Hey Captain & Company,
I haven’t seen my father since I was 8. We were in contact until I was 16; he was emotionally abusive throughout that time. I have a brother and sister by his previous marriage, and part of his abuse involved keeping us from having a relationship with each other. We have reconnected as adults and are tentatively trying to learn how to be siblings. It’s very difficult with my sister because she is very close to our father and is really insistent that I should be as well.
My husband, on the other hand, has a great relationship with his parents, his brother, his extended family. And that’s good! They’re all great people! (His mom and mine are like bffs now). Sometimes at his family events I feel like Jane Goodall observing emotionally healthy apes.
“Clay” doesn’t understand why my family isn’t the same as his. I was, admittedly, not very forthcoming about all the issues I have with my father and siblings earlier in our relationship, so he was a bit weirded out when, for example, he found out I’d never met my nieces & nephews. We finally had a discussion about it when he objected to not inviting anyone from my paternal side to our wedding, and I thought he understood.
But now I’m pregnant, and looming fatherhood has made him VERY WORRIED about my father’s feelings. Clay wouldn’t want to be cut off from his child for mistakes he made years ago, and although my father’s mistakes were terrible and I have every right to be angry, can’t I see it from his point of view? (spoiler: no). My sister mentioned that my father has been sending annual Facebook messages to me, reminding me that he loves me and if I “ever need to talk” he’s there for me, and Clay has taken that as evidence that he’s changed and deserves a chance to know his grandchild. The last time Clay and I argued about this he called me unreasonable, and I’m sorry to say that after that point I pretty well lived up to it.
I’d like a script to SHUT IT DOWN, but I guess it’s possible that Clay’s right and I am being unreasonable. I still have a hard time calling my father’s behavior abuse out loud; maybe I haven’t gotten across how really really terrible just the idea of him makes me feel. He does superficially seem like a better person than he was, but I still don’t want him near my child, and I don’t want him near me. I’m hoping someone on Team Awkward has suggestions how to fix this mess or myself.
Thank you so much!
Ugh, I’m so sorry that this is happening to you. Let’s start with founding principles:
1. It’s possible your Dad HAS changed and IS really sorry.
2. It’s also possible for you to not care and not want to talk to him, ever. A visual aid:
Let’s start with your sister, because she is the source of the information and the pressure about your dad.
“Sister, I am going to tell you something, and I need you to hear me.
I do not want a relationship with Dad.
I do not want to hear from Dad.
I do not want to hear about Dad, from you.
I am glad that you and Dad have figured out a happy way to be in each other’s lives, but it’s not the same for me, and I need you to respect that. Please stop passing messages to me. Please stop pressuring me to re-open contact. Please do not give him any information about me or my family. I believe you that he feels bad and has changed. I need you to believe me that my feelings about him have not changed. If my feelings change I ever want to talk to Dad, I will, of my own volition, track the dude down. You are not our go-between in this, and I need you to stop. Do you understand?“
She’ll have some stuff to say, then tell her what is going to happen. “Going forward, if you bring up Dad, I am going to ask you to change the subject. If you won’t, I am going to end the conversation for that day, and we can try again another time. I really don’t want this to come between us or be an issue in our relationship, but the best way to accomplish that is for you to stop making it an issue for me.”
Then give her some time to process, and going forward, implement the boundary setting you told her you would. It may take several tries, especially since he will do everything he can to keep pushing her on the subject (b/c he is a jerkface and hearing “no” just emboldens him to try harder). Be really nice and friendly to her overall, but if she brings up the subject, change it, and if she won’t stop, do the “Well, so nice to talk to you, let’s do this again soon” and GTFO.
Here’s a script for Clay.
“Clay, I’ve talked to my sister about this, and now I want to talk to you.
I need you to hear me, because I’m only going to say this one time.
I do not want a relationship with my dad. I do not want him around our child.
I believe Sister when she says he has changed, he feels bad, he cares about me, he wants a relationship, etc.
That doesn’t obligate me to invite him back into my life, ever. He can go be a better man someplace that is else. I have asked her to stop pushing on his behalf, and now I am going to ask you. Please stop.
You’ve said that this brings up worries for you, for instance, what if someday our child won’t talk to you because you made “a mistake?” Well, if you or I were to terrorize and control our child the way my dad terrorized and tried to control me, that would be a real risk. We’re not talking about one mistake, or the kind of “fight” that would happen in your family, we’re talking about years of systemic maltreatment. (Be forthcoming if you have held anything back; this is your time).
I don’t have to “move past that” in order to make you feel better. If I ever want to talk to my dad, I know where to find him, and I can reach out of my own free will. But it’s not going to happen because you and Sister push me into it. If I’m making a terrible mistake, I can live with that. This isn’t about you as a father, this is about me having a better life because he is finally out of it. Hear me. Believe me. Please stop trying to make this happen.”
He’s gonna say some stuff. Keep some phrases in your back pocket.
- “I don’t need you to understand or agree with me, but I do need you to respect my wishes about this.”
- “You can feel however you want to about it, however, if you bring him up, I’m going to change the subject, and if you keep bringing him up, I’m going to leave the conversation.”
- “This isn’t an argument that you can win, or a negotiation. If you keep pushing, you’re not going to change my mind, but you are going to hurt and annoy me.”
Or, the most positive way you could put it: “Clay, you can’t fix my childhood or my family history. But you are my family now, and I love you. So believe me; let this go and let me finally have a happy family.”
You already know what to do and say and have been doing it. This isn’t about your dad, this is about boundary-setting with the people you do care about. Defend those boundaries without guilt.