I'm sorry I don't feel pain the way you think I should, but...
December 22, 2012 3:04 AM   Subscribe

A couple of weeks ago, I moved out of my marital home (details in my posting history). Whilst I seem to be doing okay, most people expect me to not be. In fact, they seem to expect a fragility and sadness from me that I'm not feeling even remotely. This has lead to some judgements from people that I could have done without. How can I navigate the sympathy of folks during the holiday season without having to pretend to be an emotional mess (which I'm not) and without suffering judgement from people who don't know the whole story (Which I can happily live without).

Since I left I've experienced a range of emotions, but they seem to have settled down since I moved in to my own apartment. I've had help from friends with basic decorations and putting-together of flat-packed furniture, and right now I'm quite content in my new home.

But people seem to think that I shouldn't be. They seem to expect me to be a blubbering wreck, incapable of celebrating Christmas without my wife. Some of them who know us both have pointed out that my wife is very lonely and finds all the accoutrements of Christmas miserable-making, whereas I have gone out and bought myself a tree and had great fun decorating it with friends.

The most judgemental comment I've had so far is that I'm not showing any respect to my marriage by having a good time. I should, it seems, be as miserable and low as I can be, and anything else means that I'm not a good enough estranged husband (or something).

These comments are coming from people that I can't really avoid contact with, as they're either family or close family friends. I'm going to be spending the next couple of weeks away from my hometown exactly so I can avoid things, but whilst I'm here people seem keen to drop their opinions on me without asking.

So, Mefites, how can I either avoid being judged or at least gently discourage them from sharing their judgements with me when I don't want them?
posted by six sided sock to Human Relations (27 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Ignore whenever possible. Otherwise, say something like 'I appreciate your concern, but I'm not ready to talk about that. How's your XYZ been going lately?'

Your friends and relatives have to reconcile themselves to this unexpected situation, and in the process they'll inevitably make some wrong guesses and assumptions, and have their own subjective reactions. Try and forgive them their missteps.
posted by jon1270 at 3:47 AM on December 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

"Actually, I'm doing pretty well myself, thank you. Personally, I find your attitude out of line and I'm not actually all that interested in your judgements about how I should be doing. Now that you've taken your nose and un-butted it from business that is none of your concern... egg nog?"
posted by Pirate-Bartender-Zombie-Monkey at 3:58 AM on December 22, 2012 [9 favorites]

Are these people who have been through the same or a similar thing themselves? They might be applying their own lens to the reading of the situation. If that's the case, then their attitudes are understandable, if still completely inappropriate.

You can't stop people judging you. What you can do is not accept the "gift" of their judgement. They can't make you feel like a bad person, much as they're apparently trying to. When you find yourself caring about these random opinions, remind yourself that these people A] weren't actually in the marriage and therefore B] don't know what it was actually like. They're not talking about your actual marriage. They can't be, because they're talking about something they know nothing or very little about. They're talking about an idea that they've built up in their own minds, rather than something based on fact. This isn't about you and your marriage, it's about something else entirely. That might help you gain a little bit of distance.

I've had some success with being rather more cold than Miss Manners would suggest when dealing with people who pry into my affairs. Asking questions like "how is that any of your business?" and staring people down is something of a nuclear option, but it's very effective. It gets the point across that you're not willing to talk about it, and also gives the other person the opportunity to justify their rudeness, which you can then riff on. Another thing I've had work well is pausing for a few seconds after someone said something rude, while making eye contact, and then changing the subject. In my experience, there's nothing like making people who are on their high horse feel a little bit ashamed about their rudeness for getting them to stop that behaviour. Return their shaming behaviour with some of your own.

Going nuclear is a rather extreme response to someone when they mean well, but it sounds like these people are being unpleasant, rather than trying to be sympathetic.

It sounds like you left an unhappy relationship, and are now feeling good about that. To me, that sounds like a very healthy response. For what it's worth, kudos.
posted by Solomon at 4:07 AM on December 22, 2012 [19 favorites]

I had some problems of this type. I was actually totally fine, except when people insisted on bringing up the topic. I just asked them nicely not to do that ("really, I'm fine, but I find that talking about it makes things worse; I'd just really, really prefer to work it out in my own way, and not discuss it all the time. But I'll let you know if I need an ear." ... and on to next topic.). Then I avoided the ones who wouldn't stop doing that. I also went nuclear as per Solomon's description with those I had already asked not to bring it up who would corner me and press me. Luckily, my family was never part of Team Inquisition.

Some people truly want to help (and that's nice; they'll back off once they know), some are busybodies, some love soap operas, some have their own agenda. None of them are entitled to misery porn from you. They'll get used to it.
posted by taz at 4:18 AM on December 22, 2012 [8 favorites]

My favourite response to use when I want people to back off already is "Thank you for your input." It's simple & elegant, and it makes it very clear that the person you're addressing is being unbelievably rude. To mitigate it, you can also follow up with a casual change of topic.
posted by littlegreen at 4:29 AM on December 22, 2012 [11 favorites]

I will look them in the eyes, hesitate for a little longer than most people find comfortable, and then I say, "Say that again. * most folks hear themselves and realize what they said was not appropriate and awkwardly try to change the subject. If they don't and actually repeat it, I go on the offensive by asking them either what they know about it or what makes them an expert on my life.

Telling someone else how they should feel about something private is a person who is either an insensitive clod or a frigging moron.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 5:01 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ha! "misery porn", it's true...

In my own experiences going through emotionally charged hurdles, I often find that people try to superimpose their perception of what a logical reaction would be based on their own life experience (and I swear, what they watched in a movie somewhere). I also experience it as a creepy attempt to impose a sense of order without regard for anyone's well-being, since it completely bypasses the individual's experience in order to uphold some imaginary model of what the human response "should be" in a rather brainwashy way, but I digress... In other words, their comments have far more to do with what's going on in their heads than what they truly understand about your situation.

So maybe that's key -- don't take it personally? "Thanks for the input" + change the subject... since discussing the subject sounds like it will lead into justifying why your life experience doesn't reflect some Hollywood fiction about the "real world". Congrats on getting out of an unhappy situation, and please go on living by your own limitations instead of those that others would blindly have you live by for their own irrational, emotional convenience.
posted by human ecologist at 5:29 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ignore. Except that - if you are already dating (especially the woman with whom you had the almost-affair) then it would be kinder and more respectful to keep that under wraps for a while. Not strictly required, but kinder.
posted by yarly at 6:12 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Ignore it if possible, but if someone says you seem to be enjoying yourself too much at holiday celebrations (or whatever you're doing at the time), you can pretty easily shut them down by saying "I'm trying to focus on the present." If they persist, "I'd rather not talk about my marriage right now." Stick to it and don't let them drag you into a guiltfest about how you should or should not be feeling, because frankly it is absolutely none of their business.
posted by asciident at 6:17 AM on December 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

Wow, I'm really sorry they are doing that to you. What if you were heartbroken and just putting up a good front, which happens?

We had a family member who would go after you with questions and comments and judgment if he heard you were going through anything he perceived as negative. Divorce, job loss: you knew he was going to put you through it. People dealt with him by saying things like, "Onward and upward!" or "Life goes on!" in a loud enough voice to drown him out, and walking away. Once I asked him, "What do you want me to tell you? What is it that it will make you happy to hear?" That shut him up too.
posted by BibiRose at 6:20 AM on December 22, 2012 [5 favorites]

Some of them who know us both have pointed out that my wife is very lonely and finds all the accoutrements of Christmas miserable-making, whereas I have gone out and bought myself a tree and had great fun decorating it with friends.

Are these maybe your wife's friends? Yea, I know, these people were friends with both of you during the marriage, but now they may be her friends, rather than yours. That, or they could be those hand-wringing wailers, the people that just love a good tragedy. Either way, once you find that someone is like this, just give a "thanks for your concern", and take a mental note that this isn't a very supportive person. Adjust social interactions with them in the future accordingly.
posted by kellyblah at 6:21 AM on December 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

I agree with much of the above, and based on my own experience, I think people do often have a template in their heads for how this is supposed to go.

Also, there seems to be some kind of in-the-background lobbying on behalf of your wife here? I think this all needs boundaries from you. Something like:

Them: How are things?
You: Non-commital 'Oh it's going okay.'
Them: No really how are things?
You: It's a difficult time for me, and I'd rather not talk about it.
Them: Your spouse is having a hard time.
You: It's hard for all of us. Thanks for your input.

You should spend more time with your friends who helped dec the tree, they sound like more fun!
posted by carter at 6:22 AM on December 22, 2012 [4 favorites]

"I'm sorry you feel like that" is brief, polite, honest and should get the message across fairly clearly.
posted by unSane at 7:04 AM on December 22, 2012

You can't avoid being judged, you can only avoid giving a shit.

It really is ok to just look surprised when people say hurtful things and say "I'm doing the best I can." You don't need to justify what you're doing and you don't want to be seeking support from people who aren't interested in offering it. As long as you are mindful of other people (not going to your ex's place caroling, for example), just do what's best for you.
posted by headnsouth at 7:13 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of great advice here. It sounds like there are a lot of busybodies around you, trying to project their own feelings and scripts onto you. All you can do is let it roll off you, and a response like "Thanks, I'm doing the best I can, trying to focus on enjoying what I have now and think about the future rather than dwelling on the past" works well. It is also a kind way of dealing with people who might really mean well, but just can't imagine how you are not miserable and/or worry that you are in denial and could break down at any time. Most of those will back off at this point.

There probably will be a few who don't, the ones who really want you to feel bad, either because of a fascination with "misery porn" (great expression) or because they are identifying with your wife and think you should suffer. In those cases, I agree with the nuclear option above: a long pause, followed by a long stare, and if necessary a "How exactly is this your business/what makes you an expert on my life and my feelings? -type question.
posted by rpfields at 7:24 AM on December 22, 2012

So people think you are a jerk? In that situation I would go out of my way not to act like a jerk when they try to talk to me.
posted by Idcoytco at 8:32 AM on December 22, 2012

"I've been unhappy for far too long, and now I'm excited to get my life back on track. I'm moving forward in a positive manner." Surely this will stop any criticism from people who care about you. But keep in mind that people grieve in very different ways, and these folks are mourning the end of your marriage also. So maybe a little sympathy is due all around.
posted by raisingsand at 8:46 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Well, you can neither stop them from judging you nor from sharing their opinions with you, unless you just stop talking to people. The best you can do, as stated above, is to reject the gift of their judgment. Which, to a degree, it seems you are already doing as I didn't get any sense from your question that you agreed with them, doubted yourself, or were really bothered by the comments -- more that you don't particularly appreciate them. That's okay, and a few "Thanks for you input/I'd rather not discuss this with you/this is none-ya-biz" won't hurt, but probably won't help either.
posted by sm1tten at 9:10 AM on December 22, 2012

I'm assuming, going by your posts, that you don't have kids with your wife. A breakup of a childless marriage leaves you with exactly zero obligations to your ex (unless you've been married for 50 years), beyond being a decent and classy person. You are not responsible for her unhappiness, no matter what people try to guilt you into feeling.

Put up firm boundaries and nip any "boo hoo, your poor ex" conversations right in the bud, and change the subject (to how you're moving on, to your favorite sports team, to how delicious holiday cookies taste, whatever).
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:12 AM on December 22, 2012 [2 favorites]

Listen to or watch the beginning of Louis CK's "Hilarious." He mentions his divorce, and the audience goes "awwww," and then he makes fun if them for a while. You won't be able to use his lines (if you could tell your friends to "cut the shit" I doubt you'd be asking this question) but it may help you understand how knee-jerk this instinct is - he clearly had material prepared, which means he knew they were going to make that noise - and to find some humor in the situation.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:13 AM on December 22, 2012

Thanks for your concern.
I'm really not comfortable discussing it.
repeat as needed.
posted by theora55 at 10:59 AM on December 22, 2012

The most judgemental comment I've had so far is that I'm not showing any respect to my marriage by having a good time.

Just tell them you are in your"honeymoon" period and you will be sure and call them when you decide to feel miserable.

(Thing is, you ARE in a honeymoon period and you may have mixed emotions later and that's okay. But NOW all you want to do is shut people up.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 12:34 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

sometimes (often) when people break up, the surrounding friends root for who they consider the underdog. they don't know the real story, they don't know how long you might have hurt before you made the choice to leave - hell, sometimes they know all that and still root for who they consider the underdog (even if they had advised you to break up in previous conversations). there is no winning with this type of person. you're better without them.

don't get caught up on who was a better friend to you during the marriage, don't spend time obsessing over "that friend didn't even like the ex!" - people who are only concerned about the one who puts on the show of being the most damaged aren't good friends, they were just good at acting like it before the chips were down.
posted by nadawi at 12:36 PM on December 22, 2012

"Maybe it just hasn't hit me yet" can be a good deflector when people (boorishly) accuse you of doing major life transitions "wrong".
posted by Sidhedevil at 2:28 PM on December 22, 2012

When you say "family", are these people your blood relations or your wife's?

If yours, you may want to share with them some of the dynamics of your marriage as conveyed in your question history. You are escaping an emotionally abusive marriage and, though you're feeling good now, you have a long road in front of you, and may really appreciate support in the long run.

If these are your wife's family, I'd encourage some of the bland, avoidant answers that others have suggested above. Blood is thicker than water, and you don't want to draw your wife's family in and invite drama.

Really glad to hear that you made the break, by the way. Enjoy the holiday and your freedom.
posted by Sublimity at 2:55 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Judgy people be judgy.

Side eye, eyebrow raise, stare with your mouth slightly open as if you cannot fathom their comments, change the subject, pretend you haven't heard them and get them to repeat it.
posted by heyjude at 5:28 PM on December 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I have a (similar and not at all similar) problem with judging neighbors who really do, in many cases, mean well. (My domestic life is not quite up to their standards.)

If you don't want to go quite as nuclear as above (probably you know how to do that), one alternative is "hey, what can you do? Gotta keep going. One foot in front of the other," etc.
posted by skbw at 8:49 PM on December 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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