How to cut ties with an emotionally abusive father?
November 5, 2012 3:35 AM   Subscribe

My relationship with my emotionally abusive, BPD father has been strained lately; now, after realizing the extent to which his actions was causing me undue stress, I have cut off contact with him completely. But not having a father figure in my life is causing me stress as well. How do I deal with the pain of cutting my father out of my life?

Ever since I have become an adult, I have had a hard time dealing with my father, have gotten to the point that I would like to cut him out of my life. I am having a hard time dealing with this.

He has always been a hot/cold individual, ever since I was a kid - the good times were good, but the bad times were pretty sucky. He is also rather narcissistic and an alcohol/drug abuser - I suspect he has Borderline Personality Disorder, or something along that line. His ex-wife also thought the same thing.

He is also very confrontational, and I think this is a reason I am very afraid of getting angry as an adult. My alarm clock as a child would more often than not be that of him and his (now ex) wife fighting over the most trivial matters.

He is very afraid of being abandoned - he was against me studying abroad in college, and argued that I was making a big mistake and needed to be close to the family (it was actually the best decision of my life. He now claims that he supported my decision to go, and I honestly believe that he has convinced himself that this was the case). But his actions lately leave the ones who love/loved him no choice but to avoid and ostracize him.

He has never been physically or sexually abusive, but he is able to say the most hurtful/critical things during an argument, then forget about them right after and wonder why you haven't gotten over the fight yet. And the guilt trips he leaves for anyone holding a grudge against him are simply awful - in the past he used to be very good at manipulating others, although now he oftentimes just sounds crazy. I oftentimes felt as if I was the adult in our relationship and he was the child, which caused me to have a lot of resentment towards him that I don't have a stable father figure.

Even if he knows he has made a mistake, he refuses to take any blame and makes excuses for his behavior. He was apparently diagnosed with Bipolar disorder, and he uses that as a crutch for every bad thing he has done to anyone in his life. He also alternates between badmouthing everyone I hold dear, and holding them up on a pedestal when they are helping him, particularly monetarily.

His alcoholism has gotten worse since his divorce from his 2nd wife (my stepmom, who I am close to) about 5 years ago. He was dependent on her financially, and has not held a job in I would say at least 25 years. He is now still unemployed, and refuses to take any job that is "beneath him."

I am living out-of-country right now, so all the speaking I do with him is through email. But whether through the written word or through verbal conversation, talks with him inevitably take a turn towards the negative - He would begin speaking ill about someone close to me who is not helping him enough, or badmouthing his 2nd wife - who I am close with and have told him repeatedly is off-limits in conversation. When I was in America, It eventually got to the point where I would have to have a few drinks before calling him him, because simply the punching in his number on the phone would cause me stress. For the past 4 months or so, I haven't been responding to his emails, instead just reading one every once in a while.

He would literally send me up to 10 emails a day, to every one of my email accounts - alternating between how much he loves me/how good the past was when we were a happy family/how I and other loved ones have betrayed him. In the past I told him I was getting overwhelmed by his torrent of emails, and I needed some time without any contact from him to think about things. This caused him to send even more messages, mainly alternating between angry guilt trips and reminiscing about the "good times," when my brother and I were kids. I honestly believe he wishes that we were both little kids again, so that we didn't have a mind of our own yet and would agree with anything he said like we used to. I do not return his emails anymore.

I eventually put him in my email spam filter, but I made the mistake of reading a few lately. Apparently I have no heart since I do not forgive him for his illness (he always claims in the current mail that he "is better now"). I am also apparently the reason for his failed marriage, since I did not try hard enough to convince his ex-wife to stay with him (I still think her leaving was the right decision). I was a mess for a few days after reading these.

Usually when he hurts me, I send him a letter telling him how I feel and explaining to him that I will not be able to deal with him if he keeps this up. I have decided this time not to reply, but instead simply cut off all contact with him.

He has since apologized for those emails, of course blaming the bipolar again. His motto and rationale for his actions, according to him, is that "under the anger is hurt, and under the hurt is love." He knows that I do not read most of his emails, so he puts what he wants to say in the headlines - that stresses me out more.

I'm sure he is drinking when he sends the emails. But reading his emails is like trying to play minesweeper - For ever 5 or 6 good mails he sends, there will be one critical, negative one in the bunch that puts me in a funk for the rest of the day.

My mom is amazing, thank God - without her, I honestly don't know where I would be right now. She actually is on a speaking basis with him, even though he constantly belittles her - I don't know how or why she she does it. She says she feels pity for the man he has become. The way he treats people, I have a hard time feeling even that emotion for him. She is much better at dealing with him than I am.

My mom and brother are angry at the way he is treating me, and my mom in particular says I should not keep in contact with him. But whenever I am around friends who are describing their close relationship with their father, I feel an empty pit in my stomach. I actually have dreams/nightmares in which I am fighting with him/making up with him, and it is driving me crazy. I desperately want to have a father/son relationship, but I just cannot see how I can deal with this man. I could deal if it was just mental illness, but I cannot tolerate the constant negativity and malice he shows to others.

I have decided that I need him out of my life, at least for a year or so, although I am very wobbly on this. I always am tempted to check my spam, although I know for certain that his mails will be in there and the content of the messages will not be good. I would like some advice from people who have been in similar situations with an emotionally abusive parent on how to cope. The stress I am feeling from this is making it difficult to handle my other current life stressors.

PS: I am trying to get into therapy, but there is a looooong wait list and it will not happen for at least a couple of months (I live in Tokyo). I am trying to start a regular exercise routine.
posted by Kamelot123 to Human Relations (12 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
You sound like an excellent candidate to volunteer at a local senior center, my understanding is that Japan has an wild excess of seniors who lack social activity with younger people and would LOVE to have a kind young person to hang out with and give advice to.

"I'm sure he is drinking when he sends the emails. But reading his emails is like trying to play minesweeper - For ever 5 or 6 good mails he sends, there will be one critical, negative one in the bunch that puts me in a funk for the rest of the day."

He knows this, maybe don't check the spam folder?
posted by Blasdelb at 3:50 AM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Forget his apologies. He will not change. He can't give you what you need from him.

Set your email to DELETE his emails (not 'move to spam') - you will not be able to succumb to the temptation to read his messages. Then get on with your life. Don't give him any more of your brain space. He's not worth it.
posted by His thoughts were red thoughts at 3:53 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

But whenever I am around friends who are describing their close relationship with their father, I feel an empty pit in my stomach.

You never had this. If you let him back into your life, you will still never have it. That's something you have to accept whether or not your father is in your life. That acceptance is hard but it will loosen his emotional hold on you.

For ever 5 or 6 good mails he sends, there will be one critical, negative one in the bunch that puts me in a funk for the rest of the day.

What's making this so difficult for you is not only that his negative words affect you. It's that his positive words still have power over you too. Those positive emails still give you hope that a healthy supportive reliable father-figure is writing them. It's emotional blackmail.

You say you don't understand how your mother can engage with him and not be affected. It's because she isn't emotionally entangled with him anymore. It's incredibly freeing and the only way you will be able to have a relationship with your father that doesn't have you on edge and in pain all the time.

Your father is never, ever going to change. Try to separate your longing for an ideal relationship from the reality of who he is and what he's capable of. "I oftentimes felt as if I was the adult in our relationship and he was the child." That's the way it is, and the only part you have control over is the part you play.

Stop reading the emails. You don't have to cut him out permanently, but reading the emails is picking at scabs for you. If it makes you feel better to do so, you can write your father once and ask him to stop reaching out because you are taking care of your own health right now. Tell him his emails are going into the trash unread and that you're not cutting him out of your life permanently, but whatever relationship there is in the future has to be on your terms, and you will be in touch if and when you are ready. No discussion, no reading his responses. That's that. Say it once only, and then follow through. My son did this with his father at age 17. It took incredible bravery and self-awareness to do so, and it was very empowering for him. Like you he feels keenly the absence of a reliable father figure, it's been very damaging to him. But realigning the relationship so it's on his terms is the first time he's felt empowered in his life.
posted by headnsouth at 4:12 AM on November 5, 2012 [6 favorites]

Hi, thanks for the replies so far.

I know I should not check the spam folder, and will try not to. He also makes new email accounts though to get to me, as well as sends messages from youtube/newyorktimes/etc, which is a problem. I will probably change my email address and not tell him. I love the senior center idea, and will look into that.

"Tell him his emails are going into the trash unread and that you're not cutting him out of your life permanently, but whatever relationship there is in the future has to be on your terms, and you will be in touch if and when you are ready."

I think your son's idea is great - I have actually tried this approach, have talked about terms, and was kind as I possibly could be in the email. He subsequently sent a long email blasting me about only loving him "conditionally, " and did not stop the emails. I honestly think he gets black out drunk when he sends the nasty ones, or he is just too far gone from a life of excessive drinking. I have found from many years of trying that attempting to reason with him and draw boundaries only hurts me more.

Looking forward to hearing any other advice. Thank you!
posted by Kamelot123 at 4:27 AM on November 5, 2012

I think your son's idea is great - I have actually tried this approach, have talked about terms, and was kind as I possibly could be in the email.

My son didn't discuss terms with his father. He said "leave me alone, 100%. The terms are now mine and I'll get in touch if/when I choose to." That's very different from what you tried.

He subsequently sent a long email blasting me about only loving him "conditionally, " and did not stop the emails.

Your father's response/reaction is outside your control, and indeed he'll certainly increase his attempts to reach you whenever you pull back. So what? Let him write three million emails. You're not reading them anyway.

The only thing you can control is your own behavior. He is not going to respect the boundaries you set up. If you give in, then you're not respecting the boundaries you set up either.
posted by headnsouth at 4:41 AM on November 5, 2012 [7 favorites]

The thing with this kind of behaviour is that you can't rationalise with it - you can't say - I need to you behave this way / you're behaving in a way that is disrespectful towards me, please change it - because that is rational and, whatever your father's mental health state actually is, whether it is alcoholism or borderline or bipolar, he is more than likely not able to respond rationally.

So you behave around it. You will never be able to reason with him, particularly from an emotional stance. The best way is to not be provoked at all. If you choose to keep in contact, reacting as benignly as possible in all interactions is the way to go. Tell him you hope he's doing well, but beyond that, try to keep emotion out of it. It is like erecting a wall between you and him - you only allow through what you want to. If you try responding to his emails, the volume of them may decrease. Anything negative, you do not respond to. Anything positive, respond to, albeit benignly (thank you for saying that - hope you're doing well). It will feel weird and distant but it is better than feeling angry and hurt.

The objective is to train both of you. You to not be baited by his negative emotional ploys and him to realise that the only way he's going to have a relationship with you is through positive communication. Everything else will be ignored.

It is not something that would ever be perfect, but if you want to keep in contact with him, it might be a strategy you can employ.
posted by heyjude at 4:56 AM on November 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

First of all,I'm so sorry that you are going through this. I have had to deal with a close, or should say formerly close friend with BPD and I truly understand the havoc that BPD wreaks. I cannot imagine what it must be like to grow up with a parent who suffers from it.

Your father seems to be exhibiting all the classic signs of BPD and also that terrible abusive swing between abusing you and then frantically trying to get you back, I've been there! The terrible thing is that he is NOT going to change! I'm not saying that BPD sufferers can't learn to change but they have to want to very much and so many want to world to change to adapt to their needs rather than the other way round.

I eventually had to cut off all contact with my"friend" someone I had considered a sister, when I found out she had been spreading terrible rumours about me, undermining me at every turn, stealing from me,scamming me and now, unfortunately, having long ugly rants on facebook-I unfriended her immediately, but knowing that her vile stories about me and my husband are out there-isn't great !

You sound like you really need some time apart, he MAY come to his senses, realize that his behaviour has caused this and change, but I'm afraid that's unlikely. You seem to have agreat relationship with your mother, that's wonderful ! I'm sure you know as well, that the relationship with your father isn't healthy for you and is not one that want to emulate in any way going forward.

I found the books "I Hate You,Don't Leave Me"Jerold J Kreisman and especially "Stop Walking on Eggshells" Paul T Mason very useful, the website is written by BPD sufferers for BPD sufferers and is interesting and sad to read about the actual experiences of sufferers.

Have a look at -it's website devoted to people with aspouse or relative with BPD and is very useful for links and advice. I would also have a look at, I know that some of the subreddits have received bad press recently but as a huge repository of crowdsourced opinion, go on and put" Living with BPD sufferer" into the search engine and you will get a wealth of practical and sympathetic information.

I think that seeing a therapist is a great idea,I know that it's difficult enough to just get a therapist but if you could find one that actually has some experience with BPD that would be great, I think that it is very difficult for people who haven't experienced it to understand the fatal charm and charisma that some BPD sufferers have and also the sheer level of exhausting manipulation and deceit that they are capable of.

Do look after yourself,get enough sleep, exercise and eat well, you're feeling fragile and you need your strength.

As I said,I understand but I cannot imagine what it is like to deal with a BPD parent. My "friend" has had 9 terminations that I know about, as it seems to happen at least once a year, I suspect the number is closer to 15 by now, she gets pregnant,has all of that drama and manipulates people and then terminates the pregnancy and has all THAT drama and sympathy and manipulates people all over again.
But she's now decided she must have a baby and if I could do anything to stop that, believe me I would, I cannot comprehend what it would be like for a child to have her as a mother.

Work with your therapist, to really work on your boundaries and don't be too quick to try and find other father figures until you have established what is healthy and what YOU want.It may be heart breaking at the moment but this separation sounds good for you -don't get sucked back into the drama until you have had some time to think about what you want and to work on your boundaries. Good luck and hugs.
posted by hitchcockblonde at 4:57 AM on November 5, 2012 [4 favorites]

Simply put: the magic word (or combination of words) that can make your father respect your boundaries and treat you decently does not exist. You could rearrange every word in the dictionary into an infinite number of suggestions, pleas, arguments, rationales, instructions, etc. and he will still go on behaving the way he has always behaved. How he behaves is who he is, and there's nothing you can do about it.

This is heartbreaking to face head on, and in some ways shocking to realize -- because (and this is my second point) it forces you to confront that you do not and will never have the father you want. It also, in a way, forces you out of the "magical thinking" that can be a hallmark of the child's mindset (btw, I am totally not calling you childish; just saying that this can be a point of view that gets carried over from childhood). As kids, we often think that bad things happen because of something we did (e.g., "I got mad at my brother and then he broke his leg so I'm bad for causing it"). Even though as adults we can understand that that's not how the world works, that sense can still persist in more subtle ways, like "if I just discuss this gently, my unkind father will transform into behaving kindly, because he'll see I'm worthy of consideration." And then he doesn't, and it just reinforces the whole circle.

So there are two things that are going on here: the need to confront the real limits of your power -- that is, that you have NO POWER over ANYTHING your father says, does, or feels, which leaves you ONLY the power to control what you do (such as change your email and not tell him, which is a good idea); and two, the need to mourn the loss of the father you never had. That may be a grieving process that will take awhile to go through; it may be a loss that you'll feel for the rest of your life. That's OK -- there's nothing wrong with you if that's the case.

I would suggest, though, not trying to skip over the process by hurrying right into finding a way to create a substitute father figure relationship. There's certainly nothing at all wrong with volunteering at a senior center, for example, but perhaps it will be a more meaningful experience for you to do it when you're a little further along the path of grieving your loss and starting to feel whole in spite of the lack of your own father in your life, rather than right away where it might feel like you're trying to fill that void with someone else.

I wish you the best.
posted by scody at 9:19 AM on November 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

How do I deal with the pain of cutting my father out of my life?

Time. Lots and lots of it. And distance, given what you've written here. It really sounds like you made a healthy decision. As other posters have mentioned, BPD can get better, but the person has to genuinely want to improve, and honestly (- that being the key word, as opposed to "manipulatively", you probably know exactly what I mean) recognize that they have a problem. "Manipulatively" realizing they have a problem being things like your father has already done: saying "under the anger is hurt, and under the hurt is love." Honestly recognizing and dealing with it would be to, y'know, make the effort to connect to and express the love rather than the anger and hurt. My mother (officially diagnosed BPD) sounds very much like your father, and I could never understand why it was more important to her to make me pay for every goddamn thing in her life, and only ever say she loved me when it got to the point where I no longer wanted to speak to her. Plus it was up to me to "understand" that she loved me "beneath the anger and pain". No – your parent's unstated, invisible emotional intents, claimed only in words taken from the dictionary and divorced from any evidential reality, are not your responsibility.

My father was codependent and is still with my mother, pretty much her echo chamber, plus he would get really loud and nasty about it, so I've cut off contact with him too. The loss does hurt; you always tend to remember the good times and wish beyond hope that they too would hold onto those and realize they could get better. That they could find a more permanent happiness. It's been years since I've spoken with either of them, and honestly, it's mainly been that time and living my own life free of their influence that have led to a modicum of peace and forgiveness. Forgiveness in the sense that my life is my own, it's no longer a royal fricking mess due to their never-ending, always-worsening drama. You reach a point, after loads of tears and anger and wanting to scream at them to give you back the childhood you deserved, where you can just breathe deeply and say, "phew, I survived. Wow. That's saying something," and remember the rare good times.

And like another commenter said, you realize that your real-life parent was never really the role model or even just OK dad you would have liked. But you do have that image, in you. It may sound weird, but I've found it really helpful to glean "parental" things that my friends often quote from their own mothers and fathers. Basically, "hm, what would it be like to have a parent who said that to me in a time of need... wow, that would be awesome, my perspective would be different in such-and-such way," and then it transforms from "Oh my GOD my parents GAH" into "hey I actually can parent myself!" It's not quite the same of course, but it is immensely helpful in moving from raw pain and anger towards healing and growth.

The senior center idea sounds great too! And if you ever have a family-in-law, that too can be a boon. I really hit it off with my ex-parents- and grandparents-in-law, to where we're still in touch years after the relationship with the ex ended. They're a lot like a second family to me.
posted by fraula at 11:14 AM on November 5, 2012

Your father is suffering greatly and would bet that his behavior toward you is in no way driven by anger at you but rather desperation and loneliness. Being mentally ill is a very isolating and lonely experience, terrifying. Understanding that could help you emotionally distance yourself from his actions and allow you to have a relationship with him. I don’t think it’s a good idea to cut ties with him at this point. Clearly, you love your father very much and are deeply wounded by a long history of emotional abuse and abandonment, which is why you should try to find a way to have a relationship on your terms rather than just cut him out of your life. Like others here have suggested, don’t read the emails. If he is placing blame on you and his disease, that’s the only way he can deal with his state of mind, it’s nothing personal. Keep a relationship alive for yourself and to know you did the best you could to help someone who is truly sick. But be kindest to yourself, protect yourself and maintain strong boundaries. It doesn't have to be all or nothing, but certainly you need to do something different. I just don’t think cutting him out of your life is a good idea, that will tear you up.
posted by waving at 12:00 PM on November 5, 2012

You never had this. If you let him back into your life, you will still never have it. That's something you have to accept whether or not your father is in your life. That acceptance is hard but it will loosen his emotional hold on you.

Your father (and mine, and many others') will probably never become that great parent. Taking him out of your life will initially feel terrible, because you're in a kind of mourning, acknowledging the loss of the hope for a healthy father. My therapist said that's in many ways similar to mourning a death, so if you feel topsy-turvy, it's natural!

I'm sorry he tries various avenues around your stated boundaries. The best response is no response, otherwise he'll just learn to do x, and y, and z (and a, b, c, etc) before you crack and email him to cut it out. After blocking my father from contact, the lack of emotional landmines and the dread associated with them was amazing.

His mental illness is not your responsibility. His anger, loneliness, fear and other emotions are real, and at the same time, absorbing them forever is not your job. It's the job of a mental health professional and your father. It's okay to close the door to him for any amount of time to protect yourself. Best of luck, I know this is extremely hard.
posted by BigJen at 12:42 PM on November 5, 2012

Mental illness is self-reinforcing, otherwise people would snap out of it instead of continuing the downward spiral. Even if you wanted to, there's no amount of self-sacrifice that could help him or give you a good father. I'm sorry about that. No doubt he is suffering, but appeasing him, as you have found, mostly creates an additional suffering person.

When you ignore thirty emails and respond to the thirty-first, he has now learned the secret of making contact with you. That's the message you send when you respond.
posted by wnissen at 1:49 PM on November 5, 2012

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