Why I Divorced my Biological Father
Knowing When to End It
Throughout that critical stage of my life when I was growing up, my father was far from a constant presence. He would show up one day, and disappear as quickly the next. I wouldn’t see him for long periods of time and at one point, I wrote a letter to a television show called Fantasy, a show that promised to make people’s biggest dreams come true. In my letter, I explained to the television host that I wanted to see my father again and that my dream was to buy him a sailboat. My father often talked about how he was trying to save his money to buy a boat to sail in the Caribbean. I wanted him to take me with him and fantasized about the day I would make his wish — now mine — come true.
All my memories of being with my father were tinged with feelings of anticipation, lingering anxiety, and a sense of longing. My father would talk about how the IRS was coming after him, why he couldn’t pay for child support, he’d tell me about all the ways my mother wasn’t getting her parenting right, and how he wanted me to be a boy. My father never seemed to notice how he was hurting me when he would say insensitive things. I remember feeling uncomfortable with most of our conversations, yet inexplicably, I didn’t want to leave his side. I would ride in his truck, looking up at him with this giddy smile as he sang Southern folk songs in his thundering voice:
You get a line, I’ll get a pole, honey.
You get a line, I’ll get a pole, babe.
You get a line, I’ll get a pole,
we’ll go down that crawdad hole.
Honey, o, baby, mine.
I remember how I liked to inhale the smell of his Marlboro Reds when he lit one up with his truck cigarette lighter. I knew I’d be a smoker; I idolized my father. He would give me Christmas gifts that were all the rage; he bought me the Atari 2600 when it was selling like hotcakes. I now realize that, more than the expensive presents he bought for me, I ultimately longed for my father’s love; that his absence in my life made me see him as bigger than life. Like Santa Claus, he largely lived in my imagination.
As I became older, I would learn that my father hadn’t been around because he had a temper. One summer, he was planning to drive from Florida to come to get me in Georgia, where I lived, but he called my mom to tell her he couldn’t come because he had gotten into a fight with some hoodlums at his apartment complex pool; and he went to jail for pulling out a gun and pointing it at them.
Even though I had witnessed my father’s temper on a few occasions, how he would throw things across the room when he got mad, say mean words, and look at you with rage in his eyes, that wasn’t the poison that would kill a daughter-father relationship. No — it was the years of covert manipulation and the inability to feel empathy or express healthy love. It would take much of my young adult life before I could really see the mind games and our enmeshment cycle.
I was in my mid-thirties, working as a relationship therapist and life coach, and seeing couples clients and individual clients in my practice. From both my personal and my professional experience, I had learned to set healthy boundaries, to release anger and blame, and forgive the past. What I hadn’t learned to do was understand that it was me who consciously allowed people who continuously caused me harm to stay in my life in the first place. As I became more intrigued and motivated to examine my life closely, I started to see that I had learned to accept things as okay purely as a survival skill. Getting honest about how false ways of being could keep you from living your most joyous and full life was at the heart of my work with my clients. I had actually created an exercise that I used regularly with my clients called “Renegotiating What’s Okay — What have you learned to make Okay — What’s your “okay-barometer”? For example, “I made it okay not to have love in my life.” Or, “I made it okay not to have needs.” I just knew I had to be strong.
In our sessions, I would tell my clients to write down what they had learned to ‘make okay.’ Then they would write down the story they constructed when they made it okay. For example, “emotions and feelings are weak.” “I will never be good enough.” “I’m unworthy of love.” Then my clients would write a truer story — not a construct. Truer stories can be felt when you move into your body and drop into your heart space. For example, the truer story of the ‘okay’ idea that ‘emotions and feelings are weak’ might be: “I wasn’t allowed to feel my feelings;” “I had no one to help me process pain;” “I had to push it down deep inside of me.” Consequently, when I lack emotional control, I know that I am in the fifteen-year-old part of myself that had to abandon my pain and make it okay to turn away from myself. I did this by finding a way to disconnect from what I deeply needed. Lastly, my clients would write down what they needed to hear or what they needed but did not receive. When you speak your truer story, you are practicing self-compassion and can re-write your life’s narrative.
As I began to think more about what I had learned to ‘make okay’ in my own life, I could see how I had made it okay to be undeserving of healthy love. I made it okay to keep allowing my father to drain my life force. I made it okay to let him continue hurting me because I believed he was in deep pain and, therefore, anything he did was okay. My empathy for him was to my own self-detriment.
It became clearer to me that it was my father’s inability to change or ever recognize how his words and actions were perpetually devoid of respect, integrity, and real love that made having him in my life dangerous.
But I still wasn’t ready to cut off all contact with him. I continued to talk to him on occasions, but each time I would feel hurt. My father had decided that my marrying someone who was an American-born Chinese─of Asian descent─was an insult to him because he had served in the Vietnam War, and he was “sensitive to that.” He complained to other close family members and wanted to know “how I could do that to him.”
The Final Game
My grandfather had become deathly ill and only had days to live. I flew out to Florida to be with him. My father had never had a good relationship with his father; there was a history of abuse and generational pathology. I hadn’t seen my father for years, and I didn’t think too much about how I would feel seeing him in person again. I can remember the way he looked at me when he told me how much he had missed me. We cried together. It felt real, like he was genuinely happy to see me again. I hardly noticed how the conversation had felt so familiar, like past conversations, thick with self-pity and grievance. I still hoped we could salvage our relationship.
The next morning, when I called to tell him how much it meant to me to see him again, he sounded disgruntled. He didn’t seem to recall our felt connection and how happy he was to see me. He was awash in self-pity, complaining about the aches and pains in his body and how hard it had been for him. He was cold and distant. It felt like I was talking to a different person─the person who repeatedly hurts me.
A short time after what would turn out to be the last time I saw him, I came across a book that explained my father’s traits in remarkable detail: the disregard for other’s feelings, the pity plays, the inability to have and appreciate real (non-calculated) emotional experiences and connect with other people, the tendency to say or do anything at all without the “slenderest glimmer of guilt,” the manipulation and games, lying, remorselessness─and doing things that people with an empathic compass don’t do. The book was called The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout. Although I had learned about antisocial personality disorder as a graduate student in clinical psychology, I hadn’t connected the dots. It never occurred to me that my father had sociopathic tendencies and that he might be a sociopath.
As a relationship therapist, I work with clients who are looking to divorce toxic people in their life, and couple clients who want to consciously uncouple. To guide this often difficult process, I came up with seven healing prompts. I can remember one particular couple who came to see me because they were eager to move on. It was a raw, messy, deeply vulnerable process — one of the most challenging processes I had been through with a couple. The partners used my healing prompts (listed below) to share their honest feelings.
I will always cherish…
I smile whenever I think about…
I see more clearly how…
Because of you…
I’m sorry I couldn’t see the pain and sadness you have been carrying sooner.
I’m sorry for all the times I failed to notice what you needed from me.
I’m sorry I have been too wrapped up in my own problems to recognize your bids for connection.
I’m sorry I didn’t take your hand, look into your eyes, and let you know how much I deeply care.
I’m sorry for expecting too much from you.
I’m sorry I lost myself.
I’m sorry I didn’t nourish our love.
I’m sorry I wasn’t honest with you about my feelings — that I wasn’t honest with myself about my feelings.
I forgive us both for all the ways we hurt each other.
I forgive us both for all the ways we let our egos prevent us from listening to each other and gaining understanding.
I forgive us both for all the breakdowns, lack of communication, hurtful words and actions, and pain.
I forgive us both for how we lost our way, our dreams, our truth.
I forgive us both for how we couldn’t see a better way, and let things fall through the cracks.
I forgive us both for all the withholding of love from each other.
I forgive us both for all the times we chose fear over fighting for what we truly desired.
I forgive us both for all the disappointment — and breaking each other’s heart.
I forgive us both for everything that happened between us.
I will always cherish our meaningful talks and our quirky traits and idiosyncrasies that were uniquely us.
I will always cherish the laughter, giddy play, and silly phrases we used to say.
I will always cherish the love we truly shared.
I smile whenever I think about the beautiful times and late nights together.
I see more clearly how you were trying to show me love in your own way.
I see more clearly how I might have done it differently.
Because of you, I have learned how to live more openly and honestly.
Because of you, I have learned to be kind and more rooted in integrity.
Thank you for the incredible journey — the good, the bad, the sweet, the bitter, the hard, the tender — all of it mattered.
Thank you for helping me to embody pure love — Who I Am — Who You Are.
We both deserve to be happy, and experience love, health, abundance, and vitality.
After I made the decision to consciously cut off all contact with my father, I used a variation of my then not fully honed love prompts to guide my thought process and convey my honest feelings. I knew no words could really land on my father’s heart nor change our interactions. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have needed to say my final words. I was doing it for myself so that I’d no longer be subjected to the harm caused by maintaining toxic relationships, and I was ready to resolve deep-rooted, undeserving feelings. After I officially estranged myself from my father, it actually became easier to feel unconditional love for him. Because I was no longer perpetuating the pathology.
It’s been more than eight years since I’ve had contact with my father. As strange as it might sound, I feel closer to him today; and I want to honor my father by revisiting my seven healing prompts in a letter─even if he will never actually fully receive my love. I do it for me.
I know life has not been easy for you. I love you and I’m sorry. I want you to know that I forgive you for the loss and the pain of not having you in my life. I will always cherish the memories of you playing your guitar and singing folk songs to me. I smile whenever I think about the stories you’d tell and how my stomach would hurt from laughing so much. I now see more clearly how I can always love you, even from afar. Because of you, I have learned to live more courageously and stand in my power. Thank you for my lifelong affinity for music. Thank you for the role you have played in my ability to be in this earth school and live the human experience. I love you.
Originally posted on Medium on August 26, 2022