Dear Carolyn: My ex just missed my daughter’s birthday. He was supposed to see her today and apparently forgot all about it. She’s 5. I’m just so sad for her right now. I shouldn’t assume this will become a thing, but I’m having trouble dispelling visions of a disappointed child for years and years when her inattentive dad forgets.
Anonymous: A dad who doesn’t show up is a major source of disappointment, yes.
But so is a firmly held expectation that he will show up when his actions say otherwise.
And while you can’t make her father show up, you absolutely can help your daughter avoid building expectations of him that he will likely never meet.
You can do this for her kindly, too, without bashing her dad. Where you might be tempted to say in frustration, “Let’s see if your dad decides to show up this year,” instead you can take care to say as little as possible beforehand about his planned visits. With a 5-year-old you can say nothing at all, for example — and if her dad shows up when he told you he would, then, yay.
As your daughter gets older, you can graduate to giving notice that’s as offhand as his history of showing up: “Your dad said he might come by later, if he’s able to.” That not only builds in the possibility of a no-show, but it also places the responsibility for his absence on a vague “ability” to. As in, you don’t hand your daughter chances to blame herself. This phrasing has the benefit of being true enough, since being too inattentive to keep his promises is just another version of being unable to.
As she becomes more aware and, presumably, able to express her own frustration with his unreliability, you can give her a way to understand him that bypasses blame for acceptance and understanding. “I know it’s frustrating. He has been absent-minded for as long as I have known him, though. I also know he loves you dearly, so it’s about him, not you.”
And finally, as annoying an extra burden as this is for you to carry, always have a Plan B for days when her father’s supposed to show up. Why curse the darkness when you can go to a matinee.
Dear Carolyn: My new in-laws (we’ve been married less than a year) struggle with deep or intimate conversation. I am from a family that talks about feelings all.the.time and don’t know how to find a place or build intimacy here. Case in point: I tried to ask about husband’s childhood. Father-in-law uncomfortably shifts to sports while mother-in-law “jokes” that that is too personal. Whaaa?
How do I build meaningful relationships with them? And/or, how do I not be the judgy daughter-in-law who always wants to make everyone talk feelings?
In-Law: You respect the boundary they’ve set. There’s no chance of intimacy without that crucial first step.
Also please accept there might be no chance of intimacy, period. Some people just don’t want to be close to others, or don’t know how to, or never bought into the idea they’re supposed to.
That is their prerogative. The whole point of intimacy is that it’s mutual — I give freely, you give freely. The idea that you can breach anyone’s defenses by working angles till they buckle is intrusion plus delusion, not to mention an alert to them to maintain some protective distance between you.
It is ironic, yes, but if you want to get close to them then you need to back off. People who respect limits upfront typically are rewarded with respect in return — and, for the patient, there are also warmth, affection and trust to be earned through restraint and through attentiveness to their ways.
Should you earn these rewards from your in-laws, though, you’ll want to spot them for what they are — and that won’t happen till you know to look for intimacy in the many forms it appears and not just the version you learned growing up.
Two people working side-by-side toward a shared goal or purpose, for example, can create intimacy with nary a word passing between them, much less an accounting of every emotion they feel. Cooperation is intimate. Counting on someone is intimate. Having similar values, respecting another’s work, witnessing and supporting someone’s dedication, appreciating people for who they are vs. who you think they should be — each is a kind of intimacy.
And, each is an opportunity to meet your in-laws (or anyone else you care about) where they are. “Meaningful relationships” might be there for the taking just for broadening what that means.