Giving up on relationship with emotionally distant father

By Daniel J. Tomasulo, PhD, TEP, MFA, MAPP

I haven’t had a real relationship with my dad since I was fifteen and I no longer care or want one. My parents divorced when I was nine and he immediately found a new girlfriend. They’ve been together ever since. I didn’t mind and actually liked the new family (she has a daughter my age), but when they moved in together I was never included as a part of the family and was treated as a “second-class citizen” by my stepmother. My father did nothing about this and usually took her side (albeit reluctantly) in order to avoid conflict because she threw fits if she didn’t get her way. I wasn’t allowed to use the nicest things in the house and was never allowed to be “better” than my stepsister–if the two of us came downstairs in similar outfits, I would be the one who had to go change. When I got a perfect score on the SATs, I wasn’t allowed to mention it because she didn’t do as well. These things seem trivial, and they are, but the gradual accumulation of this kind of thing over the years led me to resent him. I used to have pretty bad problems with depression–I lost 20 lbs in a month, my mood swung back and forth from hysterical to empty, I experienced dissociative episodes, self-medicated with drugs and I spent all my free time in bed, only coming out for meals. My dad didn’t ever acknowledge this and I feel like he was willfully ignorant about a lot of other things going on in my life. He never asked me about drinking, drugs, boyfriends, friends, and any difficulties I might be having and he never praised anything I did. I feel like I’m making him out to be a bad person, which he isn’t, but he just doesn’t want to deal with difficult emotional stuff and so he’d rather ignore it. He also (until I was in college) treated me like a child–I wasn’t allowed to hear bad words and he’d be obviously uncomfortable if I interacted in an equal way with adults in front of him. When he and his girlfriend temporarily broke up he became incredibly affectionate, which really upset me since he had consistently chosen his girlfriend over me for the past five years. He also just refused to see the severity of anything that happened in my life–when I was admitted to the hospital with unexplained chest pain, muscle weakness, and neurological symptoms, he remained convinced that it was low blood sugar because I don’t eat healthily (it turned out to be an acute stress reaction). He made fun of me for being a hypochondriac and continues to make hypochondriac jokes even when it’s really not funny–but that’s more of his denial and refusal to admit that things actually might be serious.

Anyway, I talk to him occasionally on the phone and see him when I’m back home for breaks, but I’m just not interested in seeing him or spending time with him that I could be spending with people I actually connect with. My mom (who I’m incredibly close with) thinks that I should share some personal details of my life with him and try to connect with him again even though she resents the way he’s treated me in the past. I just am done caring. I love him because he’s my dad, but I feel like that’s the only reason–we have absolutely nothing in common and I just don’t feel like we would connect even if I tried. I don’t want to hurt him by completely shutting him out, but I’m content to see him only occasionally. Should I bother making the effort? Is it even worth it? Thanks for your time…

A: This sounds awful. I am genuinely sorry that you had to go through all of this in your family. But I don’t think completely shutting him out is the best approach. I believe what is needed is a change in expectation and attitude.

Your father has been systematically disappointing to you and you were not able to get what you needed from him when you needed it. This is sad and unfortunate, but trying to get now what you needed back then isn’t going to work. The time for him to be more engaged in your upbringing has come and gone.

This means that you can grieve what you didn’t have with your father and stop looking for him to be what he wasn’t and can no longer be.

In grieving a time gone by it can open you to connecting in a way that is more suitable to your needs now. Occasional contact can be fine with lowered expectations. As a young adult the emphasis in your life is shifting to meeting your own needs in relationships and intimacy. You can detach with compassion from the childhood needs from your dad, and allow for something else to emerge.

You obviously have the intellectual ability to succeed in life; this is your chance to develop the emotional growth that was limited in your childhood.

Focus now on finding the people in your life that will support and nurture you (as you do them) as you move forward. The counseling center at your university can offer you some support as you go through this transition.

Wishing you patience and peace,
Dr. Dan
Proof Positive Blog @ PsychCentral

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 24 Apr 2011

APA Reference
Tomasulo, D. (2011). Giving up on relationship with emotionally distant father. Psych Central. Retrieved on December 23, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/04/24/giving-up-on-relationship-with-emotionally-distant-father/