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The sun is setting on November, so here’s that thing where I treat the search strings people typed in to find this place as actual questions. No context, snap judgments, go! I didn’t pick a song this month. 

1 “Is walking too fast creepy?” 

No? Walking way too close behind a stranger can be creepy. Walking very fast while aiming directly at somebody could certainly alarm them. Walking much faster than a companion, so that they continually fall behind or have to race to keep up, is annoying. Glad to put that one to rest for you. 

2 “How to casually drop to your long-distance crush that you are coming.”

“Hello, [CrushName], I’m going to be in [CrushTown] for a few days next month. Can I buy you dinner one night?” 

I don’t really know how to do the “casually” part of this. Do you want to see them or not? If so, invite them to hang out, preferably with plenty of lead-time so they can give you a real answer. 

Do not show up at their door to surprise them. Don’t do it. 

3 “Captain Awkward how not to be someone your adult child writes to advice columnists about.” 

This could become a very long list/book chapter unto itself, but these are a few common elements I notice in recurring parent-child conflicts in my inbox:

  • Your children are not your property nor are they extensions of you. Grocery bills and tuition payments were not a down payment on a lifetime of obedience.
  • Your children are experts on their own experiences and needs, which may be inconsistent with what they needed when they were small, and quite different from what you imagined, assumed, or hoped. Insisting upon imaginary consistency at the expense of what the actual person in front of you is telling you that they need is both extremely stressful and extremely doomed. 
  • Respect boundaries. If your child asks you not to do something (call them when they’re at work, touch them a certain way, comment on their body or appearance, serve food that they hate or are allergic to, drop by unannounced, call them the wrong name), they are giving you information about how to treat them well. “But I’m your parent, so I should get to [do the thing you just said you hate!]”  isn’t a good argument, and your relationship with them will deteriorate if you continue.
  • Your children have their own memories of growing up, and it’s normal if they remember events that you both experienced differently than you do. That’s not an attack or a lie, and they aren’t automatically unreliable narrators just because they were little. 
  • You do not have to like or agree with all of your child’s choices, but if you respond to everything they reveal about themselves with judgment and criticism, do not be surprised if they stop telling you stuff. 
  • “Are you asking for advice or just telling me what’s going on?” is a useful question in any relationship. Not everything needs to be a teachable moment. 
  • Your adult children are not responsible for your emotional well-being, nor is it on them to fill the gaps in your social calendar or make up for disappointments in your other relationships. Make some friends. Join something. Find a therapist. Everyone will be happier for it. 

That’s not the whole list, but you get the idea. 

4 “Mother expects me to be her friend.”

And not in a fun way, I’m guessing. See above?

My tried-and-true suggestions for dealing with a parent who wants more than you can give are:

  • Take a little time to think about what kind of relationship you actually want with this parent. What would it look like if the relationship were going well? What would make spending time with them more enjoyable for you? In a perfect world, how much interaction (time, energy, effort) is right for you? 
  • Try to set up a regular phone call (Zoom, visit) etc. so that there is a predictable structure for interacting with the person. Choose a frequency, format, and duration that is sustainable for you. If the person learns that you won’t reply immediately to every text and call but that you can be depended on to show up for the (for example) weekly Sunday phone call, they may chill out over time. 
  • If a parent claims that you’re the only person in the world they can talk to, interrogate that. They seriously have zero peers or other family members or social connections from their entire lives? Is it that you’re the only person they know, or you’re the only person they can guilt and bully into doing what they want when they want it? Consider that someone refusing to hire a therapist doesn’t make you their therapist. 
  • Set boundaries about things you won’t discuss. “I don’t want to be your marriage counselor, this is way too many details about my dad!” “Whoa, too much information!” 
  • When someone wants something from you and won’t take no for an answer, there is no way to push back that won’t upset them. Setting a healthy boundary where none existed before means accepting a certain amount of upset feelings in order to change the situation.“She won’t like hearing ‘no’, but I still need what I need.” 
  • Making a boundary stick is less about finding the right words to convince the other person and more about being consistent in your actions, e.g. ending the conversation if the person won’t stop bringing up a touchy subject. 
  • Give it time and multiple chances. The relationship didn’t get this way overnight, it won’t change overnight. 

5 “I don’t want to go holidays.” 

This topic is covered exhaustively in the site archives, but since it’s that time of year again, I will repeat: 

The world will not end if you skip a holiday celebration. There are other ways to connect with people you love. Given that there is still a pandemic, 2021 is an excellent year to NOT subject yourself to group activities in close quarters. 

6 “Auditioning for supporting part tips”

How fun! I don’t know how this ended up here, but after spending hundreds of hours on the “casting” side of the table, I do have a little bit of audition advice for actors for all kinds of roles. Everyone has a different process and different priorities for choosing actors, so this is not meant to be comprehensive, nor is it a professional standards guide. It’s  more “unforced audition errors I have personally witnessed & how to prevent them:” 

  • Name your headshot and resume files something descriptive that contains your full name before you submit it or upload it anywhere so busy people do not have to figure out which “headshot4.jpg” you are on the day. 
  • Do not be an imperious ass to people on the production doing admin work like emailing you to schedule auditions or signing you into the room. Everybody talks to everybody, and you can burn a lot of bridges with a single dick move.
  • Especially when auditioning for film, do not mime actions (scattering invisible flowers, pouring invisible tea, etc.) even if they are described in the script unless the director or casting director specifically asks you to do it. It’s  distracting in the room and looks incredibly weird when the video is played back later. The camera mostly wants to know what your face is doing, so ignore most stage directions and focus on the emotion. 
  • Make choices about the material you end up reading or presenting in the audition. If it’s a “cold” read (meaning: the actor hasn’t seen a script until they arrive at the audition space), and they don’t give you anything to go on, chances are that they want to see you interpret a text. Can you find the beats, or make some? If the scene is funny, can you hone in on why it’s funny, and can you mine the funny in your performance? As the audition progresses, the director might give you a different objective,  layer in a different subtext, or shift the tone or timing, etc. to see how you “take direction.” Ideally you will make different choices once you receive different input, and some of those choices will work while some will fail, and that’s okay. The stronger and clearer your choices, the more the director has to react to, and the more it will feel like a collaboration. The best auditions I have seen are the ones where the director and the actor discover that they keep making each other better the more they mess about. 
  • If you’re asked to choose your own audition piece, strongly reconsider using something from a role you’ve actually performed in the past. You may feel more confident about presenting something polished, but what made sense for that one show can fall incredibly flat in the audition room. When a director wants to see how well you respond to their ideas, now you’ve suddenly got to push through a bunch of long-calcified creative decisions that you drilled into your muscle memory in order to try something new.  [See Slings & Arrows, Season 2, everything to do with MacBeth for an excellent cautionary tale about this]. 
  • I know the whole casting process is nerve-wracking and full of rejection, but please know: The people in the audition room are most likely rooting for you to be great. They want you to solve their creative problems and to make the project come to life. They hate rejecting people, and love getting to make the “You’re cast!” call as much as you love receiving it. In the end, you might not get cast for all kinds of reasons that have nothing to do with your talent, but trust: These people invited you to audition for a reason, and they would not waste their time if they didn’t think you had something to offer.

I love actors. I miss actors. You are all the best. Break a leg out there. 

Dear Captain Awkward,

A few months ago I moved to another country to attend graduate school. To make the moving process easier, I chose to apply for university accommodation instead of looking for private accommodation. The building is basically a fancy dorm, but it’s clean, in a good location, and I like most of the people that are on my floor.

Here’s my problem. When I first moved here I got to know three of my immediate neighbors, “Anna,” “Beth,” and “John.” These three are in their early twenties while I am in my late twenties, because I waited several years after undergrad to attend graduate school. We had a group chat and while we weren’t each other only friends, we hung out together quite a bit. As I got to know everyone better I learned that John is a big partier, and also likes doing hard drugs. I didn’t have a problem with this, even though I don’t party (or even drink) cause I’ve been working in enough places for long enough to meet a lot of people who do that sort of thing.

During all this time, Beth has been going on lots of dates. A few weeks ago, John got very drunk, and started complaining that he couldn’t understand why Beth was getting so much action and he wasn’t, and straight up said that he didn’t think Beth was pretty enough to warrant all this attention. At this point he had definitely been drinking a lot, but wasn’t blacked out. I called him out and said that he just sounded jealous, and he blew me off. He left immediately after this to go party some more. Right after this I ran into Anna and told her what John had said, and she was rightly pissed at him.

In the middle of the night, after I went to sleep, I was woken up by John yelling in the hallway. Beth had brought her date home, and John was at this point blackout drunk. He was yelling, referencing sex acts that she and the guy should do, and flicked her in the face. I told him to shut up, she told him to go to bed, and I wish I had done more in the moment but my brain wasn’t working properly cause I was still half asleep.

The next morning, I told him what had happened (he allegedly has no memory), told him he needed to apologise to Beth, and he immediately apologised. The thing is I have no desire to hang out with him anymore, and neither do Beth or Anna. He has continued to drink and party like before, and since I’ve seen how that can affect his behavior, I don’t think I would want to even if he stopped drinking. His room is right next to mine, so I can’t really avoid him. I am polite when he talks to me, but I don’t make plans. At 27 I feel no desire to hang out with people who act like that. Part of me is wondering if I am making too much out of this since it wasn’t me he acted this way to. I can tell John misses us, and that does make me feel guilty. Should I be working more to forgive him, since Beth says she has?

Conflicted

Dear Conflicted,

Let us pause for a few words from Nandor The Relentless: 

I so appreciate the solidarity you, Anna, and Beth have demonstrated, and I love how you phrased the last sentence of the letter: “Should you be working more” to forgive John? 

Even if I agreed that you should do “more work” (to be clear, I don’t), I’m curious: What would “more work” even mean? Ignoring John’s sexual harassment of Beth? Ignoring the part where he “flicked her in the face” because he was angry at her for dating someone else? [Is anyone else extremely glad that Beth wasn’t by herself in the hallway that night?]  Are you all supposed to invite him to hang out and pretend that nothing like this will happen again, even knowing that he’s changed nothing about his drinking habits? Or, perhaps, something else that rhymes with “If John has to face predictable social consequences for his bad behavior, does that technically make me The Rude One?”  

This holiday season, may I offer you the gift of Forgiving Without Forgetting? You can accept an apology in a way that forgoes the need for further apologies, explanations, or redress.You can resolve to be civil and polite as long as the other person remains civil and polite, and negotiate a “I won’t bring it up if you don’t,” truce.You can forgive someone for the sake of your own peace of mind, because you just want it to be done and over with, as it sounds like Beth has. Most importantly, you can forgive someone without taking on their redemption as your project and without granting them infinite opportunities to disappoint, harm, and upset you. Also incredibly important: You can forgive someone a different amount than somebody else does. Beth was the chief target of John’s behavior, and it should probably be her call whether to escalate stuff like reporting him to the dorm management, but you don’t ever have to accept him back into the group even if she eventually does. 

You’ve only known John for a few months. Friendships form fast in close quarters, but they inevitably change as everybody learns who they are most compatible with, i.e. even if John hadn’t done something objectively awful, it would be completely fair for you to reevaluate how much you want to hang out now that you know him better. It’s always a little sad when a budding friendship doesn’t really take off like you expected, it’s also sad when someone acts like a complete shitbeast and makes it really hard for you to be friends with them. It’s possible for something to feel sad and still be the right decision. “We used to be friends but it didn’t work out.” 

Thing is, John knows exactly why he’s unwelcome now, and he has many choices about How Not To Ruin Future Friendships With Alcohol And Misogyny. I hope he makes good ones, starting with leaving all of you the hell alone, but that is not my concern. 

My project is making sure that you, Anna, and Beth know that your instinct to avoid someone who followed up his mean, sexist comments by cornering your friend after a date and putting his hands on her in a drunken rage is valid, reasonable, and good. The “He doesn’t really meeeeeeeeean it, he’s just insulting and assaulting you because he liiiiiiiiiikes you” message was trash when you were five, don’t let the grown-up versions (“How can it be his fault if he doesn’t even remember it?” “How will he learn if you don’t personally help him through…a bad thing…he did to you?” ) lure all of you into the flaming dumpster now. 

In conclusion, it is perfectly fine to wish John well, maintain perfunctory politeness for the sake of hallway harmony, lock your doors, and keep right on keeping your distance from #ThisFuckingGuy.

 

Hi Captain,

About 5 years ago I (she/her) helped a coworker Lauren (she/her, fake name) get out of an abusive situation. As I got to know Lauren, it became apparent she had no family support. As a traumatized teenager with 2 kids, she needed lots of help and I often gave her small amounts of money.

Years go by. She only reaches out when she needs cash. During COVID her requests escalated.  I’ve offered other forms of help (driving her places to apply for benefits; getting her kitchen set up so she doesn’t have to rely on takeout; etc) and Lauren refuses. I was poor for years and I know that there are practical ways to reduce expenses and that they are not always doable or the long term way out.

I recently had a baby, I’m frustrated with Lauren, and I want to stop or drastically scale back on giving her money. However, I know I’m the only person she can ask, and I don’t want to cut off that avenue completely. In the past when I’ve said no, I direct her to local sources of help.

I’ve saved for years. If I wanted to, I could set her up with a car, and apartment, and pay for a few semesters at community college. But then I’d be out of savings, and frankly, not sure it would help her long term.

I don’t think Lauren is lying to me about what she spends the money on and I know her need is genuine. But I’m just so irritated that she chooses a $20 Uber ride instead of a $3 bus ride and then can’t feed her kids. I feel like a condescending ass even typing that. Obviously the $17 isn’t going to magically make everything ok, but it will help her in the immediate short term.

I’ve never criticized her financial habits. I understand she basically has to live crisis to crisis, and it’s hard to think long term under those conditions.

So these are my questions: How do I compassionately tell her to only ask for help if she’s exhausted all other avenues, and to only expect $20 every 6 months? How do I deal with my guilty feelings about being able to do more and choosing not to? 

Hello,

I think any kind of “helping” relationship works best when the person doing the helping understands their own limits and the person asking for help can be sure of where they stand. On the helper side, the help you can offer may not be what the person needs, but if you try to meet their need at the expense of your own capacity (or, let’s be frank, enthusiasm), it’s a bad bargain. When you need help, it’s vulnerable to have to ask, and there’s so much fear and shame on both sides of the transaction (fear of asking for too much, fear of being drained dry or not having enough to meet the need, fear of too many strings attached, fear of being judged, fear of being refused and having to start the whole humiliating process again while the crisis deepens). Ambiguity, shame, and guilt all breed more fear, so anything that lends clarity to the situation is probably useful, even if what becomes clear is “No, this won’t work.”

So, if what you really want is for Lauren to stop coming to you for money, it’s time to be honest about that. “Lauren, I’m sorry, I can’t help out with cash like I used to.”  It doesn’t sound like you have a friendship (“She only reaches out when she needs cash”) and when you do give her money you feel resentful and judgmental of her choices. Your financial priorities have undoubtedly changed with the arrival of a new baby and the chaos of the last year. If Lauren knows the answer is “no,” she can make another plan to get what she needs, and she can stop placing further pressure on your relationship. However, I do not suggest that you create additional conditions or strictures around asking for money in the name of compassion. This lady has enough hoops to jump through already to access help, so either say yes wholeheartedly, or say no.

Like you, I live in this time of crowdfunding for basic necessities and mutual aid as the only aid that is ever coming to people in crisis, and it’s easy to get both overwhelmed and overextended. One thing I do, in addition to routinely supporting some fellow creators and making small contributions to a few local organizations every month, is have a little account that is separate from my main household, checking, and savings accounts. Every time I buy something with my regular accounts, the sum gets automatically rounded up to the next dollar and the change goes into that account. Every time I get paid from any source, a tiny percentage also goes into that account. From there, the account functions as “mad money,” where, I can treat myself to takeout, spring for that taxi instead of the two buses, or buy that ebook that just went on sale even though I already have so many books. It also functions as my “no questions asked” mutual aid fund, where, if somebody close to me asks for help, they can have whatever’s in the account, no questions asked. If the account is depleted when the ask comes in, then I don’t have it, so the answer is no.

We’re not talking princely sums here, mainly what’s useful for me is that I know I can afford to part with it without running additional calculations.. I don’t lend money as a rule, since if I can’t afford to give it away I definitely can’t afford to be without the money AND take on the additional mental & emotional friction of a debt. Starting when I went away to college, my Grandma Louise used to send me $5 or $10 in the mail, along with clippings from the Worcester Telegram & Gazette about the dangers of smoking or drug use or walking home alone at night, and strict orders to “treat myself to a little something.” The gift wasn’t just the money (or real-time documentation of 1990s moral panics), it was the explicit permission to use her gift to make myself happy. Grandma’s surprise gifts and this little account both remove friction. The question of “can I afford to help & how much?” is easily answered with a balance check, and the question of what it’s for is moot. Is it *really* an emergency? Is $20 or $40 just “a drop in the bucket?” Will the person make “good choices” with it? Don’t know, don’t care. Sometimes I have it and sometimes I don’t, and when I do, it’s a gift in every sense of the word: a) A gift to me, to be in a position to give for a change, and, b) Not mine anymore once I give it away.

Letter Writer, if you would truly be happy to give Lauren $20 every six months, what happens if you make that your plan? No to emergency requests, yes to tossing a $20 bill into a pretty card and mailing it to her now and then with some well-wishes, no strings attached. It’s easy to see how this relationship has calcified into only being about crises & helping over time, so maybe if you contact her when it’s not an emergency it will reset things a little bit. Or, put aside a few dollars in a “Lauren” fund every month without telling her. If she comes to you with an emergency, pay her out of that, and when it’s gone, it’s gone. If she doesn’t, at the end of the year, gift her whatever has accumulated, or roll it over until it’s enough for a down payment on a reliable car or somesuch. Lauren might be bouncing from crisis to crisis and unable to budget long-term, but you aren’t. Think of it as removing friction, where you can still help her to the extent you’re comfortable, in a way that’s sustainable and predictable for you.

It’s probably easier and less fraught than trying to set a lot of conditions around when Lauren is allowed to ask for help (only if it’s truly an emergency, only if she’s exhausted all other avenues, only if it will reflect well on her long-term planning skills). It’s a subtle distinction, and there’s no obligation if you’re truly really ready to be done, but transitioning “help” into a periodic gift that you give because you want to might make everything feel less fraught.

Hello everyone!

Last month’s indoor meetup went ahead successfully, so here we are again, back in the old venue.

Pandemic rules in England now allow us to meet up without restriction, although we still need to be sensible. So, here we go:

20th November, 1pm, Royal Festival Hall, Southbank Centre, SE1 8XX.

The venue has step free access and accessible toilets. The accessibility map is here.

We will be on Level 2 (the upper levels are closed to non-ticket-holders), but I don’t know exactly where on the floor. It will depend on where we can find a table. I will have my plush Chthulu which looks like this:

Please bring your masks/exemption lanyards, and obey any rules posted in the venue.

The food market outside (side opposite the river) is pretty good for all sorts of requirements, and you can also bring food from home, or there are lots of cafes on the riverfront.

No need to RSVP, but please let me know if you want me to keep an eye out for you!

Other things to bear in mind:

  1. Please make sure you follow social distancing rules. This particularly includes respecting people’s personal space and their choices about distancing.
  2. We have all had a terrible time for the last year. Sharing your struggles is okay and is part of what the group is for, but we need to be careful not to overwhelm each other or have the conversation be entirely negative. Where I usually draw the line here is that personal struggles are fine to talk about but political rants are discouraged, but I may have to move this line on the day when I see how things go. Don’t worry, I will tell you!
  3. Probably lots of us have forgotten how to be around people (most likely me as well), so here is permission to walk away if you need space. Also a reminder that we will all react differently, so be careful to give others space if they need.

I will cancel this meetup if government guidance changes, so keep an eye on this space.

kate DOT towner AT gmail DOT com

Hey Captain,

My (she/they, 20s) partner (he/him, 20s) was diagnosed with an inoperable, high grade brain cancer a few months ago and the doctors say he’s got about 2ish years left– the bad news is that this is the “good” news… because he’s young and healthy otherwise, they’re estimating 2 years instead of the typical prognosis for this type of cancer, which is 3-8 months (even with treatment).

This has obviously been fucking devastating. We’re doing our best to balance coping with the grief, remaining mildly hopeful for the outside chance that a “promising” clinical trial will turn out to be the cancer discovery of the century, and maintaining some sense of normal-ish day to day life in between his treatments.

Where I am really struggling is navigating social interactions – our close friends and family are aware of the situation and responses have been mixed. As our less close friends and family start to find out, I’m having a hard time knowing how to respond to inappropriate questions. I’m already so so, so tired of having people come at me with bullshit and platitudes, and I know it’s not going away.  Some of my favorites the most fucking annoying ones so far have included gems like:

 “Well my cousins’ brother’s aunt’s sister’s best friend’s roommate who got breast cancer at 27 and beat it, so I know [Partner] is going to be fine” (…. Please do not make me explain to you why not all cancers are the same and that I am going to lose my partner)

 “You know, God does his best work when the odds are against him” (Courtesy of my Catholic mother… My mother 100% aware that I have not been with the church for years.)

“Has he thought about trying Keto? You know all those carbs feed the cancer” (Bruh, do you really think they’d have giant ass radiation treatment centers if it was possible to just out-diet cancer?)

So yeah, this shit turns me into a pressure cooker rage instantaneously, and I know they are all well-meaning but I am so close to losing my shit and taking out my anger on someone who (mostly) doesn’t deserve it the next time it happens.

 Also, this problem is likely to be exacerbated by 2 more things:

1)     We (reverse) eloped last week

We had discussed marriage a few times in a broad sense and were planning to get engaged in another year or so, but we decided to get courthouse married a few days ago for logistical reasons relating to his treatment and, honestly, to give ourselves something to be excited about. We talked to both sets of our parents up front and they were surprisingly supportive, but now we’re essentially hiding it from everyone else (see reverse elopement). We really want to tell our extended group of friends/family that we got married and be openly excited about it! We want to post our elopement photos on social media! But we don’t want to get into a Whole Fucking Thing About His Brain Cancer when they inevitably reach out and want to catch up…

2)     We’re going to the wedding of one of his best friends in the fall

By the time the wedding rolls around my partner will be Bald Bald and using a round the clock wearable device called Optune to slow the cancer growth. He’ll be able to take the electrodes off for the wedding itself, but there’s no hiding the baldness, he really really doesn’t want to be The Cancer Guy at his friend’s wedding, and this will be the first time he sees a good number of his old college acquaintances in several years.

So I guess it really comes down to, would you happen to have any good scripts for telling people we got married without having it devolve into a conversation about Cancer, and fielding the well-intentioned-but-really-frustrating questions about his cancer and the unhelpful stories/suggestions that usually follow (especially at his friend’s wedding)?

 Thanks,

– C

Dear C,

Congratulations on marrying your favorite person, and condolences on the gut-punch of the cancer news. 

I’ll start with the easiest stuff: Send paper wedding announcements. You can use one of the many design apps and websites that exist to create one. You can keep the language simple. “Surprise! We got married.” The date. Both your names. A cute photo of the two of you. That’s all you need! Make it about the wedding, not the illness. (Tip: If you create them as postcards you don’t need envelopes and the stamps are cheaper.)

People like getting mail that isn’t bills or junk, and receiving news in the mail gives people time to react in their own way without having to school their faces or respond immediately. 

As for telling people about the cancer, this article from the American Cancer Society seems very useful to me. It frankly discusses the exhaustion of having to explain stuff over and over, the usefulness of finding a cancer support group to commiserate and share strategies, and recommends ways to share information and set boundaries.

In the short term, I suggest deputizing people you’re close to to handle spreading the news. Find someone within each wider social or family group and ask if they’ll tell people and be a buffer against nosy questions. “Aunt Friendly, can you do us a favor? We want the family to know about Spouse’s illness, but neither of us want to field a million ‘how are you’ texts and calls. Can you spread the word and give us some breathing room?” 

The same tactic will work for the wedding you’re attending. Your partner can deploy some combination of the couple getting married, the wedding party, and/or the most gregarious and connected members of that circle to spread the news and make it clear that you’d prefer not to talk about it on the big day. I predict that more than one person will be very, very happy to do this for you. When people want to help, telling them a concrete way that they can actually help is a gift, not a burden.

There’s no way to ensure that absolutely nobody will be weird about it in the moment, so I’d like to add some strategies you can adapt on the fly if you sense it might go that way:

a) Apply gentle peer pressure by thanking people in advance for doing the right thing. “Oh hey, tonight is all about [Married Couple], so thanks for letting me just relax and enjoy the party.” “Oh, you wouldn’t believe how many people become instant oncologists when they hear the news, I appreciate you keeping it light.”  In an effort to not come across as one of THOSE weirdos, people often rise to the occasion and stifle the impulse. Add in a quick subject change where you ask about them and you might skate over the awkward moment entirely. 

b) When someone won’t take the conversational lifeline you’re throwing them, interrupt before they have a chance to really get going and be blunt: Let me stop you there. I know you probably [mean to be reassuring][have a lot of questions], but I don’t really want [a pop quiz about my body][prayers][medical advice][reassuring anecdotes] .” “I know, it’s a lot to take in! I find it exhausting to talk about, so I’m just going to go back to enjoying the party.” 

With regard to medical/”medical” advice and second-guessing treatment plans, longtime reader Helen H. offered this useful script for your partner to use: “Since almost all of my choices have now been taken away, what I need from you is respect and support for whatever I do with the choices and time I have left.” 

 c) Don’t smooth it all over. Having a shitty diagnosis is not something you or your partner are inflicting on other people, nor are you responsible for all of their feelings & behaviors when they learn about it. However hard it may be for someone to hear this news, it can’t possibly be harder than it is for you to deliver it, not to mention experience it. If someone gets out of line, and you get visibly impatient, annoyed, aghast, etc., and they  get feedback that what they’re doing is upsetting you, so be it!. Feedback is useful, and life is literally too short to get sucked into defending your life choices to people who think they are owed deference for their helpful intentions in the absence of any helpful behavior. If someone is making you feel uncomfortable, it’s okay to skip directly to “You’ll have to excuse me” and move AWAY. Nobody has ever died because someone was slightly brusque to them at a wedding when they were being a busybody.

In my experience, so much of the Stuff Not To Say when someone is telling you something sad happens because in the moment, the person gets so distracted by their own fear that they temporarily stop being in conversation with You, An Actual Person while they carry on a side conversation with Their Worry. Responses like automatic advice giving, peremptory reassurance, interrogation about timelines and treatments, victim-blaming, repetition of platitudes and random half-remembered medical factoids, quizzing you about eating habits and underlying conditions, etc. are often attempts to reassert control over scary feelings. They want to reassure you, sorta, but they want to reassure themselves (that they’re smarter than whatever it is, that they’ll be safe if they follow all the Rules) more. One reason it hurts so bad is that they stop treating you like a person and start treating you like an object lesson, that is to say, an object. When you manage to get out the words, “The love of my life isn’t ever going to turn 30 and I don’t know what I’m going to do,” and you get back a bunch of boilerplate about prayer or carbs, it’s hard evidence that the other person has stopped listening to you, that maybe they stopped before you even finished your sentence. Here you are, reasonably afraid of a thing that is actually happening to you and that they only now just found out about, and you’re expected to wait around until they’re done negotiating with their own worst instincts. 

Once I recognized this pattern (and how truly ubiquitous it is), it didn’t ever hurt less, but it did help me choose my battles better. Some people can be redirected back to the heart of the matter (“Hey, who are you even talking to right now? Did you hear what I just said?” “Can you just be my mom right now, and tell me you’re sorry, and that you love me?” “I know you want this to Not Be True, do you really think you’re alone in that? But it is true, so if you want to help, what I actually need is ____________.” )

Some people can’t be pulled out of their loops. And sometimes I can’t – I don’t have the energy, or the will, or the investment in the relationship to make it worth the risk. In those moments, realizing, wait, I don’t have to fix this or argue until they understand, this isn’t happening because I broke the news wrong, I can just say “mmhmmm interesting I’ll think about it” and save my breath, because this is probably as good as it gets with this person, has saved me so much time. It sounds like time is extremely precious, just now, and the less you spend around people who routinely exhaust and drain you, the more you’ll have for each other.

May your marriage bring you sweetness and joy. ❤ 

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