Dear Captain and Co.,
Please help me sort out this mess. I don’t know how to handle this at all.
My mom keeps on pressuring me to have a relationship with my dad, who is a Darth Vader Boyfriend to his girlfriend. She wants me to see him and we had this huge fight over months where I didn’t want him to come to my college graduation because my Dad and I were estranged at the time and she thought he should come for the sole reason that he was my dad. Part of the reason that Dad and I are very very low contact is how he treats his girlfriend, including kicking her out of the house because she did a thing he didn’t like and then texting me “Happy Valentine’s Day”. I found out about it because Girlfriend texted my sister in the biggest guilt trip I have ever seen and told Sister how much Girlfriend hated our dad and how mean he was to her and then asked Sister to help even though Sister barely knows her and wasn’t even in state. The other reason Dad and I are estranged is that he was very abusive when he and Mom were divorcing and treated Sister and I as his emotional dumpsters and trash-talked our Mother constantly. Most recently he took Sister and I to China in hopes of reconciliation and meeting family but threatened to abandon us there after a day because he was jealous that we were talking to our mother.
My mom says that what goes on between Dad and his Girlfriend is between the two of them and I shouldn’t let it affect my relationship with him. She has a history of enabling him and not standing up for me. I’m just really confused about how to handle this, because even if I discounted his treatment of Girlfriend, I still don’t like him that much. Is it true that I shouldn’t let what goes on between Dad and his Girlfriend affect my relationship with him? I feel that I can’t have a relationship with someone in a vacuum.
Thank you very much,
WTF Do I Do About My Dad
Dear WTF Dad?
Your letter reminds me: I read this really compassionate, wise piece about family estrangement written by a rabbi who counsels people at the end of their lives this week. The piece contains some references dealing with family members who commit sexual assault (can’t imagine why people would be estranged after that!) and other heavy topics so know that if you’re going to open the link , but I think it gets to one of the biggest arguments people use to pressure estranged family members to reconcile: “Well, what if [abusive person] DIES and you haven’t fixed your relationship?” The good rabbi’s answer is something like: Okay, that might very well happen, so, how do you grieve and learn to make peace with the situation as it is instead of pressuring yourself (or others) to force a reconciliation that isn’t meant to be?
Letter Writer, forgive the tangent, I just know that this topic of family estrangement and pressure is on a lot of readers’ minds. Back to your situation.
I think your mom is living with a few fantasies here. One is that the divorce didn’t really affect you and your sister all that much, because look, it’s still possible for her kids to have a good relationship with their dad! She’s not standing in the way of that, she’s doing her part to make that possible for you! She’s being the bigger person!
Another fantasy is that it’s possible to compartmentalize your feelings and relationships to a certain degree, like, surely you can ignore your actual dad’s actual personality and actual crappy behaviors in service to respecting your duty of filial piety to the dad-shaped thing who can attend graduations and dutifully pose for photos and all pretend to be a “normal” family for a few hours.
Her habit of compartmentalizing, minimizing, and going through the motions where he’s concerned is probably how she survived the abusive marriage with him and was able to leave it, so, you can be gentle with her and have compassion for her around this even while you stand up for yourself. In extracting herself from that marriage she had to let go of many dreams and plans for what the rest of her life would look like and now that you’re hitting milestones like graduations there are more little aftershocks from letting go of what those moments “should” be like. For example, your dad “should” be at your college graduation, her mental picture of that event is/was somehow incomplete without him. So she pressures you to help her complete that picture, to make allowances, to observe the form if not the content. (Cut to: The 100+ questions in my inbox from brides re: “My dad is abusive, do I have to ask him to walk me down the aisle at my wedding?” Blanket Answer: Nope! I get why this topic hurts because it is messing with the picture you had of what this would be like and it’s also messing with other people’s expectations of what this should be like, but it’s okay for you to honor what it IS like. Walk yourself down the aisle, or have someone who is always nice to you do it, but don’t torment yourself for a photo-op or to meet other people’s expectations about what your family should be like. Traditions are there for you, you don’t exist to serve them at your own expense.)
None of this means you have to do what she says, it just means recognizing, “Hey, my mom has a pattern when it comes to my dad and she’s just following the pattern I know well.” You know that this pattern is not for you going forward, and that knowledge is power. Your dad also has a pattern where he treats all the women in his life with contempt and attempts to control them, and you’ve made a pretty reasonable and healthy decision to minimize how much you want to deal with someone who acts like that. You don’t have to recreate or fall into these patterns.
Your mom has unwittingly given you the perfect vehicle for making yourself clear around this. She says that your dad’s relationship with his girlfriend is between the two of them and that it shouldn’t affect how you interact with him. Welp, in that case, your relationship with your dad is between the two of you and it’s not for your mom to manage.
Basic script: “That’s between me & Dad, Mom, there’s nothing you can do to fix it, so let me figure it out.”
Longer Script: “Mom, I know you’d like it if Dad and I had a better relationship, but we have the one we’ve got. We’re both adults and it’s our job to figure out and manage how we interact from here on out, not yours. You’ve done all you can here, and I appreciate it all so much. It must have been hard to keep the peace with him all this time for the sake of co-parenting and I know you’ve bitten your tongue many times so that I could have the best possible relationship with him. But that’s not your job anymore.
Right now I need a break from being pressured, hurt, and disappointed by Dad. I need to be able to look forward to celebrations and milestones without the shadow of managing his feelings hanging over the whole thing. And I need you to give me space to figure this out for myself. If Dad wants a better relationship with me, he knows how to get in touch, and he can make the effort. If I want to invite him to something I know how to reach him and I can make the effort. You don’t have to carry water for him anymore, ok? You did your best, now it’s time to let us muddle through this ourselves.”
If you use any of the above you’ll probably use it in smaller pieces, especially as reminders/boundary enforcement, like “Mom, we talked about this – this is for me & Dad to figure out together, you don’t have to defend him or fix it.”
I mean, her argument, “But he’s your father…” cuts both ways. She means “He’s your father, so you should accommodate him/invite him/keep trying to make peace with him/brush off his bad behavior/forgive him.” But also, he’s your dad so he shouldn’t use you as an emotional dumping ground and take out his anger at the divorce on you. He shouldn’t make threats to abandon you in a foreign country. He’s your dad, so he shouldn’t be cruel and awful to your mom. He’s your father, so he shouldn’t emotionally abuse his girlfriend and then expect you to be cool with it. He’s your dad, so maybe the financial and emotional support you’ve gotten from him shouldn’t come with all these awful strings attached. Lots of dudes fertilize eggs that turn into kids. Not all of them are good dudes or good dads.
For the record, I think your mom is also wrong about how you should view your dad and his girlfriend. How your dad treats the people in his life DOES affect how you see him, and that’s HEALTHY. Forming your own relationship with and opinions about your dad based on observed behavior is, again, HEALTHY and NORMAL. Someone who is nice to you and awful to everyone else is pretty awful, (and your dad isn’t even nice to you, like, remember the time he took you to China and then almost abandoned you there after a single day?).
And yes, family ties are strong and powerful and can withstand a lot of ups and downs, but I think we need to push back on the idea that they are unconditional. People who are routinely mean and inconsiderate to you and others should expect some consequences to the relationship even if y’all are faaaaaaaaaamily. You don’t have to forgive or welcome in people who treat you badly and you especially don’t have to do it when they neither apologize nor change the bad behaviors. You don’t have to give them chance after chance to disappoint and abuse you. Your dad is emotionally abusing his girlfriend. You are correctly spotting this as a red flag in a sea of red flags that surround this guy. Trust your own instincts here and break the familial patterns of apologizing for and shoring up this dude at the expense of your own happiness.
I don’t know if your relationship with your dad will ever get better. I do know that you will feel better if you have some space from him and freedom from pressure to make excuses for him, and that there’s no possible route to a better relationship that doesn’t involve you feeling better, more free, more safe, and having more autonomy in managing your relationship with him.
125 thoughts on “#1031: “Mom is pressuring me to have relationship with abusive dad because he’s my dad.””
Oh boy. I’ve lived this for 28 years now. Long story short, my father was unfaithful to my narcissistic mother the whole of their 23 year marriage. When I was 21, he left my mother for another woman…the day after my wedding. I’d barely had a relationship with him for a full decade beforehand (he worked abroad), My mother took advantage of the situation to demand that myself and my two brothers have nothing further to do with him. I was weak, immature and went along with it…
But ultimately, I decided that for the sake of my own mental health (I’m bipolar) and I wanted nothing to do with him and very little to do with my mother. After the divorce my mother returned to our home country…I now live 17 thousand miles away…by choice. My mother is even more bitter nowadays than she was the day after it happened…she’s lost contact with most of her friends, all her family…she’s deeply unpleasant to be around for any extended length of time. She desperately needs psychiatric help but is of the generation who doesn’t believe in it.
My father left 28 years ago…In the last few years, she’s been trying to get me to get back in touch with my father. She contacted his brother, who she was always on good terms with, found out their mother had died and has probably left her property to my father. The reason my mother wants me to be back in touch with my father is so I can find out where he lives…and my mother can sue him for the money she says he still owes her from the divorce settlement. It’s nothing to do with wanting me to have a relationship with the only family I have in this country, she’s thinking only of herself (as usual).
I’ve absolutely zero interest in having a relationship with either of them, to be honest. I only keep in contact with my mother because of feeling somewhat sorry for her. I ring her about once a month and keep the conversation very general…I’ve not actually seen her now for nearly 9 years. I’ve already told my younger brother, who now lives in the same city as her, that when she dies I doubt I will attend the funeral.
I grieved for my parents 28 years ago. Now as far as I’m concerned my father is like someone I knew as a child that I have no desire to know as an adult. They were very crap parents …FFS, as a child my mother was so disinterested in me that I managed to develop rickets! They did the bare minimum…so I’m doing the same now. I owe them nothing.
You sound like how I hope to sound in 21 years (my father abandoned us, including my bitter, mentally ill mother, 7 years ago). I’ll never speak to him again, and she and I have been estranged for several years too, with some small hope of reconciliation. I “buried” my father on a volcano slope last year and have made my peace.
“I grieved for my parents 28 years ago.” This.
I realized years ago that while I had bio-parents, I never had a Mommy or a Daddy. My father died over 30 years ago, I am currently estranged from my mother and may not find any way to stomach interacting with her before she dies. Everyone around me is horrified, but I’m okay with it.
If someone is dangerous to you (general you), it is on THAT person to make themselves NOT dangerous and reconcile with you, not the other way around. It grinds my gears when people are “horrified” if someone puts distance between themselves and danger or harassment. It’s called self preservation.
I could happily go the rest of my life without hearing, “But WHY can’t you just DEAL with it?” when someone is hateful/dishonest/malicious. No one should be forced into the designated punching bag/steam valve.
Good on you for getting out of the line of fire.
That’s another piece of minimizing/defense of abuse phrasing that could be turned around: “I was going to ask you that, actually. Why can’t YOU just with the fact that I’m not speaking to $relative?”
I suspect that the answer is often that when the first person distanced themself, other people were suddenly being yelled at and mistreated, and they can’t “just deal with it” either. I don’t know whether, if surprised, they might blurt that out.
Why would she even need you to be involved if she wants to sue him? It sounds like she’s more than capable of tracking him down herself. There’s something else going on in her mind, and you are very wise to steer clear of it!
Because my father has hidden himself so well we don’t even know for sure what country he is in. He disappeared off the face of the earth straight after leaving my mother…it was only years later we found out he’d been living in Malta. My mother even hired a private detective during the divorce to try and find out where he was…couldn’t find him.
The woman he left my mother for has children of her own…he’s now been married to her longer than he was married to my mother…which also really boils her piss. She loathes the idea that his stepchildren may end up with any assets my father has when he dies.
These are great scripts for your mother, OP, but I just wanted to offer another viewpoint: there’s a lot to be said for expressing anger.
Women especially are socialized to feel that anger is Bad, and that if someone else feels bad because you’re angry at them, it’s Your Fault For Being Angry – not their fault for their behavior.
I am definitely not advocating for being offensive or yelling or swearing, and there is a LOT to be said for the type of straightforward, firm, and yet compassionate type of scripts that the Captain puts forward in her response.
But on the other hand, I feel like there is a lot of value in honestly expressing anger. I had a situation where a well-meaning person was pushing me to have a friendly relationship with someone, much like your mother is. I communicated until I was blue in the face about how I understood they meant well, but that it wasn’t happening, and it was because of these reasons, and on and on. And they just didn’t get it.
Finally, one day I turned and in an audibly angry (but not raised) tone of voice said: “*Stop*. Enough. Do not talk to me about [Person] ever again, because I am done with you ignoring me when I tell you why it won’t happen. This conversation is over and will never be reopened.”
And it worked. The topic never came up again. I know that the well-meaning person’s feelings were hurt when I got angry and snapped at them – but they were not hurt by me. They were hurt by their own refusal to accept my boundary.
I wish I didn’t have to get angry to be heard. I wish I didn’t have to express that anger for my words to carry weight. But in the end, it was only when I got unapologetic and angry that I got results. I think expressing that anger in a reasonable way is a tool that women so often ignore – but it can be so useful.
This is a great point.
I’ve had luck with a “ok, you get 2 chances for a gentle redirect or subject change or request to drop it, and if you miss those chances, YELLING MIGHT HAPPEN” approach. Like, it feels good *to me* to try to keep things civil if I can even if the other person doesn’t deserve it, but there is a great release sometimes in saying “YOU KNOW WHAT, DROP IT, DROP IT FOREVER!!!!” and reminding people that when you keep it civil that is a choice and the opposite can also be a choice.
Yes! I had a whole show down with my father in law along these lines. And giving people several opportunities to drop it also makes it less “your fault” when they decide to get angry at you for daring to express anger.
(He wanted to tell me a sexist joke about how women are bad at math, and since I do math for a living and justifying my existence is frustrating and heartbreaking I was like “please to no.” “Please really no this is not going to be funny and lets talk about something else.” And then he pushed and i yelled a lot. He wanted to be all mad that I dared yell at him in his home but… I did warn him.)
Man, if your home is a place where you get to do whatever you want with no consequence and I just have to take it? Maybe your home ain’t a place I want to be ever again.
My stepfather was a fan of “My roof, my rules.” And “I am the judge, jury, and executioner!” And… writing that down, I get to see how actually, truly effed up that really is. This blog certainly brings up all my issues I have from growing up. Thanks Cap’n. Like how it was ‘family legend’ about how I behaved badly at the zoo- when I was 6. And it was brought up in every fight, every conversation as a reason he didn’t have to put any emotional effort into our relationship- cause I pushed boundaries as a child. WELL EFFING DUH. I was six! You moved in with my mother! Everything was changing! Kids don’t take that well. So he was there- in my life- doing nothing but working and watching tv, ignoring me. And now they both wonder why I don’t want a close relationship with him? Why, when on the phone I don’t remember to say hi to him, because, as a kid, he *never* initiated a hello, a hug, an anything? And how I’m supposed to bend over backwards to thank him for sending me to private catholic school (which I never, and expressly did not want) and how, he’s trying to buy my love? I can’t describe the ucky feeling that is bringing up. He lent me the money to buy a house- because I was living in one with the roof caved in, and I’m truly thankful of that, but now they’re both acting like that’s manufactured an entire lifetime’s relationship. I just don’t know how to feel. I mean, he’s done something well beyond the call of where we were emotionally, and really, I appreciate that, but I don’t know what to do with the smug, ha! Finally got you! Attitude he’s got. I’m sure I’m making no sense, and this is just emotional salad, but it’s nice to at least vent it.
Jennifer No Not That One: You’re making sense. It’s not word salad, and your feelings, whatever they are, are legitimate.
Jennifer – I totally get it. My father isn’t nearly as awful, but he does use money to try to buy my love, and it gets seriously weird when it doesn’t work for him.
I admit to being super lucky to have this option: when he decided to give ‘inheritence’ money to each child years ago, I refused my part. He will never be able to understand my rationale, but I didn’t want him questioning every freakin’ financial decision that I ever made in my life (although I’m sure he does it anyway, but at least now he can’t do it as openly).
@My two cents (nesting ran out); I’ve been in a similar situation. I also refused my father’s so-called “inheritance money” (it came with strings), when I did, I got harassed with WHYYYs and threats of disownment??? With how much flak I received, it sounded like it benefited him more than me.
You made the right decision! My family also tries to “buy my love” with money and gifts. CAwkward’s glossary lists “kind sharking”, but a term I like to use is Favor Sharking. Similar to loan sharking, my family members like to do nice things – without my agreement – and then constantly reference Nice Thing to get what they want. To be honest, navigating which behaviors were/are acts of love, and not, has been difficult for me because of this (+ more) dynamic.
Side note, but I’m a woman in tech and I totally feel you on feeling tired of being expected to defend your right to exist and do your career. It’s fucking exhausting and gross and it means we have to learn a bunch of *extra* social skills to not offend anyone just by existing in their presence, even as the men around us get away with being totally socially incompetent because they’re so ~~smart~~.
Ugh god yes. I work in tech also (in a massively male dominated part of it too) and just, ugh. They will be as rude as they like but heaven help you if you start dishing that kind of unvarnished, combative directness back to them. Also they will mansplain *anything*. One of them (a well meaning one too for crying out loud) explained MRAs and pickup artists to me the other day. One day I will ask him to explain mansplaining to me and time how long it takes him to realise what’s happening.
@Anisoptera Sad situation all in all, but a hilarious imaginary comeback.
Yup. If civility and kindness don’t work after several attempts, I’ve noticed that getting visibly angry tends to work. I hate that it gets to that point, though, but then I realize there wasn’t much of an alternative.
Yes to getting angry! Post divorce, my parents both tried to guilt me and my five siblings. Spend Easter with Mom but not dad – guilt. Spend Christmas with Dad but not Mom – guilt. As the oldest, I finally decided I needed to be the spokesperson and blow my top with both of them. I said, loudly, and firmly, “Look – we didn’t choose this divorce, you two did. YOU TWO split this family up. So, going forward….and then I described how things were going to be…. and ended with a firm and angry “and that is just how it’s going to be now.”
It shocked them both, being that I was raised to respect my elders, but they quit it with the guilt tripping you love Other Parent more than me nonsense. And my youngest siblings (who were still in middle and high school and fully dependent on my parents at the time) appreciated me sticking up for them, too.
I particularly found the use of the phrases “going forward” and “this is how things will be now” on repeat to be very useful. It helps put an end to any of the fantasies that may remain in your parents’ minds about how things should/will be.
GreenDoor, that was amazing to read. Dad’s girlfriend tried that same guilt trip on me too at 21. My mom’s house is more fun on Thanksgiving anyhow. I couldn’t sit by and watch Girlfriend be the kitchen slave and not get angry.
@GreenDoor: That really is great. How old were you at the time, and what rules did you set?
@Letter Writer: Girlfriend sounds like she’s got issues of her own. None that justify the emotional abuse you’ve described, of course, just … issues. When she needed to vent to somebody about your dad, why would she choose one of his kids? Why would she appoint herself co-guilt-tripper? Between the two of them, it doesn’t sound like you’re missing much by staying away.
Yes, this! I sat back, shut down and took my emotionally abusive/likely narcissistic mother’s abuse for years and compartmentalized it, because I learned at a young age that fighting back just made it worse and this behavior became so ingrained that it continued into adulthood. But I finally stood up to her when, the day after my father’s funeral, she tried to use him to guilt trip me into “apologizing” to her for “being such a difficult child” and have a big “reconciliation” (read: have me come crawling back to serve her), and I angrily refused, grabbed my bag, and walked out. For the first and only time in my life she (sort of) apologized, and hasn’t done it again in years since. Anger, when used judiciously, works!
Tangent: Captain, thank you so much for sharing that link! I really needed to read that this week, as I’m back home helping my mother transition into palliative care and dealing with the reality that there is going to be no grand reconciliation or Hollywood ending. I’ve known this for years in the abstract but now it’s real, and I’m working to come to terms with it.
Can confirm. My generally rather shitty mother has been extra shitty over the past couple of years, since I got engaged and subsequently married. I had actual conversations with her about the purported issues once or twice, tried redirecting once or twice, and finally lost my temper and yelled at her a bunch over the phone. It’s been a few months so far and she has been on her best behavior.
I’m glad for all the posters for who this approach worked, but it never did for me. We were bought up that showing any kind of emotion, but particularly anger, was completely unacceptable. When I tried it as an adult, all it led to was an extended time of mother playing the even bigger martyr, along the lines of ‘how dare you pick on a poor defenseless old woman, who gave up her whole life because of you’ etc. Or even making what she considers the ultimate in insults ‘You are just like your father’
It can be helpful to recognize that feeling angry is distinct from being angry. As I’ve reached my dotage, I’ve gotten to the point where my anger is for me, to flag situations where I may need to stand up for myself more strongly. How I stand up for myself (i.e., whether or not I express any anger) varies wildly depending on the situation. But it’s a wonderful backbone-stiffener to feel that fury well up when someone (for example) tries to guilt me out of my boundaries, and then coolly (as far as the other person is concerned) chose just exactly how I’m going to respond to their incursion.
Sometimes, just seeing me visibly making that decision is enough to make them back down.
My mother has never apologized or backed down in the 76 years that I’ve known her. Feeling angry, being angry, expressing it forcibly, expressing it calmly, doesn’t matter. No approach has ever made the slightest difference in her behavior (except made it worse by giving her ammo)
Hope this isn’t hair-splitting, but feeling angry *is* being angry in my book. I’m guessing by the latter, you meant expressing anger outwardly.
I understand this, to the degree that I can. I don’t have 76 years of relationship history and, being a guy, it’s (unfortunately) more acceptable for me to show anger. That said, my mother is very much of the mindset that “The first person to get angry, loses the argument. I’m not escalating, AND I’M NOT RAISING MY VOICE. AND I’M NOT ANGRY, I DON’T GET ANGRY. STOP BEING MEAN TO ME!” The only time (singular noun intentional) she apologized about something was when she wanted to assuage her own guilt over her behavior, and not because she realized she had hurt me. (Yeah, my therapist and I have talked about that.)
I don’t have anything constructive to offer, just commiseration.
In answer to the “who gave up her whole life because of you” spiel, may I direct your attention to the original “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” with Sidney Potier?
His father tried that guilt trip on him, and he turned it around brilliantly. Basically, his argument was “You CHOSE to have me, and so YOU owed ME! I don’t owe you!”
I love that bit so much. Incidentally, so do my parents.
I tried that once with my mother…he reply was to tell me how she was offered an abortion when she found out she was pregnant with me…with obvious tones of ‘and I should have had it, you ungrateful little bitch’…and using the last word reminds of how she called me that on my 11th birthday, in front of a room full of her friends and family. I think her nose was out of joint because they were making a fuss of me, and she wasn’t the center of attention. I’ve discussed with my younger brother what I could have possibly done to warrant being called a little bitch on that day, and neither of us can think of a thing…
Some people you just have to give up on. No matter what their relationship is to you…
I’m so sorry you had to go through that with someone who should have loved you.
My situation with my parents is similar to the LW’s. I am a person who is uncomfortable even acknowledging my own anger, let alone being outwardly angry. I am not good with confrontation.
So the time my mom tried to sandbag my (very clear) boundaries around my relationship with my dad in public because of course I wouldn’t cause a scene? Well, I didn’t cause a scene, but I did get angry and I got quite sharp with her. And it felt GOOD. It felt good to stop, just for a minute, always managing my feelings and her feelings and public perceptions. It felt good to look her dead in the eye and make it clear that I knew what she was doing and I was not having it. It felt good to stand up for myself. It felt good to know that I was capable of that; it felt like a step forward.
Which is not to say that everything changed. I’m still the same person I was before and so is my mom. But I hold that moment close and use it to remind myself that I don’t have to let myself be steamrolled by my family for the sake of keeping some kind of fake peace that’s entirely predicated on me ignoring our family history and doing exactly what my parents want.
It is my firm belief that people who refuse to take no for an answer are not safe to be around.
We were faced with this choice in my family also, by an abusive family member. We all chose the non abusive family member but it was still very sad. I suppose it is possible that your mother is not aware that your father required you to make a choice between him and your mom and you have already made your choice.
Yes to the value of expressing anger. I had to tell my well-meaning grandma No firmly after she started wanting to know why I am estranged from my abusive sister for the 50th time. I told her I wasn’t going to say it again and she already had my answer. Her feelings were probably hurt and I’m sure she felt sad, but like you said, she was hurt by her own refusal to accept my boundary.
Showing anger (and/or distress, in some situations) really does work sometimes.
[TW: Involuntary commitment to psychiatric inpatient facilities, suicidal thoughts, serious mental illness including psychosis.]
One of the. . .odd advantages to having had serious mental illness basically my entire life (and I’m over forty) is that, having been involuntarily committed a few times (usually while severely depressed, visibly extremely upset, and/or having a literal, textbook-definition psychotic episode), I’m no longer particularly afraid of causing a public scene. THAT ship has long since sailed.
Raising hell is not my first approach, to be sure. I’m a cis woman who was raised in the US South to be a nice Southern lady (and I still live in the South), and I will default to politeness (by Southern definitions of “politeness,” since that concept is very variable, depending on place and culture) unless/until there’s a reason NOT to be polite. But if being civil and reasonable doesn’t work, you’d better believe I’ll raise some hell.
Sometimes a visible display of anger and/or distress is the only thing that gets through to people, that accomplishes whatever needs to be done.
Agree 100% with what the Captain has said – and also (you don’t mention this specifically?) – am I right in thinking that you are not dependent on him financially at all? If he can’t blackmail or bully you financially, all the better; I hope you cut him out and keep him at a distance just exactly as much as you want to and you feel is right for you. That great groaning on the winds of tradition that sounds eerily like “but faaaaaamily” can go fuck itself. (um, speaking as someone who has some toxic family members. Not parents, lucky me, but some other ones).
Actually I’m just writing to wish you all the best and to wish you happy and just as free of him as you want to be.
He pays my phone bill so I’m only seeing him about once every six months because of that. I might be on his health insurance too because Mom and him split the insurance some arcane way that makes no sense in reality, like they each got one kid for tax purposes even though Mom had us both.
Dear Letter Writer,
I dearly wish that someone had given the excellent advice the Captain has given you to me many, many years ago. My father married my stepmother when I was five and spent the next thirty years of my life explaining away and apologizing for her horrible behavior. Having been abandoned by my mother, I clung tightly to the parent that was left to me. And that meant accepting the abuse his second wife dished out. I was 35 before I came to understand that sometimes family ties NEED to be severed. I was a walking open wound for decades. Severing the ties allowed me to heal. Your mother divorced your father but still hangs on to a few fantasies about “family” and “shoulds” and I’m fairly sure some of that is wrapped up in regrets and guilt for not providing the perfect family life for her children. Be gentle with her, please. It’s hard to let go of the fantasy of the perfect family and leave your spouse and your children’s other parent…..my father never did.
I wish blessings and healing for both you and your mother.
It’s interesting, that moment when as an adult you realize that good parents/bad parents isn’t a binary thing, but a continuum.
For years I lionized my mostly good parents, choosing not to see areas of dysfunction and damaging family patterns. They were good parents, I believed, because they hadn’t beaten me, they’d bought me food and clothes, under their watch I’d done pretty well in school and seen some success in life and turned out more or less okay.
It was only when I acquired stepkids myself that I began to really analyze where my parents did well and provided an example I wanted to follow and where they fell short. I also thought a lot about why they were the way they were, so I could see them with compassion as fellow humans walking this road we’re all traveling. I’ve had frank conversations with both of them about these reflections, and our relationships are better for it.
I count myself fortunate that I have parents I’d want in my life even if they weren’t related to me, even though I’ve chosen not to emulate them in a lot of respects. I wish everyone could be so lucky.
The Captain’s advice is really good. Set and defend your boundaries. No one is entitled to a place in your life just because they’re related to you.
I’m happy you were so fortunate, but even more so that you KNOW you are fortunate, and don’t believe that everyone’s family relationships is like this, and can be made good.
I’m also very blessed in my family, but am ashamed to say that when I was young, I was among the “But faaaaaamily” crowd when dealing with others, because I just could not wrap my head around the idea of people having a bad family, and low-contact/no-contact being a good thing.
The more I’ve seen of the world, and the more I listen to and believe the experiences of others, the more I see how truly blessed and lucky I am, and incidentally, the more likely I am to advise others in bad-family situations to go low/no contact. Because I know they do *not* have my family, and as much as I may wish they did, they don’t, and need to do what is best for *them*.
LW, it sounds like your instincts about your dad and what kind of relationship you need to have with him are dead on. Trust yourself and do whatever you think you need to do, and I’ll be right behind you 🙂
All of this is great advice, and I also think it might be wise to take a big step back from your dad’s girlfriend. You write that she “texted my sister in the biggest guilt trip I have ever seen and told Sister how much Girlfriend hated our dad and how mean he was to her and then asked Sister to help even though Sister barely knows her and wasn’t even in state” which feels like a huge boundary violation. Hopefully Girlfriend has her own support network to lean on in these situations, but in any case, it feels wildly inappropriate to me that she’s reaching out to her significant other’s children to try and solve the problem! Your dad may indeed be abusive, but it sounds like there’s overall a pretty bad dynamic there that it may be best to stay far, far away from. I love Captain’s scripts for talking to your mom, but I do wonder if part of what she’s picking up here in advising you to view the relationship with the Girlfriend as “separate” is some legitimately weird/inappropriate behavior on Girlfriend’s part. It might help to focus on things that are specific to your relationship with your dad (which is more than enough to not want to deal with him) and get some distance from his relationship problems.
Good catch. Why is Girlfriend texting all y’all at all? Texts from Dad’s girlfriend probably need to be on the level of, like, “Dinner’s at 6:30 we have a reservation” or “We’ll meet you at the train station,” not emotional stories. It’s definitely ok to push back on those, like “Hey that sucks but we’re also not the right audience for this” or just not respond to them.
Replying to both JenniferP and Sarah: Girlfriend is hella manipulative and guilt-trippy. She communicates in guilt trips at least half the time. I didn’t want to mention it but I’m also LW #790 where Girlfriend tried to organize a party of Dad’s worst enemies (Sister and Mom) to try and repair the hatred between them all over a holiday meal. Never mind that nobody actually knew her or was fond of her or wanted to reconcile in the first place.
I heard about the text after Sister texted me out of the blue for advice. We’re mostly estranged and never text her. She sent me a screenshot when I asked about the content. It was totally a boundary violation and I told Sister that she could not answer it was her choice but I also said that I would have texted back F**k you to Girlfriend, even if it isn’t that polite. Girlfriend also tried to come to my graduation either in hopes of ambushing Dad or to try and be a Mom at me, which she isn’t. I think the reason she didn’t text me was that she’s kind of scared of me because I don’t listen to her guilt-trips and I don’t try and have a relationship with her, otherwise I think she would have texted me.
link to letter 790 for those one mobile, and all the sympathy in the world for you LW. this sounds like an exhausting situation to have been put in.
I also have like 984 additional concerns when I compare “My sister is estranged from our father” with “[Girlfriend] told Sister how much Girlfriend hated our dad and how mean he was to her and then asked Sister to help”. This sounds like some serious triangulation and I would be concerned for your sister (possibly also your dad? but he’s made his bed) about just what Girlfriend’s motives are.
Agreed, and on that note, it might be worth taking the girlfriend out of the equation in further discussions with mom. He has treated *you* badly. You have the right to not have that kind of toxicity in your life.
Mind, pointing out things like the threatened abandonment (!?!?) might open yourself up to gaslighting of said incidents by your mom, which could be more painful than ‘Oh, just don’t get between him and his girlfriend’, so use at discretion. A blanket ‘He’s not a part of my life because I don’t like the way he treats people’, repeated ad infinitum, might be safer. Ignore any pressing for details. She knows them all already and she knows you know she knows.
I might try taking the girlfriend out of the equation, but if I concentrate only on things Dad’s done to me Mom gaslights really hard and denys it ever happened, sometimes followed by telling me that Dad loves me as if that makes a difference.
I said it down-thread, as well, but look, LW, if your mother is gas-lighting you about this, or even just refusing to respect your right to your own experiences, perhaps it time to take your relationship down a notch with her, as well.
Low-contact, for a short term, might be just what she needs to learn to stop treating you that way.
Gas lighting is insidious.
Captain, thanks for the link to the rabbi’s article. The bit about how trying to reconcile at the end can just cause more hurt was useful to hear – I’ll likely be in that situation when my dad dies.
LW, I can very much relate to having one parent trying to force a relationship with the other parent. I live across the country from my family and am lucky enough to visit once a year for two weeks in December. I see my mother and other relatives, but I’m estranged from my father and his side of the family due to many factors, including their extreme mental instability. My mother and father have been divorced for 25+ years and she has since remarried, but every time I’m back, she insists on having a long feelings-chat about the possibility of me visiting my father. She often brings up the fact that these two weeks are my only opportunity to see him and that “he may commit suicide at any time, so you should really make sure to reconcile before then.” Being firm and angry sometimes helps, but the technique that works best for me is making these conversations as boring for her as possible.
Mom: “NAME, have you talked to your father or let him know you’re back? Are you going to see him?”
Me: “Nope, haven’t given it much thought. SUBJECT CHANGE.”
Mom: “But NAME, you really should see your father. You know how unstable he is…”
Me: “I’m not discussing this further. SUBJECT CHANGE.”
Mom: “But NAME!”
Me: *Talks to someone else in the room or leaves the room.*
When I don’t give her any info or access to my feelings on the subject, she tends to drop it after a few attempts. It is a bit emotionally exhausting for me, but the less I give her to grab on to, the less time she spends on the subject. I try to make my responses as unemotional as possible.
Hope that helps, LW, and best of luck with this difficult situation.
Pardon my French, but FUCK HER. So, just to be clear, it’s absolutely fine for her to sever ties with someone she deems mentally unstable, but you’re on the hook to be his caregiver or what not? No.
God, right? It’s like a Tracy Chapman song come to life. “Mama went off and left him. She wanted more from life than he could give. Said, somebody’s got to take care of him; so I quit school and that’s what I did.”
Wow, it’s kinda amazing how accurate that song lyric is… I was his caregiver for a couple years. I was working full-time, going to school part-time and functioning as primary support (cleaning, taking care of finances, keeping an eye on him, etc.). There were lots of issues there, but he stole money from me that I had earmarked for charity. That’s when I decided that enough was enough.
My mom says that what goes on between Dad and his Girlfriend is between the two of them and I shouldn’t let it affect my relationship with him.
Okay I have a lot of feelings about shitty parenting and estrangement (I cut off contact with my abusive mother years ago), and I may be a little harsh here but what the actual fuck? It is 1000% okay to judge people by their actions, LW. Frankly, you’d have to be kind of a jerk to say to yourself “oh yeah my dad treats his girlfriend like dirt but it’s okay because he’s nice to me.” (you know, if he actually was nice to you).
Being mean to some people and not others is so common we have a saying for it: “if he’s nice to you and mean to the waiter, he’s not actually nice.” I think you’re completely correct that you can’t have a relationship with someone in a vacuum. Even if being mean to his girlfriend was the only awful thing your dad did (and threatening to abandon you in a foreign country?! super fucking awful!), that would still make him a jerk.
She has a history of enabling him and not standing up for me.
That is both super shitty and super worth digging into if you have access to therapy. I have a sneaking feeling that if you had been treated like your feelings counted when you were small you would have a way easier time standing up for yourself now. I’m not saying your mom is categorically a bad mom or that she couldn’t possibly have any good qualities, just that not standing up for you is really hurtful and you’re allowed to be mad about that.
I’m just really confused about how to handle this, because even if I discounted his treatment of Girlfriend, I still don’t like him that much.
You are absolutely positively allowed to just not like ANYONE, family or not, and you are absolutely positively entitled to not spend your time with people you don’t even like. Even if you weren’t really, really justified in not liking your dad (and omg I’m still mad about the threatening to abandon you thing), even if he was objectively nice and well meaning and you two just didn’t click or didn’t have anything in common, you would still not be required to spend time with him.
If the Captain’s scripts don’t work out, I second the hell out of Laura’s advice to show anger. I think your mom is kidding herself that she can make everything okay, at least on the surface, and getting visibly mad might break through her denial. That said if that still doesn’t work it’s totally not your fault, just that hey, it might be useful. It also might feel really good for you to openly express that this is a shitty situation on multiple levels and that you’re angry about being treated that way.
Oh, one last thought: this might be completely off base, but is it possible your mom really, really bought into the idea that a Good Divorced Parent encourages their kids to have a relationship with the parent they’re divorced from? It might possibly help to tell her that she did her duty as a Divorced Parent, she has officially Tried Hard Enough and now that you’re an adult it’s time to leave your relationship with your father in your hands.
Re: your last paragraph – that’s exactly what I thought, too. Depending on how long ago they divorced, LW’s parents might have done so during the time when divorce was still considered to be a self-absorbed thing to do that would hurt the kids in the long run because how dare you keep them from having 24/7 access to their other parent?! (Which is not to say that it isn’t still viewed that way in far too many circles, but it seems like there are at least some elements of society who are now aware that children raised in a household with two parents who are miserable with each other aren’t likely to learn great things about relationships.) Even though LW’s mom had solid reasons for getting out, the guilt over what she worried she might have been doing to her children could’ve encouraged her to dive headfirst into the role of Good Divorced Parent.
Yeah, I think they subscribed hard to the idea that two parents was better than one because they stayed together for about a decade “for the kids”. When I was in elementary school in the early to mid 2000s I remember going to this group for other kids whose parents were divorced and the counselors reassuring us that divorce happens to a lot of families and how we weren’t alone. I have no memories of them being happy with each other yet they thought they shouldn’t divorce.
My parents weren’t happy with each other, either. They also weren’t that happy when they divorced, though my dad eventually moved on. Their dynamic was…interesting, because I think they were only partially staying together for my sake – the meat of it was, I believe, that my dad was staying because he was afraid my mom would hurt herself if he left. Damned if they did, damned if they didn’t.
It sounds like you have a good head on your shoulders in spite of all the crap you got thrown into, though.
Oh, the Good Divorced Parent thing. Yes, it *can* be a good thing. If the parents are divorcing because they are simply not compatible, but basically good people who just can’t stay together, then the Good Divorced Parent thing is important.
But if the divorce came about because of abuse, then PLEASE, do not do this to your child! Your child is not stupid, and will realize that Daddy is a total jerk-face, and why does Mommy defend him to me? Is she lying to me, or am I just crazy? Aaaah!
Edited out a story with too many personal details: Daddy was a Jerk. Mommy told kid that Daddy loved her very much, and surely had REASONS for never visiting or paying child support, and she should love him. Daughter was Very Confused. Colored future relationships, because of trust issues. How do you know what love really is, when you are told that hate and neglect are really love?
I’m not saying that a divorced parent should bad-mouth the other parent. Just don’t sugar-coat it, and gaslight your children, please. It is possible, though hard, to present a neutral front.
“Yes, dear, I know that it sucks that your father hasn’t sent his child support, and we are poor, and your father never sees you, and you wish you could have a father like your friend’s super-involved and loving Dad. It sucks that you don’t have that, but you have other people who do love you and are involved. (list others here). You are loved. And you’re not alone.” Note, I didn’t say, “Forget your father, you have MEEEEEE!” That is something you show in actions.
Neutrality is really hard, but it’s better in the long-run, if you want your children to grow up feeling confident in their relationships with others.
To touch upon Captain’s first paragraph about “well what if you never reconcile?!?!” (even though -at this point- it’s not directly affecting the OP) – you move on and continue after an estranged family member passes. I’ve posted about my grandmother before and how I estranged myself from her due to toxic/abusive behaviors. When she was on her death bed, my mom asked if I wanted to visit for any closure (she asked with the expectation being ‘no,’ – there was no pressure from her at all to visit). Part of me really wanted to go just to have it all out – to yell and cry at her unconscious and hardly responsive body about all the horrible things she did. After years of estrangement, there was no part of me that wanted to try and make things “okay” again, just the last bits of anger and resentment I had. When she passed, I cried and I mourned, more over what “could” and “should” have been. Now that several years have gone by, I don’t regret not visiting her or saying goodbye. I don’t regret estranging myself from her. There’s still a part of my heart that’s sad that wishes things could have been different, and I doubt that’ll go away. But estrangement from a toxic family member can be a really, really good thing, and I’m glad that you now have scripts on how to shut down the “but faaaaamily” argument.
^ This. My grandmother was angry and mean, with the occasional breakthrough nice periods. As she got older, she got meaner because she was still angry over something that happened 20, 30, and finally 40 years beforehand. (40 years before her death, that is. One incident – my grandfather left her for his second wife. She never really moved past that and even missed her son’s last wedding because my grandfather and said wife were in attendance.) In the last few years of her life I distanced myself from her for my own mental health. I visited her in her own home a few times a year and when she fell after a series of strokes and had to be moved to a nursing home I never did visit her. I think when she’d died I hadn’t seen her for three or four years.
I still feel guilty about “abandoning” my mom to be her caretaker, two years after my grandmother’s death. Rose-colored glasses try to convince me that Grandma wasn’t “that bad” and I should have gone to see her. But then I remember how horrible my mom felt after every visit – because of my Grandma, not because of me not being there – and remind myself that I made the right decision. Even though I loved her (and still do), staying away was the best decision for me.
Thank you, Captain for this: ““Well, what if [abusive person] DIES and you haven’t fixed your relationship?” The good rabbi’s answer is something like: Okay, that might very well happen, so, how do you grieve and learn to make peace with the situation as it is instead of pressuring yourself (or others) to force a reconciliation that isn’t meant to be?”
It’s put a light on something that I’ve been dealing with for a while now and will be in the future. I’m taking it with me to therapy next week to discuss.
This is what I went over in therapy the other day: “I mean, her argument, “But he’s your father…” cuts both ways.”
BECAUSE IT DOES. And I’ve only had it cut the one way growing up, or so I feel. The double standard has been infuriating to deal with.
Wow, that linked article hit me right in the feels, mostly due (I think) to the fact that today is the tenth anniversary of my mother’s death (well, recorded date of death. We suspect she’d actually been dead for over a week before she was found, but that’s a long story).
We weren’t estranged – in fact, she and I had a great phone conversation the day before what I suspect was her actual date of death that ended with us both expressing genuine excitement over the next time we’d get to see each other a month and a half from the call – but our relationship was…complicated. It’s really only been since her death that I slowly realized how far from normal parts of my childhood were, so as cold as it sounds, I sometimes wonder if it wasn’t so bad that she died when I was still a fairly sheltered 21-year-old in the days before CA and raisedbynarcissists and JustNoMIL, because then I got to grieve the version of her that was closest to what she likely wanted me to see.
Anyway. LW, your relationship with your dad sounds like it goes way the hell beyond “complicated,” and you have every right to leave him behind the way he threatened to leave you in China (!!!). The Captain’s scripts are good, and assuming your mother is a reasonable person, she might appreciate the truth of the longer one – it may help her understand that the harder she tries to push you, the more strained your relationship with her could become.
REading the article the Captain linked to, I was struck by the rabbi’s saying that coming to peace can take many forms and you have to define those for yourself. I love that. I happen to be Catholic, we are taught that not forgiving is a failure on our part somehow. I’ve never liked that bit of dogma – that I’m obligated to forgive simply because the other person asked for it. As a parent, I hate that other parents teach their kids to “say you’re sorry!” like belting out “soooo-reeee” magically absolves all the bad you just did.
I really like the Jewish way of looking at stuff like an estrangement as a chance for a “return” – but that it can simply mean a return to my own self. Love that!
I’m no longer Christian, so fwiw, I’ve long viewed forgiveness as an internal coming to peace. Not an absolution for the transgressor, necessarily, but as me letting go of whatever the transgression was.( If my transgressors are sincerely atoning, I will accept their apology sincerely, whether or not I permit them back in to re-transgress,) I did this with my father, and once I did so, it was actually easy to demur his overtures for reconciliation without wanting to scream at him.
Obviously, I’m no turn-the-other-cheek kind of gal. If you smack me once, we’re done.If I forgive you, we’re still done.
Attica – that’s such an important thought….that I can forgive what you did but still be done with you at the same time. Thank you!
Yeah, I generally agree. I view forgiveness as accepting that the thing happened and can never not have happened and deciding to let go of it moving forward. But it doesn’t mean you have to give people chances to re-offend. Sometimes forgiveness may mean restoring the relationship as best you can, but sometimes it just means saying, “Go in peace” and moving on.
Same – I’m really not religious but I think the healthiest interpretation of catholic style “forgiveness” is internal; not brooding on anger and bitterness and prior wrongs, but rather moving forward from them. “Forgive but don’t forget” and all that.
” If you smack me once, we’re done.If I forgive you, we’re still done.”
I want this on a T-shirt!
tbh, one of the things that irked me a lot when healing from an abusive relationship was talking about forgiving the abuser and how it was absolutely essential for victims/survivors to heal. I felt like I was broken/doing it the wrong way, because even if it comes to letting go of the negativity toward my abuser, it’s…not what I’ve come to define as forgiveness. In fact, I’ve realized I may not be able to let go of *all* the anger anyway, because I need to use it to make sure nobody hurts me like that, ever again. I don’t want to forgive, and realizing I don’t have to (and that others who haven’t have not pickled from bitterness and hatred and gone to lead happy lives) has been liberating!
If my abuser wants me to forgive him, he can earn it. The only forgiveness I’m remotely interested in is for myself.
Yes! I loathe the word forgiveness because of shit like that. I’ve never seen “you should forgive!” mean “obsessing about how angry you are at your abuser is making you miserable, I wish you could move forward and be happy again”, it always seems to mean “hey, I feel weird when you talk about how angry you are at your abuser, could you just, you know, stop that? forever? oh and thanks for not calling me out on not actually giving a shit about you.”
What I do think is useful is the idea of acceptance: the shitty thing happened and there’s nothing you can do to change the past, so you’ve kinda just got to keep moving in your life. Also I’m a huge fan of spite and nothing spites an abuser like going on to be happy and enjoy your life.
I also read somewhere, possibly here?, that even god (well, the christian god) only forgives those who sincerely repent and *ask* for forgiveness. Nobody who abused me is ever going to admit what they did, let alone sincerely repent, so I feel no need to forgive them.
Unlike “forgiveness” which is largely bullshit, what’s actually useful is acknowledging that you were harmed, feeling your feelings until you’re good and done (boredom is profoundly underrated at a therapeutic tool), and talking about how you were harmed. That comes from the one and only article I have ever read in my entire life about forgiveness that was not worse than worthless (most articles about forgiveness aren’t just useless, they’re actively harmful) – https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/what_is_forgiveness.
If my abuser wants me to forgive him, he can earn it.
This about 1000 times. Forgiveness isn’t free, you fucking earn it if you want it so bad. Which, come to think of it, is why I’m not super into the “forgiving a debt” definition of forgiveness. Forgiving a debt you have the power to collect can be a beautiful act of mercy. I don’t have the power to collect on my debts, though. I don’t believe I’ll ever get an acknowledgement, let alone an apology or any attempt to make amends, from anyone who abused me. I’m not going to forgive anyone who hasn’t earned and I’m certainly not ever going to say the way I was treated was okay and everything is cool now. Fuck that noise.
You’ve summed up my thoughts and feelings on forgiveness very well, particularly on earning forgiveness. Lately, I’ve been thinking that for me to forgive someone, they need to 1) acknowledge the wrong committed, 2) express sincere regret for what they did/caused, and 3) actively make amends in a meaningful way. Without all three of those? I’ll defintely get less angry over time and may feel nothing but apathy in the future, but that is not forgiveness.
Yeah, I’ve found that forgiveness is one of those words that people use to mean radically different things, and also that there can be a lot of power and healing potential in de-conflating those things.
I absolutely agree with you about the people who pressure “you should forgive” and what they mean is “you should reconcile and smooth the situation over so I don’t have to suffer the a little social discomfort”, to which I say fuck. that. noise. I think the “If my abuser wants me to forgive him, he can earn it” is an excellent standard, for the reconciliation component of forgiveness especially.
Separating acceptance from forgiveness (and also from reconciliation) is super helpful as well. Getting to the point where you’re not obsessing over the abuser and how angry you are at them, but instead can keep moving forward in your life, is a really big important victory, and it is completely separate from the abuser and whether they’re sorry or whatever. It’s a thing that you do, yourself, for your own health and well-being (hopefully with the support of an awesome Team You).
(I mean the general “you” here, not trying to address anyone’s particular experiences.)
I do think there’s a third thing that gets called forgiveness and… can potentially be really valuable too: if you can eventually fully process the pain and anger of the experience so you can specifically think about the abuser and have no rush of negative emotions. I’m not sure what word to apply to that one, really. Internal forgiveness? If there’s a right way to do the Christian notion of forgiveness, I think this might be it. One really key thing, though, is that this process relies on feeling safe enough, and secure enough in your recovery, and healed enough in your heart of hearts, that the hurt and anger (which are important and legitimate parts of the process) cease to be needed and get reabsorbed. Any and all attempts to pressure someone into this state will backfire, as they rightly should, because if the people around you are denying you the space to be as angry and hurt as you need to be, then the hurt and anger are still serving an immediate and relevant function in protecting you from the smooth-it-over crowd and their gaslighting.
Obviously none of this implies in *any* way reconciling or making amends with somebody who’s unsafe or net harmful or you just plain don’t want to. It’s totally legitimate to forgive someone from a safe distance, whatever that means in a particular situation. I will never ever again be in any kind of contact with my long-ago abuser, even now that the years of anger have given way to a vague sense of sadness and even pity.
I think the pressuring to be in this state, whether or not from social media or from growing up (in my non-Christian family), to let go of negative emotions RIGHT THAT SECOND, is why I find *any* definition of forgiveness repulsive if directed toward my abuser. My abuser made promises and commitments he had no intention of keeping, withheld critical info until it was time to guilt-trip me, and treated me like a doll at best and an emotional punching bag responsible for managing his issues at worst. So 1) I’m not remotely interested in reconciling with someone like that, especially an adult in their mid-late 30s, and 2) the “acceptance” definition of forgiveness or “letting go of negative emotions” of forgiveness have actively hindered me in my healing process, because I feel like I’m a Bad Victim for not being able to do this. And I *shouldn’t*. The anger I feel about this is actually healthy, because I know my goddamn value and I know I deserved better.
As I said earlier; there’s always going to be some anger toward my abuser. I noticed things became somewhat easier when I realized that that was an option, and that I could use that anger toward positive goals. One of those goals is writing, the other is spreading awareness and finding commiseration from others who were similarly abused, because covert abuse doesn’t get a whole lot of coverage, I don’t think.
Here are some articles I’ve found immensely helpful in my decision to not forgive (trigger warnings for abuse, emotional, physical and sexual):
https://www.thecut.com/2017/07/im-not-sad-my-grandmothers-going-to-die.html (discusses the concept of “forced forgiveness”)
And here’s a good quote from the Slate article: “Choosing not to forgive does not doom someone to being mired in the past forever. Accepting what happened and moving on is a good general principle. But it can be comforting for those being browbeaten to absolve their parents to recognize that forgiveness works best as a mutual endeavor. After all, many adult children of abusers have never heard a word of regret from their parent or parents. People who have the capacity to ruthlessly maltreat their children tend toward self-justification, not shame.”
And I agree with AndTheRest: time and distance, in the past, have been what’s really healed my anger and hurt, not actively forgiving the offenders. But for forgiveness to occur I’d need a sincere, extensive apology, where in this case, the abuser takes full responsibility for what he’s done, reclaims the blame he unfairly put on me, and oh, I don’t know, actually has a plan for getting his issues sorted out.
Acceptance? Yes. Moving on? Yes. Forgiveness? Not without fulfilling the above conditions. And I’m not a bitter old hag for refusing to do so otherwise, and I resent that implication.
@codenameminali Your comment isn’t nested as a reply to mine, but does seem like it touches on points I made, so…
I want to wholeheartedly affirm that as long as your anger is serving a healthy and useful function, by all means hang on to that shit and use it. If that means forever, then good. Do what works for you. You’re damn right you deserved better.
I was hoping to convey that in my own recovery I found that my happiness took another little up-tick years later when I realized that my anger had finally composted down into a dull sadness, not to claim that anyone else’s recovery is wrong or incomplete without that step, but I can see how my comment could contribute to the bad victim narrative. The notion of “internal forgiveness” I was trying to convey in my comment above can only work if it’s entirely un-coerced, un-pressured, and on the victim’s own schedule. In order for those conditions to be met, “never” has to be a genuinely okay choice too.
I don’t think it’s for everyone, and if my comment contributed to the implication that you’re a bitter old hag for refusing to forgive, I am genuinely sorry.
@Any One Mouse: Thank you for understanding.
I think the problem, for me, is that for abuse survivors, forgiveness is seen as a mandatory step to healing, and one result of that is that it has many different definitions (ex: forgiveness being letting go of the negative emotions/accepting what happened instead of telling the abuser “it’s OK,” even if it’s only in your head). I don’t know if it’s to make the concept more palatable, but it doesn’t work for me. I’d rather call letting go “letting go” and accepting “accepting,” personally. Because I *have* felt that internal fading of anger toward people who hurt me in the past, but as stated above by another commenter, what’s in its place is apathy and a matter-of-fact “well, of course they keep doing thing X, that’s because they suck.” It’s not angry, but it also doesn’t have that positive feeling of peace that forgiveness would convey.
I also think another issue I have is that because forgiveness is seen as mandatory, it seems like “never” isn’t seen as an acceptable choice. And I think that needs to change–not to say “never forgive your abusers,” but to make forgiveness a very personal and individual choice, with no moral value, positive or negative, assigned to forgiving or not forgiving. Because for some, forgiveness can and has been helpful, and for others, like myself, it’s more draining of emotional labor toward someone who hardly deserves it. I’d like to think in 5-10 years I’ll feel differently toward my abuser, but the best he’ll ever get from me is the apathy and cold acknowledgement of his awfulness. Right now, I’m still at the “fuck his precious feelings when he gave zero shits about mine, he can go to hell.”
I think that you are absolutely right @codenameminali. The pressure to forgive the adults in my life who abused me was always the highest priority for the adults in my life.
@codenameminali: And thank you for your honesty.
I very much agree with both of the issues you raise here. Whether the conflating of various different concepts under the word “forgiveness” is rooted in an attempt to make the word more palatable or not (which wouldn’t surprise me), it certainly seems to have the effect of muddying the waters and making it hard to refer usefully to *any* actual concept of forgiveness, because everybody has a different (sometimes wildly different, and often very emotionally-loaded) concept that they immediately think of as soon as the word comes up, be that positive or negative. So now we can’t be sure we’re speaking the same language unless we backtrack to define our terms every time the word comes up with new people. I, too, would much rather call letting go “letting go” and accepting “accepting” (and reconciliation is a very different question which I really really wish people in general would quit treating as equivalent to any of the interpretations of forgiveness).
And I especially agree that forgiveness needs to be treated as a very personal choice, with no social pressure or moral value assigned to it. I’m frustrated with the forgiveness-as-mandatory expectation twice over. As someone who has personally got some real benefit from the process of forgiveness (up to and including the positive feeling of peace that you mention), I feel like even people who *would* benefit from that process are often driven away from it as a very natural reaction to being pushed and shoved toward it. *And* the forgiveness-as-mandatory view invalidates the experiences of people whose way forward is working fine without it because their anger is serving a healthy function or because acceptance is getting the job done or whatever their particular situation may be.
As far as I know there’s no legitimate reason for pressuring people to forgive, ever, and I am convinced that that dynamic is widespread only because it offers a self-serving mechanism for bystanders to shut down the survivors of abuse and thus avoid the social discomfort of acknowledging the abusers in our families, churches, workplaces, friends-groups, con circuits, kink parties, etc. and maybe addressing that as an actual serious problem.
I also have to agree that time and distance are wonderful things – they don’t make everything right with the world, but they certainly take the edge off.
The other problem with pressured (if not forced) forgiveness is that the party who was quite willing to be aggressive in the first place is quite likely to consider “Forgiveness” to equal “Permission to Continue” with what the original behavior was.
Forgiveness as carte blanche is not a good thing.
@Any One Mouse: I think that’s what bothers me the most–that forgiveness is seen as mandatory, and that if you refuse to forgive your abuser, you’re either seen as bitter, incomplete in your healing process, unable to love, or, horrifyingly enough, that you don’t have a clean heart. Yeah, thanks, asshole, for telling me that staying angry about being treated poorly means my heart is dirty. Fuck off.
I really don’t see any legitimate reason, either, to pressure others to forgive. I see it as a way of hurrying/skipping through processing of legitimately negative emotions toward abusers, and as a way of smoothing things over so that everyone else can carry on. It doesn’t work that way. I wish I could return to who I was before my abuser abused me, and reality suggests that’s not happening. I also agree it’s basically to shut down survivors, to shift the responsibility onto them instead of the abusers–the perpetrators–because “abusers aren’t monsters” tends to be misused in such a spectacular fashion. Yes, there were good things about abusers, yes, they did some great things, and yes, they’re someone’s child/co-worker/friend. But it’s not a reason to excuse/erase the very real, terrible damage that they’ve done, nor does it shield them from consequences! If you want to use it properly, use it as “why people don’t get out sooner,” or “why people still miss them from time to time,” or better yet, “why we need to take this seriously, because they’re not obvious to spot and it can happen to anyone!” Grrr. (/rant) I’m hoping that in light of current events, maybe–just maybe–people will begin to realize that abuse survivors need to be believed and validated if we’re to meaningfully solve this.
@KStanley: My experience with forgiving my abuser for previous transgressions (with that forgiveness now rescinded) was the same. Promises to change, but despite forgiveness in both the absolving/letting go of negative emotion methods, they were never followed through, with the additional injury of escalating and blaming. It just doesn’t work, in his case, and I’m betting it’s why he’s been allowed to continue on like this for so long. People like him need significant consequences for their actions.
I’m intrigued by your Boredom as a Therapeutic Tool comment. I’ve briefly ran some Google searches, but was wondering if you can expand? These days, I’ve been experiencing weird, maybe conflicting, feelings in the evenings. I identify this feeling as being “in limbo”.
Your whole post was really enlightening. Thank you! I especially was taken aback (in a good way) with you pointing out, “hey, maybe people demanding you to forgive is really about them, not about you.”
What I was thinking of when “boredom is profoundly underrated at a therapeutic tool” popped into my head was how I finally started cutting off contact with my abusive mother. I used to spend a ton of time angsting about it to my friends whenever she sent me a letter, and eventually I just got bored of my own complaining about it (my poor friends must have hit that point a lot earlier, but they were really patient with me). That’s when it finally clicked for me that I could just… not open the letters. The whole process of worrying about what was in the letter, actually reading it, being unhappy about what was in the letter, and worrying about the next one slowly went from this big deal that I was really emotionally invested in to a dull chore I was just tired of.
Basically I think it’s really useful to talk (or write/draw/sculpt/whatever) out your pain until even you are bored of hearing it.
The Concise Oxford English Dictionary defines forgiveness primarily as “remit, let off (debt, person debt)” ie, not pursuing the offender. it doesn’t say anything about turning the other cheek, allowing it to happen again, etc. It also says that the word come from the Old Norse and Old High German.
My view is that if the Old Norse can have that concept of forgiveness, as a limited rather than all-embracing thing, then so can I; and that’s the concept of forgiveness that I apply to my sister. But that’s another story.
My father was (and probably continues to be) abusive. When I was a child, I thought the world of my dad, despite the fact that he could turn into a screaming monster on a dime. I was mad at my mom for “starting fights” when she brought up things like bills when he was in a good mood. When I turned 12, I watched him throw my mom into a glass and wood coffee table and break the coffee table in two. Normally when my dad got drunk, mom hid the car keys. She didn’t hide the keys that night. If this was a narrative world that made sense, this would be the time that my mom divorced him, or he dramatically died in a car crash. But she didn’t, and he didn’t. There were many more nights of going to hotels, and coming back in my future. But I no longer thought my dad was the greatest. I still loved him and wanted his approval, but no longer thought he was perfect.
When I went to college, we had a re-negotiation of boundaries as an adult. And for awhile, it worked. He got into rehab, he didn’t insult me or my mom, and it looked like things were going to get better. Then he wrapped his work vehicle around a tree while drunk, got fired, and got mean again. Moved 4 states away when my mom wanted to get a divorce, accused her cheating on him, said that his youngest daughter wasn’t his. That was the point that I was like “I know she’s my sister, so if you’re not her father you’re not my father”. And cut him out of my life. Hard. I didn’t go to my grandma’s funeral because I didn’t want to see him. When he tried to use my sisters to get to see him I sent a taxi for them (longer story).
And my mom, the one he abused and made smaller in a million ways, tried to use the same “but he’s your father” speech, with a side does of “Please don’t end your relationship with your dad on my account”. And I told her “My life is better when he’s not in it” and that she was under no obligation to worry about that relationship. It took a few reminders, but now we’re at the point where they don’t bring it up anymore.
My sisters still have a relationship with him, for their own reasons, and I told them that it was up to them what they wanted from dad. But they both respect my decision to not interact with him. I am curious what is going to happen at my baby sister’s wedding next year, because she wants him there. I told her that I would keep my distance and be polite and my husband would be our interference partner when she brought up her concerns. I also told her she should put him in with her Fiance’s side of the family, because he has quite frankly burned many-a bridge on our side of the family.
Relationships should require the consent of all parties involved. LW, you have the right to have a close, distant, or no relationship at all with your dad if that’s what you want.
Relationships should require the consent of all parties involved.
Um, whoa. This is…. quietly blowing my mind, and changing the way I’m thinking about a big problem in my life. Thank you so much for this phrasing and this insight.
Well, I suppose I should add the caveats that life does not work in “shoulds” very often. You have coworkers, bosses, and customers that you have to have a relationship with (though you should- there’s that word again- be able to negotiate it on a sliding scale of professional to social with the default being professional) money and power often constrains what relationships you have to deal with (family you financially rely on, roommates, neighbors). But voluntary, no power differential friendships? Consent is required by all parties to what level you want that relationship. If someone wants to be an “every day” friend and you want to be a “once a month” friend, you have the right to ultimatums, knowing that might mean other person goes “then we can’t be friends, because that is not what I want/ need in a relationship right now”.
Relationships take effort, but they should be worth it. If they aren’t, the default is “no relationship”.
And in situations where certain relationships or interactions do have to happen (landlords, customers, bosses, teachers, law enforcement, etc), there’s legal and social protections for the less powerful party. Western culture is faaaaar from perfect about it, but we generally recognize that if someone has to be around you for some reason, it’s very bad form to take advantage of that to get other relationship goodies. So yes: Relationships should involve the consent of all parties, and in situations where that’s not possible, we’re supposed to recognize that and be on good behavior because of it.
I’m glad to hear your mom eventually listened. It gives me hope that maybe mine will too.
We grew up in some pretty terrible churches, where divorced men would perform with fake-humility about how Jesus gave them the power to overcome the bitterness of their hags-of-ex-wives who divorced them even though god doesn’t want divorce and poisoned their children against them. She didn’t want to be one of those women. So even though it was his actions, his behaviors that made me not want him in my life, she needed some reassurances that it wasn’t “her fault”. And it wasn’t, and it wasn’t fair that she had culturally-implanted brain-weasels that it was. But a couple of “Dad’s actions were dad’s actions, not yours” and because she loves me and respects boundaries, it stopped.
I’m pulling for you. Boundaries are hard to enforce, especially when you weren’t really modeled on how to make them. But it really is better for me to have my boundaries, and my mom to know they aren’t her responsibility.
Dear LW, I am so sorry you have a father who has abused you and the other people who are close to him. You don’t deserve that, and you never did. And I am sorry your mom is pressuring you to act as if everything is okay, as if reconciliation can be achieved without him changing any of his behaviors.
As the daughter of a sometimes violent and not safe to be around father, and a mom who just wants everyone to get along, I would observe that going low-contact or no-contact with a parent is pretty much no one’s first resort. It is an approach that people tend to reserve for when other tactics have failed. I support you in doing what you need to do in order to be well. And I wish your mom (and mine) could do that, too.
Jedi hugs, if you would like them.
“You don’t have to be friends with these people”: Words from my therapist that really hit home and let me drop the guilt trip my Mom was trying to lay on me. Also try, “By continuing to hound me about this, you are setting yourself up for rejection, Mom”. She got it.
Good Luck! You can be free, too!
So everything the Captain said is true.
But also: YOUR DAD THREATENED TO DITCH YOU IN A FOREIGN COUNTRY. I don’t know how old you were at the time, or how much Chinese you speak/how well you can navigate on your own…but as someone who has traveled internationally, the idea of being dropped in a foreign country without having gotten myself there is pretty terrifying. Like, I’m perfectly well equipped to navigate places when I have the chance to prepare for it (and I have good enough communication skills to at least scrape by in a lot of places, even). But being just ditched somewhere far, far away from home where I don’t know my way around, may not be able to communicate easily with people around me, may not have local cell phone/gps/wifi service, and may not have a ticket home without the person who brought me there? That’s a scary situation, and a legitimate threat to be wary of.
Given that, I don’t think your reasoning here needs to be any more complicated than “I don’t like how he treats ME.” Like, even if all your mom’s arguments were somehow true, even if you somehow shouldn’t be paying attention to how he treats his girlfriend, even if you somehow shouldn’t have cared about how he acted during your parents’ divorce, even if you were to somehow ignore everything except the exact interactions between you and him….he has made legitimately serious threats to you personally. That’s a big deal, and very good motivation to not want a relationship with him.
That whole trip was an omnishambles. I was actually 19 or 20 (Sister was a minor and I was technically in charge) and we were in a hotel where the staff spoke English. I was appalled that he’d even think about it. If he had done that I would have gone to the American Embassy and let them hash it out, because I don’t speak Chinese or read it. Girlfriend told us that Dad was so upset by Sister and I talking to our mom that he was thinking about flying back to the US early. I viewed it as being alone because although Girlfriend was there she wouldn’t be much help. She enables Dad a lot.
>I don’t think your reasoning here needs to be any more complicated than “I don’t like how he treats ME
I should remember this.
No, definitely, you’re absolutely right to be upset at that. 20 is old enough to be in charge of yourself when you’re the one organizing it–I traveled plenty at that age in a country where I spoke the language, got my own transportation and hotels and stuff so I had all the reservation info, and knew I had enough cash to at least get back to my homestay family if I needed to change plans in a hurry–but that wasn’t what he was trying to do. I’d still be really scared and upset if someone were to put me in the situation he was talking about putting you in, and I’m an experienced adult with enough savings to buy my own darn plane ticket home if I needed to.
I stopped all contact with my father six years ago and it has been amazing and I would never consider talking to him again. My family used to constantly tell me I should try harder to get along with him and I told them he didn’t try to get along with me, it needs to be a two-sided relationship (love the note about about relationships being about consent!)
My mom’s particular line is that she also had a bad relationship with her father and always regretted not getting to know him better and doesn’t want me to feel that regret. I do regret not having a father figure in my life but there’s no way it could ever be my bio dad.
I’ve been told since as far back as I remember that our bad relationship is my fault because I used to cry when he would hold me when I was a baby. So the grudges and bad feelings and everything that developed from there is my fault. The latest development was that he rewrote his mother’s will to cut me out and had my grandmother sign it before she died. I have a lot of anger that I deal with in therapy and I deflect any family conversations away from him or say “and how do you feel about that?”
Many Jedi hugs and good fortune with your family and your decisions. I love the Captain’s advice and commenters above and just wanted to add in my story. I haven’t forgiven my father but I am working very hard on forgiving and loving myself.
Any adult who harbors a grudge against a BABY for crying does not deserve to have any connection with that baby, either as a baby or as a grown-up.
Anyone who would blame the baby for the father’s bad relationship with the baby doesn’t deserve the relationship they have with that person, either.
This is so messed up.
My son is 7 months old and has a deep and abiding suspicion of men with deep voices (???). If my dad comes towards him too fast, he cries. So my dad approaches slowly, talks in a purposefully soft and higher-pitched voice, spends time around him while I hold him and performs Visibly Non-Threatening for a good 20 minutes, and then holds out his hands to see if the baby will come. And if not? He backs off.
Thats the appropriate way to interact with a small scared baby.
My dad got angry when I cried, too, because my older sister had spina bifida and he thought I was healthy and had nothing to cry about. My mother calls him “the most selfless person she’s ever met.” She’s the second most selfless, according to her. I really wish she didn’t tell me that, I was an infant, but she had to let me know how she stuck up for me. They wonder why we aren’t that close anymore…
LW – I cut ties with my abusive father 11 years ago, and I’ve never regretted it. Surprisingly, my immediate family has been okay with it, but some friends (especially men who are fathers) can’t believe I never speak to him and they push. And it sucks. Keep demanding respect for your boundaries and hopefully it will get better with your mom soon.
Do these male friends, especially men who are fathers, abuse their children? Maybe that’s why they believe the father should face no consequences for his abusive actions?
Probably not, but if they push again, ask them the question, and see if that doesn’t stop them.
LW, i was in my late 30s before my mom stopped trying to manage my relationship with my father. They split up when I was NINETEEN.
Eventually, I did start using scripts very like the ones the Captain suggests for telling her that my relationship with my father was Not Her Problem, and they cut way down on the arguing and stress I was getting from her side of things. So I endorse those scripts! They are good.
LW here. Thank you all so much for the validation and advice. I really appreciated the link. I do think that my mom has a lot of fantasies about how she wants her family. My sister is also abusive and she (+ the rest of the family sometimes) will tell me I should reconcile with her and essentially let her abuse me because FAAAMILY and she’s the only sister. The Captain’s advice about how my mom compartmentalizes etc is spot on and I really need to remember that she’s trying to be the bigger person in her mind and also trying to create something that isn’t going to happen.
I suspect I’ll need to use the script about “This is between me and Dad, we are adults let us manage our own relationship” a lot of times on repeat. It causes Mom to throw fits about how I’m not communicating, but as one person on here said, that’s on her for crossing a boundary and getting her feelings hurt.
The bit about how “But he’s your father!” cuts both ways is a revelation to me, because I never thought about it that way. Hearing it spelled out that he shouldn’t do all those things because he’s my dad is like WOW if that doesn’t sound too weird. My own mom never said that to me.
LW, a lot of people internalize “failure” if their family doesn’t match their fantasy of what a family *should* be. and I suspect people who pressure others to reconcile with their abusers are trying to create a happy ending to exonerate them from their own failure to stop the abuse. If your mother can get you to reconcile with your father, then it’s okay that your mother never stopped what happened because it couldn’t have been that bad, right?
You hang in there and don’t let anyone guilt you with FAAAAMILY crap. Anyone who thinks it’s so important that there be a relationship with your father can have their own damn relationship with him.
Same goes for your sister.
Next time someone does the “But Faaaaaaamily!” at you, just tell them: “Blood is thicker than water, but then again, so is sewage.”
I am SO stealing that. “Blood is thicker than water!” “Yeah, so’s sewage, what’s your point?” Bless.
My ears also perked up at “But he’s FAMILY!” “Yes, well, that being the case, he shouldn’t have done those awful things to me, should he?”
I have a visit home coming up soon, and since they happen so rarely my extended family may not have clued in yet that there are certain members of it I intend never to exchange a word with ever again. When they do clue in, I may need to whip out these talking points.
“But he’s your uncle! You shouldn’t cut him off!”
“And I’m his niece, so he shouldn’t have used me as an entertaining chew-toy for my entire childhood, and encouraged my older cousins to do the same. And YOU shouldn’t have enabled it. Funny how for every time you told me ‘they’re family, you will NOT speak of them/to them that way,’ there was never a corresponding ‘she’s family, you will NOT treat her that way.’ How come I’m ‘family’ enough to have obligations to him, but not ‘family’ enough for you have stuck up for me when he was engaging in no-shit textbook-definition child abuse?”
I’m sort of in constant practice mode for that inevitable conversation. It’s not fun.
Oh, Jedi hugs to you, and I hope that visit home comes off as an Oscar-worthy performance!
There is so much MRA garbage out there about evil ex-wives poisoning the relationship their children have with their fathers, I wonder if LW’s mother is bending over backwards trying to “take the high road” and “be the bigger person” because she’s afraid of being judged as a bitter ex wife.
Those two phrases are some of my least favorite things ever to hear, only behind “forgiveness is for YOU, not THEM!!!!!!!!!!!”, as if it’s something you have to do.
“It’s for me, not them? Great, then I get to decide whether I need to do it — right?”
Awesome! My decision not to forgive is also for me! Because I love myself and don’t think my abuser deserves one speck of it.
This letter makes me feel very lucky that my family supports my decision never to speak to my father (my mom and stepmom don’t either). And as far as end-of-life reconciliation goes–he’s still alive, but I found out he had a massive heart attack and stroke two years ago, and I went through all of the “Should I get in touch/am I a terrible child/what if he dies and we’ve never reconciled” stuff and realized pretty quickly that 100% of my misgivings on staying estranged were ingrained social pressure, 0% was an actual desire to reconcile. So, I didn’t. And I feel fine. I know I’ll have more uncomfortable feelings when he dies, but I’m sure I’ll be able to handle those, too.
Your feelings are super valid. Good luck.
Sneaky? Just a little validation of sorts from someone who knuckled (once).
I dropped out of grad school TWICE, as well as otherwise putting my life on hold for 3 years when my mother had cancer. She was a vicious invalid and I also got all manner of complaints from my father & siblings (mind you, they were NOT will to contribute anything, just hound me/vandalize my labor).
When the cancer came back, I was 1000 miles away (thank God for geography!). My father went on and on about how it would be horrible for her to die without reconciliation. He implied strongly that she wanted to see me, despite being reminded that she wouldn’t give me the time of day if I called.
In short, I went. Her greeting (after 1000 miles of travel, borrowing PTO time that I didn’t have)? “Don’t you have something to do? I am trying to read the paper?”
Don’t cave. There will be no reconciliation, no comfort after the fact. It is ONLY an opportunity to get you in range of more venom. DON’T CAVE. There is no reason to give someone a stick to beat you with just because that person is at the end of life.
What a miserable situation, I’m sorry. And thank you very much for the validation.
I truly believe that people *should* reconcile before they die. However, it should be on the part of the person who did all the horrible stuff to REPENT and reconcile, not on the victim to come groveling for a few crumbs of love in the name of “reconciliation.”
Reconciliation is a two-step process:
Step 1: Person who did wrong apologizes and tries to make amends, if at all possible.
Step 2: Person who was wronged chooses (and they may choose NOT) to forgive.
You can’t have a reconciliation without step 1, because the person will just keep doing the thing that drove the wedge between them, in the first place. Only the person who created the wedge can remove it.
KStanley, I’m sorry for your loss. By that I mean, time, effort, energy, money, and PTO you didn’t have.
I hope you do (or did?) graduate and have all the success you deserve.
Hi, LW. I’m LW #386 – I wrote in about some of the family politics of estrangement from my abusive dad almost exactly 5 years ago (TW/CN, sexual assault https://captainawkward.com/2012/10/19/386-facing-down-a-predator/). I think the Captain had a lot of good things to say to you (and I loved the link from the rabbi. I think I’ll be sending it to my sibling, and maybe my mom one day). This is super long, and I hope it’s ok. I’m mostly writing things I really would have wanted to hear years ago.
Some things about living with parental estrangement:
Since that letter, I’ve:
* Told a cousin I don’t know well, as a warning. She was kind, and it was Never Spoken of Again.
* Got married. I invited him to the next-day reception only, not the ceremony. He didn’t show up, or RSVP. (I was anxious/relieved?) A month or so later he sent me an angry message that I hadn’t invited him – and, yay, therapy. I sent him a short rebuttal, did not apologize, and haven’t engaged since.
* Went to see my paternal grandmother in hospice before she died. No one could reach my dad, and I even tried, despite knowing better. I spoke about it with a sympathetic (but awkward) uncle, at his request. I got some pointed Concern that I might Regret Things from another uncle, but mostly no one wanted to upset my grandmother. Most importantly, I got to say goodbye to her, and it was okay even though I’m estranged from her son. I know this is a case of YMMV, but it took a lot for me to try and be there, and I’m really glad I was able to.
I’ve had a bunch of good things happen that I’d like to include him in, and some shitty things where I wished I could have had his help. I don’t regret not mending the estrangement. When I regret him not being there in big moments in my life, I don’t regret me not reaching out. I regret that this isn’t the kind of Dad I got. Like, it kind of turns it from Wishing My Actual Dad Were Actually Here (which is not a thing that makes sense for me), into Wishing I Had The Sort Of Dad Who Could Be Here. Around Father’s Day, I tend to get sad, and wish I had the other sort of dad. This framing, and that particular grief help me not to wonder if I’m making the right decision – because we’ve changed the scope. I can’t decide to have the other sort of dad, but I can be kind to myself as I’m sad for my loss.
It also makes it a little easier, because some people don’t understand that … you can be the one insisting on estrangement/no contact/wev, and still … be sad about it, and miss The Idea of a Dad. Like yes, I could basically unilaterally seek my father out, and have a relationship with him. But nothing I could do would mean I wasn’t sad on Father’s Day, or that I didn’t miss The Idea of Dad. I’d just be letting someone I know to be abusive into my life, and (to some extent) into the lives of people I love.
Some things about family, but FAAAAAAAMILY, and pressure to make up:
My mom has intermittently pressured me to make up with my dad. In my case, she acknowledges that he’s done a lot of harm, but she tends to play up the regret aspect from time to time, and it’s been really hard for me to understand why. I think a lot of her concern/Concern is straight up guilt. She feels complicit. And, I mean, she was. And that’s hard, too, because like… I don’t blame her for his actions, and I believe that she didn’t understand the gravity of what I tried to tell her, and she grew up in an abusive family and didn’t know how boundaries worked… but she was responsible for the well being of me and my sibling. And instead, I got to learn a lot of hard lessons about setting boundaries, and trying to protect myself on my own.
I’ve also come to realise, it’s partially concern that if I’m The Sort of Person Who Could Cut Someone Off Like That, she worries she’ll be on the receiving end some day. I don’t think she realizes that the bar is SO LOW, OMG, JUST DON’T BE ABUSIVE. I think all she sees is that I … am capable of setting the boundaries I need. She also mended fences with her abusive father only a year or two before he died, and it was very difficult for them, and important to her. I don’t honestly know how well they were mended, but people project A LOT.
I think your letter sounds like you’re kind, and you’re trying to navigate something that’s genuinely difficult. I think your position of not being able to have a relationship with someone in a vacuum is completely valid, and I think you already understand some of why your mom is trying to ‘fix’ your relationship with your dad. Best of luck/jedi hugs.
Thank you for sharing this. I think your distinction between Actual Dad and The Other Sort of Dad is very wise and it makes a lot of sense to me.
If it helps, here is validation from an Internet stranger that it is ok to feel sad about the estrangement even though it was the right thing for you and you don’t regret it.
Jedi hugs if you want them
LW, the fact that your Dad is awful to his girlfriend may not be any of your business, directly, but it certainly is a HUGE indicator that he is *an actual terrible person* and you don’t need an actual terrible person in your life, regardless of blood.
Also, the fact that your mother is trying to dictate your relationship with him, and force you to open yourself up to further abuse from this actual terrible person makes me think maybe you should go low-contact with her, as well, for a while.
Yes, there’s always the possibility that death will come before reconciliation. Well, that’s too bad, but you know, I believe that if you spend the interim between now and death living a good life, and dealing with your own issues, you’re more likely to be able to deal with any “but we didn’t reconcile in time!” guilt that might hit you, because by then you’ll have a much healthier sense of YOUR OWN WORTH.
And avoiding abuse and actual terrible people is like Loreal. You are worth it.
My advice for brides with “walk-down-the-aisle” issues: Just use the side door. No aisle? No problem!
Ooooh! I found the clip from Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner! It’s on Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y4uFfjZ3eHA
This speech is fantastic, and while the circumstances are different, the sentiment is the same. LW, please watch this clip (better yet, watch the whole movie, because it is wonderful), and add these thoughts to your arsenal whenever your mother tries to guilt-trip you or tell you what to do. You’re an adult, now, and you have to live your own life according to what is best for you.
Now, this is a very American point of view, and it seems that you have some Chinese heritage to deal with. But even with the most filial duty and respect, you have to do what is right for you, and your parents had to do the best they could for you, because that’s what you’re supposed to do, if you choose to bring a child into this world.
Note: I have not seen the remake with Ashton Kutcher, so I can’t say if there’s anything more modern and applicable there. I may have to check that one out on Netflix.
We shouldn’t base our lives on Hollywood, but dang it, sometimes those script-writers get it just so right. I wish I had a script-writer and editor behind all my speeches when I get impassioned and speak out.
As someone who never really reconciled with my mother before she died I have some Observations
You can love someone and still not want to be around them, I think its important to acknowledge you can have strong feelings for someone that is not healthy for you to be around
I do miss my mother but I more miss what I wanted our relationship to be, the dream of what might have been (not really but in my mind i wanted it.)
I do not have regrets about maintaining my boundaries and I have found generally speaking I am a much happier person when i set and enforce boundaries even though it makes me extraordinarily uncomfortable initially.
I have been estranged from my bio father for four years and it definitely got a lot less painful and awkward over time. Looking back, I had some pretty unforgiving and rigid expectations of what my responsibilities were in terms of how I communicated with wider family. I was breaking an intergenerational pattern of abuse and silence – I had no clue how this was supposed to go. No one in my family could get why I was cutting off my bio father without time to process it, everyone was tangled up in the crises of the abuse. It took my mother and brother a while to get used to it. I took on a lot of emotional labour trying to make it easier for them that I regret. I think they feel bad about pushing me about my decision, years later my mental health and my relationships with mum and brother are so much better. It did my mum good to be left to her own devices, she sought therapy of her own and stopped dumping on me.
Your job is to take gentle care of you. It is to accept that moving away from an abusive parent can bring up all kinds of emotions and consequences but that no one else can dictate how that goes for you. You might choose to distance yourself in stages and you might have waves of conflicting feelings about it. That’s ok. Certain people around you may never really get it but that’s not your fault.
Oh boy, LW, I could have written this letter. Except it’s my grandmother who is invested in the “But faaaaaamily,” bit of it. Eventually I sat her down, and firmly explained the impact that my Dad’s behaviour has had on me over the years. I didn’t seek to hurt her, but I also didn’t mince words. I think it’s tempting for folks to latch on to people like us in these sorts of situations, because we are reasonable. We are good candidates to for emotional labour, for fixing. My Grandmother saw me as the reasonable tolerant one to continually labour and extend the olive branch over and over. When I talked to her, I made it clear that I was no longer doing that work. It was hard, but she hasn’t pestered me about it since. Jedi hugs if you want them, LW.
Oh, LW, I’m so sorry.
[TW: Child abuse, social pressure in Christian circles around forgiveness, psychiatric inpatient mention, death, domestic violence.]
My mother never pressured me to forgive or reconcile with my abusive bio-father (whom she divorced when I was three, and whom I never saw in person after I was eleven), thank all the deities, but I felt a lot of that social pressure.
It sucks so much.
The man who was the last pastor of the church I grew up attending while I was still regularly attending services (United Methodist Church of a fairly Episcopalian/”High Church” bent) had some words of wisdom for me, though, when, in my early twenties, I was agonizing about forgiveness and not having spoken to my father since I was not quite twelve. The minister said, basically, that the “Christians should forgive because Jesus” bit was utter bullshit; that God’s forgiveness is freely given, but the wrongdoer has to apologize for their wrongdoing, attempt to make amends if possible, and intend not to do the harmful/wrong thing going forward, so if a person hasn’t done that, the wronged party is not actually obligated to forgive the wrongdoer.
Unfortunately for my peace of mind, I didn’t internalize the minister’s words as much as would have been healthy for me, and I attempted a few years later to reestablish a relationship. It lasted only a few months of phone calls and a few postal letters (this was the late 1990’s; the internet wasn’t quite as ubiquitous then as it is now), and it ended with me in a psychiatric hospital a couple of times.
I never spoke to him again. I had made my attempt as an adult, and as an adult (albeit a fairly young adult), I was able to realize that I needed to cut contact with him if I was going to stay alive myself. He died in December 2011, and most of what I felt when I found out about his physical death was relief, like, “it’s finally over.” I had grieved the relationship, the Dad I Wish I’d Had, a long time before the bio-father I actually had left the mortal realm.
That’s not to say it’s all perfect. I still deal with PTSD today, from my bio-father’s abuse as well as my abusive ex-husband (funny how being abused as a child sets up a very fucked-up pattern of What Relationships Are Supposed To Be in one’s head). But I think the rabbi’s article above has a lot of wisdom to offer, if you can bear reading it.
Again, I’m so sorry you’re going through this. It sucks so very, very much. But you are far from alone, as this comment thread shows (sadly for all of us who are in this club no one ever wanted to join). Jedi hugs if you want them.
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