Q. My father was judgmental, critical, mean to my mother, and generally lacking in empathy or love. I can’t remember him ever saying “I love you” to any of us. He would start these fights with Mom that would make everyone uncomfortable.
My mother died in 2007. She modeled good parenting, and we never questioned her love for us.
I’m now married (12 years, second time). I consciously vowed never to be like my dad.
I recently visited my brother and his wife. During my visit, I immediately recognized the exact same behavior I detested in my dad, coming from my brother. He was constantly belittling his wife, and was impatient and critical. It was scary to watch, and took my breath away.
Recently, particularly during the COVID-19 stay-at-home, I started recognizing my father in me! Innocent little arguments with my wife became big ridiculous fights (usually dragged on by me). I started using the same belittling language and angry tendencies I recognized from my dad (and now my brother) when talking to my young children!
I have tried so hard to model what I remember from my mother’s loving and gracious behavior. I tell my kids and wife I love them all the time. I intentionally do everything I can do to be a caring, loving husband and father. But I am now recognizing these demons from my father and I’m scared.
Is this normal? Is there a way to quash this behavior? I want my kids and family to love me and always remember me for being a loving father, not an angry, belittling, critical jerk.
SCARED IN DENVER
A. You are not consigned to behave as your father did. You have every advantage — you have your mother’s good example, and (most important), you possess both awareness and the desire to change.
Stress will always bring out these very old scripts, but you can intentionally rewrite them, with your wife’s help.
Sit with her during a calm and private moment and talk about how you escalate these arguments. Always remember: When you’re triggered, use “I” statements and never “you” statements. So: “You are a so-and-so” becomes “I feel angry/upset/out of control right now.”
Remember that all-important “fight or flight” animal impulse? You should always choose “flight.” Remove yourself. Cool down. Anchor to your best intentions.
Unfortunately, many “I love yous” do not erase one “You’re worthless.” So always, always apologize, and use specifics about what you are apologizing for. To your kids: “I’m so sorry I said that to you. I’m not being a good dad to you when I talk that way. My dad acted like that and I know how scary it is to be yelled at and called names. I’m going to remind myself to take a deep breath, count to 10, and stop myself from saying hurtful things that I don’t mean.”
Q. When I was recently widowed, there were many depressing chores to get through, but some of the financial surprises could have been avoided. Perhaps some of your readers would benefit from being made aware of those surprises.
My husband, unbeknownst to me, had subscribed to some businesses that were directly billed to our credit card accounts. I only became aware of them as deliveries were made, some of which had no return addresses or contact numbers — electronic or otherwise. Unscrambling them was a nasty and time-consuming job.
To compound matters, one credit card vendor that I contacted to report my husband’s death then summarily canceled my card without as much as a: “so sorry,” even though we had a spotless credit record.
My advice is: Be sure you share with your partner all of your account information. It will spare them so much heartache and stress.
NOT A FINANCIAL WIZARD
A. Thank you for this helpful lesson. Now that so many of us have revolving automatic billing and don’t even see a paper bill, sorting this out could be challenging work during a very tough time.
Q. “Grieving Daughter” wanted to visit her dad, but he wouldn’t let her visit unless she stopped smoking. Thank you for pointing out that almost any smoke residue can be toxic for some people.
“Dead” residue on clothing can make me violently ill. “Live” smoke will send me to the ER.
A. Also, smokers tend not to realize how strong the residue is on their own skin, hair, and clothing, even if they have smoked outside.
Amy Dickinson can be reached at email@example.com.