Dear Therapist: My Daughter’s Boundaries Are Preventing Us From Having a Relationship

I have felt for many years that she has kept me at arm’s length, and it seems to have worsened recently.

illustration of a father and a daughter separated by a tall brick wall
Bianca Bagnarelli
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Dear Therapist,

My daughter is in her late 20s and I am 65. She was married last summer and has no children.

I have felt for many years that she has kept me at arm’s length, starting in her early teens, and it seems to have worsened in recent years. We had many clashes during her wedding planning over things like attire, my choice of song for the father-daughter dance, and the guest list, to name just a few.

My wife and I got to the point of saying virtually nothing in the weeks before the wedding so as to not have her upset with us on her wedding day. The wedding was beautiful and went off without a hitch, although my wife and I both felt that our daughter didn’t include us as much as she could have on the day itself (e.g., with getting dressed, hanging out in the day or two ahead, etc.).

Of late, she has asked me to see a counselor and sent me an explanation (in chart form) on boundaries. I feel like I can’t speak to her regularly, even though I don’t think my one or two brief weekly “check up” calls are harassing. In conversations with her, my wife and I have often felt that she was angry and that she lectured us about one subject or another. Her biggest complaint to me is that I continue to treat her “like a child,” and that I need to respect her boundaries.

The problem is: I don’t think I want the “bounded relationship” she has set, which amounts to one to two calls per month at her convenience. She really went off on me recently because I sent her a new house listing after she had asked me not to send any. Also, she always involves my wife, and that causes a problem between my wife and me, even though I have asked her not to do so. If she is asking me to respect her boundaries, shouldn’t she respect mine?

I love hard, and the love of a father for his daughter runs deep.

Any advice would be appreciated.


Dear Anonymous,

I can hear how much you want to have a closer relationship with your daughter, and how hurt, frustrated, and confused you are by her behavior. You seem to be in so much pain, in fact, that it’s causing you to ignore her requests—even if doing so causes her pain—and to go so far as to consider estranging yourself from her by refusing to have what you call a “bounded” relationship.

Any parent who feels rejected by his child would find the experience painful, especially if the perceived rejection has been there for years. But I think what has kept you locked in this pain has been your misinterpretation of her message to you. What you have been hearing is: Stay away from me. But what she has been doing is offering you an invitation: I want you in my life, Dad, but in a way that will allow me the space to come closer. In other words, by asking you for some distance, your daughter is not pushing you away but desperately trying to connect with you.

To understand this paradox better, let’s step back and look at when you first noticed your daughter “pulling away”—in her early teens. This age coincides with the important developmental stage in which children begin a process of separation and individuation and assert themselves as distinct individuals. This pulling away is crucial for healthy development because it helps teens form a sense of self on the path to adulthood: Who am I separate from my parents? What do I believe? What gives me pleasure, passion, and purpose? What choices and paths make sense for me? Who are my people? Which parts of my life do I want to keep private and which do I want to share?

When parents encourage this process while also being present and available, their teens grow into adulthood feeling loved and valued for who they are. As a result, they tend to have an easier rapport with their parents, safe in the knowledge that they can be both separate and connected at the same time, able to ask for and negotiate their relational needs. But when parents interfere with this process, those teens can grow into adults who push for the autonomy they were never offered at the appropriate time. When your daughter says that you treat her “like a child,” that’s because as she moved through her teens and 20s, you didn’t support her independence. You continue to chafe at her attempts to make her own choices and navigate her own space.

The good news is that now you have the opportunity to do things differently, especially if you understand that her request for boundaries is a bid to build closeness. Boundaries are what create trust, comfort, and safety in a relationship by defining what is and isn’t okay. You say that you don’t think you want a “bounded relationship,” but all healthy relationships—romantic, platonic, and familial—are “bounded relationships” in the sense that relationships aren’t free-for-alls. What your daughter seems to be asking for in attempting to set these boundaries is this: that you honor her personhood as separate from yours.

So let’s look at recent events. First, there was her wedding. Although this was a celebration belonging to her and marking an important milestone in her adult life, you weren’t willing to let her make her own choices about attire, music, and who would be there that day for her and her partner—then seemed offended that she wanted some space leading up to the wedding. (If you paid for the wedding, that was a very generous gift, but a true gift is solely for the pleasure of the recipient and doesn’t come with strings attached.) More recently, she asked you to see a counselor to work through the clashes you get into—and instead of saying yes, you either dismissed or ignored her request. (It would, of course, be best if the two of you could see a therapist together, and you can suggest that, but she might already feel exhausted by her attempts to be heard by you; in that case, as a parent who loves his daughter as deeply as you expressed in your letter, your willingness to get outside support with this relationship will help her feel your love.) When she asked you not to send her housing listings (perhaps because she feels capable of searching herself; isn’t interested in moving on your timeline or at all; wants this to be a project with her spouse; or has different taste from you and feels pressure to like whatever you flag for her), you sent them anyway. Finally, when she tries to explain what boundaries are and why they’re important, you say that she’s lecturing you and that you might abandon the relationship entirely rather than accommodate her request for fewer phone calls.

I don’t think that you want to lose your daughter, but if you continue to reject her attempts to repair this relationship, that’s exactly what could happen. So I’m going to ask you to listen closely to what she’s been trying so hard to say, even if she hasn’t presented it this way. Here’s what I’m hearing from her:

Dad, we’ve been struggling for a long time. We both feel misunderstood, angry, hurt, and unheard. It will be sad for both of us if we can’t repair our relationship—and not just for the two of us, but also for my kids, if I choose to have them. This tension has sat between us for so long that I believe we can’t solve this on our own. It would mean the world to me if you would speak with a therapist to try to understand why it’s been hard for you to see where I’m coming from when I ask to be treated like an adult. Please know that I’m only asking because having a relationship with you is important to me, and it’s painful to contemplate spending the rest of our lives in conflict with each other. I might be an adult and ask to be treated as one, but like most adults of any age, I still long for a meaningful relationship with my father, which is why I’m fighting so hard for it.

I know you see my request for fewer phone calls as pushing you away, but I’m making that request in order to keep you in my life. I’m hopeful that by going to a counselor, you’ll begin to hear me differently, and when that happens, we can become closer over time. I know you don’t intend to hurt me, and that it upsets you when I talk about this with Mom—but when I tell you how you’re hurting me and you dismiss me, I feel disregarded by you, and I turn to her for a degree of understanding or support that I can’t seem to get from you. Admittedly, maybe part of me hopes that because I can’t get through to you directly, Mom might be able to present my wishes in a way that you can understand. That’s why I’m suggesting a counselor—to get some outside intervention so we can enjoy each other as father and daughter.

My greatest hope, Dad, is that you’ll accept my suggestion as an invitation into my life, because despite the friction between us, the last thing I want is to lose you, and I’m afraid that this is exactly where we’re headed. You say that you love me deeply, and I believe that you do, but you don’t seem to realize that the way you’re showing your love doesn’t feel loving to me at all. For me, a big part of feeling loved is knowing that my feelings and well-being matter to you. Do I matter enough to you to get some help with this? Or are you willing to risk losing the very thing both of us want so badly—a loving father-daughter relationship?

She’s still waiting for your answer. The choice is yours.

Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.