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Sunday, October 3, 2010

Abusive dads, once we're all grown up.

Unnamed querent:     My father, who I'm beginning to realize is verbally abusive (given
his pattern of explode then apologize explode then apologize),
exploded at me and my family last week. We had been staying with them
for a couple of months trying to pitch in with as much cooking and
cleaning as we could. We had worried that our presence would be an
imposition, and we continually checked in to make sure that they were happy
with our being there and asked if there was anything else we could do.
A month and a half into our stay, my father retired and began to spend
a lot of time around the house. Then, one morning, he stomped into our
room, waking us up, and told us that we hadn't done the dishes last night
(which we had). When I told him we did, he told us, "This is my house
and you have one hour to get out and don't steal anything on your way
out." So, we packed up our car and decided to drive back home, as we
didn't really have anywhere else to go. Now my step-mother is mad at
us because we didn't "stay and talk" and my father still isn't
speaking to us. I hate this feeling of disconnection, but I'm also
beginning to think that my daughter might be better off without my
father in her life. I spent my childhood walking on eggshells around
my dad, I don't want her to go through the same thing.

    My question is this: should I reach out and try to make amends with my
father despite the fact that I actually want him in my life? Should I
wait for him to reach out to me? Should I ignore the whole thing and
say "good riddance" since it appears he is finally out of my life and
away from my daughter?

RPM: First: really impressive job escaping the abusive situation as soon as it escalated, and thereby protecting your daughter and yourself. It’s clear you’ve learned when to engage and when to step back, for the emotional safety of everyone. You rock.

There’s not a hard and fast “should” here around reconciliation, and there’s certainly no time limit. You deserve as much time as you need in order to feel ready to speak to him again—and if that means you never do, that’s ok too. There’s no objective scale on which Life Is Better If you’re on speaking terms with your abusive dad.

If it’s bugging you that you’re not, and especially if you want to maintain a relationship with your stepmom, then at some point, when you’re ready, it’s reasonable to try and dive back into the fray. People who know more than me about abusive parental relationships say: clear boundaries are good. If the person you are talking to exhibits signs of blowing up or becoming aggressive, give them one clear, calm warning that you are not available to be spoken to in that way, and if the abuse continues, walk away calmly, as you’ve already done once before. Let some time pass until you feel up to it, and then try again if you wish.

Walking away is not a failure. It’s part of the process and it may take several (or an infinite number of) attempts to help your dad understand the effect of his behavior on you. If you try, then the fact that you’re trying is generous of you, and probably will be painful, and is awfully brave, and (let me reiterate) you rock. You have absolutely no responsibility to include anyone abusive in your life, but it’s also not stupid of you to try. This is utterly up to you and what you think will make you happy (or less unhappy, as the case may be.)

As far as your daughter goes: by all means, protect her from this influence while she’s too young to understand what’s going on. Your instincts are trustworthy. This isn’t to say it’s a terrible idea to ever let them see each other, but you always have the right to walk away with her when things get explosive again. Once she grows up enough to wonder why you never talk to Grandpa, or why Grandpa is sometimes really mad, or why you’re always so jumpy around him, she deserves as clear an explanation as she can comprehend about mental illness, irrational emotion, and abusive patterns, and at some point she’ll be old enough to make her own decision about how much exposure she wants to pursue or allow. By that point, of course, she’ll be the strong, self-confident young woman you raised, and much less vulnerable to believing negative things about herself or tolerating attacks on her character.

Hang in there! You’re dealing with a rough situation in a super brave, proactive way already, and you’re far away from him now, so take all the time and space you need to figure this out.


P.S. Readers, since this is the first real question I’ve answered in this forum, I welcome feedback in the comments or via email. How'd I do? What other thoughts didn't I say that would be useful to my first querent?

Thanks so much for reading and asking! As always, please email your questions to for the pubic musing for the benefit of others.

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