#1248: “How to set boundaries with someone who just doesn’t listen to me?”

This is another one in a series about difficult parent relationships: A dad who wants to talk on the phone for hours about only the things he wants to talk about and who reminds his daughter, when she tries to set boundaries, that he has nobody else to talk to. It’s about guilt and about how the hardest part of boundary-setting can be a negotiation between us and ourselves. Maybe the key to this negotiation is figuring out the difference between “should” and “want to.”

Dear Captain Awkward,

I am realizing that just because my dad is not emotionally abusive like my Mum, it doesn’t mean he’s a good parent or that he hasn’t hurt me on a regular basis. My parents separated when I was a baby, and my Mum got custody of me and my older brother. There was abuse and neglect, it was bad but eventually I worked out how to have a relationship with my Mum that works for me. But with my Dad it’s so much harder for me to set boundaries, partly because so much of our relationship is based on him being “the good parent” but mostly because he doesn’t listen to what I say. Our relationship is mostly phone based as I live at the opposite end on the country and I don’t go back to my region of origin much.

A while ago I stopped keeping up with the news much, because our planet is on fire right now and knowing how bad it was all the time was making me suicidal. I have explained this to my Dad again and again, but he always brings up current events and will not drop that conversational thread even when I remind him of that boundary. He’s made it pretty clear he thinks I’m being childish and selfish for not being up to date on the news. Another boundary I’ve tried to set is regarding my older brother who has mental health issues, and when he’s unwell he says truly awful things about me. My relationship with my big brother is difficult already due to our childhood abuse and so I asked our dad not to pass on the things my brother says when he’s unwell. Except he does.

We talk at least once a week, sometimes as often as 3 times a week and those phone calls can last up to 2 hours. I almost always feel anxious and wrung out after our calls. If I try to end a call quickly he guilts me about it, reminding me that he’s on his own and that he doesn’t have anyone else to talk to. He also says this when I try to reinforce my boundaries. When I try to talk to him about my own mental health issues (usually in reference to why my boundaries are important) he goes off on this spiel about how if only he’d known we were being abused, he’d have fixed everything. This is a particularly painful topic for me, because I don’t understand how he didn’t know. He left our mum because of that exact behaviour aimed at him. These conversations almost always lead to him lamenting about why we never told him about the abuse.

I know that I need to change our relationship, I just don’t know how without going No Contact. I try to set boundaries and he pretends I’ve never brought them up before (or he may actually just not listen to what I say). I try to reinforce those boundaries and I get guilted or called selfish. I don’t answer his calls, he just keeps calling. My partner suggested an e-mail laying out the new rules for our relationship and making it clear if he breaks my boundaries I will end the call. I think it’s a good idea but then I feel guilty about doing it in such an impersonal way, that I would be blindsiding him.

Thank you for your time,

Stressed Out Daughter

Hello Stressed Out Daughter,

Your partner’s suggestion of an email that lays out how you want the relationship with your dad to be is a good one (it probably won’t change how your dad behaves or convince him of anything but it will be good for you to spell it out somewhere you can refer to), but let’s back up for a minute.

  • In a perfect world, how often do you want you talk to your dad on the phone?
  • How long would would fun, pleasant, enjoyable phone calls last, on average?
  • What kinds of topics would you enjoy talking about with him? What do you wish your relationship was like?
  • And let’s adjust our expectations downward, even: What kind, amount, and frequency of conversations with your dad wouldn’t leave you “exhausted” and “wrung out” after speaking with him? What’s the “I could sustainably do this without pain and dread” scale look like?

It’s January 22 today, what if you took until February 22 to think about those questions?

And what if, while you thought about them, the amount of time you talked to your dad was…zero?

If you decide to do this, you could send him an email like this:

“Dad, I wanted to let you know I’ve got a lot going on this month and I won’t be available for our regular phone calls. If it’s an emergency, call [sibling] and send me an email, otherwise we’ll catch up in February. Love, _____.” 

No reasons or explanations, just tell him what will happen. And then block his number for 30 days. (He likely won’t be able to tell that you did this, it will look from his end like he’s calling and calling and you’re not picking up). It doesn’t have to be forever, you can always unblock him when the 30 days are up.

In the meantime, hide your social media from him and family who are in contact with both of you and who might be co-opted by him to chase you down.

And filter his emails into a folder that bypasses your main inbox so you don’t see them unless you deliberately click on the folder, which you can do once/week or maybe ask your partner or friend to screen for you and see if there’s anything that actually urgently needs your attention.

And during his peak “call you” times consider disabling your phone, putting it in a drawer in another part of the house, using all available “do not disturb” filters to make sure that you are not interrupted by him during the break.

What could you do with a month of peace and quiet, with at least 6 more hours in your week of not being talked over and made responsible for the feelings of a dude who practically abandoned you to your abusive mom and now wants you to feel bad for him about that? 

And what could your dad do instead? You say “If I try to end a call quickly he guilts me about it, reminding me that he’s on his own and that he doesn’t have anyone else to talk to.” Let’s sit with that for a minute. Is it true that your dad doesn’t have anyone else to talk to, and if so, why is that, like, exactly? (And why does he think its 100% your job to solve that?)

Let me be clear: I 100% do not think every lonely person is lonely because they are assholes. Nice, kind, good people come unstuck from [families][relationships][neighborhoods][workplaces][social groups] all the time for all kinds of reasons and have to regroup and relearn how to be in the world with other people. How to meet and connect with other people to get our needs met and feel part of communities is a lifelong skill and a lifelong project. 

That said, when I read about someone who is acting like a jerk – entitled, selfish, bulldozing other people’s needs, constantly “forgetting” a daughter’s stated boundaries or just simply ignoring them, insisting on himself at all times – and I read that he has nobody else to talk to, it doesn’t make me think, “Oh god, he’s all alone, of course you have to talk to him, he has nobody else.It makes me think, he’s probably burned a lot of bridges with this behavior and he has nobody else who will let him use “but we’re a faaaaaaaaaaamily” to guilt trip them into hanging out with him anymore ’cause he sounds like a nightmare. Maybe he should work on that with the six hours every week he currently spends dumping all his thoughts into you (which he can only seem to do in the ways you’ve told you specifically upset you, like passing on your brother’s insults, lecturing you about current events and calling you “childish” and “selfish,” and/or talking about your past abuse in a context that’s only really about how hard it was for him, that’s pretty weird how his favorite – and heck, only!- topics of conversation are the ones you’ve told him you don’t like).

Imagine him for a second as not your dad. He’s just some guy out in the world, a fellow adult with the same menu everybody has for where to start looking for human companionship, stuff like:

  • Classes
  • Hobby Groups/Sports/Choirs/Board Game Night/Pub Quizzes/Bowling leagues
  • Churches
  • Clubs
  • Teams
  • Volunteer/Civic Organizations
  • Pets
  • Friends (He doesn’t have a single one?)
  • Neighbors
  • Going to the local bar or coffee shop or library
  • Counseling/Samaritans/Hotlines
  • Online communities and social media
  • Online dating & friend-matchmaking sites
  • Going to a bar or coffee shop or library to do solitary activities in company with other people to get out of the house.
  • “But he’s old!” – Sure. But your dad could use his Googles and see what services exist specifically for getting retirees/pensioners/senior citizens etc. out of the house to do affordable fun things so they won’t be alone all the time. If he doesn’t have Teh Googles, they still make actual physical phone books full of this ancient lore that will be familiar to one of his generation. Librarians exist who will answer questions like “do you know where I could find neat local activities for someone my age.” Will what’s available vary by geography? Yes. Has your dad spent even 10 minutes on the project of “what should I do with my free time so I’m not so unhappy and lonely” before this exact moment?  (If he has, please tell me and I will send you ten actual cash dollars, that’s how much I think he has not given it one single fucking thought or minute of his time. Good news, he’s about to have six new hours every week to figure this out!)
  • “But it’s harder for men, toxic masculinity teaches them to not reach out for emotional support or build community so they over-depend on their female relatives” – Again, sure, I’ll buy that’s a thing that happens, but it doesn’t mean they still don’t have choices (or that women never struggle socially, holy erasure Batman!). Even my tiny rural hometown had a gun club, a Lions Club, a robust Boy Scout troop with a whole bunch of adult leaders who went camping together and rode bikes, a food bank, a series of parades, art shows, and cultural events, a badass nature sanctuary, and numerous other places where cis men of all ages did fun/useful things in their non-paid-work time. “Men don’t have social outlets” = GOLF. THE GAME OF GOLF. AS LONG AS GOLF IS A REAL THING THAT EXISTS, THIS IS NOT AN ARGUMENT. The worst people in the entire world find golfing buddies, literal murderers, war criminals, and genocidal assholes of all stripes can say “Fancy a round with the lads later?” “Sure, let’s hit the links!”, ergo your dad can find a buddy somewhere to do a thing with sometimes as a treat.

Is it easy to show up to a place where you don’t know anybody and try to make friends? No, it is not, and it’s harder for some of us than others.

Lovely Letter Writer, is it specifically YOUR problem, and forever obligation to stand in for all of these possible sources of human connection and put up with whatever poisonous sludge your dad wants to dump into you, on your dad’s schedule, to your dad’s satisfaction, so that your dad doesn’t have to make any effort to change his unhappy circumstances, or listen to the words coming out of your mouth about what you need? I would argue:


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Your dad has choices about how he treats you. He has choices about how to behave in the world. He’s decided it’s more convenient for him if you just let him talk at you whenever he wants to and that it’s easier to guilt you than to try anything else that might get his emotional and social needs met. And you’re worried about being “impersonal” or “selfish” when you communicate boundaries or take breaks from talking to him, but you’re talking about someone who is using “selfish” as an insult to manipulate you into doing whatever he wants when he wants it. Between you and me, your dad sounds like one of the most selfish people alive, and the truth is (I think) that no matter what you do he will find a way to call it “selfish” if it doesn’t perfectly suit him.

This is a classic manipulation tactic. It’s sometimes called “negging,” The Gift of Fear calls it “typecasting,” another variation is projection (the person accuses you of something they are doing themselves, often something they don’t like about themselves), it’s related to (and a factor in) DARVO where abusers “deny, attack, and reverse victim and offender,” and I’m less concerned about pinpointing the exact version your dad is doing than I am in telling you how it works on you and how you can counteract it.

Your dad tells you that your boundaries are selfish. If you get off the phone before he’s ready, you’re selfish. If you don’t want your current events filtered through him, you’re selfish. If you don’t want to turn any and all conversations about your childhood or your mental health into dealing with his feelings about the abuse you suffered as a kid and reassure them that none of it was his fault, you’re selfish. You don’t want to be selfish, you definitely don’t want your dad to think you’re selfish, so one obvious solution (from where your dad sits) is to try to prove that you aren’t selfish…

…by doing what he wants, even when it leaves you exhausted and incredibly upset and is the opposite of what you want. When it works, the emotional weight and worry that you might be selfish and your love for your dad turn into guilt, and the guilt makes you skip right over anything you want in a hurry to reassure him and audition for his good opinion that you are a “not selfish” daughter.

You don’t want to pick up the phone, but that would be “selfish,” so you do.

You want to get off the phone, but that would be “selfish,” so you stay.

You don’t want to talk about current events with your dad (I can only imagine his takes as like the World’s Angriest Man Podcast, yiiiikes) but he calls you “childish” and you want to remind him you’re a grownup, so you listen.

You want to send an email to reset some of the parameters of the relationship, but that would be “impersonal” and “selfish,” so you hold off.

The only way out of this, in my experience and opinion, is through. You disarm the label of selfishness by temporarily appearing to accept it and then pivoting back to what is true & what you need. That is, you let your dad think you are selfish and call you selfish if he wants to and you stop working against your needs to disprove a thing that wasn’t true in the first place.

The script for dealing with it can be some version of “Okay, but I still need to [hang up now][take a break from phone calls][not talk about older sibling with you][listen to your take on the news][change the subject away from sensitive stuff with you right now], so, good night!”

Sometimes the script is just “Okay!” and then hanging up. Sometimes it’s “Yep, that’s me, your selfish daughter, I’m basically the worst, kloveyabye!” *click.*

You don’t explain. You don’t justify (reasons are for reasonable people, any reason you give will not be good enough for your dad and give him more fodder for argument which might mean you stay on the phone longer and give him the attention he craves). You don’t apologize. You just go and do the thing you need to do to take care of yourself and let him think what he likes. He can tell everyone all about his selfish daughter (Oops, he doesn’t have anyone to tell, so let him eat a double helping of “who gives a shit?” and file it under “What other people say about me isn’t actually my business.”)

To be clear, you are not being selfish when you do this, and you’re not accepting his description of you, you’re strategically not arguing with it because that’s the quickest way off the phone (which is the thing you want) and because the territory of “your selfishness” is not the territory that’s really at stake. Not resisting it, not arguing with it in the moment is a way of reclaiming your attention and time from that word and robbing it of its power to manipulate it. There is a freedom that can come with realizing, well, if this person thinks that literally everything I do is “selfish,” then I might as well get some of what I want out of it, they are going to think what they want anyway, it’s one person’s extremely wrong opinion

I’m not going to lie, it’s really really really hard to execute.

It’s 10,000 times harder when it’s a parent. You’ve been so primed to want approval and love that it can obscure the fact that you also need a basic amount of kindness, consideration, and respect.

It’s hard because when you start doing this you often run into an extinction burst, which is when the person increases the intensity of the bad behavior in order to overwhelm your fledgling defenses and still get what they want. Think:  Flooding your phone with phone calls and texts, emergencies that aren’t real emergencies but you don’t know that so you feel like you “have to” respond , attempts to deputize people you know in common “just to check on you,” showing up where they know you’ll be, insults, threats, ultimatums, and all the things that literal stalkers use to try to get around boundaries. Fun, right?

Sadly, I do not think there is anything you could tell your dad about what you need, your feelings, your mental health, or how his behaviors affect you that would convince him to behave differently. I think you already communicated your wishes and boundaries just fine, and there isn’t a script (or an email) that’s going to get a different result. Your dad thinks that the options are “I get everything I want from my selfish daughter all the time” vs. “She is selfish (but I still get most of what I want.” He doesn’t understand that he’s worn you down to a different set of options, let’s call them “Dad, if you can stop sucking the life out of me and our relationship by listening to the things I told you I needed, maybe we can still hang sometimes” vs. “Leave me the fuck alone, possibly forever. In your way you are just as self-centered and crappy as Mom and I hereby revoke your status as ‘the good parent’.” And I’m pessimistic that you could convince him even if you wrote the worlds’ best email that described those as the clear options.

The relationship with him might not be fixable and you may have to go no contact at some point. If that’s what you need to do, you know we’ve got your back here.

If there is a chance of building something different from what you have now, it will be because you changed the power balance between you.

This is why I suggested starting with a 30-day Dad Break and being very sparse in your communication about it. Your dad needs to see what “You can be nice to your daughter or you can get used to having no daughter” looks like, and it needs to not be a negotiation where you run yourself ragged trying to convince him or try to get him to accept responsibility for his role in how things are between you. You don’t need his permission or approval to do what you need to take care of yourself, and there’s no way of getting those things anyway, so stop trying for a minute (or a month) and at least give yourself six more hours back in your week and a break from dread and exhaustion. Your dad will feel shitty and lonely but he feels those things anyway. He might blame all his shitty loneliness on you forever instead of finding his own coping mechanisms but that doesn’t mean it’s your fault or your responsibility.

And that’s why I asked you questions only about what you want. Not what your dad wants, not what you think you should do, but what you want. What would make you thrive and feel loved and happy and excited to talk to your dad. I want you to have that measuring stick at your disposal, the one marked “I love you and I want to ____” instead of the one marked “A good daughter should always _________.” One of these measuring sticks makes your dad loom very big and the other makes him very small and I think it would be interesting to see how he looks against the new one, if he exists at all when you think about pleasure, warmth, comfort, fun, all the good things love is supposed to bring along with its sundry obligations.

You’re drowning in “shoulds” with his guy, both his guilt trips and an entire culture that backs him up with messages like “But we’re a faaaaaaamily, families should be close and want to talk all the time.” “Daughters should be there for their dads.” “Daughters shouldn’t be selfish!” If “should” is somebody’s only argument for spending time together as a family, like “Look this Family Tree is basically a binding contractual Org Chart that means that you have to do what I want and I get to treat you however I want and you still have to love me and show up for me, forever” and they have nothing else to offer, or they insist that anything nice or fun also has to come with a bunch of vitriol and blame and unkindness? Maybe that’s a shitty bargain and you get to opt the hell out and join our union, the union of adults who can’t undo the damage of childhood but who can refuse to accept ongoing harm as a condition of having a family. “The Fuck-Its Local 101.” And maybe your first action as a union member could be a 30-Day Daughter Strike.

So what happens during and after the strike, if you choose to try it?

I said this yesterday and it definitely applies here:

“The truth about parental estrangement is that it rarely feels good, it just feels better than the horribleness that went before when the person had continued access to harm you and you were trapped in the cycle of trying to please someone who can’t be pleased. Having & enforcing boundaries doesn’t remove the tension or end the conflict or even resolve the feelings. What it hopefully does is gives you permission to stop trying to make a harmful situation different by grinding yourself up on a person that can’t be trusted to act in good faith.”

It will probably feel worse before it feels or gets better. Taking a break doesn’t mean “fixed.” Going no contact should you decide to do that doesn’t mean “fixed.” Estrangement starts as a tourniquet: stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient, then make decisions about healing.

Your dad will probably use every trick he has to get around your boundaries – everything you hate will escalate, you will feel very very tempted to pick up the phone or write back to an email and “just clear things up” or “explain one more time.” If you do that (and you might) it’s okay, don’t beat yourself up. Do something soothing and kind for yourself and then restart the clock on another 30 days. 🙂

It may not teach him a lesson or convince him about…anything. He may feel even more self-righteous and entitled, he may try negging you even more. The emails he sends to that folder you’re filtering him into? Will probably be AWFUL, please have someone trusted curate that shit for you and be very, very intentional about how and when and if you engage. (Strikes need tons of support from the community to work, this can be one way that your partner and Team You help out).

Maybe the best thing you get from the experiment is a little space. Six more hours in your week that aren’t devoted to feeling bad about your parent. Space to feel what it’s like to not be verbally abused and used as a dumping ground. Space to connect with that you want from your relationship, for you to imagine a different way it could be. Space to see if you miss your dad or if another 30 days away sounds nice. Space to work with your mental health team and enjoy your partner and your life. Space to remind yourself that your dad has choices about how he treats you and you have choices, too.

Sometimes the best you can hope for is clarity. Can you take a short break and have your space respected, afterward can your dad possibly try out at thing someday where you talk every 2 weeks for roughly 20 minutes about light topics only and rebuild something good from that? Or at one serious “no” from you is he going to show his ass so thoroughly that it gives you the final piece you need to close off the relationship for a good long while, maybe for good?

The time frame was arbitrary, by the way, I wanted to suggest something that wasn’t “you have to decide all of this right now forever.” You definitely don’t have to decide all of it forever, you get to take breaks, change your mind, try again. You’re probably never going to have an easy or relaxing relationship with this dude, we’re trying for “not actively awful” followed by “maybe a little better than before.”

For now, if you can, take a break. Do less work for and on your dad. See how you feel. See what you want. That isn’t selfish, that’s survival, that’s happiness, that’s the soil where you find out if there is anything at all that can sprout from the wasteland of your childhood. I think it starts with “I will miss you if you go but you cannot treat me this way anymore” and deciding, for yourself, where that line is.

I hope your dad figures out a kind, pleasant way to be with you, but if it doesn’t happen, it’s not because you didn’t try hard enough or ask the right way. If your “trying hard” and “being really generous and kind” alone could fix this, it would be fixed already. My hopes aren’t high but whatever hopes I have are yours, as well as all my love and sympathy.

Comments are open, y’all know the rules. ❤

198 thoughts on “#1248: “How to set boundaries with someone who just doesn’t listen to me?”

  1. Oh hell yes, to all of this. There is a reason this guy has “no one else to talk to,” and it’s 100% not the LW’s problem to fix. LW, I hope you are able to give yourself permission to take this in and act on it!

    I will also say, as a participant in and observer of family estrangements, that the relationship with the “good parent” is often a mess that keeps adult kids stuck and enmeshed for a variety of reasons, including “if I am estranged with both parents that definitely means I was a bad kid” and “I am not ready to be any kind of orphan yet” among others. It is not true that anything less-bad than your mother is “good.” You can judge your relationship with your father on its own merits

    1. “A guy who is a nightmare to his family has no friends and other not-mysteries, tonight on Not Mystery!”

      Tag urself, I’m the “ahhhh…ahhhh” wailing lady on top of the crypt.

      1. Woman at party with wicked turban – that feather better be peacock or my champagne is getting chucked in someone’s face.

      2. LW, get your dad to watch this, because it has old people playing croquet in the rain. I mean, if THEY can do it….

        I’m the backwards writing.

      3. Lady with fascinator headdress minding her own business on the edge of the crowd, while a pair of leg sink into a nearby bog.

      4. I was endlessly fascinated by that opening sequence as a kid and always horribly disappointed when that was all there was for animation–I wanted the whole show to be like that but instead it always switched to boring live-action stuff. And of course, now as a middle-aged person, I disregard the opening animation and love the live action shows.

    2. > estranged from both parents that means I was definitely a bad kid…

      I am struggling with this now. It took a long time to get some healthy perspective on some toxic sludge from my childhood, and now I’m estranged from a sibling I’d always felt close to. It’s as if my assigned role in the family is Cinderella Scapegoat, so if I manage to get clear of one abuser someone else must come and fill the void. It is really hard not to internalize the idea that everything is all my fault, that it’s my job to fix everything, that it’s my duty to maintain the relationships – and that I must somehow deserve to be abused.

      I was a great kid. I was a great sister.

      And even if I wasn’t, nobody deserves abuse.

      1. Yes, I hear you. I’ve been in the same place and it was SO HARD to pull back from the “good” parent who could somehow never see what was going on or protect me … but still demanded that I listen to his endless complaints about how badly HE was being treated etc. … and then so hard again when other family members who “never noticed” and were “so sorry” could just not respect that I was not going to spend time with someone who abused me. I think that people who participate in these kinds of family systems for any length of time need to take on the faulty logic of the abuser in order to rationalize their participation. It can definitely make you feel like the crazy one.

        I bet you’re the nicest person in your whole family.

        1. Wow, it’s spooky that you should say this, because my sister and I just had this same conversation the other night. She asked me why I wasn’t going to family dinner anymore, and I laid out how horrible my mother had been for as long as I could remember, and she said that she never knew it had gotten that bad (it hadn’t “gotten” that bad, it had -always- been that bad.) I told her that I didn’t want to spent time with with someone that made me feel like garbage. She was never the focus of my mother’s drunken tirades or the object of her disappointment/loathing/abuse/etc, so she never saw it. My dad was the “good parent” who still never stood up for me, but would let me know how badly he was being treated.

          It’s like you actually know my family. o.o

          1. Yeah. Speaking for myself, I went from thinking that I belonged to the only weird shitty family who did this kind of stuff and I was uniquely broken in ways that no one would understand, in the beginning before I started drawing boundaries and talking about this/therapy/etc., to believing that abusive families are all alike and we end up affected in very similar ways. It’s like they’re all reading the same How To Damage Your Kids manual.

            I wish you much luck in navigating your path through it.

          2. My brother. Somehow, completely oblivious to the central fact of my life (despite my unannounced departure and steadfast absence from the family from age 20—you’d think that’d cause some questions—??), and then puzzled about why I didn’t want to spend Thanksgiving around my mother. Oh yeah and: “I don’t want to take sides,” but somehow ceases to be accessible once he finds this out.

        2. I had to put my foot down about my in-laws after their Xmas visit. They’re no longer welcome in any home of mine. My MIL treats me horribly, and my FIL treats everyone horribly, and my spouse is finally backing me up after 2 years of not understanding my problem with his parents because he’s so used to their shitty dynamic with everyone around them that it didn’t register how badly they were treating me until I started calling out specific behaviours.

      2. I talked to my therapist about this. At the time, I didn’t have a relationship with my father, mother or stepmother. I told my therapist that I’m the common denominator, so doesn’t that mean there’s something wrong with me? That I’m the faulty one, that I’m the one who needs to change?

        My therapist told me no. Like attracts like; selfish, broken birds of a feather flock together. Over time and after many sessions, I’ve come to realize he’s right. I’m not perfect, and I have certainly made mistakes when it comes to dealing with my parental figures, but time and distance have helped me see that they really need to fix themselves.

        1. Do you know Mary Oliver? If you are in a poetry frame of mind, there are two that resonate here:

          “Wild Geese,” which begins —

          “You do not have to be good.
          You do not have to walk on your knees
          for a hundred miles through the desert repenting….”

          And oh, all of “The Journey,” all of it. Please.

          “One day you finally knew
          what you had to do, and began,
          though the voices around you
          kept shouting
          their bad advice – – –”

      3. (This made sense in the context of a longer multi-person discussion) a friend of mine recently reminded another friend of ours that if either of her parents had been really functional people, they wouldn’t have married each other in the first place, or at least would not have stayed married once the truth came out. The fact that they both thought the other was an acceptable spouse was actually completely in line with their inabilities to be good parents. Yes, her mother was sweet and gentle but she was still too timid and dependent to choose her kids over her monstrous husband.

        It really is them and not you.

    3. OMG your comment about the mess of the “good parent” is brilliant, and I wish I’d read it back when I was navigating the choppy seas of my own family estrangement. Cutting off my mother was fairly clear-cut, but guilt over my “good parent” dad kept me in the picture with both parents for a solid *decade* longer than I would have wanted to. In the end, that “good” dad said more vile, awful things to me when I stated my boundaries than my mother ever did in a whole-ass lifetime (she’s more the insidious, undermining, triangulating sort; turns out Dad is King Neg the First). It was…terrible. But I guess the silver lining is that it shocked me right out of that fog of guilt, and gave me clarity like nothing else has. It’s been a year now since I cut off my dad, and while I still have imaginary arguments in the shower (the ones where I *finally* get my point across and he concedes…you know, the super imaginary kind), and I still feel guilty for “abandoning” my parents, I still know it was the right thing. And I still feel delicious freedom. LW, if you can reset expectations with your dad, I will cheer you on forever. But if you can’t, please know that it is NOT your fault—he has always had the ability to respect you. If he simply won’t, that is on him, not you. And we will have your back, either way.

      1. Yep, me too–I didn’t want to cut off my dad so I stayed in contact with my mom for a lot longer than I wanted to (though he was pretty happy to cut me off when she demanded it), and in the end, all I got for my troubles was more hurt. Everyone has to walk their own road and make their own decisions, but I know for myself, I wish I’d walked away much sooner.

    4. I’m trying to gently introduce this concept to my husband and BILs right now. Their enmeshment with their mother (who is the eParent to their nFather) is pretty profound and I think that some of the reasons are guilt that they have a hard time loving or even tolerating their father, who basically abdicated all adult responsibility in a snit while they were all teens. Their mother held the family together, but layering that on top of her already anxious attachment style and controlling and obligation-oriented parenting philosophy really fucked those kids up.

    5. I have been No Contact with my Darth Mom a few times and each time it has served as a really helpful reset.
      Even if you are not ready for that step, the following helped me:
      – Sending her calls to voicemail. All of them. Sometimes I panic and answer the phone when it’s not in my best interests. The exercise of going through voicemail serves as a check and removes the time pressure. And sometimes she doesn’t even leave a message!
      – The last time I moved, I didn’t give her my address. Seriously though. She can still send me packages at work, and where I work is available online anyhow. The last time I was panicking at the thought that she was going to show up at my house because I wasn’t doing what she wanted… well, it wasn’t fun.
      – Blocking immediate forms of contact. No, you do not get to text me, or FB message me, or do a Google hangout, or literally anything else where you can see whether or not I’ve read it and ramp up to “why aren’t you answering me” guilt tripping bs.
      – An earlier suggestion from the Captain of a regularly scheduled phone call did wonders in retraining Darth Mom and her expectations. If I don’t call her on a Saturday or Sunday morning, that means I’m not calling her that week. It also gives me time to prepare what I want to say, how long a conversation do I want to have, etc.
      – No visits where I cannot control my own departure. A lunch in my city? Sure. But I’m not trucking out to West Bumfuck where I can’t get back to the train without her driving me. It only took one time of Major Guilt Trip Right Before She Was Supposed to Drive Me Back to learn that one.

    6. Andrea, thank you for this comment. Thank you so much.
      I was just doing some processing about an old friend, and how “better than most” is not the same as “good enough.” And you know what? This absolutely applies to the “good parent” my dad.
      He has never been abusive to me like Darth Mom, but he takes her side 100% of the time. My therapist said, “Can he be on both of your sides?” and the answer, apparently, is no. In fact, much of the reason I am Low Contact rather than No Contact with Darth Mom is so I can still try to have a relationship with him. He has resisted all my attempts to have independent contact with him. It’s all routed through her.
      Plus, you know what? He got to pick her. I never had that luxury.
      It is very challenging for me to think this, and say it, but. It’s not good enough.
      I’m still not ready to totally write this off, but wow. This is a revelation. Painful but necessary.

  2. Holy cow, is this good stuff. I’ve been estranged from two family members and this helps me too, albeit retrospectively. Both your thinking and your writing are impressive. Listen to the Captain, stressed out daughter!

  3. I do want to point out that “you should have told me about the abuse” is a bullshit tactic. Kids can’t generally tell when they are being abused – they are much more likely to internalize it and assume something is wrong with them. It took me so many years to have the realization, most of my friends thought I had known for years that my parents were abusive by the time I actually acknowledged it.

    Maybe it was his job *as a parent* to actually look after his children. Like noticing when you were stressed or unhappy, checking in that your mom’s abusive behaviors (which he was well aware of) weren’t directed at you, and just doing a really basic check to make sure y’all were ok. You don’t have to be a full time parent to be a good parent, and honestly “make sure your kids aren’t actively being abused” is a pretty low bar. Neglect is still abuse, and just because your mom was worse, that doesn’t mean that he’s blameless.

    Some people are always going to think that having boundaries and looking after yourself equates to being selfish. Maybe try translating your dad’s calls “selfish” into “self-respect”, bc that’s really what’s happening here.

    I think the captain’s advice is great. I also want to suggest that you practice hanging up the phone abruptly. You don’t even need to say anything if it’s hard to get the words out (and you could spell out how that’s going to work in your email ahead of time) – any time he starts talking about something you asked him not to, hang up. Or say “I asked you not to talk about that. Goodbye.” and hang up. Don’t give him a chance to respond (since that obviously goes badly), move the phone away from your ear immediately, and hang up.

    1. Good lord, yes, this is so important – kids generally can’t tell that they’re being abused. My mom both wouldn’t allow me to say the word “abusive” with regard to my dad – legit lost. her. shit. about it when I worked up the courage to say it when I was in high school – and yet also somehow claims to think that she shielded me from the worst of it and she’s *so sorry* my childhood was *so awful* because apparently I also occasionally seemed happy? I dunno. The logic of people who enable abuse to be directed at kids when they’re well aware of how their partner is treating *them* is…acrobatic, to put it mildly. Now my mom has also mostly abandoned this narrative thanks to a really great therapist and owns how so much of her baggage was tied up in needing it to be true that she could protect me from my dad and somehow also tell herself that staying married to him was the better choice for me and my brother (it was not). But it is amazing how much responsibility gets put on the kids in an abusive household to carry the narrative that the other parent needs as well as the abuse.

      1. >But it is amazing how much responsibility gets put on the kids in an abusive household to carry the narrative that the other parent needs as well as the abuse.

        THIS THIS THIS, so much this, this until the end of time. This dynamic with my mom, where she need us to Be Ok to justify her staying with my abusive father, screwed me up just as much if not moreso than what my dad was doing. I still have a relationship with her for varying reasons (tl;dr she’s worked on enough of her shit + she respects boundaries when laid down + I do not want to be an orphan), but it is an ongoing process to unwind how I was programmed- by her! – to view my dad’s actions.

        1. Me too. I can accept that my mom was abusive. Attaching the “abuse” label to her behavior wasn’t easy, but it happened after I’d already accepted that those behaviors were hurtful and taught me some very sad, dangerous things. Accepting that my dad repeatedly chose her over his kids and decided to stick his head in the sand about how bad things were and how much he could protect us? That’s been much harder, honestly. Like LW, I really needed a Good Parent. My dad’s starting to wake up a little, but I can’t trust him with much, given that he’s still with my mom. An enabler parent is like a multiplier for abuse — the abuse is bad, but then you have your Good Parent doubling down on messages like “it’s your fault” and “your job is to manage your parent’s emotions and reactions” and “it’s not that bad, just suck it up” and…it’s very hard to find and hold on to the truth that you are Not OK and that Nothing Is OK. And that truth is so important to learning to reach OK-ness as an adult.

    2. “You should have told me about the abuse” really, at a fundamental level, is victim-blaming. And there are a shit-ton of reasons why kids conceal abuse, often engineered by the abuser. When I hear something like this, I assume that the person saying it is feeling guiltily defensive and lashing out because of it. Another form of DARVO, maybe? And you’re totally right, Zella, it was the dad’s place to watch out for his kids, not the kids’ place to assuage their dad’s guilt. LW, I wish you the very best and hope you can implement the Captain’s excellent strategies.

    3. One tip I have for hanging up, is to do it while YOU are in the middle of talking . That way the call “got dropped” & you don’t have to explain or listen to his negging. Then turn off phone/block his number. You know how winter storms affect the phone lines wink, wink, nudge,, nudge

      1. Yeah, when I was still in touch with my abusive mother I used to claim that my phone’s battery was rubbish and that my phone ran out of charge after about 20 minutes. No doubt it’s healthier to do what CA is suggesting, but for me, I just didn’t have the energy to bring any more authenticity to the relationship than 20 minutes of talking about the kids, and the weather.

        1. > no doubt it’s healthier to do what CA is suggesting, but…

          In the spirit of the previous letter, I just want to remind you that the healthiest option to deal with these situations is to listen to your needs. You know your situation better than anyone else, and, even if “rationally” another option sounds healthier, that’s not necessarily true.

          Authenticity is something you do for *you*. You don’t owe it to anyone. If you genuinely feel like “ooops, sorry, the call got dropped when I was abducted by aliens and I couldn’t speak on the phone for a week because I was busy being probed and anyway the spaceship disrupts phone signal” is easier for you, in the moment, than getting mired in expressing your boundary directly and then justifying it against pushing, then, in that specific moment, that’s the healthier option.

          1. 100%! I want you to use advice that is useful to you, and totally reject advice that is not useful to you – YOU ARE ALWAYS THE BOSS OF YOU and the expert on your situation.

          2. No fair point, I guess I was sort of overcorrecting myself there, because there’s more chance of me making it onto the first manned mission to Mars than there is of me ever having a heart to heart with my mother, but I’m aware that not everybody with difficult parents feels the same.

        2. Seconding the resounding support of your choices! Reasons are for reasonable people. I have spent years with an ex and my mother trying to think of a way that might possibly clearly state a boundary/get them to understand/help them hear my frustrations/hurt/pain etc. I had one really clear big scary conversation with my mother over a decade ago, it was empowering, it was still not at all about her poor treatment of me, it was exhausting, she ultimately re-wrote the narrative to suit her and more or less erase any of the empowerment to just view it as me confessing my “sins.” I now more or less don’t bother explaining anything to her. I have learned from that and many other small but exhausting attempts at achieving clarity over the years…that…it does not matter what the truth is. She will hear what she wants to hear and that is it.

          I love your “battery dies after 20 min” approach. At one point I came up with…”I only have time to chat over lunch break at work” as an approach…also had a very convenient end-time. Worked great for me.

      2. Oh no, I really miss the feeling of the obviously deliberate hangup. And when they call you back immediately and you just do it again, no explanation! And the third time! I wish it still happened because the utter relief and overwhelming power of that feeling was so great. The first time you feel fear but it’s so effective you quickly delight in it. Caveat of course if they are violent, but I think OP would have said.

      3. One technique I’ve used with great success is to tell the person I need to get off the phone because I have to use the bathroom. Because OF COURSE it’s gross to talk on the phone with someone while you’re using the bathroom, obviously? Even if they try to say “oh, I don’t care” you can be like “sorry, I just can’t, too weird. Bye.”

    4. “Kids can’t generally tell when they are being abused – they are much more likely to internalize it and assume something is wrong with them.”

      Oh. OH. OH.

      Like, I knew this, but I didn’t know it? My mom gets really upset when I mention stuff that happened to me in childhood that she didn’t know about and wants to know why I didn’t tell her at the time, and then gets upset when I say it never occurred to me, and I had never quite realized how retraumatizing that was. Not only did bad shit happen to me but now it’s my fault I didn’t know how to stop it! As far as I could tell, all the adults were on the same team! How exactly was I supposed to magically know She Was Going to Be Different?

  4. LW, try asking ‘if this is true, what else must be true’. So if you are the ONLY ONLY person he can talk to, the one who must be there for him… he’d be being a damn sight nicer to you. If you decide you do want to do phone calls, hang-up on him if he goes into the weird zones. But maybe email would work better? Or letters? I hope you find something that works for you.

  5. “I think it starts with “I will miss you if you go but you cannot treat me this way anymore” and deciding, for yourself, where that line is.”

    Hallelujah! This strategy actually worked to get my parents to treat me decently: “This is not an ultimatum or the beginning of a negotiation, nor even a discussion. It is simply a statement of fact: if you treat me decently, we can interact; if you treat me indecently, our interaction immediately ceases. I solely decide what is decent, and I will never discuss nor negotiate my standards of decency.”

  6. Oh, Stressed Out Daughter, this is so hard and you sound like a lovely, caring person.

    Please take to heart that your dad has made a lot of choices that brought him to where he is, and one of those choices is treating his lovely, caring daughter like an unpaid therapist and ignoring your pleas for boundaries around the things that you have trouble coping with. That choice has consequences – one of which is that he is causing you a whole lot of pain and doesn’t seem to care about that. Talking to your dad is touching the hot stove; you know you’re going to get burned. Stop letting him burn you for a while, give yourself some time to heal, and if you do open up the lines of communication again, cut it off as soon as you realize that he’s lighting the burners.

    That metaphor ran away with itself there. Sorry.

    I hope you can reach a place where your dad is the not-quite-as-awful parent that you can talk pleasantly to for a few minutes a week, without stress and from a place of mutual love and respect. I don’t know whether that can happen. If not, at least you will be able to move along in life with friends and chosen family, building the scaffolding that will support you when you need it that your father doesn’t seem to have built for himself.

  7. “this Family Tree is basically a binding contractual Org Chart”

    is brillant. It’s fascinating that some of us are taught to feel that way.

  8. Waaaaaaaaait a second. He “has no one else to talk to” in his own words, but he has this WHOLE OTHER KID that he’s very obviously in contact with (as demonstrated by the fact that he passes on the brotherly poison on to you)?

    I might be projecting a little (okay, way more than a little) but if I had to guess, he’s doing a thing similar to my mother. See, when I was in my early teens, I got diagnosed with a Serious Mental Health Problem. Which my mother did not take seriously at all because something something drama llama girls* and blah blah teenagers and yadda yadda youngest kid, dontchaknow they’re always entitled and selfish and make things up for attention and stuff like that… but when my brother, a Proper Adult MAN started showing similar symptoms, suddenly he was a poor unfortunate soul who needed to be coddled and loved.

    So the end result was me, aged 14 and suicidal and with no idea how to relate to people, being forced into a quasi-caretaker role for a grown-ass dude who loved to beat me up, and if I tried to say “hey, stop punching and kicking me all the time” and walk away, my mother would descend and start berating me for not being understanding enough because HE’S DEPREEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEESED.

    Ahem. Sorry, that was a very long way of saying that I feel ya, this is NOT your fault and your dad’s issues are NOT your problem. Unfortunately, I do not have suggestions beyond “go no contact and relish your newfound freedom” which is what I did. If it hurts, you can always tell yourself that it doesn’t have to be forever – you can reevaluate in a little bit, or see if the sudden silence of estrangement will convince the Hammer of Epiphany to smack him over the head a few times and make him go sort out his problems.

    *I’m not a girl, but trying to explain that to my BUT YOU’RE MY PRECIOUS LITTLE DAUGHTEEEEER AND YOU WILL REDO MY LIFE EXCEPT BETTER mother when I could not even explain it to myself was not a thing I could do.

    1. Holy shit I’m sorry your family treated you so terribly, and I’m glad you’re far away from them now. ❤️

    2. “YOU WILL REDO MY LIFE EXCEPT BETTER”, oh man, I know that struggle. The conundrum in there, which of course I didn’t figure out until I was forty, is: how am I supposed to redo your life better, but not be prettier, smarter, or more successful than you because then you’ll just ridicule me out of insecurity?

      Answer: get off the conundrum and walk away. Even for just a little while.

    3. Yeah, I noticed that too. He talks to LW’s brother enough to repeat what her brother says about her, so clearly having “no one else to talk to” is a convenient lie.

      Also, yeah, the details are different but I’ve been in that situation, it’s only taken seriously when the “good child” actually has problems with it, not the scapegoat. It sucks and I sympathize, and well done on getting away from them all!

  9. LW, take heart! It’s hard to do, as the Captain said, but the advice is really solid. I had to Send The Email several years back, and I did not like doing it but things had reached the point where I couldn’t let it be the way it was any longer.

    My father has been much more respectful of boundaries since. (It helps that in my case, I have siblings who designated a sibling to have the annual Come to Jesus Meetin’ with dad about my boundaries, ahead of major family events. But it started with that email. “BUT WHYYYY” read the email, hoss.)

    1. This post and your reply specifically have made me realize that yes, my mom has gotten a lot better about boundaries in the uh five+ years since I made the email filter, blocked her on social media, and only communicated via my father or with witnesses. My sister doing the same thing less than two years later was a second wake-up call for her. I don’t know if she’s worked through things with her therapists but at least she only tries to step over our boundaries about once a year, and when one of us reinforces said boundary she backs down quickly. Sometimes she even apologizes.

      I still have a lot of feelings and my own therapist. But yes! It CAN get better! Take heart, be steadfast, and keep reminding yourself that the problem is him, not you.

  10. LW, I offer you a pile of fluffy commiseration feathers.

    I know what this is like all too well. In my case it’s mom who does the “talk at me” thing, and there’s no dad around for contrast, but those details aside, been there.
    I know how invisible you feel when trapped in a conversation that’s really a monologue. How dehumanizing it is to have the other person carry as on as if you hadn’t said anything. How infuriating and infantilizing to have anything you say that doesn’t fit the script in their head be treated as babble and ignored.
    I know. You’re not alone.
    This shit feels bad and it sucks and you are not unreasonable for wanting it to end.

    Yes there might be Reasons TM for why your parent does this, but that doesn’t undo the shittiness and is not a free pass for it to continue.

    Hang up the phone.
    It’s hard and there will be tears (maybe fake ones from dad), but you gotta do it.
    It’s hardest the first time, but then he’ll learn that you hanging up on him is a real consequence that can happen.

    If you want, you can try to structure the calls in some way. Maybe call right after weekly Sport Event you both care about so the Sport Event is a natural topic? Something like that? But even that is work you don’t need to do. It’s ok to just hang the fuck up.

    In my case, I went no contact for some years then low-contact supported by extremely long distance.
    When I started talking to mom again it was on my terms and my choice, and we’d still be LC or NC if she hadn’t gotten at least a little better.

    Good luck.

  11. Thank you for this. This is so helpful to me. I’ve had many boundary issues with my own dad. I’ve had to pull back quite a bit with mine and I’m constantly working on not caring what he thinks. It’s hard. I wish you the best, LW. I know how hard it is not to want their negative comments like “you’re selfish” to seem true (in their eyes). Or you worry that you’re being a bad daughter yet the parent doesn’t seem to care too much that they’re being a bad parent. Meanwhile we’re left jumping through hoops to prove them wrong.

  12. Seconding the taking a break. I have had to take breaks and while the prospect of stepping back felt unthinkable, it was what allowed me to think clearly and tune back into my intuition. One of the elements of being in a pattern with an abusive relative was that they framed everything as extremes; either I was totally submissive as the good daughter, or I was totally rejected. That pushed me into this state of fear that any break I took would be an epic estrangement that I’d regret. A relative who is that dramatic is often much more invested in keeping contact with you than you know because you are so busy being distracted with all that histrionic good daughter/poor me good parent stuff

    I’ve since used this kind of break to ‘reset’ in several situations with boundary tramplers and it really works.

  13. For context, I’m in my fifties, my mother in her high eighties, my sons high twenties to thirty.

    I’ve been living with knowing my mother thinks I’m cold and selfish for years going on decades now. One of the most liberating moments of my life was the time she said I don’t love her and I quietly told her that she’s the only one who could decide what to believe about that. It was just such a relief to be free from the desperation of trying to convince her otherwise. Ties right into where the Captain says “What other people say about me isn’t actually my business.”

    CA is also completely right about people being lonely for different reasons. Though I really hope it’s not because I’m an asshole, I’m one of them. Terribly introverted, a homebody, no outside employment and few “outside” interests. (Wanna geek out about needlework, though?) But the thing is, addressing any of my loneliness is on me. I didn’t have children so I could suck their life force in order to fill a bottomless void in my own soul. Please Goddess I have too much self-respect for that. You want should? Your father should step up and be a parent, an adult, instead of a Quivering Manipulative Psychological Leech Being.

    One thing my husband said once about my emotionally engulfing parents: “They were wrong. They. Were. Wrong. You’re not crazy.” I’m passing that along, with hugs if you want them.

    1. Fist bump from another introverted homebody needlework/fiber crafts geek! Near-hermitry is a valid lifestyle, and I’m pretty sure the only reason I’m not more solitary is plain luck in the form of happening to find a critical mass of My People (i.e. people that don’t completely exhaust me).

    2. Oh yes, let us sit down and geek about needlework! from the comfort & safety of our own homes! with our stash scattered all around the room! or neatly tucked into shelves & cabinets!
      Thank heavens for face-to-face on-line meetings.

  14. This has quite a number of similarities to my relationship with my mother. It’s a bit of a revelation to hear it happening to other people too, Hugs to LW and a big thank-you for writing in about this,

  15. Hi Captain Awkward and the commentariat,
    I will admit that upon reading both CA’s reply and the comments I had an immediate sick feeling, and I started off on this anxiety monologue about how dad isn’t as bad as he’s come across in my letter and that it entirely my fault for portraying him badly. And then I caught myself and realised that once again I’m making excuses for him and blaming myself. There is more to all this than I could really get across in my letter, of course there is because I didn’t want to send a 5000 word essay chronicling the utter batshitness of my family. But basically I am coming from almost 36 years of being made to feel like I should be grateful that my dad does actually love me and that at least he isn’t my mum. The irony of course if that I rarely feel so wrung out after talking to my mum.

    Anyway I do have a minor update, my dad called me yesterday and when he started getting judgemental and argumentative about the hair colour I was planning on getting today, I told him I didn’t want to fight with him and when he kept arguing I hung up. At first I got a huge adrenaline rush and I felt ill, just waiting for him to call back and be mean. But after five minutes that cleared and I knew I’d done the right thing. About half an hour later I got a text asking me if I’d deliberately cut him off, I replied I had because I didn’t want to fight over something so stupid. I didn’t hear anything back. I’m going to think about the Captain’s response for a bit, but I think I will be making no effort to make contact and I’ll only answer his calls if I have the emotional spoons for it. And see how I get on with that. Thank you all for your lovely supportive comments, I am going to try to read them objectively and not flail about me making him sound awful.

    1. I remember that sense of power. The first time I set a boundary (if you’re going to treat me like this, I can go home. I don’t live here). And my parent taking it to heart.

      You’ve taken a big step toward enforcing your boundaries. How he responds is up to him. The selfish thing to do is to ignore your explicit boundaries. I’m so excited for you that you were able to take that first step.

      1. It’s ultimately such a good feeling to realize you articulated a real boundary to a parent, scary as it can be. The first time I told my mother “I’m not asking for your permission, I’m asking for your support, and if you’re not going to support my decision, then we don’t need to talk about this anymore”, it was TERRIFYING in the moment, but now I look back and it was such a positive turning point for us. It made her step back and realize she was going to have to change if she wanted to keep in contact. I hope that your dad has a similar realization–and if not, then I hope at least you know you’re doing the right thing for yourself and your mental health.

    2. Hooray! Congratulations, both for hanging up on him and for planning a course of action for the future!

    3. Oh, dear LW 1248 – your story sounds so horribly familiar. My father had a very similar modus operandi to yours, and those weekly marathons on the phone were sheer, unadulterated torture. He’d always call when I was in the middle of doing something with my spouse and kids, of course, and would insist on keeping me on the phone for hours, because if he sucked up all my attention toward him and away from my family, he won. Any mention of how painful I found it resulted in an immediate, lengthy monologue about HOW MUCH WORSE he was hurt by his parents – my sibling called it the “My bruise is bigger than your bruise” speech.

      I endorse every word of the Captain’s advice, and I also can affirm that it won’t be easy. He will escalate and escalate, taking every behavior that has been successful at manipulating you so far to the Nth power, because if it worked once, it might work again.

      One thing that I tried doing when I was in the depths of that mess was to reframe the words I used in my head. Words are powerful – they shape our thoughts, which shape our feelings, which shape our actions, so choosing words mindfully and consciously can be a really effective tool in your arsenal for this battle.

      Instead of using the word “selfish,” can you reframe that as “self-caring?” They are both about you, about your self, but the first has a pejorative feeling with it, while the second has a positive, nurturing undertone. When you think “I am being selfish by not taking his calls,” you are in effect handing him the ability to abuse you even though you’re not talking to him. Framing it as “I am engaging in good self-care by not taking his calls” gives you ownership over your own emotional health and your own future, and you are evicting him and his abusiveness from your head.

      Make no mistake, he IS abusing you. Perhaps not the way your mother did, but what you describe is emotionally abusive, and that is every bit as toxic and damaging as any other form of abuse. So self-care is vitally important, and if that means not taking his calls, then care for yourself effectively.

      I send you heartfelt wishes for strength and healing, LW 1248, and I dearly hope you are able to arrive at a place of peace. Shalom.

      1. A lot of people seem to confuse selfishness and self-respect/self-care. I feel there is a clear distinction:

        selfishness: Feeling that you deserve MORE support than those around you, regardless of the situation
        self-respect: Feeling that you deserve just as much support as everybody else

        LW isn’t cruelly expecting more support than her father or other people (which would be what selfish is), she’s merely asking for not being berated and put down. She wants him to listen to her as much as she is listening to him.

        LW, most healthy relationships are reciprocal: You get approximately the same amount of support out that you put in. Most people tend to adjust the support and time they put in relationships to match what they’ve been getting out of it (adjusted for genuinely different levels of needs, of course, but it generally averages out over time). Start doing that with your father – only put in what you’re getting out. He’s not listening yo you? Well, guess you don’t have to listen to him, either.

        Also, you should apply his own standards to himself. Imagine if YOU treated him the way he’s treating you, how would he react? Probably not well. At all. He’s calling you selfish, but imagine what he’d call you if you acted like him! Don’t internalize his criticism – externalize it and apply it to him. Measure him up by his own standards. If he himself can’t live up to it, you don’t have to, either.

    4. ((((Jedi Hugs)))) if you want them. What you’re dealing with is incredibly difficult, and I know that whatever you choose will be the best option for you. Good luck with all of this!

    5. All the women in my family are good at making excuses for my dad. I suspect if he didn’t have that protection he’d have been forced to become a more pleasant person by now. I blame the patriarchy.

      At some point I realized that even if those excuses are true, he could still behave himself better. Nothing is preventing him from doing so.

      1. I mean, you would think that, but my dad has slowly alienated every single woman in his family (my mom, his mom, his second wife, his older sister, me, and now his younger sister), and he just keeps getting worse. Just keeps digging in his heels that he’s the real victim here as he screams about faaaaaaaaamily into the void.

        Maybe if he started alienating the men in the family, he’d be forced to reckon with something. Then again, maybe not.

    6. That’s not a minor update! That’s a huge step! Congratulations for being able to take it, and I hope it signals the start of a more workable relationship with your father for you, however that turns out to look.

    7. Good for you! Also, can I free you from the obligation to feel like you have to manage his reputation with us internet strangers? You’re not making him look bad; his behaviour is making him look bad all on its own. You’re just laying out the facts about how he treats you, and that’s all that’s relevant here.

      If I was writing for advice about how to stop someone from throwing mud in my face every time I saw them, it wouldn’t be unfair of me not to mention they also saved kittens from trees in their spare time in order to make them “look better.” They would still be throwing mud in my face! Saving the kittens wouldn’t make that okay!

      Plus, even if your dad was like the Nicest Person Ever outside of what you told us here, it wouldn’t make Cap change her advice to “welp, he’s a nice enough person otherwise so you just have to put up with this bullshit, sorry and good luck!” Your feelings about his behaviour are valid and you deserve better.

      1. I was going to say something similar. Your dad could be a saint in every other way, and the behavior you’ve described would still be unacceptable. It’s nice that he gives to charity or is kind to animals or whatever good things he does. Yay, he’s not a total garbage person, which is why you’re interested in keeping him in your life at all. Doesn’t change anything about the stuff you wrote in about.

      2. +1 to @parkerk’s comment! This is so important. I’m sure your dad has plenty of good qualities, and you have reasons beyond a sense of obligation for loving him and even sometimes enjoying talking to him, but that doesn’t mean he gets to treat you like this. All the best to you, LW!

    8. I will offer one small possible light at the end of the tunnel, which I don’t think the Captain touched on today (although I’m sure it’s buried in another letter).

      When you’re renegotiating boundaries with another party, they don’t know what you want and they can’t imagine *what could be*, they’re just focused on what they’re losing now, and how little control they have over it. And so even the most reasonable people get a bit tense when you start pulling away because they only see things getting worse. But I have found that this is a “show, not tell” scenario. And once you get yourself to a safer headspace where you feel in control of you, you’ll be more comfortable in your interactions, and people do notice that, and relationships do improve at that point. Some relationships, anyway.

      For example: I used to date a clingy guy. When we were together, he wanted to be in the same room, on the same piece of furniture, touching me if at all possible. Drove me nuts, made me grumpy, and I didn’t know how to talk to him about it. And one day I couldn’t take it anymore and I went for a walk. By myself. And he was hurt and put out, but then he noticed that I was more cheerful when I got back. And that’s when it started to click for him, that I need that time and I need my space, and if I got all that, I was a better person to be around. One example got him to understand what no amount of talking could get across.

      So, this whole state of affairs may improve because your dad may start to see what he’s *getting* instead of what he’s losing.

    9. Excellent. A journey of 1000 miles starts with the first step and all that – and the first step seems like it was in the right direction, so you’re one step closer. Good for you!

    10. Well done on hanging up! I know from experience that the first time is the hardest and scariest. Now you know that you can do that and survive. ❤️

      I also know the feeling of “oh no I’ve made it sound worse than it is”, and I think maybe that comes partly from having had to minimise how bad it really was to myself in order to survive, and partly from the ingrained idea we get from society that abuse=malicious and intentional, so if it’s someone who says they love us or does loving things in other ways then it can’t really be abuse or be *that bad*. It’s only after reading a lot of writing on abuse that I came to really understand that someone can both genuinely love you and believe they are doing the right thing for you, *and* also be abusive.

      ❤️ and luck to you on this journey.

      1. Yup. I used to rail about my emotionally abusive parent to my friends, and when they’d point out that it sounded bad because it was bad, I’d backtrack and feel guilty and nervous, like I wasn’t being fair enough or making it sound worse than it was because I was upset, etc. My friends would justifiably get upset: “Why are you telling us about this abuse, and then minimizing it when we sympathize?” So I started using humor when I was upset. I was genuinely HILARIOUS when telling tales of woe and abuse, all so my audience wouldn’t force me to face the fact that it was, indeed, abuse. I’d be self-deprecating, I’d workshop how the abuse was related to something I must have done or not done, I’d shake my fist at this Problem Which Clearly Is Unsolvable Because Reasons. The reasons were wrong, and fear-based, and standing up for myself after being ground down emotionally and mentally all my life wasn’t an easy skill to learn. But I had to learn it, or risk losing all my friends and boyfriends because I was not examining the life lessons taught to me by an overbearing, punitive, well-intentioned but boundary-stomping narcissist . I had to recognize that I was mad not only about the current abuse I was passing off to myself and others as a minor blip of annoyance (that also mysteriously fit a long pattern of similar abuse but no, it was just restricted to this one minor annoyance that happened today, nothing else!), but I was also mad about years and years of being nitpicked and scolded and judged and treated badly, but when your only surviving parent is also your primary abuser, and it isn’t obvious that anyone could see and judge if it was pointed out, like being cursed out with profanity or being hit or being deprived of food [etc.], it is amazing and terrible how many mental gymnastics it takes to avoid facing things. And playing devil’s advocate is still all too easy! WHAT IF I’m “just too sensitive,” WHAT IF I “just can’t take a joke,” WHAT IF my attitude is poor is some way or my tone is surly or whatever the complaint du jour might be? WHAT THE FUCK IF? It doesn’t erase the FACT that abuse is abuse. You’re allowed to stand up to small abuses that aren’t done intentionally and which outsiders and uninvolved parties might shrug off and claim aren’t abuses JUST AS MUCH as you’d be allowed to stand up to big, lavish, obvious abuses that everyone understands and condemns. Little abuses take smaller bites out of your self esteem, that’s all. Bites are bites, though and even tiny bites can get infected and fester.

        You’re allowed to set boundaries and practice self-care and figure out what works for you, and your abuser doesn’t get to offer suggestions or commands or rules, and your abuser doesn’t get to argue with YOU about it, and your abuser doesn’t get to persist in throwing ballistic missiles of emotions and FEELINGS you way for you to dodge or deal with.

        I’m still learning these lessons. I still take more care to be fair to my abusers and other transgressors and boundary-stompers than, frankly, I should or that they are probably entitled to (CLUE: they aren’t entitled to anything from me after being abusive to me). Going strict no-contact would cause more family drama and inconvenience than I want to deal with, so I am just low-contact, with boundaries raised high. All I can say is that I know what I’m doing wrong when I make a point to be fair to people who don’t necessarily deserve that compassion or courtesy. I know when I blame myself for my part in a conflict that I am not just taking a reasonable share of responsibility like a grown adult should (it takes two to tango, etc.) BUT ALSO I’m habitually taking on MORE of the responsibility than I probably ought (I need to learn the words to the tune “I didn’t inspire an abuser to start a fight with me, they chose that,” and other hits).

        Anyway, I’m Team You, and my feet apparently fit in your shoes rather well. You got this. We got this. It’s OK to set ground rules in life.

    11. You did an amazing job with the hanging up, I am proud of you. I hope you enjoy your new hair colour and are reminded when you look in the mirror what a strong, self respecting, kind person you are.

      It takes a great deal of character to be the adult who breaks the pattern of family batshitness when you were the kid who didn’t get to be cherished as you should have been.

    12. Good for you! It is possible that a middling path will work, do what feels right for you. Internet hugs if you want them.

    13. You are a CHAMP. We are all so proud of you!!!

      I am contemplating something similar with my mom and I’m really heartened by your courage.

    14. LW, I am so glad to hear that you were able to take back some of your own power! That is really difficult to get in the habit of doing, but it helps so much!
      I’m sorry you are having a difficult time with reading all this, and your own knee jerk reaction of no-it-wasn’t-that-bad-really! It sucks, doesn’t it? The way abusers train us to do that for them? They get in your head and scramble your thoughts and your sense of self preservation. Even The Good Parent ones do this. You are allowed to talk about your life and experiences and feelings. You get to set your own boundaries.

      Jedi hugs 🙂

    15. One of the most important things I’ve ever had to learn in my life is that someone can have all kinds of wonderful, lovely qualities and that none of it erases or undoes or makes okay their bad behavior or harm they cause me.

      I had to learn this once with my emotionally abusive ex-husband, who I loved dearly and could have said all number of nice things about, but who also was manipulative and passive aggressive and repeatedly blew past my boundaries and would sometimes scream in my face.

      And I’m learning it again with my mom, who was a great mom, kind and fierce and such a wonderful advocate and loves me dearly, but who also is, as my therapist put it after meeting my mom for the first time, “the most passive aggressive person I’ve ever met” and also frequently blows past my clearly stated boundaries and constantly talks about how she wishes we had a better relationship while also defining that “better relationship” as me giving her exactly what she wants and needs whenever she wants or needs it.

      My point is, LW1248, the things you said about your dad in this letter are true, and the impact of those things is true, *and that matters*, even if it isn’t the whole picture of who he is, and even if he has many wonderful, loving qualities that you feel compelled to defend.

      The harm you’re experiencing is real and your feelings are valid, and you deserve to defend your own boundaries and protect yourself as fiercely as you feel compelled to defend your dad here.

      You don’t have to decide that he’s a monster to decide that the harm he’s doing to you needs to stop.

      1. “constantly talks about how she wishes we had a better relationship while also defining that “better relationship” as me giving her exactly what she wants and needs whenever she wants or needs it”

        Wow, there are two of them! My mom is so much like this it’s eerie (except for the “kind” part… she has her good days and bad days).

    16. Bravely done!

      I know the hanging up was the dramatic part, but as a Fellow Anxious, I hope you can give yourself credit for SEEING your anxiety spiral for what it was and not diving headfirst into it. That’s huge! And hugely useful!

    17. Awesome! You rock!

      Judgmental and argumentative about the color *you* are planning to put on *your* hair? Ugh. You’re not the one making him sound awful.

      “I am not going to fight over something that you have zero say in. It is my decision and you don’t have a vote.”

      Good luck!

    18. Good for you. That is such a big step!

      I am being very wordy on this post but I do want to share one thing: I don’t think kids should ever have to feel “grateful” for their parents’ love. Parents are supposed to love their kids. That’s their job. It would feel very weird and icky if my daughter felt “grateful” that I love her. To my mind, I know I’m doing all right by her because she mostly takes me for granted. She knows I adore her, she expects that if she needs me I will help and support. And that’s as it should be. I’m the mother; all the obligation goes one way in this relationship. (Of course I expect this will change as she enters adulthood, but even when she’s fifty and calling me to complain about getting “ma’amed” at the grocery store, I do not want her to feel grateful that I love her.)

    19. You didn’t make him sound awful. You just stated what he did – if it sounds awful, or if he sounds awful as a result of what he did, that’s on him, not you. It’s okay to feel sad about that but what he has done isn’t and has never been your fault. I think you’re doing an amazing job. There’s a book called “Healing Your Aloneness” and the sequel “Inner Bonding” which might be helpful to you – it talks about how our inner adults are modeled off of the people who parented and cared for us. So if you grew up hearing that noticing bad behavior is bad or is your fault, then your inner adult may very well tell you that when you notice your Dad’s bad behavior. It’s all self protective behavior with roots in childhood where you couldn’t meet your own needs and where you needed to play that game (if my parent says this is my fault then I’ll accept that and not do it again) to survive. The book book helps you establish a dialog with your inner child so you can identify and intercept those messages and be loving to yourself. It’s about becoming a parent to yourself and it has been game changing for me. I hope you keep finding healing and clarity. ❤

    20. Hugs if you want them LW. You can never write something down that conveys the whole picture, and none of us are sitting here lawyering about whether whatever word you typed was really justified.

      This process comes with the knowledge that we all only have a window into your problem, and CA’s advice is broad and meant to address a variety of possible bigger pictures. We are only here to help you (and help each other or ourselves along the way). You have nothing to worry about. Do something nice to care for yourself and try not to worry about what we think (because we do not know enough to really know your exact situation, and that’s ok)

    21. Sharing is caring – so I’m going to share some really personal stuff I learned – BIG BREATH OF VULNERABILITY.

      That “rush” after you set a boundary, where you physically feel ill and you might get dizzy, nauseated, headachey, etc.? That’s likely your cortisol and adrenaline surging through your system via the flight-fight-fawn-freeze response. As you get more comfortable setting boundaries and “feeling the guilt but doing it anyways”… those feelings will get less intense, and maybe even go away (hooray for growth!).

      My symptoms didn’t really go away though, unfortunately. My body was literally stuck in the 4F response, and lead to all sorts of OTHER issues that I had no idea were connected to chronic stress (eczema, hair thinning, acne beard, trouble sleeping, weight gain around the mid-section, trouble retaining nutrients, tummy-tunnel issues, etc.). I was so grateful to lean on my trauma therapist and naturopath to fine-tune my recovery to MY needs (ie. cut out ALL toxic people). In my case, understanding that my diagnosis of Polycystic Ovary Syndrome was aggravating my adrenals, and causing damage to my liver and kidneys from TOO MUCH CORTISOL and not enough of X-hormones. So now I’m on hormone show-stopper through my naturopath, adjusted my diet, and am only NOW just getting my estrogen and testosterone under control – this has SIGNIFICANTLY reduced my anxiety (because I’m simply not a hormone-casserole when dealing with stress/conflict).

      Just throwing that out there in case you notice if the “icky” feeling doesn’t go away or lessen, it might just be a symptom of a hormone dysregulation issue (super common when your matriarch wasn’t able to help you normalize your cycle during puberty). Thanks for sharing your story! I too had the “call me every Sunday so I can lecture you” Father… and he is now safely tucked away in the no-contact drawer next to “You ALWAYS X” sister, and “You NEVER Y” egg-donor.

        1. I didn’t even KNOW there were 4F’s until I read Pete Walker’s guide to healing CPTSD. Mind-blown how he talks about the links between them. I was a total fawn-freeze growing up! Great clip by the way. Rings soooo true.

    22. Oh, your response was perfect. I’m particularly revelling in the image of him, upon receiving your text in reply to his text, staring at his phone and thinking, “Huh. That’s never happened before. Huh.” Sound like it made an impression! It’ll be equally fascinating to see what he does going forward.

  16. Yeah, this reminds me of my life. Before my mom got occupied with a boyfriend. I felt like I had to use The Nuclear Option (hanging up, refusing to pick up, ending up having a screaming fight later) when I’d ask her multiple times to say, not talk about poop (or whatever) and she’d just ignore it. I despise The Nuclear Option, but nothing really works except Nuclear sort of works…

  17. I came to say what A Silver Spork already said…if he has no one else to talk to, how could he possibly be relaying the bad things your sibling says about you?! He obviously has a whole other person to pester with his loneliness…but I’m guessing that the whole other person might actually BE selfish and refuses to have 2 hour chats where they listen to him expound on whatever he wants.

    So, if you’re feeling guilty…ease your heart with the fact that he can turn to your sibling when you’re not available, LW. You’re just the accommodating one, so he’d rather dump on you.

  18. All of this was so good!! After your break and getting into talking to your Dad again (if you WANT to):

    For my mom, when I get on the phone I have a post-it note next to me with a list of safe topics that I’m happy to discuss like cooking, books, games, my sister’s accomplishments, exercise, etc. Every time she gets into a topic that’s going to drag me down, I abruptly change the subject to one of these.


    Her: “Oh ya proper protocol for reheating mac and cheese reminds me of POLITICAL DISCUSSION.”
    Me: “Oh interesting, thanks for talking to me about the mac and cheese. How’s Pilates been going?:

    If she keeps bringing it back, I just go,

    “Oh whoops I gotta go, Love you Mom talk to you later!”

    Abruptly ending the call also helps a lot with getting off the phone sooner. I also have found the Captain’s article “Anxious Parents and Freeing Yourself from Constant Contact” extremely helpful and review it every couple months. (https://captainawkward.com/2017/07/19/967-freeing-yourself-from-constant-contact/)

    1. I love this note idea for topics that are good to discuss.

      Long story short, I’m going on 1 1/2 years of no contact with my dad, and my mom tried hard for a whole year to “fix” it. I finally told her she needed to stop if she wanted to keep having a good relationship with me. It’s awkward having no contact with one parent and a decent relationship with the other when both live together. But since all this mess I keep conversations light with her, plus before this she would go on and on about how depressed she was so I try hard to only bring up cheerful, good and light topics. It seems to be helping both her and I keep a happier relationship, but some days I’m so distracted by kiddo that I blank on what to chat about. Thank you for this note idea, it is going to help a lot!

  19. I just wanted to say that it’s ok to be a little selfish. Protective even. At least enough to not put up with unreasonable demands. That’s like the minimal self-care.

  20. Good gracious. One to three calls a week of up to two hours each? That’s not a relationship, it’s a part-time job. Block his number, let your spouse screen your calls when you get calls from an unknown number, take a well-deserved emotional vacation, and maybe quit that job because it sounds terrible.

    1. exactly! A part time job with a super difficult boss, no PTO, and no retirement benefits! Oh, and no paycheck!

  21. I’m kinda in this boat too, LW. I’m really struggling with my relationship with my mom, and have semi-decided to just… not talk to her right now. She went on a monologue recently about how my youngest sibling is “cutting off the family” (no, they’re just cutting YOU off…) and while she’s never said anything directly to me, she’s been rather lonely since her best friend died and I think she expected best friend’s sister and/or myself to take up that role. Um no. I can’t. For one thing i don’t really like her that much and if we weren’t related, we wouldn’t talk at all, and also I am the oldest child she abandoned so we will NEVER have an equal relationship to support that. So…

    My dad is lonely too. He found some gaming groups and he spends time out of the house on Tuesdays and weekends doing I don’t even know what. I’m very proud of him.

    The fact that your dad still clearly talks to your brother but “has no one else” stuck out to me too. Anyone wanna bet me a quarter that Brother sets boundaries and Dad respects them? He has a lot of CHOICES here, as the Captain so aptly points out, and he is choosing the ones that actively hurt you. Personally, having reached this point with my own parental unit, I would not send him an email detailing all the things I want him to stop talking about. I would write it out for myself, to keep handy and post on the fridge so that when (call time, not more than once a week, after the first “silent period) devolves into (unacceptable topic), then (consequence). He doesn’t need to know about this list, because you have ALREADY TOLD HIM, IN WORDS, like the bad-ass you are, and he keeps NOT LISTENING. He knows, he just doesn’t want to follow or accept them. So, like the previous LW who’s mother’s response to a “this is all the ways you’ve hurt me” email was “NO YOU did this to me, I’ll be waiting for you to apologize”, he won’t Get It.

    I don’t really have anything else to add since I am just starting this process myself. I’ve just started reading Homecoming by John Bradshaw about reparenting (my) inner child on the recommendation of my counselor, and it’s touched multiple times that (i am) suffering with childhood trauma because one or more of (my) parents were traumatised children too. BUT, that is not my problem or duty to fix. I can only nurture and support MYSELF. Right now, that includes taking a break from my mom.

    I wish you the very best, LW. This shit is HARD.

    1. Thank you for saying that you don’t like your mom that much and wouldn’t want to hang out if you weren’t related. I feel Super Guilty about feeling the same way regarding my mom. But we literally have nothing in common except blood. She’s a very negative person who has no friends or hobbies. She’s like a Dementor without the black cloak, at least when we’re one-on-one. Its not as bad when there’s a group of people and multiple things to distract her. Its nice to hear that I’m not the Worst Person In The World for feeling this way.

  22. Boy do I feel this. My dad doesn’t control the conversation, but when I’m not living at home, he calls me every night to chat. Dysfunctional families mean boundary issues, and everyone learns to pick their battles. Just hearing me say I’m ok but I can’t really talk calms my dad’s anxiety and he accepts if I need to get off the phone, so I don’t fight that one. Living with my parents has meant a whole new series of battles to choose from, and god bless my therapist. A big thing she’s taught me is that if my parents are going to ignore all evidence that I’m a mature adult and leap on anything to show they’re right in thinking I’m still a petulant teen, then it’s fine to not exhaust myself trying to be mature all the time, especially when being a bit petulant will be more effective. Letting myself be a little bratty, when I wasn’t even petulant as a teen really, has been such a relief, so freeing, and gives me the energy I need for more important things. LW, you’re not selfish, at all, and you’re wearing yourself thin trying to prove it to your dad who’ll latch onto any attempt you make to be a person with her own needs as proof you’re selfish. So let yourself put your needs first, and let your dad think it’s proof you’re selfish. It won’t make him right. Even if you’re a petulant teen about it, it’s fine if it gets the result you need. Give yourself permission to not be the mature parent in your relationship with your dad, and use the energy you save to take care of yourself.

  23. Agreed!
    Well written.
    I’ve experienced similar and what I’ve realised, among many things, is that the real ‘hook’ that someone can have in another is via their feelings. Feelings and the mind are of course linked but what we must do is disassociate ourselves and our feelings from the person skilled in manipulating you, via feeling-induced states, whether that be fear-based or not.

    The way to get untangled from the web of deceit can be hard work, but once out, freedom and true living begins, because as long as you’re in a web, you’re captivated by something or someone after one thing only – to suck the life out of you. Making excuses for them is only keeping you stuck. You are allowed to love people, even people who have hurt you. That’s ok – love can be from a distance though remember. When releasing someone you love and who has done you wrong, we can say ‘i love you and release you now’. Sometimes when we try to leave angry it doesn’t work for some reason. I think there is a spiritual element involved too, so thereby remembering that love is the higher power, you empower yourself to love and let go and walk away. By doing this you’re actually really declaring that you love yourself enough to get out.
    Blessings all ❤️

  24. Hi OP. I am sorry your dad is being so horrible to you. I hope you are able to get some space for yourself away from his calls and messages. It all sounds really stressful, and taking a break could be really good for your own wellbeing. The captain has great advice and scripts, I have learned so much since I started (obsessively) reading.

    Like your dad, my mom used to get a lot of mileage out of being The Good Parent. Of course, she was not actually good at all. More like less bad than my dad was. She still neglected and abused me, and let others do so.

    Mom also would use triangulation to interfere in my relationships with friends and family, including my sister, who still believes the cruel things mom said about me when I wasn’t around to defend myself.

    I think the worst thing mom did was to cash in on her supposed Good Parent status in order to manipulate and verbally abuse me for my entire life. I got really tired of feeling like I was obligated to clean her house, run her errands, and listen to her ranting for hours. It wore me down more than I realized until I finally went no contact with my family. Mom remained poisonous all her life.

    OP, your dad may be The Good Parent in comparison to your mom, but he doesn’t seem to be treating you very kindly. Maybe in your family, like in mine, the bar is pretty low? You can take a break from the ranting, negging and manipulation. Please take excellent care of yourself. Self care is not selfishness. Jedi hugs

  25. About saying “okay” when someone accuses you of being selfish. If someone said you were covered with purple polka dots and were hovering 3 feet off the ground, you could argue with them and say “no I’m not,” but it would be so obvious, so really obvious, that you weren’t, it would make as much sense to say “okay” or “whatever,” or I’m sure you’re right about that, but I’m still not going to stay on the phone with you.” It works for whatever your opponent is trying to manipulate you into doing. “Have sex with me, or I’ll call you a prude.” “Loan me $5, or I’ll call you a cheap Jew.” 1. You break down the opponent’s argument into its basic parts “do this, or I’ll think bad thoughts about you.” 2. You agree. 3. You continue along your merry way. You don’t explain that it’s not true. It only matters that you know it’s not true.

    I don’t even like the idea of spelling out what the boundaries are, or if you do, do it only once. My plan goes like this.
    Father phones.
    You: Hello.
    Him: Current events.
    You: Excuse me, I have to go. (Hang up phone.)

    Next scheduled phone call:
    You: Hello.
    Him: Weather, safe topics
    You: Pleasant safe topic back.
    Him: I think you’re being childish, current events.
    You: I have to go. (Hang up phone.)

    Next phone call, sooner than the scheduled one:
    You: Hello.
    Him: You’re worse than childish, you’re … (This is the extinction burst.)
    You: I have to go. (Hang up the phone.)

    Next scheduled phone call:
    You: Hello.
    Him: weather, safe topics
    You: Pleasant safe topics back.
    Him: more safe topics.
    You: Cool! Enthusiastic safe topics!

    In time, the weather, safe topics part gets longer before the inevitable current events-I have to go cycle sets in. The only advice at that point is to be on your guard because, and I guarantee this will happen, if you start getting along really well, the next time he brings up current events, it will be in a situation where it’s extremely difficult to extricate yourself. You’ll be a passenger in his car, or you’ll be an invited guest with other great people around. You MUST make sure you stick to your I-have-to-go-now and do it.

    1. Yes, it’s so true and tiring that you have to keep your guard up and can’t ever really relax around these types of family members.

      I thought my mum and I were doing much better lately so I trusted her with the difficulties I’d been having with my dad, and then was blindsided by her suggesting that maybe he had hidden the fact that he remarried (someone I’d never met) from me for over three years because he was afraid I’d get angry at him because of that one time I threw a tantrum as a child because he surprise brought his girlfriend along on a holiday that was supposed to be me and him, and other reasons why his shitty behaviour was probably my fault. I was so taken aback I didn’t hang up immediately or shut it down as quickly as I’d have liked and then beat myself up a little about that afterward, even though I know it’s not my fault.

      Parents, amirite!

    2. I sincerely, SINCERELY hope that if anyone, ever, at all, for any reason called anyone at all a ‘cheap Jew’ you promptly cut them dead and never spoke to them again. That’s not mere ‘OK whatever’ stuff.

      [Exceptions apply if you live with/are financially dependent on this… person… and can’t get away just yet. You need to be safe etc.]

  26. The bit about trying to stay away from the news stuck out to me because I’m dealing with something similar. I want to emphasize that it’s ok to set boundaries about not talking about current events even if 1) the events are important and/or 2) he shares similar values to you.

    The family members in my parents’ generation have developed this habit in the current administration of socializing by looking at the news on their tablet/phone/newspaper and disapprovingly reading out loud some awful corrupt and/or bigoted thing someone in the Tr*mp admin did, or bringing up as a topic of conversation “did you hear that 45 sad [incorrect and offensive thing?] What an idiot!” and laughing about it. Which, maybe they find that entertaining or something?

    I find it really stressful and irritating and would much rather focus on 1) talking about these things as they come up organically in conversation and 2) learning about things to the extent I need to to take action, whether that’s voting or calling my reps or volunteering or whatever else. It doesn’t help me do that to hear about the President’s latest Twitter beef, or that one of his supporters said something dumb; it just makes me feel upset and scared. So I try to set limits on this sort of talk and change the subject.

    I think a lot of people conflate “being informed” with “being responsible” or “taking action” but it turns out there’s a ton of information out there that is upsetting at best and deliberately framed to make you feel overwhelmed with despair at worst, and that doesn’t actually accomplish anything for you to know about. Where you draw the line is up to you and your individual circumstances; I can’t provide some general rule that applies to everyone. But it sounds like OP is taking the healthy and necessary (for them) step of taking in less information, and I hope they know it’s ok to set those limits *even if* other people with similar politics think it’s very important for them to take in every detail.

    1. I am no politics with my mother. She has said some stunningly victim blaming stuff about Christine Blasey Ford and Virginia Giffure that has nothing to do with shrewd political analysis and everything to do with her denial that she knew my father was abusing me (I know, ewww, gross.) Basically, she will use #metoo to have the abstract version of the conversation is is too cowardly to have; and by engaging, she is enlisting me in her version where memory is faulty and grown women misremember and accuse men who are good guys.

      She has a strong sense of apathy about using democracy in our country (the UK) because again, austerity sucks but there is nothing the average little guy can do because all politicians are corrupt and we are stuck with them (trans = even if your father had abused you, what could a powerless parent like me have done? Don’t whine, put up with it.)

      Politics is about power and so is abuse, in abusive families political chat has a lot of subtext.

      1. >> Politics is about power and so is abuse, in abusive families political chat has a lot of subtext. <<

        Ohhhhhhhhhh…. THIS. Wow. There’s a deep deep truth in this.

      2. ”Politics is about power and so is abuse, in abusive families political chat has a lot of subtext.”

        Damn this really hit home for me…Wow. Lots of thoughts…

    2. Yeah. A couple of years ago I had to interrupt someone I love who was doing “this politician is horrible, they said…” and tell her “please stop. it’s even worse hearing that crap in your voice, because then I have to remind myself that you don’t actually think that.” She got it, immediately–we can still talk a bit about the world is on fire, or Trump is doing horrible things, but don’t quote the poison to each other, because that doesn’t lance the wound, it spreads the infection.

      In a better relationship, I’d suggesting LW asking her father “why are you telling me this? It hurts, even though I know you don’t believe the nasty things Brother is saying.” In this one, it might be more useful to ask herself “would my father keep quoting these insults to me if he wasn’t trying to hurt me.”

  27. Captain you have outdone yourself. This like in particular was 😘👌 *chef’s kiss* perfection:
    “He can tell everyone all about his selfish daughter (Oops, he doesn’t have anyone to tell, so let him eat a double helping of “who gives a shit?” and file it under “What other people say about me isn’t actually my business.”)”

  28. OMG I feel this so much. My dad is a good guy. Not a great guy but a good one. But he was taught that the wimmin folx, they do the …. wimmin things. And his ability to deal with emotional stuff is COMICALLY bad. Darkly comic. (Storytime: I had a miscarriage of a very wanted pregnancy. The day after, my dad called me up and said “You have to talk to your mother.” “Why?” “She’s crying and upset and carrying on about the baby.” “Dad I’m kinda busy here.” “Doing what?” “HAVING A FUCKING MISCARRIAGE.” “Oh.”)

    He just assumes it’s the women in his life who will handle this. I sense some of that in your story and I’m sorry. I have only one thing to add to the Captain’s suggestion and that’s to have a scheduled time to talk. I talk Sunday nights. I don’t have a “5 pm” schedule but I have an easier time controlling my guilt when I have a scheduled time for some reason that I probably talk over with my therapist.

    The compulsion to just let men hand us the emotional work is so STRONG, isn’t it? I’ve had to grip my hands behind my back to keep from just accepting it when my dad was like “Planning your mother’s party is hard.” Even though I’m 250 miles away and don’t know her friends, he thought that it would be easier for me to do it… and some part of me agreed. It was SO HARD but I resisted! And he… ok, he got his neighbor to do it and got all the women on the block to provide food.

    Luck LW. I hope you find some peace.

    1. My condolences. My Dad was also an astonishing arse about my miscarriages. Once, when I’d travelled the bazillion expensive miles to spend time with him at his end of the country, a couple of weeks after miscarrying (so I was still a little pale and fragile), his FIRST WORDS to me when I got in the front door were a speech about how in the ‘old days’ people just got on with things and didn’t sit about wallowing and I should just get on with my life. There was I, back at work and so on, and also doing major expensive cross-country trips to see family, so very very very very very clearly getting on with things and not sitting about wallowing. It was just such a jerk move of ‘don’t be sad at me I don’t want sadness sadding sadly at me, I don’t do sad.’, and such a mean crappy assumption that I was some kind of emotional weakling who had to be chivvied. At no point was there any acknowledgement that the situation was, in fact, really sad, and we all had the right to be really sad for quite some time and that sadness was actually the appropriate and normal reaction here.

      And now he wonders why we aren’t close and I don’t tell him much.

      1. So sorry! I would have left and went home. The best thing revelation I ever had (I was 24) was that I was an adult and if people chose not to treat me well, I could leave. I didn’t have to apologize or explain, I could just leave.

        1. It’s one of the things I look back on and marvel at – why in the name of all that’s shiny did I simply not get up and walk out? Because now I absolutely would.

      2. That’s terrible. I’m sorry. I’m constantly goggled at how terrified men are of anything emotional.

      3. Holy crap. I think my jaw broke when it fell onto my desk.

        I’m glad you’re well away from that.

  29. LW, so much love and solidarity for you. I have had a very similar experience with my mother.

    I learned the hard way (and with the Captain’s amazing advice) that the only way boundaries actually work is when you *enforce* them. I could ask mum mum to stop talking about my weight/appearance until I was blue in the face, I had multiple screaming arguments with her about it over decades. And for other boundaries too. But her behaviour didn’t actually change until the time I read the Captain’s advice on boundaries and actually started enforcing consequences. If she brought up a topic that I did not want to talk about and would not let it go, I hung up the phone or walked out. She was pretty shocked at first and like the Captain said it is damn scary and hard. But once she saw that I was willing to draw that line, her behaviour started to change.

    The other thing that really helped me through this difficult time and extinction bursts etc was talking to a therapist to disentangle myself from mum’s feelings and train myself to understand that I am not responsible for managing her feelings. Gradually, with time, I managed to defuse that panicked feeling of “she’s angry at me, I need to fix this”, so I could set a boundary and be okay even if she was upset about it.

    All the best wishes and luck and Jedi hugs to you. ❤️

  30. “Estrangement starts as a tourniquet: stop the bleeding, stabilize the patient, then make decisions about healing.”

    A perfect analogy. Applying a tourniquet to an arm or leg can stop critical bleeding to save a life. It also can result in loss of the limb. It’s an “expensive” treatment in that it can force the loss of something very dear, but that also can be absolutely essential to prevent something even worse.

  31. One thing which might help here: “selfish” is generally used as a gendered insult. It’s thrown at women who are doing anything other than being doormats for the people in their lives, and it’s code for “you, a female person, are putting yourself somewhere other than absolute last on your list of priorities and are therefore an Abomination Unto Nuggan”.

    Men generally aren’t labelled as “selfish”, even when they’re behaving as though they’re the Only Real Human Being on the planet and thus entirely entitled to All The Attention and All The Nurturing and All The Caring.

  32. For Many And Various Reasons, I am not very close to my Dad, both geographically and emotionally. I used to be his best pet daughter he was so proud of, so this is weird and painful. But, at a certain point, I realised that I simply could not spend 12 hours travelling to spend time in a place with no public transport and no walking-distance amenities (and I can’t drive), that I couldn’t therefore leave as and when necessary, being HARANGUED and ARGUED WITH and PICKED ON for hour after hour because my Dad a) has to be right, b) has to be right about everything, even stuff he knows very little about, c) would rather be fighting than feel, in his words ‘unimportant’, d) will not accept anything less than full on King Lear declarations of eternal devotion every fifteen minutes and/or screaming rage-tears as being enough attention to make him feel important.

    So I stopped going to visit.

    He was Very Disappointed Very Loudly. He grumbled to everyone he had ever met. Apparently my name is mud in his valley now. I don’t doubt for a second that he is very sad and hurt. I don’t want him to be sad and hurt. But, I don’t want me to be sad and hurt either, and I can only influence how I behave and what I do. He knows why I don’t visit and he knows what he would have to do to get me to visit, so at this point it’s his call. He is choosing to call me once a month to complain that I don’t visit, I am choosing to say ‘well, Dad, we’ve discussed this. So, how’s the garden looking?’ The conversations are now a lot more ‘garden is lovely, I saw a pine marten, we had did a big trip to the city and I saw this movie, have you seen it?’ and a lot less ‘why do all my children hate me?’.

  33. I too have had problems with an abusive father and phonecalls. My advice is that if you decide you will talk to him, when you unblock your phone from him, make sure that other forms of communication that he might use (text, email etc.) are blocked (or re-blocked). Then, when you (and I really hope you do) make a quick exit on him in the middle of a phonecall – because we all know he is going to go there!!! – and consequently hang up on him, then you should immediately reblock him on your phone, for a while. Because he isn’t going to take that lying down. If he has no problem flinging insults at his daughter (which in my book gets you disqualified from being able to do a father role), then he will go nuclear, and if you have pre-protected yourself, then he will just be flinging down trees in a forest thousands of miles away. When you hang up on him, you are going to need silence and TLC, not an angry tirade.

  34. “What kinds of topics would you enjoy talking about with him?”

    As I’m learning to navigate discussions with both my mom and dad (because there were none when I was child so we didn’t learn to really talk to one another, and they didn’t learn it from their own parents either) this is an excellent starting point. It can be what kind of common interests you have that you can talk pleasantly about and also what kind of topics you don’t mind hearing *some* about (there are things that I have no particular interest in but that parent does and I’m interested because they’re interested) providing there is some reciprocation and this isn’t the whole conversation, and whether heartfelt deeper conversations are possible and when and how. This I had to make parent understand: if you want me to listen to you you also have to listen to me too. You can monologue on your own time. It’s been awkward and uncomfortable. Had to interrupt, talk over, cut phone calls short, leave, switch to other forms of communication, go incommunicado. Sometimes with false excuses, sometimes with painful truths. If parent wants to keep you in their lives, they’ll make the effort to learn. And I had to learn they have to prove and show that deserve me and love me too, and they can: they’re not too old to grow up.

    1. I’m really struck by how much I can relate to everyone’s anecdotes/dysfunctional families. It’s interesting how similar messed up families are to each other.

      This comment really resonates with me–how *DO* you talk to your parents when you don’t have a good model for that? I’m in the same boat. Conversations with my parents consist of:

      *My mom talking about politics (we politically agree but I just can’t take the ranting anymore; it’s exhausting; I change the subject)
      *My parents talking about their pets (which makes me sad, as they don’t take care of their pets especially well)
      *Them telling my daughter how pretty she is (FFS, she’s 1, and also can we not do this?) and what a good girl she is (this is the same thing my mom says to her dogs–not only does it SOUND like she’s talking to a dog, but she’s admitted that this is verbatim how she talks to non-human animals)
      *My dad making sarcastic comments about…anything and everything.
      *How much my mom dislikes her job.

      That concludes the list of topics!

      Almost any time I’ve tried to bring up something serious (or outside their wheelhouse), it gets made fun of, they end/change the conversation super fast to go back to their list of comfortable topics (see above), or they just don’t engage and the conversation dies. And if I’ve brought up something that’s not 100 percent positive? I get told I don’t have it that bad and/or they tell me about something worse that’s happened to them/someone they know/someone in the news they read about. It’s exhausting and I’ve mostly given up trying to engage.

      That said: I appreciate that I’m not alone in having a Conversation Problem with my parents! I hadn’t thought of it as “we never learned to talk to each other” and I appreciate being able to label it as such. It helps to have labels for the particular ways in which my family is dysfunctional so I can think of it as “oh, we’re having the Conversation Problem again” and not “I’m not trying hard enough/this is my fault.”

      1. I’ve found through experience that a REALLY good way to get people to shut up about political ranting is to ask them, “So, what are you doing about it?” And then give them a bunch of suggestions for things they can do. The ones who are always ranting NEVER talk to you about politics again. (Most people who are actually doing stuff, IME, don’t have the energy to rant.)

      2. Also glad I’m not alone, kinda sad that there are so many people in this boat but at least it’s excellent company 🙂 Asides from setting boundaries which is very hard and exhausting work and something you mostly have to do all on your own right now (you get all the hugs in the universe for trying so hard to keep them in your and your daughter’s lives and make things better for *all* of you), one thing that’s helped me too is thinking of myself as a guest when they’ve invited me to their home. We’ve known each other my whole life and yet we’re also still strangers who are trying to get to know each other better. That demands talking *with* each other not talking *at* me (because I’m not a longer child who has to listen to them; I can leave if the hosts are terrible and it’s costing me bc really what are the consequences if I do? Next meeting or phone call is gonna be awkward? Well, it already is.)

      3. Although the topics differ, you have described conversations with my father exactly. Convoys with my mother have evolved, fortunately, but never did with my father. It’s really no wonder that as an adult over 40, I choose not to talk to him at all.

  35. I think I’ve been this parent. I went through a hellish year of moving back to my home city in the disappointment of a failed relationship, finding almost all my friends had moved away or died, working in an all-consuming job with disastrous leadership – and projectile vomiting my angst and outraged sense of injustice in the situation (mostly on behalf of my vulnerable clients) at my adult son and my two remaining acquaintances. My son reacted by becoming an unresponsive wall to protect himself from my tide of feels and sanctimonious rage; the friends, I very effectively and thoroughly alienated and they winked out, which made me feel more and more invisible and unheard – all while ranting with all the force of my pain. Looking back from a more sanguine place, I can see that I was utterly out of control. Luckily, I keeled over with an undiagnosed illness which got me some time out and a little bit of distance. My family doctor insisted I attend a short course of counselling, which became long term therapy, but I actually WISH any or all of the three people around me had told me that I had lost my shit and to get help – not that it was their responsibility to do so, but tolerating my streams of woe did not help anyone, least of all me. Like me at my lowest, LW’s dad may not have the tide of his need to communicate and express his own pain under much control, but that behaviour is a clear sign that the all-absorbing ear of his daughter is not a fix and he needs to take other action. Sending a very clear email saying ‘No. More! Get counselling, get on Meet-up.com/church socials/elder singles cruises, etc.!’ is a kindness to LW and to Dad – and if the relationship isn’t sustaining LW, it won’t be sustaining Dad either. It might be the making of him. (Epilogue: I rebuilt my life from the ground up and somehow got involved with an art form that spiritually sustains me, and a group of amazing, loyal, loving and supportive friends – who I don’t vampirize. It is possible.)

    1. LOVE your self-awareness (eventually-life is a journey and you made it there) and your epilogue. We all deserve a lovely, happy life with something that feeds our soul and friends who Get It, but we don’t always do what it takes to get there. Good on you for doing so.

  36. I just wanted to mention that I shared the link to this post with a friend of mine who is dealing with similar things. She said it helped her. So thank you, Captain, for also helping my friend, and OP, please know that you are not alone, and I wish both you and my friend all of the strength, healthy boundaries, and support.

  37. Oh thank you for this letter! I’ve recently had to go through the awkward process of setting boundaries with my housemate who also refuses to listen and who has done the “reverse the victim” thing, where he made my boundary-setting evidence of how selfish, inconsiderate and immature I apparently am. This has boosted me and made me realize that I should just keep on enforcing the boundary.

    My housemate lived with his mom all his life til she passed away 8 months ago, she lived in the granny flat in the basement and he had the rest of the house and let out rooms, but he ate with her and watched TV with her every day. Now she’s gone he does not know what to do with himself and started to cling to me like I was a rubber ring and he was drowning in the sea. I could not leave the house without him standing in front of me and interrogating me. Where was I going? WHo with? Why? How long for? Really for that long? Because that would be weird. When would I be back? When I came back he would rush to me for a debrief about where I had been, who with, and so on. If I was at home he would stand outside my room barking like a dog, like “woof woof! WOOF! Woofy dog is hungry!”. (His mom had a dog that barked for attention). He also wanted to talk to me all the time about his opinions, which included how he now wanted to dive into dating, but would only date much younger women, “who could be my daughter” or mansplaining the impeachment process (like you LW I can’t do politics or news right now).

    When I told him he needed to step back from this & I needed space and he was making me uncomfortable, he complained to a mutual friend about how I am selfish, elusive, standoffish, rude and ungrateful. Why could I not understand that he was asking me out of politeness, and that this was why he wants to date younger people because they are “more liberal” and “less closed off.” AT least now I know that this is typecasting and negging, and I can try to ignore it…

    1. Y I K E S to your room-mate. If I were in your shoes I would have run out of patience long ago. Why even bother interacting with, much less trying to please, such a ridiculous personality?

      1. My former roommate and I agreed politically and had similar tastes in entertainment, but I worked full-time and had some health issues (bad back and depression) that made me unavailable to her to the degree she wanted me to be available. Her parents support her (AFAICT, she doesn’t work due to a bad back…hey, *I* have a bad back, too!), she doesn’t go out and meet people and got angry when, after she complained she had “no money [to spend on fun stuff, rather than bills and necessities]”, I told her about 3-4 well-paid, flex schedule, part-time jobs-with-benefits someone with a bad back could easily do that were opening up at my workplace.

        She is SO lonely and self-isolated that she CRAVES company, but she is an Interrupter and Controlling and a Talk Angrily About Upsetting Things Loudly person and a Slam Doors and Throw Stuff When Moody person and a Let’s Debate Things That Aren’t Important Even Though You Aren’t Arguing With ME person. I’d come home after a long day barely keeping my shit together thanks to depression flare-ups or physical pain or just being tired because it was a long day at work, and excuse myself to my room to decompress.

        At first I made a point of setting aside time to spend with her so she wouldn’t feel lonely (not my job, but I cared about her, and am very patient, and very aware that I, too, am an imperfect being with faults that may occasionally annoy others, but…) and yet it wasn’t enough to be her captive audience and be interrupted and talked over and bulldozed (again, not because she’s a deliberate bully, this is just a bad habit borne of loneliness and not enough social exposure to other human beings in her age cohort lately) during a set time, I had to watch the same TV shows, and be available when she wanted to sit outside and smoke and drink, and so forth.

        Again, not a bad person, and not a burden to spend time with her when I was able! This was a friend! I know it’s due to loneliness and craving human interaction. But the tide turned when I didn’t make ENOUGH time to be interrupted and talked at, and when I didn’t watch enough of the same TV shows, and no matter how much time I spent, it wasn’t going to be enough, nor would the interaction be pleasant. She’d be nursing hurt and resentment and anger over my failure to spend enough time with her (by her accounting, and eventually she was actually right, I avoided her altogether). I’d know spending time with her would be unpleasant, and I’d be tired and hurting and not up for it, and it because a self-perpetuating cycle.

        I moved out last year, and one of my animals who had gone nearly totally bald grew his fur back within a month of being out from under her roof — he is my sensitive boy; my other animal is deaf and didn’t hear the door-slamming,stomping around, shouting (at her pets or just in general) — so I wonder how much stress I was absorbing, too. I do know I like having MY OWN SPACE in MY OWN PLACE.

        So…maybe rethink the living situation? It doesn’t get better, and he’s currently writing a script in his head to justify all the weird shit he is doing, and making you the Bad Guy because you just don’t understand that He Cares or whatever excuses he comes up with for barking like a dog outside your door and interrogating you whenever you leave the house or return.

  38. Things have been great for your dad until now. He gets to pretend he wasn’t a negligent father who failed to protect his children from an abusive mother, in his mind the fact that his adult daughter is still in touch proves that he’s a good dad, he gets to assuage his guilt, dump all his negative feelings on you + up to 6 free hours of phone therapy a week! How convenient for him and why would he want that to change… prepare yourself for some major push-back OP.

    OP, even if you successfully put boundaries in place, what do you expect to get from this relationship in the future? I don’t know what your needs are, but I guess some validation of your feelings about what happened in your childhood and an apology would be a promising start. Could that ever happen? If it doesn’t, would you be satisfied with a VLC relationship where you discuss light topics only?

  39. LW, I do not think that writing an email to your dad will necessarily give him the understand of your needs and boundaries that he somehow, mysteriously, still doesn’t have. But I do think it could be a healthy and useful, thing for you to do. It could be a balm to your heart in the times when you Must Enforce The Boundary and are left feeling hurt over his response. Because there, right on record, is the proof that you explained he was hurting, upsetting or stressing you out and that he has chosen to continue to do so.

    From where I stand, he’s not “the good parent”. He just kinda sounds like “the less crappy parent who wasn’t around as much to show their full crapability”. He’s selfish, he gaslights you, overrides and even derrides your (frankly very reasonable and actually quite generous) boundaries, and he demands a huge amount of your time and attention each week. And he makes your trauma all about him! Holy fucknuggets that’s not a good thing he’s doing! How dare he expect you to be the one whose job it is to soothe HIS guilty conscience about the situation he left you in!

    I think the Captain’s advice of a Dad-free month is excellent. I’ve had some huge revalations about the people in my life and their true effect on me after having some kind of break in contact with them, whether by my choice or outside factors, and you may find you reevaluate things after some real downtime, and it might help you at least feel better about enforcing your own needs.

  40. It helps to think about an imaginary version of your Dad who actually wants a good relationship and treats you the way you want to be treated and works hard to minimize your harm and maximize your happiness. What would that Dad want for you? Well, he wouldn’t want you to stay on the phone if it hurt you, and he’d want you to only talk to him if it was nice and fun. So pretend you have that Dad and do what he’d want you to do – hang up without explanation the instant you felt upset or your boundaries were violated, and only pick up the phone if you thought it would be fun to talk to him.

    It’s possible he can learn. Especially if he’s not lying about being alone, that’s excellent leverage. The power is on your side entirely. But you have to be clear. Saying you can’t talk to him about X and then staying on the phone when he talks about X isn’t clear. You are reinforcing the wrong behavior. Worthwhile studying animal training. If a goldfish can learn so can he.

    Honestly I blame the good parents more. They had the ability to rescue you,even if not entirely, and didn’t. If Dad can’t clear the very low bar you are setting for him might be a good idea to borrow someone else’s parent or family, someone actually equipped to do the job.

    1. tl/dr “I know you don’t want to hurt me so I’m not going to let you hurt me”. Click.

  41. This was such a good answer!! This article showed up on my Google feed today because I was looking specifically for something to answer this question the other day. Loved the “hell to the motherfucking no!!!”

  42. Hi LW, I wanted to chime in to echo CA’s thoughts about the “shoulds” your operating under, and pass along something that’s been helpful for me. I’ve always been buried in “shoulds,” as the kid who did well at everything and seemed to be pleasant and functional despite the chaos and insanity going on around me. But of course, we all have so many “shoulds” ruling our lives that they can end up burying who we actually are and what we really want and need under this big mountain of fiction and impossibility and guilt.

    What has been helpful for me is when I’m feeling pressured by a “should”, is to direct that “should” at the other person who’s using guilt to pressure me. Reminding myself that neither of us is perfect helps to remind me that my obligation to the other person only extends as far as they uphold their obligation to me. For instance, in my case, if I can turn “I feel guilty because I’m not close with my brother, I should be making the effort to talk to him more often” into “Hey, my brother should/could also text ME occasionally and should also apologize for the years of emotional and physical trauma he caused me before we can have a real relationship,” then I get to feel like I can dissolve the obligatory Family Org Chart Bonds, and do what’s best for me.

    In your case, for instance, if you’re thinking, “I should be there to support my dad,” and “I should be gentler and more forgiving when setting boundaries,” it might be helpful to remind yourself, “My dad should have his own support network outside his kids,” and “My dad should respect my request not to talk about this.” Perhaps if you can remind yourself that he’s not holding up his end of the social contract to treat others (you) with a basic amount of respect, that will help you feel more comfortable doing something that feels right now like it might be mean or rude or “not what a good daughter would do.”

    He’s not doing much to be a good dad, so you can meet him on his level and do less to be a “good daughter!” #DoEvenLess2020

  43. Okay, I think most of this is correct, but I am taken aback by the characterization of a person who did not win a custody arrangement, which is how it was presented in the letter, as abandoning his children. Is that…how we’re doing that conversation here?

      1. Right. We don’t know – and the LW does not have to provide more detail – but the LW expresses “wait, how could you not know” in the letter and the dad seems to think the LW was responsible for informing him as a child? That tells me a lot about the dynamic. Is that all custody dynamics? No. But this one? Yeah.

    1. I think the issue is that the dad left the mom because she was abusive but then more or less pretended not to know that mom was abusing the kids.

      1. Yea but I think its a part of the whole thing.
        First he expects her to talk about whatever he wants when ever he wants despite knowing it makes her uncomfortable.
        Then whenever she talks about things which make him uncomfortable he makes it this whole thing where instead of being about what she went through its about how he couldn’t have possible have known. And to make matters worse he seems to be lying either to himself or to her.

    2. The dad left the mom because she was abusive/awful to him, was apparently totally unaware of the abuse/neglect she visited on the kids as children, and when the Letter Writer brings up things from an abusive childhood now the dad immediately pivots the conversation to “if you had told me about the abuse” and reassurance that it wasn’t that bad and that he didn’t really need to do anything about it. That doesn’t sound like a very involved parent to me – why didn’t he ask, why didn’t he guess, why didn’t he notice, why did he think it was a child’s job to sort that out – and “abandoned” is the word I’m gonna stick with, thanks. If it bears no resemblance to custody/lack of custody situations you have experienced, then it isn’t about those.

    3. I was 6 months old when my Dad left so I have no idea what really happened with the formal custody stuff. My Mum always said he didn’t contest her becoming the sole custody holder because he left her because he didn’t want us. When as a teenager I finally asked my Dad what had happened, he said he tried to get custody but Mum stood up in court clutching both me and my brother to her and lied about his drug use and character. My brother was 6 at the time so he really doesn’t remember. It was Northern England in the mid-80s, so chances are my Dad wouldn’t have got custody without proving physical abuse or something that was treated equally seriously back then. But I also know that my dad was deliberately unemployed and living in a bedsit (a low income all one room apartment) so I can’t see any judge taking his custody bid terribly seriously. Personally abandoned feels right to me, because he knew exactly who my mum was and he still left us with her and got to live the life he wanted to live. That doesn’t mean I think that’s the right word in all custody cases, and good dads do regularly get screwed in custody decisions.

      1. I have been involved in custody hearings in the UK, For obvious reasons children as young as this are never present ‘in court’ for the custody hearing.

  44. Haven’t had time to read the whole comment thread, but just have to share one thing that I hope will help. Please know that you have NO control over whether your dad tells people that “You’re selfish.” and “He’s a poor lonely old man.” So make your decisions based on your needs, not that imagined fear. As evidence, I offer up the evidence of my father, who has several of the fine social outlets the Cap’n mentioned: church, social club, TEH GOLF (four days a week with the same golf buddies for years). He also has me, his daughter, who “resets the clock” every Monday and works toward having some kind of casual in-person visit with the old man before the clock resets again.

    He still tells all the distant relatives that he’s so looonnnneellly, because his daughter’s too buuuussssy. He tells people this in my presence. It’s a trope. It’s something to say. It’s the natterings of a person who was raised to believe that adult het males were entitled to a 24-7 passive listener (which my mother provided until her death), so anything less feels like a disappointment. It’s been really helpful to me to see that my own efforts didn’t fix the problem. Since he’ll be disappointed, no matter what I do, I’m now free to make my actions reflect the kind of feelings I want to have and the kind of person I want to be. And I don’t feel as bad when I don’t want something that I imagine he would want, very much (like longer visits, or long chats about his dating life – yuk.)

  45. I’m not certain if this will help, but it made a difference for me when I was sorting out my (at that time difficult) relationship with my mother – someone does not have to be ‘abusive’ to hurt you. Your father may have good intentions, may be a generally good person, may honestly love you, but if his behavior is hurting you then you have the right to FEEL hurt and to want that pain to stop. You can cut him off, end phone calls, whatever you need to protect yourself even if you never categorize his behavior as ‘abuse.’ There is no cut-off or measuring tape where you can only protect yourself if someone goes THIS far. You don’t have to hate him/be angry with him in order to protect yourself from his actions. Whatever you choose to call his behavior, his choices in how he treats you are hurting you. That’s not okay.

    1. Yes, this, so much this. My parents have never been abusive in any way or form and they did the best they knew at the time but they didn’t give me a lot of things I needed and I wasn’t happy at home. Your feelings and your needs matter; and they should matter to him too if he wants to build a relationship with you as adults.

  46. The absolute best thing about living hundreds or thousands of miles away from someone who can’t just up and see you (because they can’t leave work, can’t afford the ticket, have only a vague notion about where exactly you live) is that the promise of “if you try to talk to me about [x], I will hang up and not talk to you again until [Y]” has TEETH. Delineate your rules, don’t try to justify them, and then when he breaks them, say, “I told you I didn’t want to talk about this” and hang up immediately. Don’t even say goodbye or let him try to recover.

    If he literally has no one else to talk to, (1) that’s on him to solve and (2) you’re actually the one with all the power at this time. It might not be very “nice” to wield this power, but consider this: has he actually done anything to deserve your kindness? Or has he merely been the less-terrible of your DNA providers? Because, I gotta say, what he’s doing sounds a whole like emotional abuse of just a slightly different stripe from your mom’s.

  47. My mom does this to me often (so often that I’ve typed out a couple of CA submissions, only to go “No, wait undo send!” because there’s already a letter that addresses a similar issue). She sees us as friends now that we’re adults, but if she doesn’t get the floor to express herself, uninterrupted, about Thing She’s Obsessed about, I’m met with confusion and pushback. After all, she’s my mother who loves me and would do anything for me (read: has no boundaries of her own), so why would I have any boundaries around her?

    When Thing She Obsessed About was my cousin’s wedding, my mother decided that because Cousin’s fiance was (and is) a jerk, the only way we could enjoy ourselves was if we exchanged snarky comments all day. She was disappointed that I didn’t “appreciate” her nasty critiques of his family WHOM WE DIDN’T KNOW in a small, quiet church WHILE THE CEREMONY WAS HAPPENING and instead sitting stone-faced, blandly saying “No, I don’t care that a handful of people on his side are wearing black dresses, or that an auntie in her 80s keeps rustling around in her purse- stop glaring at her- do you remember how to behave at a wedding?”

    It is galling to have to deal with this around other family, because she is never subtle/doesn’t respond to my cues to have a private conversation (placing the burden on me to shut her down in plain sight). But that is the only way I can get her to stop, so that’s what I do. For a long time, I thought there was something wrong with *me* because I could never be cool and collected, or respond with sunny humor like my aunt/uncles/cousins could… but then I realized they didn’t have to deal with my mom as often as I did. When we’re in public she doesn’t have that power, so I’ve gotten more comfortable flexing my grey rock muscles. Knowing that I don’t have to keep doing this (that I can pull back if this feels like too much) is the latest truth I’ve been adjusting to.

    You did not sign up to be your dad’s forever BFF-who-is-also-his-therapist, but never calls him out on his harmful behavior patterns (like a therapist or BFF would). In fact, the pressure to fill that role is a societal mailing list that NONE of us, in fact, signed up for. Unsubscribing hasn’t been working, so it’s time to flag these messages as spam. If he wants to still “have” you in his life, then he’ll step up and behave when you show him the consequences for not listening. I’m sorry that he can’t see how he’s continually hurting you.

  48. Please feel free to ignore this comment if it’s too off-topic, but since the Captain mentioned posting related questions in this and the previous comment thread: can I get a reality check on something?

    FIL’s girlfriend is malicious– purposefully kept sending me e-mails with my PTSD triggers in them even when asked to stop, never apologized or admitted wrongdoing. FIL doesn’t see a problem with his girlfriend’s behavior because it was “just an e-mail,” doesn’t respect politely-stated boundaries and gets angry at more assertively stated ones. Husband and I have agreed that I should never see these people.

    However, we’re starting to maybe think about having kids. Husband wants the hypothetical kids to have a close relationship with their grandfather, mediated by Husband, who will enforce boundaries as needed. I want the hypothetical kids to only see FIL and his girlfriend at large group events, because based on their prior behavior (especially the boundary-ignoring), I don’t think they’re safe to be around, at least from the point of view of emotional safety. It also makes me feel deeply uncomfortable, the idea of fostering a close relationship between the hypothetical kids and someone who is this prejudiced against mental illness.

    Am I completely off-base here?

    1. You are absolutely not off base! You might find this Captain Awkward letter useful: https://captainawkward.com/2014/05/26/579-being-pushed-to-forgive-because-faaaaaaaamily/ (spouse A has been estranged from their father for years; spouse B “doesn’t understand” and may try to sneak the new baby to see the estranged father against spouse A’s wishes).

      I think, when you’re talking about parenting decisions, there are some that need to be “one no = no” (i.e. both parents don’t have to agree). Safety issues are like this. If one parent is a no, it’s a no. I hope you and your husband can get on the same page about this BEFORE any kids are in the picture!

    2. Nope, you are not even slightly off base. I personally find it infuriating when parents want their children to “have a relationship” with the parents’ abusive parents. Your job as a parent is to *protect* your kids from harm, not deliberately put them in the path of people you know perfectly well are likely to harm them.

    3. You are not off base! Related post: https://captainawkward.com/2014/05/26/579-being-pushed-to-forgive-because-faaaaaaaamily/

      A script for you could be: “I appreciate the offer to be a buffer, but it’s not your job to fix a difficult relationship with my parent! The thing I need when I become a parent is to be able to protect my kid and myself from crappy behavior. ‘Large family gatherings only’ IS the compromise position, those are where your buffering skills can be handy. If they don’t behave there, then the other option is zero time around someone I know is cruel and can’t be trusted. I need you to have my back – as the person who knows my family best – more than our theoretical kid needs the concept of a grandpa. If my dad wants to be in his grandkids’ lives he will adapt.”

      Hold fast! Trust yourself and your instincts.

      1. It’s FIL and girlfriend, so the script needs to be amended slightly because it’s the husband’s family. But I think the point someone above made still stands: sometimes one no from the parents means no.

    4. Nope, you’re 800% NOT off-base here. Your FIL’s gf has shown she will blatantly disregard important, very valid boundaries and your FIL has done the same. These people have shown you who they are and that they have no intention of changing; why on earth would you expect them to be any better at respecting boundaries with hypothetical children when they’ve given you no evidence to believe as much? You’re totally right that they’ve proven unsafe for an adult who won’t put up with their garbage behavior to be around, I certainly wouldn’t trust them to be around kids who don’t know better re: boundaries, etc.

    5. I absolutely think you’re on the right track, and you’re not off-base. One thing I’d like to note/add is that in a lot of cases, kids don’t really know what they’re missing out on if they never had it in the first place. (Obviously there are exceptions to this – for instance, relationships with parents.)

      Grandkids and grandparents knowing each other is more of a gift to the grandparents than to the kids. Speaking as someone who has never had a close relationship with any of their grandparents, I just have no concept of what I don’t have. I hope this doesn’t sound too unemotional, but to me, it kind of feels like, I don’t know, having nicer plumbing fixtures or something. I’m sure it would be nice to have a $1500 kitchen faucet, but I rarely think about it. When I do, it’s just like a fleeting, “oh that might be cool.” But I’m not waking up every day with this empty spot inside my heart that’s reserved for the cool thing I’ve never had. (Ok, that’s the end of the weird analogy.) Again, I don’t want to speak for everyone, and I hope that this isn’t minimizing to people who were lucky enough to have great grandparents — just my personal experience.

      All that to say, I would encourage your husband to consider whether he’s really doing this for the hypothetical kids, or if he’s doing it to appease his dad and his dad’s gf. It sounds like you can be reasonably sure the kids are more likely to be damaged by your FIL and his gf than they are to have some amazing, life-enhancing experience being close with their grandparents.

      1. Yes and…avoiding a person who is routinely crappy TO YOU is a reasonable thing to want. Seeing these folks is wear and tear ON YOU. Negotiating with your partner around them is stressful for YOU. So you get to be the boss of how much of that you want to deal with.

    6. ‘ Husband wants the hypothetical kids to have a close relationship with their grandfather’

      I think he needs to accept that, based on current evidence, this is not actually something that is going to happen. And I don’t mean that in the sense that you’re going to forbid it, although I certainly hope you forbid it; I mean it in the sense that, from the sound of it, your FIL is not the kind of person who is going to form a close relationship with the people in his life. Basic consideration and kindness are prerequisites of close relationships. People who are willing to disregard and trample on the feelings of the people they should be close to are, by definition, people who don’t end up with close relationships.

      Even if you went along with your husband’s plans here and did let the future children see the FIL, the best that could actually be hoped for would be a sort of performative superficial relationship in which they spent time with him and were polite to him because they’d been taught that they had to do those things. That is not actually the same thing as a ‘close relationship’. So, best thing – although it’s hard – is for your husband to accept that your FIL is not someone who is going to be able to have a close relationship with grandchildren, and work from that unfortunate fact to “OK, how can we at least deal with this situation without hurting the feelings of anyone who doesn’t deserve it?”

  49. Book idea for the LW: Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents. Yes the title is clunky but wow the book helped me so much. Check it out, it changed my life. Enforcing the boundaries was easier for me when I was able to see how the dynamics developed in childhood and how my parent became this way in the first place. I’m learning to enforce boundaries and take breaks and wow does it feel amazing! After the breaks I have better clarity and perspective on the situation. Sending you Jedi Hugs, LW.

  50. All of this hits so close to my heart I’m having trouble breathing – the original letter, all the posts. So instead of dealing with THAT, may I offer a mostly silly but a tiny bit serious suggestion?

    Did you watch The Office? Do you remember the funny but deeply sinister character Creed? (Age unknown, cult leader & cult follower, possibly a murderer, definitely clueless about his work.) His coworkers get tired of his verbal nonsense and set him up with a blog, albeit one that’s not connected to the internet.

    Would your father be interested in spewing his Long Winded Feelings About the Politics of the Day on the internet where you don’t have to see it? Set him up a free wordpress blog and let him get it all out there? Teach him* how to follow his local news station on FB and comment on all the articles with His Important Thoughts? Old Man Twitter’s probably a thing?

    As I said, this isn’t getting anywhere close to the meat of the issue, but maybe it’s a diversion Frisbee you could throw him? And not have to catch it again because it’s not being thrown back to you?

    *tell him to ask a librarian

    https://theoffice.fandom.com/wiki/Creed_Thoughts <- for more details.

    1. OMG, as a young person I used to tell my dad he should write opinion pieces (back in the days before blogs) for this very reason. He would look at me like I Did Not Know How The World Worked (because pre-internet nobody would publish an opinion piece by him of course) but I was really saying “can you please tell it to someone else this time?”

  51. Captain, thank you for your recent focus on family estrangement. It’s incredibly well-timed and I hope you have some idea of how much we, the readers, appreciate your exceptional clarity, compassion and wit.

    My Very Difficult mother, with whom I have limited, superficial-topics-only contact, is currently dealing with her elderly father dying. It’s a difficult balancing act of feelings and responsibilities, being a Good Enough daughter, staying sane whilst also recognising her suffering.

    I don’t know how it will all work out, but I feel prepared and don’t feel alone. Thank you, Captain.

  52. Somebody might well have said this already, but an *excellent* answer to ‘”I don’t have anyone else to talk to!” is (in sincere, non-snarky tones) “I hope you find someone. Goodbye” followed immediately by hanging up without further argument. It’s true, it’s kind, it’s sympathetic, and it’s setting a hell of a clear boundary.

    A good answer to *anything* along the lines of how selfish/childish/whatever negative someone thinks you are for having the occasional need of your own is a simple “I’m sorry you feel that way.” Followed, again, by either hanging up or (if you’re feeling kind and have the spoons) a giant subject change with hanging up held in reserve as next option if they don’t go along with the subject change. And then remind yourself that just because they feel that way doesn’t make it the truth. (But, hey, if they really do feel that way then sounds better for both of you if you’re not on the phone to each other right then!)

    Also, I’m offering these from a place of having had years and years of practice at setting these kinds of boundaries firmly, so… like any difficult skill, it takes practice. And gets better with practice. So don’t ever beat yourself up for having difficulty with it at first, but also know that the more you do it, the more you achieve the satisfying state of being *able* to do it, and holy cow that is a good place in life to get to.

  53. He’s using guilt and insults when you try not to be his talking receptical. It sucks that he still is the less abusive parent.

  54. This is a reply to the LW’s comment which I lost track of trying to post this on mobile:

    You didn’t make him sound awful. You just stated what he did – if it sounds awful, or if he sounds awful as a result of what he did, that’s on him, not you. It’s okay to feel sad about that but what he has done isn’t and has never been your fault. I think you’re doing an amazing job. There’s a book called “Healing Your Aloneness” and the sequel “Inner Bonding” which might be helpful to you – it talks about how our inner adults are modeled off of the people who parented and cared for us. So if you grew up hearing that noticing bad behavior is bad or is your fault, then your inner adult may very well tell you that when you notice your Dad’s bad behavior. It’s all self protective behavior with roots in childhood where you couldn’t meet your own needs and where you needed to play that game (if my parent says this is my fault then I’ll accept that and not do it again) to survive. The book book helps you establish a dialog with your inner child so you can identify and intercept those messages and be loving to yourself. It’s about becoming a parent to yourself and it has been game changing for me. I hope you keep finding healing and clarity. ❤

  55. LW, I really like Cap’s idea of blocking his calls for a month. Again, it doesn’t have to be forever, just give yourself some space away from him for awhile.

    I’ve been through a few rounds of contact/no contact with my father over 2+ decades, and this last round of no contact is permanent. I made peace with the fact that he would never be the father I needed, let alone wanted, a long time ago and tried to make the best of what relationship we had. After the last argument (which is him calling me disrespectful while I’m angry and upset because I was worried about his safety), I realized that whatever good times we had are in the past and there weren’t going to be any better times in the future. I received one last, nasty letter from him; having received one once before and knowing how he writes these to other family & friends when they don’t behave the way he wants them to, it didn’t really hurt that much. It was just disappointing to read how skewed his view of me was, because it showed just how little effort he put into getting to know me as a person.

    And that “disrespectful” I mentioned earlier?
    My father would “joke” that my brother and I were disrespectful when we were children. In reality, we were great kids navigating an acrimonious divorce with joint custody; we were never “troubled” kids (the term back then) and never gave either of our parents any serious problems, when we could have easily gone the route of manipulative, self-serving monsters. Oh, I think of what I could have done, gotten, and gotten away with back then! Too bad I was busy being a good kid. Anyway, “disrespectful” even as a joke, was to keep us in our place: a place my father saw as always — always! –being less than him. Or definitely me as the daughter, because you know, sexism. Now, decades later, I think: “Disrespectful? Fuck, yeah!” I thought about getting that on T-shirt, but instead, when I can afford it again, I’m going to have that word made into a fucking beautiful piece of jewelry. Maybe one of those multi-ring/brass knuckles pieces.

    That’s just my story, LW. I don’t know how how yours will turn out. I hope your dad turns out better than mine. But moreso, I hope you will stop feeling guilty when you’re dad calls you selfish, because it’s not true — it’s just bullshit meant to keep you in the place where your father wants you. Selfish? Fuck, yeah!

  56. Your description of the situation with your father has been the exact thing I’ve endured with my mother, right down to the obsession with current events. I’d like to posit that the sense of guilt you feel, the fear of negative labels and the acceptance of disrespect when you step out of your role, are exactly how you’ve been programmed.

    If you will allow me to briefly compare your experience to mine, your programming was tailored specifically to your father’s (and mother’s) specifications in order for them to get what they needed from you without you taking into consideration your own sacrifice. In my case, it was a mother who manipulated me, physically, verbally and emotionally abused me, stole from me, enabled (and encouraged) family to steal from me, and treated me as her personal servant, ATM, and butler to her friends.

    In a sense, you are a device for your father to activate whenever he needs companionship, attention, emotional release, entertainment, etc., like a relationship oven: he dumps his moldy flour of abandonment and neglect into a bowl; mixes in his expired egg of inconsistent, half-hearted attempts at fatherhood; stirs into it a watered-down sugar solution of gilt provocation; and then dials your number in preparation for two hours of bake-time.

    At the end of it all, he gets a mediocre pop tart of a one-sided relationship with the only person in his life who can still stand him; while you get a smelly, lingering mess that you then need to self-clean.

    The hardest part of all this (in my experience) is having to bring yourself to the point where you not only question the programming, but you reject it all-together because you will not only change the relationship you have with your father, you will change your relationship with everyone you meet. You might find that when you learn to distance your sense of self worth from your father’s opinion of you, that you start to spot patterns in other people you surround yourself with. That has been my experience.

    Re-reading my own statement, I realize that I have probably gone far, far off the deep end. I admire the Captain so much for how she drives her solutions along the path, allowing for rest-breaks, stopping for a moment or two along the way to let you take in the scenery, taking a few turns off the main road to show you something important, and reaching the destination better than anyone else would.

    I sincerely hope what I wrote will help you in some way. I had to learn what you might be learning, and I am somewhat leaving the tunnel and seeing the light after decades of darkness. I hope that same thing for you.

  57. He has LW’s brother in his life but he has No One To Talk To. This is not a mystery. He doesn’t want Brother’s attention. He wants that sweet sweet feminine attention, the socialized-feminine kind which is polite and anxious about not being selfish and continually thinking about how he feels and affirming him whether he does anything deserving of affirmation or not and, best of all, allows him to talk about whatever he wants for as long as he wants regardless of the woman’s feelings, which must mean he is Important.

    It’s gross.

    I have a question for someone or other, if you would. Do you think there’s any hope in asking a dad who’s been very decent overall but nevertheless has a few of these vibes for, well, more attention?

    I’ve been able to paper over barely talking to my dad for years because for reasons it’s become traditional for me to skype & call with my mom alone. We’ve occasionally exchanged witty emails, which I’ve enjoyed, and I’ve occasionally gotten to the point of missing him and initiating this. But now he & my mom have retired and moved to my area and he wants SO MUCH ATTENTION and I have a kid, dammit. I’ve set no boundaries because he’s doing nothing overtly offensive–only monopolize every conversation with a new topic every two minutes, current events or highbrow trivia or Someone We’ve Never Met Screwed Up, Listen To Me Rag On Them, he is basically the internet if it was out loud and you couldn’t shut it off. (We agree about politics, but I’d still like a chance to talk about something else?) He is proud of my writing “career” (quotes mine) to the point of living vicariously through my best reviews, but since moving here he has never asked about my writing in public & only once in private, managing to make it sound like he was teasing me. I feel it may not be coincidental that this behavior comes after my best book ever sank without a trace.

    I wrote him an email gently calling him on this (I haven’t sent it, I may send it before he returns from his current 2-month trip), and on the fact that he expects me to listen to his every random thought while seeming uninterested in even the aspects of my life he finds most palatable. (There’s plenty we can’t talk about, but writing is yes, so… why?) Somewhere under the Dad variety-show I know there is a guy who actually really loves me–I’ve seen him come out occasionally–and who is proud of me, even if he’s kind of using my successes to feel good about himself. I feel like he *could* be proud of what I’ve accomplished even if it doesn’t sell. I don’t care *that* much anymore whether he’s proud of me, but every little bit helps, and if I got that kind of attention from him I’d feel so much more comfortable reciprocating, and maybe he’d get a little of what he clearly needs back. I don’t want to be his unpaid attention-giver at quite that level when I have actual needs of my own that aren’t being met!

    (Sometimes I wonder how much attention he gave me as a kid–I know my mom was a much more involved caregiver–and whether I still owe him for that, and how much. That’s one of the things I immediately thought about you, LW–you were so much worse off than me, you got basically nothing from him as a kid! Or very little, it sounds like to me. What a daughter owes to her father doesn’t come into your situation, it seems to me–did he change your diapers? Feed you? Clothe you? Play with you? NO.)

    And yet I worry about the email hurting his feelings. I’m so aware of his feelings. I have no idea of whether he’s aware of mine. My mom is so aware of his feelings. We’re sitting at the table and he says something and I elect to listen to my kid asking me to cut up his food instead b/c I’ve been listening to Dad for the last fifteen damned minutes, and he starts to say it again and I need to get something from the kitchen, and he starts to say it again looking sadly neglected and Mom secretly signals me to listen to him this time. (Why is saying it to my mom and my husband not good enough? I don’t know, but it’s not. Like you, LW, I am somehow the younger woman who holds the key to my dad’s attention needs. I won’t lie. There’s a sense of power in ignoring him, because I can now, without getting an “are you listening, young lady.” But then there’s guilt and mom’s anxiety…) Everyone in our house has always been aware of his feelings, all while he made wildly wrong, uncorrected assumptions about mine.

    So I feel bad about sending him the email, I guess, because it will hurt. And I only want to do it if it will *actually* improve things.

    The biggest likelihood, from my experience, is that it will improve things somewhat, at the price of hearing all the time about how hard he’s working to improve things. Whenever he asks me about my writing there will be some reference to how he’s trying to ask about my writing more. Whenever he tries to make room for someone else in the conversation by asking a polite question, it will come with a side helping of “I’m trying to ask questions more” etc etc. Worth it? Not worth it? Maybe worth it…

    1. I do not necessarily think an email about the overall dynamic will penetrate – he’s not self-aware! But there might be enormous benefit to you in changing subjects, opting out of conversations when they aren’t fun for you, and pushing back in the moment, like, “Dad you didn’t ask but let me catch you up on how my writing is going!” & then chat excitedly. Interject! Interrupt! “Oh I’m politics-ed out today, let me catch you up on other stuff tho!” “Oh now that we’ve caught up on your day it’s your turn to ask about mine!”

      He won’t melt if he doesn’t get to share every thought or if he’s teased into being more polite.

  58. Re: “selfish”

    I have also had “selfish” used as a weapon against me. I also have diagnosed anxiety, and the accusations would send me into brain spirals.

    The best thing I ever did for myself was to make a new year’s resolution to “be more selfish.” It was my reminder to myself to put my needs first.

    During that year I dropped several hundred pounds of dead weight “friends” who had been taking advantage of me. I finally sought medical treatment for both mental health and my horrific menstrual cramps. I met a guy I liked and gave myself permission to pursue him regardless of my friend/ex’s feelings. Guy-I-liked is now husband.

    I was able to flip the script on “selfish” for myself.

    I hope this helps someone.

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