Being realistic about paternal relationship
January 24, 2012 5:23 PM   Subscribe

How do I become comfortable with how my father chooses to be involved in my life (minimally, not of his own initiative) as an adult? What are the limits between healthy and compassionate effort on my part and a realistic acknowledgment of both of our limitations?

My father has never kept track of my life. This isn't especially unique -- growing up, I went to my mom for virtually all concerns related to school, money, etc. and for my dad for long rambly conversations about things. We're buddies, or at least we have been in my young adulthood (I'm 22 now).

My parents have been going through a very long, drawn-out divorce. Throughout college while this was happening, I played a very active role as the 'communicator,' establishing lines of dialogue between people. As a family, we begun to process some of the tough situations my dad's alcoholism put us through. Eventually we even got my older brother on page, who kind of opted out of the emotional difficulties my special needs sister and I went through in adolescence. I got to convert my hurt, angry feelings into positive action, and I took a lot of pride in it.

Flash forward to the present moment. I'm somewhat of an independent adult. My parents are just about to finalize their divorce. And I'm starting to realize that my father really has no problem going multiple months without talking. Despite our occasional earnest chats where he tells me he feels 'rejected' by the family, and my insistence that I feel rejected by him not wanting to include me in his life, the truth is that if I let things slack, it's always me that re-establishes conversation (choosing the lesser evil of caving over a rejection that lasts many months). The fact that he has shared no details with me about the house he is about to buy feels like the firmest message in quite some time that he does not want to include me in his new life. Or maybe he wants it, but he doesn't know how to express it.

I'm struggling with whether I just need to commit to always being the one who tries in our relationship or facing the fact that he just isn't too invested in my life. I know that he has worked to provide for us, but that doesn't really apply to me any more. I know that traditionally that would be enough of a role for a father figure to play. Bu that just makes me feel pessimistic and cheap about familial relationships. I'm somebody who demands more, I guess, and my relationships with my siblings and mother have benefited from that. Plus, I've worked all kinds of part time jobs and gotten scholarships and now am going into credit card debt to rely on family funds as little as possible.

An undercurrent of this is the fact that I absorbed a considerable amount of emotional abuse in my teen years. While I'm 98% of the way re-adjusted life-wise, I have had to deal with the emotional repercussions of constant unpredictable threats and insults. Again, I love him and we have laughs and fun hanging out, but he has never put any effort into understanding and making up for my hurt other than in the context of one hour-long conversation (talk epiphanies are cheap, I've realized..) I'm mostly moved on as an individual, but I don't know if he ever even gave one thousandath of the consideration to my hurt that I have put into efforts to relate to him and support him, try to establish communication knowing that he does feel depressed and dejected, etc.

So internet world, what do you do in this kind of situation? Should I just adopt a regiment of 'minimal effort' and try not to get hopeful for anything else? I went so far as to confront him on the phone and call him out on his patterns of avoidance, which he agreed to, but the thing is, he does nothing different. He'll make some grand realization in conversation ("you know, I'm so lucky to have a good son," "you're xyzcomplimentarything") and then months of silence. I feel this need to come to some understanding about who my father was as both an individual and a father to me, and how this can shape our potential relationship in the future. Any thoughts?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (8 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
he has never put any effort into understanding and making up for my hurt other than in the context of one hour-long conversation

Welcome to your life with your alcoholic parent. I am sorry this is happening to you. I'd suggest that you consider looking into Al-Anon or ACOA because the list of things you are describing about your relationship with your father is so sadly typical of many childrens' relationships with their alcoholic parents [the feeling rejected, the emotional abuse, the lack of empathy, the occasional erratic breakthrough] that I just want to give you a hug and tell you that it's going to be okay but it's likely not going to be okay because your dad did something about it. You'll have to do it yourself.

For me, I decided on the relationship that I wanted with my dad and went about getting it. If I wanted to see him, I had to go do it. If I wanted to talk to him I had to call him. If I wanted a present I had to tell him what it was and then it was still a crapshoot if it would happen or not. This involved a lot of weird boundary-setting on my side "Sorry you feel that way dad, relationships are a two way street" "No I'm not going to come over and watch the football game with you when you're drinking" and not a lot of effort or anything on his side as far as I could tell. And over time he mellowed out. Granted, the drinking didn't change, it got worse and eventually killed him, but he became much less of a monster to me and the time we spent having not-horrible-fights made horrible fighting seem like less of his core personality trait.

So I'm just viewing this through my own lens, but I'd think more about how you can have a relationship with the person you actually have in your life and maybe spend some time grieving for the dad you're likely not going to have. And then see if you can hammer out a relationship with this person that is acceptable to you. And you may not be able to. Alcoholism is really hard to deal with and the alcoholic seems to have all sorts of special ways to drive everyone who loves them away. I feel that there is some value in not being driven away, in still having a father, even if they're sort of a lame excuse for one. Feel free to MeMail me if you want to chat more.
posted by jessamyn at 5:31 PM on January 24, 2012 [6 favorites]

Reading through this, I think that one thing that you might be doing is underemphasizing the impact that your father's addictions had on you. I'm reading a kind of classic set of behaviors for an addict in your father. I don't think that you need to give up on having a relationship with him, but I do think that you will need tools to deal with his behaviors and his neglectfulness. In your shoes, I would strongly consider joining a group like Al-Anon, to get good advice from people who have gone through similar things.
Or on preview, what jessamyn said.
posted by pickypicky at 5:35 PM on January 24, 2012

I am also the adult child of alcoholics. The hardest thing for me has been: realizing and internalizing and believing that their behavior is not about me.

There is not any amount of good or impressive or stellar or patient or kind that I can be that will bring my family of origin around to support me or love me or even just acknowledge me in a healthy way.

I had to cut off all contact with my biological parents when I was a teenager because they were terrifying and dangerous people. So my situation is a little more extreme. But Some people, no matter how healthy and well practiced your methods of communication are, those people may never ever be able to converse with you in comfortable (for you) sane interactions. This is true with strangers and coworkers and all kinds of people. Some just aren't skilled enough and some aren't willing to have healthy conversations or relationships.

And it's not your fault.

For me, the biggest help was therapy. Specifically, I used Dialectical Behavior Therapy in a group and individual program that was designed for survivors of trauma. For this program, the emotional abuse that you refer to would probably have qualified you to participate. As pickypicky said, it's very possible that you underestimate the impact that his behavior has had on your life. That's not to say that you are damaged, just that you carry around the memory of your father's responses, and that maybe you have developed some patterns that you might like to change.

I'm 30 now. It's been 14 years since I spoke to my mother. You are also welcome to me-mail me if you want to talk about how all of this has swirled around for the past decade. There have definitely been ups and downs, and while I'm not advocating that you cut off your father, I'm also here to give you permission to do that if you feel you need to. (I didn't tell either of my parents that I would never contact them again. My mother was making drunken telephone death threats and my father was just so far away and so deep into an alcoholic haze that he didn't seem to notice. Well. Also he had told me to not call him.)

As far as choosing a particular conversation style/frequency/whatever to adopt with your father, go with your comfort level. At what intensity/time scale are you able to joyfully give your time and attention to him. Because these contacts are just that. A gift to your father. In the clinical reality of alcoholism, he has probably hurt a lot of people through a long period of time. He may be very very lonely. His social skills appear to be impaired - whether by alcohol, poor upbringing, some other trauma, you may never know. Whether he is unwilling or unable to engage you in a way that is validating and loving to you, the outcome is the same. You leave these conversations having undergone a level of anxiety (will he insult you?) and expended a great deal of restraint and energy. Like any gift, expecting something in return does not get you anywhere. But giving freely (within your parameters!) may leave you feeling lighter and freer. Know also that you can set a time limit for the conversation. Sure, an hour of buddy chummy rambling may leave you feeling resentful and hurt, but how about ten minutes of checking in an chatting about the weather and updating him about the crazy thing your brand new kitten did, climbing up the blinds like that crazy kitten you had when you were ten? Leave him out of the big developments of your life, because he likely won't remember/remember to follow up. Express your disappointment in gentle and small ways, but with the frequency you need to prevent angry blowouts.

And yes, go sit in on a few Al-Anon meetings. Note that these are not AA meetings. Al-Anon is the for the families and loved ones of alcoholics. Even if you go to a meeting and just sob in the corner at the losses and resentment and fear and your tender childhood memories, it will likely be time well spent. However, not all meetings are the same, and the ones where I'm told what I "should" do ( my parents and forgive them! pray really hard for their salvation because Jesus will hear me!) are the ones that I just walk out of. the one AA meeting that I accidentally sat in on - because Al-Anon was down the hall and I was much younger - was pretty eye opening for me. Some Alcoholics do have lots of regret and no skills to redress their wrongs. It was frightening, but it also opened up a tender place inside me. My parents truly probably don't have the ability to apologize to me. That doesn't get them back into my life, but learning that it's not about me brought me back into that room listening to those alcoholics struggling with the aftermath of their disease. And reminds me to treat everyone kindly because we're all fighting a hard battle. If I spend too much time in the presence of people who are emotionally draining, I can't be good to them, myself, or the others in my life.
posted by bilabial at 6:15 PM on January 24, 2012 [4 favorites]

What Jessamyn said, with the additional info that it may stay this way even if your father is in recovery. Mine's been in recovery since my teens (20 years ago), and despite having occasional bouts of closeness, it's never developed into a permanently supportive relationship. I just don't think he can manage it. Maybe it's related to the same things that caused his alcoholism? I don't know... Anyway, when I had a baby of my own it led to me actually standing up for myself about some things (enforcing boundaries), and he stopped talking to me. He's still close to my brother, I know where he lives and that he has family nearby, but that's about it. It's been probably 5 years since we spoke, maybe a bit longer.

Sorry, kiddo - if it helps, your dad's behavior really isn't about you at all. It doesn't mean he doesn't love you, he just can't express it in a way that makes sense or has meaning for you. I was lucky to have a great family counselor growing up, and she taught me some coping skills that I still use. You're not alone, and Al-Anon or a therapist might be helpful resources.
posted by hms71 at 8:47 PM on January 24, 2012

"I'm struggling with whether I just need to commit to always being the one who tries in our relationship or facing the fact that he just isn't too invested in my life."

Grieve this relationship as though he died. Yes. That hard.

If he comes back into your life consistently down the road - OK. If he stays a consistent outlier in your orbit, then you've already have done the hard work and his little re-appearances will not upset you as life moves forward.

Move forward. That is my advice.
posted by jbenben at 10:17 PM on January 24, 2012 [1 favorite]

I want to take hms71's line of thinking even further. What you wrote sounds very similar to my relationship with my dad, except my dad is not an alcoholic. What my dad is is just the other side of your normal amount of crazy. In his case, this means that he expects me to call him, because that's how they showed respect in the old days or-- really, I'm not sure I understand it even now. (I'm 41.) If I don't call, he doesn't call, although he might e-mail from time to time. Or might not. When I do call, he sounds and acts as if our last call had been the week before.

We're not talking right now, due to some of his other brands of crazy, much of which he passed on to me, = impasse. I tell you this not because my situation is your situation, but to note that my experience has been that I control the relationship. If I want to talk to him, I just have to be the one who calls -- this I view as a quirk of his, not unlike quirks I have and quirks you have -- and put up with his centric bullshit, which in my case would mean apologizing every time there's a disagreement, because of course he's never wrong. Point being, it's all up to me; I could choose to do these things, and have the pal-ly relationship you describe, complete with all the compliments and other benefits. So too do you have the power here. You get to decide whether the burdens of being the initiator and putting up with any alcoholism fallout and whatever else about your father you might not have mentioned in your question that drives you mad are worth the benefits of the relationship. I can't advise you competently on that choice. I will say that cutting him off now and deciding later that you want to resume the relationship sounds to me like it would be a lot harder than making the effort now and deciding later it's not worth it.
posted by troywestfield at 6:10 AM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

troywestfield is so right. There are many ways that we are in control of these situations. Or are made to feel as though we are.

That's what emotional abuse is about. "I wouldn't be throwing breakable objects into or past your face if you had just ________." etc, etc.

And the energy you expend bring the person 'in control' of yourself and situation, while exhausting, does not guarantee an outcome.

But you can remind yourself before each call that in the event that your father does x, y, or z, you can terminate the call. I have a younger sister, and it seems she only calls me for rage filled drunken screaming matches. Well. I'm no match for that, so I tell her if she is going to stop screaming I'll talk to her. But otherwise I'll need to hang up.

Of course I have to exit the call. But I don't feel like a failure anymore when I hang up. Instead I remind myself that I'm being kind and loving and protective of myself. Of course she calls and calls and fills my voicwmail, using all sorts of expletive descriptors. In your case it sounds like boundary setting and enforcement may receive the opposite response from your father. This makes it tempting to retreat from your boundaries in the interest of preserving what little contact you do have.

It's a bit of mental calculus, thinking about which is more damaging/harder to endure, but please consider how firm a hand you want to use to rein these conversations aroun.
posted by bilabial at 6:39 AM on January 25, 2012

Firstly, I think you sound like a fantastic person - really down-to-earth and clear-eyed about everything that has gone into making you who you currently are, and as far as anyone can tell from the wide open spaces of the Interwebs you sound like a decent, caring individual.

Secondly, I wanted to address this bit:

"I'm struggling with whether I just need to commit to always being the one who tries in our relationship or facing the fact that he just isn't too invested in my life. I know that he has worked to provide for us, but that doesn't really apply to me any more. I know that traditionally that would be enough of a role for a father figure to play. But that just makes me feel pessimistic and cheap about familial relationships. I'm somebody who demands more, I guess, and my relationships with my siblings and mother have benefited from that"

It's always hard when we realise (sometimes early on, as in your case) that our idols have feet of clay - in some cases, still stuck in the mud itself. When that someone is a parent, who is traditionally cast in the role of protector and nurturer and mentor, that must be even harder. You are effectively taking the role of the older, more mature adult and your father is the child in the transaction you describe. That isn't right and it hurts you. There is no clear answer to your question that anyone else can give you, because it all comes down to just how much you value him as a friend and how much you (still) love him as a member of your immediate family.

Note I didn't say father - that's because I think from the way you describe things, he has abrogated that role. He cannot and probably never will be able to fulfil his responsibilities to you in that way - you know that. Instead, if you could perhaps consider reframing your relationship into that you might enjoy with a loving but distant relative, might that help you balance better your understandable sense of grievance and hurt? To minimise your own pain, and to establish a sense of perspective (never easy when we are close to someone who has consistently hurt us), think about how you might feel if this were a favoured cousin or uncle who was flaky about keeping in touch - but who you wouldn't want to lose touch with entirely. I know this is not the case and I know the ties between you are going to be deeper and much more complex, for good or bad, but simply put, how much do you still love him? How much do you get out of this relationship on the positive side, that you would miss if it weren't there? If you still get more out than you put in, or thereabouts, then yes, you need to bear down hard, take a deep breath and be the bigger person.

The bit I highlighted in your query was something I also wanted to mention, but if you'll forgive me, by sharing something of my own family history. I know a lot of people feel they are bound to repeat the mistakes and failures of their parents, because we're told that these things are cyclical and there are patterns - and there are, and things do repeat themselves. But sometimes they don't. If you're worried or pessimistic about your own future role as a parent, then you've answered your own question in some ways by saying you demand more from your parental figures than you've been shown. In turn, then, you will demand more of yourself when it comes to it.

I think the reason I responded so positively to what I thought I saw of you in your post is because that glimpse remind me in some way of my own dad. He had a horrible father, who was jealous of him from the day he was born and who visited physical and emotional violence (and I mean violence) on my dad as he grew up. This man, my grandfather, had in his turn as a boy of 14 or so been made to fight grown men in bare knuckle bouts in Birmingham's Bull Ring by his father. There's the cycle. My dad swore to himself that if he were ever lucky enough to be a father, he wouldn't be like his own - and he wasn't. Not by any stretch of the imagination. He chose not to be. And you will choose not to be like yours - so please don't be pessimistic or feel bad about your family-to-be. You've already shown in your relations with your other family members that you know how to behave positively and offer support and guidance - you're doing it already.

Good luck.
posted by Martha My Dear Prudence at 3:12 PM on January 25, 2012 [1 favorite]

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