What do I owe my father?

My family has been horrible to me. Now my father is old. I don't want to see him. Do I have to?

Published June 25, 2013 12:00AM (EDT)

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                       (Zach Trenholm/Salon)
(Zach Trenholm/Salon)

Dear Cary,

The first time I had an inkling  that the treatment I received from my family wasn't totally a result of me being a bad person was when I returned home for a visit with my toddler during my mid-30s. Before then, I had just accepted that I deserved to be treated poorly because there was something wrong with me, and because I couldn't figure out exactly what it was and fix it.

It had been about eight hours since leaving my home on the opposite coast,  when I told my parents in the front seat of their car that my child was hungry. I did have snacks with us, but by this time some “real” food was needed. My dad was driving; my mom was in the passenger seat. My mom said that there wasn't anything we could do about it because there wasn't anywhere to get something to eat around there. We were driving right by fast food restaurants, pizza and sandwich shops at the same time she said it.

I waited until we arrived at the house I grew up in. I asked my dad for the keys to the car so that I could go get something to eat for my child. He angrily slammed the keys down on the kitchen counter. I don't remember what he said exactly, but he was very angry. I went to a fast food place and got food, but my child was already too exhausted and weak from the long trip to eat it. I put him to bed, and my mom ate the food.

My mom's denial and my dad's anger was just too crazy; wanting food for my hungry child shouldn't start a family argument focused around me. Instead, they  should be happy to provide basic needs for their grandchild.

Long story short, I am now in my 50s and my self-esteem is still so poor that I'm not even interested in having any relationships at all. I just can't get over the fear of being judged and rejected or abused. Neither of my two sisters have called me in decades, and I've just decided to stop my weekly call to my father who's in his mid-80s.

My sister closest in age was a little bit like a substitute mom to me in a sort of depraved way for a few years, but was a complete bully to me when we were young. When my mom became ill and passed away in 2002, that sister ended any kind of relationship with me before Mom was even buried and without any explanation to me.

The first time in my life that my dad ever spoke a kind word to me was after mom was gone. He really wasn't in the picture much before that time, but when he was, he either ignored or embarrassed, belittled and degraded me over the years starting at a very young age. He changed and sometimes spoke nicely to me at that time. If I understand it right,  I think he took his anger at my mother out on me. I think the whole family did. I was the youngest, unexpected and unwanted.

The family neglect went so far that when I testified as a state's witness against a stranger who sexually assaulted me in my early 20s, no one from my family came to court to support me. I ended up in a relationship with an abusive man and in a very short marriage to him. No one supported me when that ended in violence and left me without anything but custody of my child.

I don't really want to get "well." I don't think it is possible at this point. I just want to live as stress-free as I can. I suffer from bipolar symptoms and some other somewhat serious health-related issues when stressed. Luckily, I've been able to do OK with my employment and finances.

My question is, do I owe my dad anything in his final years? I didn't even send a Father's Day card this year. I had told him I would take some pictures and send them, but he said not to bother. He still doesn't care about my needs, he just cares about my calls because he's all alone now. I'm tired of acting like everything is OK. He still regularly brings up my ex-husband as my big failure even though he gave me away in a small traditional marriage ceremony and knew the guy was trouble. He is clueless as to my present life being worthy of his interest or his part in my relationship choices. I also don't want to call him so that he can pass information on to my sisters who won't give me the time of day, but would like information about me for gossip. I just want to live in privacy at this point.

I'm sure I won't return for any medical emergencies he has  (as I have done in the past), or his funeral when he passes because I can't take the hatred from my sisters and their husbands. There's no point in subjecting myself to that abuse anymore. So tell me, Cary, do I become the  terrible person my family always accused me of being if I stop contact with my dad at this point in his life?

And, please don't suggest counseling. I've tried it many times over the years, and they always said you should never break ties with your family. I think they are wrong, and my trying to keep some sort of family relationships going has been very damaging to me.

Family Love Denied

Dear Family Love Denied,

If you owe your father money then you should repay it. If you have some things in your house that you borrowed from him then you should return them.

Other than that, what you owe your father is better stated as a set of feelings you may have toward him, and a set of expectations that others hold. You may feel grateful toward your father in spite of how he has treated you. You may feel love for him in spite of how he has treated you. You may wish to express this gratitude and love. That would be understandable, but of course conflicted. So you may have conflicted feelings. That would be natural.

Your father caused you to come into being, corporeally speaking. For that, many of us feel an undying sense of gratitude and a near-mystical connection to our fathers as we imagine that, in an act of love or lust, the very matter that was to become us was transmitted and our lives were thereby set ticking. It's amazing to contemplate yet its universality can make it seem commonplace. We all came into being in more or less the same way, give or take some small differences in transmission and incubation techniques.

There is what you owe, and then there is what society expects you to do. Other people will have opinions about what you should do, about what is right conduct for a daughter. Those opinions are theirs. Traditions exist to guide us in appropriate conduct toward family. Those traditions are often useful but not always. The consequences of disregarding traditions and expectations are that some people will disapprove of you. Some will talk harshly. That you can probably live with.

The main truth is this: You are a sovereign and existentially free being. You are under no known cosmic obligation to meet other people's expectations. There are consequences to not doing so, but if you can bear those consequences, then you are free to flout those expectations. (We hope, however, that you will abide by all applicable laws.)

That is the landscape you operate in. Within that landscape, you seem to be suffering. It seems that part of your suffering comes from how you have been mistreated by your family, and part of it from how you think about that mistreatment.

Because part of your suffering seems to come from how you think about your mistreatment, I believe that you could benefit from cognitive behavioral therapy. You don't have to see a counselor to do that. You could just read books and do what they say. My favorite book on the subject is the first one I read, which was recommended to me by a therapist when I was having some problems. It is called -- and go ahead and laugh at the title; I did at first too -- "Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy" by Dr. David Burns.

(I should maybe get royalties from Dr. Burns, for how many times I've recommended this book -- or at least a yearly Christmas card! But that's OK. I recommend it because it changed my life. It literally did.)

Of course I had to do the exercises. It won't change your life just by reading it. You have to do what it says.

But learning to change your habitual thinking by using cognitive behavioral therapy techniques can literally change your life. (And I mean literally in the literal and not figurative sense.)

I hope you are getting proper treatment for your symptoms of bipolar disorder. Please make sure you are getting the best possible treatment for that, and look into cognitive therapy.

This, finally: Know that you do not have to be a slave to your dad, or to people's expectations. You are free to decide what is best for you.

By Cary Tennis

MORE FROM Cary Tennis

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Bipolar Bipolar Disorder Family Fathers Since You Asked