happens in case of emergencies or big life events? Since you both know the true shape of your relationship, you can make decisions together with all the information in front of you.

Your husband doesn’t know that he spent the last ten years living in a triad. If he’d known, maybe he’d have done a lot of things differently. With his money. With his time. With his romantic and career choices. With his reproductive choices. With decisions about where to live, where to spend the holidays and family events, how to best support and care for aging parents and other family members, and all the other priorities and compromises that come when you join lives with somebody else. Instead, you let him make these huge decisions about his life without having all the relevant information, while you and this entire other secret dude had all the facts, including the facts about him.

If you had come clean ten years ago, and asked for the kind of relationship you truly wanted, maybe you’d have gotten divorced and found different happy lives eventually, or maybe your husband would have surprised you and found a way to make it work. Maybe he’d enjoy having other partners, too, but has refrained out of respect for his promises to you. Maybe he’s had his own secret side thing going this whole time and this is a Horny Gift Of The Sexual Magi situation. Asking for what you truly want carries risk of not getting it, but by not asking you’ve risked both your futures, ensuring that you’ll both keep living in a marriage based on assumptions instead of ever truly knowing each other. Ten years is a long enough time that even the most jealousy-averse, most adoring, most loyal, most sexually adventurous spouse in the world might have a hard time getting over feeling like he’s been robbed of his choices. Who are you to decide what someone else needs to be happy, and what they need to know?

But you insist that you’re happy, he’s happy, everyone’s happy, and this is really a problem about your judgmental female friends. Sure, let’s go with that, but I’m not sure we’re going to get any closer to what you want to hear.

I based the post title on the subject line of your email, but is it truly just women who judge you? Do you have male friends* who know what’s up in your love life? How do they feel about it? [*Note: Any friend of any gender who has had sex with you during your marriage is  automatically disqualified due to conflict of interest.]

Next thing I’m wondering is, how many of the friends you feel judged by also know your husband? How many of them are not just your friends, but “our” friends, part of your joint social circle as a couple? How many of them were at your wedding? How many of them were in your wedding? How intertwined are you, your husband, and your friends with each other’s partners, coworkers, hobby spaces, communities, and families? Are you asking people to lie to a friend for their friend?

You say it doesn’t take “an elaborate web of lies” to hide your affair, but asking people who are friends with both you and your husband to keep your secret for the last ten out of eleven years means asking them to participate in at least one pretty big, never-ending lie. Along with questioning your choices, your friends aren’t unreasonable for having questions about your integrity or for being uneasy about what keeping your secrets for another ten years might reveal about their own integrity. If you’d lie about something this big, for this long, to someone you love so much, is it really silly or unfair to wonder what else you’d lie about, if you thought it was in your own interest, or if you assumed the other person couldn’t handle the truth?

Obviously you’re free to continue whatever domestic and sexual arrangements make you happy, but one consequence of doing just as you like and telling everyone you know (except the person most affected by your choices) is the risk that not everyone will share your casual approach to consent or be a willing accomplice to your selective notion of truth.

Is that really surprising? This isn’t about “destiny,” it’s not about women tearing each other down, it’s not about your friends being insufficiently sex positive or sophisticated or jealous of your ability to lock down two hot guys, and I don’t think it’s all that complicated. You told your friends some stuff they didn’t want to know, and now they’re telling you stuff you don’t want to hear. People can love you and want you to be happy and also think you’re making some shitty decisions. Sometimes it goes like that. At least they care enough to tell you to your face?

Now that you know how your friends feel, you may want to apologize for putting them in an awkward position and do a consent check before sharing any more details or involving them in more secrets and lies. You may also want to choose different confidantes in future. If support and a safe place to process your feelings is what you’re after, consider a therapist who is bound by confidentiality and at least a starting agreement that your side of any story is the one that counts. If approval, solidarity, and swapping juicy secrets with people who are in similar circumstances is what you need, maybe search the internet for places that provide both community and anonymity. (Your guess is as good as mine for where to start looking, but you’ve got a working internet connection and if you can dream it, then chances are strong that somebody’s already built it.) If you mostly need a place to organize your thoughts, they sell paper journals with locks and electronic journals with passwords, so write it down, lock it up, and let your own judgment suffice.

I’m not sure if this is what you wanted, but it’s what I’ve got. And as a P.S., in my experience it’s better to climb down from an unstable situation on your own schedule and terms than it is to crash down when it collapses under its own weight, so I hope you’ll be safe out there if nothing else.

Valerie L

If the title doesn’t fully get it across, content warnings for violence, transmisogyny, and general “here there be assholes, ye navigate around them by naming what they do” vibes.

Hello Captain!

I (they/them) am in a relationship with a lovely transfeminine musician & organizer (she/her) who holds a lot of space for very traumatized people, sometimes to her detriment. She has a friend/professional connection, who I shall call Garment (they/them).

I have met Garment twice and they have been nothing but pleasant to me but their reputation precedes them. They are transmisogynistic, they are an alcoholic and very mean when drunk, they have a dark past that they tell people about in great detail on first introduction, and my girlfriend has a permanent scar from where they bit her when she was trying to prevent them from driving drunk. Apparently they made up over the biting incident, but I still don’t trust Garment (and Garment knows I hate them). 

The other night I was spending time at my girlfriend’s with a mutual friend of ours, one I’ve known since before we both transitioned (let’s call her Cindy, she/her). Garment came over to visit and Cindy agreed to stay at theirs later that night. While Garment was out my girlfriend and I warned Cindy extensively of Garment’s past behavior. Cindy stayed over anyway and Garment got drunk, put on a movie about a man cannibalizing women and getting his penis bitten off for it, and said that Cindy only found it off-putting because she’s “not AFAB.” After that they talked about their harrowing history of experiencing sexual violence from men, and complained that my girlfriend lords the biting incident over them but really they could have bitten her much harder. 

Cindy feels horrible and unstable, my girlfriend feels guilty and doesn’t know what to do (I’ve suggested “enact social consequences for this kind of shit” but easier said than done obviously), and I’m trying to curb my judgment at both of them since this is fundamentally Garment’s fault and my girlfriend is just as much a victim of their behavior.  I have no role here but for the fact that I only know them for gleefully mistreating people I care about. Are we doomed to deal with this violent freak forever? Can they be chased away or is my girlfriend doomed to have to constantly warn people of their nonsense?


Norm L. Person 

Dear Norm. L.,

Thanks for your letter. You’re bang on about social consequences being one of the only ways to successfully deal with the Garments of the world. And there are lots of ways to enact and enforce those.

Before I just start singing “There Must Be 50 Ways To Ban Your Biter,” let’s review some terms so everybody reading knows what we’re talking about. The Missing Stair™ as first described by Cliff at The Pervocracy, is a regular in a social circle (kink scene, subculture, friend group, workplace, creative community, activist space, or what have you) who presents a safety hazard due to a history of sketchy behavior, poor boundaries, consent violations, emotional, sexual, and physical abuse, and other kinds of toxic behavior. Unlike Schrödinger’s Jackass (a newcomer who may or may not turn out to be a jerk upon further acquaintance), longtime group members and event organizers in the scene know that the Missing Stair is bad news, but instead of kicking them out, they try to put safeguards around the problem person, like warning newcomers to move around the gaping hole in the staircase instead of through it.

Back to your letter. If I’m understanding events correctly, Cindy is a long-time friend of both you and your girlfriend, but she didn’t know Garment or had not spent significant time with them until everybody met up at your girlfriend’s house the other day. For reasons I cannot currently account for, Cindy planned to stay overnight at Garment’s place, so you and your girlfriend dutifully unfurled the scroll of “Reasons Why Garment Sucks And Should Not Be Trusted,” but Cindy was undeterred.

From there, events unfolded suckily, as advertised. Garment, who sometimes gets so drunk that they bite people, invited Cindy over, got a similar amount of drunk, forced her to watch a film about graphic sexual violence and people who bite people, monologued extensively about sexual violence  and biting people. And who’s “lording” what now? “By the way, the last time I bit someone in real life, I really could have done it much harder.” That’s allllllll on Garment, from where I sit.

Then, after hours of drunk rape history and and drunk remembrance of bites past, Garment blamed their guest’s dismay on…:checks notes:…some bold, inappropriate, and frankly downright TERF-y assumptions about whatever the person who filled out Cindy’s birth certificate glimpsed inside her very first diaper. Sounds fun, and not at all aggressive, ominous, or deliberately threatening!

While I still have many, many, many questions about whose idea was it for Cindy to stay at Garment’s place, you mentioned both doom and social consequences, and it’s probably time to talk about what some of those might look like.

First, Cindy has a very interesting choice right now. She was warned about how much Garment sucks, and after the full Chez Garment experience, she knows firsthand, no Schrödinger about it. So what to do?

If Cindy chooses to shrug off the other night, minimize her own discomfort, and keep subjecting herself to an unkind, uncool, unfunny, unsafe person she dislikes in order to smooth things over for your girlfriend’s sake, then “doom” looks like someday when Cindy’s the one researching “vitamin E or silicone adhesives for bite marks (human)” and unfurling Garment’s Scroll of Warning, Now With Even More Warning for the next shiny new cool person. Doom is when all of you put another layer of metaphorical gaff tape down where the stairs have splintered under the weight of normalizing Garment’s behavior, and hope the next person doesn’t fall in.

But that’s not the only option!  If Cindy decides, nope, never doing that again, she could message Garment and say, “You were so kind to put me up the other night, but I don’t think we’re compatible as friends and I’d prefer not to stay in touch in the future,” and then block every single number, email, and social media profile, and never look back. The social consequence is, people don’t like assholes and might not hang out with you more than once if they think you are one. If Garment gets upset, that’s not Cindy’s problem. Sometimes you meet people who just don’t like you and there’s no pretending that they do, oh well! Not everyone is meant to be friends!

Boundaries work best when direct, specific requests are backed up by consistent actions (consequences) when and if those limits are not respected.

A boundary: “Hi, Norm L. and Girlfriend!  I’ve already told Garment that I don’t think we should be friends, so I figure I’d tell you as well. I loved catching up with you both, and I’d love to do it again sometime, but not if Garment will also be there, so let’s make plans for just us from now on.”

Some consequences:  Decline invitations that also include Garment or take place in environments where Garment is likely to be. Do not explain or negotiate, just automatically RSVP “Another time, perhaps!” and follow up later to plan something else.

Sometimes gentle reminders are necessary. “That sounds great, but you said ‘a couple of people’ are getting together, so I just want to double-check. Is Garment also invited? Oh, in that case, count me out. Uh-huh, I know you care about them, and I hope they have in fact ‘changed a lot,’ but one evening in their company was more than enough for me, and that’s going to be a ‘forever’ rule I’m afraid.”

Make an action plan in case a hangout is already underway and Garment shows up unexpectedly, which doesn’t have to be a big confrontation or scene.“Oh hello, Garment, you’re looking well.”  Politely get up, go the restroom, wait 5 minutes in case it really is a quick errand. If, upon departing the bathroom, Garment’s ass is touching furniture, or their hand is holding a beverage? “Oh, hey, I was just about to get on the road, so I’ll leave you all to it. Have a great night!” Then leave. Don’t explain or negotiate. Everybody knows exactly why. “I had a lovely time, thanks, but it’s time for me to go.”

Once Cindy’s boundary is set at “I don’t spend time with Garment, period,” there’s no need to argue or convince anybody of anything. She’s in control of the situation and can absent herself anytime.

If your lovely girlfriend keeps trying to force the issue, Cindy may need to reconsider how much she wants to stick around in a friendship where tolerating Garment is the price of admission, or where she can’t trust your girlfriend’s word that Garment won’t be there. Your girlfriend undoubtedly has her reasons for wanting to keep Garment in her life. She also has many options for maintaining bilateral, non-Garment relationships with others, same as for her non-asshole friends, since not everyone is destined to hit it off with everybody else. Does your girlfriend want to risk the social consequences of seeing Cindy less or damaging their friendship?

Your girlfriend feels guilty after the other night because on some level she knows that if she routinely inflicts somebody who requires a software license worth of caveats on innocent people, and those people hit “Dismiss” or “I decline,” and she keeps suggesting updates anyway, something’s bound to crash.

So if there’s a doom here, it’s this:  You asked if Garment “can be chased away.” And the answer is, no, not until somebody starts chasing. As long as your girlfriend includes Garment in the spaces she inhabits without setting limits or visiting consequences for bad behavior, Garment will stick to her like gum on the bottom of a shoe. To avoid this doom, your girlfriend can set boundaries:

  • “Garment, you can drink if you want to, but not at my house, and not around me. Go home.” “Garment, you’re not invited, today I made plans with other friends. I’ll see you later.”
  • “Garment, sure, we’ll watch the move you brought, but if we get 15 minutes in and nobody’s enjoying it, we’re watching something else.” [This script brought to you by an awful ex who loved to “surprise” me with “challenging” “material”  like Phantom of the Paradise, Re-animator, and many other things that really, really, REALLY require informed, ongoing, and yes, enthusiastic consent before infliction, and then arguing with me for hours when I didn’t love it. He and Garment would hit it off, is what I’m saying.]
  • “Garment, hahahaha nice offer, but no. After last time, I’m not sending anyone home with you. [New Friend], you’re sleeping on our sofa.”
  • “Garment, let me interrupt you. Now is not the time or place for that story, and you really need to check and make sure people consent before you share graphic or personal stuff.”

And she can enforce them with consequences: If Garment can’t be trusted to take no for an answer or behave, then Garment will be sent packing or not invited in the first place. Garment has choices, and if they want to maintain a friendship with your girlfriend, they can either follow some simple rules or GTFO!

My dear Norm L., I realize that I just typed out a lot of advice for Cindy, who didn’t write to me, and for your girlfriend, who also didn’t write to me, so what about you? I promise I didn’t forget you, I just thought it might be easier for you to ingest all my advice for you if you read it all as advice to Cindy first. Cindy doesn’t have to hang out with Garment if she doesn’t want to. Cindy doesn’t have to pretend that Garment’s behavior is acceptable. Cindy can just leave unpleasant situations anytime she wants to. Fuck yeah, Cindy! Oh, wait.

Cindy’s choices are your choices, too. “Girlfriend, you’re the boss of you, and if Garment is important to you, so be it. But I’m not spending time with them again, so please don’t ask me to.” “Oh, hey Garment, didn’t know you were stopping by! Wait, why are you taking off your coat? Oh, you’re staying. Uh-huh, well, that’s my cue, then. Good night!” 

There’s a double-bind here, the way there always is with bullies. If you stay away from Garment-heavy events and leave rooms whenever they walk into them, then you’re potentially leaving your girlfriend alone with an unsafe person, and Garment technically “wins.” Plus, leaving visits social consequences on your girlfriend, not the obvious problem person, who already knows of your loathing and doesn’t care. Ultimatums carry risk, as in, what if you ask your girlfriend to choose and she doesn’t choose herself/you? So there’s understandably going to be a strong a temptation to stick around and see if you can mitigate the situation, or at least hold your ground, or at least cosplay as an orange safety cone and warn everybody about the gap in the stairs.

You see the problem, right? At some point, somebody has to set a baseline for acceptable behavior and stick to it, or else join the tacit agreement that the Missing Stair may be an asshole, but at least their “our” asshole, and we know how to deal with them so nobody gets hurt. Nobody…except the people who didn’t get the warning in time, but we don’t talk about that, that’s all in the past. Nobody…except the people who silence their self-preservation instincts and erode their own integrity in order to remain in community with abusers. Nobody…except all the people who tend to “freeze” or “fawn” in the face of danger, who are conveniently* the only ones left after all the “fight” folks got tone policed out for “creating drama” and all the “flight” folks sensibly noped back down the stairs, never to be heard from again.

(*Conveniently for the bully, that is. “It didn’t kill me, so shut up, hold still, and let me make you stronger” is fucking great for manufacturing consent.)

You can only control your own choices, my dear Norm L., so what will it be? Complicity or consequences? The lady or the biter? Whatever you choose, choose it with your eyes open.

As I’ve been writing this draft, I  keep cutting and pasting this next part to see where it fits, and it fits nowhere and everywhere, so I’m putting it here: Trauma runs through your letter like the nervous system runs through the body. Your girlfriend “holds space for very traumatized people.” Garment overshares about their “dark past” and traumatic history with violence to dominate conversations and keep the attention on themselves. Cindy feels “horrible and unstable” after her experience. I have five opinions about trauma and Missing Stairs based more on experience than expertise, so use whatever you find useful:

  1. It is possible to be both a trauma survivor and a bully.
  2. Trauma, especially repeated exposure and long-term, ongoing trauma can erode a survivor’s sense of what’s normal and acceptable. In spaces where lots of trauma survivors tend to congregate (say, “queer and trans people,” “social justice organizers,” and “artists,” just for example), a charismatic bully can do a lot (!!!!!) of damage to total sweethearts who, through no fault of their own, have been conditioned to have a high tolerance for pain and little or no evidence that saying “no!” and “stop that!” would accomplish anything.
  3. It is possible to have compassion and empathy for someone’s suffering without excusing or normalizing unacceptable behavior.
  4. Bullies, predators, and other Missing Stair varietals thrive when the compassionate people around them assume that understanding and explaining the reasons for their bad behavior is necessary before (or worse, the same as/instead of) taking action to stop it.
  5. There’s no perfect way to deal with a bully, because they ruin everything, but I suggest the following order of operations: Stop the harm now, take care of the targets now, contain and limit the bully’s power and access to do more harm now, and delve into the bully’s origin story later (if at all), when everybody is safe.

This has been yet another blog post that should probably be a book chapter about the Schrödinger’s-Jerkface-to-Missing Stair-pipeline. Speaking of, I have an actual deadline to turn an actual book draft in on February 27, so I’m closing the inbox to new questions until after then. Thank you, as always, for your patience.

Valerie L

Ahoy, Captain; 

I (she/her) work happily in a customer-service type of position. The job is pretty chill, except on weekends when it can get hectic. Because I’m the most senior employee, I am often called upon to train the new recruits. I’ve been doing this for a long time and my reputation as a trainer is that my trainees usually end up successful in the role. I’ve received feedback that I’m a stern but fair coach, and that I’m a supportive teacher albeit with high standards. For some context, I’m typically more than a decade older than my trainees. 

One of these newbies (she/her) is a delightful and funny person with a good head on her shoulders who I can see doing well here. It’s her very first job ever, so she’s learning a lot very fast and so far she’s grasping everything wonderfully. But I’m encountering a problem that I’ve never dealt with professionally before – she’s got a debilitating Case of the Sorries.She says “sorry” CONSTANTLY, and is visibly panicked much of the time, especially in front of guests. She trembles like a leaf when I give her even the most gentle and innocuous feedback, followed of course by “I’m SO sorry!” She hyperventilates while speaking to customers and says sorry when they ask if she’s alright. When I’m teaching her something, she’s apologizing for not knowing the task already, but why would she expect herself to know when I’m not done teaching it?

I wish it didn’t bother me as much as it does. I could be wrong but I’ve never gotten the sense that I’m a monstrous tyrant who eats newbies for breakfast, so I’m having trouble letting her behavior just roll off my back. Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me – it just brings up a lot of Feelings when she’s cowering and whimpering at my feet for mercy.I grew up with a highly anxious and tightly-wound parent, who was prone to screaming and crying fits of confusion and anger when stressed or upset. Sometimes this would happen in the car when they were driving while inconsolably freaked out, putting mine and my siblings’ safety at risk. Sometimes this would happen in public, meaning that if I didn’t salvage the situation, we’d never make it out of the store or through the airport or whatever. When my parent would experience meltdowns, I felt forced over and over to step in and calm them down for the sake of stability. Despite being a minor, I was always the one keeping a level head. In an emergency, real or perceived, it became my job to parent my parent. 

When my easily-frazzled newbie starts exhibiting the symptoms of panic that I’m so painfully attuned to, it puts ME in fight-or-flight mode. My brain, having been mis-wired in my formative years, always thinks that if someone around me is in a panic, and I don’t fix them, I’m going to die. I care about my trainees and want their happiness and success. They’re all nice kids that I respect and like. But I become at war within myself when faced with this particular newb. The trainer part of me wants to bring the hammer down and correct this behavior, because the line of customers is still out the door and work still needs doing whether or not you’re upset. But I know that’s not fair and I’m not sure how I could say this to her in a way that would not devastate her. 

The parent-ified part of me wants to gather her up like an injured hatchling in my gently cupped hands and softly say, “Oh sweet little baby bird, please don’t be upset. It’s okay. I won’t let anything happen to you. You don’t have to be so scared. Everything’s alright.”My inner child is frustrated and upset with her for making me feel this way. Nobody asked me to expend all the emotional labor that I’m spending soothing her and being an emotional anchor, not to mention all the overthinking I’m doing about it, but I feel like I cannot help it. Why can’t I go to pieces and cry at the drop of a hat too? Because if I do, everything will fall apart. I’m not allowed to get emotional. I have to be the adult all the time, and I’m resentful that she is so needy of validation and reassurance. 

I welcome any advice or thoughts you may have. How can I make peace with her behavior when it makes me spiral? How do I manage my resentment when she’s done nothing wrong? Can I reframe this some way in my head that would make it easier to deal? And do you have any thoughts on providing professional feedback and criticism to someone who needs to be treated with kid gloves? I’m hesitant to armchair diagnose as we’re not friends and I don’t know her background, but it feels safe to say she seems emotionally fragile and I’m not sure I’m equipped to handle it.

–A Bird In The Hand Is Making Me Sad 

Dear Bird In The Hand,

I had a feeling that Alison over at Ask A Manager would know how to solve this exact scenario, and her approach is solid. Her script for someone in a similar situation is, “Please don’t worry about apologizing. I just want to make sure you understand the corrections I’m giving you and that you know what to do differently next time. Do you feel like you have the information that you need now?”

Because you’re in a busy customer service setting, and the apology spiral is hindering the work in real time, I’m going to adapt this for you slightly. As soon as the apologorrhea starts, hold up your hand in front of your chest in a “stop” gesture, and say “Apologize later. Right now, we need to get Mrs. Brackenlicker the gooseberry fool* she ordered. Can you ring her up, or do you want me to take over the register while you bag it up for her?”

*For example purposes, I’ve decided you work in a fancy dessert shop from a forgotten Preston Sturges movie, thanks for just going with it.

As you adapt this ritual to your actual workplace, the key beats are:

1. “Hold up.” I recommended a palm out “stop” motion, but holding up the index finger of “wait a second” would also get it done. Why a physical gesture? Since your trainee’s reactions are also activating you, I want to give you a way to ground yourself before you speak. This is quick, it’s quiet, and it anchors the routine in your body, like, ah, yes, we’re doing the steps now, no surprises here.

You can say the words “Hold up” or “Let me interrupt you real quick” or “Whoa, TraineeName” along with the gesture, if that’s more your style. With repetition, the gesture itself might be enough for the trainee to catch herself and change course, but even if it doesn’t, it’s a reminder to you to take a breath and focus.

2. “Apologize later.” She doesn’t need to apologize, you’d prefer she not apologize, but if you tell her to stop apologizing, she’s going to apologize for apologizing, and you’re going to be like “But I told you not to apologize” and she’s going to apologize more, and then maybe she’s going to cry, and so you’ll start apologizing to her, and if that keeps up you’ll create a Ted Lasso-type “semantic satiation” situation where words lose all meaning when you say ’em too much.

To head off what Mr. Awkward calls “A Who’s On First Of Competitive Remorse,” don’t argue with the apology, postpone it so that you can move through it and do what needs doing.

3. “Right now, [customer] needs [business things].” Literally nobody showed up here today because they want to torture you and your trainee, that costs extra, so what is the actual work that needs to happen?

4. “Do you want [Option A, where you continue handling it] or [Option B, where I step in, you take a second to collect yourself, business event events unfold as they should, and nobody suffers]?” Grant agency by prompting her to choose what happens next, preserve momentum by making sure that her choices all contain action verbs.

If she freezes completely, it’s not the end of the world, you can choose for her. In that case, I suggest that you tell what you’re doing first, and tell her what you want her to do second. “I’m going to ring this order up, why don’t you watch while I do it, and then you can box it up while I wait on the next person.” That’s not a correction, it’s a division of labor.

5. Keep it moving! Interrupt her spiral and redirect her, then turn the bulk of your attention back to the customers. Greet the regulars, comment on the weather, compliment any fetching attire, and triage the line while your trainee catches up.

6. Keep it boring! Stay calm, matter-of-fact, and repeat this pattern as many times as you need to.  “Hold up (gesture), apologize later. Right now, Mr. Ditzywicket needs his poached pears in port. Oops, looks like we need to grab some more whipped cream from the back. Want to ring him up while I fetch that, or do you know where it is? Great, thank you.”

And, since training is your forté, here is a bonus recommendation straight out of film school that you might play around with next time you have a slow day:

7. Convert “correction” to “permission.”

This advice is right out of Judith Weston’s book Directing Actors,  written to help directors give useful and constructive feedback to people whose job it is to be vulnerable in front of lots of other people in time-sensitive and high-pressure situations. The feeling of being constantly monitored and publicly corrected frankly sucks, even for people who aren’t sensitive the way your trainee is sensitive, even when everyone agrees that ongoing adjustments are necessary to the work.

Weston suggests that people will feel less like they’re living in a Daft Punk song if you convert commands and corrections into giving permission. “You need to hit your mark sooner” becomes “You can get to your mark sooner.” “Take your sunglasses off first, then give the line.” vs. “You can say the line after you take your sunglasses off.” It’s a teensy distinction, and everybody knows that you’re really saying “Please do the thing now.” But the actor is the vulnerable one who has to actually execute the thing, and something about “Here is what I want, but you’re in charge of how you give it to me” can be liberating, for everyone.

Naturally, this doesn’t apply in matters of safety, sometimes yelling “HEY! STOP! Do NOT combine bleach and ammonia!” is the exact right call, “don’t accidentally invoke each other’s childhood trauma” comes after “don’t accidentally make mustard gas in the break room sink” on the list of priorities. To be perfectly honest, I don’t think permission language would fundamentally change how this specific trainee reacts to direction, but it might make you feel more confident in how *you* distinguish between evaluating what’s wrong and encouraging what’s right.

As for the rest of what you typed out about your family history, probably the less you define and react to what is happening at work now that you’re an adult in terms of what you endured in your family as a child, the better. I applaud you for recognizing the pattern and asking for help before you accidentally make it weirder, I hope it helped you to write it all out, I definitely see and sympathize with the awful burden your parent placed on you, but I’m mostly ignoring it for practical purposes because the advice about how to interrupt the issue and fix it is the same no matter where you’re coming from. If this is bringing up stuff for you that you need to take to your therapist and support system to help you get through your workdays, that’s a great idea. But assuming that you have special insight into your trainee’s vibe or special capability to fix things for her because of your background is going to help nobody. So let’s address where you said Still, the truth is, I’M the problem. It’s not that her sorries annoy me…”  because I’m not convinced about either of these statements.

Someone who “trembles like a leaf,” hyperventilates (!!!!), and compulsively apologizes to coworkers and customers in response to tiny hiccups and routine, normal, constructive feedback at a new job is bringing stuff to the table that has nothing to do with you. If something about her past or how her brain works is making things weird at work, hopefully she can look into stuff like therapy and medication so that she can deal with the feelings and function.Your childhood history may be making you feel extra weird about it,  but that doesn’t mean that that you are creating the problem, and it doesn’t mean bystanders without your same history wouldn’t also find her behavior troubling, odd, and yes, annoying. Annoying in a way that doesn’t just affect her, or you, but in a way that affects the business when customers start complaining or avoiding her register because they don’t want to deal with the floodgates.

If you were your trainee’s direct supervisor, it would be your job to address the behavior pretty directly. That could mean everything from discussing the problem and asking her what she thinks would help, directing her to the company Employee Assistance Program for a counseling referral, documenting the problem as a performance issue if nothing changes within a reasonable time.

That said, I don’t get the impression that you are her direct supervisor. You’re training her because you’re a more experienced peer, but once she’s fully trained you’re hanging out at roughly the same tier on the org chart. Since you’re not paid like a manager, and you’re not assigned to be her manager, my suggestion is that you use the scripts and strategies I suggested to de-escalate and keep things moving.

If you want to have one conversation about the overall dynamic, try pulling her aside for a private chat at the end of a shift or during a lull in the action:

“I’ve noticed you get flustered sometimes when you’re learning something new or when you run into a snare. No, no – :HAND UP IN ‘PLEASE STOP’ GESTURE: – no, apologize later, I need you to just listen now. Over the years I’ve learned that whenever I make a mistake and start feeling overwhelmed, most customers want me to say ‘sorry’ once, and then either fix the problem or find someone who can. From now on, if I notice you getting flustered, you get one “sorry.” Then I’m going to interrupt you so we can get on with solving the problem. If you ever feel yourself getting overwhelmed and need to step away for a minute, that’s totally fine, just tag me or another person on the team in so we can keep the line moving.”

She might get even more upset during or after this conversation, but I think that pretending that it’s not happening or that you don’t notice is going to be even worse. Think of it as replacing the anxiety of “Everyone hates me!” assumptions with clear “Nobody hates you, but yeah, you gotta knock this one thing off, here’s exactly how that’s going to work” feedback, which she will either take or she won’t.

Tell her what you’ve noticed and what you plan to do about it. If things don’t get better by the end of the training period, alert your manager who can take it up with her manager. “Trainee X is very bright and capable, but sometimes gets pretty flustered when she makes a mistake. I’ve spoken to her about it, but if it comes up in the future she and whoever her shift lead is might need a reminder that it’s okay to step away as long as she tags in somebody else to take care of the customer.” That’s not throwing her under the bus in any way, that’s setting her up to succeed within the limitations of a work setting.

Valerie L

Dear Captain Awkward,

My wife of almost 10 years blindsided me last month with divorce papers, moved out of the house and has barely communicated with me since. We own a small business together which brought some tension to the marriage but I never suspected that she was considering a divorce. This of course made the holidays very awkward and stressful, and now I’m dreading the reality of going to court. We don’t have any children and thankfully signed a prenup, but I’m still trying to weigh my options and hope to come to some sort of resolution with her. I’ve suggested working with a collaborative divorce lawyer who can help us reach an agreement that works for the both of us but she doesn’t seem too interested. Would you recommend that we see a counselor or mediator or other divorce specialist? Is this something we can work out together?

Friend, I think you most likely need a divorce lawyer, and more importantly, you and your wife both need your own divorce lawyers. What’s available is really down to your location, so search for “divorce” or “family law” attorneys where you live. Discreetly ask around to divorced friends or relatives. If you know a lawyer friend or have worked with someone you like and trust for business matters, ask that person for a referral to someone they know who handles divorces. If all else fails, call your local bar association for some names. Initial consultations to discuss the case and determine fit are usually free, and you could ask any lawyers you speak with about options like mediation vs. collaborative divorce (which still requires 1 lawyer per person).

If your wife has already given you contact information for her lawyer and asked you to direct all questions there, then your next step is clear: Have your lawyer call her lawyer.

Otherwise, ask your wife how she would prefer to handle communications and all the legal, financial, and logistical processes to make the divorce as seamless as possible. This was her idea, so what is her plan? If during your research you come across a well-reviewed mediator or collaborative attorneys that you think would make it work, you could make a specific recommendation to your wife vs. asking her about it as a general concept (and hoping she’ll pick up the ball.) “I would really like to try mediation, and ______ person comes highly recommended. Shall I make an appointment?”  But this is one of those “it takes two yeses and only one no” situations, so if your wife says no, it’s lawyer time.

You have a prenup, you have no children, and your wife has already sent you divorce papers, so maybe you’re wondering why I keep saying you need a lawyer. What is left to work out? And that’s precisely the question: What is left to work out? Why do you fear that going to court will be more than a quick formality where you both tell a judge “I don’t” and sign some papers? What is stopping you from signing the papers she sent and returning them already? Possible snags that come to mind:

  • Something in her proposed agreement doesn’t work for you, or the agreement is incomplete as it stands, and more negotiation is needed. A lawyer can help hash out the details!
  • Something embarrassing is going on (such as accusations of abuse/control, financial mismanagement, infidelity on either side) and you’d like to avoid discussing that on the record in court.You know who would know what to do to minimize fallout? A divorce lawyer, that’s who.
  • Seems like your wife has been thinking about this and planning for a while, whereas you’ve been “blindsided.” She hired someone to draw up those papers, why not hire someone to at least read them over before you sign? Someone who isn’t swirling in a maelstrom of feelings, someone whose literal job it is to take a breath, walk you through the process, and keep your best interests in mind.
  • Because you own a business together, more due diligence is needed to ensure that marital finances and business finances are fair, separate, transparent, and squeaky clean. Hiring a lawyer is the smart business move.
  • You. Operate. A. Business. Together. Most of what you assumed about how your life worked turned out to be incorrect, and assumptions are very bad for business. At minimum, you’re going to want to review every single written agreement that pertains to the business ownership, governance, management structure, financial control, and conditions for buying each other out or dissolving the thing. A lawyer can make sure that everyone involved in the business is maximally protected and that all assumptions are spelled out in writing.

You mentioned counseling, and I think that individual counseling, for you, is a wonderful idea. Give yourself the gift of a safe, supportive, structured environment for processing all the painful and messy parts of this and for taking the very best care of yourself. Sometimes just knowing that there’s one hour a week where you can ugly-cry and nobody will judge you for it can help you keep yourself together the rest of the time.

As for joint counseling, couples’ counseling, marital counseling, etc., no, I don’t think so. That ship sailed sometime in 2022 and I doubt it’s coming back this way again. Because you’re still in shock, I think you’re living in the liminal space called “If I could just get her to talk to me, maybe things would be okay.” You’d understand what happened. You’d work things out together. If you could just get her into a room, on the phone, by your side to sort things out, maybe you could still be a team, one last time.

This mix of anguish and hope that there’s some secret, overlooked solution is completely understandable, it’s just the most relatable, primal, human thing, and you have my sympathies. But it’s just not happening. I’ve never met your wife, but even I can tell that she is extremely done talking. That lady does not want to walk you through her thought process or her plans, and she does not seem particularly curious about yours. If she were, she’d have dragged you to counseling long ago. She didn’t. She has decided. She doesn’t live here anymore. She’s already gone.

When someone leaves you, sometimes the most loving thing you can do is believe them, let them go, and begin the hard work of taking care of yourself. Your best chance of getting through this in a way that works for everyone is to let people who know what they’re doing help you through this.

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