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Breaking the ice and building a relationship with Dad


Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My parents are getting divorced, which wouldn’t have surprised me 10 or 20 years ago, but by now I thought they were fine with the status quo. How do I begin to build a (long-distance) relationship with my dad, who was physically present but completely emotionally inert throughout my childhood?

He is clearly trying to address the lifestyle issues that caused their longtime problems, but it will take a while to see if any of the changes last. We had our first “real” conversation, involving honest, emotional give-and-take, in the weeks after my mom left. Where do we go from here?


(Nick Galifianakis)

Sounds possible that you’re already there. Your first “real” connection occurred after your mom left the scene. Coincidence?

Your mom’s availability to maintain a relationship with you might have allowed him to remain at arm’s length from his kid(s) all these years. As long as you and Mom were close, you’d keep calling and visiting.

Now, he’ll see or talk to you only on the strength of your direct relationship with him. The “I might die alone” alarm is a loud and scary one, and his just might have gone off.

This isn’t to say you’ve had your talk and all is well now. Neither of you has changed, so he’s probably still going to leave you a bit cold emotionally and you’re still going to wonder what to say around him.

But as long as you both understand that it’s on each of you to stay in touch, the answers will likely come naturally, in the form of the truth — starting with: “I’m not always sure what to say to you, Dad, because you’ve always been present physically but not always emotionally.” Naming the silence between you can quickly break it apart.

Hello, Carolyn:

Next month, a close friend of mine is coming for a four-day visit with her baby. I’m really excited about seeing her and meeting her son.

A party for my husband’s office has just been moved to the first night of my friend’s visit. We’re new here, so I was looking forward to the party as a way to make some friends. My husband has to go — it would look bad if he didn’t — but should I make an appearance? I could make the rounds and then leave . . . I know my friend will say it’s fine, but is it rude to bring up in the first place?


There’s no universal “rude/not rude” here. If I were the houseguest, assuming I had a comfy chair and a good snack supply, I might even appreciate time to regroup from traveling with a baby. As usual, it depends largely on your friend. If you know she’ll say it’s fine because she’s cool that way, then tell her about the party and why you want to drop in; also say that her feelings are paramount and you’ll go only with her blessing. Read her reaction. If she balks, stay home, because you’ll have other chances to circulate.

This is the whole point of close friends, isn’t it? To be good for each other based on the reality of a situation, vs. a script, and to trust each other to be honest about what you need?

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at

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