Advice on setting communication boundaries with an intrusive parent
I’m a married mother of one daughter with another little one on the way. I can’t stand my father or my relationship with him. My parents separated when I was young and shared custody of us children. I feel I was singled out for harsh discipline, and while my mother acknowledges her mistakes, my father dismisses my feelings on all matters and insists I am the source of any problems we have. There was a lack of boundaries when I was growing up.
Hara Estroff Marano is the Editor at Large of Psychology Today and writes the magazine's advice column, Unconventional Wisdom. Her newest book, A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting, grew out the groundbreaking Psychology Today article A Nation of Wimps.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
As a teenager, I was subjected to my father’s tales of his sex life before and after my mother, and trying to stop him only made him verbally abusive. My father’s brother, my uncle, was especially mean to me when I was young, but despite my protests, my father remains close to him. I live far from my father and I appreciate that he wants a relationship with his granddaughter, but he guilt-trips me if I don’t call when it’s convenient for him, and he still issues plans for my life, although he has contributed nothing to my education or bills. I feel as if he is a boyfriend who won’t let me break up with him. How do I cut him off without getting the rest of the family mad at me?
It’s extremely frustrating to feel you’ve done much of your own upbringing and then have your very personhood devalued and even denied by those who were remiss in shaping it in the first place. That’s the situation your father puts you in, and you may be feeling it especially acutely as parenthood intensifies for you. But stop for a moment, inhale deeply, and congratulate yourself for getting this far in life without the support you wanted or the boundaries you needed. Now it’s time to come into your full adulthood by adjusting your expectations for others.
Your father burdened you inappropriately during adolescence, drawing you in as his confidante, because his self-centeredness blinded him to your developmental needs. That same self-centeredness now keeps him from recognizing that your primary allegiance is to your husband and children, not him.
Parental boundary-crossings can make a child feel special in some ways. Nevertheless, children put in your position often feel an ongoing responsibility for that parent’s emotional well-being and guilt over asserting their own independence. That is likely the true source of the guilt you feel. It keeps you tied to your father and believing the only way forward is to get him to see things your way. It’s time to let go of the guilt. Your father is a competent adult, able to tend to his own emotional life.
You can’t undo how your father treated you in the past, but you can change the relationship from now on. Once you lay the guilt to rest you’ll find that you don’t need anger to reestablish boundaries, just persistence and patience. There are some boundaries that you have to respect, too. It’s not your role to decide your father’s relationship with his brother. And avoid filling your daughter in on your freighted past with your father; she will not have the same relationship with him that you do. Better to guide her into a positive connection.
“Breaking up” with your father does not require cutting him off, just gently asserting lines of allegiance. Whether you realize it or not, you are free to call your father at your convenience. If he doesn’t like the timing of your calls, don’t argue—counterpropose a different time. If you can’t settle on one, then suggest that your father call you at his convenience—you’ll have 100 percent control over whether to answer or not. Enough missed calls and your father may get the message. Just be gracious; don’t rub it in.