Last year I made a phone call to my father after not speaking to him for nearly three years.  It went well at the time.  I forgave him for the abuse in my childhood.  However, few months later I found myself having a breakdown about it and I haven’t called him since.  Two steps forward, one step back.

I was talking with a friend yesterday about that, and he pointed out that having an amazing relationship with my father is automatically tied to the fact that I have already done the hard part of forgiving him.  I hadn’t really considered that until today.  And now I am feeling like that might be something that I want.

How do you move forward from a place like that?  How do I draw boundaries that will keep me safe, but maintain the openness that it will take to have a real relationship with my father?  How do navigate a positive relationship with my former abuser as a feminist trying to heal and let go of the past?

It’s really painful to be faced with the choice of either shutting my parents out because it’s too hard to have a relationship with them, or embarking on the possibility of being hurt all over again.  Of course, there’s a third possibility: that it will be different if I make it different with intention.  Either way, the bottom line is that I want more than just not talking to my parents in order to cope.


kendahl is a queer fat left-handed INFJ synesthete mother warrior activist social worker abuse survivor unapologetically brilliant powerful witch

You may also like...

17 Responses

  1. Kate says:

    I went through this with my mom. For me, the key was not allowing myself to think she had changed. Mentally, that distinction made a big difference. I knew that if I accepted she had changed, I would be letting my emotional guard down. I couldn’t afford that.

    I remember the day I told my mom I forgave her. It didn’t go very well, and several months later I regretted it. In retrospect, I think that forgiving her was more about me, and less about her. The act of telling her I forgave wasn’t the act of forgiving – that took years and years and years to accomplish. But it was a point of closure for me, even if she didn’t accept or “hear” what I was saying.

    • Kmillecam says:

      I do think that forgiving my dad was really about me. And I’m starting to realize that choosing to have a relationship with him might be about me too. Maybe it’s something I actually want. Maybe if I commit to having a relationship with him that I feel good about (key words being “that I feel good about”) then it’s possible to get there.

  2. aerin says:

    Maybe I missed this, but I don’t understand why you have to have a relationship with someone who abused you. Whether or not they are a parent. I feel that once abuse happens (and that line is sometimes unclear) the person might lose the potential of that relationship.

    This is unrelated (in my mind) to whether or not you forgive someone or no longer allow what happened to have power over you. That’s not related to accepting the person or situation as it is and mourning that.

    I don’t support a person putting themselves in a potentially unsafe situation. It is true that people can change, and people make mistakes. But if there isn’t a clear indication of that, it’s important to keep your boundaries.

    I think the admonition is to forgive, but I’m not sure forgetting is part of that doctrine (If I remember the kjv correctly).
    Not having a relationship with your parents is sad, and something to grieve. And change is always possible. But a relationship, at what price?

    • Kmillecam says:

      I hear you Aerin, which is why I care so much about doing this the right way. I don’t just want a relationship with him/them, and I don’t HAVE to. I’m simply considering that I might want that if I feel good about the relationship. A friend who also has an abusive mother told me how he navigates his relationship with her: she can’t do anything to me (now) that I don’t LET her do to me. I have thought about that for a long time…

  3. SilverRain says:

    I agree with aerin. I still have to have a relationship with my ex because of the children, but it is the opposite of an “open” relationship. It is as closed as I can make it. He lost that trust, and although it is theoretically possible that he could earn it back someday, it would have to be earned. Not given. Forgiveness is given freely, not trust.

    And when I trust someone, it will be because they deserve it.

    • Hydrangea says:

      You have every right to feel guarded. I think a distant relationship is emotionally more satisfying than a potentially hurtful one.

    • Kmillecam says:

      It’s true that I don’t trust my dad, or my mom. But I DO think that it’s possible that I could enter into a relationship with them that I feel good about. And for me that would mean very clear boundaries and actual forgiveness and love (from me to them).

      I also don’t think you have to be open with your ex if you don’t want to. I didn’t want this relationship with my parents at all for years. But now I’m not so sure. I may change my mind.

  4. Doe says:

    I believe it is possible to get complete with something like this. That may involve “forgiving,” (whatever that means for you) or not. Regardless, getting complete is a prerequisite to moving beyond the abuse and creating the possibility of living into an adult future not defined by it. Another aspect of getting complete is accepting that your parents are who/what they are. Being clear about that will make a difference in whether or not they can hurt you again. That may sound resigned and cynical, but it occurs to me as “true.” It’s only in expecting them to be what they’re not that you remain vulnerable. And that doesn’t mean you can’t hope for their transformation.

    • Kmillecam says:

      You’re speaking my language, Doe! I’m still angry at both of my parents, and I’m not complete. I accept that they are what they are, but I still feel victimized by them as I choose to continue reacting to how they are. There’s the rub.

      “It’s only in expecting them to be what they’re not that you remain vulnerable. And that doesn’t mean you can’t hope for their transformation.” This is what I keep holding on to.

  5. MB says:

    I am struck by your phrase: “maintain the openness that it will take to have a real relationship with my father?”

    A relationship with a person who is unkind and/or abusive or unpredictable should not be fully “open”. That is not safe or wise. But the relationship can be real. Being real is not “being open”. Being real is being based, calmly, upon reality. And that is the best kind of relationship.

    One of the natural consequences of an abusive relationship is the loss of being able to be open or to trust. That’s just reality. And it’s something that I think God wants us to understand. That’s really, really, hard on the child who longs for an open emotional connection with a parent. And it is a loss that needs to be fully recognized, articulated, described and mourned. I would suggest that you allow yourself to recognize, write out and mourn that loss fully, and give yourself time to do so.

    In the meantime, fully cultivate the relationships in your life that can be open. The ones that are closest to you will be the ones that can help you see clearly what the reality of your father is. And with their help you will be able to determine what the appropriate limits of “open” are with who he really is instead of what you wish he was. They can also encourage your progress in understanding and creating the balance and wisdom that requires.

    A good family therapist can also be really helpful as you navigate this determination. Congratulations on making good progress on the letting-go-of-bitterness part. That’s a tough one. And don’t worry about the break downs. Those are a normal part of mourning

    • Caroline says:

      MB, that sounds like great advice to me.

      Kendhal, I tip my hat to you in your willingness to pursue a relationship with your father. I think it’s wonderfully courageous, and the pollyanna-ish part of me hopes that your father has/can transform himself, see the error of his ways, and do his best to be a decent person. Perhaps you can tentatively embark on this relationship, evaluate his growth/regret, and from there decide how open or real you can be with him. Thanks for this wonderful post.

    • Kmillecam says:

      I think we agree here. I am using “open” in my original quote to mean “being open to a relationship that I feel GOOD about”. It’s not to mean that I’m forgetting anything, or putting myself in harm’s way, or not standing up for myself if I need to. It’s more about having the confidence to know that I will be okay, even if he doesn’t change. I have the choice to leave a room, hang up a call, and be a stand for how I want the relationship to be. I was passive as a child, which was expected. But I’m not a child anymore and I have let passivity still rule my reactions to my parents.

      I have continued to be passive in sneakier ways, without even realizing it. For example, I have been telling myself things like “I should have a relationship with dad or mom”, and therefore I “just can’t do it because they’re so awful”.

      But the truth is that there is no “should” and there is no “can’t”. I have a relationship if I choose one. And I can do it, I’m just choosing not to right now. And that’s okay, because it’s always perfect the way it is. It was perfect 5 years ago, and it’s perfect now, and it will be perfect in 5 years. And they’ll all be different. And that will be perfect too!!

  6. jen says:

    I pay very close attention to myself. I don’t go to my parents’ home unless I want to. I don’t talk to former abusers unless I am in a really good place. I know ME, and I know what I can handle. That is my boundary.

    I also have read a lot of books on how to respond to verbal abuse. I am ready with, “I don’t allow people to talk to me that way,” always, and if that isn’t enough, I am also always ready and willing to walk out the door.

    I thought forgiveness meant I would have less boundaries, but its actually the opposite. Forgiveness and compassion REQUIRE boundaries. How can I accept you for who you are if you are hurting me? With boundaries, I can accept you, love you for who you are, and I don’t get hurt.

    (I’m still in the learning process. I sound all know-it-all-ish, but I’m not…)

    • Kmillecam says:

      You don’t sound know-it-all-ish to me, just figuring it out just like me! I love what you wrote here, it’s so true about the better/clearer boundaries. So true.

  7. s-lpz says:

    This sounds very challenging, Kmillecam. Thank you for sharing your story. I admire your courage to be present to your own experience and wrestle with all that brings up for you. I also admire your openness and that you honor what is right for you.

    I once had a therapist who said, “Confusion comes right before clarity.” I suggest you stay with it and just notice what bubbles up for you. Clarity may come all at once, or you may slowly live your way into it. At any rate, it can’t be rushed, as much as we wish it could be.

  8. spunky says:

    Wow, Kmillecam, you are a brave woman!

    I think that there is a possibility of a relationship with your parents, but in large part- if you are doing “two steps forward, one back”, then you still have some healing to do. And that is okay. You can take your time. I think that maybe you need to mourn the death of the idea of perfect parents- or at least mourn the death of the parents that you want. In recognising that your parents are never going to be who you want (or even who you need) them to be, then you are protected, in part, from being the scared little girl whom they abused. Because you are not that girl- and they are not the dream parents- having eyes wide oepn to this can make the relationship possible. But it won’t be perfect. And that is okay.

    Never forget that they have a beyond-awesome feminist daughter, even if they don’t know how to see and appreciate you for all of your endless brilliance. Make sure that you gather people around you who see this truth- so if your parents can’t see it, those you know you can remind you of what a priceless and magnificent daughter you are.

  9. EmilyCC says:

    I’m continually impressed with your ability to do hard things, K 🙂

    I feel like some of the commentors may be misinterpretting your ideas around navigating a relationship with your father–like you’d be forgetting the past because you’re doing the complicated work of forgiving. I don’t see that at all. In fact, it seems to me that you’re thinking of all potential senarios and ways you’ll need to draw those boundaries.

    I hope that third possibility becomes the reality for you, my friend.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.