How do I learn to forgive?
July 14, 2006 9:29 AM   Subscribe

How do I learn to forgive my father?

I can't bring myself to talk to my father. We haven't spoken to each other since I was a teenager. I stopped speaking to him when I was a sullen angry teenager, growing up in a house where my parents fought all the time. Shouting angry displays of rage every single night. More than ten years later, I still can't talk to him.

He was a bad and abusive husband, and I can't even remember what he was like as a father anymore. I think he was an okay father, when my parents were not fighting.

When my parents fought, they never resolved anything. They just argued and yelled and gave each other the silent treatment. They never said "I'm sorry" or "I'm wrong" and they never really kissed and made up. So, even though I recognize the problem, I never really learned how to forgive people in my family or to say "I'm sorry, I was wrong". I can fight in a good and resolved way with other people, but I can't do this with my father.

My parents are now pushing 70, and they're finally getting a divorce. I really wanted this to happen when I was a teenager, but now that it's happening in their old age, it's devastating to my mother. He left her for another woman. He cheated on her, many times. He hit her, verbally abused her, took out loans in both their names without her knowledge, everything.

Despite this, my mother wants me to call him, and to talk to him, but I just can't do it. Just thinking about it makes me upset and angry and sad. I don't know what to do. Where do I begin? How would I start such a conversation?

I've thought about going to counseling for this, but where do I find a a good and affordable one in Manhattan?

Has this "no speaking to each other for years" thing happened to other people? How does one resolve it?

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
What, if anything would you gain by apologizing to him? Peace of mind?

This may be harsh, and my advice may be skewed due to my personal experience, but if a person shits on you enough you stay the hell away from them. You don't need them, father, mother whatever. Why should you make the effort for someone who obviously hasn't cared?

Now that's one side of the coin. The other is this...

Recognize him for what he is, he's a sad, abusive old man. Understand that he is flawed, just like anyone else and makes mistakes. And then forgive. You have to let go of it all. Accept that he is the way he is, and won't change. Then that's it. Acceptance.
posted by jackofsaxons at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I urge you to examine your motives here. Why do you want to reconcile with him? Only for your mother's sake? You may have to tell her—with all kindness and respect—that you simply won't; you shouldn't have to go through something that makes you "upset and angry and sad" if there's no corresponding benefit to you personally.

In any case, I definitely recommend counselling: your family doctor may be able to refer you to a service that will scale their rates according to your income. (I can't speak for NYC; I hope that's not solely a local phenomenon.) Whether or not you end up reconnecting with your father, you shouldn't have to live with this internalized negativity anymore.
posted by Zozo at 9:41 AM on July 14, 2006

Well and timely said, jackofsaxons.
posted by Zozo at 9:42 AM on July 14, 2006

As others have more or less said. You have to examine what you want from this. Do YOU want to talk with your father? If so, perhaps start with a letter. It gives you the ability to choose words carefully, and be conscious of what you say.

If you are ok with not talking to your father, and potentially having him die without ever talking to him again, then express this to your mother along the lines that you have no desire to do so, and you feel he was abusive and it would be painful for you to do so.

Therapy might not be a bad idea, but any time people suggest this the rule of thumb should be functionality. Does not talking to your father cause a disproportionate amount of conflict in your life. What difficulties in your life would therapy assist in?

In general, make a pro/con list, evaluate it, take action (or not) and accept the consequences.
posted by edgeways at 10:06 AM on July 14, 2006

Something to consider - I find that forgiving people is most beneficial for the forgiver. You would probably be doing yourself a favor.
posted by Carbolic at 10:09 AM on July 14, 2006

What Carbolic said--forgiving is for you. It frees you. You don't necessarily have to speak with him at all, and it might be better if you do not.

It sucks having a bad father. I didn't forgive mine until he was dead. Which is fine I think.
posted by LarryC at 10:28 AM on July 14, 2006

I went for a long period without speaking to my father. I needed to do it at the time - but I'm overjoyed to be in contact with him again now.

You need to make a decision on your own terms - but if you're angry with him on your mother's behalf - you must remember that nobody knows what goes on between a husband and wife except them. It's not your place to judge either of them.
posted by ascullion at 10:31 AM on July 14, 2006

From what you say about your mother and father, my guess is your mother wants you to talk to him in order to maintain some sort of connection to him. It's hard for me to see how this could be good for you or for her; more than that, I don't think your father is likely to allow it -- he may not be capable of it.

Take what steps you can to protect your mother from the physical and financial consequences of your father's abandonment. If she follows the usual pattern, she will allow him to screw her one last time as he goes out the door by agreeing to a really bad divorce settlement. Prevent this, and you will have the satisfaction of doing one of the few things that has any prospect of making your father actually feel some strong emotion.

Your mother does have an unbreakable and healthy connection to your father: you and any siblings you may have. Please pardon me if I go to far here, but is there any chance of distracting her with some nice grandchildren?
posted by jamjam at 10:45 AM on July 14, 2006

jackofsaxsons really hits it. Let me just add that if you don't this, you will likely regret it deeply when it's too late, and there's nothing you can do at that point.
posted by xmutex at 10:46 AM on July 14, 2006

My parents were like yours, but had the sense to divorce when I was 10 years old, rather than stretch it out any longer. Funny thing was: They ended up being better people and better friends after the divorce than at any time during or before the marriage.

I, like you, never got along with my father. He was stunted, emotionally, and threatened to pass that along to me. Luckily, I got in thick with my mother's family, after the divorce, and they had absolutely no problem with emotions, creativity, and a positive outlook on life.

But still, my father and I never spoke socially. I called him to let him know that he was a grandfather, and all he could really say was that he was disappointed that I hadn't passed on the family name (I'm a 3rd, my father is a Jr. My son has my first name for his middle name, but he's far from a 4th).

A year after my son was born, my father was living with the woman that gave birth to my half-brother. She is as close to evil incarnate as you can imagine, but he still apparently held out hope that he could make the relationship work, for the boy's sake. In October of that year, when he threatened to take her son with him and leave, she hired her boyfriend-on-the-side, he bought a gun, and shot him in the back of his head.

So, in a way, anonymous, I envy you. You have the opportunity to put it out there that you have a desire to work with him on a relationship -- that you're at least willing to try. You don't want to be like me, who takes his kids to see Finding Nemo on Father's Day, and can't help but be a blubbering mass of regret and anguish.
posted by thanotopsis at 10:51 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Reconciling with your parents can be one of the best things you do to move forward in your life. It is important to understand that it is YOU who is reconciling, this has almost nothing to do with them. As Zozo pointed out, you must be the one motivated to do this work, don't do it for anyone else. Also, to expand on jackofsaxons comment, much of who we are we inherit from our parents because of our impresionability at early ages. Accepting your father for who he is means you will have to accept those darker parts of yourself (that you may or may not acknowledge) as well. This is an excellent first step in increasing your awareness of and embracing all parts of your personality.

When I forgave my father, it became much easier to be around him and my mother. It also became much easier to respond to his idiosyncrasies in a rational manner. In addition, I discovered many of those idiosyncrasies in myself and was better able to modify my behavior as I chose.

Good Luck!
posted by p8r1ck at 10:53 AM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

posted by dragonsi55 at 10:54 AM on July 14, 2006

Forgiving an abusive parent is a great thing to do. It's very difficult but if you do it, you'll feel much better about yourself and your past.

The advice I've given many times before:

You may find the experience of talking to your father to be too much--so don't do it. Write him a letter instead. In the letter, enumerate all of the things you believe your father did wrong and then let him know that despite all his terrible actions, you still came out alright and he's still your father. Let him know that the past is the past and you want to move on and have a relationship with him. Ask him to call you or, if you're feeling very brave, agree to have lunch with him.

You may also find that even writing a letter is too much. If that's the case, don't do it. Instead, think about a happy memory with your father. It might be a baseball game or a birthday. Whatever. Based on that happy memory, buy your father a gift. It could be anything, and it doesn't have to be perfect. Just something that reminds you of the good times. Send it to him and include your email address and phone number. Then wait.

The goal here isn't to forgive your father. Forgiveness involves both of you, one person can't do it unilaterally. All you can really hope to do is establish contact and try to build a relationship through which moving on and forgiveness becomes possible.

Good luck.
posted by nixerman at 11:06 AM on July 14, 2006

Two books: Dance of Intimacy and Dance of Connection. Cheesy titles, cheesy covers, and their target audience is women. If you can get past that, they are really, really good on exactly this topic (and a few other topics -- the best self-help books I've ever read, not that I read a ton). Intimacy is the theory, and Connection is about the communication part.
posted by salvia at 11:11 AM on July 14, 2006

The best way to forgive someone is to make them human in your mind. We get most angry at evil "forces" -- bad guys who don't have any psychology, but are simply evil. (It's sometimes HEALTHY to think of bad guys this way. But it's also good to be able to let it drop.)

It sounds like your dad has done some really horrible things. Why did he do them? Just as a confusing machine becomes less and less scary the more we understand it, a person becomes more and more human, the more we understand his motivations and history.

Don't even TRY to forgive. Try to understand. Forgiveness will come or not -- you can't force it. But it's more likely to come if you understand how your father became the man he is. Like all of us, he was buffetted by the forces of his genes and upbringing. (I'm not excusing him. I'm not saying that he's not at fault. People who are bad have psychology -- just like people who are good.)

Is there any way you can learn more about your Dad's history? Are there relatives you can talk to? Your mom? Maybe she'd like it if you said, "I'm trying to forgive Dad, but I need to understand him, first?" Can you help me see how he got that way?

If this won't work, you can learn about people LIKE your Dad. You can read books about abusers, cheaters, etc. (Maybe someone here can recommend one.) Fiction (even films) might work as well as non-fiction. As I'm sure you know, most bullies were themselves bullied. Did someone abuse your Dad?

Imagine you're an actor, trying to play your Dad. Actors aren't allowed to judge their characters. (The actor playing Hitler can't just decide he's a bad guy.) They have to understand their characters and -- like a good lawyer -- represent them, give them their day in court. Each actor must think of his character as the hero of the play. How would you play your Dad?
posted by grumblebee at 11:37 AM on July 14, 2006 [3 favorites]

Many times, especially with forgiveness, feelings follow actions. Forgive first, and make the effort to repair the relationship, and the feelings of forgiveness will follow. And don't see a councilor, they'll just tell you stuff you already know.

(no offence to any councilor's out there...)
posted by tdreyer1 at 12:17 PM on July 14, 2006

You don't say anything specific about it, but the scenario you describe in your childhood sounds a LOT like alcohol was involved.

If that's true, go to an Al-anon meeting. There you will find many people who are working with the same issues as you.
posted by jasper411 at 12:50 PM on July 14, 2006

I recently cut off contact with my father, who sounds similar to yours. I did it because I needed space to heal the wounds from childhood without having new ones to focus on at the same time.
Do you think he's changed at all? Do you think you've gained the space you need where you can deal with his b.s. without getting involved in the drama? If the answer to either or both is "No", then I'd say that it would be better for you in the long run not to resume contact. I understand the pressure other people can put on you when they find out that you've "abandoned" a parent. But you have to do what's best for YOU, not anyone else. If you don't feel comfortable, for any reason, the best thing to do would be to stay away.
If you decide you want to resume contact, you might want to do so with family counselling. The Ackerman Institute is a well known family counselling organization, and they offer sliding scale fees. Whatever you decide to do, good luck.
posted by blueskiesinside at 1:41 PM on July 14, 2006

I'm also not on speaking terms with my father. He was very physically abusive and angry, not with me so much, mainly my mother.

They divorced 19 years ago (when I was 15), since then, I've spoken to him maybe 10 times.

I can't forgive him, I don't think there's anything to forgive at this point. He now lives in a hermit shack by himself, and all I think is, you reap what you sow.
posted by patrickje at 2:49 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

My mother reconciled with her father two years before his death, though I'm not sure she ever comlpetely forgave him for the shit he put her family through.

She still regrets that she didn't have more time to get to know him and develop a relationship with him.

Your dad's in his 70s. Don't worry about everything being perfect. Don't worry about forgiving him. You're running out of time. It's OK to still be angry, but you should try to build an adult relationship with him whole you can. Or it could haunt you for the rest of your life.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 3:39 PM on July 14, 2006

Well, they say the truth shall set you free and as long as you know the truth, then you don't need to forgive your father. Go on with your life and try to do better than your father. That's the best form of forgiveness possible.
posted by GoodJob! at 3:49 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

Grumblebee came closest to saying what I've never been able to say to myself (and thanks for that, man).

I think it's true that forgiveness benefits the forgiver at least as much as the forgiven, if not more. I have always been unable to say the words out loud to myself, though, let alone to my dad, and it's been more than 20 years - since I was 12.

Every once in a while, though, I do exactly what grumblebee said - I try to understand. I "try on" the understanding and try to wear it around for a while, like a sweater. It never feels right to me. I *don't* understand. And I think until I do, I can never forgive.

Maybe you can just say the words and move on - only you can answer that. I know I can't, but I'm glad now that I can articulate a little better as to why.
posted by ersatzkat at 3:50 PM on July 14, 2006

My parents are/were two very very screwed up people. When my mother died, I hadn't spoken to her for several years. At some point, I had to cut my lossses and live my own life. I really don't regret that she died under those circumstances. My only regret is that my sister and I never really had a mother in any but the biological sense.

My sis and I hit the daily double in that my father is nothing to write home about either. I gave it another shot at establishing a relationship with him after my mother died. I thought maybe he'd be a different man. He wasn't. As long as he has his TV, some candy and somebody to help him pay his bills (he's not the most functional person), he's happy. A relationship with his kids really is too much of a bother. So I gave up and we don't communicate any more either. My sister still deals with him and her husband takes care of his finances (or at least he did until the last blowup of my father's) -- for which I will be eternally greatful. (I live in another state from them). advice is to not beat yourself over the head trying to establish a relationship with him. Sure, as someone said, try to let the anger go for your own benefit. But let him go too. Most of the time, you can't teach an old dog new tricks. Sad but true.

It is what it is. Good luck and take care of yourself. :)
posted by bim at 4:06 PM on July 14, 2006

I try to understand. I "try on" the understanding and try to wear it around for a while, like a sweater. It never feels right to me. I *don't* understand.

Please don't think I'm belittling you, but I wonder if you try hard enough? And I mean that literally: I wonder. Understanding isn't easy. It takes tons of hard work, research and experimentation.

I suppose it's possible that you could learn every nuance of what makes a person an alcoholic, an abuser, a cheater, etc. and STILL not understand. But my guess is that if you REALLY studied the relevant psychology and circumstances, you WOULD understand.

At some point, you might say, "Why the fuck should I spend so much energy trying to understand an asshole?" And I would agree with you. Why SHOULD you? The only answer to that is Because You Want To or Because You Should. I certainly don't think you should (or shouldn't). I'm just pointing out that it's possible, if you choose to do it.

(Or maybe it isn't. Maybe you need to have that mysterious thing called empathy. But I sometimes wonder whether empathic people are just people who are willing to put in the work. Or maybe they can do it without work, but the rest of us can get there if we DO work.)

If you want to understand perplexing people, drama is your friend. In a way, that's what drama is (when it's not theme-based). Drama is a tool to help us understand character (sometimes our own; sometimes someone else's). If you can handle Elizabethan language, Shakespeare is a master. He rarely takes sides. He gets inside everyone's head and manages to make rogues like MacBeth and Shylock sympathetic.

Chekhov does this too, and he's easier to understand. But you could get this understanding with many more modern novels, movies and plays.

I often wish there was an AskMe-like site about character. You could ask a question like, "Why do people torture?" or "Why do people cheat." It would allow anonymous responses, and it would be moderated to keep flames out. So bullies and cheaters could answer (I think most people actually WANT to be understood) without fear of being outed or chastised (the moderators would delete abuse).
posted by grumblebee at 4:43 PM on July 14, 2006 [1 favorite]

I would agree with jackofsaxons. Well said. And that being said, let me add that it isn't simple to forgive. It took me a long time to forgive my father. And forgiving doesn't mean absolving him. Forgiving, as someone said above, is for yourself.
posted by Taken Outtacontext at 4:45 PM on July 14, 2006

Has he made any attempt to make amends to you for his behavior? Has he even acknowledged his abuse? If not, forgiveness is just an empty gesture. Write him off and move on.
posted by SPrintF at 6:19 PM on July 14, 2006

"If you want to be successful in life, everything you do must be an act of patricide. You must always kill the father. Every song you sing, every sentence you write, every leaf you rake must kill the father. Every act from the most august to the most banal must be patricidal if you hope to live freely and unencumbered. Even when shaving— each whisker you shave off is your father's head. And if you're using a twin blade—the first blade cuts off the father's head and as the father's neck snaps back it's cleanly lopped off by the second blade."

--from “My cousin, my gastroenterologist”, by Mark Leyner

[Hope this helps. I thought it was funny, anyway...]
posted by Bron at 8:21 PM on July 14, 2006

Seconding the idea that this sounds like it is more about your mom's desire for you to talk to your dad than anything else.

So nevermind him. What can you do to help her?

Does she have close friends she can talk to?
A seniors group or something?
Would she be willing to see a family counselor with you if she thought it was for your sake?
Could you and she go on a weekend trip somewhere for some mother-child bonding time?
Could Aunt Amy come to visit her for a week?

You can't really be her sounding board on the marriage stuff (I hope she knows that!), but can you help her work it out some other way?
posted by Methylviolet at 10:31 PM on July 14, 2006

Forgiving my father required six years of distance first. The only reason I still spoke to him was that if I'd told him what I really thought of him, he'd have blamed mom and tried to hurt her. Among friends, I cheerfully referred to him as “my asshole father”. Like jackofsaxons, what's the point of contaminating your life with someone whose behaviour was (is?) reprehensible and who won't even acknowledge it? Some of us need to give bleeding wounds time to clot, and give scabs time to let raw tissue underneath heal, before there's any possibility of exposing that tissue to hurtful things again. If your life is largely happy without him, why tamper with it? (Also, I disagree with the view that a child can't know what really went on between parents, so the child can't judge. I knew. Dad has since admitted it. His treatment of mom scarred me and my sibs too, so it wasn't a private matter between husband and wife. Because I've held him to the standards I expect of myself and the people I invite into my life, he's become a better person.)

If he'd died during this time, I would have regretted that he never chose to have the guts to take responsibility for his sins. Not that I'd minimized his presence in my life.

taken outtacontext: forgiving doesn't mean absolving

Seconded. My dictionary gives “absolution” and “excuse” as synonyms, but it also defines forgiveness as “to cease to feel resentment against”. That doesn't have to involve either absolving or excusing. Nor does forgiveness mean "pretend we have an positive father-child bond, just to satisfy other people's [my relatives...possibly your mother's?] craving for Leave It To Beaver trappings of family togetherness."

Forgiving dad (for being a dysfunctional father, and for what he did to mom, verbally and emotionally and physically) meant letting go of anger and contempt, and letting pity and compassion take their places (not all at once...the process has taken years). This was easier after mom died, which made it safe for me to tell him that I'd despised him since I was 13 and why. I said if he wanted to have any part in my life he'd have to start facing his flaws and the damage he'd done, instead of blaming mom for everything. I strongly suggested that therapy would help him face his flaws. For personal reasons I said this to his face with our families present, but letter-writing is an excellent idea. Easier to maintain focus and articulate clearly.

Forgiveness, as I experienced it, also meant speculating 3 years later that fear, more than assholery, might be holding him back from looking for a therapist (like grumblebee's “seek understanding and humanize” suggestion). It paid off for my whole family*, but probably wouldn't with a real shithead who really was unredeemable. OTOH I thought my dad was unredeemable. As others have said, if you really feel you owe him an apology, or that you want a relationship with him, or that you'll kick yourself once he's dead for not trying, make overtures for yourself (perhaps in a letter, whether or not you ever send it). Not your mother. If you can peacefully say you don't want him in your life, don't let “He's still your father!” reproofs grind you down (thinking of people in my life, not anybody above). The people who told me that, thought that shared DNA trumps past wrongdoing (except eg sexual abuse or murder) and ongoing refusal to make amends. They didn't get that my priorities were not theirs, and weren't morally deficient to theirs either. Do what's right for you.

* I decided - without any expectations that he would, in fact, change himself - to give him a little push toward the path of making himself into someone who would enrich my life, instead of sucking energy out of it. I wrote him a letter reiterating what I'd said before, and offered to go to counselling with him (maybe he needed company to take his first steps on the journey?), and said throughout, in various ways, “I have faith that you have the courage in you to face the things you've done...I think you can do it...I know you want to be the best father you can be...”

It was a lie, the most two-faced lie I've ever told. I had accepted for years that he'd keep on being the hypocritical, emotionally gutless, pathetic man I'd known all my life. I thought “fear” was a possible but not probable explanation for his clinging to the status quo. I just wanted to be able to say to well-meaning relatives, “I DO forgive my father. I'm letting my anger towards him go, and I've tried to help him grow into a person I can respect. He's still in denial about being an asshole or needing to make amends. Quit trying to get me to hug him. Forgiveness doesn't mean I have to want to be around him.”

Mailed the letter. Heard nothing for about six months, but we were living in different cities. Next Christmas, I was in my home town. He called and asked if I'd meet him for dinner. I said, “Dad, I'm not interested in another dinner making small talk with you. Unless we have a real conversation about things that matter, time with you is pointless.” He said, “No small talk.” We met, we talked about my letter, he cried (I'd seen him cry once before, when my grandmother died). He arranged several appointments with a therapist for us. That was 3 yrs ago. My brother (who, after our mom died, yelled “I HATE YOU! GO TO HELL!” at him) started going with him a year later. Dad has been making enough progress, learning to talk about his emotions and our family dynamics, and making amends for the hurts he caused us, that my brother and I agreed to join our dad for a family-togetherness vacation this spring. (During which we were learning a semi-risky sport and Dad had a close call, which made me whisper to my brother, “I NEVER thought I'd see the day when I gave a flying fuck whether dad lived or died!”) His presence in my life doesn't make me overjoyed – he's still got a long way to go, learning to relate to us functionally. But at 13, I'd cauterized the idea of having a father I could love or respect. At 34, I've got one I can at least respect, for trying to rectify past mistakes and not make new ones. It's a start where, before, there was nothing, and that feels like a miracle.

posted by cybercoitus interruptus at 2:32 PM on July 23, 2006 [1 favorite]

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