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My parents have been divorced for roughly 40 years. The separation was unpleasant, as divorces frequently are, but so were the following decades.

They have not spoken to each other outside of a handful of words during my wedding.

There were courtroom fights, in-person fights, and everything in between.

My father has announced (not asked) that he will be driving halfway across the country to visit with me and my family (by which I mean my wife and son).

The plot twist:

He will be traveling with an old friend of my mother's. He has stated that the two of them would like to have dinner with my family, my mother, and my mother's husband. He has asked me not to tell my mother, as the mutual friend (someone that my mother has not seen in more than 40 years) wants to surprise her.

I have no reason to believe my mother would not be interested in seeing this friend.

I have every reason to believe that she would want to avoid having to see my father.

It is probably worth noting that my father has no empathy (and yes, this means he almost certainly has a personality disorder). I mean that in the most literal sense: he seems fundamentally incapable of seeing anything from someone else's perspective. As such, he cannot imagine that anyone that he is interested in spending time with would not be equally interested in spending time with him. Despite the decades of bitter fighting between him and my mother, it hasn't occurred to him in the slightest that she would be anything other than thrilled to see him.

If I tell her, and she says "no" (which seems almost guaranteed), my father will blame me (for telling her, and possibly for sabotaging what he imagines will be a pleasant and social reunion). If I don't tell her, I run the risk of her blaming me for being part of this (and possibly wind up sitting through an incredibly awkward dinner).

What do I say to my mother? What do I say to my father?

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Catija Jan 3 '18 at 2:26
  • @Catija given the age of the comments, it probably would have been fine to just delete them :) – Beofett Jan 3 '18 at 2:39
  • I was actually just hoping to see you :D Hope you're enjoying the job! – Catija Jan 3 '18 at 3:01
  • @Catija :) it's keeping me very busy, I'm learning a whole new set of software architecture, brushing up on older technology, and building using some of the newest. In other words, I'm having a blast! Unfortunately, that leaves very little time for SE, as I suspected :( – Beofett Jan 3 '18 at 3:21
  • That's both great and sad :D I'm really happy for you, though. Sounds like a really good growth opportunity. – Catija Jan 3 '18 at 3:22

11 Answers 11

42

What's the right thing to do in your heart of hearts? In the place where you're protected from the anger and expectations of others, the place where if everything was honest and good and you are free to do what you believe to be the right thing, what would you do?

Do that.

This answer is based on the possibly completely wrong assumption that your father has Narcissistic Personality Disorder. It's not necessarily as bad as it sounds. People with NPD can be charming, funny, fun to be with people. Or they can be very difficult. Or both. There are actually five subtypes of NPD in the DSM-5, and how a narcissist behaves depends on the specific group they're in. So. Take this with whatever caveat is applicable.


Because interpersonal skills with a person who cannot relate to other people in an empathetic manner don't matter, I'm not going to navigate a fine line. Setting boundaries won't work. Sincere conversations won't work. Explanations won't work, so advising this tack would be, well, in my opinion bad advice.

If your father has NPD, this is what I would recommend.

Your father doesn't understand boundaries. He has probably heard your mom's wish not to interact with him, but he doesn't believe it's really what she wants, because, as you stated so well, he can't imagine that what he wants isn't the same thing as what someone else wants.

In other words, he only sees the world from his own emotional perspective; in his world, no one else really exists independently of him.

Children, spouses, friends, lovers - those closest to the Narcissist - are not considered individuals in their own right by the Narcissist - but rather extensions or, in the worst cases, the property of the Narcissist.

This is very painful to people who depend emotionally on him in any significant way in a long term relationship. Your mother decided to end this pain by cutting off contact unless it was absolutely necessary or for your benefit (your wedding.)

Tell your mother.

I don't know what kind of relationship you have with your mother (if you are close, distant, or somewhere near the middle), but wherever you are, she has suffered enough, and if you care about her (or you wouldn't be asking), let her nip this thing in the bud.

Your father will blame you, yes, and there will be no reasoning with him, because Narcissists are never wrong. But he put you in a no win situation. That's totally about him, and not at all about you. If you tell yourself that and believe it, his blame will not affect you as much.

If you recognize that you are being presented with a “no-win” or a “lose-lose” type of scenario by a person with a Personality Disorder, it is helpful to understand that the source of the conflict and anguish is their own mental health, not you.

I believe you are doing the right thing by protecting your mother. If he can't or won't understand that, that's his problem.

Tell him for the future that he should never - never - put you in the middle of your mother and him, that you will never allow it. That might not solve anything for the future, but at least you can say you warned him.

If he still wants to visit, and you still want to see him, that's great. Work out whatever suits the two of you.

I have additional training and certification in mental illness and substance abuse and ran a clinic for same for almost three years. Also, I've lived with two people with NPD (one was my father) and have had up-close and personal, painful experiences with them. From a clinical viewpoint, they are fascinating people to observe and I have a special interest in NPD. Please feel free to DV and comment if this is off track.

  • 2
    It may well be something other than NPD. – reinierpost Sep 4 '17 at 15:02
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    @reinierpost - Yes, I already admitted that : "This answer is based on the possibly completely wrong assumption that your father has Narcissistic Personality Disorder." However, it doesn't hurt to reinforce that for anyone who missed it. Thanks. – anongoodnurse Sep 4 '17 at 15:31
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    For what its worth, NPD is my best guess, but that's still not the same as a formal diagnosis. – Beofett Sep 5 '17 at 1:16
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    It could be either NPD or Psychopathy afaik – Pritt Balagopal Sep 14 '18 at 15:46
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    @PrittBalagopal - It's best not to guess at diagnoses. "Psychopathy" is not a diagnosis. Try to find it in the DSM V; you won't. There are personality disorders. What people refer to as sociopaths (or worse yet, psychopaths) is probably antisocial personality disorder. – anongoodnurse Sep 14 '18 at 16:32
153

I do not have divorced parents, but I have had to juggle situations where two co-workers that hated each other were using me. In the end, I found out that the simplest way to resolve the problem was to remove myself from the equation. You can not make things right between your parents, just as I could not make things right between my co-workers. You can however prevent becoming a part of the problem, or being caught in-between the two.

Do allow your father and his friend to visit you, your wife and son. But simply state that you can not, and will not give a surprise dinner where both he and your mom are present, since you think that a very bad idea given how things went at your wedding.

So he gets to choose: you either inform mom before the event takes place, so she can refuse if she wants, or you are refusing him from having the dinner right here and now. For the mutual friend, you could tell your mom:

  • so-and-so is coming with dad as well, that's one of the reasons he wants this dinner
  • dad is bringing a mystery guest, a person he would like you to meet
  • not mention the mutual friend at all.

You might even let your dad pick his choice. Whatever you choose to do, make sure your dad knows you are going to tell your mom, and that he knows exactly what you are going to tell your mom, otherwise dinner is not going to happen. And make sure your mom knows that in no way she should feel obliged to come to this dinner.

  • 40
    "the simplest way to resolve the problem was to remove myself from the equation" - excellent advice. As a matter of fact, I have found this to work well for most types of personal conflicts where I am not a party. It is basically a way of maintaining healthy boundaries - don't allow yourself to be pulled into a fight. – sleske Sep 1 '17 at 14:45
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    In conflicts, people actively recruit, whether they are aware of it or not. Your dad is recruiting you. Do not allow him to. – Nelson Sep 2 '17 at 16:58
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    This, absolutely. I think few realize that pulling a Switzerland is an option in such cases, but It's the best solution, almost every time. – r41n Sep 5 '17 at 14:15
40

Kill the secret

My well-practiced approach to this is the following:

You simply tell your father that you will not keep it secret, and that you will inform your mother in three days (or whatever seems appropriate). That's it, you need to say nothing else. You can even do it in writing (SMS, mail, etc.) because you do not want to make a discussion out of this. It is you informing them about what you are going to do.

The rest will resolve itself on its own. Your father can ignore this; in which case you inform your mother after three days ("hey, by the way, father mentioned he'd come and bring XYZ with him - feel free to talk to him if you ...blah blah..."). You do not tell her that your father asked you to keep it secret, because by telling your father that you won't, you canceled this request from him. You behave just as if he had not asked this of you.

Your father can try to forbid you, but he does not have the power to do so unless you give it to him (well, if someone does have some power over you, you have to decide whether it is harder for you to keep the secret or to suffer whatever they can do to you - nothing is ever easy!).

The other option is that your father will act - either withdraw his plans or tell your mother before you do. The important thing is that you truly do not need to care either way. You told your father what will happen in three days. If he does not act, he did in fact act (i.e., by giving you implicit permission to tell).

This approach is completely independent of any circumstances. It works in the family, with friends, with co-workers. At no point whatsoever is aggression involved. Your mindset is that you simply (truly) only inform the other two participants (i.e., the would-be secret-keeper and the target of the information). You (truly) do not need to be angry about your father for asking you - asking someone to keep a secret is easy; doing it is not. If other people have the right to ask difficult things of you, you have double the right to tell them what you will actually do.

Good luck with the dinner, btw!

  • 1
    Perfect answer, IMO. Don't let them draw you into their problems, just stay entirely out of it, which includes rejecting the secret-keeping-request – Reinstate Monica --Brondahl-- Sep 1 '17 at 13:38
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    Yes, an excellent way to refuse being pulled into the conflict - so in a way this is the practical complement to tinkeringbell's answer. – sleske Sep 1 '17 at 14:54
14

You are being made part of the plan of your fathers. Get out of it by telling your father that you and your family (wife,son) will not be party to any such plan. If he chooses to go to see your mother with the other person then that's his choice and you are not part of it. If he comes to see you and you family I assume you are okay with that, but the proposed plan is not. By saying to your father you will have nothing to do with it means you do not have to tell your mother anything.

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    +1 for brevity. If your father and the old friend want to surprise your mother, they're adults, you can't stop them. But you don't have to be involved if you don't want to, and IMHO you're way, WAY better off not being involved. – Dan C Sep 1 '17 at 13:58
12

To me, this is the clue:

"He has stated that the two of them would like to have dinner with my family, my mother, and my mother's husband. He has asked me not to tell my mother, as the mutual friend wants to surprise her."

On the assumption (from your question) that the friend doesn't have empathy or relational issues, this seems to be key.

Your father has either by chance (innocently) learned an old contact wants to meet your mother, or has deliberately (calculatedly) decided to suggest and set up such a meeting. So my initial question is, has your father set this up or encouraged/supported it, to provide a justification/opportunity to meet with your mother, or to hang it onto another matter, or to "sweeten" it? That's hard to word well, so I'll put it a different way:

  1. Did your father, understanding that this contact would enjoy meeting your mother, mistakenly think "well, I can visit my son's family and make good use of the journey, and I'm sure his mother will want to see me as well if we're both there".
    ("innocent" motive)

    Or did your father think, "I want to meet her, and I'm sure she will want to see me, but if someone else is there who she likes, this will guarantee she will agree if she had any doubts (or will ensure she doesn't decline to go along with it)".
    ("calculated" motive)

  2. In either case, also ask yourself, did the suggestion that it's a "surprise" actually originate from the friend, as your father has implied, or was it actually suggested by your father in the first place?

    Was it suggested because "this would be nice" (innocent good nature) or because it deprives her of foreknowledge and choice, and ensured what he wanted would happen (calculated manipulation)?

    (Surprise visits aren't always for bad reasons: about a month ago I looked up a friend I haven't seen for almost 20 years and felt bad about dropping contact, and did it by surprise visit rather than email or phoning in advance to maximise their smile. It did! But in these circumstances I would see this as a concern)

Short version answer:

You absolutely don't need to be in the middle and should avoid allowing yourself to be manouvered into that position.

It will stress you, get backlash all round (including your wife/onlooking kids), poison things even more in future, upset everyone, and get you blamed and seen as less trustworthy/complicit against them, by everyone else - by your dad because it didn't work, by your mother by betraying her by keeping it secret when you knew she would hate it and want to know, and would have avoided if known, possibly even by your wife/son depending how they see it.

Overall handling:

Bearing this in mind, my thought is that you can easily set up a lunch with your father and the contact, but also tell him it cannot be a family lunch with your mother and to arrange meeting her separately, because it went so badly last time (or some other pretext). Tell him you will only have an event/party where both are invited if it's a family event like a wedding or other major event, or if both of them have told you it's okay. Tell him that she has said she doesn't like surprises (which she has probably implied if not said explicitly). Say that if he wants a private meal to which she comes, you are happy to (if your wife is agreeable) but not as a surprise; you will want her to confirm its okay herself first. That's a decision and not going to change.

If you have direct contact with the contact, perhaps it would be worth quietly briefing them ("It won't go down well due to bad feeling and I don't think my father realises this, I don't want you to be embarrassed or put in a difficult/embarrassing position"). As they seem to be a friend of both parents and (from contact with mother) also empathic, they may get this and also understand why its sensitive and to keep it to themselves as a heads-up.

If you can somehow contact them, that might well be best all round.

Your wife and son:

Last, if you cant do anything else and feel under pressure to invite any of these people to your home at the same time, discuss the situation with your wife first and only do it if she willingly agrees (and if teen or older, and your wife agrees it's appropriate, your son agrees after that). This above all.

Your relationship with your mother and father is well defined and probably won't impact immensely however things go, although there may be stress, anger, blame, or upset. But you absolutely do not want to do anything that drags your wife, son, or home into it by having the visit at your place if it goes ahead, without agreeing with your wife, because this involves her (its her home and 'safe place', and her in-laws visiting, and possibly anger if/when your mother finds out she's been tricked).

She is surely aware of the position, and knows them well (I'm sure you and she have spoken at length about your parents).

Them being out if the house might also be an acceptable alternative - perhaps your wife or son would be fine with both parents having a meal at home if they don't have to be there at the time. This is separate from your mothers consent and the fundamental concerns, but might be worth noting if for some reason both of your parents do agree to a family meal but your wife or son feels uncomfortable.

Whatever you do, ensure its with your mother and your wife's free agreement and if your wife says no, accept it. A good way to do this is to tell her explicitly that if she says no, it WILL be no. That's the relationship you need to protect and avoid harm to, above any other, in this situation.

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    I really like the part about the wife and son - it's easy to forget that OP owes loyalty not only to his parents, but at least as much to his own family, too. – sleske Sep 1 '17 at 14:57
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In my view, the correct way would be to tell your father you do not like his idea and you will not have dinner this way. You do not have to support other people's ideas if you do not like them. Ideally, you might then have a better proposal to offer, to limit the damage this might do to the relationship with your father.

6

My relationship with my ex-husband is perfectly fine. We occasionally talk to each to other on the phone, and if my home needs a simple repair job I will ask him and he always comes. We stopped arguing and fighting when we separated, leaving him was the best thing I ever did, I saved my sanity and my life. But his mother... there are some things you never forget and never forgive, and I vowed I would never speak to her.

I hadn't spoken to my ex-mother-in-law for nearly ten years when I was invited to my son's girlfriend's graduation party. His grandmother knew his girlfriend and had invited her home for dinner many times. I knew and liked his girlfriend immensely, and I had already met her family a couple of times.

When my son invited me to the party, a restaurant do, he told me that his grandmother would also be attending. He knew the resentment, hurt, and, ultimately, ill-feeling I had towards her, but he didn't keep her presence at the party a secret. So I knew that she was going to be there, and my ex-husband was also coming. I asked my son only one thing not to be seated at the same table as his grandmother. He said he would try. In the end, my ex-husband didn't show up (which was very typical), and my M.I.L and I were indeed seated at the same table but at least not next to each other.

The point I'm making is that my son told me my "nemesis" was at the graduation party. By telling me beforehand a scene was avoided, and because we were celebrating a happy occasion I broke my vow and exchanged a few words with her.

TL;DR

Tell your mother.

She has the right to know. This silence has nothing to do with keeping a surprise a secret. It is about your mother being in a confined space with a person she has huge issues with.

Keeping silent is betraying her trust in you, her own son. Tell your father you are going to tell your mother and your step father and she/they will decide whether or not to meet an old "friend", someone whom she has not met or kept contact with in 40 years (Have they ever exchanged emails or texts? Have they ever talked on the phone?). It seems unlikely that your mother still considers him an "old friend" after all these years.

  • Good motivation but bad advice. Yes, mother should know, but father wants to keep it a secret, so he will be upset, and rightly so. Don't give either cause for blaming you, so just bounce it back to father instead, as other answers suggest. – reinierpost Sep 4 '17 at 15:09
  • @reinierpost Let the father be upset with the son, the OP didn't invite him, the father announced his impending visit without even checking if his son's family was free. As I understand it, he is an egotist and a narcissist and caused his ex-wife a great amount of grief over the years. He can still come over with the old friend and visit the OP (his son), and his ex-wife can contact the friend if she wants, if and when he arrives. (BTW, the "old friend" excuse could be pure fabrication, a ploy of sorts, by the father). It is nevertheless important that he is told before he sets off. – user3114 Sep 4 '17 at 19:08
  • Whether you're right or not, antagonizing the father seems a bad idea to me. – reinierpost Sep 4 '17 at 22:17
4

You want to see your father, but your mother doesn't. Your mother would presumably enjoy meeting her old friend, but you wouldn't be that interested.

If everyone is being honest about their motivations (I realise that's a big if), then how about your father has dinner with you and your family, while your mother's friend goes to visit your mother on her own.

4

Situations involving people like this are difficult. If someone cannot see the world from your perspective, but truly believes that you should see it from their perspective, all interactions with that person will fall outside of social norms.

The first question I would ask you is what sort of responses is your dad used to receiving to such plans. This cannot be the first time your dad has come up with a poor-empathy plan that someone needed to shoot down. He must have some way for his friends (if he has any) to let him know that this is not a wise plan. This will help you understand how to push back at him.

Uphold social contracts with those who can uphold them with you. You and your mother apparently have a more normal relationship, which includes social contracts. If you believe this surprise would be detrimental to her then act on that.

Depending on who your mother is, and your relationship with her, you may be able to confide in her without causing her to explode like an uncontrolled rocket. Then you two, together, can strive to find a way to minimize the damage.

One simple and elegant approach is to choose not to be home at the time. Plan a vacation. Go see relatives. Your father, in choosing to keep this secret from your mother, also cannot possibly expect your mother to have planned around his (secret) schedule. If she just happened to plan a vacation on the days he's in town, he has no rational reason to be angry at her. If he gets angry at you for not trying to talk her down from those dates, you simply explain that you were told to keep it a secret, and that you couldn't convince her to change the dates without spilling the beans. This, of course, isn't even a lie. It's true -- the omission is that you weren't trying very hard to dissuade her.

This, of course, is only a valid solution if you two would benefit from such a vacation. If it's a bad time, you'd have to come up with another solution. Each dysfunctional relationship is dysfunctional in its own way, so you and your mother would need to work together to find the functional way to resolve this issue for your particular family. If you have a pattern of simply challenging him directly, do that. If you have a pattern of deflecting, do that. If you have a pattern of relying on other family members to help convey the message, do that. Whatever has worked in the past should be on the table.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. If you want to discuss site policy, do it in chat or on meta. It doesn't belong on an answer on the main site. – Catija Sep 1 '17 at 2:01
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    @CortAmmon Yes, you are quite perfectly right. The judgment of an answer will always be subjective and a matter of opinion. But, in the same way that we subjectively close questions on matters of opinion, the same analogy applies here: can we judge the quality of an answer based on objective criteria? This is what we're attempting to achieve here. We want high quality answers on this site that can demonstrate good suggestions and good explanations as to why they apply. Hamlet (and I) think that you can do better on the latter, hence the comments. – Zizouz212 Sep 1 '17 at 2:02
  • @Zizouz212 I like your comment. It demonstrates interpersonal skills and a desire to work together. I'll look into how to improve it, but it may take a bit of time. Much of my justification is "common sense," which is a strong justification when implied, but a poor justification when explicitly called out. – Cort Ammon - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 '17 at 2:13
3

I would question the alleged fact of the friend being of interest to the mother. If the father is so poor in the social department, he probably has no clue as to the actual nature of any relationship between the friend and the mother - and what he does have is probably wrong.

It wouldn't surprise me at all if there is a reason the alleged friend hasn't had contact with the mother for so long.

But of utmost importance - you need to sign back in and let us all know how it worked out!

2

Do not get sucked into this - it will end badly.

When raising our kids, we warn them about "nice secrets", and "nasty secrets". Nice secrets are - well - nice. Things like the flowers the kids have noticed in a bucket of water in the garage, waiting to give to mum on mothers day. These are good secrets to keep. And then there are nasty secrets. Things like the visitor who slips a hand up a little girl's dress while out in the garden and winks to her and says, "Let's keep it our little secret". From an early age, we have to teach our kids as to what are nice secrets (good to keep), and nasty secrets (tell someone). And we have to learn that ourselves, too.

Your father's secret has "nasty" written all over it. Why does he want you to keep it a secret? Because it is a nice secret that he wants to surprise your mum with (the lady with which he had an acrimonious divorce)? Or because it is a nasty secret, and he knows that if she knew what he was up to, there is no way she would come to your dinner? 99% probability it is a nasty secret. Quite likely he has some hurtful announcement to make or some other continuation of the pattern of getting back at his ex-wife that he has been trying to do all along.

Your dad is most likely conspiring to hurt your mum, and using one of the kids to get back at her (such a common pattern). Do not facilitate this conspiracy. If I am wrong and it is a nice secret, it will still be nice even if she gets to know about it before the evening. But if as I suspect it is a nasty secret, you do not want to be involved in helping carry out his hurtful plan.

You need say this to your dad:

"Aww that's really nice that you want to meet up with mum and her husband. I'll have to check with mum and her husband that it is OK and they want to meet up with you and your friend. If I don't check and they don't want to meet up, it could look like I tricked them into doing something they would not have wanted to do, which would be hurtful for them and for me. Thanks for understanding."

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