Posted by fxckfeelings on April 11, 2013Share This Post
When a close family member acts like a jerk, punishing them often seems to offer the offended relative the double benefit of getting to express anger and discourage the wrong-doer from pulling the same crap in the future. Unfortunately, that “double benefit” usually doubly backfires, leaving you alienated from the offending relative and twice as pissed off the next time said crap is inevitably pulled. If, instead, you waive your right to punish wrongdoing, you will often give yourself an opportunity to provide good coaching, or, if that’s impossible, to set strong limits. Fighting a jerk by becoming a jerk is cathartic, but it’s more effective to fight a jerk by being a boss.
Maybe it’s because I was distracted by the fact my second marriage was in the process of finally falling apart, but when my twenty-two-year-old son had suddenly married a girl I thought he’d only been dating casually while living abroad, I was caught totally off guard. I just had no idea it was that serious, or that they’d even have that much in common since English is not her first language. I know I’m a little overbearing, but I love my kids and we haven’t had any conflict, so I was shocked, hurt, as well as a little worried that he’s being used for a green card. His mother was also kept in the dark, but we’ve talked about it and share some concerns, so at least we’re agreeing on something for the first time in years. I know better than to have it out with him, so my goal, I think, is to keep the peace and get to the bottom of this somehow, unless you’ve got a better idea.
While you certainly have a right to feel hurt and worried about your son’s mystery marriage, negative expressions of how you really feel would do nothing but get him defensive and reinforce his conviction that he was right to keep you in the dark.
After all, any criticism, justified or no, just validates his assertion that if he’d told you, you would have been critical, and he didn’t want to hear it. That you would certainly want and deserve to hear about your son getting married is, for him, beside the point.
If you’re up to the job of being his chief adviser and can put aside the normal, natural feelings of a father who’s just taken a jab to the heart, however, there’s more you can do to be helpful than just shutting up. Since you’re someone who knows, from recent experience, what can screw up a seemingly loving partnership, you’re in a good position to offer suggestions that will push him into a more rational state of mind.
Keep in mind that you can’t do this if you’re angry or make your objections too personal. If, instead, you adopt the mindset of a realtor or lawyer advising a prospective buyer about completing a due diligence procedure before putting down an offer on a beautiful property, then you may well get listened to and make the sale.
Like a good salesman, compliment him on his choices, to the degree that you can; perhaps you can practice in front of the mirror until you can say, “she seems like a lovely girl” without grimacing. Since he might be afraid that you’re disappointed not to be there for the wedding, tell him how smart he was to save money that could be used for better purposes. Of course, he was probably afraid you’d talk him out of it and, indeed, you can think of good reasons for having a wedding, but, as if often true in sales, too much truth is counter-productive.
Now that your reassurances that you’re not going to pounce, bite, or whine have him more relaxed, share your own musings, beginning with the idea that he is now entering the stage of a relationship when he will learn whether the girl he loves is also a good partner by seeing how they share space, make decisions about important stuff like finances and kids, and react to one another’s parents. After all, since he’s probably smarter than the old man and chosen someone he’s going to be with ’til death, the practical stuff will be important. Whatever you do, talk to him as a non-threatening equal who’s seen the good (and bad, but enough about that) in marriage and not as a smarter-than-thou parent or disappointed friend.
With luck, you can get him thinking practically about his partnership now, before the real commitment begins, with kids and a house and citizenship proceedings. While you’ll have to keep your hurt to yourself in the short run, you get the greatest satisfaction in the long run from being a good parent, especially when it requires both some hard feelings and hard work.
“I feel sandbagged and betrayed by my son’s decision to marry without warning or invitation, but I know how these things happen and I’m clear that my long-term goals are to arm him for good-decision making and hope he starts to make good decisions before it’s really too late.”
I’ve got no doubt that taking my two young kids, leaving my drug-addict wife, and moving in with my father was a good move for everyone. He loves the grandkids and he’s the one who suggested we live under one roof. He also knows that, since he’s getting demented, he’s better off with some in-house help rather than trying to keep living alone. The problem is that, despite his best intentions, he’s still the same father who never hesitated to blame me for anything in the house he didn’t like when he was irritable, regardless of whether I’d done anything wrong. It always bothered me, still does, only now it seems worse, so when he started to criticize my parenting because he didn’t like the ruckus my six year old was causing, I found it hard to bear. I told him I didn’t want to hear it, but I know he’ll do it again. My goal is to get over feeling so sensitive and make this deal work.
It sounds like you’ve found a brilliant way to salvage a bad situation by leaving a sinking addiction-ship and building a stable, loving home for you and the kids that also improves the quality of your father’s life. The only cost is putting up with his pain-in-the-ass bitching and the strong, not-so-pleasant memories it triggers in you. You’ve succeeded in killing three birds with one stone, but unfortunately that still leaves one un-killable pissy bird with dementia.
You can’t erase your childhood sensitivity to your father’s criticism, but you’re no longer as helpless as you were then. Looking at his behavior from your new viewpoint as leader, parent-in-charge, and sole un-demented adult, think about what you want to do about his bad behavior as well as the means at your disposal. Your goal, obviously, isn’t to reason him out of it, because, between his history of critical behavior and present brain issues, that’s not likely to happen. Fortunately, however, you don’t have to get his cooperation or understanding in order to influence his behavior. Otherwise, kids, dogs, and the US Senate would be totally unmanageable.
Define a behavior you believe is bad, not just because it’s irritating, but because it’s wrong, because you say so. Remember, criticism is not wrong if it’s polite and doesn’t undermine what you’re trying to do with the kids; it’s wrong if it’s stated with anger and interferes with your actions as a father. Once you’ve clearly marked your strike zone, you’re ready to act.
To quiet any sense of animosity, let him know you value his input on parenting if it’s quiet and private, but you also think it’s important that the kids know you’re the boss and that you won’t allow differences between you and your father to interfere with your authority or cause tension in the home. So, if you think your father’s advice comes with the wrong timing or tone, you will simply refuse to address it until later, even if this means leaving the room. You intend no disrespect or anger, but as the head of your own family, it’s simply your idea of what is necessary. Announce your position with confidence and invite no discussion.
You can’t stop him from misbehaving, but you can impose principles and rules you believe in; you’re not trying to take over, but you won’t roll over, either. He’s signed on to a new partnership that will work well for everyone, but there are certain conditions he has to agree to if all these birds can share one nest.
“I feel infantilized when my father criticizes my parenting, but I know there’s nothing wrong with the way I do it, and that his judgment can’t be trusted. I won’t allow discussion if he intrudes on my parenting and hope that careful enforcement will take the wind out of his sails and give me some protection.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname