My dad hates apologising, and it's damaging relationships
January 7, 2017 5:33 AM   Subscribe

My dad gets into arguments with people almost like a hobby. He regularly upsets people with this, but more so with his inability to apologise or take responsibility for upsetting people. It is pushing people away from him. Can you suggest ways in which I might talk about this with him which won't end up in another argument?

May dad is a kind and thoughtful man in many respects. He will go out of his way to help a neighbour or a stranger with anything practical and cares a lot about the wellbeing of people he loves. But when it comes to arguing, he is awful.

When he disagrees with someone, it becomes like an intellectual exercise for him, in the way he approaches it. But he is terrible at empathising, or trying to put himself in the other person's perspective. He gets this tunnel-vision, and the deeper in he gets, the more hurtful things he says to try and prove his point.

Arguments with him most often end in the other person walking away from it. He will absolutely not make a move to reconcile at this point. He will either let them never speak to him again, or more often, they will do one of two things - approach him and apologise for the fallout, at which point he will accept their apology, NOT offer one back, and continue with life as if nothing happened. Or, the person will not say anything, and sort of accept that that's how he is, and feel sad, and both will go on as if nothing happened. I think that's his optimal outcome. No change, everything's fine. For the other person, they hurt and heal the best they can, but it's really hard and some of us manage better than others.

He gets away with this with me and my siblings. We all carry emotional scarring from it, but he's our dad, we're not going to stop speaking to him. But he does it to his friends, and alienates people he once enjoyed hanging out with. Worst of all, he does it to our partners, and this is what I worry about a lot, as in-law relationships can be much more difficult to heal. One of our partners has just emerged from one of these exchanges saying that they no longer want to be in the house when he visits, which is hurting the other enormously.

But you can see the problem. Every way I can think of to bring this up with him will result in another horrible argument and another healing period. Can you suggest really really non-combative ways to do it?

To anticipate those who might tell me to just keep more distance from him, that's not a solution for me. I love my dad despite this, and want him in my life. I really just want tips on how to talk about this in the most non-attacking way possible.

Thanks a lot.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Perhaps you have done this. But I would simply mention to him, in an email apropos his most recent exchange with one of your sibling's partners, that most people don't like the kind of conversations that he often engages in - where disagreements turn into debates that he prolongs. And that this tendency makes some other people not want to be around him. And that this is difficult for you and your siblings, especially when he does it to you or your partners. Just state it simply like that. Mellow, short, declarative.

If he cares about that, then he might try the very difficult path of changing his pattern.

If he doesn't care enough to try to change, then give up on the idea that he might change.
posted by sheldman at 6:03 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Kind of facebook-y, but this spoke to me: "Saying "I'm sorry" doesn't mean you're wrong and the other person is right; it just means that you value the relationship with the other person more than your ego." Maybe that will speak to him?

That and "Its ok to disagree, but you don't have to be an asshole about it."
Good luck.
posted by NoraCharles at 6:14 AM on January 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

the more hurtful things he says

If he is saying hurtful things on purpose and not apologising and this is a known pattern then there should be no expectation that partners and children should have to be around him, including that he is no longer welcome in the home of the partners he has been abusive to. This is what should be told to him, there are consequences to his behaviour and he is no longer welcome to be with people (I presume) he loves because his behaviour is abusive. Give him a list of therapists who work with abusive men and leave it up to him to solve his own problems or else lead a lonely life. If this is a recent change in behaviour you can ask to go to his doctor with him to give a complete picture to the doctor and rule out physical causes.

Please protect the people he has been abusing and prioritise their emotional health and stability over the person that has been grooming you to accept abuse as normal. As you don't mention him being in jail I assume he is able to control himself when there are real consequences (such arguing with someone in a position of power like a police officer), this shows this is behaviour he can control - but chooses not to in the case of his children and their partners.

I'm sorry this is very difficult for you and I hope you and your siblings have access to services to prevent his abusive dynamic from repeating in your own relationships as the scars from emotional abuse run very deep.
posted by saucysault at 7:16 AM on January 7, 2017 [41 favorites]

Can you suggest really really non-combative ways to do it?

I will suggest that if you want to make progress on this, you need to do more analysis and figure out the underlying dynamics that get it to this point other than "Dad is misbehaving in this specific way and he and only he needs to change."

You describe him as a kind person who will go out of his way to help people. My observation and experience is that other people routinely respond to such a person like "You my bitch." And the kind person winds up taken for granted, taken advantage of and treated like a doormat who is supposed to kowtow to everyone. If they fail to be sufficiently kiss ass, everyone comes down on them like a ton of bricks.

This routinely breeds resentment in such people. And when you then pick a fight with them, they are often at a point of "Fuck you, asshole. Feel free to never speak to me again."

If that is part of the dynamic, the only solution to this is helping him figure out more effective ways to set boundaries and set expectations. People who are kind and generous by nature and want the world to be a better place can have an incredibly hard time trying to figure out how to be themselves without getting shit on for it.

And it hurts like hell because they kind of expect other people to be more like them and/or at least be genuinely appreciative of how they are, but life is not like that. It can be incredibly painful to feel like "If I am nice, which is just how I am, I will get used and crapped on for it. If I reign that in to try to not get burned AGAIN, then I can't really be myself and also this does not compute for me in other terms."

You can sort of think of it as like being gay in a homophobic world. You can't be yourself, you can't get your own needs met AND you are treated abusively at every turn by people who see nothing wrong with doing that to you and see no problem that everyone does it to you. When you finally snap, everyone acts like you are the one misbehaving and not like everyone treats you like shit all the time, so this was inevitable.

You say he treats arguing like an intellectual exercise, but then you say he says increasingly hurtful things. That does not sound like him treating it like an intellectual exercise. That sounds like someone taking it incredibly personally, feeling hurt as hell and lashing out because they aren't very savvy about how to handle whatever is going on here.
posted by Michele in California at 7:26 AM on January 7, 2017 [7 favorites]

I agree that this sounds like abusive behavior, and I know it's not what you want to hear, but you don't argue or persuade someone out of abusive behavior. By letting him get away with it without consequences, you and your siblings are enabling this behavior. You have to make your own choices for yourself, but as mentioned earlier, it's another story for your partner(s) and kids. If my partner expected me to put up with being abused and then told me they were hurt by my decision to not let someone abusive into my life, I would be...apoplectic.

I also want to mention that, if I had to bet, I'd bet that you might have a knee jerk skeptical (or even derisive) reaction to the description of this behavior as abusive. is. He's taking his own shit out on other people. He's hurting other people to meet his immediate emotional needs.

The thing is, there's no "right way" to talk to him to get him to be less abusive. Framing it that way from the outset is itself kind of a tell tale sign of abuse. It is not your responsibility to get him to change, because it's not within your power to do so. All you can do is state your boundaries and your own expectations and then stick to them.

It might help to have a plan. Decide how you want to react when he behaves this way, and then stick to it. That will likely look different for everyone. And support your partner(s) needs and boundaries -- if you pick an abusive parent over a partner, honestly, i don't see that going well for your relationship. Kids are different. I would under no circumstances let kids around someone I knew engaged in abusive behavior of any kind, because they are children. You're teaching them about appropriate boundaries and ways to treat people, both with your own behavior and the behavior you allowed to be modeled for them. Do not normalize abusive behavior for children. not.
posted by schadenfrau at 7:31 AM on January 7, 2017 [12 favorites]

I'm going to second saucysault and say you need to protect the people he has been abusing. If you love him and want him in your life, that's your choice, but you shouldn't try to force, or even encourage, others to join you in that foxhole. If he's still this way after all these years (and presumably many attempts at changing him), it's extremely unlikely he's going to change, and you're just going to have to deal with him as he is. (I'm not saying you shouldn't try, of course, just that you shouldn't get your hopes set on succeeding.) Good luck, and take care of yourself as best you can.
posted by languagehat at 7:54 AM on January 7, 2017

Point out that this is something he has in common with the new president.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:26 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Your description reminds me of my own grandfather a little, who's really stuck in his ways and of course knows everything best (including such deep but diverse topics as politics, social order, how to paint a wall, how to shine your shoes, and what handbag should my grandmother carry). I think he might be a bit on the spectrum, with the inflexibility of opinion and complete inability to empathize with others, so he ends up saying cruel things to people because in his mind this is the "plain truth".

The approach that I found successful with him is that whenever he starts his thing again, instead of engaging, you move onto a meta-level where you take the stance of an exasperated, no-nonsense kindergarten teacher and say "You're being impolite", "You can't say things like that, it is hurtful to people, and why are you being so nasty to Steve", "Adult people don't behave like that", "If you act like this, nobody will want to talk to you", "You have to show respect to others and their opinions", "Is this hurting you in any way? No? Then why are you taking this so personally?", "You need to let people have their own opinions, that's only fair", etc. ad nauseum. Do not get pulled back in the original discussion - just shrug and express your criticism of his behavior (do not get into a discussion about that either, go with "Oh, you don't agree? Well, it's not MY fault that you can't behave in public"), and change topics.

It actually works quite well, because you don't get emotionally invested (or even particularly interested) in what he's saying, and he can see eventually that he's getting nowhere, so it stops.
posted by Ender's Friend at 8:33 AM on January 7, 2017 [13 favorites]

"You're being rude" has worked well with the adult I know who has some of these same behavior patterns. There's lots of reasons why the adult I know (who is also generous, helpful and welcoming) never apologizes and also tends to push "debates" too far (not one of which is "He is abusive" but YMMV), but gently reminding him that he's being rude to guests and/or the people his family love generally prompts him to back off and even apologize sometimes.
posted by crush-onastick at 8:42 AM on January 7, 2017 [4 favorites]

I had a friend who did this. A very close friend, that I liked a lot and otherwise enjoyed spending time with and talking with. But he had certain topics that just. . .set him off.

So one day we were having dinner at his house with our partners, and I said to him, "You know, I really like you, and I love talking about things with you, but when we argue about X and Y it just gets too intense for me. I understand that you have strong opinions, and that sometimes we disagree, but I value our relationship more than I value having these debates. So I'm going to stop engaging with you when these topics come up, not because I don't care what you think, but because how we talk about things is hurting our friendship."

We have never argued since. Not even once.

Being called out in a loving way and me stating clearly that I wasn't going to play along anymore (and then following through with that!) worked. It's not a panacea for your dad to stop this with everyone, but it's at least a start. Good luck.
posted by ananci at 9:15 AM on January 7, 2017 [18 favorites]

Respectfully, this is not your problem to solve. It's your dad's responsibility to learn how not to be an abusive bully. If you're a woman, please realize that the gendered training you've received to be the peacemaker and maintain social relationships is leading to the practical consequence that your dad gets to let other people manage his abusive behavior.

And this:

He gets away with this with me and my siblings. We all carry emotional scarring from it, but he's our dad, we're not going to stop speaking to him.

is very sad. You and your siblings don't think you are important enough to protect from abuse? Please reconsider this.
posted by medusa at 9:17 AM on January 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

I will add that if part of the problem is what I described above, it may help to both express your appreciation for how wonderful he is most of the time and model this for other relatives. It won't entirely solve the problem, but gushing at him a little on a regular basis for all the nice things he does may make him feel less shit on, less emotionally raw and more able to let it go and walk away instead of escalating arguments.

But it may be tricky to figure out how to do this in a way that will go over well with him. He may be used to a) if someone is being nice to him, they want something and are just buttering him up and b) it is a shit show if he gets any acknowledgment because other people are jealous or some shit.

So finding the right way to do this may take some time and effort. (FWIW: My kids routinely say "You are an awesome mom and I am so glad you raised me." This is typically followed by some anecdote about some recent event that made them aware of how fortunate they are.)
posted by Michele in California at 9:18 AM on January 7, 2017 [2 favorites]

One of our partners has just emerged from one of these exchanges saying that they no longer want to be in the house when he visits, which is hurting the other enormously.

This is a completely reasonable response on their part. If your dad is a sonofoabitch and likes to argue and get nasty then he shouldn't get access to people's homes. This may be something you can "train" him out of or it may not.

My dad was like this. Now that we're all older (and he's dead) we think he may have been on the spectrum (not that people on the spectrum all do this but people with undiagnosed spectrum disorders may not get a chance to get feedback on their behavior and can get entrenched) and literally did not have the toolkit to manage these situations. He was a big of a sociopath, did not need other people for most things, and would argue like it was his job. It was MY job, as a partner, to keep this shit away from my partners if what I wanted was to continue to have a relationship with my father. The partner is the chosen family.

I mean in an ideal world you work with people on their behaviors. But there are certain types of people you don't work with, you put up boundaries and they can take them or leave them. With my dad it was all about saying "You can't talk to me that way" and leaving the room. If he was at my house, asking him to leave or stop what he is doing. It's a pain in the ass because it means you are in charge of him, sort of, but the alternative is to not have him over.

It sounds like the kids in the family are so used to this bullshit that they don't realize how not-okay this is. You shouldn't be "hurt enormously"when your partner doesn't want to be around your abusive dad as if it's some conflict and you're trapped in the middle of it. You should step up and handle that. It can still hurt, sure, but standing up for people being treated decently and siding with the people who are being mistreated is the way forward here.

"Dad if you're going to start that arguing thing you do we're going to leave" and then do not engage. It takes two people to keep an argument going.
posted by jessamyn at 9:39 AM on January 7, 2017 [19 favorites]

I used to be like your dad and I was raised in a house where hurtful and out of control things were allowable but only by one person, my mum.

I was defensive about it and I had a lousy attitude. It's possible that a conversation like "I love you, but you keep hurting people and need to stop" would have gotten through...but I doubt it. What did get through was a) losing friends over it and b) my husband standing his ground and expressing how wrong it is and that there really is never a time that meanness doesn't count.

It doesn't matter if the argument starts intellectually or if someone's been drinking or is tired or angry...what is said is said and it counts.

It took people reiterating to me 100 times that I was being mean, and being mean does in fact make me a mean person (if only part time? Wait no) for me to start adddressing it in therapy.

So what I think you need to know is that this will be an some ways the argument of a lifetime. If you want to help your dad you have to name that his behavior is hurtful, mean, unacceptable and it counts...just because your family does the time-heals-all-wounds thing doesn't mean everyone, especially partners not groomed to it from birth, will do that, nor should they. People may want to sever the relationship or seriously leave the minute he starts and that's a good thing. I encourage you to support them and participate
posted by warriorqueen at 10:44 AM on January 7, 2017 [11 favorites]

"...gets into arguments with people almost like a hobby..."

That line jumped out at me—I was married to someone who treats disagreements like a competitive sport. Marriage counseling, which included Deborah Tannen's books, helped prolong the marriage by improving communication, but his old habits returned with a vengeance after the divorce. I can't change that, but I can better deal with it thanks to things learned in counseling.

There are tried and true techniques for dealing with people like your dad—many already covered above. Unfortunately, there is no singular, never-fail solution. A therapist could help you work through options. And definitely check out Tannen's books. (I linked to I Only Say This Because I Love You: Talking to Your Parents, Partner, Sibs, and Kids When You're All Adults because it seems most appropriate, but I haven't read it.)
posted by she's not there at 11:38 AM on January 7, 2017 [1 favorite]

Worst of all, he does it to our partners, and this is what I worry about a lot, as in-law relationships can be much more difficult to heal. One of our partners has just emerged from one of these exchanges saying that they no longer want to be in the house when he visits, which is hurting the other enormously.

My father can be like this, and if he ever treated my wife like that he'd never be invited over again, and I'd stop going to see him anywhere but public places. Thankfully he never has, but this part of your story confuses me, that you don't see the verbally abused partner as the injured party here.
posted by eustacescrubb at 7:35 PM on January 7, 2017 [8 favorites]

"Dad, you have got to stop being such an asshole sometimes..."

If you have not done so, I would lay it out to him pretty bluntly.
posted by LarryC at 11:59 PM on January 8, 2017 [1 favorite]

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