Dear Carolyn: I’m looking for advice on how my sisters and I can deal with what we see as an emotionally abusive friend of our father’s. He cancels plans with us whenever she “needs” his help or thinks she might, he makes plans based on what she thinks best for him, he gives us her opinion as though it were his own. When we tell him how much he’s damaging his relationships with his daughters, he sounds like an addict promising that he’ll go clean, without any concrete plan. Last week he finally admitted that he doesn’t really want to change his dynamic with this woman, he just wants to be able to manage the logistics better so that helping her won’t make us angry.
Although we do think he’s enabling her helplessness, we don’t object to the helping itself. We object to his ALWAYS putting her first, prioritizing trivial wants of hers over important events of ours. Would family therapy help? Or should we give up and go to Al-Anon ourselves?
Adult Child of “Addict”
You’re on to something with Al-Anon, but not for the reason you think.
You are all trying to change your father to suit yourselves. Do you see it? You don’t want him jumping to her side, you want him jumping to yours. There’s a denial of your father’s agency here that’s very unhealthy.
Perhaps he is codependent in his relationship with his friend. But for you to presume to “fix” him is codependent of you.
Now, if instead you are alarmed by the harm you believe this friendship is doing to your father – versus what it takes from you and your sisters – and you want to sound that alarm with your father, then that’s a different story.
But saying that to him now won’t be convincing because you’ve framed the issue for him as a matter of what you want from him (his attention), as opposed to what you hope for him (his well-being) – and you’ve pushed him to give you what you want instead of asking yourselves to respect what he chooses to give.
Al-Anon could help you learn more about these important distinctions, as could some good family therapy.
In the meantime, to start undoing this damage, I suggest you apologize to your father for making him the rope in your tug-of-war.
Be mindful from now on, too, of the line where your business leaves off and your father’s business begins.
And, remain focused on the issue that does warrant intervention: that the friend is an emotional abuser. Assuming she is one – that’s something else therapy or Al-Anon could help illuminate.
If she is abusive, be careful not to criticize her to your dad, because he’ll likely feel moved to defend her. Instead, limit your comments to any signs that he is unhappy or behaving in self-destructive ways. It’s, “You sound stressed, Dad” – not, “Your friend is stressing you out.”
Two reasons for such phrasing: (1) It keeps the attention on his health and safety, where it belongs; (2) It serves as a guardrail for you and your sisters. Specifically, if there are no signs that he’s unhappy or behaving in self-destructive ways, then you leave him be.
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