My dad never visits

More than once every 12 years would be nice

Topics: Since You Asked, Family, Fathers,

My dad never visits (Credit: Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

I’ve read through years of your advice columns and haven’t found this specific issue in them so I thought I would write to ask for your help. I’ve found your advice to be very good and think you should have some useful advice for me. Thanks for your time and consideration and Happy New Year!

I don’t know how to handle my adult relationship with my father. He rarely visits. My parents divorced when I was 7. For the rest of my childhood I spent about every other weekend with my father. He remarried soon after the divorce and had two more children with his second wife. He has traveled to see me once in the last 12 years. I am 33 years old now. Of those years, five of them were when I lived in NYC, a 2.5 hour drive from his house. I’ve lived in Europe for the past three years (but recently moved back to the States) and he never visited me there either. My mom visited twice. I have friends who have fathers who visit them regularly and they do things together and I am jealous that they have fathers who show an interest and come to spend time with them. I have expressed to him that I would like him to visit and he always responds in the affirmative, but never follows through. My question for you is how am I supposed to feel about this or deal with it? I find it frustrating that he never visits. It’s not like I want him visiting every two months. Instead of once in the last 12 I would’ve been happy with three or four times. When we actually do spend time together it is enjoyable. He has been there for some of the major events like weddings and graduations, but no more than that. He is a well-paid doctor who lives modestly so affordability is probably not the issue. Am I being unreasonable to want a father who visits me once in a while? Over two years ago my wife and I had a son. He never visited to see his grandson, and would not have even seen him in person had we not traveled to his house during the holidays last year. Other than this I don’t have problems with him. I just feel like the relationship is lopsided. Is this normal? Both my brother and I have been upset by this for many years and I was hoping you could give me advice on how to approach this. Am I being unreasonable? I feel like he’s probably never going to change.

Wishing for better relationship with father

Dear Wishing,

The thing with a dad is you have to study him to see what he will do. Dads won’t tell you. They won’t say, Here are the things I require for a visit, or, Here are my totally secret reasons for refusing to visit more often. You have to experiment on dads to find out what works.

At least this is true of dads who don’t communicate openly with their children.

So you will have to take the initiative. Work with your brother and your two step-siblings to establish a plan. Come up with some reasons for you to get together and invite your father. What you want to do long-term is create the habit, and thus the expectation, that you will get together. Holidays are good; also birthdays. For instance, you could say, “Dad, we’re celebrating John’s birthday on the fourth and would like you to come. We’ll all be there.” If you make it near his house, maybe he will invite you to celebrate at the house. Or maybe at least he will come. You will be so close anyway that you can drop in if he is a last-minute no-show. Think up some things that are near his home and some things that require him to travel. See if he travels. If he doesn’t travel then you know he doesn’t travel.

Underlying your wish is probably some emotion. It might not feel totally satisfying to have to lay all the groundwork and drag him out of his house. But you have to work with him where he is. He has been this way a long time. Expect no miracles. It’s possible that you want more than anything for him to show the initiative, to show that he cares deeply for you and that no time is better spent than time spent with you in your home, asking about your life, playing with his grandchild and doting on your wife. But you will have to build toward that. Start slowly. It will be hard to get him to travel, so arrange events around him. Surround him and wait for surrender.

He won’t tell you he doesn’t travel. He won’t tell you that every time he thinks of traveling to see you he feels a pang of guilt for divorcing when you were 7 and lives in fear — a buried, barely conscious fear — that one day all your grief and anger and recrimination at him are going to come pouring out of you and sometimes he wakes in the middle of the night with a fear that divorcing your mother was an egotistical mistake and that certain things can never be undone and he has to live with them and so it is easier to throw himself into his work and just keep busy all the time so he doesn’t have to think about it.

At least, I don’t think he will tell you that.

So just work on getting everyone in the same room a few times a year, like gathering sticks for a fire.

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