Setting parental boundaries
August 19, 2014 11:07 PM   Subscribe

My father and I have a complicated history that colors our present relationship. Help me figure out how to set compassionate boundaries.

When I was in high school, my father married an emotionally abusive woman who basically made my life so bad I suffered from PTSD for a while. My father tried to mitigate it a little, but in the end basically chose to always believe her side of events. She used to say that I was going to go to college in a few years, so if he sided with me she would leave and he'd be all alone and I guess he bought into that.

My contact with my step-mother ended when I ran away after she came after me and tried to hit me during my junior year in high school. I lived with a friend for a bit, while my mother (who lived in another state and could previously not afford to take care of me) made arrangements to have me come live with her. Needless to say, this was a truly horrible time in my life and I honestly think that my father's inability to protect me just ... broke something in our relationship. He made half-hearted attempts to apologize for what happened, but most of that was after she turned on him and he got to see how truly crazy she was.

Cut to twenty years later. I am no longer angry (although that took a long time), but I am still hurt and sad about the situation. I believe that he did the best he could at the time, but that best was just not what I needed from him and I don't believe it ever will be. After living half a country apart for most of that time, my father (and his third, very nice wife) have lived about three hours away from my husband and I for the past few years. I don't have a lot in common with him or his wife and spending extended periods of time with him is seriously hard for me. It's work, and further it's work that I'm not emotionally invested in.

The problem I'm wrestling with currently is that almost every time we talk, he nags me for a visit. He is willing to come here, he's happy to have me go there, we can meet halfway, etc. I just dread the thought. I do not want to do it. We had him up for Thanksgiving last year and it was one of those "everything is ok on the surface, but really I cannot wait for this to be over" type of visits. The only major plus side was that I got a 7 month break from the nagging.

I am happy to talk to him on the phone and text him and interact on Facebook etc, but I really don't want to be around him. The result is that I end up dodging his calls and I don't really go out of my way to communicate with him. I will respond to text messages, and occasionally calls, but that's about it. If he didn't nag me every time we talked, I would talk to him a lot more often. I feel bad/guilty about this, and also like a hypocrite because I am a firm believer in setting boundaries with people and am able to do so all the time with other people. I've ended relationships with other family members when I had to for my own emotional sanity. For some reason, though, I can't bring myself to ask for what I need from my father. I know I should say, "Dad, I wish things were different between us but they're not. I would like to have you in my life, but I need you to let me decide when we're going to see you without having you harass me about it. I love you, but this is the way it has to be for me." I just keep avoiding that conversation and subsequently him. I know this hurts him and I can't pin down why it's scary to say this to him. Do you have any advice for how I can move forward with this situation?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (11 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I don't think you should say what you wrote to him because that's not truly your problem(s.)

- You need to use your words to tell him how much he hurt you. It's a festering sore that needs air and sunlight.

- The second problem: Dad, whenever I talk to you, you nag at me to make plans for a visit. This makes me avoid communicating with you. Please stop nagging me. Thank you.

The big airing of past hurts should happen in-person, preferably in a therapist's office.

Maybe you can't talk to him because he has a history of not listening?


Say your peace out loud and let the chips fall where they may. After that, feel free to cut convo's short or avoid him altogether if using your words with him has no impact. Give him a decent chance to make things right with your relationship by talking. After you talk to him, if he still refuses to address your concerns, feel free to protect yourself via any means that makes you feel comfortable.

Good luck!
posted by jbenben at 11:39 PM on August 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

It might be easier to send him a letter with what you wrote, adding that it's a hard topic to bring up because you don't want to hurt him and that you're willing to explain more over the phone if needed (and if indeed you are).
posted by matildatakesovertheworld at 11:51 PM on August 19, 2014 [3 favorites]

You wrote that you now believe that he did the best that he could at that time, and that's perhaps true, but that doesn't negate the fact that you got hurt. I've heard so often, as though it were a talisman which waves away all hurts: "They did the best they could, being the people they were at the time." While that is -- sometimes -- a true sentence, an honest sentence, it is in most cases an incomplete sentence. The complete sentence: "They did the best they could, being the people they were at the time, and I really got fucked over."

"Dad, I wish things were different between us but they're not. I would like to have you in my life, but I need you to let me decide when we're going to see you without having you harass me about it. I love you, but this is the way it has to be for me."

Those really are the right words, and not cruel at all. He can choose -- and it would/will be a choice, his choice -- he can choose to get hurt or angry behind you standing up for what you need, but he can't overrun it if you stand strong and firm.

Perhaps you can do it better in a letter. Words on a page are really powerful, he can't negate them, he can't turn his hearing off selectively as it appears he is doing currently. And on the page you can it exactly as is needed, word for word, honest and succinct.

Enlist your husbands support in this. Perhaps a therapist. Perhaps a strong, supportive, wise friend. Get someone to help you remember that you are doing nothing wrong, and are in fact doing yourself right. And in doing so, you're doing your father right, also -- he will learn to honor people, which he isn't doing right now.

Please don't let yourself get pushed into doing what is wrong for you. You know what is right for you -- quite frankly, so does your father.

Good luck.
posted by dancestoblue at 11:52 PM on August 19, 2014 [15 favorites]

Sometimes "doing the best they could" is not good enough. Not protecting you from a crazy woman was not good enough. Period. So you don't have to give him props for that.
posted by Linnee at 1:07 AM on August 20, 2014 [8 favorites]

I think you need an airing of the grievances. I think it would be hard to set boundaries with him because he may not understand how much residual hurt you have. So I would let him know the extent in which he hurt you, failed to protect you, abandoned you in favor of dodo, and caused an upheaval of your life. After that things will either work out cause he will realize the depth of his destruction or he will try to gloss over it and then you have the provided proper explanation of the cause of new steep boundaries.
posted by WeekendJen at 4:43 AM on August 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

When I sent my brother a letter like this, he ignored it and stopped calling for almost 6 months.

Then he tried to resume communication like nothing had been said. It was not the first time he had followed this pattern when heavy stuff was broached.

This is why I suggested an in-person conversation. I realize from my own experiences, tho, that if your father is disinclined to "hear" about the consequences of his actions.... There's almost no chance of resolution. It may back him off some.

The thing is, you must say your peace. There's something about embracing Reality (this is what happened! It was not OK!) that is truly healing.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 7:38 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I've ended relationships with other family members when I had to for my own emotional sanity.

In my view, relationships in which one person's current actions are hurting the other, and in which that dynamic doesn't change, need to end.

Relationships in which very-much-in-the-past actions are souring the current relationship for one person (that is, there isn't an ongoing pattern of hurting them) are a very good reason for that person to do some work on their own (preferably with a therapist) to see what past hurts need to be expressed and processed and in order to determine if there is anything the hurter needs to do to make it right.

It's totally possible that the past hurt is so egregious that the only way to make it right is to end the relationship, but I think it's always very much worth a try to do what one needs to do to keep the past hurt from controlling one's present life.

Basically, if something that happened in the past were still controlling me emotionally this much, I'd want to work on my end of it. Which is unfair, given that victims of abuse shouldn't have to be the ones to put all the work in, but that's just the unfortunate reality of it.
posted by jaguar at 7:52 AM on August 20, 2014

This sounds a lot like my relationship with my father. I hadn't planned to have an "airing of grievances" with him, but over time he pushed me to the point where it was easier to explain my feelings than to continue to try and deflect. Not sure I would advise anyone to try it. I was probably extremely fortunate that we seemed to get through to each other over the course of two or maybe it was three conversations.

Whatever you decide to do, good luck. It is a very hard situation.
posted by BibiRose at 8:08 AM on August 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Well, you don't want to cut him off 100% yet, and he will keep on nagging if you don't see him. I believe with families that there is a price you pay for being in one of them and things you will have to do in order to keep things well, less awful. So I'm thinking in your case, why don't you agree to have him visit (or you visit or whatever) once a year at a set time? So (a) it gets you at least 7 months off from nagging, and (b) you can always say, "Look, Dad, I'll see you at Thanksgiving" when it starts up.

Yes, this does mean you have to see him and it sucks. But saying, "I only want to text and never see you" is pretty harsh and can lead to more drama that I don't think you're ready for either. Sometimes you just have to suck it up and do something for a family member you don't want to do to keep the peace, and I think this might be what you have to do.
posted by jenfullmoon at 5:46 PM on August 20, 2014

Also it's worthwhile keeping in mind that his third wife, (since she's nice and nice people want to help) may be encouraging him to rebuild his relationship with you. So I think being crystal clear with him on exactly why he needs to back off on the nagging, as others have suggested, is important also so that he can make it clear to her in case she's encouraging or even pressuring him to keep nagging you.) Some men think women are more in tune with this kind of thing and rely on their judgment.
posted by lillian.elmtree at 3:19 AM on August 21, 2014

(I am sorry, I used the edit feature to make a slight change to the meaning of a sentence and just realized this is a no-no.)
posted by lillian.elmtree at 3:33 AM on August 21, 2014

« Older How to work under an insecure boss?   |   where are you, my fellow nerds? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.