Carolyn Hax: Dad keeps tickling through toddler son’s ‘stop’ signs

My father was physically abusive and still is emotionally abusive, and used to tickle my siblings and me so hard that the laughter turned into an inability to make sounds — tickle torture. I hated it and my boundaries were never respected.

I also fear having confusion about bodily autonomy in the home could lead to confusion regarding unwanted touches from others or eventually not respecting someone else’s boundaries.

My husband tends to be more receptive when someone else talks to him. Unfortunately, if a request, suggestion, or statement comes out of my mouth and is directed toward my spouse, no matter how it’s relayed, his insecurities are triggered and I’m the unreasonable one. Defensiveness is exhausting, and my spouse’s extends far beyond this issue. He is now acting as if we shouldn’t brush our son’s teeth because he doesn’t enjoy that, either. Not. The. Point. Advice?

— Not a Laughing Matter

Not a Laughing Matter: Oh my. This is counseling-level defensiveness.

His unwillingness to accept you as a messenger of anything he doesn’t want to hear is also a power problem, where he sees you as a threat to his.

You are utterly totally completely unimpeachably right about the tickling and its body autonomy implications. It is the right battle to pick, the right hill to die on.

I won’t defend your husband’s sensitivity — he’s behaving like a child, pouting and taking his ball and going home. But, it’s what he’s doing, and you want to be effective here, so you have to take it into account when you choose your words.

I suspect the 2 + 2 is that he feels accused of doing something inappropriate. You’re connecting him to “unwanted touches.” Distantly, of course, in a connect-the-dots kind of way. But that’s something you can be right about while still creating the appearance of insinuating something “wrong.”

You’re also applying an evolved standard that deviates from past norms, and that you adopted in part because of your own experience.

Make sure you hit on all those points with your husband:

“I know you’re just doing what everyone has always done. I’m not accusing you of intentional harm and I know it probably feels like I am. But I have experience with this that I may not have shared fully enough. My dad used to do this to us and I hated it. Hated. I hated being tickled and I hated it when I said no and he ignored it. I was laughing so it looked like ‘fun’ but it was torture. So all I’m asking is for you to listen to him when he says no. Does this make more sense now that I’ve spelled it out?”

If you make no progress and/or if he sticks to willfully obtuse false-equivalency BS about not brushing teeth, then talk to a therapist — you, solo. To start at least. To follow threads from abusive father to ultra-thin-skinned spouse. You are so right about protecting your child, so stay on it, and take care.

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