Losing my relationship with my father

By Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker

My father has always been close to my two sisters and I. Even transitioning into adolescence, I never felt that my father was embarrassing. We were his best friends and he was ours.

When I entered high school, my parents started having really serious marital issues. Growing up, my mother was a very caring and loving person but her own issues with her mother and self esteem led to anxiety and depression. Even when we were at a point in our lives where we were really happy and financially secure, my mother could not find it in herself to be happy. She became paranoid that my father was cheating on her and became jealous of the close relationship he had with us.

My mother was increasingly abusive verbally and physically towards me and my sisters from the time I turned sixteen and on. Eventually, my father also had to deal with this abuse. He was unhappy and knew that we were too so he wanted to leave her as long as he could take us with him, since she was not fit to take care of us at the time. We were scared that she would hurt herself if we left and felt guilty for wanting to leave. So we would beg him to give it another chance, that our mother was sick and he would agree to stay.

This went on until a week before I graduated high school. By this point, each passing day was worse and worse. We had called the police to settle disputes more frequently than ever before. I had never seen or heard my father cry until he begged my mother to stop. She said that she would never change and my father could not deal with it anymore. He took us into our room and told us that he was ready to leave. We agreed to go with him once I got through my graduation.

The graduation went by and it turned into summer but my mother was extremely depressed after my father left. My sisters and I stayed with her, despite her abuse because we loved her. My father waited patiently, living with my grandfather and sleeping on his couch. All he had were plastic bags full of clothes. To this day, most of my father’s belongings are still with my mom. The abuse had gotten so bad that my older sister and I eventually left. My younger sister stayed because she was afraid but we just could not stand it any longer.

So we started building our lives again. It took a couple of years but we bought our own furniture and moved into a small apartment. We were finally happy again despite the fact that we were still healing from such a traumatic separation. My older sister had started a relationship with her current boyfriend a year before my parents separated. So, while all of our family issues were playing out at home, she found an outlet with her boyfriend and became very attached.

My father felt neglected and disrespected by my sister. We are Hispanic, and her boyfriend was Caucasian. His family dynamic was much different than ours. So the more she was with him, the more she changed. My father had rules about sleeping out of the house. It was simply not allowed. However, my sister felt she was an adult and did not need to listen to my father and would defy his wishes.

I just got into a relationship a year ago and being my first one, I was irresponsible of how I handled my time. I was never home and grew distant with my family, especially my father. It has not been the same since.

I feel that he was still treating us as if we were thirteen years old. I want to be independent but my father has certain rules I can’t follow anymore. I live at home with him and I am nearly twenty three but he feels I should follow a curfew. I simply feel that this is uncalled for, being my age. So I have tried to compromise but he is stubborn. It has gotten to a point that he tells me he doesn’t feel like a father, rather just my roommate.

He says this all the time. I think that he feels he is being replaced by my boyfriend as he felt with my older sister. Also, I feel like since no one wants to listen to his rules, he feels very resented by that kind of disrespect. I do not pay rent and he has never pressured me to. Even if I offered, he refuses. He will not kick me out even if I don’t adhere to his rules. He had just become very distant. The guilt of this is hard to deal with. He has done so much for me and has given everything for his kids. To know that I am causing his unhappiness even after our whole ordeal with my mother is very hard. I want to make him happy but I don’t want to sacrifice my independence to do it.

What can I do? Is it possible to be an adult and remain close to my father despite him not fully accepting that I am an adult? I feel if I were to move out and live on my own, this would be the best for us both. He means a lot to me and I want to make him happy.

A: What a loving and devoted daughter you really are. Many young women your age would be so focused on their own happiness that they would not be concerned with their parents’. I think part of the problem is that your father is trying to live by the traditional rules of a generation or so ago while you and your sister are very much of this time and place. It’s not a matter or right or wrong. It’s a matter of there being a huge difference in each generation’s expectations for adult children.

In the dominant culture in the US, it’s normal and appropriate for young people to grow up, to find a romantic partner, and to leave home to make a new family, while the older generation renews their own relationship (if they have one), spends time with their long-time friends, and pursues their own interests. By more old-world values, adult children stay very connected to the family of origin and often care for their parents until they die.

It sounds to me like your father hasn’t made a life for himself so is expecting his children to make a life for him. Yes, it’s fully possible to be an adult and to be close to your dad but he has to be willing to be part of the project. You can’t make him be happy. He has to come to terms with the idea that you have different ideas about what it means to be an adult. It may help if he can understand that it is a testament to his good fathering that you and your sister want to marry, even after having witnessed so much discord in your parents’ marriage.

A frank talk with your father about these issues might help but I’m concerned that you may not know how to approach him out of your worry that you will hurt him. For that reason, I think it would be helpful for you to consider seeing a therapist for a few sessions. I don’t think there is anything wrong with you. I do think that you need some practical advice and support that is beyond what I can provide in a letter. After a few sessions, it might be useful for you to invite your father to join you. With a therapist’s support, you might be able to help your father understand how grateful you are to him but that you would appreciate his blessing as you move into the next stage of life.

I wish you well.
Dr. Marie

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 1 May 2011

APA Reference
Hartwell-Walker, D. (2011). Losing my relationship with my father. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 31, 2014, from http://psychcentral.com/ask-the-therapist/2011/05/01/losing-my-relationship-with-my-father/