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April 29, 2017 - Welcome Guest!

Advice » Relationships

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A father's promise

Question:

I am a 24 year-old female. My parents were divorced when I was 5 years old. My father cheated on my mom, then mom divorced him. I have an older brother who is 26 years old. My father favored my brother. I tried all my life to have a father-daughter relationship. My father never calls, NEVER writes.

When I was 10, he suffered a massive heart attack and survived. He promised me we would have a better relationship. It never happened. Every time we talked, he was more concerned with figuring out why my brother had problems - not me. Four years ago, my father's father died. I was so upset, we had a long talk, he promised again. Things got a little better, then he failed to call me on my birthday, said he got me something for Christmas, never sent it to me. Haven't heard from him now for a year.

How do I forget and forgive? My father has never been there for me and has always let me down. He always had time for my brother, he even told me he favored my brother when we were growing up. My father is very selfish and always put his needs before his children's. He is very manipulative and doesn't know how to have a meaningful relationship with his kids (or doesn't care to). He has promised me he would try more with me, but he never calls or visits or writes. I am always so hurt because I have a father, but I don't. He tries so hard with my brother, but not with me.

I am a lot like my dad in ways other than I've described. After last Christmas and my birthday when he let me down so hard he then refused to call me or take my calls. I guess he felt guilty for the way he treated me. He probably knew I would be mad and didn't want to hear it. Anyways, we haven't spoken in a year now and everyday, it gets harder. I love him but hate the person he is. I know if his health keeps up the way it's going, he won't be around much longer. I want to forgive him, but I know he'll just disappoint me again and I don't know if I can handle it.

J (24 year-old woman) from Florida

Answer:

Dear J,

It sounds like you are hurting quite a lot because of your father's actions, and understandably so. Your question is how to go about forgiving and forgetting, and it's admirable that you want to do so. So many people get "stuck" at the stage of blaming the other person and carry around a lot of anger and feelings of victimization for years.

Several things come to mind. It sounds like you are already able to look at things from your father's perspective (such as when you acknowledge that he probably didn't call you due to embarrassment over his behavior, and when you say that he may not know how to have a meaningful relationship with his kids). I've worked with a lot of parents over the years, including some who have been outright abusive to their kids. Every parent I worked with wanted to do right by their child and wanted what was best for their child. But many people, because of their own circumstances and upbringing, just don't have many emotional resources from which to draw and their children end up shortchanged because of this. It doesn't make what these parents do RIGHT, but it does at least make their actions UNDERSTANDABLE when viewed through the framework of their life history.

Forgiveness starts by recognizing that your father, in all likelihood, has not been intentionally trying to hurt you all of these years. What's more likely is that because of his own emotional wounds he simply has not been able to do any better by you, although he may have been aware that he wasn't giving you what you deserved from him. Forgiveness indicates an awareness that no one is perfect and that we all make mistakes. Forgiveness does NOT mean that you then assume the person's actions will change. Your statement "I want to forgive him, but I know he'll just disappoint me again and I don't know if I can handle it" indicates your belief that if you forgive him, then the slate is wiped clean, and his end of the bargain is to change his behavior. For your own emotional protection, I think it's important that you keep your expectations of your father realistic - i.e., consistent with what he's shown you over the years. If you expect your father to change, to follow through on his promises and try harder to maintain a relationship with you, all because you forgave him, then you are setting yourself up for more hurt. He has a past record of making and breaking promises with you. Chances are that he will continue to do so, whether or not you forgive him. The only person that you can change is yourself. People expend tremendous amounts of energy trying to change the people in their lives, but it just isn't possible to do so.

When you decide how much contact to have with your father, it is best to be respectful of your own limits. If you know you can't handle more hurt, it is perfectly okay to place more distance between you so that you are not as vulnerable to being hurt. It's also perfectly okay to be honest with your father about your mixed feelings - your love for him but your refusal to subject yourself to more hurt because of his actions.

You also asked about "forgetting" your father's actions. It's not possible to develop selective amnesia just because the memories are painful, and even if it was possible to do so, it wouldn't be healthy. The situation with your father was real and true, and to attempt to wipe out those memories and pretend that they never occurred would not be beneficial. It is better to acknowledge what happened, acknowledge that it was (and is) painful, and then move on as best you can from that point.

A good therapist could be very helpful to you in exploring your feelings of hurt and disappointment with your father and finding a way to make peace with your past and move forward with your life. There is no need to endlessly repeat past patterns of hoping for improvement and then allowing yourself to be crushed when improvement doesn't occur, and people often do get stuck repeating patterns and experiencing a great deal of unnecessary pain until they make a conscious decision to change their patterns. I wish you a lot of luck.

Sincerely,

Susan Maroto, LCSW

This question has been answered by Susan Maroto. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker working out of Mount Laurel, New Jersey. She uses an eclectic approach to holistic healing, mind-body relationships, life transitions, depression, and anxiety.

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