How should I respond to my dad's inappropriate behavior toward my wife and other young women? I've expressed my concerns to him, but he says this is just the way he is and that he has no intention of changing. I've decided it would be best if we don't spend time with him anymore, but this devastates my mom; she still wants to see us. My wife says she's willing to make the sacrifice by enduring my dad's treatment, but I don't want her to do that. How can I protect her dignity without depriving innocent parties of a desired relationship with one another?
Our counselors here at Focus on the Family like to say that sound mental health is largely a matter of knowing what's yours and what isn't. This is really just another way of talking about that crucial aspect of human relationships that Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend call boundaries.
Consider parents who have young adult children still living in their home. They need to make it clear that, where their house, their property, and their money are concerned, the kids need to abide by Mom's and Dad's rules and standards. And Mom and Dad have to understand that there are aspects of their growing child's personal life that they no longer control.
Knowing what's yours and what isn't can help you live in peace with one another.
It's a way of achieving a workable truce with difficult family members. Clearly, it is your role as a husband to protect your wife and guard her dignity. It's not your place to "fix" your dad. In fact, you couldn't change him if you tried. He's already told you that he has no intention of altering his behavior.
It's only natural to worry about "depriving the innocent parties of a desired relationship." And you may have an uneasy awareness that, if you take a stand, your mother is the one most likely to take the brunt of your dad's reaction. All of this matters, and we're not dismissing the hurtfulness of it. But do your best to realize that these are not your problems.
There's always hope.
As you consider what it would take to heal the breach, ask yourself: Exactly what would your father have to do – despite his stating that he will never change – to make family gatherings possible again? To us, the answer is obvious: He would need to modify his behavior toward females. He'd have to prove to you and everyone else concerned that he's trustworthy.
This would mean demonstrating constancy, consistency, and a solid commitment to appropriate manners and respectful behavior over a reasonable period of time. You might give him a chance to make progress in this regard by having some family dinners together in a public setting where he won't have the freedom to behave inappropriately.
But if change doesn't happen ...
If your father refuses to treat your wife appropriately, you'll need to establish a firm boundary regarding when and how he will be able to interact with her. If he disregards what you put in place, there may need to be actions taken to completely restrict her contact with him for a time. There is no reason in the world why your wife should have to "endure" his disrespectful behavior.
Does this mean a complete break with your parents? Not necessarily. You might be able to maintain a relationship with your father on the side if he's open to that option.
Meanwhile, you and your wife can arrange to see your mother when Dad isn't around. It would be a good idea to use some of that time to discuss these matters with Mom at greater length. It may be beneficial, too, for you and your mom to ask a licensed counselor for help in approaching your dad about his unwillingness to change his behavior.
Learn to live with problems that can't be fixed.
Remember that, ultimately, your dad is the only one who can solve this problem. It's his and his alone – not yours – to fix. In Romans 12:18 the apostle Paul teaches us, "If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all." But the very way he phrases that suggests there may be times when it's not possible. In such cases there's little we can do except stand aside and allow the other person to deal with the consequences of his own sin. Here again, your responsibility is to do what's wise and right.
If you'd like to discuss this at greater length, call our Counseling department for a free consultation. Our licensed counselors will be happy to help in any way they can.