My wonderful stepdaughter, Jessica, is away this week visiting baby Taylor and family. She’s with us for the summer before going back to college in the fall, and she watched the house while we were away for our own Taylor travels. Before she left, she had a blowup with her Dad. She wrote me today, asking if he was still mad…… and if there were going to be “awkward silences” when she came home. This is my letter to her. I’m posting it, because…well…just because…
“Jessie, your dad is not mad at you! He deeply loves his children. He gets really prickly when he feels disdain or disrespect in anyone’s voice. He’s dealing with a LOT of frustration these days, but is having some really great insights with our counselor. We both are.
In a prior relationship, my old boyfriend taught me how to speak to one another in relationship. I’m pretty good now at being able to talk to anyone with a lot of patience and a very healthy awareness of my own part in any situation. I am always—out of habit—asking myself, “What did I do to bring this down on myself?” Sometimes, I realize I did absolutely nothing to bring ANYTHING raining down on myself, but even still, at those times, I tread very softly when talking about the situation/offense.
It wasn’t just my boyfriend, but a counselor and a book that utterly transformed my communication habits. The book was called, “You’re Not What I Expected,” and was all about the skills one needs to develop in order to have intimacy, trust, support, and goodwill in a close relationship (family, friend, or spouse, although the book was focused on marriage communication).
What I remember most from that book, my counselor, and my old boyfriend was this: If you want intimacy, trust, and respect from a relationship, then there is never, EVER any room for meanness or sarcasm. Months or years of trust and kindness can be utterly undone in one nasty confrontation.
Pardon me while I ramble on a bit here, but I think these things are worth reflecting on. Anyhow, Carter has benefited by my previous “training,” and has learned to discuss really painful topics with me with faith that he won’t be belittled or blamed or made to feel like a jerk. He’s really sensitive to that. EVERYONE is!!
In the three years I’ve known Carter, he has never blown up at me. He’s gotten bitchy a few times, but very, very rarely. He’s become used to not having to be guarded or defensive around me.
Before you left, you said something I have been thinking about. I think I said something like you need to tread lightly and watch your words around Carter and you said something like, “but that’s not really fair. It’s his problem,” and I know exactly what you mean. One person’s issues should not govern how everyone acts around them.
This is what I’ve come to know about that perception: Jess, in a perfect world, you are right. No one should have to tip-toe around anyone to keep the poop from raining down on them. HOWEVER, biologically speaking, human creatures are highly social. We cannot survive alone and are a “herd” species—actually a tribal species. We need to have highly developed food/shelter making abilities, but even more, we have to have very sensitive antennae to those around us. Otherwise, we get fired from jobs, we get killed by family members, we get “shunned” and ignored or given the silent treatment from our friends, and no one is supportive of us for long. Out in nature, that would be our death sentence. Out in our current culture, failure to read people and act accordingly is death of another kind: We will never be able to cultivate stable, supportive, loving, respectful relationships. It really is that simple—and that unfair if you want to look at it that way.
Perception is really everything in life. I have to remind myself of this all the time, over and over and over every day. For example, you could say that to “fit in” or “be successful,” you have to kiss ass, be manipulated by others, walk on egg shells all the time, adjust your habits in ways that seem bothersome and like you are in a kind of jail sometimes, lose yourself to the whims of others, and never feel completely “free to be.”
I am a basically selfish, controlling, territorial women who really wants things my own way. When I don’t have things exactly my way, I get nasty. That is the “me” I have to live with and moderate. Because when I ask myself “What do you truly want in life, Susan,” I realize that what is MOST important to me is inner peace, a life of harmony and balance, strong and lasting friendships, and no drama. Clearly, my basic nature works against peace, harmony, and no drama. SO, I have had to say to myself, “Susan, what will it take to have what you truly want and what you intuit is truly healthy and good for you in this life.”
The answer to that is, I have to be willing to give up or compromise or “tame” my basic nature. For decades, I argued with this truth. Decades. Then, I came to realize that acting out my basic nature really didn’t feel very good, not only to those around me, but—shock!!–to me either.
So I began to learn how to capitulate and go with the flow willingly, rather than with my usual resentment and frustration. Resentment and frustration feel crappy. I’m tired of them.
With practice, I’ve come to see that I LIKE the me who is kind, understanding, and willing to bend to keep the peace. Sometimes, I bend too far and then have to work at unbending, which is a drag, but it is far better than the alternative, which is to have very little peace, harmony, and loving relationships over the long haul.
In learning to see with more compassionate eyes, I recognize your father as a man with very deep feelings, a strong sense of justice and fairness, a lot of love to give, and—like every other human on the planet—full of his own unique brand of neuroses and behavior problems. Unlike most every other human on the planet, he is aware of his shortcomings and takes responsibility for them, and changes his world as much as he can to be a better husband and father. Sometimes, he is more successful than others.
Sometimes, I am able to be less selfish, territorial, judgmental, and bitchy than I am naturally inclined, and sometimes I am not. Humans are, I believe, basically very messed up animals. I don’t know if we’ll really survive ourselves for long.
Anyhow this is a very long and protracted way of saying that we all—all three of us—must work at being kind, empathetic, and respectful to each other around the house. Things are tough on us all for different reasons. You have had a very hard year, financially and emotionally. We’ve had the same. Our months together here on Cox Drive are a good training ground for all three of us to practice respect and kindness and honesty with each other.
In simple language, don’t dis your dad, no matter how frustrated you get with him. It won’t do you—or him—any good. Trust me on this. As a good and generous parent, he really has a right to be treated respectfully, with no eye-rolling, from his children. He deserves that from his wife, too. And the more his is treated that way, the kinder and better humored he is, and the less energy he has to put in defending himself and de-stressing.
Try it—you’ll (both) be happier for it!