My dad is getting old. Should I make an effort to improve our relationship?

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Throughout my life, my relationship with my father has been, at best, diplomatic. I am a 37-year-old gay man who has done well for himself: I live on my own in the flat I bought outright and I go travelling around the world at least once a year. My father and I have never really got along, mainly because we are such different people. He’s into sports; I’m not. He’s a womaniser; I’m gay. He likes to ask my sisters for money because (in his words) they have to give him it (he has a much younger partner and is in debt); I am very much financially independent.

My dad is getting old now and we rarely speak. We live in different cities, so we hardly ever see each other. If we speak on the phone, the conversation lasts about four minutes at the most.

My sisters say I should try to get closer to him as he’s getting old. However, I fear that he’ll ask me for money and criticise my lifestyle (he’s done both before).

I don’t feel any need for a better relationship with my dad, but at the same time feel I should give him a chance. Any advice?

Give him a chance to do what? With some problems it’s a good idea to start with “What do I want to achieve?” and then work backwards to see if it is, indeed, achievable.

You say fairly emphatically that you don’t wish to have a better relationship with your father. Maybe he feels the same about you, in which case, you are off the hook. But I wondered if it was actually less about giving your dad another chance and more – despite what you say – about the relationship. This distinction might help you, because investing in a relationship, rather than a person, has a different feel to it. The latter seems very one way, whereas investing in a relationship shows hope that you too might benefit. I know you say it has been diplomatic at best between you, but that’s already heaps better than a lot of the relationships I hear about. Maybe it doesn’t need much to make this a tiny bit better.

I consulted BACP- and UKCP-registered psychotherapist John-Paul Davies. He said he sees a lot of cases such as yours: a parent/child who have differences and as the parent gets older there is that pull to try to make things better. We often think of “getting on” as being solely about having similar interests, but actually “we can get angry about different things but we all know the feeling”. It’s these similarities you may need to search for in the sea of differences.

“Your language when you describe your dad is about being completely different,” said Davies, “but unless you build some sort of psychological bridge I’m not sure how the contact between you will change.” He added that those bridges are often built in trying to understand what life is like for that other person, but I know that’s hard to do when you feel you want to protect yourself.

“Could you talk about the things you have in common, anything you share?” suggested Davies. “Try not to focus on subjects of difference but connection.”

I wouldn’t be too concerned about what your sisters do or say; their relationship with your father is theirs. They are different from you. As Davies says: “Sometimes there’s one sibling who expresses the anger for the others.”

Are you worried about having regrets when your father dies? “This does come up for a lot of people,” said Davies, “but as long as you have a narrative you are at peace with, you probably won’t regret that decision, because you know why you made it.”

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I would tentatively point out that although you and your father have differences, you both seem to have quite a black-and-white way of thinking: your way or no way. This might actually make you realise you have more in common than you think. But perhaps this is what repels you?

Whenever people ask about trying to (re)establish connections with family members, there’s often this feeling that it has to be no contact or best buddies. But there’s often a perfectly serviceable middle ground where you feel connected enough to allay your conscience (and keep at bay any future regrets) but can still protect yourself, which we are all entitled to do.

Every week, Annalisa Barbieri addresses a personal problem sent in by a reader. If you would like advice from Annalisa, please send your problem to [email protected]. Annalisa regrets she cannot enter into personal correspondence. Submissions are subject to our terms and conditions.

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