Graham Stoney realizes that connecting with his father may not be what he expects, but still something he can learn from.
It’s a fairly average Tuesday evening early in early January and I’m feeling tired and a little head-achey. I’m just about to start cooking dinner at my bachelor pad when I get a call from my father:
“I’m just heading out to the sports club to have dinner in the bistro, would you like to join me?” he asks affably.
I’m not really in the mood to go out but a pang of sadness hits me when I think, “He’s 79 years old and he’s not always going to be around. Better take the offer while I can.”
“Sure Dad, that sounds great”, I say a little wearily, “I’ll meet you there in half an hour.”
My father sounds pretty cheery, but I know something must be up. He’s not the kind of guy who hangs out at a sports club by himself. Over the last few years we’ve done dinner there many times, but we usually line it up a few days in advance.
We meet in the foyer and after a slightly awkward hug I get straight to the point: “So what brings you out to the club by yourself, Dad?”
“Oh, I had a fight with your mother and she refused to come. We saw a movie this afternoon and we were going to come out for dinner …”
I forget the rest of the story, but it’s one that’s all too familiar to me. Having grown up around my parent’s loud verbal stoushes, even now, at the age of 43, I still feel anxious when there’s conflict between them.
But despite my discomfort, I sense that it’s an “in”. Dad seems in the mood to talk about what’s been really going on between him and Mum, and I’m happy to steer him in that direction, because at least it means talking about something real. We might actually connect tonight.
When I first started inviting my father out to dinner a few years ago, I knew something in my life was missing and it wasn’t just that I was single. I was doing therapy for anxiety that was most obvious in my relationships with women, and that led me to further look at my relationship with my mother. Too afraid to go there directly, I also felt something missing in my relationship with my relatively passive father. A lack of real connection, and a sadness about that. I also wanted to learn how to be a man; to learn the secret men’s business that I missed out on getting from my father. Especially the stuff about how to be good with women.
When I spoke to other guys about their relationships with their father, the consistent theme from guys whose fathers had died was, “I wish I’d taken the time to connect with him while he was alive”. My father was still alive, so it made sense to go out with him when he asked.
It was hard going at first. My mother got extremely jealous the first time I went to dinner with Dad alone. She didn’t say it in so many words though. Instead, I copped the usual barrage of criticism and hostility that my mother levels at people to defend herself when emotionally triggered.
In addition to Mum’s reaction, connecting with my father was just plain frustrating. My father is a retired Mechanical Engineer with a habit of telling dry stories in such excruciating detail that I find myself switching off. I now realize that this is because his stories have no emotional content and he tells them to avoid the awkwardness of revealing his feelings and the fear of being judged harshly by others. I’m not sure he even knows how he feels most of the time. Engineering is a great career for a man who is out of touch with his feelings; I know because I became an Engineer myself. My father’s father was an Engineer too, so we’ve had three generations of men who were great at analytical thinking and intellectualizing, and lousy at connecting on a deeper emotional basis.
Since losing interest in Engineering a few years back I’ve been studying communication, writing, public speaking, story-telling, acting and even stand-up comedy. There’s a common theme between them all: that people connect most deeply on an emotional level. But most of us are so busy thinking that we often don’t stop long enough to give ourselves the chance to feel.
Dad and I could talk about politics, sport, or trains like we have in the past, but I know I’ll go home frustrated and depressed if we do that. So during the conversation I keep steering him back to how he feels about the argument with my mother. After many dinners with Dad I’ve become quite assertive with him. I’m much less afraid of his anger now than I used to be, so it’s easier to risk getting into a conflict with him.
“So how do you feel when Mum criticizes you, Dad?”
“Frustrated,” he says. I’m happy to hear my father acknowledge an emotion directly. We’ve been making progress over the last few years.
Now it’s hardly headline news that my father finds my mother frustrating, but the conversation takes an interesting turn when we start talking about sex. I’ve felt a great deal of shame about sex from my conservative Christian upbringing and while I’m more open to talking about it with other people now, I never thought I’d have this conversation with my father. It turns out his frustration with my mother isn’t just about the way they argue.
My other field of study lately has been confidence in the art of relationships, women, dating, and seduction. I’ve read pretty much every book out there from Mystery Method to David Deida. I’ve even written one. And the common theme is that if you want to get a woman interested in having sex with you, you need to connect with her emotions.
“Dad, the biggest mistake men make with women is that they try to connect intellectually. Women want an emotional connection. You’re just not giving her what she wants. No wonder you’re both frustrated.”
He gives me a blank look. The whole emotion thing just doesn’t really register with him. Connecting emotionally involves being vulnerable, and that’s pretty scary when you try to do it with someone with as sharp a critical tongue as my mother. I don’t envy him. But he chose to marry her; a luxury I didn’t get when he chose her as my mother. I know how profoundly a man’s energy can influence a woman, and hearing my father complain like a child about the way my mother treats him is starting to anger me.
“There’s something she wants from you that she’s not getting, Dad. You created this situation. When you start giving her what she wants, she’ll stop criticizing you so much and you might get what you want. I’m pretty sure that what she wants is for you to really listen to how she feels and show her that you understand what’s going on with her.”
I know this is a skill a man can learn, because I’ve learned it myself. He looks back at me and sighs hopelessly. I feel frustrated with his victim mentality and I tell him so. It’s a bit rich for my father, after 50 years of marriage, to complain to me that he hasn’t had the chance to learn how to communicate with his wife. He keeps blaming her, she keeps criticizing him, and the cycle of arguments continues.
By the end of our dinner, my headache is worse. I feel a mix of gratitude at the opportunity to connect with my father, and frustration at his inability to do something so basic as converse about feelings. I know he’s anxious to return home to Mum and I wonder whether he’ll put my advice into practice. We say goodbye.
On the way home, I reflect on how far I’ve come since starting doing regular dinners with Dad. I no longer expect to learn anything helpful about women from him. I’ve found other male mentors for that. He can’t teach what he doesn’t know; in fact I’m the one teaching him now. I expect less from my father, but I still yearn for him to tell me that he loves me and I can see how hard that is for him, as it is for me.
In a world where strength and analytical thinking triumph over vulnerability and emotions, my father’s relationship with my mother is living proof that men suffer when we can’t connect emotionally. Despite the frustration I often feel with him, being with him reminds me that I’m on the right track. I’ll always be grateful for the advice of the guys who prompted me to connect with him as best I could, before it was too late.
—Photo Dru Bloomfield – At Home in Scottsdale/Flickr