Our relationships with our fathers follow us into marriage.
And many of us have virtually no relationship with our dad–because we’ve decided that it’s better that way.
There’s no doubt that sometimes it is–when there’s abuse or addictions involved, for instance. But let me tell you the story of someone that I know. Her parents divorced, and this teenage girl was “best friends” with her mom already. So the more her mom talked about how awful her dad was, the more the girl believed it, to the point that she hasn’t spoken to her dad in almost 10 years (she’s a young adult now). Her siblings, who were much younger, still have a great relationship with their dad, even spending more than 50% of their time with him. But she just doesn’t speak to him at all.
And I watch this girl, and I think, “you may believe that your life is fine now, but one day that’s going to come back to bite you.”
Just because we choose not to speak to our fathers does not mean that our we’ve cut our dads out of our lives. For better or for worse, your dad is always there, as I have learned with my own rocky relationship with my father. Though he’s not in my life much now, his influence was very present at the beginning of our marriage, and took quite a while to work through.
Kate Tunstall, who blogs at The Less Refined Mind, recently sent me her story, which has so much in common with this young woman I’m worried about. I just love her honesty, and so I want to share it with you today in hopes that it will help some of you come to terms with your past–and your dad–too.
I’ve been writing a mini-series about bullying recently, and this has naturally led me to think about forgiveness. It’s a concept I used to struggle with to a destructive degree, not least during an incredibly difficult period of my life when I was estranged from my father.
Parents and children being on bad terms is not the natural order of things, and as far as my own daughter is concerned I simply can’t imagine a scenario where I’d allow that to happen. Losing my child to a disagreement goes against every mothering instinct coursing through my veins.
I’ve never written about the situation with my dad before, because it’s extremely emotive and I’m wary of stirring up strong feelings – but I’ve recently become aware of the prevalence of this phenomenon. And though heartbreakingly it may not always be possible, I’m willing to bet that in 99% of cases a harmonious relationship would be the ideal for both parties. So though it may be controversial I want to share a story with a positive outcome.
My parents divorced when I was seven and I found it very traumatic.
Sure, families splinter every day. And of course many are in far worse situations than I ever was. But I was young and the circumstances were such that I was left believing my dad was a monster. My parent’s divorce was acrimonious, and my siblings and I bore the brunt.
Years later, I had an epiphany following a comment my brother made about how our mother had (unintentionally) indoctrinated us against our father. I think perhaps that was the beginning of me opening my eyes to what had cleaved my dad and I apart for five long years.
Throughout my teenage years there had been a definite tension between us, which with hindsight I attribute in part to my mother’s subtle but incessant barbs. I wish I could have been stronger, but I remind myself I was little more than a child at the time. My father’s undeniable flaws did not help matters, and between us we cultivated distance and resentment.
It was then more than ever I needed my dad, but something I’ll never fully understand took place which motivated him to cut all contact. Initially I made attempts to reach out to him, but after my third effort I gave up and instead began focussing my energies on convincing myself I hated him.
My mum and I did a pretty good job of turning the diminutive frame of my dad into a caricature closely resembling a tyrant.
And while I by no means condone some of the terrible things my dad did to my mum, as an adult I now accept I know little of what truly took place, having only heard my mum’s (very likely distorted version) of events.
Being alienated from a parent left me bereft, the devastation similar to that experienced in a bereavement. Except worse, because I’d been actively banished. Growing up, I worshipped my dad: he was my hero, so when he chose to sever contact it tore me up.
Without question, the most difficult aspect was that my father maintained a relationship with my brothers. I’ll never forget him telling me that there are only two people in life you can ever truly trust, and they are your parents. Knowing the value he placed on family and then having him turn his back on me while continuing to see my siblings was the ultimate rejection.
I was left overwhelmed with debilitating issues: insecurity; anxiety; lack of confidence; paranoia; low self-esteem; depression. And an unhealthy preoccupation with seeking the approval of others. Basically, all the wonderful traits that add up to somebody most people would choose not to associate with. I know this well because last year I suffered a set-back and I’m painfully aware that it can be blamed in part for destroying some burgeoning friendships. (The sad irony is that anyone in such angst is in desperate need of support. The positive I take from this is that it takes one to know one: I’m often able to perceive and recognise the signs, and offer that support to others.)
One of the physical manifestations of my distress was harrowing nightmares. I became terrified of sleep and drank to avoid them. At the time I was also living alone and I lost count of the times I woke up slick with sweat, my heart racing, unable to move.
Of course alcohol is a depressant, and it did little to help me – not only in the form of hangovers but in the longer-term too. I became irresponsible in so many ways I’m ashamed of; ways I’m too mortified to share even now. But I eventually pulled myself away from that lifestyle by moving to a new city and spending a year teetotal.
However, despite beginning to turn my life around, the separation with my dad continued.
My brothers tried to discuss it with me and I would generally shut them down – it was just too painful to face the truth: I was stricken and desperately unhappy. The easier option was to compress my grief into little hard pellets of bile, which would invariably be spat out disguised as anger and resentment. I’m sure I must have been very difficult to be around.
The worst time was Christmas. I’d be forced to wave my brothers off to spend a couple of days with our dad. I pretended not to care, but it always stung. Wearing a brave face physically hurts.
During one of these Christmas visits my little brother took my father for a walk and forced him to listen to a lecture. He told my dad he’d ruined my life, which may sound like a ridiculous exaggeration, but was actually quite insightful. He also told my dad I was getting married the following year and that if we didn’t resolve our differences then he’d miss my wedding.
He made my dad cry like a baby, apparently. And then my brother returned to my mum’s house and did the same to me.
It took until the following Easter to finally wear both of us down. But after five miserable years my father and I arranged to meet. I was immediately impressed that he agreed for my husband to chaperone me, because there’s no way on earth I’d have gone alone.
My dad didn’t recognise me.
That was a wake-up call to the length of time that had passed, and it wounded. It was a very awkward meeting, but we’d taken that first step. Six months later my dad attended my wedding. I didn’t have him give me away or make a speech, but I don’t think he ever really expected those things, and I was simply grateful he was there and we were working on fixing our relationship.
Sadly, the fact my dad was at my wedding meant my mum’s sister and her family refused to be. Which brings us neatly back to the whole point of this post: forgiveness.
I used to be under the misapprehension that forgiveness is the same as absolution. But I’m more comfortable with another – arguably less noble – meaning:
To cease to feel resentment against.
Essentially, forgiving my dad means I’m actively choosing peace and contentment.
I don’t want bitterness and anguish to blight my future, so I now make a conscious effort in all relationships to forgive and move on. Clinging on to old resentments achieves nothing; it simply sucks the joy out of life for you and those around you.
With the benefit of hindsight I believe what ultimately drove us apart were my dad’s own insecurities, borne of when his father left the family home.
Sadly there was never an opportunity for them to make amends or discuss the reasons before my grandfather died. His legacy to my dad was to leave him damaged in much the same way I was damaged by our issues. During our estrangement this served only to enrage me (how could my dad allow history to repeat itself when he knew how it felt?); but on reflection I can see how it would have compelled him to protect his feelings at all costs – even if it meant rejecting me before I could reject him.
Our history is a very poignant example of how misunderstandings and a refusal to forgive can ruin lives. It’s so pointless and avoidable. And I’m so glad my tenacious little brother helped to end the cycle with us.
Forgiving my dad was difficult; forgiveness is always difficult. It means putting compassion (and common sense!) above pride. But I consider it an ongoing, aspirational form of mindfulness, and mastering it will only improve your well-being.
Did you have a rocky relationship with your dad? Did you ever repair it? Let’s talk in the comments!