I’ll admit, this isn’t a question related to romantic relationships, but rather to familial relationships, although I do believe that the advice I’ll receive could be generalized to friendships and other relationships:
I’ve finished university, I’ve started a job hunt, I’m moving into a place that I’ve found, and I’m ready to get out into the world and be An Adult (TM). Unfortunately, one of my parents does not appear to be ready for that. Parents, they worry, right? And they wonder what their kids are up to, right? Well, I think there is an extent to which a parent can worry before it becomes excessive AND MY MOTHER HAS CROSSED THAT THRESHOLD SEVERAL TIMES OVER.
I’ve lived away from home for the entire decade I spent in university, yet I get “Catch a taxi or a bus home, don’t walk; let me know when you get home.” texts even though I know the city well enough to know when and where I can walk alone safely. Heck, I’m expected to text “Good night” every single night.
I receive texts multiple times per day, every day. Each answered text often leads to a flood of buzzing as I end up in a text version of “Twenty Questions”. And heaven forbid if I choose to ignore a text. “Hello?” “HELLO?” “HELLOOOOOOO”. Then come the phone calls. And more texts until I answer. Heck, today I decided to stop responding to a line of questioning to take a dump and grab a shower. Twenty minutes – five phone calls (three to my cell, two to the landline) and multiple texts.
Nothing is off limits. How was my day? What am I doing? Where am I? Am I at home? How was such-and-such-thing I mentioned doing? Have I done this or that thing that I’m supposed to do? And, in the case of the latter, CONSTANT AND REPETITIVE REMINDERS TO DO THESE THINGS. Deep down, I’m convinced that she genuinely does not believe me to be capable of doing ANYTHING without these reminders and without hand-holding through the entire process.
And the automatic justification “It’s a mother thing.” that brushes off any and all inappropriate behaviour. And there’s no reasoning with her. In one ear and out the other. “Mothers, they worry” just wipes away the dependency and anxiety issues that literally everyone I know comments about when I tell them anything that she does.
Anyways, now that I’m moving to a new place and entering a new phase in my life, I believe it’s essential that I create and enforce A LOT OF BOUNDARIES. So I’m looking for some advice as to how to do so effectively. I don’t want to cut her out of my life entirely, but I would like for her to not be a constant, nagging presence. “Do you miss me?” “No, I can’t miss you. You won’t leave me alone!”
– My Beloved Smother
One of the hardest parts of enforcing your boundaries is dealing with the people who think that they’re the exception to the rule. There will always be people who are offended that not only do you have boundaries, but that those boundaries apply to them. They’ll be the ones who will argue with you about why you shouldn’t object to pushing the line and making inappropriate demands on you. Why are you being such a jerk, don’t be such a killjoy, it’s only a joke, people are having fun, I’m your mother, I’m allowed to do this.
What makes it tricky is how often we all give in to the (admittedly understandable) temptation to explain or argue with them about why the thing they did isn’t cool or why you’re not being a jerk for telling them no. Problem is that once you start arguing with them about why you’re saying no and why it’s not cool of them to push, then you’ve been put on the defensive. By arguing with them, you’ve tacitly accepted their terms – that you now need to justify your right to have those boundaries in the first place. The moment you start to justify or explain why, then you’ve entered into the first stages of negotiation. Now they’re going to pound the “come on, be reasonable” argument at you and the “It’s not that bad” argument and the “but we’re family” exception until you feel like the jerk for saying “no” in the first place.
The key then, is simple: you don’t explain and you don’t rationalize. You don’t need to justify your boundaries’ existence. You don’t need to explain why you think their behavior is inappropriate or unwelcome. You don’t need to give a sufficient reason why they can’t call you at all hours or make demands that you take on responsibilities that aren’t yours in the first place. All they need to know is that you have said “no”.
The hard part is saying “no” and making it stick. This can be especially hard when you’re dealing with parents, who can throw parental concern at you. Can’t you see how you’re making your poor mother suffer like this? How can you be so inconsiderate?
Now the answer is “very easily”, because they’re being inconsiderate of you. But in practice it’s difficult. We’re all taught not to be rude, to be considerate and that saying “no” so bluntly is rude. But it’s what you need to do.
Since she’s not going to respect your boundaries, you have to be the one to make it clear that her behavior isn’t welcome and that it’s not going to work. That means that you have to tell her that she can’t text you at all hours or insist that you call as soon as you get home. And after you do, then you don’t respond to her constant calls and texts. She gets one response: “I told you I’m busy and I’ll talk to you later”. After that, she doesn’t get any responses from you. That means you ignore those calls and texts until you decide it’s time to call back. If that means muting your phone, assigning a silent ringtone to their contact or hiding alerts from them, then so be it. You made it clear where you stood and how this would work. If she doesn’t want to respect that, then she can deal with the frustration of not hearing from you.
Of course, when you do call her back – on your schedule – she’s going to get in your face. She’s going to make a fuss about how could you be so rude and inconsiderate. You can’t let yourself get drawn into a discussion about why it’s bad for you to ignore your mother or make her worry. The only thing you can say is “I’m sorry you worry, but I told you I’m not responding to texts or calls until X time.” “I’m sorry you feel that way but I told you how this was going to work.” Regardless of how she argues, regardless of what she throws at you, the only thing you should do is reaffirm that boundary in the first place. Not “here’s why”, not “here’s a compromise” but “I told you X, so it’s going to be X and I’m sorry if you don’t like that.” As angry as she may get, as much guilt as she may throw at you, stay strong and just be a broken record. Eventually she will get the hint. And if she doesn’t, then she can be the one who gets frustrated by your refusal to budge.
You need to draw the lines very, very clearly for your mother and stick to them. The first time you give in on the rules you set and the boundaries you establish, people will understand that your boundaries are optional, not mandatory. So you have to remain firm, no matter how difficult it may be or how guilty you feel about it. “No” is a complete sentence, but sometimes it’s the hardest one to say.
Hey Dr. NerdLove,
I have this guy friend that I’ve been hooking up with on-and-off for years. Basically I kind of used him as an ego boost when I was way less mentally healthy or getting rejected by someone. Not great behavior on my end, I know, but I was dumber and had such low self-esteem that anyone finding me attractive was a miracle.
Anyway, I’m in a much healthier place mentally and have a great new boyfriend who I do actually like a lot. This former FWB knows it (he Facebook liked it anyway).
For the next part to make sense, I’m bisexual. Anyway, today I was out and a girl who set off my gaydar complimented my dress. I posted about it on Twitter and former FWB said “make out with her to show your thanks”. First of all, I hate my bisexuality being fetishised. Secondly, I know he’s joking, but it also demonstrates that he’d be into me making out with a random lesbian because he’d find it hot. And this isn’t the first time he’s made me uncomfortable. He’s just been overly touchy when I’m not interested anymore.
And I know he hits on basically any girl around. One of our mutual friends (who I’m closer to than this dude) gets hit on by him and she’s married. I feel like if I ever brought my new boyfriend around this group he’d either hit on me or be an asshole to him (I’ve seen him be really cold to another guy I dated).
Honestly, I would just stop talking to this guy except for our mutual friends. I do have several friends that are also his friends, and I really only get to see them when we’re in a group, in which he’s always there. I don’t know how to tell this dude he kind of creeps me out. Any advice?
– Awkward Ex Attack
Honestly, the best thing you can do is just be blunt and say “dude, you’re acting like a creep.” One of the reasons why the creeper friends and Missing Stairs tend to linger in social circles is because nobody ever calls them out on their bullshit. People get caught up in the Geek Social Fallacies that say we’re supposed to accept people exactly as they are and that ostracizing people for being weird or awkward is inherently bad. There’s an understandable desire to avoid “drama”, even if we tend to blame people who point out the drama instead of the ones causing it. But the fact is, unless someone steps up and says “Hey, not cool”, this guy’s going to keep going to be being an annoying sex-pest. Some folks are habitual line-steppers and they’re never going to change until someone smacks them across the nose and says “NO! BAD!”
And if nobody else is going to do it, then it may as well be you.
So the next time he starts acting like a jackass, call him on it. Let your face get serious and say “That’s not cool, knock that off.” “That’s not funny, knock it off.” “She doesn’t appreciate your hitting on her, cut it out.” “You’re making people uncomfortable, stop it.” As with My Beloved Smother, you don’t need to explain or indulge his defenses. He’ll tell you it’s just a joke. You say “it’s not funny and nobody likes it, stop doing that.” He’ll ask you why you’re being a bitch. You say “Nobody appreciates that, knock it off.” What’s wrong, you used to be cool. “You’re acting like a creep, cut it out.” She didn’t tell me to stop. “I’m telling you it’s inappropriate, so stop.”
There’s going to be that awkward moment at first when you’re taking a stand where nobody else has before. You’re going to feel like you’re out there on your own. That’s a risk. But I’m more than willing to bet that others in your social circle – especially the other women – will appreciate someone speaking up. I’m willing to bet that once someone has broken the silence, the dam will burst and other folks will feel empowered to say something too.
It may also be worth reaching out to your other friends to talk about your ex FWB before the next time you all get together. A lot of times, people will assume that nobody really has a problem with the Creepy Friend because nobody has said anything up until now. Your bringing your discomfort to the group’s attention may well be the first step to finally doing something about that particular Missing Stair.