Care and Feeding

My Father Hates That I’ve Stopped Trying to Appease Him

It’s starting to make me question whether it’s worth it to maintain this relationship.

A woman with her arms crossed, and a father looking displeased.
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Dear Care and Feeding,

I’m almost 30 years old. My husband and I got married last July. Since he and I got together about four years ago, I’ve pulled further and further away from my family. My eyes have been opened to how hurtful and toxic they are and how they were the cause of many of my traumas. I’ve never been “on their wavelength” anyway, so the progression away from them had been decently natural. (For example: I’m a hippie theater kid who breaks into song and dance and wants everything I own to be Earth-friendly; my dad is a sports-loving small-business owner who doesn’t care about how anything is made as long as it’s cheap.) Recently, my husband and I have stopped trying to appease my father at all, and it’s starting to make me question how worth it it is to maintain this relationship.

My husband and I remained in quarantine for Christmas, though we weren’t planning on going down to my family’s ranch anyway since none of them follow any COVID precautions. My dad decided to hold our gifts hostage because “if you want gifts that bad, you can make time to see us.” I didn’t say anything except that we had gone ahead and shipped their gifts to them. (He apparently deemed it a waste of money, because “all you had to do was come to see us.”) On another occasion, my dad and I got into a screaming match because I called him out for saying something incredibly insensitive: “You need to learn to take a fucking joke!”

Then, just today, he called to tell me they were on their way to town see my brother’s family as well as my husband and me. After doing a bit of back and forth to try to make something work—last-minute, because that’s the only way they do things, whereas my husband and I schedule at least two weeks out—my dad finally told me with a hint of anger, “I’ll just tell YOU what we’re all going to do since you or your husband or whoever actually makes the decisions at your house is so unwilling to compromise.”

I love my dad; he took me in as his own when he and my mom were still teens, and he tried to lovingly raise who everyone else said was “another man’s daughter.” But he and my mother have been so difficult. I feel like my father especially doesn’t respect me or my decisions at all. Should I try to maintain this relationship? End it? Turn it into a “phone twice a year” thing? I just have such confusing feelings about my whole family, and it’s very stressful, so any guidance would be appreciated.

—Tired of Toxicity

Dear T.T.,

It’s OK to be a punctual planner, and it’s OK to be a last-minute mister—you just have to learn how to occupy those identities while respecting the right and ability of other people to operate otherwise. Your father is imposing his way of operating on you, as parents often do, and now that you are an adult, you can tell him how you expect to be engaged with, create a standard for that, and hold him to it.

If it works for you to fit him in for a last-minute visit and you have the capacity to do so, then host him. If you do not wish to be bothered, don’t force it. You decided what your rules were for the pandemic holidays and you abided by them, just as your father decided what his (PETTY) rules were for exchanging presents. It sounds like you don’t like your dad, and that he’s done some rather unlikable things. We aren’t obligated to like our families, nor are we required to suffer them at any and all times just because they are family.

What I do think we should feel compelled to do is honor our connection to our parents in a way that reflects how they have treated us, and how they make us feel. While I’m hearing you describe rudeness, incongruent values, and a lack of consideration, I don’t get the impression that this person and this relationship is so toxic or vile that it warrants a more significant level of separation; if I have somehow misread, or if that comes to be the case, you have a right to move on with branching off. But from what you are describing, it sounds like seeing your father and family a few times a year and checking in with him by phone once a month might be the best amount of engagement to respect both his desire to be tapped in with you, and your need to have distance from some of his less likable behaviors. Good luck to you.

—Jamilah