The Wound of a Negligent Father: Why I chose to end my relationship with my dad.
We all have wounds from our childhood years. My biggest pain-point from growing up deals with my father. It is not a unique story, as I have come to realize in my ten years of private psychotherapy practice. It is an all-too-common experience. The story is so similar in fact, that it is sometimes hard to differentiate as I listen to my clients retell their version of it, often through tears.
“I would wait on my dad to arrive, to come and pick me up after my parents split up… but he never came.”
Some of these shared memories have slightly different variables: for some it was on a holiday, like Christmas, when they were stood-up by their fathers. For others, their dads didn’t show up and someone else arrived in his stead, another family member, to soften the blow. Even in stories of intact families, dads arrived home only to brush past an eager child who had been anxiously awaiting their arrival, leaving the child feeling deflated and rejected.
For so many of us this abandonment by our fathers is excruciating. As children, we are constantly trying to make sense of the world around us. And the sense we make of a father’s rebuff is that we must not have been good enough to garner our father’s love. We must have done something wrong, or worse, there must be something fundamentally wrong with us to have created this condition of fatherly rejection.
Neglect is considered a type of developmental trauma and it can impact us well into adulthood. The types of people we attract in intimate partnerships and friendships are informed by these early experiences. Most importantly, the type of relationship we have with ourselves is profoundly informed by these instances. Chronic self-doubt, anxiety, depression, low-self esteem, and addiction can all result from this type of abandonment. Even our physical health can suffer as a result.
As an adult I can easily look back and analyze the situation of thirty-five years ago in my own father’s life. My mother had kicked him out of our family’s new home after a cross-country move and repeated arguments about finances and employment. My father was deeply wounded by what I imagine felt like a loss of both home and family. He was angry with my mother and the separation felt like a significant betrayal to him. He was also caught in his own victim mentality, something he has never been able to shake, even after all of these years.
I imagine it was easier for him to avoid the house, to avoid my mother, and to avoid me, than it was to have to show up and face all that he had lost. But he hadn’t lost me. Yet.
It was my understanding that he was still my dad and that nothing need change in our relationship, save for his new residence. I was sad about not living with him anymore and our family’s fracture, of course, but hopeful that we would stay just as we’d always been.
We did not. Repeated broken promises led to a diminishing of our connection. Things were never the same between us.
From Effort to Surrender
Well into adulthood I tried to mend the strain between us, to keep our connection alive. There was a glimmer of hope when he apologized and took accountability about fifteen years ago, but he quickly relapsed into the same behaviors he had demonstrated throughout my childhood years.
There have been huge gaps in our communication preceded by my own grief and frustration at not being able to get through to him. His inability to prioritize our relationship by making any effort to visit with me has been mind-blowing. He has continued to set dates with me throughout the years and has canceled every single one of them. This includes an opportunity I gave him to meet my son, his only grandson, for the first time.
Estrangement is not what I wanted.
I wanted a father who would see me and who would show up.
Cutting Ties & Finding Peace
As a psychotherapist I hear about relationships daily. My clients share the dynamics of their connections in fine detail. The patterns become obvious to me, an outsider, quickly and clearly. When someone describes a connection that is damaging their sense of self worth, devaluing, manipulative, or otherwise toxic, our work is to explore possibilities for change within the relationship. If that fails, we explore the idea of living without that relationship.
Over years I struggled with self-doubt, the result of our social mores that dictate “family is family” and stress the importance of maintaining those lifelong relationships, regardless of their quality and impact. But something shifted in me the day he cancelled our plans that included his meeting my two year old son. I could not fathom what would keep a parent or grandparent from an opportunity to connect with their own kin. A switch inside of me flipped.
At this point, it has been a few years since I have spoken with my father. But I no longer struggle with the guilt of feeling that I should see him or make myself available to him on his terms. I don’t go through the anxious motions of making efforts to connect with him in the flesh only to feel deeply disappointed when he stands me up at the last minute. I’ve finished contending with the confusion and hurt of his clear desire to keep me at arm’s length and only engage in a “telephone relationship” with me.
There is still grief, but now there is a sense of freedom that coexists with it.
Healing from this type of paternal rejection is a process. I don’t know if or when that process will be complete, but I am lucky to have had positive, supportive relationships with men that have been curative. I have learned that I am not responsible for my father’s shortcomings. And in the places where all of that emotional turmoil once stirred I have found a place of calm, quiet stillness.