I don’t have a great relationship with my father. He and my mother divorced when I was six, and he became engaged to my stepmother two years later. That relationship is also fraught–throughout my childhood and teenage years, she was emotionally manipulative and a bully: throwing tantrums, engaging in ambushes under the guise of “family meetings”, and treating my and my sister’s reactions to her behavior as irrational and immature. My father, when we were alone, told me I needed to be more understanding of how hard her life had been (there was a long history of abuse, from what I gather), and that I owed it to him (because he’s the father) to spend time at their home. Now, I’m 21, and after a particularly horrible stay, I realized that I could not go back. With the help of my therapist, I drafted a script for talking to my dad about it, and I went through with it. At first, he seemed okay, but then he sent me a long e-mail about how hurt he felt and rehashing some things from our respective childhoods. So here’s the problem: I don’t know how to love him anymore. He’s my father, and we have some good memories, and there is a debt there. I know he can be a good man, and that he tries to be a good man, and I don’t want to hurt him because I know he’s fragile and, in spite of everything I do still care about him. But I still don’t trust him, the well of filial piety has run dry, and trying to be a good daughter is just too exhausting. Any ideas?
Dear No Cordelia,
First of all, I want to commend you for the wisdom you’ve shown in seeking therapy, working with your therapist and following through with your script. That took tremendous courage and shows a commitment to living a life that is emotionally healthy. You deserve to feel safe and I think that should continue to be your number one priority.
The dynamic of divorce and remarriage can be complicated under the best of circumstances and you suggest difficult childhoods for everyone involved, but your letter doesn’t give much detail about the exact nature of the troubled relationship you have with your father. I don’t want to speculate on what those issues are or whether you made the right call in breaking away from your father. That is your decision alone and I think people must be trusted to know what is best for their own lives. Still, I do hope you are continuing to work through your feelings with your therapist.
In King Lear, Cordelia, the “good daughter” is abandoned by her father because of her unwillingness to flatter his ego and make a show of the love she genuinely feels. Cordelia is cast out and thrives away from Lear, but, despite her goodness (and maybe because of it, according to the logic of the play), she suffers death when she returns to forgive and reconcile with him. You’ve signed your letter “No Cordelia,” which tells me that you don’t want to sacrifice your own life for your father’s happiness or comfort. Yet, a few times you mention feeling that you “owe” it to your father to continue going to his home because “there is a debt there.” Fortunately, we are not working with such an unforgiving script. You don’t have to be a good daughter, not in a self-annihilating way.
We are taught that happy eternal families are our birthright and that when someone offends and hurts us we should turn the other cheek and forgive seven times 70. However, I think that it is very easy to confuse forgiveness with keeping the peace or goodness with kindness. Sometimes the kindest thing we can do for someone is say no, draw clear boundaries and allow them the opportunity to grow into being the friend, partner or parent that we need. Honoring your father doesn’t mean doing everything he wants, especially as an adult. I think it means continuing to work with your recognition and acceptance of your father’s humanity — his flaws and complexity. I think the debt you owe the man who gave you life can be repaid by respecting who you both are and what your limitations are right now while keeping your heart open to a better relationship in the future.
It took a great deal of determination and energy to work through why you couldn’t go back and then attempt to communicate your reasons to your father. That he was hurt by this difficult conversation or didn’t fully understand what you were doing doesn’t mean that it was the wrong thing to do. The conversation was not an ending, but hopefully a beginning. But it’s going to be a long road. You will have to have more difficult conversations, you will continue to work with your therapist. You will make progress with your father and then you will circle back around and find that all of your old issues are still there, taking form in new ways. You will not be able to do this alone, your father will have to rise to the occasion, but he’ll never have the chance if you give into the well-worn patterns of your relationship.
Good man, good father, good daughter – these are such loaded terms, teeming with judgment and expectations that may or may not be realistic or healthy. Save your strength. Give your forgiveness to yourself. Allow yourself to be a kind and compassionate daughter instead of a good daughter. Continue to see your father as a human being, continue to open up to healing, but keep your focus on yourself and the work you are doing with your therapist. Even if your father is never able to do the work to build a healthy relationship with you, you are building a foundation of wholeness for your own life.
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