Note: Mumsnetters don't necessarily have the qualifications or experience to offer relationships counselling or to provide help in cases of domestic violence. Mumsnet can't be held responsible for any advice given on the site. If you need help urgently, please see our domestic violence webguide and/or relationships webguide, which can point you to expert advice and support.

What's in a name?

(23 Posts)
MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 15:46:40

Dear all,

On the advice of my wife (an avid MNer) writing to seek your advice on how best to understand and cope with behaviour exhibited by my father. I am 27 years of age, married, and now happily blessed with a 10 day old son, named 'P'. My father has been generally supportive over the past few years, although we did have a fractious relationship when I was a teenager, and he has had a history of depression. He would describe himself as “too empathetic” and “over-sensitive”. What happened a few days ago has come as a big shock bearing in mind this supposed empathy. Upon the birth of our son, my father was ill and said that he did not want to meet the baby because he might infect him, or us. I thought that was fair enough, but as a week went by and I heard nothing from him, I began to wonder.

Then a few days ago I received a long email from him saying that in calling my son 'P [my surname]-[wife's surname]' I have “grossly dishonoured my family name”, and engaged in behaviour that he would never consider to be other than “shameful and disgraceful”. He further accused me of “wilfully colluding” with my wife in diluting our family surname , and in calling our son [my surname]-[wife's surname]', he accused my wife of “colonising” it. In his email he mentioned that he “stood for tradition”, and wondered what he had done to hurt me so much as to encourage this vicious behaviour from me. He asked me whether I still blamed him for my parents' separation, or for cutting off ties with his sister permanently over a perceived inheritance slight. He concluded his email by saying that he “did not recognise” his Grandson.

Since then he has calmed down a little, and says that he will visit the baby after Christmas. I accused him of emotional blackmail and bullying and he frankly denies it. His parting comments were that the disagreement arose because quite evidently he has too much empathy and I have too little. I have not responded to these comments, but these and other personal attacks and slights upon my wife which have come from nowhere have left me very upset and angry. He seems also to have recalled select information from our conversations years ago, and has dramatically stated that he has been in a “state of dread” over the possible surname of our child. Never once did I think that he would lose the plot in such a fashion over this. Perhaps that means I am lacking in empathy... He has accused me in the past of being rather emotionally shut-down, from being unromantic and callous. In his email he said he was thinking of ways he could “crush me”, like he “crushed” his mother and sister who were always trying to slight him and keep him down, but that he couldn't bring himself to, since he loved me too much, and therefore could not merely shrug me off. Ironically in expressing himself in this fashion, I do feel a bit crushed, and am more than a little worried that he does not recognise his part in this.

A little bit of factual background: my father took early retirement five years ago (he was an experienced counsellor, believe it or not). He found the job too stressful and his leaving the profession was partially due to having a failed relationship with one of his patients. He has lived on and off in isolation in France over the past few years, and about a year ago since his wife got a teaching job in the UK, he has spent much time on his own, obsessively immersed in family history. This has always been an interest of his, but now he spends all his time on it. He is particularly interested in our supposed “royal connections” with various dynasties.

At present we have decided to allow him a short visit in a few days, but only to see his Grandson, and I will not engage in any conversation with him about these deeper issues.

I have read about personality disorders on the web, but do not trust myself much to come to a “diagnosis”, other than that my father seems to have a mixture of narcissistic personality disorder and paranoid personality disorder. Perhaps the worst of both, although he has never done anything illegal, and does not yet think he is Jesus, although when he was a child he claims his parents told him he was the Prince of Wales and would inherit millions.

My questions to you are as follows: am I being unreasonable to be very upset by this, and by my father's evident refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part? How should I proceed bearing in mind the huge emotional toll this has taken upon me and my wife, and others around my father?
One way of dealing with this behaviour I have noted when reading posts on the web of similar personalities is to not engage with him on any emotional level, and leave things purely practical. If he forces the issue, to terminate contact with him. I suppose I would like your comments on whether you think this is a sensible approach or not...

Thank you MNers for your help and wise counsel!

fiventhree Fri 23-Dec-11 16:03:03

The key reason for his upset is that you have broken with tradition, as he sees it. However, each generation will consider which traditions to perpetuate. This child is yours first, not his, and it is your choice. My 32 year old son has a child, and I would never behave like this.

He does seem narcissistic to me. It is difficult to know how to respond. You could just brush it off along the lines of ...sorry you are upset, but this is our choice, and anyway my wife/partner has views on this too, it is half her child.

He wants to crush people who 'bring him down'?? wtf?!

On another note, I happen to know for a certainty (professionally) that a fair number of people (of course not all) who work in mental health or counselling roles chose to do so people of issues that are in their own lives/those of people around them.

The phrase which comes to mind is... 'its not all about you!' (ie him)

fiventhree Fri 23-Dec-11 16:05:42

I mean that they choose those roles because of issues they or close family has, which are on their minds. It is a way of working through, or responding to/understanding your own distress, for some professionals.

FreyaoftheNorth Fri 23-Dec-11 16:06:47

Perhaps he's sometimes able to be very empathic where his own feelings aren't challenged, but this is all about the "over-sensitive" side of his character where he can't see past his own feelings and is using them to ride roughshod over others. He has zero empathy for you and your wife but is expecting it from you.

It's perfectly reasonable of you to be upset and offended by his behaviour!!

People can have narcissistic and paranoid traits without having a full-on personality disorder. Far more common than the PD-full works type of thing. Narcissistic traits are certainly not unknown in people in helping professions such as counselling: they like being looked up to as the one who will fix everything. It is sometimes discussed in training books.
It sounds like he was unable to put his own stuff to one side sufficiently to be able to cope with his clients needs and to refrain from the major ethical violation of having an affair with a client.

Same here, he can't put his own affront to one side to support you and delight in his grandchild. At least he is able to back down somewhat.

It sounds like narcissistic traits may have been around in his parents too, possibly to a delusional extent, given this remark about the Prince of Wales.

Is he able to have empathy or understanding if you tell him you were upset by
a) things unconnected to him
b) things he has said in the past?

He sounds like someone of whom it's wise to have low expectations, at any rate.

MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 16:12:34

Thank you fiventhree. Yes, I have explained this to him, but he then asked why my DW ever married me in the first place if she didn't care about English traditions (she is American). He is obsessed with status and one of his gripes is that a double-barrelled name with my surname in front gives my wife precedence, and he would find this problematic. In consultation with my DW and in an effort to 'compromise' we have changed the order of hyphenation, but it means very little to us, other than that we both would like our surnames represented and I can fully understand my wife's reasons for wanting our DS to have her surname.

On the counselling point - this is an interesting one. I have often thought about it, and yes, it is true that my father had many issues with his parents. His father was emotionally totally absent. He used to attend every cricket match my father played in, but if he played poorly he would not talk to him for the rest of the day! His mother was over-bearing although brilliant as a Grandmother. Perhaps he will be a brilliant Grandfather!

Thanks again.

FreyaoftheNorth Fri 23-Dec-11 16:18:12

Also the extremity of his language is hurtful. Yes he has these feelings which his counselling work no doubt showed him need to be let out... but he was directing them at you in a way that shows a lack of empathy for you, when he could have said he was "disappointed" by the choice of name and "upset" and written out all the extreme stuff privately or let it out to someone else. (That might be a bit much to expect of some people, but perhaps not of an experienced counsellor in late middle age?)

MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 16:18:13

Freya thank you - yes he can be brilliantly supportive when I have problems at work, for example, or even in the past talking to my DW when she has had problems with her mother. He loves to diagnose problems and suggest solutions. As for (b), he has expressed some level of empathy and remorse over the way he behaved when I was living at home, but I wonder how far that was genuine remorse or merely a desire to find a new way to exert control by resuming intimacy. It seems terrible now to doubt these motives but I think there has been a total breakdown of trust between us.

izzywhizzysmincepies Fri 23-Dec-11 16:19:00

He's in a world of his own, isn't he?

You're best advised to leave him there by following the advice you've read not to engage with him on an emotional level and confine your communication/conversations to mundanities.

As he's geographically removed by living in another country, I don't see it that it would be necessary to terminate all contact with him as such.

Wherever possible, I view a card at Christmas and birthdays as leaving the door open should attitudes undergo a sea-change without allowing any more access than is necessary.

When he visits I would suggest that you only take issue with him should he be disparaging towards the mother of his grandchild who, regardless of name, will continue his noble line.

fiventhree Fri 23-Dec-11 16:21:30

Actually, I think your father is overbearing, so he is like his own father in that respect. Which, by the way, does NOT mean that you will be.

I once learned an interesting exercise from a therapist, who showed me how to draw a family tree back two or three generrations, mark out significant negative and positive relationships in relation to yourself, and then note what is going on. The point is that people often react in favour, or react against, certain traits in wider families eg some can see similarities between how they reacted and how eg their uncle or aunt did. Patterns of learned behaviour can be carried forward, or acted against.

MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 16:24:29

A good suggestion, fiventhree, thank you. I hope I will be able to retain all the great things about him as a father, and ditch the destructive qualities.

MrTyel I have no sensible advice but know you're in good hands with the folk on this board.

My mission is simple. I come bearing a haddock from the ladies of the December thread. Use it well, even if only to cause confusion, or perhaps a wry smile. There are people who understand, and we're right behind you and Tyel and your son. Waving our pompoms as needed.

I do hope you find a way through this so that your family is happysmile

MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 16:34:50

LittleMissHumbuggery - I don't know what to say. Thanks to you all, and the dear haddock who has no doubt sacrificed himself for the cause.

oikopolis Fri 23-Dec-11 16:55:17

My questions to you are as follows: am I being unreasonable to be very upset by this, and by my father's evident refusal to acknowledge any wrongdoing on his part?

You are absolutely not being unreasonable.

How should I proceed bearing in mind the huge emotional toll this has taken upon me and my wife, and others around my father?

Honestly I would limit, if not outright cut, contact. You have your own little family now. Your father sounds unpleasant, hard work, and perhaps even unhinged. He probably needs psychiatric intervention, but there's nothing you can do to force that, and in fact withdrawing from the situation may be the best thing to do.

I have a narcissist in my family, and your Dad sounds textbook tbh. Many many Ns become paranoid in their later years, particularly as they notice their own aging and begin to see the focus of the family slipping away from them (they long to remain "patriarchs" of some kind of dynasty that buoys up their egos... as I said... your dad sounds textbook).

They start trying to upstage new children because of the focus being taken from them (I suspect this is actually what that email was about) ... family events of which they are not the focus become targets for huge scenes... honestly it's just not worth it.

Congratulations on the birth of your son. You sound lovely. Good luck to you all and merry Christmas.

MrTyelperion Fri 23-Dec-11 19:39:38

oikopolis thank you for your advice. I must admit that this latest incident has been the most unhinged that I've seen him. I even phoned his wife up to ask whether he was depressed or had had a stroke. It does seem to be worsening with age, and living in the middle of nowhere, cutting oneself off from all social contact and then inventing grand narratives of "forgotten ancestors" and a great and noble past is probably masking other inadequacies that he can't bring himself to face. This is what made me think of him as fanatic narcissist.

izzywhizzy - thanks: I have already made it clear to him that I will not deny the feelings and wishes of my DW for the sake of some incoherent and misplaced concept of "tradition" (although admittedly I did not quite put it like that!).

Have a great Christmas both of you...

izzywhizzysmincepies Fri 23-Dec-11 19:49:21

It sounds as if he's entering into his dotage with enthusiam! Poor deluded man.

Many congratulations to you and your dw on the birth of your precious firstborn and a very Merry Christmas to the three of you smile

scarletforya Fri 23-Dec-11 20:20:17

He sounds like he has some mental health problems. The perceived slights sound very paranoid alright. He seems to be living in his own little world really.

Does he live alone? Could you encourage him to see a Doctor?

mrswrite Fri 23-Dec-11 21:35:51

He is showing you and your wife no empathy and is doing a good impression of a self obsessed child. It must be very hurtful but you need to remember he is the one with the problem.

aethelfleda Fri 23-Dec-11 21:47:03

Hiya mrtyel. just wanted to say you are being very mature about all this: well done for finding a sensible strategy to manage your F's frankly rather unreasonable behaviour. It's early days, so see how things go and give yourself credit for putting the mental and emotional effort into this at a complicated time for you. In the long run, this is a way to show love And compassion for your new son, rather than the "easy option "of telling F to take a long walk off a short pier.

Hopefully your F will mellow a little with time: I know his personality won't alter, but there may be some huge unknown baggage working here that led to his overreaction. Eg maybe hearing of your DS's birth dredged up old issues from when you were born and he was given cr*p from his parents... Families have
stuff like this very commonly, and you may never find out exactlt what's been going on in his head. Anyway, well done so far and good luck!

LesserOfTwoWeevils Sat 24-Dec-11 02:16:11

It's him, not you.
He's right that he is over-sensitive, but he only empathises with himself.
It's absolutely nothing to do with him whatever surname your son has.
My father had similar nineteenth-century patriarchal "ideas," and would regularly be greatly offended by events which were actually none of his business, to the astonishment of everyone else.
I don't know whether these were long-cherished beliefs which he imagined everyone shared, or whether he made them up on the spot to suit his fancy as the occasion arose.
He was if not a narcissist, very self-absorbed, and a complete control freak.
He was mortified when my DB's wife didn't change her name on getting married—he said it was an insult to him (DF). hmm confused
When one of my cousins upset him, DF wrote to him to say that as "head of the family" he had decided that my cousin no longer had the right to use the family surname. shock
Sadly, as you yourself suggest, OP, your DF won't mellow with time. People can become horrible parodies of themselves with age, and that seems to be the route your DF is taking, as mine did.
It's impossible to anticipate what imaginary slights will disturb his view of himself as the centre of the universe, so please don't waste energy trying.

crje Sat 24-Dec-11 10:16:26

In my experience this just gets worse with age, my own father has such a high regard for his own opinion it has cost him nearly all his relationships.

I stopped seeing my father when my children got to an age where they understood what he was saying........in the hope they wouldn't be left feeling as drained by the relationship as I have been and wondering if they were at fault !!!!!

He is unlikely to change so you need to decide how much your willing to take. Just be sure to protect your wife and son from him as they have not had to develop the thick skin you have and may be more easily hurt.

Congrats on your new arrival

MrTyelperion Sat 24-Dec-11 11:49:32

crje Thank you for your advice. It is a very difficult thing to do to determine exactly what constitutes grounds for stopping seeing him as I always tend to make excuses for him. I think certainly if those around him end up feeling drained and abused, then it is time, and I will have to keep a keen eye out for that. There is something uniquely awful about an apparently loving and supportive parent suddenly attacking you, your DW and values, and then adopting a series of perverse rationalisations.

He has - as I said - done it in the past, but I had hoped that he had matured somewhat since that situation was in part triggered by marital breakdown. My mother says that in periods of stress he ends up hurting others around him, and is best avoided, but that at other times he an be brilliant and charismatic. She said that for years she felt physically sick when she received a handwritten letter from him because she knew it would contain something abusive. The strange thing is he realises this himself as he said to me on the phone the other day how he knows he has a "vicious streak" which is why he could not talk to me after the birth for a week.

Weevils thanks for your post. I think some people can mellow with age, but it is certainly true that others become rancid parodies of themselves who no-one wants to be around. I hope he will mellow from now on but can't say that he will for sure. I will have to not be emotionally intimate with him in any way and merely stick to practicalities to prevent him getting to us again.

Merry Christmas, both!

Anniegetyourgun Sat 24-Dec-11 15:25:23

A pedant writes: I think the word your DF should be applying to himself is not empathy but sensibility.

BastedTurkey Sat 24-Dec-11 17:12:02

Hmm he sounds a bit like my friends FIL. After many many upsets about imagined slights and the PILs weird rantings her DH now keeps him at arms length and tries to pay no attention to his jibes.

They are much happier for doing so.

Join the discussion

Join the discussion

Registering is free, easy, and means you can join in the discussion, get discounts, win prizes and lots more.

Register now