Hi Captain Awkward,
Let’s call me Elizabeth. My dad and I have a strained relationship, and was not really much in my life for a good year thanks to my decision to have little to no contact. Why? He’s an emotional abuser, and so for the sake of my health I made boundaries. Just getting phone calls, or even texts were skyrocketing my anxiety. But…slowly…I have begun to interact a little more with him, my placating mother, & most importantly my little sister (who wasn’t speaking to me for cutting off our parents, because she didn’t know my side of the story or see the worse of how our dad treated me).
So in May, to my surprise my dad told me he was willing to go to counseling. In the past I practically begged him to go to counseling with me, but he wouldn’t have it. I talked to my therapist, and they were frank that based off what I’ve shared about my dad and their experience in family counseling that they doubt his intentions are genuine. I tried telling my dad, “how about we see how things go with how they are now, & try counseling if old problems come up.” I wasn’t entirely honest, I didn’t want to go to counseling at this point, I’d moved on emotionally a while ago, but couldn’t bring myself to be that direct (cause dad can be scary). He insisted, and next thing I know I’m looking up family therapists, cause I WOULD NOT let him pick a therapist cause I don’t trust him.
I found a family counselor (still seeing my regular one though), and have been dragging my feet every step of the way. I’ve met the therapist too now, and given their business number to my dad so he could make an appointment months ago, as we’re suppose to start going in separately for them to evaluate our different needs and perspective independently of each other. This was months ago, and dad has not seen the therapist yet, and claims to have called em but “the number doesn’t work”. I checked it works.
I’m now irritated, and anxious over this while trying to make progress in being the best version of myself in other areas but now feel held back. I haven’t even heard from dad in 4 weeks since giving him the number a 2nd time. I need scripts for when I eventually hear from him, or see him again, and he inevitably brings it up. I NEED HELP SAYING A CLEAR AND FIRM NO, WITH PREPARED SCRIPTS FOR PUSHBACK!
It sounds like you have avoided a trap! Your dad, always the manipulator, can’t even get into the counseling sessions where he was gonna try to manipulate you with an audience, because he’s too busy trying to manipulate you over making the damn appointment. That is quite the self-own he’s got going on there. As you’ve guessed, he doesn’t want to work anything out, he wants you as his waiting audience, as inconvenienced and on edge as possible, doing all the work. Your therapist is wise and you are also wise. Abort!
Was the year of low-contact or no-contact working for you? If so, maybe time to revisit that. You don’t even have to say anything about it to anyone, just, be less available to your Dad. He’s gonna act all aggrieved about it when he figures out that you’re avoiding him again, like, “But I said I would go to counseling, now YOU are the problem – HA HA!” but you can anticipate that and say “Sure, Dad, lmk when you’ve made your appointment and I guess we’ll pick that up again!” (knowing he will probably never actually make it, and btw, even if he does you could say “Oops, changed my mind!” then) or “Oh, that seemed like a really good idea for a while, but after so much time passed, I changed my mind.”
Sometimes “strained & awkward, with no resolution” is as good as it gets with an emotionally abusive person, because you can’t control the other person or make them behave right or make them apologize or understand their role in why it’s like this. I think the first step in healing from emotional abuse is about removing avenues where the person can abuse you and harm you (i.e. limiting contact, controlling their access to you and your time and attention). Another ongoing/repeatable/probably never-ending step is finding a way to accept that your relationship with Dad is what it is, he has choices about how he treats you, and you don’t have to singlehandedly fix it or even fix it at all. You can’t have a good relationship with people who can’t be trusted. Give yourself permission to disengage.
Unfortunately, as it often goes in families, you are the young one/the reasonable one/the one with less perceived authority & power. Your mom and your sister are perceptive enough to know that a) something is wrong here and b) your dad is unlikely to change or to respond to their influence, so in order to try to fix the situation they gang up on you, aka The Reasonable One. This makes everything worse, because not only can you not fix your dad, now people who should be your allies and support system seem to be acting like his emotional manipulation Flying Monkeys. Then you have to deal with your dad and also stonewall them out of self-protection, and deal with their “I was just trying to help!” feelings on top of your own. It sucks, and I’m so sorry.
Here’s a script for your little sister: “My relationship with Dad is my own mess to clean up. If you want to make your own relationship with him, that’s just fine with me, but you’re not the boss of how I handle things there. I want to have a good relationship with you, and I think that probably means that we don’t talk about Dad too much. Can we agree to that?”
Here’s a script for your mom: “Mom, your relationship with Dad is your business, and now that I’m an adult, my relationship with him is my own to manage. I can understand you wishing we were closer, but I have to figure this out myself. If that means we don’t talk about Dad very much, ok! When I spend time with you, I want to focus on you.”
Bonus scripts for any “but we’re a faaaaaaaaaamily” pressures:
- “You make it sound like this is all my choice, but Dad is choosing the kind of relationship he wants with me. When he flakes out on counseling, or does [x specific harmful thing], that’s a choice he’s making, and of course it’s going to affect how I feel about him and how we interact. It’s not your job to fix Dad, but it’s also not your job to try to fix me.”
- “You don’t have to like it or understand it. I’m just happier when I interact with him less.”
- “I hope things with Dad get better someday, too, but right now I need to stop working at it so hard.”
- “Mom/Sister, I really need you to hear the word ‘no’.”
Another shield in your shield wall is to avoid or mitigate triangulation, where your dad manipulates your mom & sister to pass on messages to you and information to him. For example, when you avoid your dad, he might express to your mom how he wishes you were closer and he just doesn’t know what to say to you to get you to let him in. Then the next time you talk to your mom, she passes this onto you and pressures you to “make peace” with him and tell you how much “he’s trying.” If you can anticipate this, you can mitigate it by saying “I’ve told Dad what he needs to do and how to reach me” or “I prefer to talk to Dad directly about Dad stuff, let’s change the subject!” The more you get in a habit of handling conflict directly with the person, the more you can show your family that it doesn’t have to revolve around your dad like he’s the sun.
Obviously, break these down/reword them/recycle/repeat them as necessary in your own words in a way that makes sense to you. Run them by your therapist, too.
As for your Dad, try these:
- “LOL, the number works, Dad. You’re going to have to find a different excuse.”
- “I used to think family counseling would really help, but it’s not a priority for me right now.”
- “Oh, you still want to do that? Sorry, I changed my mind!” – “I changed my mind” works well because reasons are for reasonable people, this doesn’t give him anything to argue with. You’re not trying to convince him that he’s the reason you changed your mind, you’re just communicating a decision you made.
- “If you truly want us to have a better relationship, one way you can show it is to give me some space. I’ll get in touch with you when I’m ready.”
- “We don’t have to be close in order to be kind and respect each other. Why don’t we try that for a while, and see where we end up.”
- This isn’t a technology problem, but there are ways you can use tech to maintain your distance. Filter his emails to a place that bypasses your main inbox, where you can check when and if you want to. You can snooze people’s phone numbers in your cell phone, you can also never, ever pick up when he calls and decide when or if you want to call him back. Engage all your social media filters so that he can’t see your photos or posts. If you need to filter the stuff your sister or your mom sees (b/c they will pass on info to him), filter them, too.
Healing from a parent’s emotional abuse and finding a New Normal that is sustainable for you is a lifelong project, one that you should never have had to take on. It sounds like you’ve got a good therapist and a lot of insight and strength, and I wish you all the luck.