Dear Captain Awkward
I (she/her) am having some issues with my father’s partner (also she/her). I don’t know how much of my discomfort and dislike of the woman stems from the adolescent area of my brain screaming “you’re not my mother, you don’t get to tell me!” and how much of it is legitimate and may be tackled or minimised.
A little context – my mum died 11 years ago, when she was 59 and I 26, from cancer. A couple of years after that, my dad met Cersei and hit it off. She was also recently widowed, they were each still in love with their spouses but willing to explore a new relationship together. So far, so happy. It’s now a number of years later and it seems like they’ll be together until death does them part (but with no suggestion of marriage being on the cards – a fact of which I am quite thankful).
Here’s the rub, though – Cersei will make every situation about her, and will make it clear that a) no-one has ever suffered like her, and b) your suffering is nothing. A recent example; I have been diagnosed with moderate-to-severe hearing loss. This is a very emotional thing for me. I’m 37 and have no family history of hearing loss, it’s pretty frightening that I’m going to be wearing hearing aids very soon. Cersei’s response was two-fold. First – “Oh, I should probably get my hearing checked too, I’m forever asking people to turn the TV up!” (Great! OK! Fine! I’ll tell you where I went, the test was free. Go forth and get your testing done.) Secondly – “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad. You can hear everything I’m saying.” Stop. Stop right the fuck there. You haven’t seen my hearing deteriorate over the last 3-4 years from jokes about “wow, your hearing’s lousy!” to friends saying “no, seriously, I am concerned about your hearing, for it is lousy.” You don’t know how much detail I miss in conversations, you don’t see me struggling to hear the TV and trying to avoid switching subtitles on for everything (my husbandface finds them distracting) and FUCK OFF do you get to minimise what is a very frightening situation because I can hear you clearly in an enclosed space when you are sitting 2 feet from me with no background noise.
My usual tactic is to be quite abrupt. “I don’t think your hearing’s that bad” – “Yes, it is. It really is, and here are examples of how bad it is.” My dad will step in and tell her to rein it in when people are getting visibly frustrated with her but she will then laugh this off all cheerful – “Oh I’m in trouble again!” – and I know that it’s going to happen again next time.
Captain, it’s got to the point that I avoid seeing my dad if I think Cersei is going to be around. I don’t want to lose my relationship with him, but I don’t want to spend more than a couple of hours with her at a time because I know that I’ll get angry and try to keep my cool, I’ll be upset by what she’s said this time for days after, and I won’t actually enjoy seeing my dad.
Is there a way that I can get her to self-moderate more? (Possibly not, she’s in her 60s, and what’s that saying about old dogs and new tricks?) Is there a way I can teach myself to react less? Do I need to just stop telling my dad anything significant that’s happening in my life, on the assumption that telling him is akin to telling her?
– Desperate and Going Deaf
I hope you you can acquire hearing aids quickly and that the process of fitting and adapting to them is smooth and easy. In the meantime, I have four concrete recommendations for you.
- Stop arguing with Cersei – subtle nicknaming btw, 😉 – about anything related to your hearing, stop discussing it with her altogether if that’s what it takes. You can keep saying “Yes, yes it is,” skip the examples, though. She’s using them as reasons to argue with you. She’s not a sympathetic or helpful audience. The next time she crosses this line, try saying “Excuse me, let me stop you there, are you trying to tell me about how I am experiencing my hearing loss, a thing that is happening to me? That’s weird and you should stop.” The second time, try “I told you to stop. Let’s change the subject for real.” The third time, you’re allowed to get up, move to another room, or get up, put on your coat/shoes, say “Okay, good seeing you Dad, Cersei, everyone, I’m going to head home” and (this is important) actually leave. She’ll try to get you to stay. Don’t. Say, “Look, I asked nicely to stop discussing my hearing loss in this way twice, it didn’t work, we’ll try again another day, but I’m pretty angry right now and I need some space.” Then go, and try again another day. It’s okay if it’s awkward and she feels bad, she was making you feel bad, you told her what she needed to do to stop, and if it gets to this point it’s because she insisted on continuing to be a jerk. There is no way to persuade someone who behaves like this with a reasonable conversation that heads off future problems, but there is a good chance that she will adapt if you enforce boundaries, though you can expect a middle period of passive-aggression and sighing and complaining before it gets better. Hold fast.
- Start inviting your Dad to do stuff with just the two of you and cut back on joint hangs with him and Cersei. He may balk, that’s his choice, he knows you and she don’t get along, she knows you and she don’t get along, why not have mercy on yourselves and hang out every now and again without having to deal with her? He’ll either figure out a way to hang out with you solo sometimes or you’ll see less of him.
- Find a community for people with hearing loss so you have people to talk to who understand what you’re going with. My quick searches turned up some link roundups, maybe members of the forums at friendsofcaptainawkward.com will have vetted suggestions. Fears, adjustment, medical explainers, tech support, moral support, talking to spouses and coworkers and family who are slow to adjust, scripts for reminding people that “Oh, just forget it” is a very rude thing to say when a hard of hearing person asks you to repeat something: You’re not alone in going through this and I think there are sympathetic people out there who can help you.
- Insist on watching media with captions on at home. Your husband can either adapt to ignoring the titles on the screen, the way you are having to adapt to so many things, or he can watch his stories by himself in a different room (on the computer or his phone, YOU get the good TV and the the primetime lineup and the comfy chairs). Your husband finds captions distracting, he says? Okay. You know what’s pretty distracting? Not being able to follow what’s going on because at least 50% of the story information is in the audio track and feeling like you have to hide that or risk annoying your spouse. Honestly, Cersei’s antics are like 10% of my reason for answering this letter and my fury at your husband’s unwillingness to make the media you jointly watch accessible for you is the other 90%. Stop minimizing your hearing loss at home, program all your remotes and streaming services to switch on captions as a default, and level with your husband: “I know you find it distracting but I find it painful and frankly impossible to watch TV without them, I’ve been trying to fake it for your sake but it’s not working, you’re going to have to live with some distraction so I can follow what’s happening. When my hearing aids come through we can test it without, I guess, but until then, this is the new normal.”
I hope things get better soon on all fronts.