Letters from Esther #57: “What if I break up with my dad?”

By Esther Perel and Mary Alice Miller

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Shall We Begin?

His explosive rage. His lying. His affair that led to the divorce. His mistress who became the new girlfriend. His consistent lack of emotional support.

The twenty-five-year-old woman who called to talk about her father had an endless list of his bad behaviors. “His issues are cast aside as being a result of his environment,” she told me. “He grew up very poor, so people attribute him being rough around the edges to that, but to me, that [gives] him so much grace, and I’m the one who’s the recipient of all his harshness.”

THERE WERE SO MANY LAYERS TO HER HURT.

And—because we were having a one-time anonymous conversation for my podcast Where Should We Begin?—we had so little time to really dig in. My goal with these sessions is to give participants clarity, whether it's a shift in perspective or identifying skills for them to cultivate once we’ve parted ways.

I asked her what she was trying to figure out, why she had reached out to me, especially considering her guilt about it. “I feel like a bad person,” she said, “because I know this is my father and, especially in Black American culture, you’re not supposed to talk about your relationship with your parents outside of the house.” She shared that she had started listening to my podcast in the first place because she didn’t feel comfortable getting relationship advice from her parents. Eventually, she found herself submitting an application to be on the show.

“Being in a relationship with someone who’s caused me so much pain . . . I guess [I’m trying to] figure out how to move forward and if I want a relationship [with him]. How does one even process it when I’m still dealing with anger about things that have been boiling and boiling and boiling for twenty years?”

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I AM WONDERING HOW MANY OF YOU READING THIS LETTER RELATE TO THIS WOMAN.

Situations like these feel intensely unique to the person living it, but I hear stories like this all the time in my office: “His traumatic upbringing may have caused his behavior, but it doesn’t excuse it.” “He’s never taken responsibility.” “Doesn’t he want better for his kids than he had?”

I learned from this woman that her father did want better for his kids, and that he had made good on that—just not how she wanted. Long ago, he had promised himself that his children would never grow up poor, and they hadn’t. He is currently supporting his daughter through school. She had made a clear distinction, however, between his financial support and his emotional absence. I saw an opportunity to help her see that, for him, perhaps being able to provide for his family was plenty emotional, that being there for her in a way no one had been for him carried a lot more meaning than mere dollars.

Even if she could bring herself to see this, she and her father would remain stuck in their cycle unless something changed. And she’d have to be the one to do it. What would happen if, instead of telling him, yet again, what he’s done wrong, she showed her understanding and appreciation of what he had done well? If she could say: “Being able to provide for me must have given you such meaning because it was a promise you made to yourself and you did it. Thank you for supporting me.”

Perhaps it would disarm him, move him to know that his child understood him, his goodness alongside his imperfections and shortcomings. He might feel seen by her which, in turn, might invite a similar response from him. What would he then be able to see in her?

WHAT I SAW IN HER WAS WHAT I’VE SEEN IN EVERY KIND OF RELATONSHIP THERE IS.

When you feel deeply hurt by someone you love, seeing that person with compassion can be experienced as invalidating your own feelings. It can feel as if forgiving this person will further enable their bad behavior. Maybe it will. But the alternative is staying stuck—not growing together but also not moving past it as an individual.

Sometimes, fully cutting off your father is completely necessary. More often, I hope, it’s a situation that requires you to keep “growing up” together. It may require you to accept each others’ limitations. You may have to decide that loving him means saying, “Thank you for what you’ve done for me” instead of waiting for the apology that will never be enough. The funny thing about accountability is that, when you do it first, you make it safer for others to do the same. It doesn’t invalidate your feelings, but it may help him access his.

Let’s Turn the Lens on You

  • What is an insight about your father that changed your understanding of him?
  • What’s a question you’ve always wanted to ask your father?
  • What’s the thing you’ve least understood about him?
  • What are the words you wish he would say?
  • What does your father’s happiness look like?

More from Esther

You’re invited to Esther’s “Office Hours” on Apple Podcasts. This month only, you’ll receive a special 20% off when you subscribe to an annual membership to Where Should We Begin? Subscribing allows you to stay connected to Esther, listen in on behind-the-scenes sessions, and hear follow-ups with participants weeks, months, and sometimes years later. Bonus: Subscribers enjoy an ad-free experience. Click here by June 30, 2024, to get 20% off your annual subscription. Discount automatically applied.

Want to hear the conversation detailed in this month’s newsletter? Click here to listen to this episode of Where Should We Begin? Hear the woman in her own words and follow along as she and Esther chart a path forward for her relationship with her father.

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