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My Emotionally Abusive Father
Rebbetzin Feige

My Emotionally Abusive Father

Cruelty and abuse, whether physical or emotional, should never be tolerated.


Q: My father has been absent or emotionally abusive of me throughout my life. Any attempt on my part to connect with him has failed miserably. Even at this late stage, I have been unable to have an adult to adult relationship with him. He is a habitual liar, verbally abusive and appears to delight in disappointing people and creating totally unnecessary chaos all around him.  

I do not know what is wrong with him. I only know that his lies and rejection of me and my family have caused me years of pain. As much as I love him and wish things were better with us, at age 50 I realize this may never be. I have made sure our son is not affected by his grandfather’s indifference and unkindness.  

Is it okay to stop trying and to detach from him? He is wealthy and does not need anything. I want to do the right thing, but in being good to him I hurt myself, because my father treats me as if I were not even his daughter. He only acknowledges his son, totally overlooking me, my sister and our families.  

What is the right thing to do?

Dear Reader,

We are prisoners of those whose approval we seek. Sadly, you have tried to get into the good graces of your father for the better part of 50 years, and to no avail. It is finally hitting home. The realization is dawning upon you that this situation is unlikely to change. Coming to terms with reality is a major step in the direction of healing and healthy living.

Until now your expectations have set you up for recurrent disappointment and worst of all resentment. Resentment, it has been said, is like drinking poison and expecting the other person to die. In fact, as you know, it is the one harboring the resentment that suffers debilitating pain and anguish. You, my dear reader, have eaten yourself up alive all these years. And now it is time to step back.

You have eaten yourself up alive all these years. And now it is time to step back.

We should not set out to control or even modify the behavior of others. Jurisdiction extends only to our own responses. Your father’s behavior toward you during these many years has proven the verity of this principle, as you stated “all my attempts have failed miserably.”

We often operate with a preconceived script for our lives and our relationships. In this case, you had an expectation of how a father should be. At some point, confronting the truth becomes inevitable. He is who he is and what he is. Certainly there are factors that impact who a person becomes – childhood experiences, parents, teachers, friends, traumas (e.g. Holocaust), etc. Exploring background information, his past, or his formative years may or may not be helpful in generating understanding and perhaps feelings of compassion. Nonetheless, the script as you would have wished it to be is unlikely to ever be realized.

Fighting Stance

Acceptance would, of course, be the ideal approach. Acknowledging who he is – his limitations and letting go of expectations – would be liberating. It would allow you not to banish him from your life, while at the same time it would remove the shackles of power that he wields over you. This can be done in two ways:

Firstly, a mode borrowed from the martial arts has been suggested to be effective in the emotional arena as well. Physical fighting stances involve balance, alignment, weight distribution and posture. A psychological fighting stance is all about emotional balance – self-acceptance, abiding by your own moral code, forgiving yourself for failing to reach perfection (a rare achievement) and finally, offering yourself as much compassion as you would give a beloved friend.

This works because cruelty, to be effective, has to land on a welcoming spot in the victim’s belief system. In Eleanor Roosevelt’s immortal counsel: “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.” If we hold onto ourselves, secure in the conviction that we are okay (and that usually requires a lot of work), it is unlikely that others will seriously rock our boat. It is usually the insecurity we live with that allows those who seek to marginalize us to score points.

Another tactic is to be totally upfront and disarming by making statements such as: “Dad, this really hurt me, I need you to stop, I need you to hear me out.” Share your feelings and needs openly. Don’t wait for him to get it on his own. Let him know point-blank how distressing the given comment or interaction has been to you.

On the other hand, you can continue a degree of relationship from afar. Send holiday and birthday wishes, or leave a voice mail when you know he won’t be answering. This allows you to show your respect, without having to directly interact. From your letter it seems that you still yearn to connect, and this means you don’t have to quit cold turkey.

Respecting Boundaries

Consider Helen, whose father smothered her and sought to control her with his incessant demands for attention. Nothing she did ever sufficed. Her husband and children found his unending criticisms and complaints oppressive. Helen finally moved to another city. Phone calls were more manageable because she could either not answer or cut them short. Having gotten some distance and perspective, Helen invited her father to join her in counseling so that they might work toward a more mutually satisfying relationship.

Now, some years later, Dad comes to visit but respects Helen’s boundaries – when to come, how long to stay and when to leave. Phone calls are engaged when it is convenient for both of them. On occasion when things get out of hand temporarily, they go back to the therapist for adjustment.

Do not feel guilty for choosing to detach in order to protect you and your family.

Parenthetically, Helen worked very hard for the self-affirmation and confidence that allowed her to hold onto herself and do what she knew was right, and not to allow the fear of rejection and guilt to derail her.

The bottom line is that cruelty and abuse, whether physical and/or emotional, is not normal and should never be tolerated. Do not feel guilty for choosing to detach in order to protect you and your family. Our obligation to honor our parents does not mean putting your emotional well-being in danger.

In the event that the suggestions articulated above have not and would not work for you, I would recommend that you seek professional help. You deserve to find peace, to come to terms, and to assuage the torment of so many years.

Related Article: My Escape from Child Abuse

Published: March 5, 2011

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Visitor Comments: 55

(44) Anonymous, May 27, 2014 11:34 PM

You guys are smart, I was 38 when I realized my parents were my worst enemies

My story is a lot like yours. I escaped the horrors of sexual abuse, but grew up in constant terror from a narcissistic father. Not a day passed without a horrible row and constant rage at the slightest excuse. At age 3 was the first time I tried to escape this nightmare. Then came depression, suicide attempts, repeated abuse at the hands of countless more narcissists who I was drawn to like a fly to fire. Only in my mid thirties did I realize cutting them off completely is the only way. None of my needs were ever met. Even my clothes were dirty. We had a roof above our heads and enough food but that was it. I lost teeth as a young teen because it would not occur to my parents to take me to a dentist. I had to get a job at age 14 to buy books for school, because these c@&£s kept their money for themselves. How on earth I managed a straight a school record is a mystery, not that I ever, ever got the slightest credit for it. My sister had thicker skin and suffered less but I was caught up with different psych diagnoses for decades. Only now am I starting to pull myself together. Of course the c@&£s have zero insight and never expressed a shred or remorse. That did it for me. If they at least regretted what they did to us but they go full retard about how they "always loved us". I wish you guys forgiveness. I will never forget my N father and my mother who sacrificed her own kids at the cultish altar of her f@&£ed up husband. Reckoning is coming though. I will do as much to meet their needs when they are old as they did to meet mine, when I was a vulnerable kid I.e. NOTHING.

(43) Julie, May 25, 2013 12:01 PM

My 15-year-old daughter

The woman with the question sounds like my 15-year-old daughter. My daughter insists on living with her father even though It is an incredibly unhealthy situation. She was in the gifted program (through no help from her father) but is now failing all of her classes and has been diagnosed with depression. It is a bizarre and frustrating situation. I had a very decent and caring father so I don't know what it is like to have a bad father. My thought for people with abusive fathers is - At some point you're going to have to let it go and stay away from him. Even though it's your father, it's just one person.

(42) dori, April 28, 2013 6:49 AM

see the picture

I agree-cut contact with parent who provides hurt. This way you have space to reflect. There will be moments when you might see positive characteristics in your father and be proud of them. There might be even time to understand that he is acting out because he was abused/not cared for or raised well. That does not mean you should contact and have relationship. i sometimes send present to dad. it's kind of easier than words. His communication hurts. Deep down he loves me and he expresses it in the worst way. Fortunately I can honor my father by seeing that he has some positive qualities and helped me visualizing him as a boy and his environment he grew up with. Too bad that parent take frustruation on the most precious people--their family.

Joe, May 18, 2013 10:46 PM

ex fiance

Went out with my ex for 3 years before I proposed. Kinda knew her father wasn't the greatest. Her parents couldn't raise her and had his parents legally adopt her. Her father was nuts. Constantly berated her screaming about stupid petty things and controlling her thru his mother since she was elderly and my ex took care of her since he wouldn't do anything. He would talk down to her all the time. I felt horrible and really couldn't do much about it. Told her to lose contact with him since she doesn't need to be treated like that. She couldn't let go of him and don't know why. Just heartbreaking for me.

(41) tamara, April 25, 2013 10:46 PM

keep yourself safe and happy

I found out at 5 that my parents were not as they should have been. It is my faith that keep me safe and help me to deal with thier problems. Oh yes I still feel lost sometimes. Pray helps with the at the darkest moments. You can not make your parents parent,that is something that that they must aspire to. I know that I have tried to be a better parent to my kids, that is a work that is always in progress. You must not beat yourself up for thier failures. Know that God gives us the freedom of choice, and sometimes he helps us with the hurdles. When you think that yo can change them look in the mirror that is the only person you can change and give thanks to god that you know that. I am fighting for grandchildren who have been given to thier father who is emotionally abusive. It will cost a lot to get them back, but the money is not the problem. You have to do now what is right for you. My own father did not know about my mother(or care) until he was dying, he appolgize for his failures, and it made me happy for the first time in my life. God bless you and know that others care about you, go out and meet them.

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