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When the only way to improve a parental relationship is to end it

Friends and family didn't understand my decision to cut ties with my father, but it was the right thing to do.


Breaking up with someone you love is difficult under any circumstance. It’s even more challenging when the split is with a parent — in my case, my 79-year-old father. I describe it as a “divorce,” because there is an air of finality to that word.

I struggled for a year to make the decision to end my turbulent relationship with my dad. I was never hit or sexually abused. His abuse was emotional, which made the decision to disconnect much cloudier since every parental relationship has ups and downs.

I don’t recall being hugged or kissed as a kid. He wasn’t the type that attended my high school band performances or graduations. I remember sitting at the dinner table and thinking I was invisible to him.

His general stoicism hid a nasty streak. He’d insult my mother and call her a “dodo.” I saw him whip my sister with a dishtowel as she cowered against the kitchen wall. And one time, the police were called when he shoved a neighbor over some disagreement.

When he was unhappy with someone, he got very quiet, ready to explode, like a lit match hovering over a puddle of spilled gasoline. During family road trips, he’d get into a dark mood over something — my mom not being able to read a map or having too much stuff to pack in the trunk. I’d slink down in the backseat, hoping that his smoldering rage would pass, anxiety making me sick to my stomach.

He could be cruel. When I was around 12, he shot a squirrel at my grandfather’s farm and then fed it to the dog, as I begged and cried for him not to. I think he was amused initially by my freaking out until he realized I was traumatized. But just a few years ago, he drowned a bunch of baby raccoons by filling their den with water. A neighbor saw him do it and called him a monster. He got mad at her.

My father’s meanness reached a new level three years ago, when he stopped speaking to me. To this day, I don’t know why he did that. It might be because I didn’t call to wish him happy birthday until the following morning, or that I went to the funeral of my mother’s brother, a man he intensely disliked.

During our last conversation on the phone, my father said he was “done” with me and my mother’s side of the family. After that, I sent a letter explaining that I wasn’t “stirring things up” at the funeral, as he had accused me of. I still sent a Father’s Day card, and asked the one brother he still talks to to call him while I was visiting to see if my dad wanted to say hello to me. He didn’t. That was 18 months after our final phone call. And, true to his word, he does not talk to me, grandkids, a once-close sister-in-law, nieces or nephews — anyone connected to my mother, who died 10 years ago.

I have seen my dad hang on to anger for decades. He digs in and stays there. His track record confirmed for me that was he was unlikely to change his mind.

I began to think about taking steps to sever the relationship. First, I had to give up my fantasy about having a healthy relationship with someone who continues to be abusive to me and to others. Only recently could I recognize his behavior as abusive. Now, I can call it what it was and stop making excuses for him or telling myself it wasn’t that bad. It was bad.

My dad left me with emotional scars. I ate obsessively to soothe myself, trying to fill out the void that comes with feeling you don’t matter. I entered a series of inappropriate love affairs, desperate for scraps of male affection at any cost. I had worked through those issues with a therapist in my 20s. I was in a better place to manage a relationship with my dad. But that last phone call brought back his anger and name-calling. When I hung up, I sobbed as the feelings of worthlessness came back.

Over the past year, I thought hard about my decision to disconnect. One moment, I’d want to contact him again, despite all that has happened between us. Complicating the “should I stay or should I go” question was the fact that my dad didn’t always make me feel terrible about myself. For a while, after the death of my mother, we got closer. We even went to Switzerland together. But at its core, the relationship wasn’t positive. I circled back time and time again to how I never felt good around him.

Distinguishing a parental relationship that needs to be severed from one that is merely dysfunctional can be difficult. Susan Forward, an internationally renowned therapist and author of “Toxic Parents” and “Mothers Who Can’t Love,” says disconnecting with a parent should be a last resort and that there are ways to try to improve a bad relationship, even something as simple as an honest confrontation. Some parents don’t realize they were causing hurt and apologize. Others might harden and go on the attack. Their response will dictate the way forward, whether it’s a trial separation, a new start or what Forward calls a “tea party” relationship — one limited to conversation about benign topics like the weather or books.

My father, who refuses to speak to me, didn’t give me the chance to have an honest confrontation. My way forward was to end the relationship.

Some friends and family criticized me for my decision, saying, “but he’s your father,” “he’s family,” “he did his best” or “he put a roof over your head.” Those comments stirred my guilt and kept my doubts about my decision alive. They muddied an already muddy situation. These are the sentiments that infuriate Forward, especially when they come from fellow therapists.

“When you’re going through this, you don’t need a therapist who is going to throw the myths of the happy family at you,” she says. “Stay away from those people. It’s really important to work with someone compassionate because that inner child will feel shaky, unsure and perhaps guilty about you ending things.”

“Tables don’t become chairs,” Forward adds. “What keeps people stuck is their hopeless hope of find the magic key — doing or saying the right thing — that will cause a parent to love them as a child needs them to.”

I didn’t do anything to make my choice “official.” It was more of flipping an emotional switch to off. I think every adult child has the right to make that choice. If a parent causes a son or daughter to feel controlled, manipulated, unsafe or damages their self-respect, and there’s no chance of improvement, then why stick around for more hurt?

My detachment from my father was not a betrayal. As Forward points out, it was “a choice between a parent’s emotional well-being and yours. You must choose your own because it’s the only one you’ll ever have.”

There is still a lingering sadness that haunts me about not having my father around, but I feel at peace knowing I’m far enough away from him that he can’t hurt me anymore. I am better off for it, even though I am reminded of the void where he used to be every June when I see Father’s Day cards in stores. It makes me wish there had been a happier ending for him and me.