How to navigate crazy daddy issues?
May 18, 2012 7:49 PM   Subscribe

How do I deal with an emotionally charged email from my (semi-estranged?) father? Is it time to cut ties? Crazy snowflake wall of text inside.

My dad sent me a very emotionally charged email. Now I'm considering cutting ties. Or just finding another way to distance myself.

After an extended period of family drama that I won't go into, my parents separated after 30 years of marriage because my dad had an affair with some lady. He now lives with this person somewhere in Canada. My siblings, mother and I live in the States. I have never felt particularly supported by my father, especially once my siblings started getting married and having children. He believes children are just the best damn thing, and I don't have any so he doesn't care about what I have going on (pets, partner, successful career, successful artistic hobby after work). Fine. I don't have kids. Sue me.

Around Christmas time, we had a conversation in person (he showed up unannounced while I was in the middle of moving to "reach out) that was very upsetting, where he tried to turn me against one of my siblings and blamed my issues with depression/anxiety on me because I didn't ask for help as loudly as I should have. A few weeks after that, he sent me an email asking me to come get him in Canada because he feared he was going to die and he didn't think he could count on anyone else to help him. I was inconsolable and had to ask my boss to leave work several hours early because I couldn't compose myself. Two days later, I got an email saying he was fine and had overreacted. I cooled off for a couple days, then sent him a long letter telling him that I was truly sorry for his suffering but if he had feelings like that in the future, he needed to contact professionals and that I was not comfortable being a sounding board for my father's suicidal thoughts. I included the numbers for a few suicide hotlines in the area I believe he is in. Privately, I think it's a very inappropriate position to put me in and I was extremely angry that I felt like he was trying to make it my fault if he did commit suicide.

After that, I haven't contacted him much. I did send him a few photos when I got a puppy. Other than that, I have not heard from him. He is able to contact me by phone/text, email and Skype. I haven't heard from him through any of those avenues. Admittedly, I haven't really reached out either. He has reached out to my siblings, and asked them for more time on Skype with their children. They are pretty wary of how irrational he can be, but they do talk to him on Skype occasionally. So, that's the way it's been. It's a lot less stressful with him kind of out of the picture, which feels cruel to say.

Fast forward to a few days ago. My siblings and I all received an email from him, asking us why he hasn't heard from us. He explains that it was not his choice to move/leave, and that he had to because of the consequences of the family drama (they are serious enough to justify not wanting to live here). He explains how unhappy he was in his marriage to our mother (ew don't want to hear) and how he wishes we wouldnt begrudge him finding happiness. It does not, however, apologize for any of the conversations where he lashed out at us (he told my sister in law he thought my brother was gay, he told my sister that the family drama was her fault, he had the conversation with me about my depression) or about the way he stole and lied to our mother before leaving her high and dry. He ends with saying that he feels abandoned by us, and that he wishes we would stay in touch more.

My initial reaction? Eff this guy. He walked away from me, betrayed my mother, and tries to put his shit on me? Boo. On the other hand, I have an extremely hard time telling my father I want nothing to do with him, though that is kind of the case. While I sympathize with his struggles with addiction and mental illness, I think he needs to grow up and deal with it. All of his adult children have had similar situations, and we've all sought help and bettered ourselves. I haven't completely lost hope that he might get better someday. Part of me is saying "do not engage"

I want to find a way to respond that is kind, but also sets a boundary that this is NOT okay. How does one do that? Or, do you think it's time to just call it quits and wish him well? Right this minute, I wouldn't be welcoming to him at a wedding or child birth. Is that a sign?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
I can only answer this by telling you that I am in a similar situation, and what I did was to cut my ties completely. I wrote this post and I have still not been in contact with my father since then. He has made no attempt to contact me -- I heard second-hand that it was because he didn't want the drama (so fuck him).

What I wanted to tell you was this: if you choose to call it quits with him, it will feel like shit. You will feel guilty and angry, and if your siblings remain in contact that won't help. But in the long run it will be better because you don't have that drama around you, and you don't have someone sucking your soul every time you speak to them. I can't, however, suggest what to do if he turns up out of the blue because I haven't been in that situation.

If you want someone to talk/vent more to about it, I'm here and I sympathise. MeMail me if you like.
posted by tracicle at 8:00 PM on May 18, 2012

Can you insist that he obtain professional help? Have that be a condition of your communicating with him?
posted by angrycat at 8:09 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

Hmmm. A few years ago I would have been in the "cut all ties fuck him boat", until my addict and mentally unstable father died. I hadn't seen him in years and it tore me apart. I've also been a family member's go to gal for whatever drama they were going through, so I can sympathize with that (the endless phone calls, the emails, the stress, the worry).
Really, I wouldn't cut ties. I would firmly tell your father to, basically, grow up, and it is wrong to have his child worried when they shouldn't be. This is typical behavior of people with mental and substance abuse problems: they always want to be rescued. You were right to send him suicide hotlines, and to tell him what he did was wrong. I know it may seem like the right thing to cut ties, but really, if you lose that person to suicide or an overdose, you will carry that burden with you for years. Reiterate to your father what you already told him until he understands. I know he may be a fuck up, be he is your father. You can't change that, but you can influence him in a way that won't make you bonkers.
posted by ohmansocute at 8:10 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

So, I have a really harsh attitude about family, because if blood is thicker than water, then the bodies that blood belongs to better be fucking awesome, or I'm cutting them off. Nothing is worse than a toxic family member.

I think you should wait a while, and then let your siblings know that the following is your reaction (your words, reworded slightly):

"Dad, you walked away from me, betrayed my mother, and continue to try to put your shit on me when your problems have nothing to do with me or my siblings. It's hard for me to say this. I sympathize with your struggles with addiction and mental illness, but I think you need to grow up and deal with it. We've all had similar situations, and we've all sought help and bettered ourselves. I would like to believe that you can do the same, but until you do, I don't want a relationship with you at all. When you're really ready to be a proper, supportive, stable father, you let me know, and I'll welcome you with open arms."

And then you send it and just move on. Parents have the hardest job in the world, but that does not mean that they should be let off the hook when they fail at it. He needs to grow up and deserve to have you in his life; I don't think ANY family deserves that by default. Good luck.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:11 PM on May 18, 2012 [8 favorites]

You don't need to speak as a group. You are only required to speak for yourself, and indeed can only dictate your own boundaries. You are perfectly fine to email back and say "I understand your position but I am comfortable with our current and occasional keeping-in-touch communications. If that's acceptable to you, let me know; otherwise, I wish you all the best."

These Birds' email has a lot of what I'd be saying in my head, but if you're not confident about cutting him off, I would not articulate your reasons for making your choices. You do not need to justify them.
posted by DarlingBri at 8:23 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

I wrote this more than three years ago, during which time I've seen my dad exactly once more. I still stand by what I said: Neither I, nor my children, are missing anything by not having a relationship with him. I can't speak for him, although he did tell me that my stepmother is "pretty happy with this arrangement," so there you have it. Most people can't/won't/don't change, and life is too short. You don't have to cut ties, but keep the distance that YOU feel comfortable with. Take good care of yourself.
posted by Sweetie Darling at 8:26 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

You mention that you have also struggled with addiction and mental illness. This is very important information. You need to do what's best for you. You need to do what will create a safe, comfortable, and stable situation between yourself and your father. Often times, mental illness and addiction make it VERY difficult to have these relationship components. Certain people just don't understand where to draw the line, that's why you have to draw the line for your father by establishing boundaries.

You need to say something like "Dad, I find it very uncomfortable and emotionally difficult to deal with you when you talk about -----. While I am interested in maintaining a relationship with you, we need to set boundaries. Please continue to (insert what you like about him here), but please stop doing (insert what you dislike here). Please understand that if you do these actions then I will respond by (insert consequences here). If these boundaries continue to be disrespected then I think we should refrain from communicating with each other."

I have also questioned estranging myself from certain people in my life, but I found a balance that works better for me. The whole notion of estranging at this point is too severe and feels far too permanent, so instead, I decided a long time ago that I wouldn't share my life with certain people and wouldn't purposefully seek contact with one person in particular.

I also told myself that I would only respond to this person when I wanted to. This has surprisingly worked out well for me. This person fails to understand boundaries, but I created boundaries for myself so that I wouldn't have to deal with certain mistreatment. I think this might be an option to consider for yourself too. It feels like a superficial relationship, but it helped create a sense of safety for myself.

Based on what I've read, it doesn't seem like you are ready to just completely estrange yourself from your father especially if you are asking whether or not you should do so. But that's just my two cents.
posted by livinglearning at 8:39 PM on May 18, 2012 [1 favorite]

My "mother" found me on Facebook a few years ago, after 25 years of blessed silence. I had a very unhappy - read here: incredibly abusive - upbringing. When she wasn't actively abusing me, she was encouraging my father to do so. When I managed to finally hide from her - and it took moving to Europe for a year and a half - it was such a relief. University, husband, kids, stable and cheerful life.

She wanted to "reconnect", and was really pushy about it. She demanded pictures of "her grandsons", she wanted to be all up in my business, she wanted me to call her Mom. It was all very distressing and anxious-making, and I told her that she had to back off and stop smothering me and understand that if we were going to manage to even be friends, it would have to be on my terms, and those terms were absolutely not negotiable. The ensuing shitstorm was nothing short of terrifying, and ended with me threatening her with a restraining order and stalking charges.

Up to that point, I had wondered if she might have changed. I had wondered if my kids were missing something. I had wondered if I would ever actually have a mother. Turns out, no. I am...relieved and grateful that I had the backbone to demand that she reconnect on MY terms.

So set your terms. Make them clear to him, and tell him that his behavior is distressing and upsetting, and if he wants a relationship with you, he needs to respect your boundaries and agree to your terms, then stick by your guns. There comes a time in your life when you need to live for yourself and do what's right for your own mental well-being. If he is unable to cope with that, it is ultimately his problem, not yours, and you don't need to let him make it your problem.

Take gentle care of yourself.
posted by MissySedai at 8:55 PM on May 18, 2012 [7 favorites]

Write him a letter, and actually mail it.
-or don't mail it... either way, you'll feel better.
posted by vozworth at 8:57 PM on May 18, 2012

Harriet Lerner's books The Dance of Anger, The Dance of Communication, and The Dance of Intimacy are all kind of good on how t to start in communication when you're extremely fed up, if you choose to go that way.
posted by salvia at 9:05 PM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

Sorry -- this situation sucks. I join the chorus of those who cut off family ties, though in my case it turned out to be only for a few years. Still the best thing I ever did. A couple of things that I learned ...

- It's important to try to let go of the hope that he might change -- or, more specifically, the hope that if you just say or do the right thing, he will snap out of it. That hope just keeps you trapped in his game -- it's his leverage, the bait on the hook, the carrot on the stick. The more you can let go of that hope, the less power he'll have over your emotional state.

- It's also really important not to let him define the terms of the conversation. Don't ever, ever, ever get drawn into an argument about specific points that he raises. You always want to do the "step back and look at the big picture" move. If you get drawn into his points -- even by refuting them -- you are implicitly validating his whole way of looking at the world. It's really important that you pull away from the way that he sees things.

- Trust your instincts. If your gut is telling you not to engage, you're probably right.

- Use the "Is this the way a rational adult would behave?" test, and surround yourself with people who will help you maintain that sense of reality. Talk to your friends, your partner, etc. -- let them help you validate your (totally ok) anger and your (totally ok) sense that his behavior is not right.

Here's an attempt at an email you might send. You know your dad best, so you know best how to tweak the language to send the message you want to send -- but this might be a start.

I understand that you have strong feelings about this, and I sympathize with your struggles. As much as I can understand you wanting to reach out for support, I'm just not the right person to provide it. I'm your kid, not your partner or your therapist, and this email really puts me in an impossible position. I know that, no matter how hard I might try to fulfill your requests, it would not help you, and it would only harm me -- and I believe that, though you might be feeling overwhelmed at the moment, you don't actually want to harm me. I firmly believe that you can find the support you need elsewhere, and I trust that you have the strength to do so. Until then, I ask you to please refrain from sending me any more emails like this.

I wish you the best of luck; I look forward to the day when we can enjoy an adult relationship based on healthy boundaries.

posted by ourobouros at 9:36 PM on May 18, 2012 [5 favorites]

Here's how I handled it. My mom threatened to kill herself to me probably 1200 times between the ages of 8 and 23. It was very hard on me. I told her sister, my aunt, who had just graduated with her Ph.D. in psychology. My aunt advised me to call my mom up and tell her nicely how difficult those threats were for me and to tell her that I would have to get off the phone if she made any more of those threats. I followed her advice. The first time I told her, a few minutes later I told her that I was getting off the phone now and hung up.

She has never once threatened again in the twenty years that followed.
posted by Ironmouth at 10:18 PM on May 18, 2012 [3 favorites]

I think an important part of cutting ties is recognizing/acknowledging/feeling that the person cannot be relied upon emotionally. That he has nothing he can provide you, so far as support or healing are concerned.

My siblings and I all received an email from him, asking us why he hasn't heard from us. He explains that it was not his choice to move/leave, and that he had to because of the consequences of the family drama (they are serious enough to justify not wanting to live here). He explains how unhappy he was in his marriage to our mother (ew don't want to hear) and how he wishes we wouldnt begrudge him finding happiness. It does not, however, apologize for any of the conversations where he lashed out at us (he told my sister in law he thought my brother was gay, he told my sister that the family drama was her fault, he had the conversation with me about my depression) or about the way he stole and lied to our mother before leaving her high and dry.

Look at this. You've noticed the one-sidedness of his comments. His concern is how he feels, what he needs, and how your actions affect him. I'll bet you dollars to donuts: anything you might send him will get the same sort of response. If you send him a letter outlining what you need from him, it sounds as if he won't hear a word of it. If you try to get him to understand how he has hurt you, your actions will be futile. If you set yourself up such that your well-being relies on some conciliatory or helpful response from him, you'll only end up hurt.

Or, at least, that's what I think, given the information you have provided here. I may be wrong. I may be reading into your question too much.

But, if what I'm saying sounds accurate at all, then I think you should be very careful in managing your expectations. Don't engage with him, if doing so will only get your hopes up that he'll finally give you the support/concern/apologies you deserve. Don't write to him, if you won't be able to handle a selfish and manipulative reply.

we've all sought help and bettered ourselves.

Does this mean you've gone to therapy? Either way, a therapist may help you now come to understand what sort of relationship (or lack thereof) will be most beneficial for you.
posted by meese at 8:07 AM on May 19, 2012

In my late 20's I cut ties with my father after one too many times of his (in his words) "letting his devil dogs out on me" on the phone. He'd let them out on me plenty as a kid, and I'd tried to draw a boundary with him as an adult (namely don't call my husband up at work to complain about me), and he totally lost it. We didn't talk for over five years, during which time I simultaneously survived having a tumor and getting a divorce all alone.

My dad called my ex-husband (that was the only phone number he had at that point) to tell him my grandmother had died, and I decided to give him a call and think about letting him back in my life. It turned out to be a pretty good thing, because my dad now knows that if he goes there again with me, I'll cut him out again, and I now know how to draw clear boundaries with him and stick to them. We don't have the closest father daughter relationship (my therapist is constantly appalled), but we do have a cordial, respectful, quasi-loving relationship, and it's important to me to have that in my life.

All this to say, in my experience, cutting people out doesn't have to be permanent, it can teach them something, and if you do it, just do it clean and cold, don't explain your reasons (that just adds fuel to the fire).

Feel free to mefimail me if you'd like to talk to someone who has done it and had a successful outcome.
posted by twiggy32 at 12:10 AM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

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