How can I break the ice with my dad?
August 16, 2006 4:16 PM   Subscribe

I think my dad is too shy to really talk to me. How can I break the ice?

I'm 25, he's 53. We had the usual stressful father-son relationship when I was in high school, I guess, but we never fought that hard. He and my mom are still married. Frankly, there's been nothing more awkward or upsetting between us than there is between your average parent and kid — lots of little stuff over the years, but nothing big.

But we don't talk. If I ask anything more personal than "What's new at work?" he finds a way to end the conversation quickly or change the subject. And he honestly seems not to want to know about my personal life. My girlfriend and I have lived together for almost a year, and not once has he asked how she is. If I talk about her — or about our church, or my friends, or anything else remotely personal — he gets all flustered and awkward until I change the subject.

It used to be that he'd read my livejournal, which was a handy way of keeping in touch — I could lock entries he didn't need to see, but he'd still get little day-to-day updates on my life. But about two years ago, when I mentioned a (previous) new girlfriend in a few public entries, he stopped reading. In fact, he announced to me that he was going to stop reading it — he said it "didn't seem appropriate."

Now, I'm sure I'm part of the problem too. When I do make an effort to talk to him, it goes nowhere, so I've stopped making an effort. The few times I've tried telling him I love him, want him in my life, and would be thrilled if we could be more open with each other — well that's flustered him like crazy, and I don't think it's made a positive difference, so I don't do that anymore either.

But what else can I do? How can I include this guy in my life when he's too shy even to listen? (Or is there another explanation for this that I'm being too dense to see?)

One more thing, since someone is always pushing therapy in these threads. My dad has a therapist who he's been seeing for years, and he says it's nice just to have someone to talk to (ack!) but if anything he and I have talked less since he started. I saw a therapist for a while too, and we talked about lots of things — including this problem. It was nice to get it off my chest, but of course the problem itself is still there.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (18 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Ask him about his own father. You can psoe this as a gathering of family history, getting personal information under an impersonal guise.
posted by Sara Anne at 4:30 PM on August 16, 2006

I have to say, some people are just more reserved than others. I don't talk about a lot of really personal stuff with my family and I feel weird if they start asking, but that doesn't mean we aren't close. Different people have different needs emotionally and I'm not sure it is a good idea to try and force someone to be a lot more open emotionally than they are comfortable with!

Have you tried doing things together instead of talking? That's what I do.
posted by Justinian at 4:41 PM on August 16, 2006

For some people, not only is discussing personal matters excrutiating, but it's absolutely impossible to discuss personal matters with a grown child. Sometimes culture comes into play - like father, head of the family, silent provider sort of thing. Another thing is that the deep and meaningful stuff that is so necessary to talk about mid teens to mid twenties is old hat, long decided life memes for a lot of mature aged people.

So, what I suggest you do is talk about his stuff. His work, his hobbies, his friends, his opinions of world matters for, oh say a couple of years until you develop a new relationship. Maybe then, you'll be able to ease into more meaningful discussions, but always be prepared to accept that culturally, personally, discussing relationship matters may be too challenging.
posted by b33j at 5:36 PM on August 16, 2006

Some guys are very private and there is not a lot you are ever going to get out of them. As with anyone else, it is probably best to find subjects about which he is interested to get him talking. That, and exploring his youth and family history, unless for some reason that was quite painful.
posted by caddis at 5:37 PM on August 16, 2006

do you two like to drink? get drunk together. it helps loosen lips.
posted by Hackworth at 5:40 PM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Pretend he's a good friend of yours, not your father. Go out for dinner and treat as if you're catching up with an old friend. Try to eliminate the unspoken power/family dynamic and just treat him like a normal guy.
posted by pinto at 5:43 PM on August 16, 2006

If you ask him about historic/pop culture things that happened when he was a kid, you might get a tiny personal angle without his having to be uncomfortable. He can tell you how it seemed at the time, how it mattered/didn't matter to him, and so on. If he's 53, let's see.... 60's: President Kennedy, The Beatles, Martin Luther King, Volkswagen Beetle, astronauts, Vietnam... Or local things. If he lived in NY, ask him about the '69 Mets, for example. Since you sound like his talking with you matters quite a bit, you might not mind getting a few specific questions ready.

One of my nephews started a conversation with me about "the olden days" by asking about "stuff you used to have before the stuff we have now," like typewriters. We older folks love to cast our memory back to when there were no answering machines. Hmmm, maybe once he gets started on that, he'll never stop. "Candy bars were thiiiiiis big and they only cost 5 cents!

If he's extremely introverted, though, you might base your relationship on being one of the few people that will hang out and do things with him and not expect him to talk. Some non-talkers really value that.
posted by wryly at 6:04 PM on August 16, 2006

My dad doesn't talk either. My mom talks but almost never about anything consequential.

I save my talking for people who want to hear it and who will talk back.
posted by konolia at 6:48 PM on August 16, 2006 [1 favorite]

Wryly makes a very good point; as a fellow introvert I gotta say that I really value people who can just hang out without making me go through all kinds of weepy feelings stuff.
posted by Justinian at 6:50 PM on August 16, 2006

I save my talking for people who want to hear it and who will talk back.

Damn, that must mean MeFi members because you have opened your soul here and that is why so many people love you. Those people who don't hold back, who reveal their soul, they are embraced. I envy them.
posted by caddis at 7:06 PM on August 16, 2006

This may be way out of left field, but maybe he disaproves of your lifestyle ("living in sin" with your girlfriend, etc) but doesn't want to judge you about it.
So, maybe it's just a case of the less he knows, the happier he is?
posted by madajb at 7:48 PM on August 16, 2006

Yeah - a lot of good ideas here, but I want to explore what madajb just said. Is it possible that your father has good reason for not wanting to confide his feelings to you? We don't always feel the things for family that would make for happy endings if revealed. Not all the time, and not on demand. There's also such a thing as too much honesty, and perhaps your father is wisely trying to steer you away from that particular cliff. Whether it's disapproval of your lifestyle, disappointment with his own life, or something even more personal on his end - he may have his own secrets that he'd rather not get into, and perhaps his therapy sessions involve more than you think - the possibility exists that he's reticent for a reason.

I'm not suggesting it's not worth trying to build a different kind of relationship with him (which is essentially what many of the other suggestions amount to), just that you should be prepared for the possibility that there may be more to this than simple shyness, and that you would be wise to make your overtures carefully and as respectfully of your father's privacy as you can if you want to gain his trust.

Just a few thoughts from a very private (but not at all shy) person.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 9:25 PM on August 16, 2006

Unburden yourself. Take him to dinner and thank him for raising you the way he did. Give him examples about how he did such a good job. Clean up anything that may still be "out there." (I really felt badly about spilling paint in the garage.)

Write him a letter, too. Talk about your hopes & dreams for his grandchildren. (Not instead of dinner.)

If all else fails, take him to Vegas.
posted by UncleHornHead at 5:03 AM on August 17, 2006

You might consider that the problem isn't a problem. This idea that you and your father should be best buds who gab about the details of each other's love lives is pretty strange. Your father likely doesn't buy it. Also, it's likely that you and your father are far more different than you realize. Even though you've known him your entire life, you've changed a lot over that time and to him you might be almost a stranger. So... thinking of him as "friend" to gossip with might just be the wrong way to go.

How can I include this guy in my life when he's too shy even to listen?

Your father isn't there to listen. He's there to be your father. If you want somebody to listen to, talk to your girlfriend. Yes, he'll have to listen sometimes, especially when you're in trouble, but it's unlikely that he really wants to know the intimate details of your life. As far as family goes, all that's required is that you Be There (tm). The routine phone calls, emails, and holiday visits--this is what really matters. If you take him out to dinner on his birthday, even if you two spend the dinner in absolute silence, I gurantee you he'll still be overjoyed that his kid made the special effort to treat him out to dinner.

The routine part is what's important. Consider what the various rituals and traditions that you and your dad share and focus on maintaining those. These shared traditions are the form of your relationship. Beyond that, just spend as much time as you can with him, even if it's just watching TV or eating Burger King. Lower your expectations of serious conversation from him. These things can't be forced. They have to grow naturally, over time. Back off and give him space and focus more on the foundations of your relationship. The rest will take care of itself.

If you really do want to get him talking there's three topics that most men are always ready to talk about: (1) his past (accomplishments) (2) politics/economy/culture (3) marriage and career advice. For (3), it's never just random gossip, but more problem solving, that is tell him about a specific problem he'll usually offer up some sort of good advice.
posted by nixerman at 5:34 AM on August 17, 2006

Have you tried talking to your mother about this? My father and I used to have a very contentious relationship and my mother was a big help in bridging the gap between us and helping us to understand each other more. I'm not saying to put your mother in the middle, but she probably has a lot of insight into whether he would like to be closer or not.
posted by witchstone at 6:25 AM on August 17, 2006

What Justinian and nixerman said. My father was like this, very uncomfortable talking about anything but sports, politics, and the like, so that's what we talked about, and we had a great relationship. Why do you feel you need to make a buddy of your father? He's your father, that's what he does, and it sounds like he does it well. Be content.
posted by languagehat at 7:08 AM on August 17, 2006

Sit him down for a drink of whatever he likes, where he likes and ask this: "Dad, I wanted to discuss my girlfriend with you. I believe you might have some reservations about our relationship and I hope that you might give me some advice about it."

Talk with him about that. There's probably a good chance you'll find out he doesn't approve. Once you've tabled that topic, you're ready to move on to better conversation with him.

If there isn't an issue, then your dad will ask why you think there is one and now you can work on breaking the ice with him.

I know if *I* have strong reservations about someone's activities I can't have a meaningful conversation with them until they understand my feelings. At the same time, though, I rarely want them to know my feelings since it will sour the relationship. And so the conundrum presents itself.

Note that you don't have to follow his advice, but you have to seriously consider it and in doing so, validate your father's feelings.

All that's assuming what I'm thinking is happening behind the scenes. It wouldn't surprise me. Your father is of an age where he would more than likely have been taught that it isn't right to have live-in (assumption) girlfriends.

Either that or your dad is very introverted. You'd know that by now, though, and would have mentioned it...
posted by shepd at 7:13 AM on August 17, 2006

(Hmm, this sounds an awful lot like me five years ago. Even the age difference is right.)

Anyway, start with shared interests. For the longest time I had trouble talking to my dad about anything consequential. However, once I started teaching myself to cook, I suddenly had a pastime that I was excited about and could share with him. (He's been divorced for almost 25 years and never quite figured out how to cook until recently. And everyone's gotta eat.) After enough casual conversations it became easier to get into the weightier stuff, because there wasn't a "this is the part where we talk about Serious Life Stuff" vibe around it, just natural conversational flow. There are a lot of things I'm still not ready to ask/talk about yet, but the list is shorter than it used to be.

Also: I think witchstone and shepd are on to something with the "ask your mother" and "disapproval" theories. Seriously, ask your mom. She probably wants to see you guys talking as much as you do.
posted by Vervain at 2:09 PM on August 17, 2006

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