How can I let go of my trust issues with my father?
November 3, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Father issues: How to let go and move on, how to trust, and if I should.

My father and I have been somewhat estranged over the last 10 years. We have seen each other at family funerals and hospital bedsides. We’ve been polite and spoken as needed. He would tell me during those times that he wanted to move on from our rift, he wanted to “make good” but then I wouldn’t hear from him. These situations were heartbreaking for me.

Back-story: My parents divorced after 30 years of marriage 13 years ago- my father had an affair. This upset me but was not the cause of our rift. My parents' marriage wasn't a happy one. Common story isn't it? We were very close until that point; he was a good father. I was in my late 20s and my father told me a variety of horrific things about my mother and other relatives. He did this to I believe spread the guilt. I know now that some were distortions of the truth (and that is a generous way of putting it). But these situations he told me were very difficult for me as they isolated me-I could not talk to my mom, sister or other relatives without sharing what he said. As the years went by, I found out from another relative that he had cheated on my mom at another time when I was a child. While I was truly disappointed and saddened, it did not devastate me. I am now 40 and 1)he did not cheat on me-I am his daughter and was not his wife, and 2) I realize he is just a human being and makes mistakes like all of us. However, I am having trouble forgiving him for the statements/lies he told me and the isolation that he put me in that have caused me so much grief. There's more to it than this, but this is an example. My father has a history of very harsh statements to me since the divorce. And for whatever reason, if he says it, it breaks me. If anyone else said it, I could just ignore it.

Now, another funeral recently, and he actually followed through and emailed me. Now he wants to come around. I want to let go of my anger and hurt. Is that a good idea? I want to move forward and I am mad as hell at him still. How do I let go of all the past anger from decades past? I went to therapy for two years in the past about my damn daddy issues and the end result was that if he caused me to much distress, it is ok for me to not have in my life. Which is what I did. He is getting older and is health is getting worse. I don’t want to be a person who is resentful or regrets but I’m scared that this man who I’m so vulnerable to will hurt me again. How do I move forward? I want to lessen the importance of him in my life if I do decide to have him in my life-how does one do that? How can this strong independent 40 year old woman not fall to pieces because her dad emailed her?

I know individuals that have fathers that completely abandoned them, that abused them and these individuals have forgiven and I just don’t know how. So forgive me if this seems so small. I have half of me that says why trust someone who treats you poorly and is so selfish, and the other half (and family members) who emphasize that this is your father. Arrghh.

I would appreciate any tangible help-not just theory but what worked for you, books, etc. Much thanks.
posted by Kitty Cornered to Human Relations (7 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
This is tough. Really tough. I have (had) unresolved serious issues with my father. (He's dead now so I guess in some sense, they are resolved.) Where I have made my peace with things is this: I don't forgive him. I don't. The past is the past, however. When I think of things that were so unjust in the past between us, things he did that were wrong on every level, I still get angry. But, you know, I forgive myself for being angry. At the end of the day, he fucked up the relationship, not me.

I think there's this idea that by "forgiving" we will be made whole. Sometimes for some things that works. There is a special parent/child relationship that is unlike any other. I'm just now really figuring out what that is because I have my own child. The problem here is that my father completely botched the parent/child relationship between us and there's really no way to go back and make the little girl I was and the relationship that should have existed between us whole. There's no way to do that and so I can't forgive him.

But, I can move on and I did move on. I accepted him as he was as an adult and I also refused to shoulder the burden of our relationship (he became a much different person after he retired and after he got serious help with his alcoholism which was good and necessary). I accept this within myself as the healing power of denial. :) I'm only kind of joking. People think you should never be in denial. I disagree. Heh.

I think in your situation, it would do your relationship good for you to be explicit with your father just one time. Say, "hey, I really want to have a relationship with you but there's this thing which still nags at me and makes me not want to trust you and I just want to share it with you and I want you to think about it. When you made these comments and assertions it really drove a wedge between me and the family. Everyone has their side in these issues but I do not want to choose sides between family members and I want you never to put me in that position again. If you put me in the position of choosing between family members again, I will need to cut you off for my own health and well-being." Don't get into the particulars and don't let him defend himself because the issue here is one of trust and first and foremost you want him to behave in a trustworthy fashion.

The relationship with my own father could never be made whole. There was a part of me that was shut forever to him and that part was walled off in my youth to protect myself. That was his loss and I forgive myself for walling off that part and allow myself to do it. I allowed myself to NOT let go of my trust issues but to proceed cautiously into the relationship that we did have.
posted by amanda at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I understand your pain and anger. I've had father issues of my own. Therapy helped.

It sounds like you are blaming your dad for your isolation. I think if you take notice of your own role in your isolation, you might learn to forgive and begin to let it go.

I went to therapy for two years in the past about my damn daddy issues and the end result was that if he caused me to much distress, it is ok for me to not have in my life. Which is what I did.

Sometimes we aren't ready to heal and let go. We want to continue to blame and be angry.

Sometimes adult children are too enmeshed in their parent's lives. It happened to me. When what they do and say affects and pains us so much, it's a good sign that we have not healed. If we have not healed, we cannot let go.
posted by Fairchild at 12:28 PM on November 3, 2012

You father may be telling you the past as he remembers it. He may believe that his embellishments don't substantially alter the reality he experienced. The point is that you can't really know his motives in any great detail, and you may never actually be able to sort out truth from fiction, or fictitious memory from outright lies, or outright lies from cynical attempts to generate sympathy or spread ill-will.

You don't trust your father. If you spend any time with him, the best you can do is tell him out front that his stories hurt you, and you don't want to hear them. If he won't desist, then it's your option to not be around him. If he desists, then it's possible that the other facets of him that were in play as you grew up may come back into play in your relationship with him as an adult. You can be aware of any attempts by him (or, in fact, your other relatives) to use you as a "camp spy." If that's the case, then you have another set of issues to deal with. But it all starts with him agreeing to not try to make himself look better at the expense of your mother.

You are clearly in the middle, and it sucks. But you are the only one who can take yourself out of that position. It's a shame that doing so may cost you the relationship with your father. Forgiveness isn't an issue, so don't even worry about trying to contort yourself into that posture. It will be enough to ask: that he comply with your request to quit trying to make you an accomplice in this business.
posted by mule98J at 12:49 PM on November 3, 2012

I have a father who is manic depressive. He will go long periods without calling me or trying to talk to me. I went over 7 years once without ever having heard from him. He finally came to me and said he was sorry and that he is bipolar and strives to fight it every day. I now see it isn't his fault, but am still struggling with abandonment issues. I don't know if that will be relevant to his not contacting you, but maybe.

On the flip side of the coin, my mother lied to me about my father when they divorced. I was seven years old when she told me that "If he loved you, he would pay child support." That was only the beginning.

Yes, he was a deadbeat dad, but that didn't mean he didn't love me. As a child, I was devastated because I believed her.

In the end, I had to try and accept her faults. She has never been mentally stable to begin with. She is manipulative and calculating. She is very good at making herself out to be the victim when she very clearly isn't. In fact, she was do good at it that my entire family thought I was a manipulative lying daughter. They didn't believe me when I told them the things that she did to me. I grew up with that as my shadow.

All of this is to say that it's really up to you to forgive. You cannot change people. You cannot make them do what you want them to do, no matter how hard you try (my mother is proof of that). In the end, you have to decide for yourself whether or not you can just get past it.

I do love my mother and have (mostly) forgiven her, though I do occasionally rehash some resentment (when I shouldn't), but in the end I know she loves me despite all that she has done. The same goes for my father. I try to be understanding. I believe he worries that he's disappointed me, so tries to avoid me. When I think like that, it's easier to forgive him.

I wish you much luck and strength in dealing with it. Perhaps this doesn't help you, but you may feel better knowing that there are many of us who can identify with you.
posted by magnoliasouth at 1:30 PM on November 3, 2012

it's not small of you

set the boundaries you need to set to feel safe, and tell yourself it's OK to enforce them even if it makes him angry or alienates him

you don't sound resentful to me, you sound sensible - he may be aging and have bad health, but that's no reason to rush back into a close relationship when you feel so vulnerable

if it helps, I actually found myself dealing with a difficult person at work lately and thinking, "heh, you can't hurt my feelings, I've already heard that from my dad and survived it"
posted by hms71 at 2:35 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

My rule of thumb: "Forgiveness is a gift. Trust is earned."

Let go of the anger and realize you still probably cannot trust things he says. Those are two separate issues which people routinely mix up and think are the same thing. Abusive people actively encourage that confusion. They want you to "forgive and forget" -- basically saying that in order to forgive, you have to trust them blindly and let them do the same damn thing to you again, like a sucker. No, you don't.

You can accept him back into your life but if he starts to talk trash about someone, tell him he has to stop, it is not okay. You have no reason to believe him and you aren't interested in listening to him malign people you care about. He can accept that boundary and respect it or be escorted to the door.

While I was still actively being abused, I thought about the tenet in the bible that you need to "fogive someone 7x7x7 times" (I am not Christian, cannot tell you the passage, might be misremembering it -- this is not about Christianity, it is about what worked for me, which you asked about). I would cry myself to sleep some nights, repeating over and over "I forgive you".

I really like Don Henley's song about forgiveness, The heart of the matter. It says "if you keep carryin' that anger, it'll eat you up inside". There is also a saying about anger being an acid that corrodes the vessel which holds it. I think foregiveness is a gift you give yourself more than you give the other person. Carrying that anger lets them keep hurting you, long after they have stopped having anything to do with you.

My therapist told me anger was a defense mechanism, that underneath it was pain and fear. You probably hold onto your anger in part to make sure he doesn't do the same thing to you again. You can set that as a goal and also let go of your anger. You are older and wiser and can set healthy boundaries without anger as your mechanism of defense. Working on that piece of it should help you put down your anger because you should stop feeling like you need it as a shield.

I was an extremely angry young woman. My anger was legitimate and very justified. No one suggested I had no right to be angry about what had been done to me. I learned to let it go, for my sake, not theirs. I felt whoever had crapped on me, it was better to go take a shower and wash it off myself rather than stand in the doorway screaming after them "You made this mess! You need to come back and clean it up!!!!"

I also spent a few years watching tear-jerk movies and wailing like a banshee. After that, I stopped being sad all the time.

Best of luck.
posted by Michele in California at 2:47 PM on November 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Don't compare yourself to others who have mended dysfunctional parental relationships. The abusive parent may have changed their behaviour, apologized, begged forgiveness or offered an extremely large inheritance as an incentive. None of which your father appears to have done. He has repeatedly shown that he cannot have an honest relationship with you; he tells lies, does not follow through on promises and seems to view your relationship as one that fills only HIS needs (he is sad he is not close to you but he is not sad he hurt you?). I think your anger is protecting you from falling into the same dynamic that leaves you a hurt little girl. In your shoes, at most I would respond to his email with one line "why do you want contact with me"; only if he responds in a contrite manner, acknowledging his mistakes and asking what you would like him to do to earn back your trust would I consider continuing any conversation. Choose who you confide in regarding this situation, anyone that emphasizes his "right" as a father to have a relationship despite his behavior is not being supportive of you. Be strong and choose to have people in your life that love you and do not hurt you
posted by saucysault at 5:13 PM on November 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

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