Negotiating adult relationships with a frustrating parent
July 3, 2017 3:59 PM   Subscribe

I don't know how to have an adult relationship with my dad. He loves me deeply and is very proud of me, which I know makes me lucky. However, I get really stressed around him and I feel really guilty about how distant of a relationship I'd prefer to have with him, given how desperately he wants a relationship with me. I'm looking for some advice in figuring out a happy medium given what's going on.

I'm a 33-year-old woman. My parents have been divorced since I was 8. Both are from the US.

My dad and I talk on the phone maybe once a month and visit in person twice a year. He always asks me to stay at his house when I'm in town (I usually stay with my mom), and says he can't afford a hotel when he visits me so he stays at my apartment. He also asks me to travel with him frequently, which I have stopped agreeing to. He acts really hurt when I turn him down.

He sets up strict rules/limits on his behavior (based on inconsistently-held religious beliefs and fringy health/diet stuff) that significantly inconvenience me and others, but then violates the rules when they inconvenience him. As an illustrative example, when I was a teenager, he started following rules that led him to not show up for things I needed him to show up for, but then would violate them to go on dates. He says he's so profoundly dyslexic that he can't read, so my mom read his textbooks to him when he was in college, but he has no trouble with religious texts or books about health/diet. I end up feeling pretty resentful because of this kind of thing.

He often says well-intentioned inappropriate things to me and my friends (e.g., he comments on people's race/ethnicity as a way to bond with them). He also asks me odd questions in an attempt to bond that feel more personal than I'm comfortable answering (e.g., out of nowhere, "what is your least and most favorite thing about your ex-boyfriend?" and "when is the last time you smoked marijuana?"). I feel like I always have to be on guard to protect my boundaries and my friends' boundaries. I'm single and have no kids so there's usually no one to buffer his directed attention to me.

[Potential cw for inappropriate touching] He also has a hard time with physical boundaries. He was recently in town and, after touching two male strangers without their permission (he fixed one's shirt and patted another on the shoulder), I told him that he should maybe avoid that in the future because people might react badly. He responded by telling me that he often thinks that he would like to hold my hand but senses that I'd be uncomfortable with it, which was so incomprehensible that all I said in response was, "Yes, I would be very uncomfortable with that." Given behavior like this and our lack of a close relationship, other things that he does make me uncomfortable, including folding my clean laundry (including underwear) without permission, and entering my bedroom/sitting down in my bed uninvited when I'm napping. He has never done anything outright abusive to me or others, to my knowledge.

As if this all wasn't enough, I've gotten bad hives 4 of the last 5 times we've shared a space, I think because of a reaction to some product he uses. One time led to an ER visit. It's only happened once in my life when I was not in his presence. He's devastated by this and denies that it's happening while it's happening, which breaks my heart for him.

I get that I don't have to like my dad in the way I'd like a friend, but I'd genuinely like to be more tolerant of him so that we can have some sort of relationship or at least enjoy the brief times when we do interact. My reactions to him and the fact that I'm constantly having to set and police new boundaries make me feel like a total intolerant asshole. I know that he would love to have a close relationship with me but doesn't quite know how to go about it in a way that works for me, and I'm honestly not sure what would work for me. I'd appreciate some help thinking through this!
posted by deus ex machina to Human Relations (8 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
 
Are you in therapy? A good therapist can be really helpful in figuring out how to manage boundaries and parental relationships.
posted by bunderful at 4:44 PM on July 3, 2017 [2 favorites]


Since you seem to not enjoy spending physical time with him, and since he's dyslexic so you can't email, can you increase phone time? Maybe once a week instead of once per month? Maybe throw in some Skype time?

When he asks you questions you're not comfortable answering, perhaps address it right then. "Dad, this isn't a question fathers ask their adult daughters, so don't expect an answer." And when he visits, make sure the visit is shorter and full of activities, so that you can direct the conversation towards that stuff. Does he have hobbies beyond his weird diet and his religion? Maybe you can share those and find out what he finds appealing about them.

You have every right to set all the boundaries, here. It's clear you want to have a relationship, so cutting him off completely isn't the answer. See what you can do to make yourself more comfortable.
posted by clone boulevard at 4:45 PM on July 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


Having weird food restrictions and also not respecting boundaries are some of the symptoms of either borderline personality disorder or narcissistic personality disorder. Not saying that's what it is, but you should look at the checklists for those and see if that's why you're struggling with your relationship.
posted by Coffeetyme at 5:15 PM on July 3, 2017 [13 favorites]


I get that I don't have to like my dad in the way I'd like a friend, but I'd genuinely like to be more tolerant of him so that we can have some sort of relationship or at least enjoy the brief times when we do interact. My reactions to him and the fact that I'm constantly having to set and police new boundaries make me feel like a total intolerant asshole. I know that he would love to have a close relationship with me but doesn't quite know how to go about it in a way that works for me, and I'm honestly not sure what would work for me. I'd appreciate some help thinking through this!

Wow, there is so much happening here! My first question is whether you actually want a closer relationship with your dad, or even a relationship with the same amount of contact you have now. You are really going out of your way in this question to make it sound like your dad is just a hapless good-natured guy who really means well, and you are just some crazy uptight lady who doesn't want him to touch your underwear, so silly, why can't you relax. But the fact that you included the note about him bailing on your trumpet recitals but not his own dates and making your mom read his textbooks to him makes me wonder if you don't know a deeper truth about your dad that you are resisting looking too closely at: that he's a genial user who prioritizes what he wants (dates, college degree, fun relationship with daughter without ever acknowledging his fuck-ups) over what other people need (attentive parent, personal space) and always has a convenient excuse for why it has to be that way and anyone who disagrees is an uptight bitch.

Is that your dad? Because you don't have to put up with that if that is your dad. You can make him get an Air BnB. You can cut down the visits to once a year or every other year. You can call less often. You can hang up on him when he's weird. You can stop telling him not to adjust stranger's clothing because you are not in charge of him anymore. Etc.

But if that's not your dad, or that is your dad but you decide you want to maintain a relationship with him at this time, I would suggest increasing communication while decreasing intimacy. For instance:

• choose movies or books to watch and read/listen to then discuss afterwards
• ask him about his childhood/his parent's lives. You could get one of those "my autobiography" books as a prop.
• send picture postcards of your city/location with brief messages on the back
• use one of those "icebreaker" games to have conversations (screen the questions beforehand so they are more like "What is your desert island food?" and not "What do you want in a partner?")
• make notes before your call with innocuous things to share like a new recipe you tried recently, a funny annoying coworker story, an interesting article you read in the newspaper, a movie you want to see, etc.
• when in doubt, rant about the weather, politics, sports, etc. I can reliably get my dad going on his union pension plan or a crazy thing my grandfather has done. If you can tolerate it, let him tell you about his latest religious or dietary whatever while pretending you are a reporter or anthropologist, ie, your goal is to learn why he does something/what meaning it has for him/how he thinks it is working. Suggested phrases: "Does that take up a lot of time? Do you need a lot of supplies for that? Where do you get the X? Who else is usually there? How long does that keep in the refrigerator? Is Rabbi So-and-So still there? How did they choose the new rabbi?" etc. Information gathering.
• set time limits for your calls (that you know, not that you tell your dad) and plan your excuse for getting off the phone before you call. You aren't being mean/petty/a bad daughter; you are setting up an interaction with your dad in a way that works for both of you.
• Make him stay at an Air BnB. He'll be fine.
• Do activities while he visits that give you something to talk about or inhibit talking. Plan them in advance. Pottery class, music concert, public lectures, museum tours, walking tours, movies, volunteering with animals. Not just eating a meal together.
posted by Snarl Furillo at 5:35 PM on July 3, 2017 [28 favorites]


Do activities while he visits that give you something to talk about or inhibit talking. Plan them in advance. Pottery class, music concert, public lectures, museum tours, walking tours, movies, volunteering with animals. Not just eating a meal together.

Yeah - I handle some awkward relationships like this. Find things in common to turn the conversation towards that are easy to talk about - like a mutual interest in astronomy - and do things together that get you both talking about "whoa what a huge lizard" or "we need more bean soup over here." Family history / genealogy is another subject that people will often talk about happily and at length, and which I find interesting.

If you have trouble telling him he can't stay with you, consider framing it like this: "Dad, I get really stressed over houseguests - remember how I had hives last time you were in town? I've realized that I just have to say no to houseguests for my health. I want to enjoy your visit as much as I can, so here's a list of hotels. I appreciate your understanding." That way it's not about him, but it's very much about your needs. If he says he can't afford it, "That's too bad, why don't we talk about you visiting another time, when it's more financially feasible for you."

(I suspect he can afford it if he's regularly asking you to go on trips with him). And then if you have other houseguests, just don't mention them to him.
posted by bunderful at 8:17 PM on July 3, 2017 [4 favorites]


You've been tolerant enough.

I'm honestly not sure what would work for me
Do you think you could get clear about this? Or do you feel that you know what would work but that he wouldn't be able to achieve it?

Does he have a girlfriend now? It sounds as if he's a very tactile person and he needs to have a lot of touching in his life and to be touched and with it absent in his life, he is getting it from inappropriate sources. I don't see what you could personally do to change it other than explain this to him so he's aware of it.

Unfortunately if you're dealing with someone who has boundary issues (and who sounds quite difficult), you will have to constantly reinforce boundaries. There's no way around it but you should make it clear that you cannot spend time with him for X reason and let him be hurt.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 1:06 AM on July 4, 2017 [2 favorites]


I'm a fan of Hanlon's razor. Maybe your dad's a selfish, controlling jerk that you should have nothing to do with. Or maybe he's incredibly socially inept, and you can't hold (most of) it against him.

Going off of the info you've posted here, your dad sounds like an anxious or "awkward" person. Like he's struggled to understand social cues in his relationships, and that that's sometimes come off as selfish.

If my interpretation resonates, his social awkwardness may be what's at the root of your own guilt and anxiety. Social awkwardness makes us extremely uncomfortable. It's hard not to want to smooth it all over or, hell, run for the hills.

Not everyone is comfortable managing—and it is managing—a relationship with a person like this, but I get the impression you want to because you worry your father will be lonely without you?

If you really want this relationship, I think you have two options. Unfortunately, neither is free from angst.
  1. You can be more assertive about your boundaries and decide what happens if/when he fails to respect them. Note that you may hurt his feelings doing this, and there's a chance he won't understand your boundaries to honor them. A person who has lived and struggled with below-average emotional intelligence won't suddenly "get" and respect your needs, simply because you express them. The best way this will work is if you control the narrative (Snarl's suggestions are great), and so never really have to have too many uncomfortable conversations about boundaries, but having to control the narrative gets tiring after a while and can worsen feelings of resentment.
  2. You could try to reframe your understanding of (some of) his behavior. Overall, your father sounds like a pain to deal with, but if I'm right about his awkwardness, I don't think he's ill-intentioned, just sometimes clueless and sometimes very different from you. Can you learn to accept what is ultimately harmless, even if awkward or different? For example, is it weird that he occasionally folds your clothes, including your underwear? Absolutely. Could it also be his poor attempt to be kind and helpful? Yes. This could be true of his desire to hold your hand and his poorly-worded questions, too. It may also be important to realize that some of what bothers you—e.g., your father patting the stranger on the shoulder, fixing another's shirt—may not bother others in the least, and may even be appreciated. It bothered you that your father projected his feelings—his desire to be touched—onto others, but you've projected yours as well, it seems. Option #2 here is a live and let live approach where you carefully pick your battles and err on the side of optimism (i.e., everyone means well).
Most likely, something between these two options works best. In my difficult relationship with someone, I do what I can to control the narrative, to make sure my boundaries are respected as much as possible. But I also try to let go of as much as I can because I realize that, while my approach to life and relationships is HUGELY different from this other person's, we both have good intentions.
posted by iamfantastikate at 4:00 AM on July 4, 2017 [2 favorites]


Sorry for the multiple answers, but I just realized that I have a family member with whom I have a somewhat similar dynamic. We do really well with online and phone conversations. I've learned that it's better for the relationship if I don't stay with them or vice versa when we're both in the same town. Even if they do nothing odd my anxiety that they *might* infringe upon my boundaries is enough to put a damper on the visit.

It also helps me to have an exit or break strategy. At a big family dinner, I can say I need to take a walk or make a phone call. I avoid situations where we might be stuck together in an enclosed space for a long time - road trips, for example. When we do get together it's better in a group, so I don't feel I need to give them my undivided attention, and we can both have breaks from each other without making a point of doing so - just by walking across the room to say hi to Aunt Melba.

But, we can have really good conversations via phone, and it's easier in that context for me to appreciate what makes them an interesting person and the things that we have in common.
posted by bunderful at 9:58 AM on July 4, 2017 [1 favorite]


« Older Is it possible to use neural networks to estimate...   |   Help me name this organization. Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.