Question #135: How do I deflect the well-meaning people who ask me about my abusive dad?

Luke and Darth Vader in an Elevator
"It's awkward with my Dad right now."

Hey Captain!

I’ve been dealing with a rather awkward social conundrum lately, and I’d love some advice. The short version:  I need to figure out how to fend off well-meaning questions from acquaintances about my semi-estranged father.

The longer version: my dad’s an alcoholic person with bipolar disorder, and he’s non med compliant. I grew up in a very unstable, sometimes emotionally abusive home, and it’s left it’s marks on me. My mom  was brave enough to divorce him a year ago, and I’m finally facing the demons my childhood left me with. I’m getting weekly therapy, and have taken steps to limit contact with my father.

The problem is, my dad was outwardly quite charming, and I often have to deal with people asking after him. I really don’t know how to answer friendly questions about him. I refuse to pretend everything is (and was always) peachy, and answer nicely; but I don’t want to go into detail/risk questions by saying I no longer talk to him.

Do you have any advice on dealing with kindly but nosy acquaintances?

Thanks!
– Picking Up The Pieces

I’m glad that you and your mom are in a position to pick up the pieces, and it sounds like you are doing all the right (painful, hard, healing) stuff.

It’s not your job to protect your dad from what people think about him, but I also understand that you don’t want to rehash all the stuff that’s going on when you get a “How’s your dad?  Tell him I said hi when you see him!” at the library or grocery store or church or make people feel crappy for being interested in you and your family. I think sometimes it will be important for you to be able to say something back and give some honest indication to the world that all is not well without going into detail, rather than feel like you have to smooth everything over and preserve your dad’s image for everyone.

Some suggested answers:

Thanks, but we’re not in touch right now.”

Sorry, you’ll have to ask him/tell him yourself. We’re not in touch just now.”

Or the most kind possible answer, “You should tell him yourself!  I’m sure he’d love to hear from you.” (Recommended for most casual interactions).

And variations on that theme. When will you be in touch?  Who knows.  Why aren’t you in touch? “Long story.  How are things with you?” Whose idea is it to not be in touch? Who can say, really?

Then you can a) change the subject by asking them a question about themselves or b) let a long, awkward pause happen where the other person figures out they’ve stepped in something but not what. It depends on your mood and how you feel about the person who is asking the question and how pushy/nosy they are. Like, if you get a “That can’t be true! What’s going on?” don’t be afraid to let that pause really, really fester.

You don’t have to justify it or get into why you’re not in touch!  “I know you mean really well, but this is an awkward subject. Can we talk about you?” Keep it short, stand your ground, and keep repeating some neutral phrase and changing the subject until the other person gets it and changes the subject, goes away, or you extract yourself with a “Yeah, it is really awkward, but we’re not in touch right now.  Sorry, can’t stay!”

14 thoughts on “Question #135: How do I deflect the well-meaning people who ask me about my abusive dad?

  1. Good advice! The broken record technique is for sure your friend. My conversations always pretty much went like this:

    Them: Oh, how’s so-and-so these days?
    Me: We don’t really talk lately.
    Them: Why not?
    Me: It’s a long story. Things just aren’t that great.
    Them: What things?
    Me: A lot of things. Thanks for your concern, but it’ll just have to work out in its own way.
    Them: Can I help?
    Me: Oh, just being friendly is help enough.
    Them: But what’s going on?
    Me: It’s a long story.
    Them: I’d like to hear it, though.
    Me: No, I mean, it’s a really long story. *Really* long.

    If somebody had talked to so-and-so and came at me with, “Well, they say this and that,” I would usually say something like, “I’m not really okay having conversations with them through the grapevine. Our relationship is complicated enough.”

    Also, do not forget the power of the grapevine. Once you have this interaction with a few people, it gets around that there’s something up with you and so-and-so, and people will usually divide themselves into one of three camps: 1) they stop asking about it, 2) they ask really nosy questions about it and confirm your suspicion that these were always people who got on your damn nerves, or 3) they wait for an opportune time and place to make a kind request for details, because they are curious but also not complete dicks.

    I also told a few key people in my life, and told them that I didn’t care if everybody knew what was going on, but I was sick of rehashing it over and over again, like a news bulletin of my relationship failures. So, I basically gave them carte blanche to blab it if somebody was like, “What the hell is up with Marie and so-and-so?” Shit gets around pretty quick that way. And you can figure out after who is Ms.-Insensitive-Question or Mr.-I-Shall-Advise-You vs. Ms.-None-of-My-Business and Mr.-By-The-Way-I’m-Here-For-You, and give them stinkface or details as you like.

  2. I’m often wary of giving advice in this vein because my intuition is that men and women are held to different standards on this stuff, but I’ve found that the phrase “I don’t like to talk about that” is pretty much a conversation-stopper. It needs to be repeated twice maximum.

    Friend: Hey, how’s [mutual acquaintance I don’t speak to]?
    Me: Hell if I know, we don’t talk anymore.
    Friend: Really? Why?
    Me: I don’t like to talk about that.
    Friend: [awkward silence] So, you guys don’t talk at all?
    Me: I don’t like to talk about it.
    Friend: Gosh, you already said that, I’m sorry.

  3. As a dude, I had a difficult relationship with my mother. I think the ApeMan above is right- guys are held to a different social standard on this, but I always said things like “you should call her, I’m sure she’d love to hear from you.” I didn’t want to drag the other, well-meaning person into my personal family drama. Basically, I went with anything that could be construed as noncommittal, and non-disclosing of the truth.

    Family, man. Sheesh.

    1. Hope it helps. Now with pictures! It’s been a while since we’ve talked about Star Wars around here.

    2. I think the captain’s advice is spot on and don’t have anything to add, but as someone who hasn’t talked to her father in over a decade (he was outwardly very charming too) I just wanted to through some sympathy/solidarity your way. It’s a brave thing you’ve done and I wish you all the best in therapy/life/etc.

  4. I’m now going on 7 years of this. Most of the people from my previous life know I’m not speaking to my father. Now I’m getting well-meaning-but-clueless-about-the-world people telling me I should reconcile with my father or that I should forgive him or something along those lines. Those used to be the tougher questions to answer, so my standard phrase is something along the lines of, “Ending contact with that man was the best decision I ever made.”
    Best of luck in going through this rough period.

    1. I don’t speak to my mother at all and have a standard phrase like that, too. It feels a little powerful to say it and not do the polite apology dance around the awkward thing.

      1. Exactly – I mean, you don’t want to make well-intentioned people uncomfortable, but there is power in not having to pretend that everything is great.

    2. Ugh, *that*. I hate that SO MUCH. “I don’t know your situation, but I do have a one-size-fits-all solution for you!” Oh, thanks, so glad you were here to let me know, nobody has ever before told me that family is, like, super important.

      If it’s somebody I know a little bit and can joke around with, I might say something like, “You know, I hear what you’re saying that someday I’ll regret how much time I wasted without my family, but in my opinion, you’re going to wake up one day and regret just how many years you wasted appeasing a bunch of jerks. I just keep that to myself, usually.”

      If it’s not that kind of somebody, and they go the whole “oh, you’ll realize *someday*” route, I usually say, “You might be right. Someday in the future my feelings might change. That’s always possible. But today, this is the right decision for me. Tomorrow, we’ll see.”

      I don’t know what it is about that, but it usually works on all but the preachiest folk — you know, the ones who need to spend the next 20 minutes telling you their life story and why they decided to talk to their families anyway. With them, I just try to stop thinking of this as an attack on my decisions, and start thinking about it as a free therapy session this person is trying to offload on me, which makes me compassionate and sad instead of defensive and angry. I usually cap off that kind of conversation with, “Wow, you know, I can definitely see why you made those choices. I’ll think about what you’ve said.” None of that is really *untrue*, I’ve just omitted the part where “I’ll think about what you’ve said” actually means “I will be sad later for you.”

      Occasionally I run into the odd family member who REALLY NEEDS TO KNOW why I won’t talk to so-and-so, and feel like they’ve got a right to push. With them, I usually cut things off cold with, “My life is better without that person than with them” or “They bring nothing of value into my life” or “I choose to only spend time with people who make my life better. I don’t have time for anybody else.” If it’s somebody who has absolutely seen the reasons why I would cut this person off, I might say, “You know so-and-so at least as well as I do. I would be surprised if you can’t think of a single reason why somebody wouldn’t want them in their life.” Usually that gets something like, “Well, yes, but I haven’t cut them off!”, and I can respond with something like, “You have a lot more patience than I do, and are much more forgiving. Sometimes I wish I could be like that, but I’m not.” People don’t seem to know what to do with a compliment in the middle of their confronting you angrily.

      This kind of conversation usually ends with some kind of “You’re so SELFISH” zinger at the end. It was like some rite of passage for me the first time I didn’t respond to that with a denial, but with a simple, “Yes, I am.” I get a secret kick out of imagining these family members gossiping behind my back about how selfish I am, off with my free time and hobbies instead of in a dark corner with them where I belong, seething about somebody’s foolish human *choices*.

      I am loving that everybody here seems to have developed their own one or two “lines” that they just repeat until it sticks. It’s such a wonderful little secret to learn, this ability to end conversations that refuse to end.

      1. “If it’s somebody who has absolutely seen the reasons why I would cut this person off, I might say, “You know so-and-so at least as well as I do. I would be surprised if you can’t think of a single reason why somebody wouldn’t want them in their life.” Usually that gets something like, “Well, yes, but I haven’t cut them off!”, and I can respond with something like, “You have a lot more patience than I do, and are much more forgiving. Sometimes I wish I could be like that, but I’m not.” People don’t seem to know what to do with a compliment in the middle of their confronting you angrily.”

        Gold star!! I need to implement this in my life.

  5. “You’ve heard of lapsed Catholics? Right now, I’m kind of a lapsed daughter, so I don’t really have the inside track. You should call him.”

    If they express dismay, “It may not look right from the outside, but it’s actually working for me, in a way our former relationship never did.”

    If they press for more info, “Just because things are less than ideal between me and my father doesn’t mean I want to badmouth him or suck other people into taking sides. I don’t think that ever makes the world a better place.”

    If they make ignorant suggestions, “That’s certainly worth considering. Of course, as I’m sure you know every relationship has its own dynamics, so what works in one situation might not work in another.”

    If they want to know whether the estrangement is permanent, “Ya never know. Life is full of surprises.”

  6. I got lucky in my situation, as the emotionally abusive father in question cut off contact with me, through a letter, and not many people in my life knew him to begin with (no one currently in my life outside of my family actually knew him). When asked about him, I can just say ‘We’re not in contact. His choice” and don’t mind telling people about the letter if they ask further because, hey, they don’t know him and will likely never meet him.

    The most aggravating moment I ever had was when someone said ‘Did you actually see the letter?’, as if my mother had lied. It took all my self control not to snap “Yes, I did. And you have no idea how hard that was to read, so don’t you dare pretend it was made up.”

  7. Chiming in, late as always, to offer love & support to the LW. I’ve been estranged from my mother for more than a decade and it’s still hard — not the estrangement itself, which is the best thing for me and something I’m genuinely at peace with, but rather, dealing with the judgement of others (and the implicit judgement found in every media portrayal of family ever). I keep asking myself, “am I not upset ‘enough’ about this? ‘should’ I want a reconciliation more than I do?” Ironically that echoes the abusive conversations that I used to have with my mother, i.e. I’m a terrible daughter because I do not constantly work to please and satisfy her. On my bad days, I’ve internalized that accusation and think of myself as a failure because I do fine without her. You can’t win, in this kind of situation, because if you’re not upset ‘enough’ then it’s proof that you’re a coldhearted monster, while if you’re really upset then you lose because, well, you’re really upset!

    Anyway, enough time has passed that I have tools to handle it, and you seem mature enough to find your own toolbox in time. Godspeed!

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