Tuesday, May 5, 2020

The Case of the Actual Human Person

Here’s an important lesson for managing important relationships. It comes from the Carolyn Hax column. 

A woman writes Hax to explain that her father was highly dismissive of her when she turned thirteen. Evidently, he did not feel he could relate to a pubescent daughter. We know from the letter that the woman’s parents divorced, but we do not know the timing of the divorce or whether, for instance, the father’s ex-wife accused him of abusing his daughter. Or whether a divorce attorney recommended that he keep his distance.

So, we are flying somewhat blind here. Anyway, said father now wants to improve his relationship with his daughter. Said daughter has a file cabinet full of grievances. Now that she is what she calls an actual human person, she wants to know whether she should confront her father over them.

She is now 23 years old, holding an interesting job. She does not tell us whether or not her father paid her way through college. Did he attend graduation? It does make a difference in the father/daughter dynamic.

Here is the letter, unedited:

My father recently said he wishes we were closer, like I am to my mom, and asked me if I blame him for their divorce. I truthfully said no.

But haven't told him the real issue: As soon as I turned 13, he became really dismissive of me. Anytime I got angry, he'd turn to my mom and ask if I had my period. He never wanted to hear what I was reading, thinking, who I had a crush on, what my friends were saying, anything about my life. He'd sit and listen to my brothers for hours about their teenage lives, though.

If anything I caused less trouble than my brothers, but he acted as if I were an airheaded, emotional teenager 24/7.

Now that I'm 23 and have a job he can relate to, he suddenly acts like I'm an actual human person who has ideas and thoughts worth hearing. It's insulting.

Should I tell him all of this? Is there any point?

— Oh, Now I'm a Person!

Rather than create suspense, here are some salient parts of Hax's response:

There is: It might be therapeutic. And, it’s probably your only chance of getting closer to him: Intimacy demands confidence that you can be honest with each other, which means not holding back anything this significant.

There’s no guarantee honesty will fix things, but it sounds as if you want to try.

So yes, tell him, but not “all of this” as presented.

And also,

Instead, stick to the facts, and pose the things you don’t know in the form of questions. For example, describe what you witnessed and how you felt — facts — then ask him to explain the why.

Obviously, the correct answer is that she should not confront him. She should not present a list of grievances. It will not be therapeutic. It will wreck the relationship for good. Telling off a parent is rarely a good idea. It is a worse idea when the man is reaching out to his daughter.

Yes, I understand that the therapy culture tells people to be assertive and to lean in. It is awful advice. You should ignore it.

Happily enough, another woman writes in to Hax to explain what happened when she decided to confront her father over certain grievance:

My dad did the same when I turned 21. I told him the facts: He didn’t want visitation or to pay child support after my parents divorced, he was abusive to us both physically and emotionally, etc. He hung up on me and never contacted me directly again. So, be honest, but don’t expect he can meet you where you are.

Again, we do not know the nature of the abuse, so we are somewhat blind here.

But, if I were called upon to offer a suggestion, I would begin by saying that one does best not to play it for the drama. One does best not to trot out an indictment or a list of accusations. One does best not to be assertive, disrespectful and discourteous.

In truth, the therapy culture solution of talking it out is not a solution. It’s the problem. She should not make the problem more of an issue than it already is.

What this actual human person should want is something of an apology. You do not elicit apologies by attacking people. When you attack, they defend. They will never show the humility required to offer an apology. Humility bespeaks weakness and people do not normally show weakness when under attack. It would be like letting their guard down. They do not do it. They counterpunch.

As for how she should go about eliciting an apology, the solution is not as easy as it sounds. She should use irony and even ridicule to show her father that his behavior was not acceptable, but that she is willing not to take it personally.

If she feels emotional about something one day, she might add as an aside to her father that, no, she is not on her period. This subtle mockery of a man who attributed bad moods to hormones might very well embarrass him. It ought to lead him to apologize. It will allow him to see how offensive some of his comments had been. 

This requires more rhetorical skill than a full throated denunciation of the man for his toxic masculinity, but it will work better. This assumes that she wants to improve her relationship with her father.

She should allow him the space to offer an apology for what he did. She ought not to expose her injuries and sound like she is indicting him for crimes against feminine nature.

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