I have a dilemma and am not sure how to proceed. The problem is this: My father and I are currently estranged and although I am incredibly angry with him, and he with me, there is a part of me that would like to have some kind of relationship with him. I guess I know deep down that I love him, and will always love him, but I am no longer willing to blindly agree with everything he says and to ignore the fact that he has lied to me many times during my life and has not been there for me.
My father, of course, disagrees with all of this. He insists that he was a good father. He believes this despite his constant unfaithfulness toward my mother, missing important events in our lives, broken promises to me and my siblings about paying for weddings,, college and graduate school and constant dishonesty to the point where he actually believes his lies. (He tells everyone he is "Dr. _____" and that he earned his doctorate, despite the fact that he never did.) My father has never been there for us emotionally and does not know how to deal with hardships or crisis in his children's lives. When any of us is facing a difficult situation, he pushes us away.
My father remarried about nine years ago and, as far as I can ascertain, is very happy. Since his marriage, my siblings and I hardly ever hear from our father and he generally does not want to be bothered with our problems. I was hospitalized for a mental illness this past year, and when I called my father after my hospitalization he stated that he was too old to hear about my problems and would I please not call him anymore.
My father and I share one fatal trait -- we're stubborn. Despite this, I feel like I should have some kind of relationship with him, no matter how superficial. I would like my 3-year-old daughter to know her grandfather and some of her cultural heritage. (My father is from the Middle East.)
Can I, or should I, reconcile with my father, and if so, how?
Dear Prodigal Son,
It would be wonderful if you could reconcile with your father. But if your father does not want to reconcile, you can't force him to.
That does not mean you have to suffer because of him.
It must have been a terrible blow to be hospitalized for a mental illness and then told by your father not to call him anymore. But you survived the hospitalization and you survived your father's rejection.
I wish I knew what you were hospitalized for, as it would bear on what I have to say. But I am going to say it anyway:
You do not need your father's consent and agreement. You do not even need his love. At one time you needed his love. But you do not need his love anymore. What you need now is to recover your self. The beginning of that process is to recognize, as you have already, that you do not have to blindly agree with everything your father says. This realization is part of the process that will lead you to be able to live in peace with your father the way he is.
There is a middle ground between blind agreement and outright hostility. This middle ground is where you withhold agreement and also withhold disagreement, where you simply observe and hold your ground. You allow your father to behave as he does when you and he occupy the same general area, say, his living room or kitchen, or your living room or kitchen, or the front seat of a car while driving to the airport. You let him be the way he is.
To get to this middle ground where you let your father be the way he is and recover your self, you do indeed need to say some things to your father. But he doesn't have to be there when you say them. In fact, it's better if he isn't there. It may feel like your father has to hear these things, but, trust me, not only does he not have to hear them, in a very real sense he is incapable of hearing them. That is sad but it is not your problem. Your problem is that you have to say them, and by doing so, and surviving it, recover a self that does not depend on his consent and agreement.
So you need a good friend or perhaps a therapist from the hospital to help you say these things in a safe place and grow to understand what they mean. Such a person might ask you what you would like to say to your father. He or she would listen to you say it and encourage you to say more. He or she might make suggestions that would allow you to understand these things as elements of your own personality. They may be ideas of justice and right conduct; they may be feelings of injury; they may be painful memories. However one characterizes these things that you say, the important thing to realize is that they are priceless elements of your core being. They need to be heard and put into action for their own sake, and for your sake. They are important and true regardless of what your father does or does not do.
In this way you move from utter dependence on your father, through a necessary hostility, toward acceptance with difference -- acceptance of yourself as you are and of your father as he is. You accept what you can accept. You even accept his inability to accept you. That is his problem, not yours.
In situations where we feel that we have been ignored by the most important person in our lives, we may question our own validity; we may be deeply scarred; we may question our own right to live; later in life, we may need to be told that we are acceptable, that these things we have experienced and held in are no threat to our existence. The problem is, a child cannot do this. A child cannot parent himself, as it were. But an adult can. When you reach adulthood and recognize for the first time how many things you needed as a child and did not get, you can do something about it. As adults we can find someone to fill in and say, "Yes, that's perfectly understandable; it makes sense you would feel that way and want to respond in that way. But that happened when you were a child and now you are an adult, and here is what you need to do today to make yourself better."
It turns out that although we can find instruction in these matters, such as spelled out above, we have to do most of the actual work ourselves. If we seek, say, a partner, or a child, or a worldwide audience of admirers to constantly affirm our right to exist, we get in trouble. We ask for too much. We ask for what is inappropriate. We distort our relations with others. So once we discover what has happened to us and why we feel the way we do, we have to take responsibility for living with it in our own way, and not placing the burden on others.
In this way we become independent. I think I can say with some certainty that your father is not going to listen to your complaints and say, Yes, I can see now that I was in many ways an arrogant asshole of a dad, I can see that I've done you wrong, and I apologize. I want to do better.
I doubt that he is likely to say such words any time soon. But you can say to yourself, I recognize that I have been hurt by my dad, that I have been lied to. I am a sensitive person who has been hurt many times by my father, and I did not deserve to be hurt like this. I did nothing to deserve it. And yet I live with this day to day. And here I am. I will survive this and not take it out on others. I will survive this. It stops with me.
In this way you may begin to live with this thing day to day, to carry it around. It will feel heavy at times, of course, because it is heavy. But it is a weight that you can carry. You have been carrying it for a while anyway. You can continue to carry it. Just know that you are carrying it. You will grow stronger with the exercise. And it will grow lighter with the travel and the jostling, as bits and pieces become disentangled and dislodged.
If you do this for yourself, perhaps with the ongoing help of a friend or therapist, then you will not need so much from your father. And then you can go be with your father and observe the way he behaves and hear the things he says but not feel like they constitute an emergency that must be responded to. Your daughter can get to know her grandfather. And you will be able to regard him as simply a man, a flawed man but a man whom you love and who, for all his difficult behavior, obviously loves you too.
What? You want more?