My boyfriend and I are going to my dad and stepmom’s house for both Thanksgiving and Christmas this year. My dad had major surgery in October, so I want to spend as much time with him as I can. My boyfriend understands this and is going along with it, even though it’s pretty clear he’d rather not.
The issue is that my dad can be difficult. He did well for himself in his business career and is obsessed with making sure everyone knows. He makes comments about how little money we make compared to him and says things like, “I don’t know how you get by with such little space.” My stepmom mostly stays out of these conversations.
It’s true that we don’t make a lot. My boyfriend and I both work in the nonprofit sector, and we live in a small apartment. Obviously, I wish we had more money and a nicer place to live, but we’re also doing fine and we’re committed to our careers. We’re in our late 20s, talking about getting married and maybe having a kid. My dad is pushing for grandchildren and has made it clear that he would help pay for a wedding and any grandkids’ education (he has done so for my two stepsiblings). Which is nice — and we could use the help — but I wish we could shut down the commentary. How can I tell him that his judgment isn’t appreciated?
I feel particularly protective of my boyfriend, who didn’t grow up with much money and gets defensive. I feel like I have to play the peacekeeper, but I don’t know what to say or where to draw the line, especially if my dad wants to help us financially in the future.
I’m sorry you’re stuck as the buffer between a cantankerous parent and an uncomfortable boyfriend. I’ve been privy to similar situations, and it’s an exhausting, lose-lose scenario. So my first piece of advice, as trite as it may sound, is to make sure you take care of yourself whenever you’re at your dad’s (and otherwise, of course, but especially then). Take long hot showers. Invent an errand just so you can take a drive by yourself. Go for a walk, and listen to a podcast. Go to bed early. Whatever it takes to keep your wits about you and your head somewhat clear, make time for it. Alert your boyfriend ahead of time so that he understands and supports this plan (and ideally does the same for himself).
For more concrete advice on dealing with your dad, I spoke to Dr. Stephanie Zepeda, a financial therapist and licensed marriage and family counselor based in Houston, Texas. She works with patients on both ends of this conflict — parents who want their kids to be more financially secure and adult children like you who wish their parents would scale back their judge-y comments. In both cases, Zepeda says that trying to “shut down” the conversation doesn’t work. Chances are, the reason your dad keeps bringing this up is that he doesn’t feel heard. (And rightfully so — you’ve been trying to tune him out.)
Instead, Zepeda recommends that you find a suitable moment to invite your dad to air his thoughts and opinions more thoroughly (ideally, the exchange will be private, without interruptions). I know this sounds counterintuitive, as your goal is for him to talk about this stuff less. But the point is for him to get it off his chest. If he says what he wants to say and knows that you’ve listened, maybe he won’t feel so moved to heckle from the sidelines.
“He is saying these things because there is something on his mind, so hear him out,” says Zepeda. Even more importantly, stay open. “He might raise some valid points or ideas that you and your boyfriend have not considered,” she adds.
Zepeda also recommends that you come in armed with questions that encourage big-picture thinking and open-ended conversation. For instance: “Dad, I’ve noticed that you make a lot of comments about our financial situation. What are your concerns for me?” Or, more broadly, “I know you’ve made some great decisions with your money throughout your life. What advice about finances do you want to share with me?” Or even, “What are your hopes for me, as my dad?”
Remember, you don’t need to agree with anything he says, or tell him that he’s right. It sounds like you and your dad have very different values, and that’s fine (great, even). Moreover, this is not the time to try to educate him about the global economic challenges that your generation faces and his did not. Instead, you can just nod and say, “I get it,” or “I understand what you’re saying.” Or my personal favorite, when I want to argue but know it won’t get me anywhere: “Mmhmmm.”
Next, take this opportunity to reassure him that you love him and he did a great job raising you (I’m sure he wasn’t perfect, but he probably had his positive moments). “You can also explain that you and your boyfriend do have long-term plans,” says Zepeda. She recommends pointing out that you are probably living up to many of his hopes for you already, too.
(I should note I’m assuming that your dad, while flawed, is still a loving parent who deserves the benefit of the doubt. However, if he was ever abusive, financially or otherwise, then you’ll need to set harder boundaries, with good professional help.)
Hopefully, this discussion with your dad will alleviate his anxieties, improve your relationship, and make your time together more pleasant for everyone. Then again, it might not. Sometimes giving someone a microphone only makes them talk more. You mentioned that your dad recently got surgery; confronting age and mortality can make some people obsess over their legacy, and no amount of active listening can placate them. Perhaps all your dad’s bragging about his career and financial success is a backwards (and annoying) way of trying to assert his role as a good father and provider, a person of consequence, blah blah blah — it’s tiresome and deeply ingrained, and can’t be changed. Should that be the case, you’ll need to figure out other ways to accept and deal with it.
When I polled friends in a similar situation — contending with Boomer parents who can’t help but hold forth about their kids’ comparatively tiny homes and nonexistent 401(k)s — they all said the same thing: ignore it. “Shut your ears,” said one. “I wander off and do dishes,” said another. Or, “I literally pretend I can’t hear him and sing a song in my head. I remind myself that he means well and this is the only way he knows how to communicate it.”
In the meantime, don’t sideline your boyfriend. Just because you want to spare him from your dad’s peanut gallery doesn’t mean you have to go it alone. “This is also a great opportunity for increasing financial intimacy with your partner,” says Zepeda. “Getting on the same page financially will help you both feel stronger as you face some potentially awkward moments with your family.” Give him a chance to support you as you navigate this, and vice versa.
It seems you’re squeamish about setting stronger boundaries with your dad, like asking him to stop these comments outright, presumably because you’re worried about hurting his feelings and he’s had a rough year. But you mentioned that you’re also nervous about compromising his potential financial support in the future. That’s complicated. In my experience, financial help almost always comes with strings attached. (I wish family members had the magnitude to not expect anything in return for monetary gifts, but in reality that rarely happens.)
If your dad continues to weigh in on your financial choices and it still bothers you, then you’ll need to reconsider whether you want to receive money from him going forward. Alternatively, you can (graciously) tell him that you cannot accept his money if he’s going to be critical of what it’s used for.
These are delicate decisions, and you don’t need to make them right away. Better yet, I hope that you don’t have to make them at all, and that your conversation with your dad leads you both to a better place of understanding.