Seeing Red


Despite the goat from Sesame Street, which I absolutely loved as a kid,

I tend to keep my emotions in check and don’t normally allow myself to get too excited or upset about things. I’ve had a few blow-ups with the kids, but it’s usually quite brief and relatively minor. However, this last weekend my father-in-law managed to trigger my fury. I couldn’t sit still and had a hard time sleeping. It was the most I’d gotten worked up in years.

For some background, my father-in-law can be a very generous and caring person. However, he has some sort of serious personality issues going on that eventually emerge. My wife somewhat seriously diagnosed him with Narcissistic Personality Disorder. Regardless of what it is, it feels very hard to have a normal relationship with him. The majority of the conversations we’ve had over the years have tended to be him trying to impart his wisdom on us and convincing everyone that he has all the answers. I get the feeling that he doesn’t feel that really has peers and tends to do best when he feels that is in charge or the knower of truth, the last romantic relationships he had were with interns of his(he was a social worker). I believe he feels that his life’s work is to get us to come around to his way of seeing things and thus save the world. His moods can swing unpredictably and he gets sulky and mean spirited.

Because of these tendencies my wife’s parents divorced about 25 years ago and he has a strained relationship with his children. My wife was the only one of his children that would let him stay with them during visits, but after years of feeling manipulated and judged every time he came we put an end to it. He’s always complained about not being able to stay with us and despite repeated denials has constantly tried to either manipulate us or guilt-trip my wife into letting him stay a few nights with us. He had brain surgery a few years ago and the black humor was the thought that perhaps it would help with whatever his issues were.

Last year, we spent a few weeks down in his neck of the woods (staying with my wife’s mother and stepfather). We limited our time with him to a couple of hours a day and didn’t invite him over to dinner every single night as in the past(he had tended to invite himself) since he would get sulky and unpleasant, particularly with my wife’s stepfather. Anyhow, on my wife’s last day (I had left earlier) he came over while she was home alone with the kids. He started criticizing my wife for the birthday present she had given him at the start of the trip(3 weeks earlier!). He went on and on and despite requests for him to leave my mother-in-law’s house he refused, saying “this isn’t your house”. My wife ended up crying in a bedroom with the door locked. We are guessing that he found out that we were letting my wife’s sister-in-law and nieces stay with us for a couple of nights. Several months later he wrote a letter to my wife asking why none of his children would let him stay with him, while my mother -in-law could. My wife wrote him a letter later saying that despite her the fact that she loved him she didn’t feel completely safe around him and used that birthday present incident as an example of why. She also reminded him of his emotionally and physically abusive behavior when she was a kid and how some of his current behavior triggered the flashbacks and provoked anxiety. He still has not apologized or even acknowledged that he may have acted inappropriately in regards to the birthday present incident.

What I’m trying to get across here is that we don’t feel safe around him. When he’s in a good mood and doing things he enjoys then he can be fun to be around for a couple of hours, but you never know when he’s going to go off. He went off last weekend with a letter to the family regarding some issues with pool safety that he had observed. The concerns were valid and worth discussing, but then he proceeded to make personal attacks against some of his kids and even threatened to report us all to child abuse services if we didn’t do what he wanted. My wife’s siblings both e-mailed back basically saying that meeting to discuss safety was a good idea, but that his threats of reporting us and that the use of e-mail for this matter was not appropriate(perhaps the criticisms were not as gentle as they could have been). His responses were even nastier and more unbelievable than the original letter.

I was so worked up, but couldn’t figure out why. My first inclination was that I wanted to write him a letter explaining how he unnecessarily pissed off everyone and could have written a simple letter expressing his concerns and suggesting we all meet to agree upon a strategy for keeping the kids safer around the pool. I started drafting a letter and found myself inserting more barbs and criticism regarding his behaviors and realized I was furious at him. As I’ve sat with this I think I’m furious because of the way his behaviors affect my wife despite the fact that she has been pretty calm throughout this whole thing. She loves her dad and wishes she could have a normal relationship with him, but his acting out just reminds us that he isn’t emotionally safe to be around. It’s just hard for me to have watched my wife try so hard over the years taking care of and trying to please him (an impossible task) only to have him treat her in such a manner. She’s beginning to realize that there is no pleasing him, but it’s been heartbreaking watching her try so hard to be a “good daughter” to him for so long. Here he is threatening us with child abuse charges over pool safety and completely ignore the fact that he offers no emotional safety at all.

I started trying to write this post yesterday but found that the fury I had inside that had me writing droves in the draft letters had kind of dried up. I feel like I can’t get worked up about it anymore. It’s a bit like my maternal grandfather who can be funny and charming but has a really nasty streak. I learned to ignore him years ago, that it wasn’t worth my time to get worked up and to just enjoy his better side while he is still around. Unlike the situation with my grandfather, my father-in-law’s behaviors affect not only my wife much more than it affects me, but also it also affects our kids. I’ve seen him interact well with the kids, but at times he has been a little too forceful with them, enough to make me uncomfortable. Now I’m wrestling more with the idea of what to do? Does it make sense to get worked up over an older man who has probably had emotional issues his entire life? After the lashing out over his unsatisfactory birthday present my wife decided that she was never getting him another present. After this letter, what do we withhold? I wouldn’t leave him alone with my kids, but it doesn’t feel right to completely cut him off either. My wife has been entertaining the idea once again of letting him stay with us(with a strict time limit) despite her concerns because she feels he is getting old and she misses him. She is the one that has suffered the most during his previous visits, so if it’s that important to her I don’t feel right saying no, but should I? I feel everyone is kind of moving on from this, but the part of me that is a dad and husband doesn’t feel right with just letting this pass and attributing it to his eccentricity or craziness.

So to paraphrase my old friend the goat, “I got maaaaad, I got maaaaaad, everybody gets maaaaaad”. However,I just don’t know what to do with it.

5 thoughts on “Seeing Red

  1. A friend just passed on your blog. I love the video clip…thank you for that. And I look forward to reading more of your posts. First off, I’m sorry you and your family have to suffer with a father who is not healthy and often not kind. It’s always very sad, and it’s never easy.
    I gently offer a few suggestions. One is to not expose your children to his moods and behavior. Strongly consider not to let him stay with you. And if your wife wants to see him, perhaps she can arrange a way to do that under less stressful circumstances. It seems to me, with only a little info., that you have good “protect my family” instincts. Anger is one way we get information about what isn’t ok, and so the trick is to figure out how to set limits with your children’s well being on the top of your list. Not an easy situation. I had a father who always stirred things up in the family. There was always drama along with his charm, and advice. Really hard on everyone. Best of luck.

  2. Hi Rona,
    Thanks for taking the time to respond, and I’m glad you liked the video! We are going to stay with my mother-in-law as part of our summer vacation in a few weeks and will probably be seeing him at points of that trip, so I think we are going to play it by ear and see how this all plays out before making any concrete decisions. He’s not coming any time soon anyhow. He does get me worked up at times, but I am fond of him despite his issues. A lot to think about.

    • Hi,
      I have to agree that it is important to limit the access he has to your children. However, it is very important that the emotions you feel inside are voiced. Not with critisism but assertion. He seems to have over the years let everyone know where he stands and what he needs, but what are your needs? I realise that your wife is hoping and perhaps has created an illusion that one day she will receive from him what she truelly desires…but you know as does she, that it will not happen. He keeps you all on your toes because thi is how he keeps control. Throwing yu all off balance. You need to find your inner balance and keep firm hold without pointing fingers at him. Know what you want from the relationship, but be realistic. Know what you are willing to give. Know where your limits are and be kind but firm with the consequences when they are surpassed.
      I have no idea if you have discussed face to face with him how his behavior effects your lives, but he must have a chance to prepare himself for the “new” way of being together and perhaps that could happen by setting down the terms for your relationship together.
      We do to a certain degree have to accept each other as we are, however, when that becomes hurtful then it doesn´t work any more.
      One of the most important things is to remember that you are setting limits in order to be able to continue loving him and having a so open heart as possible in his presence. Send him love and light every time you think something negative about him. Truelly see how is personal limitations are treully sad for him, but never forget to love yourself in the process..then you can be assertive with kindness.
      warm thoughts to you all, Lisa

      • Lisa,
        Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this matter. A part of me wants to reach out and explain to him how his behavior has affected us(and his relationships more generally). There is some hesitation because my wife did that in a letter she sent, in response to his outright asking why his children didn’t let him stay with them, earlier this year. Since I’m not one of his children he may listen a bit more to it, but I don’t know how much he got out of her letter, or if it made any impact on him. Still, I think it is a idea seriously worth considering. Thanks again for taking the time to read the post and respond.

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