Playing therapist to parents? Never again.
December 27, 2007 8:32 PM   Subscribe

Imminently divorcing parents, naive and idealistic father, playing therapist to adults - the works. Help me not hate my family!

Background: My parents married relatively young with little to no experience in the dating world. By the time they realized how incompatible they were, I was on the way. Over the years, financial strife, settling up in new countries (we've been across three continents) and the arrival of my baby sister have all delayed the inevitable. It will be an amiable split, I think; they're good people, just not for each other.

Caveat: There is a woman. Who is madly in love with my father. When he moves out, she is very likely going to divorce her husband, fly across the ocean with her pre-schooler of a child, and move in with my father. They have never done anything, according to him, but they have exchanged emails, and he claims that she is the sort of woman he could see himself building a family with.

And through it all, he seems to have chosen me as his de facto confidante. I've given him the following reasoning:

1. A new relationship so soon after the split will do the opposite of what he wants - alienate my sister, whom he loves to death.
2. A relationship based on her abandoning her previous life to be with him is founded at its core on obligation - "I threw away my life for you and now you want to end it?!"
3. If he didn't know what he wanted first time round, he's putting too much into his judgment this time round. People don't change.
4. It's completely irresponsible to that lady's child to have its world turned upside down, and I can't possible condone that when my own sister is only in 2nd grade
5. What happened to DATING? Cohabitation seems insane, to my current frame of mind.

Not that I don't want him to be happy. I just don't see how this current situation will lead to that end.

He acknowledges my points, but sent me a length email asking me to try and accept his decision and by extension her. He claims that he prolonged his marriage with my mother out of responsibility and that it's time for true love to transcend responsibility. *cue eye-roll* Which, y'know, fine, since I've gotten so sick of him trying to get me to "accept his decision" anyway that I just want to wash my hands of it. But he's expecting some form of syrupy, "I just want you to be happy despite my being convinced that you're batshitinsane" response when all I really want to do is tell him to shove it. (Except that would make me feel guilty, ungrateful, and like a horrible human being. He's my FATHER. it doesn't matter that I hated being around my family growing up. Family is family.)

How do I gracefully exit this situation without causing even more strife than already present? How do I tell him I'm no longer interested in caring about his decision when his email was full of guilt-tripping, feel-good catchphrases like "I know you care about me and that's why you're upset"? I could try to avoid this until I go back to school in January and am no longer at home, but I get the feeling that won't be the end of it. He's looking to move out May absolute latest.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
My parents were married for 20 some odd years. They met as teenagers and had three kids before my father turned 20 and my mother turned 21. Their marriage was on the rocks for many years before it finally came crashing down. My father left for a woman he met online and was determained to make their lives together immediately. She divorced her husband and left her three children (around the same ages as my brothers and i) with her ex. I was the only one of the kids still living at home and so the only one that really had to deal with it up close and personal.

I was angry and irritated and I also rolled my eyes at how my father claimed to have stayed so long 'for the kids' or 'for the family' or whatever other bullshit he laid on us/himself. I started and participated in a great many fights with him and with my new stepmother. I at the last minute was talked into going to their wedding and I sulked and made dirty faces the whole time. My dad went through a period where he didn't want to be seen with me and I had no urge to be around him.

You know what I realized somewhere in the last 10 years since the split? None of it mattered to me in the long run. My father is happy. My mother has also remarried. They are both better off apart. My dad had to do some things the hard way because of the road he chose, but that was his horse and cart and nothing I could have said would have changed any of it. All the fights were for not.

So it looks like you're getting to the point where you realize this isn't worth your time and effort because it's his life. Good. You can work on the anger and bitterness this is building in you later. For now, "Dad, I know it must have been hard to come to these decisions. I have said my peace as far as what obstacles you are going to face and we've discussed those at length. This is not my blessing, but it is my acceptance. I will always be your offspring and you will always be my father. "

And in the future, draw very clear boundries when he wants to talk about his relationship with your mother, the new woman, or any of that. You are the child. He can find a friend or a shrink if he needs to sort his head out. That is not your job. Be firm in that. It will cause tension in the short term, but hopefully he'll realize why you did it in the long run.

Email is in the profile if you want to talk about this. I could go on for pages.
posted by nadawi at 8:50 PM on December 27, 2007 [4 favorites]

I think he's going to do what he's going to do anyhow. While he may have been hoping for a "yay go for it Dad!" response from you, he didn't get it. You can just stop and he'll do what he's going to do. My Dad did something very similar. He had been separated from my Mom for a good long time, but out of his last relationship for a year or two before he decided to move in with a woman pretty much before we even knew he was interested in her "like that" and called me and my sister to notify us, but not really to ask our permission. I was a bit flabbergasted, but I did have a chance to ask some questions and then I sort of left it alone.

Your 1-5 reasons don't really matter in the scheme of things here be cause you're not in a situation where you can talk your Dad out of anything. It seems pretty clear that he wasn't asking your permission. In the same way, your Dad may not be the best person for you to talk about these things with. I'm not saying you don't have decent objections and/or reaosning, just that things may not go your way and it might be nice for you to have a buddy or a freindn to talk with this stuff about who is NOT one of your parents. You sound like me, the older kid with two weirdly behaving parents and a little sister who has to suddenly say "You're doing WHAT?"

So, take care of youself and see what you can do about your sister. If you have a good line of communication with your dad, don't jeopardize it, but try to nail down some things -- what about your sister, what about this woman's child, what about you -- without making them attack points. I know it's a hard thing to do and I know it's not your job, but it might make things further down the road somewhat simpler. You haven't mentioned your Mom at all, how is she doing? While she is also not your responsibility, if your Dad is going to be shacking up with someone else, your Mom may have weird feelings about that, even if they're bith being adults about it all.

Parents arent' always the best judge of how to make themseleves happy, but their kids often aren't either. This sounds like it's been a pain for you and I hope it works out in the best way possible, but if i were you I'd be listening to both your parents, but not stepping in with a bunch of advice until you know where thigns are going, Find a firend to talk to abotu how YOU'RE feeling about all of it and check back in and read this thread in six months and see if it turned out like any of you thought it would. Good luck, I know it isn't easy.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 PM on December 27, 2007

"Dad, I love and care for you deeply and I am sorry that you are going through a difficult time. I do wish the very best for you in whatever you decide, but please understand that as your child, I cannot be your support system through this. I cannot lend you advice, nor can I be a confidante, because I am your child, and it is not healthy for me."

Leave it at that.

I feel very much for you. I am 30, and I am now only starting to grapple with the way in which I had to be a parent to my father instead of the other way 'round. It is a very, very difficult thing to come to terms with. My heart goes out to you. I hope your father will listen to you if you do decide to tell him this.
posted by pazazygeek at 8:53 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

?I'm certain that you can understant that I feel that I have to remain neutral in this situation and your confidences in me are putting me in a difficult situaiton in this family. I appreciate your understanding my decision in this matter."
posted by Ironmouth at 8:59 PM on December 27, 2007

1. 2. 3. 4. 5. ...

You talk about everything but what you're feeling. It will alienate your sister? Is she a proxy for you, or are you just omitting yourself?

As long as you debate logically with your father, he can rebuff your reasons with his own arguments. If you just plain flat tell him IF YOU DO THIS I WILL FEEL THIS WAY there is really nothing he can logically say to refute you.

That said, he is going to go through with it. Plain and simple. No doubt in my mind whatsoever. This poor innocent man who never had a chance to temper himself in the fires of dating is now facing a divorce. And you know, that's incredibly scary for him. Scarier than he can handle. Really. It is beyond him. And so he's doing what he did before: plunge into a relationship head first, body and soul.

I'm sorry that your father and you are in this situation, but these seem endemic human mating issues, and not something that words or thoughts can divert. Your father has a different upbringing than you. You cannot bring your life experience to him. What is logical to you is not useful from his perspective.

Try to get inside his head. Accept the things he's accepted. Look at the options not as you see them but within the inevitable choices he's already made. And advise him from there. You can't make him someone else.
posted by scarabic at 9:27 PM on December 27, 2007

But he's expecting some form of syrupy, "I just want you to be happy despite my being convinced that you're batshitinsane" response when all I really want to do is tell him to shove it.

Hi. I'm your Dad. That's to say, I fully expect to be that kind of Dad to your kind of son in a few years. All I want (expect) from you is this: "I'm happy you're happy." Exit stage left.
posted by YamwotIam at 9:29 PM on December 27, 2007 [2 favorites]

(or daughter)
posted by YamwotIam at 9:30 PM on December 27, 2007

If it's any consolation, I once saw a member of my family enter a marriage I knew was going to be a disaster. I told him ahead of time that I thought he was taking a huge risk and there was more than a good chance that it would not work out well. He told me that he understood and wanted to take on the challenge. It was an amicable, respectful conversation.

Now, years later, that marriage is dust. I was right. But being right wasn't much use at that time. What I'm trying to say is: make your feelings known but don't burn that bridge. Life is long. What you KNOW is right now can't help you, but be there on the other side of it in a few years and be just as wise and helpful. It will mean a lot more then.
posted by scarabic at 9:31 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Wow - I'd be so happy to disappoint you, in his place, YamwotIam.
posted by scarabic at 9:34 PM on December 27, 2007

Not that I don't want him to be happy. I just don't see how this current situation will lead to that end.

YamwotIam, are you expecting the OP to lie/pretend things will turn out fine for the father?
posted by Phire at 9:37 PM on December 27, 2007

Phire, scarabic: My (his [the father's]) life is mine/his to, you know, lead. This question reminded me of the Mark Twain quote:

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."
posted by YamwotIam at 9:45 PM on December 27, 2007

Eek. It's always icky when a family member\co-worker\friend wants to star in their very own mind numbing, over the top soap opera, AND want you to be their witness\confidante\laugh track\best friend\cheering section. That shit right there....

Anyway, I've found the issue is never the telling people that "really, ok, fine, I get it, it's your life, just leave me out of this part" - it's the retelling, and retelling, and retelling....

...because when people insist on taking repeated licks off of the ice cream cone of stupidity, they want the drama of fighting with you so they don't have to deal with the nagging voices of sensible doubt ringing in their own heads during the quiet moments of sanity.

I've found it hard, but rewarding, to just have a short, stock phrase handy, which I use liberally, like sun block: I truly hope it works out well for you, but I really don't feel comfortable hearing\doing\seeing\being a part of this right now. Can we do\talk\see something else?

It's stopped people who repeatedly try to suck me into their madness, and repeating the *same* phrase every time is just like a force field. The absurdity and effectiveness of it stops me from feeling resentful.

Perhaps you could use it when you are inevitably invited to meet the new woman and/or her children, to admire her, or to join in the criticism of her whenever something goes wrong.

Good, good luck...
posted by anitanita at 9:45 PM on December 27, 2007 [4 favorites]

"When I was a boy of fourteen, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be twenty-one, I was astonished at how much he had learned."

I hasten to add, anonymous, that this is not a dig at you. I know this must feel like a fucked-up situation. Just giving my paternal 2 cents.
posted by YamwotIam at 9:48 PM on December 27, 2007

: My (his [the father's]) life is mine/his to, you know, lead.

I don't disagree with that at all. It was your part about 'expecting' blithe assent / insincere congratulations at ever turn that I disagreed with. Your life is always yours to live, even if the people who love you tell you you're batshitinsane. I think you confused this issue for the OP, telling him to just shut up and pat his dad on the back when what you meant to say was "it's his own life to live." That would have been a fair point to make, but the way you phrased it was pretty gross.
posted by scarabic at 10:07 PM on December 27, 2007

Mmmm, fair enough. Almost. But fuck, I'm your Dad and I've sacrificed x years of happiness for yours. A pat on the back is too much to ask? Just playing devil's advocate now, you understand.
posted by YamwotIam at 10:11 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

Listen to pazazygeek. Say what he suggests.

It isn't a child's duty to give her parent a pat on the back. I can't find the words to describe it, but please believe me: being put in the middle of issues like this, and being all but begged to give approval, or even advice, is painful. It's damaging. It's inappropriate.

It's your dad's life, he can do whatever he wants. But he shouldn't make you feel responsible about it (which is what happens, to some degree at least, when he wants your approval). You shouldn't let him make you feel responsible. Don't let him.

Look out for yourself and your little sister. Allow yourself to be upset. Repeat, over and over again, what pasasygeek said, whenever your dad tries to deny you the chance to have your own emotions about this.
posted by Ms. Saint at 10:32 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

No, YamwotIam, you didn't "Sacrifice X years of happiness for your kid's happiness", you did the things a parent is supposed to do. Like Chris Rock, I can just not get behind this push for people to get accolades for providing a base minimum of decent parenting.

Some kinds of parents are really interested in seeking emotional shoring-up from their kids. It's inappropriate, and it's damaging to the kid (and ultimately to both parties, I believe, since the support you get from a kid isn't going to address your adult needs).

I second everything Ms. Saint said. You are entitled to feel however you feel about this process, and it is unfair and self-centered and pretty sucky parenting for your father to ask that you please be (or pretend to be) delighted with his hurtful choices so a tinge of guilt doesn't have to ruin his glorious new affair.

Screw it. Let him feel the tinge of guilt. And you feel however you feel. You're allowed.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 10:51 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

YamwotIam - please consider how you relay the sentiment of i sacrificed so many years of my life this is the least you can give me thing. and poster - don't take that bullshit from your father. he decided to fuck your mom. he decided the path his life took to have you and your sister. he decided what to "sacrifice". that is not your burden to bear. my father put me through that and that's the thing i've never gotten over.
posted by nadawi at 11:15 PM on December 27, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm your Dad and I've sacrificed x years of happiness for yours.

I know what you're saying, and I sympathize, but this statement seeks to treat the parent/child relationship like a trade or contract. The problem with that is that the child did not have a chance to negotiate that contract. Parents make great sacrifices for their children, but expecting any of it (much less all of it) to be paid back is not actually fair. I think the most a parent is entitled to expect of a child is that they child treat him/herself well and do his/her best. But many cultural traditions disagree with me and think the child's birthright is a heavy toll of allegiance and/or work & even payment, so what do I know?
posted by scarabic at 11:29 PM on December 27, 2007

At the end of the day, you need to be responsible for yourself, and help your sister deal with this if she needs you. If your father wants to make a big mistake, or twenty, that's his responsibility and not yours.

You can't protect your father; right now, worry about protecting your sister and most importantly you, even if you think you don't need protecting.

As for the sacrifice stuff, hey look over here at me. I'm a dad! I've got twins, and it's been a huge sacrifice, and it's hard as fuck. But I chose it, and I love it (even when I hate it), and all the struggle and challenge is a direct result of my decision to go through with it. Putting that burden on my children -- that somehow they were responsible for this, or chose to impose this burden on me -- is borderline insane, or at least incredibly immature and selfish. But then, he has a track record of being like that, yes?
posted by davejay at 12:02 AM on December 28, 2007

Parents make great sacrifices for their children, but expecting any of it (much less all of it) to be paid back is not actually fair.

Succinct and correct.
posted by davejay at 12:03 AM on December 28, 2007

My parents were divorced when I was 11 so I feel like I can say this without being completely out of line: you have no say in your parent's romantic lives. My dad shared all kinds of stuff with me, we had an excellent line of communication. He told me (whilst I was working for him for 10 years) all kinds of things that my stepmum would say to him when she was in a temper and I'd think 'for fuck's sake' and he'd tell me all kinds of details about his life with mum, and I loved hearing it.

Not long after he started to recover from the fallout of the divorce he fell into a relationship with a woman who was annoying and irritating, but I couldn't think of a way to say what I thought without making it seem that I dissaproved of him being happy, because if he didn't care about her braying laugh and falseness well then shit, what have I got to do with it? Luckily (in my case) he got rid of braying woman and hooked up with neurotic nurse who also happens to be absolutely lovely, apart from the fact that she spews bile as soon as she's thwarted.

The point is, your mum and dad have parted ways. He's off on a new adventure. You will always be his daughter and, if you choose, his confidante (which is a rare and not to be sneezed at thing, even if you don't always agree) but he's going to go off and live his life and, because you're an adult, you're going to live yours. You can't tell each other what to do but if you're close and you (both of you) don't fuck it up, you'll always be able to tell each other how you feel.

I think that's a good thing.
posted by h00py at 3:34 AM on December 28, 2007

I've been wading through this sort of thing lately myself.

My sibs and I have all found ourselves in the same kind of position with our parents at various points, so I can attest to how frustrating it can be. But my sisters and I have two very different responses to being placed in the "confidante" position. They, like you, have a hard time being in the position, feeling like the parent, being asked an opinion and then being ignored because they are young and inexperienced. I don't blame them for feeling that way.

But I feel differently. I feel like I am in the unique position to give back support to my parents who both need it now so much more than I do. I'm an adult, living with my partner and our dogs, and their lives are crumbling around them and I have a lot of support to give back to them.

But they didn't support me by saying, "Good for you! Do whatever you want! Life has no consequences!" They supported me by sharing tough opinions, identifying self-destructive trends, and then ultimately letting me fail and figuring things out on my own. And that is all you have to do in return. That, and remember all along that you love him and always will. Remember, adults are just older kids.
posted by greekphilosophy at 7:37 AM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

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