Carolyn Hax: With a dad who disappoints, adjust your expectations

Columnist April 18, 2012

Dear Carolyn:

Just been uncovered that my dad has been having a (quite public) affair. The other woman is a friend of my mom’s, and my mom’s friends have known about the affair for some time. My mom is heartbroken, and so am I.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

I would be happier never seeing my father again (this is just the tip of the iceberg with him), but I don’t want to make this any harder for my siblings, who want to forgive, forget and move on. My mom wants an amicable divorce, purely to make things easier for my siblings and me — we’re all in college/living at home — and is taking steps toward that. It would really sadden her to see me sever things with my dad, and since I will not cause her more pain, I need to forgive him.

But how do I get over this betrayal, humiliation, anger and sadness? I should say that since getting caught he has apologized and followed through with moving out, but continues to lie about different issues. I am fed up with his deceit and surface-level emotional depth and just want to move on with my life without the weight of wishing my dad loved me better.


I’m sorry. Life is challenging enough when loved ones behave themselves.

Although there’s no shortcut through grief — this is the death of your nuclear family, after all — there are things you can do to clarify your sense of purpose, which will keep you on the recovery path.

You’ve spelled out one priority: supporting your mom and sibs instead of cutting ties with Dad. Either choice would have been legitimate, so having a clear preference spared you the anguish of choosing.

I do think you’ve conflated two separate issues, though: what you think of your father, and the time you spend with him.

Granted, the more you’re around your father, the more you’re forced to think about the ways he disappoints you. However, that doesn’t change the fact that “the weight of wishing my dad loved me better” is one you’ll carry whether he’s in your life or not. If you don’t deal with it, that is.

And despite your roiling emotions, dealing with it is a matter of making a simple calculation: The power to answer your “wishing” lies with you.

By accident of birth, this is the father you got. He’s not getting any more honest, any deeper, any better. That means that if you keep expecting him to behave with integrity, or hoping he’ll become a good father, or decrying that he isn’t one, you’ll keep renewing your disappointment, and grief, in perpetuity.

You don’t expect you’ll grow 10 inches and play pro hoops, or that your dog will to learn to drive, right? You accept limits and live accordingly. So, build expectations of Dad that reflect nothing more than the reality of who he is — then watch as existential letdowns stop dominating your life. It’s wish-fulfillment with no change in paternal dosage.

That’s because it’s not your father’s shortcomings that preoccupy you, it’s your hopes for a different outcome.

If you need an assist from your college’s counseling service, then seek it without apology. Just do what it takes to pack your what-ifs away into storage for issues resolved.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or Subscribe at

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