Dear Carolyn: My husband is sort of a terrible listener. He likes to talk and is funny and charming. But he will often pace around or turn to his phone when it’s his turn to listen.
Our kids are now teenagers and recently sensitive to this. They open up to me often, one on one. But they get exasperated with their dad, who cuts them off or plays a game on his phone while they’re talking. When they storm away, he’s genuinely mystified about why they’re upset. I tell him I think they feel ignored, and he either brushes it off or goes into histrionics about how no one in the house wants him around and everyone finds him annoying and awful.
A friend wisely told me you can’t change another adult’s behavior, and I’m at a loss. I answer him honestly. I don’t like to hear the kids unload to me about his rude behavior. But, they’re not wrong. What do I do?
— Caught in the Middle
Caught in the Middle: Your friend told you only half of it. You can’t change another adult’s behavior, but you can change your own response to it.
That’s the foundation of boundaries, and here’s a great opportunity for you all to get better at them.
Start with your kids, since they’re hurting. Next time they “storm away,” urge them toward a more productive response. Step 1 is hearing them: “You’re exasperated, understandably. His doing that isn’t okay.” Step 2 is nudging them to rethink their own choices: “How do you respond when it happens?” (“Hm. Does stomping off work?”)
Step 3 is brainstorming alternatives to lashing out, because that’s the power they have: They can change frustrating relationships by changing how they respond to frustrating people. This can be immediate and obvious, like calmly asking Dad to put his phone down while they’re talking. They can — also calmly — say, when he paces/picks up his phone again, “Let me know when you want to continue this conversation,” and step away.
Or they can be more nuanced. He’s a fidgeter? So they can ask him to walk with them around the neighborhood while they talk. Some people struggle with the sit-and-talk but focus just fine while walking, driving, manually laboring. Your kids can learn to work with their dad instead of hitting and re-hitting the same conversational wall.
The more self-aware your kids can be about what they need, and flexible about getting it, the fewer unsatisfying relationships they’ll ultimately have to complain to you about. But you still need to learn to extract yourself from middles.
Mercifully, it’s a lot simpler. To his next “no one wants me around” outburst, respond with, “I’m sorry you see it that way. Maybe ask them why they’re upset.” No speaking for other people. Period.
If your kids make these changes, and if you make these changes, then the paths open for your husband to change (which he can take or leave). That’s how relationships work. And it’s through control of your own behaviors, which is how boundaries work.
Ultimately, your husband might best be served by professional help, starting with neuropsych testing. His “poor me” reactions when challenged (so manipulative, by the way) suggest he’ll resist; if he does, then I urge counseling just for you.