Reader ‘Reliving The Battle’ writes,
I grew up as a kid of divorced parents with shared custody. My dad traveled a lot for work, so there was no regular schedule for where I would be when. Instead it was a monthly (and often heated) negotiation between my parents to balance time equitably around his work schedule.
I now have kids of my own and find my dad is constantly challenging my husband and me for more one-on-one time with them (i.e., without us). If we give him an evening, he wants the afternoon as well. If we give him one day a week he will expect the same every week or push for two. I feel like I’m replaying the same custody battle with him and my kids that he played out with my mom.
Any advice about how to lovingly set firm boundaries? I am happy to give him the time with the grandkids, but whatever I give never seems to be enough for him. It isn’t helping anything that I really struggle with feeling like I’ve disappointed him or am violating some unspoken custody arrangement with MY kids!
This is a tough spot. Intellectually, you sound like you know that the only way out of this is to set firm boundaries with your dad. Unfortunately, most people still feel like children around their parents, and your dad is forcing you into a position where you feel that your boundaries are being crossed just like they were in your childhood.
Your dad sounds like he may have some narcissistic tendencies. He has, or at least had, an important, hectic job, and he expected your mom and you to work around it. He did not seem to realize that keeping you on a predictable routine was at least equally as important as him “getting” his time with you. I don’t doubt that your dad loves you and your kids, and he expresses this as wanting to see you/them when he wants, on his terms.
You’re trying to be tactful, but waiting for him to pick up on your implied boundaries is a losing battle. Narcissists need extremely direct communication that would seem rude to others, but that is the only way that they can hear a message that they don’t like. So, while other people may understand it when you say, “I don’t know, I think the kids will be wiped out after the pool so another evening might be better,” your dad only hears, “Oh, okay, she wants me to just do low key activities with them that evening” and not “I shouldn’t come by at all.”
Here is how you may need to approach your dad. You are being as honest as you can possibly be, using “I” statements, and being as kind as possible while expressing yourself openly.
You: “Hey, Dad, I have to talk to you about something.”
You: “I feel really anxious about telling you this, but I want to tell you that your visits have become too frequent for me to handle. I love you and I’m glad you’re an involved Grandpa with the kids, but I feel like your visits have become very long each time, and I haven’t been good about setting boundaries. I need some alone time with the kids, and I also want to visit with other people, including Mom. (Put the elephant in the room right out there.) I feel like this situation is even harder because, as a kid, I always felt guilty when you couldn’t see me as much as you wanted to.”
Dad: “So you don’t want me in your life? Are you kidding me? Is your Mom telling you to say this stuff? The kids love me.”
You: “I know they love you, and I love you. But I don’t like leaving my kids for extended periods of time as frequently as you like to see them. I want us to have an open relationship where I can tell you what I would like in terms of visits, rather than being afraid to challenge you.”
Dad: “So now I’m the monster. I get it, I get it, I should have expected this. But instead I thought I was helping. Now I know.”
You: “Dad, I find it really hard to resist giving in when you seem upset, like now. But I really want us to have a different kind of relationship, that is more honest, and I am telling you that I really need you to respect my boundaries when I tell you how much time the kids can spend with you.”
Dad: “Look, I’ll just leave.”
I made it go that badly to show you, yes, it may go that badly. But if you stick to being 100 percent honest and non-apologetic for asserting your needs and boundaries, while also being kind, it will improve over time. Your dad may guilt trip you or even threaten to sever ties with you if you don’t let him do what he wants, but, in the long run, I doubt he will have any recourse but to work around your boundaries. (After all, he wouldn’t want your mom to “win” and get more time with the grandkids than him.)
It may be useful to go to counseling to deal with your unresolved feelings about the divorce and to support you in the difficult work of asserting yourself. But if you are able to push yourself to be completely clear and honest with your dad, you will likelier feel stronger and more confident, and it will even help you heal from the trauma of your conflict-filled childhood.
Good luck and thanks for writing in. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Says, you can never feel bad about being straightforward and kind.