Crucial Conversations QA

Responsibility—It Cuts Both Ways

Dear Joseph,

I am one of four adult sisters (all of us over 50 years old). We have a highly critical father who recently has begun making pre-inheritance gifts with ridiculous conditions attached. For example, he recently gifted us two condos, then later told us they are a “responsibility test”—so he can decide whether he’ll give us more!

We want to express gratitude and respect. But we also want to tell him to keep the gifts! They’re too painful to accept in the way he is “giving” them.

We avoid spending time with him, which sadly puts our mom in the middle. We love him, but his behavior appears completely narcissistic. We attempt civil conversation but get painful results. When we ask him why he talks to us the way he does, he becomes angry. Help!

Signed,
Four 50-Year-Old Little Girls

Dear Four,

Buckle up. I’ve got a few thoughts for your consideration. I hope you’ll allow me to talk to you the same way I would talk to myself. I understand that things are more complicated than I will make them appear. I understand that you are dealing with a 50-plus year dynamic between a father, mother and daughters. And yet sometimes it helps to strip away the complexity and durability of a problem and look at it in the form of stark principles. I hope this is helpful to you.

1. Be honest with yourself. If you really wanted to refuse the gifts with their manipulative strings, you would have rejected them. But you haven’t. So, be honest with yourself. If in balancing your resentment (of his “strings”) and enjoyment (of the assets) you lean toward wanting the gifts, you must surrender your right to feel resentful. Tell yourself the truth, and then live with that truth. The deal he appears to be offering you is, “I’m going to give you things in a way that works for me.” That is his right. And if you don’t like the deal, don’t take it. But if you take the deal then complain about the terms, that is you salving your conscience because you don’t want to feel like a sellout. You aren’t a sellout if you own up to your choice. But you are if you don’t.

2. Boundaries cut two ways. I have the same advice about your conversations with him. You say that time with dad is filled with drama. Spending time with him leaves you feeling manipulated, coerced and attacked. Once again, you must make some hard decisions and then live with both the downsides and upsides. The truth is your dad is who he is. You aren’t going to change him. Only he can decide to do that. You must set boundaries that work for you. The reason you set them is so you can have the life you want, not so you can have the dad you want. Setting boundaries is about taking care of yourself not manipulating someone else into changing. You may, for example, decide to limit contact with your father to limit your exposure to unpleasantness. If you choose to share this decision with your father, you should be honest. For example, “Dad, I don’t enjoy having you give me unsolicited feedback about my life (dating, career, politics, religious views, etc.). I have asked you many times to stop doing that. You don’t honor my request. I still love you and want you in my life, but I will only be coming for Sunday family gatherings from now on. I’d like to spend more time with you but won’t be doing it so long as that continues.”

This boundary comes at a cost, but so does not having this boundary.

If you don’t want this kind of boundary, then take responsibility for your choice to continue to allow him to affect you the way he does. Boundaries cut two ways. They help you distance yourself from things you don’t want. But they also might cost you some things you do want. Make a choice.

3. Let Mom do Mom. Finally, you describe your mom as being “in the middle.” She isn’t. She gets to decide on her own boundaries. If you choose to spend less time with dad, she can choose to connect with you without him. He may resent that. But if she decides to let his resentment control her, that is her choice, too. Not yours. You are not responsible to fix your mother’s problems for her. She is. But you are responsible to fix yours. I hope these thoughts provoke useful reflection for you. Please know I sympathize more than I can express in a brief written exchange. I see and experience family drama myself and know the pain of making these tough tradeoffs.

Warmly,
Joseph

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