The man wasn’t subtle and he didn’t hide his judgment of me.
“You must feel really guilty,” he said confidently earlier today. “I’ll bet you regret cutting him off, don’t you?”
It was a man I barely knew, but he had heard the basics of the story about my relationship with my father and his recent death. He was certain that I must be wracked with guilt about breaking off my relationship with him eight years ago.
I didn’t know the man well enough to get into it — and I wanted to end the conversation before I slugged him — but I’m very clear about the fact that I have no regrets about my father. I did all I could — for years — to have a healthy relationship with him. The way things ended was completely his choice.
I regret his choice, but I have a clear conscience about mine.
Anyone who says he has no regrets in life is lying, either to you or to himself. If we’re honest with ourselves — and if we grow and change as we should — we’re going to have regrets sometimes. For me, my father isn’t one of those cases.
My father believed his children had “abandoned” him. For years, his emails — uninvited and certainly crossing the boundaries I set up — cycled between trying to elicit my sympathy and trying to threaten me. (Several times when I declined to respond to him, he darkly threatened that “there will be consequences.”)
He started the break between us. I simply didn’t come groveling as he assumed I would. Here’s how it happened.
My father expected an immediate response to anything he sent. If he called, I was to jump. If he sent an email, I was expected to reply immediately. I had gotten fed up enough with his attitude that I wasn’t jumping as quickly as he wanted.
Eight years ago, I was just starting to date a woman who I would date casually for the next year. In the very beginning of that relationship, I spent one Saturday helping her move. We worked all day and were exhausted by night. Sometime during the day, he emailed a question to me. He asked whether I had his name in my billfold as an emergency contact in case something happened to me. It wasn’t a time-sensitive question, so I noticed it on my iPhone and kept working. It could be answered later.
A few hours later, he did what he was so fond of doing if I didn’t answer quickly enough. He forwarded the original email with new text that simply said, “??????????????????”
It was his not-so-subtle way of complaining that I had failed him by not responding immediately. I received it about the time I got home — exhausted from the day of moving — and I fired back a far more blunt reply than he was accustomed to getting from me. In my exhaustion, I said what was on my mind.
I told him that I had been busy and his question could wait — and that he wasn’t helping his case by treating me as though he was a superior calling out to an underling.
This infuriated him.
He wrote back to say that he was “through” with me — that he was tired of me not giving him proper “respect.” It was fairly short, but he gave me a tongue-lashing that made it clear he wasn’t speaking to me anymore.
I didn’t respond. Not that day. Not the next. Or the next.
After about four days of silence, he tried to call me, but I didn’t answer. Finally, five days after saying he was through with me, he sent me an email that essentially said he would give me another chance if I would apologize.
I ignored that email. I decided I wasn’t going to respond until I was absolutely certain of what I wanted to say. So I said absolutely nothing. Over the coming weeks, he sent increasingly conciliatory emails. He never suggested he had been wrong, of course, just that he would let me off the hook for my rudeness and lack of respect.
After about two months, I was finally clear about what I wanted to say. I thought about it long and hard. I either wanted him to go to counseling with me to talk about our relationship — or else I wanted no relationship with him at all. I knew he wouldn’t understand, but I knew I had to explain it if I was going to have a clear conscience.
Here’s what I emailed to him:
You’re not going to understand what I have to say here, but I don’t know anything else to say right now. If you’re really interested in dealing with things between us, it needs to be in the company of a counselor. After years of seeing what it’s like to try to talk with you about things between us — past and present — I know that there’s no benefit to trying to talk to you alone.
I am very, very hurt with you. And I’m very, very angry with you. I’ve been angry with you for decades. I’ve tried denial. I’ve tried talking to you. But I’ve mostly tried ignoring it, because it was clear from my attempts to talk with you that you weren’t able to hear what I had to say. If you’re willing to talk about things with a good counselor as a “mediator” of sorts, I would be willing to give that a try. I’m almost positive that you aren’t willing to do it, though, because it would require dealing with things that you’ve made it plain you’re not willing to talk about or deal with.
In some of your messages lately, you have claimed that I have put us where we are. That is one of the most offensively mistaken things you’ve ever said. You walked away from me a couple of months ago — telling me that you were through with me — because I had the temerity to not respond to a very minor question as soon as you wanted AND because I finally let you know how offensive it is for you to act like a potentate summoning a lackey when I don’t respond to your question quickly. I don’t owe you an explanation, but it happened that I had been busy helping someone move all day. Your question didn’t require an immediate answer in anything except your mind. You claimed in your message saying you were finished with me that you wanted respect. You don’t want respect. You want compliance. When it suits you, you still treat me like a child. I’m not willing to put up with being treated that way, even by you. But the bottom line is that YOU decided to create this situation. You’re now complaining when I won’t comply with your wishes to ignore things and go back to the way things were.
You terrified the three of us as children. You were kind and loving sometimes, but you were a screaming, raving monster at other times. We never had a clue which person we were going to get. My strongest memories now are not of the good things you did — which were many — but of times when I was TERRIFIED of you and your unpredictability. What you don’t seem to understand is that I STILL have that terror deeply ingrained. You made me feel that I could never be good enough for you — and I am still scared and hurting from the ways I felt in those years. We had a very, very dysfunctional family. You seem to think it was mostly because of us not having a mother for most of our childhood, but there were many other problems that you seem to prefer to ignore. When I’ve tried to talk with you about it, you just get defensive and say that no one gives you the credit you deserve. Nobody has ever doubted that you had a difficult time, too, but you were the one with the options. We were children who didn’t have options and who were terrified pretty much all the time, because we never knew when the scary side of you was going to rear its head. I loved and adored you as a child, but your actions hurt me and pushed me away over the years. I wanted to believe you were perfect and wonderful, so it wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized just how dysfunctional our family was and how afraid I was of you. I’ve NEVER figured out how to deal with it, and the aftermath of that terror has left me depressed and angry and timid for all of my adult life. At times, I’ve dealt with it by emulating some of your characteristics that I hate, and it’s taken me a long time to understand the psychological dysfunction I have. I don’t know what made you what you are — and I highly doubt you really understand it, either. I suspect that you are just as clueless about what you are as I have been about what I am. The feelings I had about myself have led me to unconsciously destroy romantic relationships and sabotage myself in other ways that I’ve never been able to understand. It was only in the aftermath of destroying my relationship with Lydia a couple of years ago that I finally started understanding just how messed up I was in a lot of ways. I brought myself to a place of throwing away pretty much everything I’ve ever had. It was only by getting that low that I was able to understand just how serious the dysfunction was at my core.
My history with you makes me think it’s unlikely you’ll be able to deal with the truth about all of us. Instead, you will probably be hurt and angry and see yourself as a victim. But when none of your three children really want to be with you — despite the fact that they desperately want to love you — and when all of your long-term relationships have fallen apart, it seems as though you might finally be willing to accept that maybe you’re the one creating the circumstances that lead to the destruction of your relationships.
If you want to deal with things, it will only be with a counselor. I don’t trust you enough to talk with you right now. Even though it will make you angry to hear it, I don’t trust anything you say. You tell partial truths to different people, depending on what suits your purposes. When people compare the stories you tell, they don’t match, because you’re telling different stories to different people. You KNOW how deeply that problem runs, even if you’re not willing to admit it to me. You always have excuses about why you lie to people and hide things from them, but you know it’s been a part of your life for at least since I was a child. You used to have us lie for you when it was convenient, yet you would punish us for lying to you. You seem to have seen the truth as something that was nice when it suited your purposes. You taught me to be a liar. I didn’t even realize for years just how messed up my perception of truth was, because truth was always what was convenient. It has been a struggle to get over that. I know on this point that you will act shocked and angry to hear this, but I don’t have any intention to try to prove it to you. I don’t have to, because you KNOW it.
It is very difficult for me to deal with you in even the slightest way right now. If it were possible to truly fix things between us — which would require complete honesty on your part and mine — I would like that. As it is, I don’t really have a family. I’ve struggled to try to keep some illusion of family, but I don’t have anything. I desperately want it. I always have. But I can’t pretend that the dysfunctional farce you want us to project is any better than absolutely nothing.
I am seriously struggling to fix things in my life, but I don’t have a clue how I’m going to do that. There are a LOT of questions that I don’t yet have answers to. I’m having problems that are psychological, emotional, financial and physical. But continuing to ignore the core emotional issues and trying to go back to old patterns isn’t the answer.
If you want to pursue a real discussion, it will only be with a counselor. I won’t talk with you otherwise and I won’t correspond about it. If you aren’t willing to deal with it with a professional, I don’t know what else to say to you. The truth is that you need the counseling just as much as I do, not just for our relationship, but for your own issues. I don’t think you are willing to deal with the truth, but I think you should, not just for your children, but (most importantly) for the sake of yourself and whatever time you have left alive. If you don’t deal with it, you’re going to go right ahead creating dishonest, dysfunctional relationships where you hide things. It’s your choice as to whether you’re willing to deal with things. If you’re happy with how your current approach to life has worked for decade after decade, keep doing it. If not, you might want to consider getting help, just as I am.
After about a week, he responded, saying he wasn’t willing to see a counselor. He said he was “too old” for it to do any good for him. And then he went right back to trying to get his way.
For the next eight years, he ignored the boundaries I set. He sometimes insulted me, sometimes threatened me, sometimes tried to win my sympathy. He showed up at my door when I lived at my previous residence. Then when I bought another house three years ago — and tried to keep the address from becoming public knowledge — he somehow found me and showed up without warning, multiple times. And he constantly said he didn’t understand why I had abandoned him. The first few times he said he didn’t understand why I wasn’t talking with him, I forwarded him a copy of the email I just shared with you.
He knew what I was doing. He knew why. But because it didn’t suit him, he ignored my boundaries.
I was very clear with him. I gave him a choice. I explained the basics of the issues. He very consciously chose not to deal with the issues — because he wanted to go right ahead with his toxic behavior, controlling and manipulating me in any way he could get away with.
When I sent that letter to him, I had already spent much of the previous two years with a very good psychologist. It was after the breakup of a relationship when I had been engaged to a woman. I’m the one who called the wedding off, but after she eventually quit waiting for me, I was filled with regret and anguish. I didn’t understand why I had made decisions that I’d made. Going into therapy forced me to understand much more about the family from which I had come — and it forced me to understand some of my own flaws, many of which I had learned from him.
Coming to that place forced me to change myself in some basic ways — and I’ve been happier and more emotionally healthy because of those changes.
I’ve spent the years since then continuing to try to grow and change. I would have been happy if he had come on the journey of growth and healing with me, but he consciously chose to stay in his dysfunction. I couldn’t stay there with him in that toxic dysfunction. I stayed away from him to save my own emotional health.
Only fairly recently — sometime since I moved three years ago — I found a letter which I wrote to him years ago. It was a couple of years after he had left town in shame after his embezzlement became public. I had forgotten about the letter, but he had received it. That letter had been my opening to try to resume a relationship with him after his period of being away in shame.
In this letter, I outlined many of the same things I outlined in the letter above from eight years ago. I told him we needed to talk about these issues. Although I had forgotten about the letter until I found it, I can tell that I was terrified when I wrote it, because it was the first time I had attempted to confront him about the past.
The letter did cause us to resume a relationship, but he was never willing to talk about things. I remember him saying — as he would say every time when I subsequently tried to talk with him about such thing — that we would talk about all those things later — “at the appropriate time.” But for him, the right time never came.
If I had not clearly laid out this case for my father and given him a clear roadmap about how he could deal with resolving the problems, I might have some regret right now. I might even have some guilt. There might be a part of me that would have wondered if I could have done more.
In every relationship, both people have to agree to the terms of what that relationship is going to be — or else it’s going to die. There have been few times in my life when I have loved someone enough to set out very clear terms — to say, in essence, here’s what has to happen if you want me in your life.
You can give people such choices, but you can’t make the choice for them. Sometimes, the things they choose hurt you deeply. My father’s choice wounded me. I gave someone else who I love a clear choice last year and her choice hurt me deeply, too. But if I’m to be emotionally healthy, I have to be clear about what I need and what I’m no longer willing to accept.
Other people have the right to make their own choices, but they don’t have the right to blame you for the choices they make.
I gave my father repeated chances to work with me in an emotionally healthy way to save our relationship. He consistently refused the chances I gave him. Even if he had said a year ago or six months ago that he wanted to spend his remaining time working to heal things between us, I would have tried. If you love someone — or if you once loved someone — you’re frequently willing to try again even when judgment tells you it’s a lost cause.
But he wasn’t willing to make an effort. He wanted to continue living in his lies and he wanted everyone to pretend he hadn’t done the things he had done.
I regret not cutting him off years before I did.
That’s my only regret. But I feel absolutely no guilt for cutting off someone who continued to be toxic for me. It’s not that I didn’t forgive the past. Some people who have lectured me about forgiving him miss the point entirely. I forgave him. I simply refused to allow him to keep doing more damage.
I don’t owe anybody explanations for why I did the things I’ve done. I’m unhappy with the busybodies and know-it-alls who want to judge me. Yes, your attitudes and your words hurt.
But I have no guilt. I have no regrets. I made the emotionally healthy choice for me. He simply refused to quit being a malignant narcissist. I don’t think he knew how.
I regret that he never found the courage to heal inside, at least enough to have relationships with his children. But that was his unfortunate choice — not mine.