Dear Carolyn: Eight years ago, my dad cheated on my mom and ended their marriage. A month after the divorce, my dad married his mistress. While her adult children were in the wedding party, neither my brother nor I were even invited. I didn’t meet her until a year later, when I was told she didn’t feel comfortable with me staying with them in the house I grew up in, and they demanded I leave. The one other time I have seen him in the years since, she insisted on chaperoning the visit.
Now my dad insists he wants a relationship with me, but he reaches out only sporadically, and only with superficial emails — updates on his favorite baseball team, etc. — as though nothing has happened. He rarely answers my calls, and when she is in the room, he will usher me off the phone as quickly as possible.
I have written him exhaustive emails telling him how badly he has hurt me and how I need more of a reckoning to move forward. These have been met with unwillingness to engage.
I am tired of being hurt and sad. I don't want to lose my dad forever, but I don't know how to reconcile if he doesn't want to put in any real effort. I live abroad, so a low-stakes in-person meeting isn't possible.
Is there a third option that is neither cutting him off completely nor accepting this status quo?
— Still Hurt
Still Hurt: Abuse.
It's not directly about your relationship with him, but the possibility your dad married an abuser might change how you view him and the quality of his effort. The hallmarks are there in your description:
· She’s isolating your dad from his people;
· She is so controlling and possessive that she supervises him with others she finds threatening, instead of managing any perceived risk with trust and communication;
· She finds you threatening solely based on your place in his family tree, and not on any knowledge of you as a person;
· She applies self-serving standards in making these decisions, deeming her children suitable but not his.
His sporadic, superficial attempts at contact also fit the profile of someone grasping for ways to contact you that don't trigger a spousal crackdown. He quite possibly screens your calls because he knows he can't answer without paying dearly for it.
Obviously your dad has a lot of bad behavior to answer for himself. No excuses. But there’s also nothing to say his now-wife’s possessiveness and control weren’t already in force long before they wed.
So here’s what I suggest: View your father’s actions through the lens of his attachment to an extremely controlling person. It might explain what has seemed inexplicable to you, like his professing to care about reconciling with you while mustering only a sporadic effort toward it. It might explain why “this status quo” isn’t actually the face-slap you’ve believed it to be, and instead grounds to stay patient and in touch.
Do some reading on abuse — chapter 10 of “The Gift of Fear,” by Gavin De Becker, or the flashcard version from One Love. See for yourself if this third option fits — and if it does, then consider he’s not holding out on you, he’s just giving what little is left.