Although I consider my dad one of my closest confidants, there are many things we don’t agree on. I love animals; he doesn’t “get” them. I gravitate toward light home decor; he’s all about deep reds and dark browns. I’m liberal; he’s conservative. Despite our differences, we’ve always found a way to meet in the middle (at least after my teenage years). So when he called me the day before Thanksgiving to not so gently suggest that I tell the female friend staying in my guest room while healing from a breakup to take a hike so that my husband didn’t “get any ideas,” I was blatantly shocked. So shocked, in fact, that I was stunned silent, which rarely happens.
My dad knows my husband well. He thinks so highly of him that, at our wedding, his father-of-the-bride speech simply consisted of him toasting us and saying, “Mark is worth his weight in gold.” (There was no mention of me.) I often tease that my husband is my dad’s favorite kid (I’m an only child). So, that said, this was completely out of the blue. Although I really didn’t want to tell Mark about the issue my father broached, because I trust him completely and have never had reason to question his fidelity, I am terrible at keeping secrets and told him immediately. Instead of getting furious like I did, he laughed it off and chalked it up to the difference between old-school and new-school mentalities. Most of our parents’ generation doesn’t believe men and women can be friends, let alone share a home without some funny business happening.
As my anger began to dissipate, I considered that maybe my dad’s comment wasn’t meant to speak ill of my marriage or my friendship. Maybe it was more about him than about me. He has, after all, been married several times. While infidelity has never been an issue in his relationships, it’s possible he was projecting his own insecurities onto my situation. Not quite sure how to untangle this delicate web with my emotionally averse dad, I sought out therapist Sherrie Campbell, Ph.D., and asked her how to set boundaries and prevent parental issues from pervading my own relationship.
1. How can we best set boundaries with our parents?
“We need to let our parents know that we appreciate their insight and feedback, but that we need to follow our own instincts around our situation and have them support us whether they agree or not,” Campbell told me. If that doesn’t work, she suggested setting “the boundary to not involve them in our challenges.” Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that, though.
2. How can you kindly suggest they stop offering unwarranted advice?
“Always start with gratitude,” Campbell said. “You can tell them, ‘Thank you for offering your advice, because I know that you care about me, however, unless I ask for your advice I would actually appreciate if you didn’t give it.’” Basically, when in doubt, be blunt about what you need and don’t need from your parent.
3. How can you ensure your parents’ infidelity issues don’t get tangled up in your own relationship?
This is a tricky one, of course, but Campbell said, “Whatever insecurities your parents may have due to past infidelity in their own lives needs to not be projected onto your life. I would let your parents know you appreciate that they are looking out for you, but that what happened to them is their situation and should not be projected onto the situation you’re currently in. Clearly, not everybody who is of the opposite sex in our life is an infidelity risk.” Amen.
4. What about communication issues?
If your parents’ communication issues are trying to weasel their way into your relationship, Campbell said setting boundaries and avoiding projection is the best way to go. “We all communicate differently, and I think it’s important to voice this as a way to set a boundary,” she said. “Tell your parents that the way they communicate is very different from the way you communicate and that neither is wrong, but they are simply different, and both ways need to be respected.”
Armed with Campbell’s advice, I was ready for some healthy communication with my dad. And guess what? It worked. I’m keeping these tips in my back pocket from here on out.