Family Friend That is Too Friendly

A CUTIE PIE EXTRAORDINARE:

I am super close to my best friend's family, and I see them at least 1-2x per week. Recently her brother-in-law's mother moved nearby and oftentimes comes over to their house for dinner when I do.

Unfortunately, the woman is pretty unpleasant -- she asks invasive/awkward questions, is super loud, is always going on and on about "toxins" in food/skincare, etc. But all of that I can put up with since I only see her every once in a while, relatively speaking.

What I CANNOT deal with is how she has absolutely no respect for anyone's personal space/boundaries. Like she'll come over to say hi and rub your shoulder for 5+ seconds, sit RIGHT next to you on the couch even if there's plenty of space to leave room for the holy spirit, or start giving you a neck massage in the middle of a conversation.

I have a history of CSA (childhood sexual abuse) and as a result absolutely hate being touched. I can put up with a brief hug from relatives I haven't seen in a while, but this is just on another level. I now wait until she sits down at the dinner table so I can pick a seat that isn't next to her, and once or twice I've even turned down their invitation to come over if I know she's gonna be there too. I love my friend's nieces and nephews (I've known them all since they were a day old and basically feel like I'm their aunt too) so it would kill me to do that every time.

Is there anything I can say to her to get her to keep her hands to herself? If possible, I would rather not just ask my friend's brother-in-law (her son) to talk to her. We're friends and I know he would feel awful if he knew how this affected me, but also he had a really screwed up family life as a kid and I don't want to make an already rocky relationship worse. Plus I'm super non-confrontational and that's something I'm trying to work on.

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SOPHIA:

Good morning!!! This problem has a lot of solutions that aren’t too terrible. A few of the solutions I’m going to suggest might be a little uncomfortable. Some may be too uncomfortable. Pick what works best for you and ignore the rest!

First things first: with or without a history of sexual assault, not wanting someone to touch you is a very appropriate, normal, common boundary. Not that it matters whether it’s common or not, I’m just reminding you that this isn’t going to seem totally wacky or odd. If anyone in the family tries to make you feel like this is an unreasonable request, they are WRONG. (I don’t think they will!!!)

When she comes up to give hugs / touch you, you can say, “Sorry, but I’m not really a hugger. Thanks.” Or “Oh, I’m good, but thank you!” It’s not weird at all to do any of that. Alternatively, if you want to be a bit more direct, which has a greater likelihood of working, one time— just one time— you can work up 20 seconds of bananas courage and say (pasted on smile optional), “Hey, I probably should have said something sooner, but I’m not really a touchy person. I know that’s kind of different than this family. Thanks for respecting it.”

Here is what I would do, and it might be wrong, but it’s what I think is the “softest” confrontation that will actually end this:

Mention something (it can be very casual) to your friend. Your friend would want to know what’s going on, and no matter what you do, it may be helpful to have your friend in on what’s going on. There is no way your friend would rather you feel uncomfortable or have you skip events rather than see this woman.

Here’s what I would say to my friend, “Hey so, Mother-in-Law is super touchy feely and it makes me uncomfortable. Would you mind just super politely asking her to not touch me? I don’t want it to be a big thing and I’d prefer this stay between us. I really don’t want to have to talk to her about it or hash anything out or get an apology or make drama. I just don’t know how to say it to her and I was wondering if you’d mind letting her know it makes me uncomfortable.” Your friend—I’m sure—will gladly handle the situation with grace and discretion.

No matter what choice you make you have an incredible amount of power to do one thing— power that she cannot take away from you!!!!!— set the tone. Because you are the one with the boundary, you can decide how to present it. Which sucks because no one likes setting boundaries, but also comes with a perk: you can decide how big of a deal this seems like to everyone else.

If you wanted to blow this shit up, you could blow this shit up. You very clearly do not want that, but the good news is that you have the ability to pick how it goes to a large extent. The way to do this is to (CONSISTENTLY!!!) treat this like a reasonable, casual request—mostly because IT TOTALL IS ONE—but also because that makes her following along with the request very low stakes for her and for everyone. It makes it seem like she wasn’t doing something awful before, which means she (hopefully) isn’t going to be quick to defend or center herself in the situation. She gets an easy out and you deliver the news the same way you might if you were telling someone you’ve been a vegetarian the whole time they’ve been making chicken noodle soup for you. Yes, chicken noodle soup is a nice gesture, but it’s not for you. No big deal. Thanks for the gesture, but I’m vegetarian.

Please do not give this person any more say in what your boundaries are!!!! You’re reasonable, you’re kind, and in no way should her actions get to keep you from seeing your friend or your quasi-nieces and nephews! If she tries to make a big deal out of any part of your request, refuse to rise to that and do not feel the need to offer any information you don’t want to offer. There is no “why” needed. There is no explanation needed. “I don’t like being touched,” is a full ass sentence.

If you are over and she’s there, take breaks, don’t be afraid to go get a glass of water away from her. Go to the bathroom and breathe for a bit. Pretend to get a phone call. You do not need to allow her to make you feel uncomfortable just so that she can feel more comfortable. Your comfort is not any less important than hers!

This is another good reason to get your friend involved. Your friend can distract you, make excuses for you, or rescue you from situations you don’t want to be in with this woman. That is what friends are for! Please let your friend help.

One last note: You do not need to be a teaching moment for anyone, ever; you’re allowed to simply have boundaries and stick with them, however, you may find it useful to frame it to yourself like this, “I would want Niece or Nephew to feel they could say no to an adult touching them; I’m going to do X.” I don’t mean that you need to talk to them about it, or confront anyone in front of them and do a big morality play. I simply mean that it might be helpful to you to view it in the light you would if it were happening to them. It’s often a little easier to be protective of others than it is to be protective of our selves.

You’ve got this!!!!! It will go great!! The new boundary will make you feel a whole lot better; protect yourself. Take care of yourself. Ask for help!!!

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❤️❤️❤️NOTE: because so many sweetie pies have been asking questions, it can take up to a month or two to answer them. I’M SORRY. I try to answer “urgent” / timely letters ASAP and more general questions later. 

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Sophia Benoit writes this very newsletter; she also writes about sex & relationships for GQ, tweets about everything else at @1followernodad, is a researcher for Lights Out With David Spade, and has had bylines in The Guardian, Reductress, Refinery29, Allure, and The Cut. You can reach her or yell at her at 1followernodad@substack.com.