Dr. Cecilia Ford, who has been a psychologist in private practice in New York City since 1987, has addressed emotional issues for us in many articles over the years. Here, she counsels a woman dealing with the holiday demands of her authoritarian father-in law—demands that destroy the spirit of celebration and put unnecessary pressure on her and her children.
Dear Dr. Ford:
I have a Father’s Day question for you. My parents are both deceased, and every year my husband and I are expected to pay for tickets and fly across the country for two days to “honor” his father. We leave work on the East Coast on Friday night and fly the redeye to our destination with our two children, who will have just finished their school year. We are always exhausted from the flight, but are expected to be part of a country club weekend that starts the moment we land—very competitive golf and tennis, and too much eating and drinking. My father-in-law is not a nice man. He drinks too much and then becomes loud and rude. He treats my husband without respect, compares him unfavorably with his brother, who runs the family business, and complains constantly because we don’t live closer.
We leave on Sunday night—the entire family a physical and emotional wreck—to fly back on the redeye, and my husband and I have to go to work on Monday morning. The entire trip is a nightmare from beginning to end. It has become a real source of conflict between my husband and me. He is unable to acknowledge how his father treats him and how his father’s behavior affects our children. He refuses to stay home and allow us to have a Father’s Day celebration for him. Is there anything I can do to avoid this obligation, which is psychologically and financially difficult? If I can’t avoid it, is there anything I can do to make this less difficult?
Dr. Ford Responds:
There are many issues in your question that I’d like to address.
Holidays can be lovely occasions for families to gather, but they can also be made stressful, and even unhealthy, when they create too much pressure. The current condition of families, which very often live in different corners of the country, and the ever-increasing emphasis on spending (more money is now spent on Halloween than on Christmas) have created a sometimes toxic brew that destroys the spirit of celebration and puts unnecessary pressure on families, especially children.
In your case, however, I’d like to point out what a blessing it is that you don’t live closer to your in-laws! No matter how little time you have to spend with them, if your father-in-law is a bully and a heavy drinker there’s no reason why you would ever want to expose yourself or your children to him. Furthermore, if he shows disrespect for your husband, it is damaging to everyone to have to see this.
Unfortunately, sometimes visits are necessary. Your father-in-law’s insistence, however, that the family visit for Father’s Day every year, at great effort and expense, is not the behavior of a father—it is that a spoiled child. A good father doesn’t require fealty and admiration: at least not until the needs and comforts of his family are securely taken care of. Much as we welcome the opportunity to celebrate our love for our parents, this love is to be given, not to be demanded.
Which leads me to an equally important point: Your children want to celebrate their own father. Their need to do this should take precedence over their grandfather’s wishes. Further, the effort and expense required are diminishing their comfort and those opportunities for more pleasant family trips that the four of you could take instead.
By colluding in his father’s narcissistic behavior, your husband is acting as a son, not as a father. Equally problematic, he is forgetting about his role as your husband. Many in-law problems can be traced to the inability of one of the partners to fully separate from his/her family of origin and commit fully to the new family. Though he is a married man with two children, your husband is acting only as his father’s son in this situation, rather than making his own family’s needs his first priority.
It is time that you both take a look at this and think about why it has been allowed to go on for so long. I suspect that you, having lost both your parents and wishing to accommodate your husband, were well intentioned at first, but now you are enabling your husband by allowing him to give in to his father’s demands. Yet it is probably very difficult for your husband to imagine standing up to him. If your father-in-law bullies and mistreats him now, it’s a safe bet that he has been doing it since your husband was a little boy. Many adults find it hard not to react to their parents as if they are still vulnerable around them.
You can be a great help to him by setting an example—by saying no to this bad behavior and standing with your husband in drawing some lines in the sand. Negotiate the visits on your own terms. Say that you will come when you have a longer window and you will “celebrate” Father’s Day then. Maybe visits can be limited to only every other year. When you’re with his family, be more assertive about the agenda and schedule. Better yet, say that traveling is stressful for the kids (which it is) and tell the grandparents that they should travel to see you.
If your husband can’t acknowledge his father’s disrespect for him, it may take some work for him to see how this is hurting the kids and his marriage. Working with a marriage counselor could be helpful. I find that in-law problems can really fester if they are not dealt with promptly. You can be a great partner to your husband if you can show how he must get out from under his father’s thumb or risk becoming a man like him—a father who is not really looking after his kids. Making this change in how you celebrate Father’s Day would finally make it a meaningful day for your immediate family.