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TL;DR Strained relationship with my father, symptoms of which are: the only thing he can talk to me about are life choices, when I want to talk about literally anything else. How can I discuss this with him in a sensitive way?


For important context, my parents got divorced when I was in early childhood. Dad was emotionally abusive and had a lot of anger issues, although I don't remember/was shielded from the worst of it. Suffice to say I never developed a bond with him when I was young. I've spent most of my childhood and teenage years, however, being the only son he could regularly talk to, as my younger brother can't talk and my older brother was estranged far worse. So I've visited him on weekends for about as long as I can remember, out of duty and knowing how much it would hurt him to not see me.

Dad has since mellowed out and gotten much better over the years, and has supported me financially throughout all of my teenage years and through university. Although we get on, I still struggle to talk to him about anything. Part of the reason is that the only thing he'll talk to me about is careers, college, university, life choices, where I'm going next, or just constantly giving me advice. And I hate it, absolutely. I understand that from his perspective he's supporting me, nurturing me and trying to help me to grow, but when people are constantly trying to tell me to do something, I instinctively want to do the opposite, and every time he tries to make me talk about what I'm going to do in my life, I want to talk about it less.

The problem is, while he clearly thinks he's supporting me by doing this, he doesn't see that I've spent my teenage and adult life trying really really hard to create a bond with him that I never had as a child, for his own sake, and I just can't connect with him. I really do try, I try to talk to him about other things - what's going on in my own life, my interests, music, television, film; what's going on in his life, his interests, his work, his everything else. And this will work for a little bit before conversation just fizzles out and then we stop talking. I still haven't managed to find our common interests, the things we both enjoy and are passionate about, and feel like I have no way to connect with him - and the constant barrage of "advice" just turns me off even trying.

I know this is something that requires a deep and honest conversation, but I've never been good at that - I've never told him how I really feel about anything before, and never been able to explain to him how his support actually makes me feel stifled. I hate confrontation, and I think a small part of me is still scared that I'll make him angry.

So really, I want to know how to best break it to my dad that the way he's trying to develop a normal relationship with me isn't working and is pushing me away, and I need him to be able to talk to me about anything that isn't related to my future.

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Having been a dad in a somewhat similar situation... He's trying. Being a dad is a hard thing to be. One of those things that you don't fully wrap your head around till you're doing it and questioning wether you're doing it well, so you try harder...

It's a vicious cycle.

As a dad you're trying to impart all of those lessons and tips you wish someone told you when you were young, it seems like your sworn duty to prepare someone for life. That's an awful lot to take on, particularly when no one really taught you most of that stuff. It's easy to forget that you learned most of those things through trial and error, by making your own mistakes, by being your own person...

It's even harder to watch someone you care about make many of the same mistakes and learn many of the same lessons, the hard way...

So... You try really hard to get your kids to "do the right things" and "make the right choices" while bypassing those really hard moments. You also forget to take a step back from guiding them, to just be with them. And, ya, that sucks.

Me and my dad had a pretty terrible relationship. We never saw eye to eye on much of anything. He was always trying desperately to tell me how to live, and I always looked at his life and questioned whether that was what I wanted for myself.

Funny thing is... My kids probably looked at me at thought the same.

The thing I didn't realize about my dad, and the thing my kids didn't realize about me was, everyone wants something better for their kids than what they had. Dads just have a rather limited tool box to draw from. They're doing their best, but being a good dad is an impossibly high standard. When you're a very small child, a dad is omnipotent, and then the reality slowly sets in .. No one is qualified. No one was properly trained for it. You just end up doing your best with what you have. (And admittedly, that sucks too.)

I hope that gives you a better picture of where he's likely coming from.

On to what to do about it...

Talk to him.

Ask him if he can drop the "dad" for a little while and just get to know him as a man, as a person. This will be hard for him, because it's his role. Probably a huge part of his identity as a person.

It'll be easier with more frequent contact, if you're talking to him more than just, ya'know, checking in on holidays and birthdays. If you're only communicating on the rare occasion, he'll feel the need to squeeze in all those life lessons when he has the opportunity.

Let him get that "dad stuff" said and out of his system, and ask him if he'd like to join you for a cup of coffee or a pint. (Honestly a pint may be preferable.) And then really sit down and get to know the guy.

My one regret with my own dad is that I didn't get to do that before he died. And honestly, I know because he told me, it was his one regret with his own dad. If you still have the opportunity, take it.

  • This resonated with me a lot. I think the most important part of it is that I just need to ask him gently to stop being a dad for a bit. I want to bond with him on a deeper level than that. Thank you for sharing your story with me. – Lou Sep 20 '18 at 18:00
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Try using Nonviolent Communication (aka "Compassionate Communication") with your Dad.

The template used goes

"When you do [A] I feel [B]. I need [C]. I need you to do [D]."

So applying the template to your case you might try

Because I love you so much, I need to discuss something with you. When we get together you either ask me about career and life choices or you give me advice. We don't talk much about anything else. When people tell me what to do I want to do the opposite because I'm an adult and I've earned the right to make my own choices. So I feel sad and distant from you. I really need to feel that you both love me and respect me and my choices. Could we work on talking about stuff we both enjoy? Is there something we could do together and enjoy each other's company?"

Feel free to substitute your own A, B, C and D here.

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Bring it up during conversation. When your dad tries to inquire about how things are going in your life, you should respond with something like this:

Hey, I appreciate that you're interested in how things are going for me, but do you think we could talk about X instead? I think it might be fun to just forget about that stuff for a while and talk about something random! Did you see the preview for Captain Marvel yet? Looks good/bad!

It's as simple as that for step 1. It doesn't sound like you've tried anything yet to specifically inform him of how you're feeling, so this is a gentle opener. It informs him (CASUALLY) that you want to talk about something else. He could just not realize how you feel about this. Checking in on what's going on in someone else's life could just be how he makes small talk.

If he refuses to accept this, you can move onto something more serious, like what empty suggested, but I think it's probably best to start with something more subtle - that might be all you need.

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