healing words, absolving words, which words, and does it matter
November 12, 2018 3:05 PM   Subscribe

My father responded to my request to end our communication with a pithy, sweet response. I don't think he's going to do the difficult work of an apology ever, despite his benign acknowledgment. How do I deal with this?

I'm in my late twenties. Throughout my childhood, my father was emotionally controlling, sexually suggestive, belittling and paranoid, etc. I turned a lot of anger inwards, and spent a long time with suicide attempts, pinballing between various mental health things. My mental health finally started stabilizing in my early twenties, I figured out gender and sexuality things, and the past few years I've started having the circumstances to slowly start unpacking my childhood, dealing with my attachment and anxiety disorders, and healing.

Ever since my parents split up in my late teenage years, my dad has been very faint presence in my life - we talk on the phone briefly a few times a year. I went to see him when he was in a coma last year (he's out now), but we haven't actually spent time around each other in about 6 years. My dad has sort of reimagined himself as a kindly old Christian, and his words on the phone are often very kind and affirming (although, as somebody who was used as the assigned Comforter/Soother in the family unit, sometimes physically, and simultaneously praised for my academic skills and told everyone would leave and hurt me, I am very distrustful of verbal praise..)

Anyways, in the last six months, in the context of things like the Supreme Court hearings and a recent move and new relationship, I have started processing a lot of things in a more focused and urgent light. I realized that there was a pervasive sexualized element to abuse I experienced as a kid that was covert, but real (and something my sister reports too). This is the seed of a lot of shame/defilement/self-hatred things I've only identified recently.

I realized the profound degree to which my childhood has affected me, and the extent of the work I have to do to repair my relationship with others (especially w/r/t trust and working against the compulsions in fearful-avoidant attachment). I'm doing very well, and doing lots of work, and along the way I decided that I needed to tell my dad very directly that what he did was fucked up and I don't want any kind of relationship with him going forward, not even this minimal check-in phone one.

I didn't know if he would respond, or didn't think I would mind either way. His response was a short, I suppose sweet e-mail. He praised me "sharing my insightful thoughts, feelings, and experiences" said he was "profoundly moved" by my words and that he was sorry he had caused me pain. He promised to think about it deeply " to help guide [his] journey towards becoming a better, loving person". And then he said he would pray for our relationship and sending me love.

So, by all accounts, a kind, reflective e-mail. I guess what better response could I have hoped for? And yet, I am extremely doubtful that he would really truly understand what it was like for me to experience those things. Like he says the right things, but it's phrased around his own growth process and has a very save-face element to it. I describe some pretty dark things in my letter to him: "The fact is, your kid, me, felt like the emotional dumpster for you, felt a total conquest from you, felt no boundaries in my body, and then went on to spend years trying to punish myself for beign defiled and want to kill myself. This was my life as a kid and young adult." I described defilement, hopelessness, all kinds of things, and the response felt like I had sent him a link to an interesting piece on NPR. But I did ask him to end a relationship, and he respected that.

I don't know. I'm really struggling with this. I think it's hard because the whole point of writing this letter to him was to acknowledge, for myself, that I am an adult who can choose my relationships, and that I choose to build my life around unconditional love and trust rather than fulfilling the needs for others. I also wanted to affirm that the things I experienced and lived through really happened. I didn't want to make this a test or weaponize that experience, and it's not like him feeling hurt has to be a mandatory part of this exchange. But I guess I feel sort of gaslighted by this response - like, oh, yes I made mistakes, thank you for giving me a chance to reflect, take care, implies that I should just get over it as an adult (which I've been working at doing for the past 12 years!), and that all of that bile and violence and rejection that he poured into me, night after night, for a decade just never happened. I know there's an element too of confronting the fact that, in the end, I was either useful to my family or ignored, and there wasn't much space for my needs -- here too, I can see that if I'm not supporitng my dad's ego in some way, my internal life doesn't particularly matter. I won't say I feel unsafe right now, but confronting the reality of not mattering in this way and never having mattered in this way feels pretty fucking bad.

Do you have any suggestions of how to deal with this? I'd like to say that despite my e-mail being a request to end our relationship, I would be open to some kind of reconciliation in the (I imagine distant) future - I'm not like going to devote my life to keeping the flames of hatred and resentment in me. But something about this response... I don't know. It's like I can hardly point to it on the page, or the screen, but there are all the same subtle echos of narcissism and abandonment there.

Please note that I'm not necessarily asking whether I should suddenly restart a relationship, rather how to be kind to myself as I experience this mixture of loss, guilt, pain. I'm hurting. Thank you.
posted by Sock Meets Body to Human Relations (23 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
But something about this response... I don't know.
emotionally controlling

You do know.

despite my e-mail being a request to end our relationship, I would be open to some kind of reconciliation in the (I imagine distant) future

You don't have to be. You don't have to be open or not-open; you only need to know what you need right now. You thought you needed to cut off contact, and you did that. Sometimes an all-or-nothing, totalizing solution seems like the right thing - but it can also be part of a need to just call something over, when in fact you are still dealing with it. It's more about you than him, and it's not over for you even if you cut of contact.

But it may be that what you really needed wasn't cutting off contact, but instead an acknowledgement of harm done, a sense that you have hurt as much as you have been hurt, or a different history entirely. You may never get those things. People rarely get those things from their former abusers.

You don't say anything about being in therapy. It would really help you and give you someone who can help you sort out all these threads while being on your side and setting healthy boundaries.
posted by Miko at 3:12 PM on November 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

Thank you Miko. I am in therapy— I’ve been in therapy from 13 to 29 other than three years in college, which I now realize is part of that pattern of denying the reality of our family life/absolving responsibility but retaining control —but one of the reasons I’ve made a lot of progress lately is the relationship I have with this particular therapist (she has a great trauma and attachment centric approach, and does EMDR even though we haven’t done actual rapid eye stuff)

Yes, let me try again to state a few things more clearly. I don’t want a relationship with anyone I can’t trust or who doesn’t make space for my internal life. My life is rich with people who meet these conditions, and for whom I give the same. My father is not now nor likely will ever be that person. I guess because I’m still in the “making my trauma real” part of healing some part of me did want my father to truly show he acknowledged my internal experience, and yes you’re right, I recognize yet more cycles of his inability to acknowledge my needs and certainly to prioritize them above his in his reponse.
posted by Sock Meets Body at 3:22 PM on November 12, 2018

I'm sorry you're hurting. One way you can be gentle to yourself is to stop describing his wholly self-absorbed, gaslighting, minimizing response as "sweet," "benign," "reflective," or "kind." It's none of those things. He's still a violent person, so it's better he's not in your life (even if only for the time being).
posted by Iris Gambol at 3:30 PM on November 12, 2018 [22 favorites]

We often believe that if we can just say or do the exact right thing, then an abusive or traumatizing experience will end. Even if we logically know that's not true, often some part of us clings to that idea, because it's an idea that gives us some degree of control. Like, even if it logically means the horrible situation is our own fault because we just haven't found the right way to end it ourselves, our brains often still find that a more comforting alternative to the recognition that we are often powerless.

Acknowledging that we are powerless can be fucking terrifying. Especially when the situation dates back to childhood and involves someone on whom we relied for literal survival, that acknowledgement can bring up feelings of immense fear and vulnerability. It may be helpful to do a lot of grounding work with your therapist to work on feelings of present safety, of reminding yourself that you're an adult now and not at risk of death if a caregiver fails, and of working to understand that you're strong enough to get through what happens, even if you have no real control over it. You may also need to mourn the loss of the improved relationship that at least some part of you thought you could have with your father.

I'm sorry you're having to go through this, and I'm glad you have a good supportive therapist to help.
posted by lazuli at 3:38 PM on November 12, 2018 [9 favorites]

I didn't know if he would respond, or didn't think I would mind either way. His response was a short, I suppose sweet e-mail. He praised me "sharing my insightful thoughts, feelings, and experiences" said he was "profoundly moved" by my words and that he was sorry he had caused me pain. He promised to think about it deeply " to help guide [his] journey towards becoming a better, loving person". And then he said he would pray for our relationship and sending me love.

Trust yourself and the you that sent the email--this is a highly political response without any real emotional meat in it; it feels empty because it is empty. From the TV show Veep, it's 'word-shaped noise'.

He doesn't take any responsibility, doesn't apologize, puts the emphasis for growth on the relationship rather than himself (as if it's a mutual problem), and also managed to make it about himself 'his journey toward becoming a better, loving person'.

I think you feel pained because you hoped for something else--anger, apology, nothingness, and you got this PR-vetted response.

You also don't need his 'praise'. That wasn't what you were asking for.

It's okay, and understandable, to feel bothered by this but also -- if you want to not be in touch with him -- let him have the last word, him trying to make himself seem 'bigger' somehow. That's gross. Take it as a sign you were right in what you wrote, hit delete. You were right.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 3:42 PM on November 12, 2018 [19 favorites]

Your father’s drama doesn’t have to be yours. Even if you let him go with the last word, the important thing is that you’ve let him go. Don’t respond to any communication from him. If, later, you feel like reopening channels, then it will be on your terms, because you want to. I say this as someone who was not no contact, but largely disengaged from, a homophobic father. When he put homophobic bible verses in his funeral service, I had all the validation I will ever need.
posted by GenjiandProust at 4:20 PM on November 12, 2018 [3 favorites]

Abusers are often very skillful at exploiting the rhetoric of cultures that promote trust and interreliance. I like the description above of "word-shaped noise." It's meaningless. There is nothing in it you are required to respond to, and it doesn't represent repentance. If you feel like re-establishing contact at some point, that's entirely up to you, but nothing in what he wrote "ought to" affect your original decision.
posted by praemunire at 5:07 PM on November 12, 2018 [7 favorites]

I'm sorry this happened to you. In the words of Admiral Akbar, it's a trap. Avoid the trap, and be happy and at peace.
posted by cyndigo at 5:11 PM on November 12, 2018 [2 favorites]

how to be kind to myself as I experience this mixture of loss, guilt, pain. I'm hurting.

of course you're hurting. You experienced what you experienced from someone who should have been there to protect you and instead hurt you; and then you even gathered up the courage to ask for acknowledgement and apology, you didn't receive them. That sucks and isn't fair.

Resolve, as best you can to not give up any more of your precious life, and your precious peace of mind, to this person. What's done is done. The good news is that you owe him nothing. You have to be your own protector now. Be the advocate he should have been for you, and jettison his baggage. Leave it behind you.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:32 PM on November 12, 2018 [1 favorite]

He immediately violated your boundary. He is still an abuser. Many years ago, I wrote a letter to my parents asking for some time with no contact while I worked through healing in therapy from their abuse. I received a phone call as soon as they read the letter. That began an 8-year period of no contact with them. When I was ready to have limited contact, I set boundaries and was able to have minimal contact. I did not regret one day of taking the time I needed.
You are strong, and it's your right to keep yourself safe.
posted by Linnee at 5:38 PM on November 12, 2018 [5 favorites]

it wasn't a direct quotation, but you write that he said he was sorry he caused you pain: a real apology, and worthless.

you are saying, I think, that it didn't help and didn't satisfy you because you could see that it cost him nothing: it didn't hurt him to give the way it hurt you to ask for it, or the way his original crimes hurt you. I take it that what you call "the real work of an apology" is related to this.

there are two problems (not with you; with apologies.) one is that you can't tell what it costs another person to give something that looks so small. if he were a better narcissist, he might have written something absolutely agonizing, as if you'd made him see his own heart and be sickened by it. it might be closer to what he ought to feel, but you wouldn't know if there really was any feeling behind it. sometimes the better the person, the more they work to drain away all their own emotion and histrionics from an apology - make it as transparent and bloodless as possible, take away all their emotions to leave space for yours. this is not, I don't think, anything like what your father was doing. but you only know that because you know what he's like, not from what he wrote.

the other thing is that people in general, even in relationships with much less one-sided wrongdoing than this one, want to believe that apologies are mighty actions. and so when an apology fails to make anything better, the impulse is to find fault with the style and the form. she only said she was sorry "if," so it's not a real apology. he said sorry but not what he was sorry for, so it was a fauxpology. she said she was sorry for what she'd done, but it didn't feel like she really meant it, so it didn't count. etc. etc. etc. people like to give apologies ratings; grades. the point of it all is to find some foothold to believe an apology is not real, was badly done, rather than accept that an honest apology is not sufficient. that for some trespasses, real sorrow and remorse is not helpful. that someone who had the power to make you feel so badly has no power to make you feel better again.

what I personally believe is that it is all right to believe and to say that an apology is not enough, will never be enough, is in this case nothing to you. for anything less than childhood abuse, you might say an apology's a small but necessary first step, to be followed with atonement and repayment and trust-building and so on. but sometimes you can't say that. you do not have to. you don't have to go through the whole process of wondering if he's capable of the next steps, if you have to explain him what else he needs to do, and so on. you can decline to accept his apology, and that frees you from any need to determine his sincerity or level of understanding - if you do not accept this apology, you do not have to appraise it and put a value on it and find a place to deposit it. you don't have to tell him unless you want to, or argue with him about it unless you want to. you can say no to it, in and for yourself. you can reject it. not as retaliation for his own rejections, but because acting out that gesture of power & decision is a good way to make it and yourself stronger.
posted by queenofbithynia at 5:39 PM on November 12, 2018 [8 favorites]

The effect of his email is that it’s put you all up in knots. If it were actually a nice response, you wouldn’t feel this bad.

There doesn’t seem to be anything in it that makes any effort to make you feel seen and heard or even acknowledges what he did. It’s posturing as a good person to make you feel bad for abandoning such a good person. He doesn’t extend himself in any way to you, but navel gazes instead.

I’ve seen this a few times where when men, who were jerks in their prime, get older and feel more vulnerable and try to find someone to be their nursemaid in their dotage. Often they go about it in a ham-fisted and disingenuous way.
posted by alusru at 5:45 PM on November 12, 2018 [10 favorites]

He praised me "sharing my insightful thoughts, feelings, and experiences" said he was "profoundly moved" by my words and that he was sorry he had caused me pain. He promised to think about it deeply " to help guide [his] journey towards becoming a better, loving person". And then he said he would pray for our relationship and sending me love.

Two things I see here:
- a sneaky, passive apology. In rare occasions, when people word things poorly, I think a "I'm sorry I made you feel xyz" can be sincere. In most occasions, IMO, it's a cover-up for "your feelings are kinda your fault though" mixed with "I still can't fully own up to what I DID so I have to vaguely couch it in however it made you feel." I think you can tell the difference and I think you are correctly interpreting this very lackluster apology.

-praising you and calling you insightful is infantilizing in this context, and with your specific history with him, you are completely reasonable to be skeeved out that he is acting delighted as if you are a doe-eyed child wise beyond your years. This is still not respecting you as an adult, but as if you were a little girl with an unexpectedly wise quip.

I think many of us with toxic parents don't realize that with our final burn letter we are still hoping they'll finally wake up and be ashamed or aghast. It can be surprisingly shocking and mournful to discover that even when given your most basic truth, a parent is simply not emotionally equipped to do the work you've done, and maybe they never will.

It's okay to give yourself permission to feel shitty and mixed up about this for longer than you thought you would.
posted by nakedmolerats at 6:05 PM on November 12, 2018 [11 favorites]

Gah this is all so incredibly helpful.

I just blocked and deleted him on all channels he could use to contact me directly.

I’ve seen this a few times where when men, who were jerks in their prime, get older and feel more vulnerable and try to find someone to be their nursemaid in their dotage. Often they go about it in a ham-fisted and disingenuous way.

Yes. He remarried recently in a relationship that seems to fulfill this role, but I could feel myself being drawn in too. Not to be too chatfiltery, but one detail that may help put this in context — when he fell very ill and was in a coma, I rushed down to see him. I was recovering from a surgery with complications of my own, but I stayed in his house and drove to see him each day. His wife-to-be cancelled helping out while I was there, even though I had never met her and was still recovering. I was actually talking to him when he woke up and had to immediately leave to catch a plane.

When I talked to him after recovery, he was amazed I had been there to help, but never showed any interest in the effect it had on me (he had also gotten drunk the night before my surgery when I called him). And then a few months later, he started dropping hints that he needed a kidney donor, and there were only so many matches... :shudder:

I’m just writing this to confirm that, despite his rhetoric, he always found ways to use me, and when he couldn’t he ignored me. I looked forward to this chapter of my childhood finally closing. And hey, that’s the sound of a book slamming shut! (I actually went back and changed the tenses in this paragraph — that feels good.)

posted by Sock Meets Body at 6:17 PM on November 12, 2018 [21 favorites]

Just nthing that your feelings are real and his apology was dumb and abusive. Best of luck to you as you heal from this.
posted by ancient star at 6:20 PM on November 12, 2018

His response was a short, I suppose sweet e-mail. He praised me "sharing my insightful thoughts, feelings, and experiences" said he was "profoundly moved" by my words and that he was sorry he had caused me pain. He promised to think about it deeply " to help guide [his] journey towards becoming a better, loving person". And then he said he would pray for our relationship and sending me love.

I guess you could call it sweet. But aside from it being manipulative, the other thing you can call this is completely, 100% by-the-book trite. That bit about praying and sending me love is something I've gotten from my mother, who is terrible in what seems to be a completely different way from your father. There isn't literally a script, but trust me, for this kind of stuff, there's a script. Certain church communities talk about forgiveness and family relationships using a certain set of magic words that's supposed to heal everything, and this is basically exactly that. He didn't spontaneously generate this from his loving soul.

It's a synthesis of every evangelical-pop-psych speaker and book he's ever been exposed to, and its main purpose is to convince the person saying it that any continued rift isn't their fault. Not, notably, to actually help repair any relationships! Just to go through the motions of having done the right things so that your peers all agree that you've done everything a reasonable person could. I'm not just saying this because I'm bitter about my mom--I'm bitter about my mom because I saw lots of people in her community doing this sort of thing, and her in fact doing exactly this sort of thing about her lesbian sister, long before I decided to make my own break.
posted by Sequence at 8:00 PM on November 12, 2018 [6 favorites]

Stick to the plan. Nothing in your father's response changes the plan. If, one day, you feel like contacting him, do so.
posted by AugustWest at 8:04 PM on November 12, 2018

Give it some time. What you're doing here really is accepting that your relationship with your dad is over, effectively. And that hurts! Even if he was a shitty, shitty father (indeed, perhaps it hurts worse because you know you'll never have the "father experience" you deserve and are owed - and that is painful).

Further, this statement of yours resonated with me: "as somebody who was used as the assigned Comforter/Soother in the family unit"

When a person has historically perceived themselves to be in the "fixer" role in a family unit, the presence of discord or a rift between family members can bring attendant feelings of guilt and anxiety. Whether the rift is positive or not is immaterial, because for so long you've felt responsible for making sure everyone gets along, when everyone doesn't get along - it's got to be your fault, right? You feel you've "failed" in your role, and for a lot of people that can mean they feel that they've failed in their role as daughter/son, sister/brother etc as well. Failed as people. Everyone should be happy all the time right? (it sounds ridiculous to write it down like that, but it's a standard many people hold themselves to)

It can leave a persistent feeling of disquiet that feeds into rumination and almost obsessive replaying. If you had just said this, done that etc, then things would be different, we would get along/have closure etc etc. It can also lead to questioning of actions and even feelings. If your "role" is to avoid family discomfort - then if your feelings and actions have lead to family discomfort, how can they be right or valid?

Stepping away from this role, prioritising not just your needs, but recognising the validity and justice of your feelings is a healthy, balanced, courageous thing to do. Your are doing it, and it's a process that might be painful, and there will be self-doubt along the way - maybe all the way. But it's making you stronger in the long run, happy. A better, more realised version of you that may be shaped, but is not defined or shackled to events of the past.

This metamorphis will take time. Your'e letting go not just of a version of your relationship with your dad, but a version of yourself, too. Be forgiving of your feelings or doubts, acknowledge your frustrations, and then sleep knowing you have done the right thing, and whatever qualms or nonsense others may throw at you, it is just leaves in the wind. You are the mountain.

Best of luck to you.
posted by smoke at 1:47 AM on November 13, 2018 [7 favorites]

All the advice not to assign much meaning to this apology is on target. The only correct thing for him to do would be to indicate your message had been received and he was going to back off.

I just want to say I feel for you. I got the same kind of reaction from my father initially, which made me doubt my own decisions and feel very similar to what you are describing. My father had always been really good at coming up with stuff to say and had known something like this was coming and indeed had been laying the groundwork for a denial. A lot of other details are really similar, especially with your update.

After a few years went by, my father sent a message saying, not so much that he got my point, but that he wasn't expecting anything, he just wanted to be in touch. Those were the magic words for me. But mind you, I don't think the relationship would have been that sustainable in the day to day. I was pleased with the result and that we were able to have at least a nominal reconciliation but it could very easily not have happened and by that time I did not expect it and was okay with that. The main thing though was that he was able to let time go by without trying to exert power.

I am so sorry that he was drunk when you called him before your surgery. If he has a drinking problem, and that is part of the reason he is so self-absorbed and unresponsive, consider an ACOA meeting. At the very least, there will be people there who have had to deal with this kind of relationship.
posted by BibiRose at 6:04 AM on November 13, 2018

Even if your dad has changed and what he wrote was genuinely sweet and non-manipulative it would still be OK for you to decide that your past experiences with him make it too hard to carry on a relationship with him. Some things can't be taken back or gotten over.
posted by mskyle at 7:02 AM on November 13, 2018 [5 favorites]

He did not accept any responsibility. Neither did he genuinely acknowledge or valid your experience. His words were facile and completely lacking in any depth commensurate with the degree and extent of abuse he perpetrated.

Generally an effective apology has at least one of these components:
1. Expressing regret
2. Accepting responsibility
3. Making restitution
4. Genuinely repenting
5. Requesting forgiveness

Your father's note was pretty weak on #1, and weaselly on #2 (He will "think about it"?!? There's nothing to think about; you were crystal clear with him.) Number 3-5 seem absent.

I'm sorry. Hope springs eternal, but his letter was a nail in the coffin of him deserving any space in your life, quite possibly forever. It sucks. I'm glad you're getting therapy and support and building a wonderful, beautiful life for yourself.
posted by dancing leaves at 7:08 AM on November 13, 2018

I think you should work from the assumption that no apology from him would make you feel good. An apology just doesn't undo things. An apology is not magic, an apology does not undo things. If someone runs over you with their truck and then apologizes it doesn't matter at all whether their apology is sincere or not. You are still left with multiple fractures and will be facing years of orthopedic surgery. It looks to me like from his viewpoint he worked hard on the apology. I strongly suspect that he is sincere, and he means it - but that doesn't change him from who he is to someone less self centred, nor does it undo the past. You got your apology - it didn't work to make you feel better, and tinkering with it will only prolong the pain. A second differently worded apology would not work better.

Cutting contact and getting enough different positive things going on in your life so you stop thinking about him, changing yourself is the way forward. It's time to work on strategies where you are not giving him space in your head, now that you have cut contact so he doesn't have space in your life.
posted by Jane the Brown at 10:09 AM on November 13, 2018

Safety first!
posted by Coaticass at 11:32 AM on November 13, 2018

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