Posted by fxckfeelings on July 13, 2015Share This Post
Protectiveness isn’t just a noble family virtue, but a likely evolution-driven behavior, instilled in us to insure the survival of the family genome (or at least another generation of helicopter Neanderthals). Unfortunately, the urge to protect is also usually emotion-driven, thus making it liable to backfire. It’s not unusual then, especially when it comes to your fellow genome holders, for you to have to protect yourself from someone’s misguided protectiveness, protect someone you care about from their own protection-driven behaviors, or both. So use careful reasoning to determine when protection is possible, when it’s not, and when it’s likely to do more harm than good. You’ll actually become a good protector if you react less to feelings and more to what’s truly best for your family’s future.
My father is well-meaning but a little loopy, especially now that he’s older, and somehow he got it into his head that my wife is cheating on me with a handsome, younger co-worker. In reality, my wife and I are very happy, and we like and occasionally socialize with this co-worker and his husband, but clearly, it ends there. Still, every time dad visits he gives my wife dirty looks and tries to take me aside to tell me I can’t trust her. She and I used to laugh about it, but now that my dad’s been harping on this bullshit for over a year, it’s starting to get on our nerves and our kids, while young, are starting to suspect that grandpa’s upset about something and want to know what it is. I’ve tried to reassure my father that it’s just in his imagination and to keep it there, but he can’t stop. My goal is to figure out a way my father can spend time with my family without causing my wife pain and upsetting the kids.
Keeping the peace within a family isn’t always easy; it’s hard under your own roof, but even harder when you’re running interference between the family you’ve created and the family that created you. Sometimes, however, the efforts required to keep everyone happy aren’t just doomed to failure, but to make you (and others) miserable.
Your natural instinct is to work harder and try to meet everyone’s needs—your wife and kids, your job, your misguided old man—but there are times when the demands become impossible, and instead of dedicating boundless energy towards making things work, you have to create boundaries and instruct others to work around them.
Since you can’t please your father’s wish to express crazy, insulting thoughts without provoking your wife and upsetting the kids, you have to make someone unhappy. Fortunately, the power to make people unhappy for their own good is what being a good parent is all about. It’s time to learn how to use your natural authority, even if you have to wield it against your own parent instead of your kids.
You’ve already taken the first step by examining your father’s accusations, deciding they’re groundless, and telling him to stop. Now it’s time to accept the fact that he won’t, and it’s your job to assess the impact of his actions and decide what to do. Ask your wife for input about having him in your home and dealing with the kids’ reactions to his criticisms. Then decide what’s best for your family.
If you decide to set limits on his behavior, write out your judgment so as to keep it brief, friendly, and non-negotiable. Begin by reminding him that you love him and would like to share time together, and that you know his criticisms and suspicions are well intentioned and that he wants to protect you. Assure him that, after paying careful attention to his concerns, you’re now confident that they’re wrong, and you’re also sure that any continued discussion of them is bad for your family.
Make it clear that, if he can’t stop expressing his concerns, you won’t be able to spend time together. Express your hope that, with time, he’ll be able to keep his concerns to himself, and finish by giving him your love. Just don’t ask him to change, because there’s a chance that he can’t and, in any case, it’s time to close the door on further discussion. He either changes his behavior or he doesn’t; all you can do is give him the incentive, see what happens, and hope for the best.
It will be sad if you can’t have him over, and he may try to make you feel guilty, but, acting as you would if he were a sulky teen and not a senior, don’t listen. As a father, do what’s necessary, knowing it may cause pain, accepting the fall out as necessary, and respecting the way you do your job.
Being a parent makes you responsible for many things, but the happiness and wellbeing of the overall unit, not the individuals, is what usually has to come first. Ironically, sometimes putting your foot down and setting boundaries is the best way to bring your family closer together.
I can’t help feeling sorry for my father, even when his over-protective, off-base suspicions are driving my family nuts. I know, however, that I have a protective responsibility of my own and I’m not nuts about what I need to do.”
I know my husband is just trying to be helpful, but every time he decides to take on the burden of telling our daughter something she doesn’t want to hear, all hell breaks loose. Our daughter can’t help it—she has borderline personality disorder, which makes her explosive and quick to believe the worst about everyone—so if and when she hears the recent news that an old boyfriend of hers is getting married, her reaction will probably be awful. My husband thinks it’d be best if she hears the news from him, but I don’t think he should say anything—there’s a good chance she wouldn’t hear it otherwise, and if she does, it would actually be better if she heard it from another source since she’s less likely to get violent with strangers. In any case, my goal is to prevent my husband from getting hurt by putting himself in harm’s way for no good reason.
It’s not unusual for the protective instincts we have for our families to cause harm. Your husband wants to protect your daughter from painful news, but his actions are likely to trigger violence that will hurt them both. You have the wisdom to see what’s coming but, of course, you can’t protect him from doing what he thinks is right. The question is how to find the least-painful way to get him to protect himself from trying to overprotect someone else.
While you’re not responsible for stopping him—he’s your spouse, not a dependent minor—you can certainly push him towards realistic thinking. Be careful, however, not to let your own protective concerns cause you to sound negative, angry, or controlling. If you appear to be criticizing him and his judgment more than his actual plan, you’ll only convince him that you’re a jerk.
Instead, tell him you appreciate his good intentions, but that you believe your daughter’s unfortunate condition sensitizes her to rejection, and that there’s no good way to protect her from that sensitivity. She is also more likely to lose control if she’s around her family, so it’s more protective for him and you to keep some distance from her and avoid talking about issues and losses.
If he’s right, and he’s able to soften the bad news without triggering your daughter to violence, you’ll be happy to admit you’re wrong. Otherwise, you hope he’ll reconsider how he manages the next crisis. After all, what’s important is not to express protective feelings; it’s to actually protect your daughter and family from violent impulses when it’s possible.
Don’t let helplessness make you angry or silent. Keep your negative feelings under control, tell him why you disagree, and learn together from whatever happens next.
“I can’t stand watching my husband walk into the buzz saw of our daughter’s emotions, but he knows I respect his love and intentions and that I want us both to be open-minded in finding what works best.”
More advice from Dr. Lastname