communicating with my dad — criticisms of others

Previouscommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

The current low-key weirdness with my dad has got me thinking. I’d never really given his complaints about other people a great deal of thought — I find them unpleasant, so I mostly try to tune them out so they don’t affect me too much — but it’s now taken on more significance, so perhaps it would be worthwhile to explore the issue and see what I could figure out.

The complaint I interrupted on Christmas Day was about his neighbours; there’s apparently a light mounted on the outside of their house that they have aimed into one of dad’s windows. It’s a weird thing to fabricate and I think it must be true but it’s also a weird thing to do in the first place. Given the fact that this is far from my dad’s only complaint about them, I’m left wondering whether they don’t understand what the problem is with the light, or whether it’s a deliberate retaliation for something dad had done previously. Either way I suspect dad has handled it poorly, since he’s prone to biting his tongue until he explodes.

I don’t recall what prompted this particular odd diatribe, but during one of our recent calls prior to Christmas he started bitching about naming practices among Black people. The names were made up and sounded silly, he fumed. This seems like a same-sex-marriage sort of situation to me: if you don’t like it, don’t do it. Problem solved. I don’t see how the names of Black kids affect his life in any way, and the complaint strikes me as petty, not to mention racist.

He has also complained about his friends not returning his calls, though I’m sure I don’t have all the facts. Are they not returning his calls at all, or are they not returning calls as promptly as he wants? Maybe they’re legitimately busy; maybe they’re returning the calls in a reasonable time but he’s impatient. Perhaps there actually is a pattern of people not returning calls, and that raises some questions in my mind; I can see it happening with one person who may be being kind of a jerk, but if this is a trend among his friends, then it’s dad who is the common factor.

He often calls me, not to talk to me, but because he was trying to reach my mom and she wasn’t there and he wants to know if she’s around or not. She’s super busy all the time, so I’ll ask him if he left a message. But he doesn’t like to leave messages, so she probably doesn’t know that he even called. When he does leave a message, she has explained to me that she doesn’t return the call right away because she needs to be in the right mood to talk to him. I wonder if others do something similar.

He has friends who he used to stay with when he came to town, but that stopped after they had some kind of confrontation, which he complained to me about repeatedly. The way he told the story it certainly sounded like it was all their fault, but now I’m not so sure. He didn’t speak to them for months, maybe a year. And then somehow they started talking again and I’m not sure how.

By a wide margin, the number-one subject of my dad’s complaints is his wife’s son, complaints about whom I’d estimate have featured in about half of our conversations over the last 15-plus years. (The son is, I admit, very difficult — manipulative, entitled and dependent.) Complaints about her daughter are not infrequent. He complains about his wife’s anxiety and how she doesn’t like to be left at home alone so she comes with him everywhere and he never gets a break.

He scorns the uncle whose thinking is wrong despite his extensive education. He resents the aunt who is self-centred and makes every conversation about herself.

What I think these complaints reveal is that he has specific expectations of people and when they don’t meet those expectations, instead of adjusting the expectations (or discussing the issue with them calmly with a view toward mutually satisfactory problem-solving), he gets angry. But expectation causes disappointment. Or to put it another way, I think he’s making himself miserable.

My dad isn’t stupid. He’s very clever when it comes to figuring out mechanical things and building things, and at the same time he can be very sociable. I think he could figure out people if he chose to, but he seems to get more pleasure and/or satisfaction (if you can call it that) from judging them.

Next: communicating with my dad — criticisms of me

communicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Ordinarily my dad calls me every 3-4 weeks or so, and I think 6 weeks is about the longest he ever goes without getting in touch.

I became aware of the lapse of time after about a month and now I keep wondering when I’ll hear from him next. At this point it’s been over 7 weeks since that brief, tense conversation — this has reached the edge of our normal timing and is now steadily inching away into uncharted territory.

Since his primary mode of operation seems to be to judge and criticise others, I strongly suspect he thinks that I was judging and criticising him.

Self-image in the sense of identity is remarkably persistent and immune to logic. He must have learned to expect attacks, and so he sees them, now, everywhere. I learned not quite this lesson but something similar. Up to a point I can relate.

Perhaps patriarchy explains a bit of why it manifests differently in us. In the face of criticism, I feel fundamentally wrong, which happens to parallel patriarchy’s habit of finding a way to blame women for any given issue. Patriarchy also says men are generally right, and toxic masculinity authorises anger as the only valid emotion for men. If my dad feels fundamentally wrong, I think he externalises it and it thus manifests as easily feeling attacked. Those people are wrong, everyone is wrong! Then he gets angry.

I’ve known my dad to “punish” his friends by not phoning for months on end when he thinks they’ve wronged him. He has also complained to me repeatedly that he calls and leaves messages for people and they don’t call back, and why should he call them if they obviously don’t care to follow up? (These days I can think of at least one reason why these folks might not be motivated to call…)

Has he has decided to “punish” me by not calling? I’m trying not to get sucked into overthinking this question. Either he feels hurt or he doesn’t. Either he’s angry or he isn’t. Very little of that has anything to do with me. Either he’ll call or he won’t.

If he doesn’t call, is that actually a bad thing? I feel a sense of loss right now but it’s not about losing the relationship we have — it’s losing the dream of the relationship I wish we had.

It seems to me that not talking to him would do no more harm than talking to him would. So I’ll occasionally note that he still hasn’t called, and measure his outrage in weeks, and see how it goes. Perhaps he thinks that if he can’t complain about people, he has nothing to say. Perhaps that’s true.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — criticisms of others

communicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

Previouscommunicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

Although my main disappointment when it comes to talking to my dad is that he expresses little to no interest in me, I felt that was a difficult issue to address directly: I can’t make him interested. I thought I should focus on something more concrete — a specific behaviour rather than a broad attitude.

It seems that dad’s complaints are mostly a symptom of focusing on the negative and ignoring the positive, which becomes especially clear when he repeats the same complaint about the same person over 10, 15, 20 years, rather than to try to address the issue somehow or to adjust his thinking about it.

I find it very easy to be negative and critical (I wonder why) so I have to make an effort to focus on the positive, and that’s something I’ve been working on for a long time. When I hear a bunch of complaints I feel vaguely shitty. I find dad’s complaints about people especially corrosive, and they leave me tense and grumpy.

The next time we spoke was Christmas Day. Within 3½ minutes (yes, I timed it), he was complaining. I started feeling nervous and tried to work up the courage to speak up, but then he changed to an easier topic and I was able to relax a bit. However, the conversation veered again and he was soon on to a complaint about his neighbours. He was really wound up about it. Venomous. So I said what I’d been practising: “Um, I’m just going to interrupt you there. I’m not actually interested in hearing complaints about people.”

He was taken aback. “Oh, and I suppose your life is perfect?”

“Hardly,” I chuckled.

“Well, what do you want to talk about then?” he snapped.

“Oh, well, maybe we could talk about some of my stuff.” I was holding a list of topics I’d prepared for just this eventuality.

The conversation stumbled for a moment, but he quickly grabbed the reins again. We didn’t talk long; he signed off, saying that he had a bunch of other calls to return.

I felt mostly good about it: I had determined that this was a boundary for me, I asserted it, and I defended it. I felt like I’d accomplished something — in this case, a particular kind of self-care. And then I cried.

I noted that I’d touched a nerve in him, not that that was my intention, but intellectually I found this very interesting because when I follow the “family rules” this kind of thing never happens. Ordinarily, dad snapping at me would have resulted in me feeling awful and like I’d fucked up terribly. This time I was just sad — that this is how it is, how he is, how our relationship is. These days I know that it’s not my job to manage anyone’s feelings, and it’s healthy for me to speak up for what I need, but actually acting on that knowledge is still difficult. I’m hoping it gets easier with practice.

(When dad complains and I feel shitty, is that a symptom of me still feeling some responsibility for his emotions? Is it me absorbing his emotions, and thus a sign of a boundary that needs strengthening? I may need to do more work on this, but even without that element, the fact is that my conversations with him — or rather, the times when I listen to him on the phone — are all duty and no fun, and I’m allowed to try to edit my life into something that’s more enjoyable.)

A family argument during the holidays is so commonplace that it’s a trope, and here I was, technically the instigator, but really just finally prioritising my own needs and protecting my wounds. I went over to mom’s later that day for supper and told her about the exchange. Her eyes lit up like I’d wrought magic. She was delighted that I’d prepared a list of topics.

Merry Christmas.

So, now what?

Nextcommunicating with my dad — waiting for the phone to ring

communicating with my dad — the standard dysfunction

In late September last year I had a phone conversation with my dad that I found especially frustrating. While he was going on at length about every bit of minutia in his life, I was having difficulty getting a word in edgewise. He’d asked me precisely two questions, and interrupted one of those answers. When he’d had enough of the conversation, he signed off, leaving me annoyed and aware that we really hadn’t connected at all. I’d just been an audience. Again.

Over the next month or so, I pondered this and compared it to previous conversations with him. In that respect, this one had been unremarkable – it’s the way things usually went with him, but I’d always shrugged and didn’t think about it until next time.

This time was different. One reason was that I’ve been surrounding myself with authors and people online who say that if there is someone in your life who does something that causes you difficulties, you’re allowed to ask them not to do that thing. This is contrary to what I’d learned growing up, but it has finally started to sink in.

As I thought about my relationship with my dad, and in particular our roughly monthly calls, I became aware that he rarely expressed any interest in me, and the usual topic of conversation was the trivia of his life (down to his heel that still aches), much of which was complaints, and commonly complaints about his wife’s adult children (who are about the same age as me). I also began to realise that I don’t especially enjoy these calls. They’re just something to endure.

It had occurred to me that maybe he couldn’t talk to his wife about these things (and especially her kids), and so maybe he didn’t have anyone else to vent to. But he’d assigned me this role without ever asking me if that was OK, and as it happens I’m not OK with it, and I don’t actually have to participate in calls that I find largely unenjoyable.

The other thing that was different this time was that I’d gone for lunch with my mom at a time when this was still on my mind. Although we don’t generally talk about anything significant (that’s a whole other issue), I raised this with her, mentioning my concern that dad had no one else to talk to.

Now, my parents split when I was a kid and it was largely very reasonable, neither of them badmouthed the other, and they still talk from time to time. But she said matter-of-factly, “Oh, he’s like that with everybody.”

Huh.

I’d resolved to confront him in some way about the issue next time we spoke but I hadn’t figured out how best to handle it and that was stressing me out, especially since I was already thoroughly stressed about preparing for my upcoming trip to Japan. I eventually gave up on saying anything about it this time; it would have to wait until I was home again. But if he wasn’t interested in hearing about me, why should I shoehorn that info into the conversation? I decided not to offer anything, and in particular not mention the Japan trip unless he expressed a minimum of interest in me by saying something like “So, anything new going on?”

The next time he called was, as luck would have it, the day before my trip, and as the conversation felt like it was winding up, he happened to ask, “Got any trips coming up?”

“Actually, yes! I’m going to Japan tomorrow!”

“Oh! Good thing I called then,” he said with a touch of acidity.

I thought, but did not say, No, it’s good that you actually asked me one question about my life.

So we chatted about that for a bit, and the conversation felt more balanced and thus better than usual, but it didn’t solve anything.

I needed to do something more.

Nextcommunicating with my dad — the mildest confrontation

trust 1: groundwork

It’s pretty much impossible for me to identify a single moment that represents “the beginning” of my new, healthy sexuality. My epiphany — when I realized that I had inherited my mother’s sexual shame — marks the moment when I took full ownership of my own sexuality, but that was only the last step in a long and complicated process.

A couple of months before the epiphany, I’d had an important realization that turned out to be highly significant, even though at the time it didn’t seem especially earth-shattering, and in some ways it struck me (afterwards, of course) as blindingly obvious.

After Wolf and I had been together for about two years and sex had already become infrequent, I continued to get more and more tense about physical displays of affection. I had a set of incorrect beliefs that amounted to a twisted and unhealthy logic. Touch was a continuum, from non-sexual at one end to sexual at the other. If I consented to Wolf touching me in a non-sexual way, that seemed to automatically include (or dispense with the need for) consent to be touched in the most intimate way I had ever agreed to be touched by him in the past, i.e. sex. In other words, if hug then sex, if that’s what he wanted. That conclusion is patently ridiculous, but through a combination of family history and dating experiences, that’s what I subconsciously believed and it scared the shit out of me. This flawed logic led me to conclude that the only way to effectively control or avoid sexual contact was to control or avoid all physical contact. So Wolf agreed he wouldn’t initiate hugs or anything else and would leave that to me.

By instituting this rule, I felt a certain amount of relief because it meant that I didn’t have to be on my guard against unwanted contact. But of course I wasn’t much inclined to initiate. After some time, I mellowed on the hug issue, but still felt uncomfortable with most forms of physical affection.

Years passed.

While Wolf was in the UK not so long ago, I had lots of time and space to think. There was no one around who I could possibly need to protect myself from, so after about two years my guard eventually came down. I didn’t consciously let it down, because I didn’t know how. It simply atrophied from disuse.

Once my guard came down, I got thinking about this history of ours and I calculated how long it had been since I had imposed the no-touch restriction. It had been ages, the better part of two decades, for fuck’s sake. And in the spring two years ago, in that quiet moment while I was leaning on the kitchen counter and just thinking, it finally bubbled up into my awareness that Wolf had faithfully followed the rule I’d laid down for all that time. Was he trustworthy? Yes, obviously! I couldn’t imagine what else he could possibly do to prove it any further. He had gone so far above and beyond. Did I in fact trust him? Yes. Unreservedly.

Because of other difficult things that were going on in my life, I had been reading and learning about boundaries, a concept that was entirely new to me. In some areas my boundaries were too porous, but this was an example of one that was too rigid. Like a person who is too focused on dodging other pedestrians on the sidewalk, or simply on her own feet, I’d failed to notice this 20-foot tall emotional wall made of grey cinder blocks and topped with barbed wire. Huh. Time for some demolition work.

I first imposed that rigid boundary to keep me feeling safe, then maintained it for years out of habit. It had become obsolete without my noticing it; it had served me for a while but I didn’t need it anymore and it had become a hindrance rather than a help. I didn’t have to police Wolf. Rather than maintaining that wall, I could just draw a line on the ground and leave it to him to respect it.

Wolf had been demonstrating his trustworthiness for ages; I had developed a certain amount of trust in him, but not as much as he had earned. After becoming aware of both the trustworthiness and the trust, I allowed myself to relax into my trust of him, to allow myself to be vulnerable because I was perfectly safe with him.

Until very recently, I had thought that this realization about trust was a precondition for my epiphany about sexual shame, but now I think that trust and sexual shame are separate issues and not connected in a linear fashion. Instead, I see them as parallel strands that are equally important. If I’d worked out the sexual shame issue first, perhaps trust would have been the epiphany. Either way, I figured it out.

My new knowledge and attitude was in one sense hard-won: sexuality had been a troublesome issue essentially all my life up to that point.

In another sense though, it couldn’t have been easier. I’d been doing reading and work on personal growth, spurred by some incidents that were entirely unrelated to any of this. I started with interpersonal relationships and “know thyself” type reading, and then, because I decided to follow where my curiosity led, I ended up reading about sex and relationships too. When I finally stumbled over my grand solution, it felt like an unlooked for gift, like a duffel bag filled with stacks of unmarked bills in a garbage can in the park.

Maybe it seemed too easy and thus necessarily superficial. For a while I was waiting for the other shoe to drop.

And then, after I’d forgotten about it, it did.


Anne Katherine, Boundaries: Where You End and I Begin (New York, Simon & Schuster, 1993).

Jan Black & Greg Enns, Better Boundaries: Owning and Treasuring Your Life (Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, 1997).