Dear Captain Awkward,
In a few months, my big sister’s getting married, and I’m a bridesmaid. Awesome!
The problem is that my estranged father will be there, and I legit cannot be around him.
My parents are divorced and Dad was always weird. When I was 16, he and I had a massive argument where he physically hurt me and I ran away. That was the last time I saw him. He mailed many long, convoluted, ranting letters about how horrible I was and how he would set me straight. I never responded. Mom had my back, and Dad disappeared.
But just before my eighteenth birthday, he cleaned out my savings account. It was full of money given by my late grandmother, before she died, for college. There was nothing legally we could do; the money was gone. Mom just gets by, financially, so I took out loans for college, and am paying them back. They’re large, and it’s tough, and it still stings, and when I as much as THINK about Dad I start to get angry.
Now, Sister also hates Dad, but they’re in touch. He would probably disown her, too, if she didn’t invite him to her wedding, but (probably to cement his invitation) he mailed her a VERY large check when she got engaged. Sister’s totally sympathetic, and I’m not angry at her for inviting him. She’s seating the two of us far apart at the reception, and sticking him with one of his annoying colleagues so they can keep each other occupied.
But a couple weeks ago, Sister grudgingly passed along a message from Dad saying that he hopes I’m doing well. This is the first communication we’ve had in years. It didn’t make me happy.
What do I do if he weasels through Sister’s precautions and tries to talk to me? My instinct is to run away, but he’s notorious for trying to drag people in, against all social etiquette. And though I like to think I can stay cool under pressure, I’ve got my own temper issues and if he won’t leave me alone, I’m very, very likely to yell at him.
I really don’t want to ruin my sister’s wedding. Or, be a part of my dad ruining it.
Hey Bitter Bridesmaid,
I don’t know why people think that weddings magically make people un-hate each other’s guts or magically behave like grownups. If your sister is…optimistic…enough to invite your Dad to the same party as you, she gets what she gets, and as the hostess, the worry about whether he’ll use her special day as an occasion to ambush you into an unwanted reconciliation is pretty much on her shoulders. Fortunately, a wedding can’t be ruined unless the couple somehow fails to be married to each other by the end of the day.
The best thing is to say very short, noncommittal things and be brief, polite, and perfunctory. “Hey dad.” “Wasn’t it a lovely wedding?” “The weather is nice today.” And then be elsewhere as soon as possible. Do not get drawn into long conversations, hugs, family photos that include him, talking about the past.
If he pushes you – tries to suck you in, tries to bring up old issues, will not take no for an answer, makes a scene of any kind, I want you to respond politely THREE TIMES. “Dad, this isn’t really the time or place. Let’s just enjoy the wedding, ok?” Repeat it like a robot.
If he will not stop, or he makes a scene, after three attempts to shut him down I give you permission to hand him the following message on a card that you’ve written up before the wedding and are keeping in your purse just in case. Say, “Dad, I thought something like this might come up, so I brought you this letter. Let’s go back to enjoying the wedding.” And then walk away. Far away.
“Dad, you may have noticed that I don’t want to talk to you. The reason for that is not a mystery! When I was 17, you stole $_______ from me. If you are serious about having a conversation with me, pay that money back and apologize. If you make amends and return what you stole, then MAYBE we can have a conversation like civil adults. Until then, I can’t even contemplate talking with someone who caused me such harm and financial hardship, and I am asking you directly to leave me alone.”
You can present him with this bill any time he ever tries to talk to you again. “Hey, Dad, so where’s my $_________? No? Okay, goodbye.” He’ll probably never pay you back. He has a million bullshit excuses stored up about why that-wasn’t-really-his-fault-and-now-you-are-just-an-ungrateful-jerk-who-only-wants-his-money blah blah blah he’s-the-real-victim-here blah blah blah. So, the odds are that you’ll never have to talk to him. Your sister can help here, if she wants to put herself in the middle so much. “Yeah, Dad, sorry, she’s really still mad about the college fund. Maybe you should just pay her back and stop bugging me.”
I know it’s somewhat taboo to talk about money in this way and I’m focusing on the money to the exclusion of the abuse & neglect you suffered at his hands. My reasoning is that you can’t ask him to go back in time and be less of an ass. You probably can’t ever get him to acknowledge his part in what went down between you and why your relationship became so fractured. But you know that he knows that you know that he STOLE x amount of $ from you. It’s a crime he can answer for that can stand in for the whole.
So if the guy is actively trying to push his way back into your life, I think you should be totally unashamed and unshy about asking for a literal dollar amount back and using the words “thief” “stole” and “mine” when you discuss it. You can’t act like everything is okay between you because everything is not okay until he makes restitution. And this isn’t some shameful secret that you have to cover up. If he appeals to other relatives and tries to get them to pressure you to feel sorry for him, be blunt. “You guys know that he stole my college fund, right? Until he returns what he stole, I really can’t talk to the guy.” It’s rare that you can cite a LITERAL price of admission for a given relationship, so, um, relish it?
Oh, by the way, if he DOES pay you back, once the check has cleared, have ONE lunch. And then you’re done forever if you want to be. He was an adult who had a lot of choices about how he behaved, and you hating his guts is one of the predictable consequences of those choices. That doesn’t really get erased with money.