How Do I Deal with a Difficult Dad?

Question: I had a good relationship with my dad when I was growing up but things got bad after my parents divorced. I initially sided with him but he started being nasty. My brother got fed up and left, leaving me alone with him. My dad became really overbearing and constantly pointed out everything I had done wrong with my life. I tried to get along with him but he just got aggressive. I was scared about what would happen to him if I confronted him, so I stopped. Even though all that was years ago, I can’t stop thinking about the hatred I have for my dad. What do I do?

Answer: The dissolution of relationships can be very hard and many people don’t know how to deal with the residual feelings of fear and anger. This may be what happened to your dad. Instead of dealing appropriately with his feelings, he took it out on you and your brother. People often do this because this lets them transfer their challenging emotions onto someone else so that they no longer have to deal with them. Your brother refused to allow this, so you were left holding the bag. Now you have all these emotions that are consuming you.

If you still have or still want a relationship with him, then the first step in dealing with situations like this is to stop allowing the abuse to continue (because it does sound like he was verbally and emotionally abusing you). This may involve a physical separation, like leaving when things get tense. Even if this is not possible, emotional boundaries should be erected.

Boundaries are imaginary lines that determine how we allow people to treat us and how we treat others. The good thing about boundaries is that we are in control of them. The bad thing is that people don’t tend to like them and push back. However, we are still in control of them and that gives us both power and choices. Thus, while you cannot control your dad’s behavior, you can control how you respond to it. For example, if he blows up at you, you can tell him that you will not talk with him until he calms down. If he doesn’t settle down, then you can either leave the room or simply refuse to talk until you can have a productive discussion.

Boundaries also include how you respond to what people say to you. People will always hold a lot of opinions about your life and what you should do with it. Sometimes these opinions are helpful and sometimes they are not. Boundaries provide you with the opportunity to sift through these beliefs, pick out what you think is helpful, and then reject the rest. For example, your dad seemed to think you weren’t making good choices with your life. If he was correct, then try working on making better choices. If he wasn’t, then don’t worry about it. People are free to believe what they want but you don’t have to agree with them.

The second step in this is dealing with your sadness and fear about your dad. You do not want to follow in his footsteps and allow these feelings to eat you alive. Hate is not the opposite of love, indifference is. Clearly, you still have very passionate feelings about your dad that you need to deal with appropriately. It is indeed sad that your relationship with your dad isn’t as good as it once was.

It also sounds like you’re scared for his well-being. In order to deal with this sadness and fear, you need to feel these emotions. Grieve the loss of the relationship you once had and acknowledge that you want your dad to be ok. Once you feel the emotions, then get them out. The emotions need a release so that they don’t stay stuck inside of you. Good methods of release include journaling, talking with a friend, writing a letter to your father (not to send but just to write) or holding an imaginary conversation in which you tell him everything you ever wanted to say. These methods are works in progress, so don’t expect them to be quick.

Once you’ve set some boundaries and dealt with your emotions, then you can decide on the kind of relationship you want to have with your dad. This may mean that you don’t see each other as much as you used to or that you visit in different settings (e.g., a restaurant instead of his house) or in the presence of others. Whatever you decide, just don’t expect him to change. Once he sees the changes in you, he may decide to work on himself but he also may not. If you don’t expect the change, then you won’t be disappointed.

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