My father was often a bully with his children — but he hid it from anyone outside the family.
He didn’t call it bullying, of course, but he believed he had the divine right to whatever he wanted from us. I’m not talking about when we were small children, although he was more overt and hostile about it then. No matter how old we got, he never accepted us as independent adults.
When he faced even the slightest pushback from me — even in the last years of his life — he would get angry and assert his right to control me. He constantly said things such as, “As your father, it’s my right to…” and then he would name whatever he was demanding at the moment.
In psychological terms, my father had no respect for his children’s boundaries. This lack of ability to respect other people’s boundaries is common with narcissists, but since I grew up believing that his practices must be normal, it took me a long time to try to set boundaries with him as an adult.
After I cut off all contact with him more than a decade ago — after he refused to go to therapy with me to deal with our unhealthy relationship — he refused to accept that boundary. He continued to email me, call me and to show up at my door. At times, he was pathetic and manipulative. Other times, he made threats that scared me — sometimes about vague “dire consequences” if I didn’t do what he wanted.
The photo above is from the last time he came to my house.
When I heard the knock at my door that day, I looked out a window and realized it was him, so I didn’t go to the door. He banged on the door again. He loudly ordered me to open the door.
After a few minutes, the knocking stopped. I looked out to see him walking back to his car. Then he sat in the car looking at his iPhone for a couple of minutes. Then I received an email — the one he was writing when I quietly shot the photo — saying that he would give me five minutes to come out. He sat in the car for five minutes and then left.
I forwarded his email to one of my sisters, along with the photo, because she was one of the very few people who could understand what this continued behavior felt like.
“It infuriates me that he has absolutely no sense of boundaries,” I wrote to her. “He never has understood boundaries, but it still makes me feel violated. I know I can’t do anything about this, but it still pushes buttons in me that make me feel as though I’m once more a child who he is trying to control.”
There had been a time when I had wanted a healthy relationship with him very much. I had put up with him for years before I finally tried to push back against his behavior — first gently and finally ramping up to the ultimatum that he either deal with our issues professionally or be cut off.
But since he had always gotten what he wanted — through bullying behavior — that was all he knew how to do. This is how he lost all three of his children. He lost each of the women who tried to love him through narcissistic and dishonest behavior as well.
For years after my parents divorced, he tried to manipulate and bully my mother into getting back together with him. He violated her boundaries in other ways that I didn’t know about until years later when she told me about those as well.
I started thinking about my father and his efforts to force himself into a relationship that I no longer wanted because of a conversation I had with a woman at dinner Saturday night. She broke up with a boyfriend who won’t accept that the relationship is over.
She’s told him not to call her or come to see her, but he tries anyway. She changed her phone number and changed the locks on her home, but he still shows up at her house and yells threats at her from the porch. She told me she’s scared to go to police or get a restraining order, because she thinks it will just escalate his behavior.
Bizarrely, his words alternate between professions of love and threats of “consequences” if she doesn’t come back to him. He can’t accept that she has the right to decide whether she will have a relationship with him.
Her story reminded me of another woman I used to know. She was married to a man who she had come to detest. She wanted to leave him, but she feared the consequences. Anytime an argument or discussion brought up the possibility of her leaving and taking their young daughter, he told her coldly that he wouldn’t allow that.
“You married me and you’re not leaving me,” he told her multiple times. “I won’t allow it.”
And in a chilling scene, he once added something that scared her even more.
“I’ll never allow you to leave this house,” he said. “And you have no idea what I’m capable of doing to her…” — he gestured toward their daughter — “…if you ever try.”
The woman is still married to a man she doesn’t love. A man she’s afraid of. All because she’s afraid of what he might do — because he doesn’t believe she has the right to end an abusive and loveless relationship.
Nobody has the right to be in your life if you don’t want to allow it. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a parent or sibling or child. It doesn’t matter whether you once married the person or if you were once close friends with the person.
You have the right to decide who’s in your life. You have the right to set your own boundaries.
If you come from a dysfunctional family — as I did — you need to learn about healthy emotional boundaries and set them as needed with others. And when somebody refuses to respect the boundaries that you make clear, that’s your signal to end the relationship. A person who doesn’t respect your boundaries early is almost certainly going to get more dysfunctional — and possibly more dangerous — if you let things continue.
My father never learned to respect his children as independent adults. He never learned to accept our healthy boundaries or to accept the hard boundaries that we eventually put up when his abuse continued.
The irony is that if he had been willing to learn healthy boundaries and how to treat me as an independent adult — even as recently as a decade ago — I would have gladly welcomed him to my house that day.
But he refused to accept that I wasn’t a child — an extension of him — for him to manipulate and control and punish. And this is why he died alone.