A Mantra for Handling Relationships with Emotionally Unavailable People
“Don’t go to a hardware store to buy bread.”
When I wrote “I No Longer Speak to My Parents, and I Am Better Off,” I wrote it with the intention of processing and contextualizing how I’d been feeling, with the hopes that it would help someone else who had gone or was considering going through the same cut-off process from a parent or parents.
I received many comments from people that affirmed I am not alone, which is the gift of writing for a community like Medium.
I also received several personal e-mails from readers. One, in particular, stuck with me long after reading it. This reader — whom I’ll leave nameless, but has given me permission to post this — viscerally feels the pain of being cut off from his own daughters. Based on the fact that I chose to cut off from my mother (the abuser) and my father (the enabler), he asked for advice on how he could reconcile with his own daughters.
Here is a portion of that e-mail:
“I can’t help but feel for your father, in a way — because I am one: the father of three “grown” daughters, aged 18, 20 and 22. Unfortunately, I’m divorced as of 2016–2017, and while my relationship with my 18-year-old…is good, albeit distant geographically, my relationship with my middle child, who’s in college, is nonexistent. She won’t talk to me. Ostensibly it’s because of my misconduct (cheating) during the marriage, but she’s mentally unwell with an eating disorder and socially isolated, if her section of the phone bill, which I pay, is any indication. This pre-dated the revelations of my cheating, so I didn’t cause it. My oldest daughter…keeps me at a terrible arm’s length, apparently not because of my past misconduct against her mother, but because I was alternately desperate, needy, panicked, upset, and insecure about her habit of never calling or texting me back…
Basically, Tara, I dream about my lost daughters every night, without exception. All I want is to reconcile with them. I’ll do anything, apologize for anything (which I have, many times) they think I did wrong, and what I actually did wrong. I can’t take the pain of separation anymore. It’s gone on too long.”
I read and re-read his e-mail many times because my tender heart both recognized that ache and was haunted by the image of the “lost daughters.”
I kept thinking of the cover of Celeste Ng’s Everything I Never Told You, also a story of a lost daughter, that shows one young woman swimming alone in vast empty water. I kept imagining the writer of the e-mail stuck standing on the shore, watching his lost daughters swimming, but unable to go in the water.
What I told the writer of that e-mail bears repeating. It’s a lesson I’ve had to learn personally, and it’s an important one:
Don’t go to a hardware store to buy bread.
When you want a warm and loving relationship (“bread”), don’t go running off to an emotionally unavailable person (“hardware store”) to “buy” it.
For the reader, this means “don’t go to your daughters expecting the relationship you wish you had. They can’t provide that to you now.”
For myself, it means I can’t go to my mother or father hoping they will be the kind of nurturing and supportive parents I’ve always wanted them to be.
It has meant I had to instead seek out surrogate mothers and fathers. Men and women who fulfilled that need for a parental figure for me because my parents couldn’t.
Having warm and loving relationships with people who fulfilled my need for a parent helped me accept the relationship I DID have with my parents and give up the dream of what would never be.
I, then, was also able to make the important decision to cut them off completely for my own health and well-being. Today, I am able to parent myself, but I needed those men and women until I could get there.
This nugget of wisdom can be applied to many situations:
Quit texting that man or woman hoping they’ll have their shit together this time.
Don’t call your sister or brother expecting to have the kind of close bond that movies memorialize.
Let go of the fact that you’ll never have the bromance or womance you wanted with that friend.
Once you’ve identified the people who are “hardware stores,” you can then seek out people who are instead your “grocery stores,” the people who are able to meet your emotional needs and where you can, in fact, buy “bread.”
I perhaps will always need to be reminded that my parents will never live up to my wildest wishes.
Since cutting off contact with my parents, I’ve done a lot of things for myself professionally and personally that I never would have thought possible before. My first full-length poetry collection was published. My writing has taken off here and other places. I am in a relationship with a wonderful man, and we are moving toward marriage.
My parents were not sitting in the audience at my book release party. They didn’t purchase copies. My father didn’t clap me on the back and congratulate me. They have read none of my writing that has picked up so much steam in just three short months, and they will never post links to my writing on their social media pages with the caption, “My daughter wrote this!!”
My parents have not met my partner, and they will not be at our wedding. My mother will not look at wedding dresses with me. She won’t help me pick out flowers or my wedding band. My father will not walk me down the aisle. He will not kiss my cheek and hand me off to my new husband like he did at my first wedding. They will not tearfully sit, holding hands, while I say, “I do,” to a new life to this wonderful man.
They will not have a place in my children’s lives. They will never babysit my children, stuffing their hearts with love and their bellies with cookies and Yoo-hoo, and then hand them back to me to contend with. My children will never know what it’s like to have sleepovers with Ma and Pa.
These are all things I grieve, though my grief’s duration, intensity, and frequency is less and less each time. Therein lies the grace: it does get easier.
Writing to that reader was as much for him as it was for myself: “But, for both of us,” I told him, “let us remember where to go to buy bread.”
Read more from this author about this topic here.