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:
- Hobby Groups/Sports/Choirs/Board Game Night/Pub Quizzes/Bowling leagues
- Volunteer/Civic Organizations
- Friends (He doesn’t have a single one?)
- Going to the local bar or coffee shop or library
- 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:
HELL TO THE MOTHERFUCKING NO
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. ❤