My dad wants to fix our communication problems

He sent a list of questions we're supposed to answer "honestly." But I'm drawing a blank

By Cary Tennis
Published March 1, 2011 1:20AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I am supposed to be writing a letter to my dad for his birthday. He wants to have a better relationship with each one of his family members and in lieu of gifts he wants us to answer several questions he posed in an e-mail about how he can make us more comfortable talking to him, how can we overcome any awkwardness, etc. He is inspired to do this after having a few blowups with my rather intense and opinionated brother. And my mom.

I think it has sunk in that the rest of his family has trouble talking to him.

Sigh. I can't even remember what problems I have with my dad. We live 3,000 miles apart and distance has created a whimsical relationship unfettered by our past hurts. I am really having trouble thinking. So I am writing to you ... if I can even manage to do that.

Before I started writing to you I sat staring at a blinking cursor on a blank Word document and I feel stifled. I yearn to have the words that can salve any wounds between us but I have nothing. Truly I have been thinking about what to say while wending my way through traffic, while lying in bed staring at the wall, while words blur by and I find myself 10 pages into a new chapter of my romance novel not having truly read a single word. Honestly, how could it be so hard to answer these questions? Essentially he wants me to be honest, without fear of offending or hurting him (his words), so we can communicate better. Yet I do fear offending him because I fear he will hurt me right back. Even though I know he is trying to change I cringe internally with memories of him verbally crushing me.

Let's get this straight: I am no angel and I have never been the easiest person to have as a daughter with my anorexia/bulimia and alcoholism tainting everything. (I only include those character flaws for your information because maybe I deserved to be verbally crushed for being such a difficult daughter.)

I am drawing blanks. I have always been comfortable talking to my mom and on edge talking to my dad. He has an explosive temper -- the flip side to his wonderful, generous nature. I don't know. I think I am afraid of him. Although he never hit me, his words still create a cold fog in my head. Damn it, he has said a million sweet and complimentary things but it was those things he said in anger that I remember!

How can I answer him when I don't have any answers? I am a terrible person. I can't even do this simple thing for him.

Pearl Girl

Dear Pearl Girl,

It sounds like this situation has got you really upset.

I suggest you forget the writing thing.

Is it possible for you to call your dad on the telephone and just talk to him in a friendly way, without bringing any of this up? If he asks about this letter he wants you to write, I suggest you tell him that you're working on it. But just call him up and say you were thinking about him and wanted to say hi.

Here are some things you can tell him if he asks about communication problems. You can tell him that you don't know anything about communication problems and ask him if you and he can just talk on the phone. If he asks you questions about why you think he has conflicts with your brother or his wife, just tell him you don't know, and ask him how his life is going. Just try to talk to him and have a friendly conversation. See how that goes. Talk about things that you know he likes to do.

Your dad is trying to reach out. He may not be doing it in the best way. He may be being selfish without realizing it. But it won't help to accuse him of things. So I suggest you call him and see if you can have a friendly, non-confrontational conversation with him. Talk for five or 10 minutes. Then tell him you have to go. And hang up. And see how you feel.

I don't know your dad. He might be the kind of guy that you just can't talk to. Sometimes, with some parents, you have to make a decision to cut them out of your life. In a pinch you could do that. But if you can just pretend that it's no big deal, and you're just calling to say hello, that might be the beginning of a new way of relating to your dad. And it might relieve some of the tension you're feeling about this request of his.

If it makes you feel any better, you're not alone in having crazy-making, wrenching family relationships. Just try talking to your dad like a normal human being and see how it goes.

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What? You want more advice?

Cary Tennis

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