my needy boss wants me to “adopt” her

Since it’s a holiday, here’s an older post from the archives. This was originally published in 2020.

A reader writes:

My manager, Wanda, is a director about five years younger than I am (I’m 63, also a woman). She has been with our employer for over 20 years, is extremely good at what she does, is fiercely loyal to her staff, and possesses a wealth of knowledge and insight about our specific work unit and about government in general.

She is also emotionally juvenile, totally self-focused, extremely needy, has never had any kind of a romantic relationship in her life, and her COMPLETELY PERFECT parents gave her a COMPLETELY PERFECT childhood that left her unable to trust any man outside her own family. I am no expert, but I’d wager that a good psychiatrist could probably get at least two or three dissertations’ worth of material out of her. Not that she’d ever consult one, since she is COMPLETELY PERFECT.

At the time I was hired, Wanda was going through some rough times. She had spent her entire adult life living at home caring for her elderly parents, who were both in fragile health and nearing the ends of their lives, so she was under tremendous stress.

I had lost my parents some years previously, and I tend to be the empathetic and nurturing sort. I also did not realize at that point just how messed up Wanda was emotionally. I made the huge mistake of trying to be supportive as she dealt with caring for her parents during their final illnesses. I encouraged her to chat about books and theater, invited her to join my spouse (he/him) and me for a couple of concerts, and even invited her to a family Christmas meal the year her second parent died.

Understand, she does have family nearby. She has one brother who she barely tolerates and a sister who she adores. The sister and her husband were out of town that year for Christmas and she didn’t want to go to her brother’s celebration, so she hinted and hinted until I finally broke down. It made for a fairly awkward gathering, as our family is quite ribald and rowdy while she is considerably more circumspect, and she made no secret of the fact that our typical holiday was not what she was accustomed to – but she continued to hint for more invitations afterward anyway.

I have worked very hard since then to ignore the hints, which, several years later, are still being dropped on a near-constant basis. I have extended no more invitations to family celebrations and have worked with other family members to shift hosting duties elsewhere (because if I am not hosting, then I’m not in charge of the guest list). I have limited outside-the-office contact to a once-a-year concert and a couple of dinners. My spouse thinks even that is too much, and I don’t disagree. However, given that Wanda is my boss, I also don’t know quite how to completely exclude her without repercussions.

A few weeks ago, she came to my cubicle in a flood of tears with the news that her adored sister is “selfishly” moving across the country to live closer to her children. She sobbed that she is being abandoned and that I need to “adopt” her because she won’t have any family that she likes in the area any more. She expects to be included in family gatherings, all concert and theater plans, and also made it clear that she’d like to go with us on vacations.

The absolute last thing in the world that I want to do is to “adopt” my needy, clingy boss and include her in every single non-work activity I engage in. It would end my marriage.

I can’t afford to take early retirement, and at my age, I’d never land another job in my profession at my current income. Going to HR is out of the question because there is no such thing in my workplace as confidential reporting. Firing people is nearly impossible due to the civil service system, so I am not concerned about that, but in her position as my boss, she could very easily make my work life intolerable. She has done so to others in our section who angered her (such as by going to HR with a complaint).

Do you have any suggestions for how I can establish appropriate boundaries at this stage of the game? Or am I just stuck providing emotional support to this woman until one or the other of us either retires or dies?

Oh my goodness, no.

Wanda’s situation sounds very sad, but she is violating all sorts of boundaries as your boss, and you’re right to want to reestablish more professional ones.

Often when someone is asking for something this over-the-top, the easiest way to respond is to act as if of course they weren’t serious: “Ha ha, you’re funny! Imagine if I really did adopt you and start taking you on our vacations— Bob (husband’s name) would not be pleased!”

Sometimes reacting as if of course this is a funny joke jogs the other person into realizing what they said was ridiculous, and it allows them to back off while still saving face.

It doesn’t always work, but it works often enough — and saves you both from enough awkwardness when it does — that it’s worth trying first. If that doesn’t get the point across and Wanda continues to indicate she wants to be included in everything you do, you’ll need to move on to addressing it more seriously. To do that, I’d first express empathy for her situation, then clearly state you’re not able to help in the way she’s requesting, while wrapping it all in a warm, friendly tone (since she’s your boss and you’re worried about staying on good terms with her). For example: “I know you’re having a rough time with your sister moving. That must be such a tough adjustment to make. We can definitely get the occasional coffee or so forth, but it’s important to me that we maintain our manager/employee relationship — which I think is quite good! — so that boundaries don’t get blurry here at work.”

If she tells you that you don’t need to worry about blurred work boundaries, explain it’s important to you to know that she’ll always be objective about your work, and that you can discuss work problems without a social relationship getting in the way, and that others don’t wonder about favoritism. You could even say, “You’re such a good manager and mentor and I don’t want to compromise that.”

Hopefully this will make it clear to her that she needs to adjust her expectations about your relationship. But if it doesn’t, you still have a ton of control here: You can simply not invite her on family vacations and not tell her about concert plans or family gatherings. On occasions where she assumes events are happening (because it’s the holidays or you’re taking a week off work for a trip or so forth), you can either be firm yourself (“this is one-on-one time for me and my niece” or “my sister is hosting and I can’t invite additional guests”) or, hell, just blame it on others (“Bob is a stickler about keeping these plans just us”). I’m not usually a fan of blaming others when it’s a boundary you should be able to set yourself, but when you’re dealing with a boss who’s this pushy, you use what works, and I suspect your spouse and family would be perfectly happy to be the fall guys here.

Also, while bringing her on family trips is obviously not acceptable, if continuing to share a once-a-year concert and a dinner or two is the price of maintaining harmony in a job you otherwise want to stay in … go ahead and do what you have to do. You’re not a failure if you can’t completely stamp out the very occasional, smaller get-togethers, and it’s okay to focus your defense on the big stuff like not allowing her to tag along on vacations and not making her your default plus-one.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 71 comments… read them below }

  1. Sister George Michael*

    Dear Letter Writer,

    We’d love to have a second update now that you’re (probably) back in office!

      1. Observer*

        Actually, I hope the OP was able to move to a better job and that Wanda finally went into therapy.

        Because Wanda probably desperately *needs* this job, but the OP really, really needs to be away from her. Getting into a different position would do that for her.

        1. Slow Gin Lizz*

          I think it more likely that OP retired since she is older than Wanda. I doubt Wanda will go into therapy; more likely she’s attempting to wrangle some other poor coworker into adopting her. Although it’s possible that Wanda has maybe moved on to some other job and OP is happily Wanda-free.

          I also want another update on this, three years later. OP, I hope all is well with you!

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Seconding this – would love to know how things are working out now that the pandemic has gone endemic and we’re slowing being pulled back into offices.

    2. Bookie*

      Please, OP, I also raise my hand in motion for a second update! I am so glad you found a solution to an awkward situation, and love that your Bob and my Kevin must somehow be related!

  2. T. Boone Pickens*

    Oh goodness, I forgot about this one! Talk about a masterclass from the LW in terms or parrying away her boss. Bravo LW!

  3. Michelle Marts*

    The update has a good chain about how much we end up managing one or two people’s emotions at work. I feel like every workplace I’ve been in has one or two people who need a lot of emotional hand holding – nothing this extreme, but still. I don’t feel like I’ve really ever learned how to handle it.

  4. Frog&Toad*

    Ahh deliciously horrible problem with immediate update, the very best. Her update reminds me of how Charlotte Lucas handles Mr. Collins (for the Pride & Prejudice readers out there).

    1. Artemesia*

      If only she could convince Wanda of the importance of her own office commensurate with her status as Charlotte convinces Mr. Collins of the healthfulness of gardening and the importance of working on his sermons in the front parlor.

    2. Bad jobs impact our kids*

      I’m rereading it right now and am just at the part where Mr Collins has proposed, with Charlotte’s help!

      Very fitting comparison!

  5. Somehow_I_Manage*

    I’m split on both this and the update. While I think the advice is really great to help manage through a tough situation, I can’t help but think these are simply methods to cope with a relationship that OP has no obligation to maintain in the first place. It would make sense to me if it was a short term situation, but over the long term, OP needs to break up with Wanda.

    1. Colette*

      It’s probable that the OP could have avoided the situation back when she first met her boss, but now that she’s started getting together with her outside of work, her best option is probably to keep some distance while maintaining a good relationship. She can’t just “break up” with her boss.

      1. Bronze Betty*

        Ah, hindsight is 20/20. If OP could turn back the clock, I’m sure she would avoid the situation from the first overture by Wanda. If only that were possible.

        Wouldn’t we all like a do-over of certain situations in our lives? I sure would.

      2. Artemesia*

        ANd it was a kindness that not everyone would so abuse. I won’t fault her on her first initiatives to include the boss socially. Yes, it was a mistake. It is always a mistake to socialize with a boss and especially one who is clearly socially needy. But it was a tiny misstep that led to a very awkward situation that really she couldn’t have been expected to foresee. Good old Bob.

    2. squirreltooth*

      But how? OP explains that she can’t afford to retire early, that getting as good a job is unlikely, and HR won’t be helpful.

    3. Jane*

      One of the crappier parts of being an adult is realizing that, unless you’re independently wealthy, sometimes you have to put up with things that are blatantly Not Right in order to keep your job. Sometimes those blatantly Not Right things end up being, on balance, less of a real or perceived hassle than switching jobs. Obviously OP has no obligation to maintain a relationship with Wanda, but she needs the money and wants to keep this job so she needs to maintain it at least a little.

      1. Somehow_I_Manage*

        That is totally fair, and it’s unfair of me to question OP’s assumption that there is no alternative to keeping the status quo at work. My own experience included prolonging a very unhealthy work situation for too long because I was unable to confront my own assumption that I couldn’t leave- mostly because it was hard and risky. I am so, so, much better off for taking agency over that situation, and wished I had found my wake up call a year earlier! But I am definitely projecting that onto OP, and you’re right- we have to trust what they say.

        1. I should really pick a name*

          Deciding that the job is worth managing the boss’s emotions IS exercising agency. Just a different approach than you took.

        2. Michelle Smith*

          You’re right here, but I also think your projection is coming from a good place. I’m also always a little skeptical of things being impossible rather than improbable even if I don’t vocalize it.

      2. DEJ*

        Well said. Almost every job is going to have something about it that you don’t like. To quote Alison, you have to decide if you can find a way to put up with it knowing that it isn’t going to change, or decide to leave. Neither answer is wrong.

      3. Willow Pillow*

        Also, sometimes other people make decisions that we don’t agree with or would have done differently. Unless we’re involved directly, or there’s a tangible risk of harm, then we need to accept that other people are adults and that they’ll deal with whatever the consequences are. In this case, LW dealt with the consequences of her decisions by asking for advice and managing her boss differently.

    4. Observer*

      but over the long term, OP needs to break up with Wanda.

      Absent a new job, HOW is the OP supposed to do that? Allison’s advice is generally focused on what is practical. If Wanda were the kind of person you can break up with, without going radio silent, the OP would have done so. But as long as the OP is working for Wanda, Wanda will refuse to be broken up with.

  6. Momma Bear*

    I attended a TED Talk type event recently where the presenter talked about having a revelation that their needs not being comfortable or easy for someone was okay. I think OP finally realized that here – that her need for professional distance is OK and she doesn’t have to cater to Wanda’s unpleasant behavior. It is acceptable to make an unreasonable person upset.

  7. the cat's ass*

    Whew, this letter was a corker. The update was great, too. I was really impressed with the amount of emotional labor OP was willing to do to keep her job AND Wanda at bay, and i really hope, three years later, that OP got to retire or perhaps Wanda did. An update to the update would be deeply appreciated!

  8. Cristina*

    This is at the top of my favorite AMA letters, especially the update and her hilarious comment about her un-romantic husband! I hope we hear more from LW!

    1. EPLawyer*

      I absolutely loved that bit about the husband. Despite not being the most romantic guy, he has the most important aspect of being a spouse — he has his spouse’s back when she needs it.

      Because the AUDACITY of Wanda. Oh you and your husband bought season tickets, your husband can just stay home so I can go with you. Like WOW.

      I seriously wonder if the Brother — besides being a man — set boundaries and that is why she hates him. And the sister probably moved to get away from her.

      1. GreyjoyGardens*

        I remember that letter! And that’s what I always assumed about Wanda’s family: that Brother (probably with firm backup from his spouse) set hard boundaries with Wanda, and that Sister (again probably with backup from her spouse) moved far away to escape her needy and clingy sibling.

        Wanda sounds like one of those unfortunate people who is so needy and thirsty for love and friendship that she drives people away. And the more they back away, the more boundaries she will stomp in a desperate effort to get closer.

      2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        That was always my thought as well. That Wanda was clingy (possibly parents encouraged it so they would have someone to take care of them in old age), and siblings escaped or set boundaries – leaving Wanda alone now because she never learned how to form adult relationships. I also think that sisters kids ran far away to get away from Aunt Wanda. Sadly she will be alone – but she can fix that if only she is willing to make major changes in how she operates.

        Oh – and Bob isn’t unromantic – he is just focused on the practical sides of romance, such as backing up his spouse when it’s needed.

        1. shedubba*

          I agree about Bob being romantic. Which love language would “Willing to be thrown under the bus to avoid awkward situation with boss” be? Acts of service? I’m thinking acts of service.

    2. LikesToSwear*

      I loved the comment about her husband. So much so, I needed a pillow to help the pain from laughing (recently had abdominal surgery)!

      My husband would totally take the blame for me as well, in fact, it’s a standing agreement that we can blame the other one as needed.

  9. Butterfly Counter*

    I really, really hate being emotionally manipulated through loaded hinting and passive aggression.

    I also have no problem with awkward silences. With anyone.

    I’m always very happy to play oblivious or confused as to why someone is suggesting something ridiculous. It’s delicious.

    1. Empress Matilda*

      Same. I’m terrible with hints and subtext most of the time – which also gives me great cover for the times that I actually do get what the person is saying.

      If they’re putting on sad puppy eyes and telling me they wish they had somewhere to go for Easter dinner, there’s about an 80% chance I won’t notice the hint, and 20% chance I’ll understand but pretend not to. Either way, the result is the same – they’re not coming to my place for Easter dinner.

    2. Sara without an H*

      Same here. Being warm, cheerful, and oblivious to hints is a useful skill, both at work and in social life.

  10. CanadianPublicServant*

    Oooh, I remember the original letter but missed the update, and am so glad this was highlighted!

    Also, loving “Bob is just about as romantic as a box of hammers” – mine too, but he always has my back (and he has an actual box of hammers he uses to fix things), and that’s what matters to me!

    1. Red Reader the Adulting Fairy*

      In my house, I am the “romantic as a box of hammers” one and have explicitly given my husband permission to throw me under the bus when necessary :P

    2. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      No – Bob isn’t unromantic, he’s focused on the practical parts of romance – being there and backing up his spouse when she needs it.

  11. Sara without an H*

    I remember this letter and the (very satisfying) update. Wanda is, indeed, a sad case, but not one that the Letter Writer could be expected to fix.

    LW said she was 63 when she wrote in. This is an awkward age for job-searching. Ageism is a real thing and, given her long tenure at a comparatively secure government agency, it’s understandable that she was willing to put up with Wanda rather than try to move on to something else. (Full disclosure: I retired at 67.)

    So LW, if you’re out there and see this post, please give us an update.

  12. English Rose*

    Oh wow I missed this first time round – the update is absolutely stellar and I am adding the phrase “as romantic as a box of hammers” to my list.

    Like others, I would love a further update. Continued success to you, LW.

  13. Jayne not Jane*

    This was an odd letter. I felt bad for Wanda but also bad for the LW. I have a friend who is in a similar position to Wanda. He is not quite Wanda’s age, but has spent his entire adult life with his parents and caring for others. He is a sweet and compassionate person but doesn’t really have a life outside of working and helping out his Dad (his Mother passed). I worry about him and wonder if he will end up like Wanda.

  14. Vio*

    It’s sad that Wanda has been conditioned to expect such over the top lack of boundaries, it does sound like it comes from a place of loneliness. But of course that’s not the problem of her employees and it’s beyond inappropriate for her to make it so. Ideally she’d realise that she’s got more issues than a long running magazine subscription and get some help, but it sounds like she’s got a long term rental in Denial.
    The update was a great read and hopefully things have continued to improve for the letter writer since then. It’d be nice to think that Wanda took the time to think about what she can do to improve her personal life in the meantime but that’s probably too optimistic. Of course if real life was a sitcom then the letter writer would grudgingly let her tag along for an event and Wanda would have a little too much to drink and humiliate herself so badly that she just wants to avoid letter writer and doesn’t dare mistreat her at work for fear of gossip. Also everyone would look like a minor celebrity and never have any bodily functions that weren’t plot relevant.

  15. Pete*

    New to AAM, and I did not read the previous comments, but at some point, the best defense is a good offense. (after trying Alison’s suggestions)
    Option 1 : start trying to set her up on dates/select randoms from dating sites to encourage her to look into. Be persistent, she will become annoyed with you, or she will become her new mates problem.

    Option 2: Become the person that is always short money. (blame the gambling husband or a loser child) ie become monetarily as needy as she is emotionally.

    Option 3: Select a hobby, political organization, new religion that you know she will hate. Casually mention your affiliation and when asked about plans, you will be attending rally’s, revivals or rituals.

  16. RagingADHD*

    Quickest way to get a bottomless pit of need to leave you alone is to ask them to help you with something you need.

    There’s a 10 percent chance it could backfire, if they see it as an opportunity to become enmeshed. That’s why it should never be a real, deep, personal need. More like a favor.

    But 90 percent of the time, they will disappear into the woodwork the minute they’re expected to stop taking and start giving.

    1. allathian*

      This can work socially, but with a manager? Sounds to me that the LWs strategy of being completely oblivious is safer.

      1. RagingADHD*

        Oh, being oblivious is the baseline, of course. Asking for favors is just an accelerant to make it work faster.

    2. chips and scraps*

      Ooh, I don’t know – I’ve met quite a few would-be enmeshers who would LEAP at this and then hark back to it forever as the time they did that thing for me so aren’t we close and don’t I feel bad not providing emotional labour on tap whenever they get lonely. I think the chances of it backfiring are worse than 1 in 10, unfortunately. :(

      1. Despachito*

        I would also be afraid of this backfiring.

        I think OP (as per her update) opted for the most efficient solution. I think ignoring the “subtle” or rather not-so-subtle hints is key. She will not ask directly, and all OP has to do is not jump up at the bait and kindly deflect.

        I feel sorry for Wanda, it must be horrible, but it definitely is not OP’s call to resolve it for her at her own expense.

  17. Anonymous For Now*

    I loved this LW and her husband. They sound like a couple who have a true partnership.

    If I had one suggestion to give to this LW, it would be that every time she has to come up with an excuse or diversion in dealing with Wanda (something that can be exhausting after awhile) is that she remember how great it is to be her as opposed to being a “Wanda”.

  18. Needy Boss OP*

    What a surprise to see this pop up again! It’s been a long three years.

    Our work unit remained fully remote for over a year, which was glorious. Productivity soared, and even though my unit’s workloads skyrocketed during the pandemic, we managed to meet our objectives accurately and timely. And remote work – plus Bob and Daisy – continued to be integral in helping me dodge Wanda and her demands for friendship.

    In mid-2021, our unit was required to go to a hybrid schedule of two days in-office and three days remote each week. I wasn’t enthused about that, but the good thing was that our in-office days were staggered so that our team was not all there at the same time – and miraculously, my assigned in-office days were different from Wanda’s. So even though I’d far rather still be 100% remote, the fact that I didn’t need to deal with Wanda in person made things more tolerable.

    The needy, demanding calls continued, of course. Wanda is a desperately lonely person, and that desperation pushes her to great lengths in her attempts to find – or force – friendships with others, including her own staff. But that Oblivious Meter just stayed stuck on MAXIMUM CLUELESS, no matter how hard she hinted, and I was able to keep healthy boundaries in place.

    You’ve probably noticed the past tense by now.

    About a year after we returned to hybrid work, Wanda’s sister was diagnosed with a serious illness. The sister’s husband and adult children were struggling with caregiving, plus Wanda was in a tizzy because she was so far away. So she took early retirement last fall, sold her house, and moved to the city where her sister lives.

    I still occasionally hear from her. I mostly let the calls go to voicemail nowadays, and then reply by email a day or two later. I keep my tone friendly but not solicitous, and I maintain hard limits on what I share about myself and my family. I am fully aware that I don’t have to interact with her at all, but I genuinely feel sorry for her. While I can’t solve her problems, I can be kind. And ultimately I think the world would be a better place if more of us brought kindness to our interactions with others.

    I am still working fulltime, though I am in active planning mode for my own retirement in the next six to nine months. I’m writing reams and reams of process manuals, updating policy documents, training others in my unit, and have been asked to be on the search committee for my replacement later this year.

    Bob, my very beloved and romantic-as-a-box-of-hammers husband, retired in January, and is impatiently awaiting my retirement date so that we can head off on our long-planned meander around the country. After Wanda moved to live near her sister, he reworked our itinerary to circumnavigate that region of the country to prevent any possible encounters, with my enthusiastic support. He’s especially looking forward to being away from the landline; since I don’t own (or want) a cellphone, Wanda won’t have any way to call me once Bob and I hit the road together. That is definitely a major advantage to my cellphone-less state.

    And Daisy the Wonderdog is still the goodest good girl ever, truly a sanity-saver. She even forgave me for exaggerating the frequency of her potty trips to get out of Wanda’s interminable phone calls. Everyone should have a Daisy the Wonderdog in their life.

    Thanks to all for your comments, and be safe out there!

    1. Despachito*

      This is an amazing update, OP!

      I think you handled it in the best possible way, even the beginning of it when you did invite Wanda – it is clear you have been led by the kindness of your heart, and were able to put up your boundaries when necessary.

      Have a long and healthy retirement with Bob and Daisy, and enjoy your trips! Best of luck to all of you.

    2. Loony Lovegood*

      What an absolutely delightful update!!! Congratulations on your upcoming retirement, and I hope you have an absolutely wonderful trip with Bob. And congrats on finding a way to handle this tough situation! Thank you for updating us- I loved hearing it!

    3. Reed Weird*

      Oh my goodness, thank you for the update! I’m glad to hear it was resolved, even in such a sad way with her sister. Best of luck and early happy retirement!

    4. Hlao-roo*

      Thank you for this extra update! This part made me laugh:

      After Wanda moved to live near her sister, he reworked our itinerary to circumnavigate that region of the country to prevent any possible encounters, with my enthusiastic support.

      I hope you and Bob enjoy your meander around the country!

    5. the cat's ass*

      WOW! Thank you so much for the update, OP! You are a genuinely kind and compassionate person. Bob sounds pretty wonderful too. I hope you both have a terrific retirement and a lovely meander.

    6. Observer*

      Thanks for the update!

      I applaud your kindness, and admire your ability to find a reasonable line of being kind without being pushed to ridiculous limits.

      And you really should think about a second career in writing. You really tell a tale SO well.

      In any case, enjoy your retirement!

    7. No_woman_an_island*

      OP, thank you for this update! I’m so unbelievably, genuinely happy for you, because you seem like the best of the best. (And because you’re willing to change your itinerary to avoid Wanda — a move I completely relate to!). Please enjoy your retirement and give Daisy a good ol scratch from me!

    8. GreyjoyGardens*

      What a wonderful update! (For all except Wanda’s poor sister. But at least Needy Aunt Wanda is their headache now.) Wishing you a happy retirement with Bob the Wonder Husband and Daisy the Wonder Dog. (And, P.S. thank you for leaving behind processes and manuals and so on so the next person who takes your position isn’t left to flail. That is always appreciated.)

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