Learning From Conflict With My Father

Written June 30, 2008, at the Westwood Lodge, Buncrana, Inishowen Peninsula, Donegal, Ireland

Although we’ve seen some marvelous sites, it’s been a bit of hell with my dad on this trip through Ireland. We’ve been cooped up in a vehicle and in the same hotel room every day. All my childhood trauma is coming back as if it were just yesterday. I need a break — I’m going to stay cozy here at the lodge and write about the whole experience.

I’m missing Sacrilege horribly. I don’t want to ever travel anywhere again without him. Twelve days and counting down until we are once again in each other’s arms.

Back to my father. He is a very tough person to satisfy. I’ve tried many methods, including the “shut up” method yesterday, but nothing seems to work. It seems that he is dissatisfied by almost every single little thing. He has to kvetch and he can’t just enjoy things. As we’re driving through beautiful scenery, he’ll spend the whole time criticizing little points of my driving, the Irish road system, the weather, or just about anything.

I’ve asked him to try communicating with me using “I statements? and active listening so we could resolve conflicts between us, but he can’t express a single feeling to me consciously. He says that he doesn’t want to be forced into the structured system I’m proposing. Of course, he’ll get angry or sad and so on, but he can’t or won’t say “I’m feeling angry” or “I’m feeling sad”. Also, he never says he’s sorry for anything. So we’ll have an argument. I get so activated by some things he does that I fall out of the conflict resolution methods of speaking and into his passive aggressive banter.

The next morning, I’ll feel contrite and apologize for saying some things I said or did that might have bothered him — he just sits there and doesn’t say he’s sorry for his part in it. I guess he’s always right and it’s entirely my fault, right? It would be absurd if he weren’t my father.

I’m learning again how being continuously critical of others can poison the relationship, although hopefully I’m nowhere near as critical of others as he is. He’s quite cordial to people he doesn’t know well — the monster only appears once he’s got you trapped long-term.

Sacrilege says my ability to laugh at myself is my saving grace. I think I’ve learned some controlling behaviors from my father, yet I’m fairly aware of what I’m doing and often include meta-speak about what I’m doing while I’m doing it. Because I’ve done a lot of personal growth work around it, I can acknowledge my controlling tendencies and my feelings around it, which gives people a chance to dialog with me about the situation if they feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to be that way when it doesn’t serve me or those around me well.

The hardest part for me is that my father really can’t express his feelings to me. I remember now that he used to bully me into stifling my feelings. When I got angry, I had to withdraw into myself and couldn’t let out the anger. It wasn’t until Liz and Ruth, two women I lived with in college and who are now lifelong friends, confronted me with it that I learned it was ok to say “I’m angry!”

In the car yesterday, he reminisced about his relationship with his parents. He said that they never had conflicts like the ones he has with his children. At the time, I couldn’t respond. However, last night as I slept, my grandmother Doherty came to me in my dreams and reminded my of some of her fury over my father. I could hear her frustration as she told him that it didn’t matter what she said to him, he’d just do it his way anyway.

I found out the Doherty clan motto is “Ar Ndutcas” in Irish Gaelic, which means “Our heritage”. Sacrilege says it actually means “Our Nutcase?… LOL! I think his version may be closer to the truth.

I was supposed to ride with my father around Inishowen peninsula today, but I honestly couldn’t do it after our trip around the Donegal coast yesterday. When I woke up yesterday morning, I was a bit groggy, but I vowed to do whatever I could to make him happy. So I asked him where he wanted to go. He couldn’t just answer me in a pleasant way. He had to harangue me even in answering where he wanted to go. After a pleasant visit to the Donegal Castle, I started driving him where he said he wanted to go. He gave me continual comments about my driving. I told him I don’t mind those comments because I want him to feel safe and comfortable in the vehicle while I’m driving. He sort of laughed when I said that.

I asked him to help me navigate along the route, but he acts like I’m bothering him to ask him things like that as if I should just figure it out myself. Instead, he looks around at the scenery or tries to learn to play the tin whistle. He often treats a simple question with a simple answer as if it is fraught with some sinister intent or is just too troublesome for him to take the time to respond. I guess he thinks I’m supposed to be looking at maps while driving — well no, he complains about that too — or stopping to look at them or the signs. That works well on back-country roads with no traffic but, of course, when you’re on a high-speed highway, stopping isn’t a really good option. Then, he tells me it’s just easy to drive around, so I should be able to do it without looking at the map. Of course, it’s really quite complicated as he found out when he started driving. Earlier in the trip, I told him I thought of driving as a team activity with the passengers helping the driver to navigate. He seemed to understand it while Grégoire, our French hitchhiker, was in the car, but he didn’t put it into practice ever again after that.

He has this silly thing about stopping to ask people for directions even if I already know the way we need to go. For example, he trusts the person selling petrol in a convenience store who gives him stupid wrong directions, rather than just asking me. He’s too proud to ask me for help, but will go to anyone on the street and chat them up instead.

At one point he tells me he wants to drive. This happened after I’ve been telling him I’m fine with him driving for about four days. All I asked at the beginning of the trip was for him to agree to drive safely at a relaxed pace. He decided that meant that I had to drive all the time with him nagging me all along the way, that is until he decided he wanted to drive yesterday. So as he started driving, I told him he might want to start off taking it easy since it’s quite different driving here in Ireland than in the US. He said he’d prefer that I didn’t talk. So I said, I’ll be quiet for an hour. I didn’t say another word for an hour. After the hour passed, he still didn’t seem to be interested in conversation, so I just didn’t talk. It lasted most of the trip that way.

All that time spent not talking gave me time to experience my feelings and to think about the situation. My heart felt like it opened to a bottomless pit. I felt really sad, and frustrated, and angry. I’m sad because I’ve really made an effort to work things out with him and it doesn’t seem to work. I’m frustrated because I don’t feel he’s really trying to make things work with me. And I’m angry because he seems to want to kvetch and argue, rather than just enjoying the trip.

Finally yesterday, I decided to start talking to him again even though he was still continuing the silent treatment. He had stopped three times on the road to look at the map, apparently quite confused. He stopped the car again when we saw three women walking on a gravel road through the turf with a baby in a carriage. He wanted to ask them for directions. As he stopped, I said that I knew where we were and all he had to do was ask. He refused. I think he wanted to prove to me that he didn’t need me to navigate for him like I had asked him to do for me. Perhaps because he was such a jerk about it when I had asked him for help, he may have been afraid I’d remind him how he behaved or treat him tit for tat. Ironically, I would have been happy to help had he asked. It is true that I wanted the subtle acknowledgment of the usefulness of a passenger assisting as navigator that his asking would have meant.

I noticed as he was driving that he had most of the same difficulties that I had with driving. He had pointed them all out to me as I drove.

He knows I’m a bit uncomfortable as a passenger in cars, especially when someone drives fast around bends or in a reckless manner. Rather than asking me, “How are you doing?” or “Could I drive some way so you’ll feel more comfortable?”, instead I get “Perhaps you should ride in the back seat” delivered with a little smirk. That was the remark that got me angry enough to tell him about his driving.

When I got angry, I told him it would have been nice if he had told me that he had the same difficulties driving and he now understood what it was like for me to drive. Then, I started listing off the difficulties he had while driving. He told me in a threatening voice that I’d “better stop now”. So, I didn’t finish off the list with the grand finale where he grazed the two concrete posts sticking out from on a wall on the left side of the road.

I also told him he’s stubborn and proud.

After that, I just gave up. I just got this really depressed feeling. I wanted the drive to be over as soon as possible, so I navigated for him anyway, even though he didn’t ask for help, so we could get to the guest house quickly. Honestly, I just wanted to escape from him. It was such a relief to get to the guest house finally.

What have I learned? My father comes from a different background and has lived a different life than I have. He is a quite different individual than I am. Just trying for us to get along may not be enough to make it happen, due to our differences. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to be cordial when we do spend time together and to spend time together in small doses, never more than a day for example.

Unless he finds a way to open up to himself and to me about this stuff, I don’t really see how we can make any further progress.