Help me figure out the next step with my dad.
December 28, 2007 9:01 PM   Subscribe

Have you ever explicitly told your dad, or any parent, that for your own emotional well-being you need time away from them? Have you ever wanted to? Is there any way to do this? Details inside.

It was on a family roadtrip over the holiday that it's crystallized to me most clearly: I must minimize, for at least the immediate future, my father's presence in my life.

To give some context, I'm 23, six months out of college. My parents are in southern NJ, whereas I live and work in NYC. My dad pretty much systematically destroyed any sense of worth or self-esteem I may have had growing up. While he almost never laid a hand on me, the cruelty and pervasiveness of the ways in which he made me feel worthless, ugly, damaged and disgusting while growing up would require an essay to even scratch here; in addition, it's only been since leaving for college that I fully understood what a terrible role model he is and was, particularly in the way he talks to and treats his wife, my mom.

In the past few years, he's slowly reformed himself, seemingly realizing the extent to which he fucked up my childhood. For the most part, he's been much more gentle, less judgmental, etc. There are lapses now and then, but I forgive them.

Until this roadtrip. It's been such a merciless reminder of what it was like in my house growing up that I've been crying to sleep in the hotels the last week, listening to music I haven't listened to since I was 16, etc. I feel like a good chunk of the work I've done to not hate myself is melting away.

Bleh. I don't know what to do now. I don't want to talk to my dad (or maybe even my mom, who I sometimes hate for enabling him) on the phone, while I'm in NYC. I don't want to go to NJ to visit them. I don't know what to do. But at the same time, I want him to somehow realize (given that he seems oblivious) that he is really hurting me, that if I don't talk to him on the phone, there's a reason, it's not "fucking [my name] being [my name]." Part of me wishes I could scream at him about what an awful father he is, how much harder he made it for me to have normal relationships, etc., without there being family fallout. Part of me just wants to wake up with a new family. I don't know.

Anyone been in this situation?
posted by Ash3000 to Human Relations (30 answers total) 22 users marked this as a favorite
It sounds like, for your own mental health, it would be a good idea for you to distance yourself from your parents at least for a while. Do you have siblings? If so, are you close to them?

Plenty of people have drawn a bad hand in the biological-family department and build their own families of choice.

And, I believe you could benefit immensely from therapy. A good therapist can help you with your boundaries, your self-esteem, and forestalling any enabling behaviors you might fall into in your own relationships.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 9:05 PM on December 28, 2007

I had a counselor say that it would be best if I distanced myself from certain family members, including my father. However, I did this tacitly. My father is stubborn and will likely never admit his errors. Telling him that I'm making a conscious effort to take him out of my life would have only provoked him to anger.

Since I'm in college this means I take lots of random trips during breaks, sign up for volunteering trips, stay at school for work, etc. Having a job, actually two, has helped me do that because I have a real excuse, work, and I"m not just "being selfish."

Going to the counselor didn't really fix anything, but it helped me be more pragmatic. Instead of going home and having a miserable time during breaks, I make a conscious effort to have a life that keeps me away from home as much as possible. If you are still in college, such counseling is usually free.
posted by idle at 9:27 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

While he almost never laid a hand on me, the cruelty and pervasiveness of the ways in which he made me feel worthless, ugly, damaged and disgusting while growing up would require an essay to even scratch here.

You: "I am certain that you understand an encourage me to be as mentally healthy as possible." Him: "Yes." You: Then I'm certain you will understand that everyone has to work out the very real issues that come up between a child and its father and my need for some space to work out these issues on my own."

Make sure you sell the first line. Once people agree to something, defining that something as something you really want makes it much harder for them to dispute the second proposition.

Having stood in a similar position with a parent, at your age I finally made a break with the problems of the past family issues. It is a good time for this.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:28 PM on December 28, 2007

One time I thought I'd had about enough. I said as much on the phone, and hung up. I never answered the phone after that, got caller ID and screened all calls. Did my own thing for about a year and then called back. Everything was much more manageable then.
posted by sanka at 9:42 PM on December 28, 2007

Things get easier if you put distance between you, at least from my experience. I left the country, never explicitly said, "Family, you suck, quit trying to control me and make me psycho" (it was a number of people in my family for me).

Mine was a lot more subtle, simply not returning phone calls because I was "so busy" for example. Eventually the contact got less frequent and now I would consider the balance I have with them to be just right, which means I talk to them about once a year. I think they realized on their own that I just don't want to talk with them that often for "some reason".

In my case, explicitly telling them why would have been a mistake I think. Most of my family members honestly believe they have done all they can to raise me well, and I've come to terms with the fact that perhaps they have, in their own negative controlling way that is possible for them as individuals. Both of my parents came from terrible households. They are imperfect people, as am I. I try to respect them while respecting my need to be away from their negative behavior.
posted by fan_of_all_things_small at 10:10 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I've had to do this with my mother, for many of the same emotional-abuse reasons you cite above, plus a (un)healthy dose of being a manipulative control freak. When I was 23, I ended up having to move 900 miles away just to get out from under her.

About 8 years after I moved, though, I had to cut off contact for a while. I don't recall at the moment what it was that led me to cut her off the first time (I think it had something to do with her trying to turn me against my father to get something she wanted from him), but I got really, really fed up with her antics and told her that I wouldn't be speaking to her until she cut it out. That lasted about six months, and then she finally cracked and called me to apologize.

Unfortunately, it didn't end well - we started speaking again for a few years, but I ended up having to cut my mother out of my life permanently a few years ago. It just got to the point where my mother's continuing presence in my life was unhealthy for the both of us, and our irreparably damaged relationship had to end. I saw it at the time like amputating a gangrenous limb - not having that limb any more is a permanent handicap, but the alternative is far, far worse.

My bit of advice for you is this: If you're serious about having to "take a break" from your father because of his emotional abuse, then by all means do it. But, you need to be prepared for one thing: what if he dies? There's always the unintended possibility that your temporary separation from him could become permanent, and you need to think that through first. You need to think long and hard about if you're going to be able to handle it if he dies without you speaking to him again.

You also need to think through how you would handle it if you decide to speak to him at some point in the future: an emotionally abusive person would almost certainly say something like "I knew you would come crawling back" or something like that. A person with a history of abuse isn't likely to change their pattern, and you need to think ahead of time how you would handle that if it happens.

I truly feel for you here - it's a lousy situation you're in. I wish you the best, no matter what you decide to do.
posted by deadmessenger at 10:20 PM on December 28, 2007 [3 favorites]

I'm currently estranged from my parents, and it sounds like we have similar reasons; my father just makes me feel worthless and horrible in a way that I never experience when I'm not around him.

Making the decision to stay away from my parents was easy: It seemed logical, since I was experiencing negative feelings around them and about them that I wasn't feeling otherwise. And nowadays I don't have to sit across from my father and feel like he's judging me for all the little ways I let him down, and I don't have to spend hours or days afterwards with the lingering sensation that I failed my parents and incurred their eternal disappointment by behaving like a delinquent punk 20 years ago in grade school.

In my situation, the fundamental issue that I used to be a real douche-bag of a kid, with attitude and discipline problems, and my parents still see me that way, which seriously interferes with my ability to view myself as the conscientious and considerate person I developed into.

But in a very primal kind of way, I miss them. Christmas Eve was a sleepless night for me, as I wondered what my family were up, imagined them engaged in all the familiar traditions, imagined every positive and negative permutation of how they were thinking of me during the holidays, etc.

I personally don't believe that you can individually work out the issues you have with another person - any interpersonal conflict requires a solution borne of both personalities, unless one or the other can adopt a platform of utter patience and acceptance of the other's offending behavior. But of course that doesn't solve a problem, it merely eliminates the need of a solution.

So if your ultimate goal is improved relations with your dad, don't avoid him, just start standing up for yourself. When he makes you feel like crap, say "Hey, Dad, you're making me feel badly in this way, by doing/saying that. I don't think it's fair because of this..." Your dad will either care about what you're saying and over time you two can find a more mutually acceptable way to interact, or he'll react really badly/defensively and you'll at least have more fodder for your decision to start avoiding him.

If you simply want free of your dad's toxic influence, then by all means I recommend cutting him out of your life, since that is really the only way to protect yourself from unrepentant assholes. But try and prepare yourself for the chance of feeling bad for a whole other reason later on.

I understand from your question that you are simply seeking a break from your dad, but I honestly don't see that as viable. You will be defining the separation so much on your own terms that it would be hard for him to accept unemotionally, and his likely emotions won't be positive. He'll feel attacked and rejected, spiteful of your emotional needs and at any rate will be the same person he is now when you decide you want to see him again.

You can't learn to stand the cold while you're hanging out at the beach, you can't learn to palate spicy food while you're on a Kraft Dinner diet, and you can't "deal" with the impact of someone's attitude on your life while they aren't in your life. Either keep seeing him as per normal and expend your energy telling him want you want and need, and trying to understand his motivations as well, so that you can develop your relationship, or just cut him off and get used to exploring a new headspace that doesn't have him in it.

Good luck to you... seriously. I feel your pain.
posted by chudmonkey at 10:21 PM on December 28, 2007 [11 favorites]

I told my mum, "Don't call me. I'll call you. Maybe. In a year." It worked. I think she questioned herself a bit while I got the break I needed. Things were different after. She was a bit more open to taking me seriously. I wish it never had to happen and wasn't so brutally done, because she looked like she was going to cry, but I needed to do it somehow. I don't think horribly blunt is the only or the best way to do it, though. Do what feels right. You have every right to determine who you are going to spend time with. Once you are an adult, there are ideally no haftas any more, just choices and consequences based on your choices.
posted by Listener at 10:41 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

It's not quite the same question, but it touches on similar themes: read this recent AskMeFi thread.
posted by Asparagirl at 10:41 PM on December 28, 2007

I want him to somehow realize (given that he seems oblivious) that he is really hurting me

I've been there. Years ago, I tried, really tried, to get my dad to understand how some of the abusive bullshit he pulled affected me as a kid. I guess I wanted him to just understand, and maybe then I could move on and forgive. It didn't work; he just got impatient, and finally said, exasperated, "What do you want me to say? I'm sorry?! Ok, I'm sorry!"

That was the moment I came to a kind of peace in my relationship with him. It just wasn't going to be what I thought it could be - what I wanted it to be. I was surprised to find I was a lot happier accepting that, which meant admitting to myself that there were ways he would always be toxic to me, and that I just needed to stay away because there wasn't much good coming from that direction. We were cordial til he died, but not much more.

My advice is simple: Explaining why you don't want to talk to him anymore is a *total* waste of time - time better spent rebuilding with a cool therapist. Tell him you're tired of his crap if you want to, but just stop talking to him and avoid him for as long as you like. If you eventually feel like recontacting him, do. If not, don't. If he dies, well, that's tough.

For him. He missed out on your awesomeness.

While he almost never laid a hand on me,

Ouch. That looks like a sentence I would write.

the cruelty and pervasiveness of the ways in which he made me feel worthless, ugly, damaged and disgusting while growing up would require an essay to even scratch here

Toxic, toxic, toxic. Stay away for as long as you need to while you regroup from his most recent dose of poison. Don't visit, don't call, if he calls, either hang up or just make an excuse and get off the phone fast. And take care of yourself.
posted by mediareport at 10:46 PM on December 28, 2007 [1 favorite]

I have similar issues -- very similar -- with my father, and distancing myself from him has been the best thing I have done for myself and my self esteem. Because I love and in some ways respect him, and because I value communication in its own right, I do sometimes explicitly tell him how his behaviors and attitudes hurt me and make it difficult for me to spend time with him or talk to him (we live in different states), but it doesn't really do any long-term good, and only serves to make him feel guilty. Which is, of course, less than useful for anyone. We've had some emotional conversations, tearful for both parties, that felt like Hallmark Epiphany Moments, but they all just turned out to be temporary catharsis. In my own experience, talking is not going to change him, nor will it change our dynamic, nor will it change ME to make me more able to bear him. However, I am perfectly open with my parents about my reasons, when they get on my case about not maintaining more closeness with them. I try to state the situation as dispassionately and blame-free-ly as I can and try to avoid accusations of bad parenting/role modeling, which would only put him on the defensive and effectively end the conversation right there.

I sometimes struggle with feeling like a bad daughter for not sucking it up more, especially since distance from him has the unwanted yet unavoidable side effect of distance from my mother. I feel as if, because I know what he is like, and I know that the vitriol spewed in my direction is just part of him being him, somehow I should be able to accept it better and not let it get to me. And I think such acceptance and tolerance is important in many situations in which we must deal with our imperfect fellow humans, including our own imperfect selves.

However, there is no need to put yourself in the path of abuse.

If you have reached the limits of your tolerance, then it is only healthy and natural that you should take steps to remove the intolerable influence from your life, or minimize its presence to a level that you are able to tolerate. As for what that level is, only you can figure that out, and it will probably be through trial and error. Sadly, you are not going to wake up with a new family, so there will probably be some unpleasantness during the time that you're actively discovering what amount of contact you want and balancing that with the minimum amount that your parents can accept without causing a serious rift (eg, I intuitively know that I have to at least visit them for a few days at Xmas-time or risk real damage to the relationship -- but like idle said above, I make myself as busy as I can); and of course there will be changes in the amount of contact you can comfortably manage as things change in your life (eg, I NEVER call my folks if I'm going through any kind of difficulty or transition in my work or personal life; but when things are stable for me, I'll tend to check in with them more often).

Your situation sounds like it's very difficult and painful. I do hope that you are able to protect the gains you've made since being out on your own, away from his direct influence. I know from personal experience how fragile-seeming those gains are (increased self-esteem, etc), and they always take a hit after contact with my dad. But the hit is always temporary. I just keep reminding myself that THIS is my life; THAT (ie, with them) is NOT my life. It's my old life, yes, which has helped shape who I am today and is therefore valuable and precious even though its memory is sad and I was sad while I was in it. But it's not my now.
posted by tentacle at 10:57 PM on December 28, 2007

My advice is simple: Explaining why you don't want to talk to him anymore is a *total* waste of time - time better spent rebuilding with a cool therapist. Tell him you're tired of his crap if you want to, but just stop talking to him and avoid him for as long as you like. If you eventually feel like recontacting him, do. If not, don't. If he dies, well, that's tough.

And that, Ash3000, is some really shitty advice. Why the fuck would you want to spend money to see a therapist when you already have a plan? When I was 22, I was in this exact same position. I was ready to walk away from the parents who thoroughly disgusted me and go off and make my life with my journalism degree. I had been through years of physical and mental abuse and was tired of trying to justify to these people why I wanted to do every little thing.

So, I wrote each of them a letter saying I forgave them for being who they were, that I was going to generally disregard their advice from that point on, and that I would "drop out" if they did not realize their children were now adults. Surprisingly, my parents got the message. They still bitch about why I should go to law school. But, four months ago I moved back to my hometown and then got fired and I am leaving town again and they have been great about simply bitching about it to each other. It's surprising how being direct can be so rewarding. That way, you're announcing that you are making preparations for a life without them. They will immediately get the message that you don't want their money, a part in your family life, or a share in their old age. The rest is up to you now. Go, have fun and be happy.
posted by parmanparman at 11:08 PM on December 28, 2007

When I need space,....I just quit answering the phone. (for a week, month or sometimes longer). When I am feeling better and have the energy to deal with my family, then I start answering the phone again. They dont like it,. but meh, your personal mental stability has to come first.
posted by jmnugent at 12:05 AM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

I spoke to my mother for the last time in 2001. She died earlier this year. I think she knew she'd gone too far, as she always has. She discovered that I no longer had any need to put up with it. For me, it was not too painful. It improved my outlook very much. But I'm 50, and that's not nearly the same as some temporary distance! I had plenty of temporary distance over the years.

On the other hand, my father was quite different. Having stayed away from home for 6 years, when I finally visited (I was about 30 then) it was awesome. To my amazement, I discovered I actually liked my father! I enjoyed his company, a lot. When my parents bickered with eachother, I laughed, as it reminded me much of my own relationship (and my laughter totally deflated their stupid tiff).

For me, cutting off my mother meant cutting off my father, too. That part did sting. He hadn't done anything new to earn my ire for many years. After my mother died, it was nice to speak to him again. Yea, he pulled some seriously horrible shit on me, and I even used to amuse myself with daydreams of how I might end his life. But that was decades long past. I buried that hatchet, quite successfully. Mother was just a bitch, with claws.

Distance can be a very wonderful thing. It is healthy. Parents are not perfect, but we grow up and can get over most of it. But you can't allow toxic parents to continue with the poison once you're grown. They either wise up, or they get shut out of one's life. This is the way of being human.
posted by Goofyy at 3:38 AM on December 29, 2007

A couple of thoughts:
You say you had forgiven him; you clearly haven't. You may have fooled yourself into believing you have; but the car trip clearly fueled quite a bit of rage. Rage that has been unexpressed and sublimated. (There's nothing wrong with this; but forgiveness means you're okay about his activity/behavior)

If you do this, you ought to be involved with some sort of therapy, etc; otherwise the reason you're distancing yourself may not necessarily lead you down a healthier path.

You don't have to do this explicitly; just not put yourself in position to communicate.
If you do so explicitly, don't confuse the issue (your needing insulation) with his behavior. This will sound rough: it's your problem, not his. Realistically, you're not going to make him change. While your behavior is radical, from his point of view, doing so with a vengeful attitude is the equivalent of recreating his behavior.
posted by filmgeek at 4:00 AM on December 29, 2007

Somehow you have to come to the point where what he says does not affect you. If you need to separate for awhile, do it.

What helped me is building up the "inner braces" until my folks could say anything they wanted to me and I would not care.

Funny; once they realized their opinions no longer affected me they started being way more careful in how they treated me.
posted by konolia at 5:20 AM on December 29, 2007

I can't decide if it's heartening or sickening that the details of this situation are so universal. I also finally cut myself off from my father, through a combination of myself reaching the limit on his complete emotional inaccessibility and a concerted effort to sabotage an already bad relationship by his wife (not my mother).

I actually went through this several times-- cutting him off and then relenting and calling back. He never once not once not once asked me how we could fix things. He never made the first move to call and ask to patch things up. The last time I got fed up (let's see-- the wife was not letting him know when I called, refusing my requests to bring his grandchildren to visit, and not making time for them to visit us when they visited her son who lived nearby, and telling us to "wait for an invitation" that was never forthcoming. His response when I confronted him with this? "oh well")

That was in 1992. I have not seen him since. My children, who are grown, have no memory of him. It is bitter and awful. I hate him and myself every day because he is 82 and this is never going to be resolved. I'll see him at his funeral, assuming the evil stepmother bothers to tell me when he dies.

Sorry for the long story. The moral is, if you take the break you are contemplating, be prepared for it to be permanent, just in case. Otherwise, other suggestions here are better. Either learn to temper your own response to him, or try the "you are making me feel badly" approach every time he fucks with you.

Good luck. My heart to everyone here who has to deal with this.
posted by nax at 7:01 AM on December 29, 2007

distance is easy: screen your calls and don't answer the phone when they call. shoot them an email every once in a while to let them know you're alive (so mom doesn't worry and call out a search team).

as for making your dad understand how much he hurt you--you probably will never be able to do that to your satisfaction. you can tell him, sure. maybe you should tell him. but you need to decide what kind of behavior/reaction will satisfy you and let him know what it is. he's not going to magically meet your expectations if he doesn't know what they are (if he even decides to try, that is). and you have to reward that behavior. people have pride. they don't want to do things that make them feel bad. you have to make your dad feel good about making his changes--you can't shame him into it.

one of the thngs that i've learned is that you cannot turn your parents into the parents you wish you had. they are who they are. sometimes they are horrible. give yourself distance for a year or two to let your feelings settle and to develop your own independent life. i found that the more i lived on my own, the less it mattered what my parents were like. it didn't make them better people, but it put me more at peace.
posted by thinkingwoman at 7:19 AM on December 29, 2007

Send him a link to this thread. In the email tell him that you'll talk to him in a year (which coincidentally will fall close to New Year's next year).
posted by purephase at 7:24 AM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

But at the same time, I want him to somehow realize (given that he seems oblivious) that he is really hurting me, that if I don't talk to him on the phone, there's a reason, it's not "fucking [my name] being [my name]."

Don't let your satisfaction depend on him coming around in any way. Take care of yourself first and build a life that satisfies you with no father in it. Stop going to family events, use call screening, and send an occasional short email announcing your continued existence. I occasionally used the "busy" excuse--busy with my job, with my other life, but you don't need to give any excuse at all. "Sorry, I won't be coming," is enough.

My relatives simply assumed I was continuing to be the cold, strange thing they liked to humiliate. So what? It doesn't matter what a handful of messed-up people think of you. You have a life of your own and your own friends. It takes awhile to get to the point of not caring, but it will happen if you build your own full life without them.
posted by PatoPata at 7:41 AM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

Just don't go, and forget ever making them understand. Whatever grand fantasies you have about delivering the perfect speech and crystallizing their errors for them in a moment of epiphany, it's just not going to happen.

You're the child, and they'll always think you're being overdramatic, melodramatic (insert whatever word your parents use when you're trying to explain your feelings, and they're busy dismissing them.)

Just don't go. Don't hang up on them if they call, but linger as little as possible, and don't call yourself. Go for Christmas/Hanukkah/Large Family Holiday of your choice, but only stay for two hours. If they want to know why you don't visit, the answer is, "I'm busy."

You'll feel better, trust me.
posted by headspace at 8:14 AM on December 29, 2007 [5 favorites]

Don't let your satisfaction depend on him coming around in any way. Take care of yourself first and build a life that satisfies you with no father in it.

Exactly. I don't know if your father has a drinking problem but mine does. During the day he's gruff and grumbly but pleasant and decent. When he drinks -- which is every single night starting at five -- he's sometimes maudlin and sentimental and sometimes hurtful and jerkish. He was a jerk when I was a kid a lot of the time and he was a jerk to my Mom who didn't, I think, ever get over the "you are a small person in the eyes of someone you care about" disease. Don't be like that.

If you want to punish him for being hurtful that's likely not going to work. People who are bad people to those they theoretically love do it (imo) because they are broken individuals with different feedback loops than you or I. So, in my family, saying "you hurt my feelings" or "what a shitty thing to say to someone" is more likely to unleash a defensive tirade of "oh yeah we'll YOU'RE LIKE THIS" which, from a distance, is a completely insane thing to say to someone and yet I've heard it from both my parents enough to know exactly what I'm like in their eyes when they're like this. They're broken and I have an opportunity to be not broken, is how I look at it.

So, back to you. Take some space and move into your adult life independently. Be around people who value you and don't treat you like your father does. Try to forgive your Mom first and move on to your Dad if you feel you can move that way. Remember -- and I know it's a fucked up platitude in some ways -- at the end of the day he's a jerky person who can't be nice to his kids and you're someone with a capacity for caring and forgving and MOVING ON, not fucked up and stuck like he is. Take the space/time and don't make apologies or excuses or explanations. Get better at letting crappy comments roll off you when you have to hear them in response to your "sorry I won't be coming" statements. Develop a flat affect for replying without crying or lashing out. I developed a set of flat responses when things got out of hand.

me: what a totally inappropriate thing to say when I told you I was having a hard time. I will speak with you later. [hangs up]

parent: you never come to visit, you never call, you never pay attention to me, etc
me: I'm very busy and time with you is hit or miss lately. Let's focus on [email/phone calls/letters/some way you're comfy interacting] for the meantime.

parent: [treats other parent horribly]
me: that's not a nice thing to do to someone you care about. I think I'll be going to bed now [leaves]

I don't know what your parents' specific problems are but you might do well to read up on Borderline Personalities [it doesnt matter what your parents' deal is really some of the advice given is good for any sort of situation in which someoine you love is shitty to you] or adult children of alcoholics. I think everyone finds their own way to deal and if lowering the drama is important to you, find a polite way to step away, reserve time and caring for yourself and let the anger go somewhere useful [exercise, art, home renovations] instead of letting it eat you up and/or plot your revenge. When bad things happen, remove yourself from the situation, either by hanging up, walking away or not continuing the situation. Don't put yourself in situations where you're trapped. Bring friends with you when you visit your folks and leave if they're being shitty. I know it's a little apalling to walk out in the middle of a meal, but so is being a total dick to your kids.

Most of all, forgive and love yourself. Your parents didn't break you, you can be okay. You have an opportunity to not be them and a long life ahead of you to practice. Your Dad may get there slowly or he may not. My parents mellowed considerably with age and are both bearable to be around in small doses. Good luck, I know it is not easy.
posted by jessamyn at 8:49 AM on December 29, 2007 [9 favorites]

Note that the explanation why you need space is merely so you can get out of the room with them agreeing to your need for space. It will be an agreement they will try and violate but you can always bring up that they agreed. This is a power game, and the words (hurtful to you, yes) are only tools for them. Their meaning is far less important to your father than the effect that they have on you. Remember that over and over again.

I had a very, very similar situation. My mom used to threaten suicide to me all the time, probably about 1200 times before I was 24. Her sister is a psychologist and told me that the thing to do was to tell her that I couldn't have a conversation with her when she did that and that I would have to get off the phone. I put her plan into effect. The first time I used it, I had to hang up. The second time I used it, it warded off suicide threats for about 10 minutes before I had to hang up. I have never had to use it a third time in the last 15 years. The entire power dynamic between me and my mom changed and she became much more respectful of boundaries. Now she never does it (and is much better due to a change of meds).
posted by Ironmouth at 8:51 AM on December 29, 2007

I completely cut my father out of my life for two years, and it really helped me get the distance I needed to deal with him now. I moved and didn't give him the address, I deleted all the voicemails without listening to them, ignored the calls, etc etc. He got all my news second hand through my sister, who gave him the bare minimum of "she's alive, okay". I didn't send him a letter, because people like my father are just never going to get it.
My advice: Just cut them off. Let your father think "It's just Ash being Ash". What he thinks doesn't affect you if don't let it. Don't answer the calls, don't go visit, just give yourself time to process and heal. Honestly, you may never be able to truly forgive him, but if you can get to the point where all his crap just makes you laugh instead of cry, you'll have won.
posted by blueskiesinside at 9:48 AM on December 29, 2007 [1 favorite]

about a year ago I explicity told my parents that I thought it would be better for all if we limited our contact. I set a boundary and some rules and stuck to it. We speak every two weeks and for no more than five minutes. It stung them at first, but now they've adjusted. This has been the best holiday season ever.

Set some boudaries, keep it brief, make it kind. Good luck!
posted by iamkimiam at 10:33 AM on December 29, 2007

This type of situation is why my siblings and I did everything we could to get out of the house (and state, if possible) even while in high school. Some of us younger ones even stayed with older siblings.

Nobody had a confrontation with our parents. We just sought distance and time apart, as you do. My folks never got it, though. I found that taking care of my part was enough to help me deal with them when we were together.
posted by trinity8-director at 12:06 PM on December 29, 2007

Don't let your satisfaction depend on him coming around in any way. Take care of yourself first and build a life that satisfies you with no father in it...

My relatives simply assumed I was continuing to be the cold, strange thing they liked to humiliate. So what? It doesn't matter what a handful of messed-up people think of you. You have a life of your own and your own friends. It takes awhile to get to the point of not caring, but it will happen if you build your own full life without them.

Quoted for truth and emphasis.

A lot of good advice and sharing in this thread already, but I just want to underscore the following idea:

You cannot "win" this. There won't be the triumphant confrontation where you vent all the completely reasonable, truthful, meaningful things you are feeling, and then your parents ponder that and the lightbulb goes on and they realize how terrible they've been and then you all cry and hug and start over, and it's beautiful going forward.

I spent a lot of time trying to Make My Father Understand; every second of that time was wasted. He simply didn't see events of the past in the same way I did; he believed he had been a perfectly adequate father, and that I didn't share his view was my problem. So, after high school graduation I broke off contact. It was always strange, and sometimes lonely, but I came to understand that I was an adult, and had the choice to only spend time in the presence of people who cared about my happiness. And I made my own "family," of dear friends and siblings.

Every few years, my dad would try to reach out, invite me to lunch or coffee. I'd get hopeful, we'd meet, make awkward small talk about distant relatives, things would stumble along -- and then the conversation would end abruptly at the point where he inevitably said, "So, I've forgiven you for the terrible way you've treated me all these years, and I'm ready to hear your apology now." Check, please! After the third one of those, I decided I was no longer obligated to place myself in emotional harm's way, simply in the interest of a possible reconciliation.

Forewarned is forearmed: whatever you do, realize that it's never just between you and the parent(s). Siblings, grandparents, the extended family will also be affected. I lost significant relationships with other family members who couldn't accept my decision about my dad. I tried to make them understand that it wasn't anything personal towards them... but they couldn't. But as PatoPata said, "It doesn't matter what a handful of messed-up people think."

I came to terms with the fact that my father and I will possibly never have a relationship of any kind, and that even if we manage to cobble one together (as in Jessamyn's tale, he's getting mellower as he gets older), there's still no telling what form it will take. I came to terms with the fact that if he died unexpectedly, I will likely experience a raft of emotional fallout around our not having reconciled. And that will suck, probably like nothing else has sucked.

But I can't allow myself to be miserable today simply because my dad might get hit by a bus before he figures out whether he wants to treat me like a human being, you know?

You have to do what's best for you, just be sure to consider all the ramifications of your decision. (For example, because of my choices in my situation, I couldn't possibly call my father for help if I got in financial or medical trouble.) And be sure that you won't be living in a fantasy world where you daydream constantly of the afterschoool-special-style confrontation and reconciliation, and your true happiness relies on that coming to fruition. That's the Dysfunctional Parent Pick-6 right there, and you can't bank on drawing the winning number.

There are lots of people who don't have great relationships with one or both parents but they don't want to take on the enormous life change that results from totally severing those ties. You might decide that you can carve out something in the middle -- more of the kinder, gentler dad you've seen in the last couple years, fewer of the hell-on-wheels holiday road trips. Just do whatever you need to in order to be happy and healthy.
posted by pineapple at 5:06 PM on December 29, 2007 [2 favorites]

My father had a horrible habit of overreacting to every wrong thing I do, no matter how small. I always tell him that he can't keep overreacting like this, he has anger problems, and it was very, very harmful & stressful for me when he does this but he never changed.

Until one Spring Break while at my parents' place a few years ago, my father got mad over a missed phone call and proceeded to yell at me about how useless I am and how it was a big waste for them to raise me, etc. Finally, I blurted out that I never wanted to come visit for Spring Break because I knew this would happen and I don't want to to commit to future visits anymore. It worked and he has gotten a lot better since.

Apparently, he had no idea how serious I was until then because he saw I was ready to leave and never come back. I guess sometimes you have to tell them and really follow through with it if it comes down to it (luckily it never did for us). I think it also helped that I was giving him less and less attention every time he yelled at me as well as distancing myself from him before that incident.

So my advice is that you when your father gets too negative, tone him out and do not give him any reinforcement that this attitude is getting anywhere. You don't have to cut him off right away, just spend less and less time on the phone with them ("I'm busy right now", "I need get back to work"). For my parents, it made they realized that they shouldn't spend time on the phone yelling at me if they only have 10 minutes to talk to me each week, YMMV. I think if your father still treats you poorly, then you should set boundaries and stick to it, including cutting them off.

Also, my friend gave me a really good advice once: understand the source of your parent's anger. Her mother would tell her to go die when her mother gets mad but my friend now sees it as her mother being her mother. She no longer takes it personally as she now knows her mother has a lot of anger from the failed marriage and dead-end job and not truly mad at my friend.
posted by vocpanda at 11:22 PM on December 29, 2007

See what good company you're in. At 22, I moved nearly 1,000 miles away, and didn't have a home phone for a year. That limited contact nicely. Over time, my dysfunctional parent learned that I wouldn't be part of manipulative games and wouldn't be present for abusive behavior. I learned to be more tolerant, less reactive, more forgiving. I learned skills for diverting energy from fighting to something else, and learned the signals of impending trouble, and learned to get the heck out as needed. My siblings mostly developed the same policies. My dysfunctional parent behaved better a lot of the time, and we developed a relationship that was much healthier. I gave up a lot of holidays with family, and had years of distance. I gave up fantasies of a different family, and accepting the family I have.

Good friends, work and activities made Christmases manageable. Christmas alone with books and music is better than a drunken tirade at dinner followed by passing out in bed, while the family chokes down what should have been a fabulous meal.

I don't recommend announcing your intentions. It leads to emotional drama, and not to meaningful change. Change your own behavior, and people will change their behavior towards you. It takes time, but is worth it. Good luck.
posted by theora55 at 7:45 AM on December 30, 2007 [3 favorites]

Uh, if you could me blowing up at my mother in such a fashion that we didn't speak for a year, sure, I have.

I went 25+ years dealing with my mother's bullshit (I won't get into it now, as I'm in a very good mood and don't wish to spoil it) before I made it to that phone call. I'm not sure what made me tell her off. It was like a clock in the back of my head ticking, and then a green light. I went off on her for every little thing she's done to me and my brothers, from abuse to being homeless to fat jokes to treating every one I've introduced to her like a pile of steaming shit.

It was glorious.

I didn't speak to her for almost a year - one week shy of it, actually. No phone calls, no emails, no texts. She's not 100% back to how she was before she turned into MegaBitch, but she's almost there. I don't totally dread conversations with her anymore. And not a fat joke in sight.

I dunno why I shared that. I just felt the need to. Maybe to show you that if you cut off contact for a bit, he might see where you're coming from?
posted by damnjezebel at 8:20 PM on December 30, 2007

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