Photo by Manifesto Photography*
Dad: “If that kid is going to be there, then I’m not coming to your wedding.”
The “kid” to whom he was so rudely referring was my half-brother.
I got married six years ago, so the story I’m about to tell is very much in the past. The only reason I’m writing about it now is because a good friend reminded me of it recently. She told me she used my behaviour as a model for how to deal with her own difficult (read: ethnic) parents, and that I should consider sharing this story because it could help other people dealing with similar challenging parent personalities (whether ethnic or not).
It’s important to mention up front that I have a very good relationship with my dad and I love him very much. But loving someone doesn’t mean thinking they’re perfect. Really loving someone means seeing them for who they are (the good AND the bad) and loving them anyway. Keep this in mind as you’re reading.
Here’s how I responded to my dad’s ultimatum / threat.
THE SHORT VERSION
I said: “Fine, don’t come.”
And if I had to do it over again, I would respond in the exact same way.
THE LONG VERSION
Context is everything, so let me give you a brief family history.
- Both of my parents immigrated to Canada from Iran, which makes me Iranian by descent but Canadian by birth. I look Persian (dark features, olive skin tone, and the hair management issues that come along with it) but I sound and, more importantly, feel Canadian (meaning I have very little knowledge of, or interest in, Iranian culture, I love packaged foods full of high fructose corn syrup, and speak Farsi only to relatives who don’t speak English).
- My parents’ marriage was arranged. They’re divorced now and have been since I was twelve years old (which is uncommon, not just the Iranian community, but in other cultures as well).
- Their divorce was messy and long (it took a decade before it was finalized). My experience of this time was that my dad made it much worse than it needed to be. For the purposes of this story, let’s just say he did some bad stuff.
- Many years later, my mom remarried a very kind white guy** (a khareji). They’re divorced now too, but they had a baby, my half-brother***, who is 18 years younger than I am. At the time of my wedding, he was only twelve years old. Barely a teenager.
- My dad never remarried.
- My mom and dad are not on speaking terms.
- Despite the disastrous divorce, my siblings and I love our parents very much and have good relationships with both of them. This was also the case around the time of my wedding and continues to be true today.
The Wedding and The Ultimatum
We were planning a very small wedding – only 20 people sitting at one long table. We wanted it to feel intimate like a big family dinner. The guests were immediate family only with the exception of a few close aunts and uncles, and one VIP grandma. We didn’t invite any friends at all – that’s how exclusive the guest-list was.
My half-brother was on the guest list. He was immediate family, after all. His attendance should have come as a surprise to no one. But somehow, it came as a surprise to my dad.
I can’t recall exactly how it came up, but many months before the wedding, my dad must have asked me something about the seating arrangements, which, given the fact that there was only one table, I was able to draw for him on the back of a scrap piece of paper. As I described to him that my mom would be sitting between both of my brothers (my full brother on one side and my half-brother on the other), he looked up at me, shocked.
Dad: “The kid is coming?!”
Me: “Yes, of course he is.” I was confused by the stupidity of this question.
Dad: “Why would he be coming to your wedding?”
Me: “Because he’s my brother.” Dad was two for two on the dumb questions.
Dad: “If that kid is going to be there, then I’m not coming to your wedding.”
It took his words a second to register in my brain. It was just so shockingly juvenile. A bystander could have easily misunderstood the pause in the conversation to be an internal struggle on my part. But it wasn’t. Not at all.
Me: “Fine. Don’t come.”
It was the only possible response.
Was He Bluffing? It Didn’t Matter. I Needed To Take Calm, Decisive Action.
It’s important to understand that I wasn’t trying to call his bluff. I had neither the time nor the interest in determining whether or not my dad was bluffing. I had zero intention of participating in this game of his.
I just needed to be clear with him about what I was going to do (this was me taking calm, decisive action) so that he could make his decision.
What I was going to do: Have my half-brother in attendance at my wedding, irrespective of my dad’s threat.
What my dad could do: Attend or not attend.
If, through this process, a bluff reveals itself (which in my case, it did), that’s just a secondary side effect of taking calm, decisive, action. It shouldn’t be the primary objective.
I also had to be 100% ok with the outcome, which I was. I couldn’t control his behaviour. The only thing I could control was mine. And I was not prepared to reward bad behavior.
As the conversation continued, I tried to be crystal clear about what I was going to do and what his options were. It was not up for debate or discussion.
Me: “I’m not un-inviting my brother to my wedding. He will be there. If you don’t feel comfortable attending in light of that fact, I’ll respect your decision. It would be nice if you were there, but I’m not going to beg you.”
Dad: “Ok. Then I’m not coming.”
The Reality vs The Manipulation
The reality: My dad’s decision about whether or not to attend my wedding was entirely his.
The manipulation: He was trying to make it sound like his attendance was my decision, by saying it was contingent on whether or not I invited my half-brother. In other words, if I invited my half-brother I was effectively saying I didn’t want my own father at my wedding, or I was effectively choosing my half-brother over my own father.
Let me remind you that my half-brother was twelve years old. He was an innocent kid.
What Happened Next
I didn’t get mad at him. I didn’t throw a tantrum. I didn’t beg him to change his mind. He didn’t bring it up again, and neither did I.
I continued to visit and interact with him as usual. We continued to have regular family dinners at his house with my other siblings. When the topic of the wedding came up, I talked about it without hesitation, the way I alway did.
We had both made our positions clear. There was nothing further to be said on the subject.
Don’t get me wrong, I was definitely bothered by the whole thing. I’m not a robot. My feelings about it were somewhere north of annoyed and south of angry. I didn’t share those feelings with my dad. And since my dad was not entitled to any sort of confidentiality, I vented freely about the ridiculousness of the situation to Steve’s family, and I told my mom about it.
Your Parents Don’t Need To Be Ethnic To Be Manipulative
To my non-ethnic friends, this may seem like an extreme example of parental manipulation.
Maybe their parents aren’t as messed up as mine, or maybe they haven’t seen their parents’ flaws yet. But nobody’s perfect. We all behave badly from time to time, it just might be to varying degrees.
Here are a couple of examples of manipulative statements that my non-ethnic couple-friends have heard from their parents:
“I don’t want to die without ever meeting my grandchildren.”
Their parents are in perfect health, and the couple is not anywhere near ready to have kids.
“If you get a pet cat then we’ll never be able to visit you because your father is incredibly allergic.”
This couple lives far enough away that their parents only visit a few times per year. And the allergy is not life-threatening; over-the-counter medication could solve that problem.
These examples, if not managed, could have had a direct impact on these couples’ relationships (e.g. their decisions about whether to have children, or adopt a family pet).
This makes it all the more important to be aware of the more subtle manipulations and to learn to navigate them properly.
Your Parents = Your Problem
If the problem is your parents, then it’s your problem to solve.
Your partner is there to support you, but it’s not their place to handle these issues for you. If your partner interferes, they risk earning resentment from you and damaging the relationship they’ve built with your parents.
This rule applied equally to me and my (then) fiance, Steve. It was not his place to get involved with the issue with my dad. Steve and my dad had (and still have) a great relationship, which needed to be protected. Steve’s role was to be supportive of me and how I was handling it (and to listen to me complain, from time to time).
He Changed His Mind. It Was Anticlimactic.
A week or so before the wedding, my dad showed me a suit and asked if I liked it.
Me: “Yes, it’s nice. Where did you get it?”
Dad: “I bought it to wear to your wedding.”
Me: “Huh? You said you weren’t coming to the wedding because my half-brother was coming.”
Dad: “I wouldn’t miss my own daughter’s wedding.” His tone suggested that he was planning to attend all along.
Me: “Oh. Ok.”
And that was it. No further discussion. No apology.
He’d changed his mind, and it was anticlimactic.
Why I Wasn’t Angry
Someone else in my shoes may have gotten angry. They may have even given their father a hard time when they were told he was planning to attend the wedding after all, or maybe they would have become overwhelmed with joy and relief.
I felt (and did) none of these things.
My parents lost their ability to pull my emotional strings when I was twelve years old. Their decade-long divorce showed me how flawed (and human) they are. They couldn’t hurt or disappoint me because my expectations were so low. My dad, especially, had a history of bad behaviour. I’d had practice dealing with his particular flavour of nonsense and manipulation.
This wasn’t a good or a bad thing. It was just a thing. It was the reason I was able to see a clear path through this situation without being clouded by feelings of guilt or shame.
The way I handled my dad would be frowned upon in Iranian culture. Iranian children are supposed to respect (and show deference to) their elders, even if their elders are being unreasonable.
This is the reason why my friend found observing (and copying) my approach so helpful. Guilt and shame were his constant companions making it difficult for him to see the reality of his own parental problems vs the manipulations buried deep within it. With cultural expectations layered on top of the whole thing, it was no wonder he was having a hard time.
This wedding story was just one of many difficult family situations I’ve dealt with in my thirty-seven years. I’ve weirdly become a bit of an expert at dealing with difficult parents.
It was not fun digging up the details of this particular memory, and it wasn’t easy to share a story that paints an unflattering picture of my father, but I did in the hopes that it might help someone else navigate their own challenging family situation.
If you decide to comment on this one, please omit any harsh words about my dad. I will delete comments that don’t respect this rule. Reminder: he’s still my dad, flaws and all, and I love him.
Until next time, please stay safe and healthy,
One More Thing Before You Take Off
If you’ve found this helpful, consider sharing it with a friend.
*A big fat THANK YOU to Manifesto Photography for ALL of my other wedding photos. They’re incredibly talented and lovely humans. I’m not getting paid for saying this 🙂
**When I use the term “white guy” I’m referring to someone of European descent but whose parents were born and raised in Canada. My parents (funnily) refer to “white people” as “foreigners” (pronounced Khareji in Farsi) because from the perspective of an Iranian immigrant a Canadian is from a country that is foreign to them.
***I’m referring to him as my “half-brother” for the purposes of story-telling only so that you, the reader, know to which sibling I’m referring. In my real life, I don’t distinguish between any of my siblings (whether half or full).