I have an older sister and a younger brother who lives overseas. We are all close and get on very well. We are at our wits’ end with our dad’s ways. He is very old-fashioned and has traditional values that include a very male chauvinistic view of women. When he’s in a mood, he is awful to our mum, putting her down, etc. She has often talked about leaving him. I know this will never happen. They are in their 70s, although quite active and do a lot of things together, and have a large group of great friends.
I feel guilty (one of my traits), for writing this because he is a good man and, in general, a good dad. He was strict with my sister and me growing up, and physical punishment, such as a smack, sometimes very hard, was common.
We seemed to be put down a lot, thinking back. He even told my husband how to treat me when we first got together.
Strangely enough, we seem to get on quite well when we are on our own together, but he acts up when Mum is around. He can be very hurtful sometimes with some of the things he says. Recently, my sister and myself have been trying to organise a surprise trip for them and he will say, “I don’t want to be with women. Talking a load of rubbish”! I find it hurtful and have always felt second best because of his views.
I feel I cannot talk to him. I’ve tried in the past and he blows up and shouts and swears.
He didn’t have a great upbringing – he had four siblings and was neglected by his mother, and seemed to punish her for it. Although, my grandad was a lovely man. I’m worried for my mum, who takes the full force of his angry behaviour. How do I approach this or am I wasting my time?
I, via email
Your father sounds like a complicated, angry man. Some of his traits sound abusive. I was concerned when you said that you were worried about your mother “taking the full force of his angry behaviour”: what exactly do you mean by this? I know you’re going to find the word abusive difficult, but sometimes people get so used to what goes on in families, that they don’t see the behaviour for what it really is. So your letter, which first appears to be about a man with rather “traditional” views, is actually more complicated than that.
You can look for a dozen reasons why your father behaves the way he does – his own childhood, the way he was brought up, etc – but, ultimately, his behaviour is a choice he’s making.
Distressing thought this is for you, you cannot make your mother behave in a way that you think she should. That said, I was interested to know what you thought she should do. Easy though it is to say “leave him”, it can, actually, be very hard for people of that generation to. (Although you and your mum might like to read this – theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2013/aug/06/divorces-rise-over-60s – about how divorce in the over-60s is increasing.)
It’s very common for children to feel guilty for their parents’ behaviour (especially in abusive environments – they think it’s somehow their fault) but you do need to ringfence yourself and realise that you can only control your own reactions, and what you do. What you can do for your mother is give her space to talk and not tell her what to do. Just listen. Has she said what she wants to happen in more detail or just said, “I’m going to leave him one day”?
You asked how to approach this and the answer depends what you want to achieve. You need to be realistic. You are never going to change your dad. You are never going to change his and your mum’s relationship and the dynamic between them. You are not their saviour – that is not your job. So that just leaves the relationship between the two of you. Is that something you want to, or feel you can, work on?
If so, you’ve identified that you and your dad get on well when you’re alone together and that’s a good place to start. Is there something you both like to do together? I would personally not go in there and start listing all the things he does that you find irksome, tempting though that is, but work on building up your relationship and getting to know one another first. In due course, I’m hoping there will be a time and a place where you can build up to saying that you find some of the things he says hurtful and ask him how he feels knowing that.
That said, I would really love for you to get at least a few sessions of counselling first, because then you could lessen the hurt this situation is having on you; and you could work out what you want to do, rather than what you feel you should do.
First published in The Guardian Family section on 6th September 2013.