My dad was a pretty hands-off parent with me and my sister, until my mom died about a decade ago. I was just out of college, but my sister was entering middle school, so he suddenly became a single parent of a teenage girl. He pulled through, but he was still pretty hands off. Aside from some anger issues and weird body-shaming stuff that she and I have learned to tune out, he’s not a “bad” dad–we love him, we just minimize time with him because of the anger issues and body-shaming.
The specific problem is his girlfriend–also not a “bad” girlfriend! I want him to be happy! I just don’t want to spend time with her. I’m sure my sister and I dislike her to some degree because she’s not our mom, I’ve addressed that in therapy and I’ve talked to my sister about it. But we also dislike her for some very non-grief reasons. She’s a Trump supporter, she behaves like a teenager (she once picked a fight with our dad because he didn’t ‘like’ her Facebook posts fast enough [these are both adults with fully grown children]), she regularly gets black-out drunk, they break up and get back together all the time, and when they’re together they’re constantly fighting. None of these things would really be problems if she weren’t insistent on “being a part of the family.” My dad has told her repeatedly (according to him) that he doesn’t want to get remarried, but she keeps pushing for it. This is the root of most of their breakups.
My sister and I have been very upfront about that fact that we prefer not to spend time with her. We will when absolutely necessary, such as at my wedding, and of course we’ll be polite. When our dad suggests events with her, I decline if at all possible. My dad conflates our not wanting to spend time with her with us “being mean,” and this frequently ends in us being yelled at. Can you help me come up with ways to establish this boundary, preferably without being yelled at? I’m currently leaning towards seeing him even less, but he is my only parent, and my husband and I are thinking of starting a family in the relatively near future, and I think I’d like him to be in my life for that.
Thanks for your help!
Not an Orphan Yet
Hi Not An Orphan Yet,
First, we interrupt our regularly-scheduled letter-answering with a Public Service Announcement For Significant Others Of People With Adult Children:
You can be one of those unsung heroes, the nicest, sweetest, best, most wonderful, supportive, awesome person who your partner’s kids genuinely love and dote on, the patient and kind step-parent whose labor put food on their table, changed their diapers, put up with teenaged outbursts, taught them to drive, etc., etc., and it would STILL be a nice thing if you gave your partner and their kids time and space to spend together without you once in a while. It’s not personal. They just need it sometimes. So, every now and then, if you could gracefully go get a pedicure or go to the movies or something when they have parent-child time without making them ask you for it or take care of your feelings around it, you will have truly given everyone a gift. I have at least a hundred letters of the “I feel bad saying this, but I wish my parent’s new partner would fuck off for even a few precious hours when we are together” genre in my box. I have zero letters complaining about the reverse.
Ok, back to you, Letter Writer.
99 times out of 100 I have a “Well, if my partner’s not welcome here, then I must not be welcome here either” policy when mixing romantic partners and family who don’t get along or approve of the relationship. Welcome to the 100th time, the exception to the rule, when the partner is actually an asshole and everyone has very good reasons to not want to hang out with them. People should probably be polite…or at least start off that way… when you do come to a thing together, but also you should think about how much you inflict your asshole partner on others and have some goddamn mercy on the people who still like you enough to put up with it.
Did I say asshole? Would you prefer “childish jerk?” “Fascism enabler?” I mean, you took pains to say that this lady is “not a bad girlfriend” and focused on the part where your dad keeps inflicting her on y’all, but you’re being waaaaaaay too generous. It’s okay to not want to spend the limited time you get with your dad watching him argue with her just because he can’t bother to tell her “Sometimes I just want to see my kids by themselves, you’re not invited this time.” (Like isn’t it a RELIEF for him to be not fighting with her for an afternoon here and there? Your email subject was “Dad’s girlfriend causing rift” but your dad’s inability to set boundaries with his girlfriend is the real rift.)
I think he knows she’s unreasonable, so he pressures you to be The Reasonable One because he thinks it’s somehow easier to fight with you…and fight with her the whole time he’s hanging out with you… than it is to fight with her on his way out the door/after he comes home. And because, as a parent, he has some more power/authority (or at least history of those things) in telling you what to do than he does with her.
If you’ve never asked him “Dad, why is it so important to you that she comes along to everything? Would you still enjoy it if you knew how uncomfortable it makes me to watch her get drunk and watch you both yell and argue? Don’t you know how sad and lonely it makes me feel when you bring a date to our hangouts? You want me to include her sometimes as a favor to you, can’t I ask you for some alone-time sometimes as a favor to me?” this is a good time to try, and then listen to what he says, and see if there’s something in there you can work with.
You can also get real unreasonable about this, too, like, oh, she gets upset when she’s left out of things? Maybe he hasn’t seen “upset” yet. “Well, hello there, Rock, my name is Hard Place, and I will not play this game with you. We’ve tried the thing where we all spend time together, and it’s zero percent enjoyable for me to watch your girlfriend get drunk and pick fights with you because you won’t marry her.
You can bring her to the wedding as your date, and I will be as polite as I can when I absolutely have to see her for your sake. Based on her past behavior, that’s probably as good as it gets from my end and we’re all gonna have to find a way to deal with that. Sometimes people don’t like you and you just have to live with it because you’re a grownup
Anyway, even if I really liked her…which I don’t… sometimes I’d just want to see MY DAD. I want you to be happy, I don’t want you to be lonely, but it’s really depressing to think that I have to deal with [specific example of Girlfriend’s bad behavior] all the time as the price of having MY DAD. Can’t you understand that?
Instead of trying to pressure me to include her, I think you need to set some boundaries with her that your time with your children isn’t about her – it’s not something you’re doing AT her, it’s not personal! If she wants ‘family time’ she can call her own kids – it’s not on me & my sister to provide that, and it’s incredibly unfair that you ask us to.”
If your dad yells, then he yells. His choice. Maybe you yell back this time. Maybe you include him less. Does he want time with his daughters or does he want a command performance? His choice. If you start a family someday and have completely understandable reluctance about how much your babies hang out with an argumentative white supremacist asshole who might get blackout drunk, that will be sad…for your dad. His choice. If it’s a solace to you, your kids won’t really miss what they don’t know, and protecting them from assholes is way better than tying yourself in knots. But of course it’s sad. You need your dad to be so much better than this, and maybe he can’t right now. Of course you’d be sad.
As for the girlfriend, just like “come watch my band practice” isn’t a date, “I’m going to see my adult kids that I never get to see, please join us all for a stilted dinner they wish you weren’t attending but don’t feel like they can say no to” isn’t a date. If your dad’s girlfriend has feelings about not being included in your family outings, she can tell her therapist, her bartender, her pastor/rabbi/guru, her diary, her friends (if any), the unfortunate other person waiting at the bus stop who forgot headphones today, the New York Times reporter who will inevitably come by to ask her opinion on world events one “economically anxious” diner customer at a time, and/or…your dad! .
And then your dad can say “Well, stop acting like an asshole when we all get together, it’s not exactly a mystery why my kids don’t like you” or “I don’t know why they don’t like you, my dove, I know you try your best, it’s just going to take more time. But forcing it won’t help, so I’m going solo this time!” as it occurs to him. It’s his job to figure this out so that he can be a dad, not yours to endlessly accommodate it so that you can have one.