How do I communicate better with my dad?
April 15, 2012 2:08 PM   Subscribe

I need some advice on how to communicate better with my dad and hopefully improve our relationship.

I'm 23 and my dad is in his 50's. Even though we are alike in many ways, share some of the same interests, and have a lot of respect and love for each other, we are having problems communicating with each other. It's obviously complex question with a lot of back history.

I have been living on my own for the past four years, but am still in the same (larger) city as my parents. My dad travels a lot for work, however, so I don't see him nearly as much as my mom - I would say probably every other week as opposed to seeing my mom every week. The biggest problem is I feel it is very draining to have a relationship with him. He wants updates about how I'm doing in a "How is your life?" kind of way - with long detailed emails/Skype conversations about what I'm doing (should be appropriately exciting and mentally stimulating). I ended up having to block him on Skype because he would contact me almost every day with one of those questions, and it was just so time-consuming and boring (to me) to talk about. I don't really like listing things that I'm doing, and a lot of the time I feel like what I'm doing is not intellectually satisfying enough for him. He writes a lot of emails now, and if I don't answer he will write back passive-aggressive replies about why I am ignoring him. Then he will comment on how I'm acting like a teenager and I should be old enough for us to talk like adults.

I feel that he is very intense in his need for conversations. A lot of the time, it seems like he doesn't like light conversation, but wants to talk about "important things" (politics, current events, literature, travel, my studies, his work) - as opposed to "frivolous things" (the weather, TV shows, people we know [except for his own family], anything related to kids [my stepsister has two]). When he says something, it is very important that everyone listens closely - if there is a moment where someone is not paying attention, one of the (young) kids interrupts him, or people change the subject from what he's talking about to something else, he can get sort of irritated and then closes off. He is an introvert, like me, but is very able to get excited and talk about things - when things are on his terms.

My stepsister (my mom's first child) and my dad don't get along very well because of clashing personalities. My dad can be very critical (but often he doesn't mean it in a harsh way), and my sister can take things very personally - so there have been some problems there over the years. My sister, my mom and I get along very well (as well as with both my sister's and my boyfriend), and we always have a nice time together, it can be low-key where we just talk about whatever we think about, or sit and read the paper, hang out, cook. My dad feels left out in this dynamic. Because of his work, he's often not home - or when he is home, he'll go up to his office and work/watch sports while the rest of us hang out. Especially since my sister has had the kids it has been tough - because of his attitude towards kid stuff.

Secretly, I feel some relief when he is not there for some of the family gatherings, because I always feel a lot of pressure to say the right things and to keep engaging him in (to-him) acceptable conversation. It is a little better when we're just the two of us, because then I don't have to "fear" what my sister/the boyfriends/the kids might say. But still, having such a high-maintenance relationship with your dad is draining. He thinks that I don't think about him very much, but in reality I spend a lot of time worrying about our inability to communicate. FWIW, my mom is also sad about the dynamic that can occur when the whole family is gathered.

I think that he is a great person with a lot of experiences I find interesting and can learn from. But I wish that our dynamic could be better - that we could be equals, without me feeling he is so judgmental (a lot of the time I'm sure it's just me thinking it). He was recently away on a month-long trip during which, after several of the passive-aggressive emails mentioned above, I didn't write much to him. Now he is home and he has asked to meet and have a "good long talk", and I really want to bring up some of the problems I feel we have and hopefully talk about how to solve them.

So my question to you is two fold. First, how should I bring this up during our talk? I'm afraid he will get very defensive (has happened before). Also, what is reasonable for me to ask for from him? In which areas can I expect change, and in which should I adjust my expectations and change my own behavior?

Secondly, what are some strategies I can use more generally when communicating with him - both in person and during his "catching up" e-mails/Skype calls?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
You're a grownup. It's fine to say "Dad, I really like talking and emailing with you but you have a conversational style that is more akin to interrogation and I find it exhausting to keep up. Learn to make chitchat, would ya?"
posted by DarlingBri at 2:21 PM on April 15, 2012 [10 favorites]

What DarlingBri said. Also, in previous, similar AskMes (usually concerning moms, but with the same lack-of-boundaries problem), people have suggesting that you set aside an appointment once or twice a week. For instance, every Tuesday night at 7 pm you will talk/Skype for X amount of time, and then stick to it.

His being your dad doesn't mean he gets to dictate what you talk about, how often, and when.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:27 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

Hmmm. Something like "Dad, I love you and I really want us to have a good relationship. I guess I'm feeling like you want a lot from me and I'm feeling overwhelmed. I know you love intellectually stimulating conversation and I'm sometimes just too tired or distracted to deliver on that front. Sometimes I'm hesitant to talk on the phone or IM because I just don't have the energy for the kind of intense conversations that you enjoy. And then I feel badly because I love you and don't want to disappoint you. I'd really like to connect by talking about lighter things most of the time. I wish we could meet in the middle and have a relationship where we communicate in a way that we can both be comfortable with."

Know your boundaries before you sit down so that if you get overwhelmed you can just stick to your bullet points. "I can't do X, dad. I'm sorry." Don't get caught up in explaining yourself or arguing. Reiterate that you love him. If things get too overwhelming, if he's not listening to you, walk away.

Is there any chance you and your dad might see a family therapist together?

Harriet Lerner has some great books on managing relationships with family - the Dance of Intimacy is a good place to start.

My feeling is that your dad might not have a lot of close friendships or groups that he's part of, which might be why he seems to need a lot from your relationship. I wouldn't tell him he needs more friends, necessarily, but you could try taking him to some meetups or events where you will both get to hang out together but also meet people who share your interests. It sounds like he's talkative and interested in a lot of things and to people who are less intimately linked to him, who have more natural boundaries in place, these qualities might be charming and intriguing. And if he finds more people to talk to, this might take some of the pressure off you.
posted by bunderful at 2:34 PM on April 15, 2012 [2 favorites]

You can also say, when he contacts you randomly on Wednesday "Hi dad, I don't have time to chat right now but can I call you Saturday?"

And if he contacts you again, tell him you're really looking forward to your talk on Saturday, and you have to run now and get the clothes out of the dryer or whatever. You can be warm and loving and honest and still set boundaries.
posted by bunderful at 2:38 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

One last thought - if you are introverted and your dad is extroverted it could be really helpful to point this out to him and let him know how this works for you. I think it helped my mom for me to tell her that I'm an introvert, I'm the first to leave every party, I'm easily overwhelmed, and I need a lot of quiet time to regenerate and that therefore not wanting to talk to her sometimes is just about me being an introvert and having some limits, and not about me rejecting her or being angry.
posted by bunderful at 2:43 PM on April 15, 2012

During your next talk, you should consider the compliment, feedback, and suggestion approach:
Compliment: "Dad, I respect and love you a lot (alternatively, our relationship means a lot to me)
Feedback: but, I feel like we struggle with communicating effectively together.
Suggestions: I think we should either seek therapy in order to improve our relationship or develop some guidelines for communicating that are reasonable for both of us. (INSERT ONE CONCRETE SUGGESTION HERE)."

Things worth considering:
-You don't have to respond to his passive-aggressive messages. You can ignore these messages if you are uncomfortable with the tone or the words used.
-You can return a phone call or email once you are interested in communicating. Communicating when you don't want to may lead to arguments. Instead, once you are ready just say "Hi Dad, I was unable to talk earlier this week because I was busy but I'm calling to see how you are doing..."
-If he discusses a topic like religion or politics (or any other sensitive topic) then you can flat out say "Dad, I'm sorry but I'm not interested in discussing this topic."
-If you initiate the conversation then there is more room for you to steer the conversation.
posted by livinglearning at 2:46 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I think what's going on here is that your dad is feeling competitive about you (his kid) as opposed to your sister (not his kid), and that the conversations you find draining, in which he avoids all small talk and asks question after question about your life, are designed to encourage you to excel and give him the information about your excellence that will put your sister in the shade, and allow him to feel your sister has been put in the shade.

You quite naturally resist this, perhaps to the point of refusing to acknowledge or even recognize it, because if you went along with him, it could ruin the good relationship you have with your mother and sister.

If so, you are in the right and he's wrong, though I'm afraid it may be such a deeply embedded pattern that you'll need the help of a therapist to break it-- but I think that's very much worth doing, not least because you may have, in response to your father's pushing, unconsciously gotten the message that it's bad for you to achieve up to your capabilities because it would hurt your relationship with your mother and sister.

I'd suggest you and you father see a therapist together, then bring in other members of the family as warranted.
posted by jamjam at 3:03 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

Tell him you need some space and schedule a weekly call.
posted by ead at 3:48 PM on April 15, 2012

what are some strategies I can use more generally when communicating with him - both in person and during his "catching up" e-mails/Skype calls?

Definitely emphasize email over Skype.

You're not required to have a phone, you know. And if you have one, you're not required to be available 24/7. Many of us live perfectly happy lives without ever having sustained phone conversations. For me, a phone is a tool to arrange appointments, not to have conversations. My friends and family understand this, and never call me, except for last-minute changes-of-plan.

As for email, what your dad needs to understand is that email is asynchronous communication. That means that each participant in the email conversation participates in their own time.

When your dad sends you an email, be a good correspondent and respond to it - but don't feel pressured to do so with all possible haste. If it's too much for you to handle in one sitting, break it up, and answer it bit by bit over a few sessions/days. If he gets antsy and asks why you haven't responded yet, let him know that you're in the process of responding, that you know he wants a well thought-out and considered response, and that such a response takes time for your part.

You may not even really need to address this overtly - you can demonstrate what's appropriate for you by your own actions.

what is reasonable for me to ask for from him? In which areas can I expect change, and in which should I adjust my expectations and change my own behavior?

The way you've described him, it sounds like your dad has a lot of enthusiasm, but hasn't developed the skills to engage with others appropriately. That's not at all your fault, and you shouldn't have to make concessions for him. You're still young, and clearly still working out these things in your mind. You're doing a good job, thinking it through, trying to be a peacemaker but not a pushover. Continue to take responsibility for your own motivations, words and actions, and by your example show others what you consider to be appropriate.

Your dad, on the other hand, for all his enthusiasm, comes across as somewhat immature when it comes to these things. He's absent from his family a lot, but when he's home, he spends a lot of his time alone. When he does spend time with his family, he expects it to be wholly on his terms. He's easily offended, easily irritated, and resorts to passive-aggressiveness to try to get his way. Presumably he helped raise you (not sure about his role with your step-sister), but he still has problems dealing with young children. These behaviors shouldn't be reinforced.

he has asked to meet and have a "good long talk", and I really want to bring up some of the problems I feel we have and hopefully talk about how to solve them.

By all means, bring up the issue of communication. You said he likes to talk about 'important things' - this should be right up his alley. Let him know your fondness for him, and your respect for his life experiences and his views, but then let him know you've also been thinking about communication, and your experiences to date, and that you've drawn some conclusions.

He might not agree with your conclusions, but that's okay. You're a self-supporting adult, and you've moved out from under your parents' protective wings. Your dad's probably naturally protective of you, and hasn't realized that he needs to let you go somewhat. You need to encourage this in him by standing up for yourself and even saying things to him that he might consider to be attacks on him. Remember, even if he acts offended, that's not because you did something offensive - it's because he's still struggling with a few fundamentals. You're both adults now, and by your actions you can help him continue to mature.
posted by paleyellowwithorange at 3:49 PM on April 15, 2012 [4 favorites]

I second the Harriet Lerner recommendation as strongly as possible.

Imagine, if you knew he wasn't going to change no matter what - no words you could say to him or feelings you could impart to him to make him change the conversational modes he's developed over decades - but he's your father and you love him and you want a positive relationship with him, what would you do differently?

I suggest you do what you can to lower the emotional intensity from your end. That way, conversations with him may sometimes be a bore, but they might be less emotionally agitating. Some combination of emotional distancing (pretending he's someone else's dad) and setting time limits on your interactions would probably help with that.
posted by Salamandrous at 5:00 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

I also have a father who can be judgmental, and who often wants more from our relationship than I feel able to (healthily) give. And I have had a number of these relationship conversations with him over the years. My tactics varied from being very honest about why I felt we weren't closer (in response he became defensive) to just mostly listening to him to focusing on concrete things we could do differently. Even though our relationship hasn't ultimately changed that much, I feel good about having given honesty a shot, as now I don't have to wonder if things might be different if only I told him what the real problem was. Your results may obviously be different as we can't really know how your father will react or how much change he is capable of.

To the extent that you do decide to ask him to change, I think it's best to be as specific as possible, (e.g. "Sometimes when we have X kind of conversation you do Y thing, which makes me feel Z. It would be a lot easier for me if you did A or B instead."), as the more manageable and comprehensible your requests seem, the less defensive he may need to be. If the changes you think he needs to make are more like a wholesale overhaul of how he relates to you, then that might be a sort of thing that is best discussed in family therapy rather than a one-off conversation.

However, in terms of improving things on a day to day basis, I would try to think about when your interactions with him go best, and how to make that kind of thing a bigger percentage of your relationship. You say you can be more relaxed with him one-on-one than in a family group, and that you wish he would have more casual conversations with him. I understand that he travels and is not always available, but is it possible for you to schedule some special him-and-you outings that are activity-based? You could go to a museum or sporting event or play or wine tasting or whatever is a joint interest you could develop. Then you can easily and naturally talk about [activity] instead of having to have deep personal thoughts all the time. Or is there some recurrent thing you both could try following together (a sports team, a TV series or series of books, or even some particular ongoing international news story) where it could be like your special thing with him that you can catch up/chat about regularly? Even if it is something that he would not normally be into because it is too "frivolous," he might give it a shot if you said you really wanted to share it with him as a special father/daughter thing. That way you would know what specific thing to save up a few ideas about/keep tabs on, rather than having to spontaneously respond to whatever random political or intellectual topics he picks out of a hat during every conversation. Also having an ongoing topic of particular joint interest might make him feel less left out/neglected, and thus a little more easy-going.

However, it seems you may also need to be honest about how much you can offer him. Think about how often you really want to get together/Skype/email and let him know that you love him but that is what your schedule allows. If he complains that he knows you interact with other people/your mom more often, you can also explain that replying to him requires a lot more time and thought and thus you can't do it as frequently. You can say all this in a very friendly way where it is not about him being unreasonable (though you could also bring that up if you so desire) but just about you letting him know what is possible given the constraints of your life as an independent adult with a lot going on.
posted by unsub at 5:26 PM on April 15, 2012 [1 favorite]

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