My dad's doing too much creepy hugging

I know he's going through a crisis and trying to get closer, but this isn't helping.

Published January 12, 2007 12:12PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I need your advice for a delicate and complicated situation. Over the last few years my father has gone through a midlife crisis of sorts, and has, as a result, become much more emotionally expressive. He's always been a bit of a maudlin guy, but now he emits long, weary sighs at every mention of the Iraq war and constantly wants to know how I feel. I'm more reserved, so all this emotion grates on my nerves. Like most people currently in their mid-20s, I can handle only so much before I recharge with a healthy dose of irony and cynicism. That said, I can understand his desire to be expressive; his own father was an emotional rock -- the sort of Southern patriarch who sits at the head of the table and says nothing until some spark of conversation brings his engines rumbling to life for a long anecdote or authoritative piece of advice. My father spent the first 40 years of his life trying to emulate that ideal. With my mom's help he's loosened up, and now needs to let off some steam, I guess.

Enter my own crisis of sorts. I am, to put it mildly, sort of screwed up when it comes to intimate relationships. I have trouble making connections. I get extremely anxious about physical contact. I have an intense need to please, but am revolted when people respond by expressing warmth or interest. I suffer from depression and have been seeing a therapist, who is helping. Recently we've been working on letting emotions arise (pardon the therapy-speak). I practice diligently (nondiligently?) and have begun to notice that I feel anger and fear toward my dad. He knows I've been going through a hard time, so while I'm feeling freaked he is redoubling his efforts to be supportive, which includes (too) long hugs, pats to the back that turn into caresses, and shoulder rubs. He indulges in these at every chance he gets: while passing by me in the kitchen, at the computer, whatever. Maybe he's just trying to be close, maybe he is trying to express love and is going overboard again, but it feels creepy and inappropriate. Every time he touches me I want to punch him in the face.

My question to my therapist is, of course, did my father sexually abuse me? Her response is probably not. I have no memories of any abuse, only my aggressive response. There is some speculation of sexual abuse at the hands of a distant family friend long ago, but again there are no memories. I understand that sometimes these memories are repressed, and I'd like to try therapies to unearth them, but there might be nothing there. For the time being I just want to solve the problem with my dad. My parents live right outside my city, so I see them often. I don't want to avoid them since I enjoy their company otherwise, but this is really bothering me. How can I tell my dad that he's making me uncomfortable without revealing too much about myself or making him feel bad? He strikes me as quite fragile -- needing reassurance that he measures up as a "caring, supportive father" when compared to his own distant father (who died two years ago, I might add). How can I gently tell him to deal with his own shit and back the fuck up offa me? My therapist tells me to just explain the whole complicated situation, but that's a conversation I can't imagine having.

Prickly Son

Dear Prickly,

Put your dad in the car and go for a long drive. Tell him that you know it's been a tough two years. Tell him you want to hear it all. Start to finish. All of it. Get him talking and keep him talking. Ask him questions. Ask him to clarify. Do some serious listening for maybe an hour or two. I mean serious listening. I mean drain the guy.

I say this because the image I get is of a man who is about to explode. The dumb, inappropriate hugging and sighing and all that, to me, sound like a guy who is just a cauldron inside and he has not had the opportunity to let anything out.

He hasn't had the chance to ride any of this to its destination, if you catch my drift. You know how in a therapy session or on a long drive you find yourself able for the first time in a long time to take a train of thought to its final destination? You know how just taking that ride can be so satisfying, where you get to the end and you're talked out and you just take a deep breath and regard what you have now brought to consciousness in all its fullness and you're just done, done in a way that you haven't been done in such a long, long time?

Well, I'm thinking that's what your father needs to do.

I know this may result in some moments of supreme creepiness for you. But that's part of it too. You need to look hard at your dad and see what is there. He's hiding it with the hugs. I'm suggesting this as a way to replace all the hugging and the sighing with some genuine communication. Because all that hugging is just some desperate ruse -- he's not really communicating, and the reason you want to punch him in the face is that it feels like a lie. And rightly so, because there's nothing in it, really, it doesn't represent some moment where you both were spontaneously seized by love for each other, or some moment where you actually got through the bullshit. Rather the hugging is the bullshit. I imagine that's why it's so infuriating.

If you just tell him that the hugging creeps you out, that won't help. It will sound like rejection. I'm saying take the opposite approach: radically increased engagement. Overkill. I'm suggesting, creepy as it is, that you really dig into the shit, dig deep, lengthen your dad's leash, and encourage him to talk.

He probably doesn't see a therapist or anything, does he? Or does he? I could be wrong. But he sounds like the kind of guy who is just so stuffed with his own fatherly angst that, like I say, he's about to explode.

As to that nagging feeling you have that maybe you were abused, I wrote in this 2005 column about a similar situation.

I've written about how we try to deal with hazy past memories in this 2004 column and also here and here as well.

Man, I don't mean to be copping out by sending you to the archives ... but I do find that on certain topics I hit on something in the past that seems useful and relevant. Such is the case here.

But mainly, I say take your dad on a long drive and get him to spill all his beans.

At the same time, you can physically intervene on the hugging thing: Grasp his upper arms when he comes in for the clinch. Hold him there. Hold him at a distance and look into his face. Just hold him back. Don't let him in there. Maybe he'll get the message.

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