How do I forgive?
January 25, 2013 9:51 AM   Subscribe

I am struggling with deciding what the right balance is between forgiving someone even though they have not (and probably will not) acknowledge their wrong thoroughly and ceasing substantial contact with them (which will also make me sad) in order to demand the treatment that I feel I deserve. (snowflake details inside)

There are two semi-recent situations in which I feel very hurt by someone important to me to the extent that I have really limited relations with the person. I tend to be very committed to working through problems with people I care about; I express dissatisfaction or hurt calmly and directly, and I do not like the idea of withholding contact just to illicit a desired response. But in both of these circumstances, when I search myself, I feel like the idea of continuing contact without a serious acknowledgment of my being wronged brings me a lot of anguish and feelings of resentment toward the person. I will describe one situation. Sorry for the hairy details.

My mid-fifties father is remarried to a woman (will call her J) who is now in her mid to early thirties. I am 26. They got together when I was a senior in high school. My father has been a truly committed, communicative, compassionate parent, and because of issues between my mother and I and between he and my mother, he and I were very close growing up, probably too close in retrospect.
His wife is a good person and has worked hard to embrace me and my younger sisters. But she is young, insecure, a control-freak, and has seemed intimidated by me at various times over the years. My sisters and I have all struggled with her in ways but it's been the most difficult between her, myself and my father, probably because of my father and my close relationship and definitely because of J and my closeness in age. As they build a new life together, it continually is my presence that has had to shift to accommodate it. She has recently become pregnant, something that's shocking but that I was very happy for them about.

I came home Christmas weekend (I live out of state) to overhear them talking negatively about me. I was shocked and asked them to sit down and talk with me about it. Dad's wife turned to me and told me that I was 26, that when she was 26 and she had issues, she didn't talk to her dad or her friends, but she went and talked to a doctor. (I have been frustrated with my new living situation and have expressed that to my dad but hadn't talked to him since Thanksgiving. I do talk to a therapist and feel good about my ability to cope with problems). It went on from there with her basically saying that I shouldn't be talking with my father about challenges in my life and should be dealing with them myself. My father wouldn't get involved in the conversation too much until I really pushed him to acknowledge that I wasn't calling him asking for support but that J had heard him be frustrated that I sounded discontent and that he couldn't fix it.

The talk went on for several hours with her telling me what was wrong with me and asking me if I was working on myself and bringing up things that had happened 8 years ago. This was obnoxious as she doesn't contact me and could have done so if she was truly concerned. I felt humiliated, hurt, shocked, angry. I told them that I didn't want to be reactive and say something I didn't mean, and left. I gave it some time, and decided that I really feel like the situation was inappropriate, that she shouldn't be setting the boundaries of my relationship with my father or making judgments about me and that it was wrong that he not get involved in the conversation when it was directly about his and my relationship; instead he let a woman who he has brought into my life, not my parent, effectively speak for both of them.

I have since talked to my father, who has reached and he would clearly like to just move on as if everything is ok. I have told him everything above; he tries to be neutral, will not acknowledge directly that anything that went on was wrong or that his wife was out of line. He would like to see me when I come home, and I would like to see both of them very much. I want to give his wife a present for the baby, hear about her pregnancy. But I am deeply unsatisfied with the fact that she has not acknowledged any wrong doing or even reached out to me in any way (she doesn't have to because she quite has the power in this situation) and that my father will not even say "Yes, there are some things that happened that shouldn't have happened and I have spoken with her as well about it.")

As I said, there is one other situation in my life like this where I'm fairly certain that the person will never say what I would like them to say about their misdeed, though I do care about them being in my life. I don't want to cut off my nose to spite my face, but it's so hard to let go of my negative feelings toward them without this. Any suggestions? Or how do other people determine when you just have to suck it up and be the bigger person? Thanks for taking the time to read all this above.
posted by sb3 to Human Relations (40 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Forgive her pettiness. That doesn't mean you forget it. But it does mean that you divorce yourself from being controlled by it.

So if you want to discuss something with your father, do it. If your father chooses not to listen to you because of what his wife says, your problem is ultimately with your father.

Live your life. Move ahead. If it happens again and she treats you anywhere near this way again, tell her that the way you are being treated is unacceptable and you have to remove yourself from this situation.
posted by inturnaround at 10:03 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Your step-mother clearly has issues and is in some ways not a nice person; she's also pregnant and may be trying to carve out primacy of your dad's relationship with the new baby. Your dad also seems to have issues opposing her, which (if she's doing what I suspect she's doing) I can understand. He has to live with her; you don't.

So: how about you don't forgive her and don't cut her out of your life? You can just have a relationship with your dad and be polite but distant from her. You don't have to resolve this or have a great relationship with her or reach any kind of understanding with her. You can just gloss over it, resolve to not engage, and carry on tolerating her for the sake of your relationship with your dad.

It works that way in more than one step-family (and indeed, in more than one non-step-family...)
posted by DarlingBri at 10:04 AM on January 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

Best answer: I don't have advice, I have a book suggestion (and not a self-help book, either) - The Sunflower. It is one of the most profound and nuanced books about forgiveness that I have ever read in my life; the first half is a story Simon Wiesenthal writes about being in a concentration camp, and getting into a situation where a mortally-wounded Nazi asks Wiesenthal for forgiveness "on behalf of all Jews" for his misdeeds. Wiesenthal didn't know what to do, so he did nothing; he later gets into a debate with some friends about what he shoud have done. But at the end of his essay he's still not sure, so the essay closes with a "what do YOU think I should have done" question to the reader. And the second half of the book is a series of essays by a number of religious and political leaders, all answering his question.

You will find an astonishing range of opinions about forgiveness in there - its function, its purpose, whether certain acts are and aren't forgiveable, who does and doesn't have the right to forgive, etc. One of the big things a few of the people said was that forgiveness actually isn't about making everything all better, it is freeing up the victim to just close a book on something and move on rather than actively trying to expend energy in hatred or revenge or hurt. You don't forget what the person did, you move forward with a bit more caution, but you just decide that you're not going to dwell on it any more and deal with any future misdeeds if and when they come rather than before.

And if you want a personal endorsement for how well this book works? ...I lived in New York in September of 2001. I read that book three times in a row in October of 2001. And by November of 2001, I can honestly say that I had forgiven Osama Bin Laden.

Good book. Check it.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:05 AM on January 25, 2013 [14 favorites]

You don't have to forgive someone who doesn't ask for forgiveness. You can accept that she's a difficult, not-so-nice person.

just because you haven't "forgiven" her doesn't mean you need to embark on a lifelong vendetta against her, either.
posted by deanc at 10:16 AM on January 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

You have two issues with two people.

1. Your stepmother. She feels like you should be living her life a certain way. Opinions are like assholes, everyone has one. Don't engage her on this, don't justify yourself or your decisions. Come up with a neutral statement, "We're very different people and we handle our issues differently." Then leave it alone. What you can think in your head is, "Life is very easy when you find an older, established guy to glom onto, isn't it?"

2. Your Dad. It sucks that he didn't stick up for you, but he's got to live with her. Also guys as a rule HATE conflict and rarely want to hash out what the issue is. Your comment to him is, "I'm disappointed that you let Stepmom speak to me that way."

Now, how to move forward.

Until you're over your anger, don't initiate contact. If your Dad wants to move on as if nothing has happened, and you're okay with that, go ahead.

Personally, I'd be all passive aggressive and just make short calls to check in with him. Wait for him to bring up the heavy stuff. Chances are, he won't. He may not WANT to talk with you about the heavy stuff. It sucks, but there it is. Some men aren't comfortable with feelings, and won't tell you when you're violating their comfort zone (hence his discussion with your stepmom--"Make her stop telling me things!")

It may be that for now a superficial relationship is what will work for all of you.

Your stepmom may never acknowledge that she was wrong, she may be waiting for an apology from you! Learn to live with it.

You have to let it go. Forgive them because they didn't mean any harm, they're doing the best they can. Your stepmom might be a bitch on wheels because of her pregnancy, or whatever. Don't let the situation rent space in your brain, it's not worth it.

Forgive them because it lets you move on happily, not because it absolves the people who have hurt you.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:19 AM on January 25, 2013 [8 favorites]

I can see how this situation would have been hurtful, but I have also seen overly-close parent-child relationships in the past (too close, as you say), and they are difficult to tiptoe around. When I date a guy who is too close to his mother, it does bother me, because it tends to introduce an unpleasant dynamic into the primary romantic relationship. Your step-mother may be frustrated that she is currently dealing with a pregnancy and sees her husband spending an undue amount of time talking and fretting about the problems of his adult child. There's a fine line between being able to talk to your parent about what's going on in your life, and that parent not knowing how to deal in a healthy manner with their children's issues.

What I'm saying is that though I can see how it feels to you that she was acting out of insecurity and maybe cynically trying to carve out primacy for her own baby, her position is actually relatively sympathetic. I don't know what the conversation you had with her was like, it might have been highly unpleasant, but there can be a point at which very very close family relationships (even between parent and child) impede the growth of other adult relationships, and she might have simply reached the end of her leash while trying to be understanding and supportive previously.

I have told him everything above; he tries to be neutral, will not acknowledge directly that anything that went on was wrong or that his wife was out of line.

This is probably because he loves his wife and doesn't want to plant bad seeds about her with you behind her back. In fact, this is exactly the kind of too-close family dynamic that makes romantic relationships so difficult-- you expect him to speak negatively about his wife behind her back because he couldn't confront her at the time, but that is establishing that you two are closer and "in the know" and she's simply a slightly crazy outsider whose feelings aren't worth changing your adult relationship with your father. I have a feeling your father doesn't feel this way about his own wife. It's difficult to be the child in this situation, but I can remember many times I fought with my mom or dad as a kid and the other parent would not indulge my desire to hear that I was right, because they loved and respected their partner, and this wasn't about building parent-kid alliances that exclude other people.

I completely understand why you feel hurt or even shocked, but since you yourself acknowledge that your relationship with your father might be too close, I think it would be wise to consider what might be making your step-mother feel neglected, even if she brought up her concerns in an inappropriate fashion. I'm just speaking from experience dating someone who (in my opinion) was too close to a parent to have a primary romantic relationship at the time.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:23 AM on January 25, 2013 [20 favorites]

I would say your answer might not be to forgive her or cut her off. It might mean you set boundaries and maintain a cordial distance. Send a nice note about the baby and a gift. Send Christmas cards. Be pleasant but not too familiar. Don't put up with shit and don't let yourself get dragged into the mud.

If you overhear her talking negatively about you don't invite a long serious discussion about it. This is someone who is primarily concerned with her own demons and not your well-being. Just say "Hey, you know I can hear you" or "Not very nice" or "Guess we'll have to disagree on that," and in your head just tell yourself "WHOA, she's got issues" and move on.

Long serious discussions about what's wrong with you are suspect at best, but only appropriate with people who love you seriously and deeply and aren't clouded by other motivations, and when what's wrong with you is say, drug addiction and not normal life struggles. If she starts a discussion about what's wrong with you, end it. Leave the room. You aren't going to win this kind of discussion with her, ever, because the topic of discussion is not what the discussion is about.
posted by bunderful at 10:25 AM on January 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

As they build a new life together, it continually is my presence that has had to shift to accommodate it.

I also wanted to point out that this is somewhat normal, as you're now 26 and an independent adult who hasn't spoken to him since Thanksgiving. Your father was a good parent for a very long time, but he's also an individual who wants a new life for himself after what sound like some very bad issues with your mother/his ex-wife.
posted by stoneandstar at 10:25 AM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Lots of people can be judgmental jerks. If this is really the only incident in about 10 years with a step parent, you are lucky. If I were you I'd think a bit less of her but move on.

(and when she was your age she had a husband [that could of been her father] to talk to. Maybe that helped her avoid going to her parents)
posted by beccaj at 10:27 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I've been struggling with forgiving someone in my life who is either not sorry or will never admit that they are sorry for what they did. It led me to asking this question about a year ago. There was a lot of great advice there that you might find helpful.

Also, I found this article recently which seemed to get though to me (it's had for me to wrap my head around that the forgiveness is for me). I hope this helps. Good luck!
posted by marimeko at 10:27 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

You're not looking for an apology, you're looking for J to stop acting like your mother. That may or may not ever actually happen, but you can affect how you deal with it. "The talk went on for several hours..." You don't have to let it. Walk away. Tell her, "I don't want to sit here while you're talking to me like that. So I'm leaving. Bye." Notice that you're not telling her to do anything; nor are you putting the onus on her to stop -- you're taking control of the situation. You're actually winning.

Plus, what marimeko said: Forgiveness isn't about whether the score is even or the other person has sufficiently apologized or atoned or put things right. Forgiveness is a gift to you from yourself -- you are taking control and not letting her past actions affect your present mood.
posted by Etrigan at 10:35 AM on January 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

Forgiveness has no relationship at all to apology. That's not to say you should or shouldn't forgive, it's just that you shouldn't be thinking "why should I forgive if she hasn't apologized." Forgiveness is an act of grace, not a boon we trade for the favor of an apology--it is given regardless of what we do or do not get in return for it. You forgive because you don't want the burden of carrying resentment around and/or because you recognize that we are all fallible creatures and you know that plenty of people have had to forgive you for things you've done that were less than ideal.

The question you ask yourself about forgiveness is "will I be happier if I can simply forgive this and move on?" It sounds to me as if, in this case, you will be. It's not as if you've discovered some awful, ongoing harm that is being perpetrated here. You've discovered simply that your step mother has a certain opinion about the way you ought to live your life and that your father does not want to play referee in that disagreement. That seems pretty reasonable on your father's part and you have no particular reason to care what your stepmother thinks about how you should live your life.
posted by yoink at 10:40 AM on January 25, 2013 [11 favorites]

What are you getting out of holding onto this?

You either forgive or you don't.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 10:42 AM on January 25, 2013

You forgive her and your father for your sake.

Going forward, I think maybe you should realize things have changed. I'm very very sorry.

You say it is "shocking" your step-mother is pregnant. Um, what were you expecting would happen between them? It sounds like maybe you have some baggage to unpack here.

That said, the ganging up on you and dumping all over you was NOT appropriate.

It sounds like you've been notified you are expected to be more independent from this point forward, but in a way that wasn't very nice. Again, I'm sorry this information came to you the way it did. It must have hurt a lot.

How do you feel about these changes in dynamic? You don't have a choice in the matter since this is their joint decision, but it is OK for you to have an opinion.

Figure out how you feel. Then you'll know what actions to take or not.
posted by jbenben at 10:45 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not a forgiving soul myself, not at all, so there's your grain of salt for what follows.

My dad married my stepmother when I was much younger than you, and over the years she gradually pushed me more and more forcefully out of the picture, particularly after I went to college and she got pregnant with my half sister and half brother. Eventually she actually threw out all my father's pictures of me, collections of my schoolwork, etc., as well as every stick of furniture, book, picture, etc. in my home bedroom. I know she had plenty of negative things to say about me when I was around, and my dad didn't argue with her on my behalf, as he was a very passive guy. And my father loved her dearly all his life, even after he got old and she dumped him.

I don't see the point of forgiving her all of this. I just maintained as good a relationship with my dad as I could, as I adored him. When she divorced him and moved to her own home, I spent a lot of time flying home to see my dad, and I am glad of every minute of that.

Not forgiving doesn't mean brooding. Just be real -- this woman is not going to be a trustworthy friend for you. I'd be polite to her when you see her or talk to her on the phone, turn a deaf ear to whatever discussions about you she has with your dad, and do all you can to keep strong ties with him.

This has been the hardest area of my personal life, but as I said I am so glad I kept what was important to me -- my links with my dad. Especially now that he is gone.
posted by bearwife at 10:49 AM on January 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

She is not an authority figure in your life. I would simply call her, tell her she is not in charge with your relationship with your father, and that from now on her input is invalid.

You can talk to your dad about anything you want. It is NOT inappropriate. That is what a father is for. From now on, you grab the reins of the relationship. Let him deal with his wife as he chooses, but she is NOT your mother and NOT a mother figure for you, and that however she handled her stuff when she was 26 has no bearing on YOU whatsoever.

Yes, forgive her for being a butthead, because she did act like one, but go on and have the relationship with your DAD that the two of YOU agree on.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 10:51 AM on January 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

My father’s wife is also much younger than he is, and just a few years older than I am. I understand how bizarre and occasionally awkward that can be.

The fact that you include that backstory in your question makes me think that it is relevant to your question. When my dad’s now-wife first came along I had a lot of mixed emotions about the shifting dynamic in my family. And you know what? It probably sucked for her too! She had to come into our life, our house, our memories, and that had to be tough. I try to remember that. Is it possible that you want her to somehow acknowledge the fact that she has replaced you in your father’s life?

Do you think they were correct in their assessment of you? If so, then I think you’re more angry at yourself than at them. If they’re wrong, then who cares what they said?

(You sat them down to talk to them about something you knew was going to be unpleasant. Don’t do that anymore.)

This part right here: she shouldn't be setting the boundaries of my relationship with my father or making judgments about me and that it was wrong that he not get involved in the conversation when it was directly about his and my relationship; instead he let a woman who he has brought into my life, not my parent, effectively speak for both of them. This is your father’s fault, not her’s. Don't blame her for something he is responsible for. It sounds to me like you're mad at her, but not at him, which goes back to my first point.

The only person you can control in this situation is you. Try to get over this situation, but not by framing it as forgiveness. If you need closure, maybe figure out what your part in this situation is, and apologize for it. Then you can put it behind you and move on.
posted by lyssabee at 11:01 AM on January 25, 2013

Best answer: It's cool that you can see your dad's wife as a young insecure control freak AND a good person. I believe you that she is both.

Negative images of myself can be astonishingly destructive. One thing that has helped me regrow a thick protective skin after such incidents is remembering that those images are constructed by other people for particular purposes that are nothing to do with me. It helps that I'm a linguistic anthropologist; maybe you can think of yourself as one too, discovering how particular genres of conversation work.

I came home Christmas weekend (I live out of state) to overhear them talking negatively about me. I was shocked and asked them to sit down and talk with me about it.

Sadly, 'Eavesdroppers hear no good of themselves' applies to accidental eavesdroppers too. When you overhear an utterance designed for another audience, you necessarily and intrinsically are taking that utterance out of context. So when you are one of the referents of that utterance, you are forced to construct a distorted image of yourself, which sucks.

The original context, it sounds like, wasn't really 'what kind of person is sb3?'. Rather, it sounds like this utterance was part of a marital genre described and heavily advocated by John Gottman, in which one spouse talks about whatever's stressing them, and the other spouse demonstrates marital loyalty by taking the first spouse's side against other people involved in the stressful situation: Guttman refers to this as "Us Against the World". In the examples he gives, the supportive spouse is often highly critical of other people, even when the stressed spouse is not, and the supportive spouse must demonstrate solidarity even when this requires jettisoning accuracy or justice.

As either a stressed spouse or a supportive spouse, I can't imagine anything more awkward than having this third person suddenly appear on the scene and want us both to talk about it. I'm not saying you were WRONG to request this -- just that it would make me feel horribly awkward, because (a) I would feel guilty towards the person we were talking about, and (b) my guilt would make me feel disloyal towards my spouse. It's kind of an impossible situation: if I admit that the conversation doesn't represent the third party fairly (which it doesn't -- that was never its purpose), then I'm deconstructing and undermining my previous performance of spousal loyalty, IN FRONT OF MY SPOUSE.

In this impossible situation, your dad's wife chose to double down: to circle the wagons defensively. Her unfair, judgmental, hurtful rant undoubtedly stems from a number of longstanding issues, including her insecurity about your closeness in age, which she has evidently coped with by constructing a narrative in which she is so much more mature than you (which frankly it doesn't sound like she is, but of course that just adds to the insecurity). But maybe it will help if you can see it as, in part, a demonstration of loyalty to her marriage.

It sounds like you are OK with the fact that your dad told her he was frustrated that you are discontent and he can't fix it. (Which in itself says nothing bad about you -- all adults will sometimes be discontent, and your dad's frustrations, as he learns how to be the parent of an adult rather than a child, are kind of touching and human.) What you overheard can be charitably interpreted as your dad's wife trying to soothe that frustration and shore up their bond. Gottman has some pretty good evidence that such behavior, although it may be ethically dodgy, is good for a marriage and good for your dad's stress levels.

You might find it helpful to think about the conversation afterwards as just a fucked-up conversation, that never should have happened. Asking people to sit down and talk about what hurt you is a very mature, level-headed response, for which you're to be commended. But given the various collisions and conflicts in this particular case, it would be difficult, even for someone more skillful than your dad's wife, to resolve matters gracefully.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:05 AM on January 25, 2013 [30 favorites]

Best answer: tl; dr: you're hurt because of what she said (and he let her say) about you; but really, if you analyze what they were doing, it wasn't about you. This sort of insight has helped me let go of injured feelings (which is different from sucking them up), and I hope it helps you a bit too. Since pregnancy is a time when demonstrating spousal loyalty becomes paramount, pushing for acknowledgement/apology may well make everyone dig themselves more deeply into entrenched positions on a battlefield that never should have happened. Work on your feelings by yourself, and don't conflate this situation with the other situation in your life. (Your hurt may feel the same, but the situation probably isn't.) Go ahead and buy that gift! Erase the incident, and overwrite it with happy, auspicious, forward-looking celebration, because that's what IS about you: you have a lot of emotional intelligence and can be a beneficial influence in this new baby's family world.
posted by feral_goldfish at 11:30 AM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

Long serious discussions about what's wrong with you are suspect at best, but only appropriate with people who love you seriously and deeply and aren't clouded by other motivations, and when what's wrong with you is say, drug addiction and not normal life struggles. If she starts a discussion about what's wrong with you, end it. Leave the room. You aren't going to win this kind of discussion with her, ever, because the topic of discussion is not what the discussion is about.

i wish i could star this a thousand times.
posted by lia at 11:34 AM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

feral_goldfish said what I was going to say, but much, much better. Strange as it seems, the conversation about you between your father and his wife wasn't really any of your business, and you gained nothing by entering into it.

For example, I think my parents would be pretty hurt by some of the conversations that my girlfriend and I have about them. But those conversations aren't really about them. They're about my girlfriend and I negotiating the ways that our relationship with each other intersects with my relationship with my parents, which is tricky on a good day. If my parents were to overhear me talking to my girlfriend about them, and then confront us about what they heard, they would probably walk away feeling even more hurt than if they had just left it alone, because now I'm in the position of suddenly having to direct my frustrations with them directly at them, instead of at a safe third party. And that's probably not going to go well.

It would have been best if you had never overheard them talking, and second best if you had tried to ignore the conversation once you did overhear it. Those ships have sailed, so at this point third best is to try to move past it and forget about it.
posted by Ragged Richard at 11:43 AM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

If it were me, I would continue the relationship as it was, and the next time she tries to tell you how to live your life, you smile, thank her and do whatever the heck you think is write ignoring her so called advice.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 11:45 AM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Without getting into the fine points of who did what, I can actually feel for everyone in this situation, including your stepmother. And conversely, I don't think anybody did a very good job here of respecting everybody else's needs and boundaries and what would make each other comfortable and uncomfortable.

Your relationship with your father is between you and him, yes. But he is going to talk to his wife about it, and he's allowed to do that, and if you ask her to talk about a private conversation they were having about it just because you overheard it ... well, you're going to wind up having a conversation about it with her that you don't want. Make that relationship between you and your father again. Understand that they may have private conversations about you, which you don't have to concern yourself with, because married people vent their frustrations to each other sometimes, and they try to advocate for each other, and they don't like taking sides against each other.

It sounds like she told you all this because you initiated a conversation about it, and the good news there is that if this is the first time that's happened, then she probably won't do it again if you don't bring it up. You have learned that you don't enjoy discussing either your life or your relationship with your dad with her, so ... don't.

I like the fact that you used the word "unsatisfied" to describe how you feel now. I think you hit it on the head. Nothing -- NOTHING -- has helped my relationships with other people more than abandoning the expectation that I will be satisfied all the time by how everything ends. Sometimes people don't act as you want them to, they don't apologize when you wish they would, they don't intuit your feelings when you feel like they ought to be able to. People can be unsatisfying. Very unsatisfying, sometimes. You can still like them, love them, value them, believe they love and value you.

The good news is, it's not court. There doesn't have to be a verdict. You can quietly go about your life believing -- forever -- that she was rude to you on this particular day about this particular thing, and she can go about her life believing that she wasn't, and provided she doesn't go on with this and doesn't insist on revisiting it, you don't have to, either. You can both live the rest of your lives thinking each other to have been totally unreasonable on Long Argument Day, and you can like each other, get along, and even love each other if that's appropriate.

One suggestion for a very loving thing you can do for your dad: Don't make him pick a side. Understand that his wife, hard as it may be for you to believe, probably believes in her position as strongly as you do in yours. Just as your relationship with him needs to be between you and him, your relationship with her needs to be between you and her. Don't make your dad referee that. You don't have to "forgive" her in the sense of some grand reconciliation. You just have to accept that it was an awful day, one out of many, and you're never going to see eye to eye about whose fault it was.
posted by Linda_Holmes at 11:56 AM on January 25, 2013 [11 favorites]

Great advice above. This woman sounds awful. Your situation was mine a few years ago, when my widowed dad hooked up with a control freak girlfriend who was majorly threatened by me. One day she called a meeting with my dad and my uncle, and sat me down and started yelling at me about everything that was wrong with me. My dad sat silent and fiddled with his music player. It was awful, I started crying, and left. I've never forgotten it, and I'm not sure I dealt with it the right way - I wrote a letter to the woman letting her know that there was nothing she could do to drive a wedge between me and my father, so she should just stop trying. She hated that, but we hated each other anyway, so it certainly didn't make anything worse between us.

That a girlfriend would be jealous of and threatened by me wasn't the surprise. This is a classic story - it's older than the hills. Remember Cinderella and Snow White - the older woman in competition with the younger one.

And I can relate to these insecurities, now that I'm about the same age as my dad's girlfriend was then. In other circumstances she and I might have been friends. It's not that there was anything inherently hateful about me, as a person. It was just the situation, the triangle, that made harmonious relations impossible.

What hurt so much, in my case, was the fact that my father didn't go to bat for me. He sat there staring at his lap while this woman savaged me in front of my family. That's what did it for me - my relationship with him was never the same after that.

There were about a million and five ways he could have phrased it so as to defend me without renouncing his relationship with her, and it could have been done tactfully. I was touched by your statement of what you would have like to hear from your father - "Yes, there are some things that happened that shouldn't have happened and I have spoken with her as well about it." Not ever hearing him say that - that's what's painful, and that's what's hard to forgive.

You haven't done a thing wrong so far. Anyway, it's not over until it's over. My father died, and I never had a chance to tell him what I needed from him. You will have another chance, so why not do some rehearsing of it in your mind. There may well be other scenarios in which this hostile woman tries to entrap and humiliate you. Minimize interaction, be on guard, and know that none of it has anything to do with you. But if she does attack you again, remind him that you need him to make that gesture of defense. Don't let him get away with evading it. Let him know that if you're ever under attack in his presence, from her or anyone else, you need him to reach out and give you a hug. You don't have to explain why.

Good luck!
posted by cartoonella at 12:07 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

What are the resources like in your family?

Does your stepmother worry you'll get in a situation where you will become dependent on your dad? Is this about money? Is that why she's so concerned with how you live your life?

I have no idea, just wondering.
posted by jbenben at 12:08 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

My best friend from college did something really, really, hurtful to me (to date the most hurtful thing anyone has ever done), and she was really, really in the wrong. And I know for her own reasons, she'll never admit that she's wrong, never acknowledge it, and never say she's sorry. I decided in the end to let it go, put it behind us, and move on. And we mostly have our friendship back.

My sister in law did something mean and nasty and I reacted in anger and I think I've probably ruined my relationship with my brother and her forever. And I regret that.

Here's the thing: You can be the big person or you can be right. And maybe being right is a legitimate choice. But sometimes it's a really lonely choice.

As I've gotten older, I started to realize that I don't care so much about being right, and I'd rather have peace than feuds.

You may be in the right, but for yourself, your dad, and your new sibling, I'd say to let it go.
posted by bananafish at 12:09 PM on January 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

You can't control people, you especially can't control other people's feelings. You can tell her (with your Dad present) that her messages to you are overly critical, and that you prefer she not discuss you so negatively with your Dad, and that you absolutely expect her to treat you with respect, and not interfere with your relationship with your Dad. Then proceed to be gracious to her. She's not just your stepmother now, she's the mother of your sibling.

She may be envious of your closeness to your Dad, on her own and/or her baby's behalf, or she may just be judgmental and critical in general. In future, I would not spend so much time letting someone criticize you; I'd try to say something like "Wow, you seem to have such negative & judgmental feelings about me. What's the deal?" See how things go.
posted by theora55 at 12:20 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think part of the process of forgiving them is figuring out what you're forgiving them FOR. Reading this over, I'm not sure you know what you'd be forgiving them for. Also, I'm not sure you're willing to let go of the sense of personally wrongedness that forgiveness requires.
posted by spunweb at 12:34 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

You have every right to set your boundaries. She doesn't want to share your father with you. Tell him that either she acknowledges that she is in no position to speak to you about anything involving you and your father and that she should apologize or that is it.

My experience is that standing up for yourself needs to happen as soon as possible.
posted by Ironmouth at 1:06 PM on January 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

It sounds to me like you have a pretty good understanding of what's going on and a real wish to do the right thing. (Hope that doesn't sound patronizing; I seriously admire the way you've set things out.) I wish I'd been that clear about it when my father's new wife started criticizing me, in a fairly similar situation. What I think is important, as some others have suggested, is to maintain your own boundaries.

When my father's wife started going after me about my life choices, I finally said something like, "Look, I appreciate your concern, but this really isn't your problem." I repeated something similar whenever she started in again. The downside was that it did chill our relationship and I now feel I could have pushed back less, with the same result. But pushing back with some firmness was definitely called for.
posted by BibiRose at 2:11 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

Ragged Richard seems exactly right to me. Their conversation wasn't about you. And similarly, if my parents heard a conversation about them that I was having with my boyfriend... well, my mom would cry and my father wouldn't speak to me for a few weeks. I don't say "bad" things about them to other people because I don't love them, but because people drive each other crazy. But people who love each other try to work that out and not hurt feelings in the process, and sometimes that means discussing with a third party. I wonder what kind of discussions you've had about your father or your father and his new wife that would hurt their feelings. I wonder if your father's wife saw this thread, if she would feel terribly hurt.

While the evil stepmother is sometimes the reality, I think that maybe the woman being insecure and afraid especially during her pregnancy are maybe not the most damning traits in the world. Also, I don't necessarily think that her concerns had to come 100% from insecurity and feeling threatened. If your father regularly stresses about adult situations that you are in and which he can't solve and which are not generally really his business, she might have a point. There are some things that to me are really not a parent's business-- fights you have with a partner, for instance. No one wants to be the person who tells their parents about all their romantic difficulties while the partner feels hurt, awkward, and frustrated. I think there's a similar principle when it comes to the way adult children communicate their difficulties and situations to parents--too much intimacy, reliance or co-dependence can warp other relationships in both people's lives.

I know for a fact that my dad's girlfriend has said things about me and my sisters that I wasn't supposed to hear and which weren't particularly nice-- that we were acting lazy, didn't clean up after ourselves, some of us had too much freedom and made bad choices, &c. Thinking about it now it honestly doesn't hurt my feelings, because she is a human woman who raised three kids of her own and of course she has opinions about childrearing and a sense of lack of control over a situation that is really, really difficult for all to navigate. (That is, dating someone with children.) She's also very nice to us in person, laughs at our jokes, buys us very thoughtful Christmas presents and drove me 500 miles when I moved in at college. Her fears and insecurities and frustrations about how my father relates to us are not really my business and now I realize how much of a mistake it would be to make them my business. She is really a nice person and I feel that now that I'm an adult with my own primary relationships, she is entitled to the bulk of my dad's attention.

Did she regularly criticize your choices to your face in the past? If she makes your life her business in really inappropriate ways it is more difficult than if she has only been airing private grievances to your father.

It's like getting super pissed at someone because you logged into their e-mail and saw a nasty e-mail about yourself. It's really, really hard to get over what that person said-- but everyone has a right to their feelings and private discussions. One of the Ladies of Ask a Lady wrote a really good piece about this issue and what she calls the bitch filament. Never grasp onto that filament, because people have always and will always bitch about each other, and very little is gained from it. (In fact, much is often lost!)

And yeah, I've exploded or terminated relationships out of anger in the past and I've always, always regretted it. Give yourself some time to process what was going on, talk about it with your therapist with an open and sympathetic mind, and eventually you might be able to work yourself out of it. She's not your mother, but she will be a part of your life now. It sounds like in a fundamental way you have not really adjusted to your father's new relationship.

I'm sorry if I don't seem sympathetic, but this is how I've always tried to deal with these types of conflicts. Unless someone is being bluntly and stubbornly unfair to you, I find it really helps to see things through their eyes. And I think approaching it that way with your therapist ("I'm hurt, but I want to understand the dynamics and how my father and stepmother might feel") could really help.
posted by stoneandstar at 2:23 PM on January 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

(It also usually helps me to remember that sometimes people just deal with things badly-- because they're upset, frustrated, changing medications, tired, lacking perspective or foresight, &c. The conversation you had might have been the product of a particular situation. Maybe too she felt like your dad was fussing and worrying more about his 26-year-old offspring than the baby growing inside her body, which... could be frustrating.)
posted by stoneandstar at 2:28 PM on January 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

FWIW, I'm 33 and I need to talk to my dad about all my most important life choices. I call him crying when someone does me wrong. I can and will ask him for money if I need it. I expect him to hold up his end of the bargain until I die, or he does, whichever comes first.

If his new girlfriend ever told me that there was a time for me to stop getting support for my dad, I'd set her straight so fast her head would spin. (Course, I'm sort of an alpha female... )

However else your discussion goes, you should know that you are in the right in expecting support of all kinds from your dad as long as he's alive. Parents continue to advise children and be resources, mentors, and guides until they're dead. There isn't a cutoff age limit, and if there were one, it certainly isn't when you are 26. Seriously wtf is this woman thinking.

Also, there is no "too close growing up" unless it's some horrifying situation that I won't even mention. Closeness is good between parents and children. I don't know what too close would even look like. You're not even living at home.

Lastly FWIW, I have both a therapist and parents. There is absolutely no comparision between what I can get from a therapist for an hour per week (or two weeks), and what I can get from a parent. My parents not only love me unconditionally, they also know me since I was born. A conversation with a therapist stranger doesn't replace a conversation with them. Nor should it. In fact, I might sometimes need 4 hours of parental conversations rather than 1 hour of therapist conversation. One doesn't replace the other.

If this woman is trying to say otherwise, she is wrong.
posted by kellybird at 3:15 PM on January 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

this sounds like an unfortunate situation in that you heard things that you were never really supposed to and then it got rather unpleasant when you tried to deal with it. i can certainly understand your hurt and your desire to talk to them about it all in the moment, but it sounds like it probably wasn't the best time to talk it out as it was so spontaneous and your dad's wife didn't weigh her words very carefully. i think who you really need to talk to is your dad's wife because she overstepped. speak with her directly, rather than communicating through your dad to her, and tell that you feel she was interfering in your relationship with your dad which you believe is inappropriate. you can tell her generally what you said here: "I really feel like the situation was inappropriate, that she shouldn't be setting the boundaries of my relationship with my father or making judgments about me" and "I felt humiliated, hurt, shocked, angry."

with your dad you've said your piece and i guess just forgiving him is best even though i know it hurts. i am a little concerned you had to "push" him to defend you in the initial convo with the 2 of them. the way you phrased it sounds a bit like you may have spoken for your father in defending yourself. your dad's wife also spoke for the 2 of them. i think your dad needs to learn to fight his own battles and not have his wife and daughter speak for him. if in fact it turned out he agrees with his wife that you are too dependent then he needs to say something to you himself and not let his wife be the bad guy and say it. also, you may need to be careful about pushing your dad and assuming that you know his thoughts but rather tell dad's wife directly to back off instead of going thru him both then and now to try to get her to mind her own business.

so, don't go thru dad, speak directly to her and tell her to back off. she may be his wife now but you are his flesh and blood. imo i don't think she really has a position of power here. you are both adults so interact with her directly as an adult.
posted by wildflower at 10:17 PM on January 25, 2013

Also: I think if you're really going to sincerely work on forgiving your dad and his wife, you need to stop being so condescending/weirdly mad-in-advance about her. Yes, your presence has needed to shift; she's his wife and you're an adult. Yes, she's pregnant; she's his wife and they are building a family together. No, she's NOT young; she's actually older than you. No, she's not insecure; if this is how you think of her, she's right to feel uncomfortable around you. No, she wasn't setting the boundaries; she was talking with her husband about a situation that was stressing him out, and then having a conversation YOU INITIATED about those same issues.

This is why you need to be clear what you want to forgive them for, and who you want to forgive. Right now, the situation you are describing is really convoluted, and at some points it almost sounds like you need to forgive your dad for choosing someone who's not you. At other points, you sound so resentful of your stepmom for marrying your dad. So I don't know.

Personally, I would start by journalling to see if I could untangle all these feelings from one another.
posted by spunweb at 7:58 AM on January 26, 2013 [2 favorites]

>This is a classic story - it's older than the hills.

I got chills reading your story, as I've gone through something identical in my family. Step-mom turned nasty when she and dad had their own kids. I think in her mind her dream of love and family is coming true, except she never imagined an ex-wife and pesky kids, and sub-consciously (or consciously) wanted us gone so that her life would be "perfect."

I wish I could tell you how we solved it, but we didn't. I decided I didn't want to fight anymore, avoid all contact with stepmom, maintain contact with dad through monthly phone calls and through facebook. This shift happened when I was around your age. I was supporting myself financially, solving my own problems, and surrounded myself with kind, loving friends. Just in the last year I've been warmly accepted into my partner's family, which has been amazing.

Friends have suggested over the years that I try to "make friends" with step-mom, but knowing her as I do, that's not an option. She wants me gone, I'm gone, we're all at (tense) peace. It's not ideal, but it's much less traumatic than the constant fights and hashing-out of the olden days. Not going home for holidays is sad, but it's a lot less painful than going home and being the catalyst for massive fights and emotional trauma.
posted by bonheur at 8:04 AM on January 26, 2013

Agreeing with a lot of what Linda Holmes said, especially this:

One suggestion for a very loving thing you can do for your dad: Don't make him pick a side.

It is probably the case that, on some level, your father's wife would like to drive a wedge between you and him. If you let this be a contest, she will win, if only because he has to live with her day to day. But it doesn't have to be a contest. You can engage politely with her-- and directly with your father. Let him know you aren't going anywhere. Keep in touch with him, maybe with "thinking of you" emails. Ask less of him, and give more.

This is all a little bit complicated by your age. The twenties are a decade when you usually separate from your parents more, and in different ways, than the past. You have no real way of knowing how much of the drift is to do with your father remarrying. But in having to redefine your relationship, your are not that different from people whose parents have not remarried. You may have to separate more than you'd like at the moment, in order to come together later. (If that's what you want.)

jbenben is also probably right that there may be bad feelings or anxiety to do with money, on the part of some people or everybody. You didn't mention it in your post, so maybe it's not an issue and it doesn't sound like it's uppermost in your mind. But supposing it is an issue-- like, hypothetically, in your stepmother's mind-- that's kind of intractable. However, I would not ascribe that motive if no one has made it explicit. If you think that way, you're going to act that way, and it's not going to be pretty. You can't really do much about it in any event.
posted by BibiRose at 8:37 AM on January 26, 2013

Honestly something that is bothering me here is that you may be flesh and blood, and she "just his wife," but they're having a baby together, and that baby should be just as important to him as you are. That may be hard to handle since there has to be some displacement, but having a baby is a big fucking deal as they're going to need a lot of energy and focus just on their little household family unit for awhile. This was his choice, so you can't put it all on the stepmother.
posted by stoneandstar at 7:52 PM on January 26, 2013

Response by poster: god, I love metafilter. The thoughtfulness, honesty, and perspective people have given here is invaluable. I think that I feel fairly certain that when I am a parent, there are some things I would like to do differently. I also feel certain that I was raised to expect different reactions from my father than he is giving me now. But I also get the idea, as some of you have raised, that the words I heard have a lot to do with factors other than who I am or how I'm living my life. And because I know that I want to have a relationship with these people, I am going to have to accept that I believe that I was mistreated, but that I also need to shift my expectations. I am going to order The Sunflower, the book on forgiveness, and I am going to demonstrate the grace necessary to move on past this and to keep myself from being embroiled in resentment. Thank you so much for the comments. It meant a lot to find people who could sincerely relate, and also to hear the uncomfortable points of view.
posted by sb3 at 10:46 PM on January 26, 2013

Maybe your sharing your issues with your father is taking a heavier toll on him than you think it does and she's just trying to protect him.
posted by Neekee at 6:59 AM on January 27, 2013 [1 favorite]

« Older End of the road...oh no, more road.   |   Books on the history of photography? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.