How do I tell my father in a way he will understand that I don’t want to know the details of his love life? We haven’t spoken for two years because, as he puts it, if I don’t want to hear his truth, then he doesn’t want to hear mine.
When I was 11, he left our family and had a string of failed relationships. Over the years (I’m 37), he has confided in me the particulars of each botched romance. For example, starting with his relationship with my mum, I would hear about all the things these women did wrong, hurting him, and forcing him to look elsewhere for love. There is always a new girlfriend waiting in the wings, and I would then hear about how she was so much better for him in every way. Inevitably, the cycle would repeat. Then I would have a desperate woman attempting to get to my father through me, and my dad crying “poor me” on my shoulder, then extolling the virtues of the new woman.
At the age of 35, it occurred to me that my dad sharing his love life with me was inappropriate and unhealthy. The latest woman he cheated on with someone new had called me a dozen times, crying and begging me to relay love messages for her to my dad. My dad, who came to stay with me after being kicked out of her house, cried to me and spent hours on the phone in front of me to women old and new. I told him I no longer wanted to know about his affairs, he said I was an adult and to suck it up. A heated argument ensued. He was so disturbed, I thought he would hit me. I told him to leave my home and to never talk to me about his sex life again. Hence our not speaking for two years.
Every few months, he sends me a message, more stuff about his love life, to which I respond repeatedly my wish to not know about it. He claims I have childish anger issues, and need to grow up. This last time, on my birthday, he tried to tell me that he’d never cheated on anyone, which is a bald-faced lie, but he just won’t take the hint.
I miss the good things about our relationship, but I’m standing my ground on this point. However, I wish I had words to convey to him that would allow us to resume some kind of communication. Any suggestions?
You could use all the best words but that doesn’t mean your dad will listen to them. Your dad sounds histrionic, as if he can only communicate with you if there’s something big and dramatic going on. Some parents use illness to get their children’s attention – your dad appears to use his relationship woes. Did he start doing this when he split with your mum? Was he like this before? Where is your mum? Does she have any insight into this?
I think it’s clear your dad has problems with boundaries – he’s going into way too much detail with you. And how do the girlfriends get your details? Some parents do struggle with this: over-sharing with their children. This is what friends are for – not children, however adult. It’s almost as if your father needs your validation, over and over again.
Sherylin Thompson, a counselling psychologist who is very good with family problems (bacp.co.uk), wonders if your father is “struggling to regulate his emotions and needs others to do it for him [by telling them what was going on and expecting them to soothe him]”, and if he had “limited capacity for understanding the emotions of others and his impact on them”. Your dad certainly seems to feel the need to be the centre of attention.
What can you do? Thompson suggests that, first, it won’t be a quick fix but you could try to “reinforce the part of the relationship that isn’t about drama”. She suggests, as an example, when (or if) you remake contact, to say how much you are enjoying time with him when you are both doing ordinary things; and respond much less to any dramatic stories about his life.
When we talked about the best way to re-establish contact with your dad, we both thought that maybe the least dramatic would be best, so if he sends you a text, just respond with something like “Shall I pop round on Thursday?”
Thompson also suggests you might want to “reach out to him to give him some direction about what you’d like to talk to him about” rather than tell him what you don’t want to talk about. She says that by you telling him you don’t want to hear about his romances he may “think you are rejecting him wholesale”. This is possible if he’s not that nuanced about emotions.
I wonder if your dad thinks this is how he should relate to his daughter, by talking about relationships. And if he wasn’t like this before he left your mum, I wonder if he has residual guilt and is trying to say “look how bad I am at relationships, look how hard they are, this is why I left”.
This article first appeared in the Guardian Family section on 9 January 2016.