Should You Still Have a Relationship With a Parent You Don’t Like?

It’s debatable, but I think it’s worth trying.

Photo by Katherine Chase on Unsplash

For a long time I used to make the effort to ring my dad at least every fortnight, I can’t meet with him face to face because he spends a large part of the year in Spain now that he is retired, so I thought it was important to maintain what contact I could. These fortnightly calls gradually lessened to every month, then three months and finally, they only occurred at notable yearly events; birthdays, Christmas, etc. It was always me making the effort to call, I can’t remember the last time I received a call from my father. But now I have joined my father in his radio silence — it’s been about eighteen months since I spoke to him last and at least six years since I saw him face to face. Recently, I have been feeling a growing sense of guilt at how little I care about this lack of contact — weeks can go by in which I forget that my dad even exists.

This feeling of guilt has led me to reflect more deeply on why I have lost contact with my father and whether I want to reconnect with him. This is an issue I feel very conflicted about because, to put it bluntly, I have never really liked my dad. However, by spending some time reflecting on this parental issue I have started to look at my dad in a different light and it is motivating me to reach out and contact him. I’m going to share my thought process behind this decision in this article and I hope that it can help anyone in a similar situation who is struggling to build a relationship with a parent they dislike.

The benefits of reflecting on your relationship with a parent you dislike

I have never been close to my father. From a young age, I developed the impression that only one of my parents, my mum, really valued my company. My dad was always either away at work in the city as a computer programmer or hidden away in his office reading books on new coding languages that he was trying to learn. I don’t remember him ever looking me in the eyes when I was growing up, let alone hugging me or saying ‘I love you.’ Despite this we spent time together, although it was usually due to circumstance rather than a choice on my father’s part, this was especially the case when my mum and dad got divorced when I was eleven years old. The kind of things that we did together often involved the television and little talking; watching sports or films. My dad wasn’t big on talking and when he did talk it was often to offer some pseudo-profound life advice which was worryingly self-centered and bigoted in nature:

Whatever you do, don’t let a woman destroy your life Antony, women will take everything that you’ve worked hard for and disappear without a trace

You’ve got to look out for yourself, friends don’t really exist in this world, making other people happy will only make you unhappy, look out for number one.

Even in my younger years of naivety and emotional immaturity, I found it very hard to look fondly on a man that would make such statements on a routine basis. I had barely even developed my own beliefs and values, but I knew for certain that they would never be anything like my father’s. Yet, despite this, perhaps because of the guilt that it might have occasioned from me doing otherwise, I persisted in my attempts to bridge the gap between us.

When I was growing up I had this innate belief that if someone was tied to you by blood, especially when that blood came from fifty percent of the human partnership that created you, you had a life-long responsibility to try and make things work with this individual. You weren’t meant to give up. I’m still not sure whether this instinct has any truth to it, whether it is my responsibility to still be trying to connect with the man who brought me into this world.

I don’t think that there is a universally correct answer to this question, but I do think that I should work out the answer that is right for me. I shouldn’t just let my relationship with my dad disappear due to passivity on my part. By reflecting and making a conscious decision about this issue I will have no regrets in the future regarding what I could have done differently.

Regarding your own parents I think this is something worth thinking about — don’t let your relationship with them be decided by passivity and forgetfulness, you owe yourself, if not them, the opportunity to make a well-informed decision regarding your relationship with someone who is connected to you in a way that no one else in this world is. Through making this conscious decision of whether to have a relationship with them or not, you will find a degree of peace irrespective of what the decision might be and you will not regret the lack of consideration that you gave the matter at a later date, perhaps when it is too late to do anything about it.

Try to remember fond memories of your parent

My dad’s relationship with my sister is one of the main things that has put distance between us. Maria has suffered from epilepsy and a Learning Disability from a young age, these conditions made her childhood a considerable struggle and my father’s attitude towards such diagnosis’ only made things worse for her. He seemed to struggle to believe that there was any truth to medical conditions that didn’t have a visible presentation. If you had a broken leg the cast and crutches would have passed my dad’s litmus test. But when the problems were buried deep within the brain and the symptoms presented in subtle and unusual ways, my dad seemed to struggle to accept that it was an issue in need of medical attention.

Such views put distance between my dad and my sister, he would never do or say anything particularly hurtful to her, it was more what he didn’t do that caused the bond between him and his daughter to break down. He would talk to her sparingly and in this respect he has always been nice enough, expressing a certain degree of care, but his refusal to acknowledge, discuss or have empathy for the medical conditions that have unavoidably defined my sister’s life mean that he is always one space removed from a truly deep connection with Maria. Everything rests at a surface level where it is comfortable for him.

Over the years, as we all aged, my dad seemed to become more accepting of Maria’s conditions and her resulting inability to be the daughter that he had perhaps always wanted. I distinctly remember trying to discuss Maria with him the last time I visited him six years ago; I am sure that I saw his eyes glaze over, he looked up at the ceiling trying to stop the tears running down his cheeks and becoming visible. He seemed to have a real sadness and empathy for Maria in that moment. It perhaps sounds unusual, but I hold that moment dearly. I often revisit it when I am reflecting on my dad. Through this rare expression of raw emotion, I felt I had seen a small glimmer of the humanity that I had been yearning for from my father my whole life.

Some people have a collection of fond memories that they can draw from with ease when they are remembering a parent, however for my father I have just this one memory, but it is enough to keep the hope alive inside of me that my dad has a real love for his children buried deep within his heart. This hope is giving me the motivation to reach out to my dad again.

Memories can be powerful. If you are struggling to connect with one of your parents it might help you to similarly recollect an event concerning this parent in which you saw a side to them which is contrary to everything else that you find so hard to like about them. It might be hard to remember such an instance in amongst all the pain they caused you, but I would wager that there would still be at least one such moment that you could find in amongst all the darkness. We are all varied humans, with infinite iterations to our identity, some more favorable than others. It is rare to meet someone who is as purely bad as the color black is purely black and nothing else.

If you can find such a memory; hold on to it, think about it, be aware of how it makes you feel. Irrespective of how few memories like this you may have, it might just be the one as with me, it still serves as an example of something that suggests your parent is more than the accumulation of flaws that you have become so well acquainted with.

Think about your parent’s life story

Everything negative that I have to say about my father is tempered by my knowledge of his upbringing, which I am certain has shaped him as a person, flaws and all. He was born and raised in rural Spain, in a community that is fairly closed off from the modern world; when he was young he was taught how to farm an orchard and hunt wild game in the mountains. He spent little time in school because his family needed the money from his labor more than they needed a well-educated son. His own father was a distant figure who spent most of his time working in the mountains and his mother fulfilled the role of a stereotypical (according to my father) village housewife; cooking and cleaning, with little emotional attachment to her children. My dad told me that from a young age he held a deep-seated desire to escape this community that was “frozen in time”. He eventually joined the Spanish army and then moved to England to study at university and become a computer programmer — quite an achievement for a Spanish man with no real educational background to speak of. However, it seems clear to me that despite his relocation, the village never really left him in a lot of ways.

My father had no experience of what it was like to be part of an accepting, emotionally connected and loving family when he was growing up. Additionally, he was not exposed to people with mental disabilities, people like my sister. From what I can gather from my dad’s stories of village life, people who were like my sister in the village were treated as “one of the crazy people”, they were not seen as suffering from a disability of any kind. Just as with any of us, my father’s upbringing has left its mark on him. How can I blame him for that?

All of our parents were children once, they didn’t just become who they are by sheer choice, they were shaped by their upbringing and the environment in which they grew up. It’s important that we remember this when we look at our parents and that which we dislike about them. Of course, there is an element of free-will in how anyone’s life is shaped, but this is only half the story. To consider a person as being purely a product of their own decisions is unfair, how would any of us feel if we were looked at similarly? I for one am certain that I possess flaws that I would do anything to just rid myself of if I had complete control over the matter, but I don’t. I’m accepting of this and do what I can to manage these shortcomings and be the best person I can. I would do well to treat my father with the same acceptance. Something that I am trying to do, despite how hard it seems.

If you can begin to accept that a parent you dislike was shaped by forces outside of their control, it might help you to be more accepting of their flaws and the hurt they have caused you in the past. This might lead you to feel more inclined to develop a relationship with them, it has certainly done so for me.

By remembering that my father is not solely to blame for his beliefs and behaviors a lot of the resentment that I felt towards him has dissipated and has been replaced by a more general sadness at how easily any child can be adversely affected by their upbringing. I now have empathy for my father. Resentment replaced with empathy — this has helped me to feel more positively about contacting my father once again.

Imagine death-bed scenarios

Knowing what I do about my father I feel that if I don’t make the effort to bond with him, I doubt that anyone else will. This might sound pessimistic but my dad has a habit of pushing people away. I have lost count of the stories that my dad has told me in which someone has tried to befriend him, whether at his local gym or library, and he always rejects their advances citing such reasons as:

They’re just trying to use me for my money/computer skills, they don’t want to be my friend Antony, friends don’t really exist.

With such a pessimistic attitude towards human connections, I struggle to believe that my dad will connect with other people in a meaningful way in what remains of his life, unless I, one of his few remaining blood relatives, make the effort to create such a connection with him. The prospect of my dad living an isolated life, devoid of love, for the rest of his days is something that saddens me deeply. Irrespective of how flawed anyone is, I don’t think they should be condemned to live a life devoid of friendship and love.

I could distract myself from this sense of sadness and I might be able to forget about my dad for a few months, years even, but eventually I will remember him, even if it is due to the one event which forces all of us to remember the lives of relatives that we did or didn’t know — news of their death. I don’t want to get to that point and regret that I had wasted my opportunity to make a positive impact on my father’s life. Similarly, if I were to die tomorrow before my father did, I am certain that I would feel a similar sense of regret and guilt that I had thrown away my opportunity to try and create a loving relationship with my dad.

If you are struggling to find the motivation to try and bond with a parent you dislike it might help to imagine these kinds of death bed scenarios. It might feel uncomfortable and unnecessarily depressing, but I have found that by visualizing such things it has helped me to put things in perspective. Small resentments, annoyances and frustrations that I have for my dad pale into insignificance when I consider one of us dying and not having worked on our relationship due to such petty grievances. Try and visualize these end of life situations that I have described and recognize the emotions that you feel, whether its shame, guilt, fear, sadness, even happiness, be accepting of these feelings whatever they are — try to listen to what your heart is telling you to do with these emotions in this present moment.

Ask yourself: ‘What course of action can I decide on right now that would give me peace when I am lying on my death bed?’

Concluding remarks

Everyone’s relationship with their parents is unique and it could be unique in terribly hurtful ways, ways that are beyond repair and make a loving relationship impossible for all parties involved. It is down to each one of us personally to know whether a close relationship with our parents is something to pursue. However, I hope that this article has encouraged you to reflect a little more deeply on such issues and to try to look at your parents from more of an unbiased perspective which is free from any negative feelings that you may have towards them. Any good decision requires an unbiased perspective and the decision of whether or not to have a relationship with your parents is no different in this respect.

By considering the humanity which lies behind my own negative judgments of my father I have decided that I want to contact him once again. It might go well, it might not, but I am at peace with knowing that I listened to my heart and followed through on what it was telling me. Try to listen to your own heart if you are making a similar decision and find a sense of peace in what it is telling you.

Thanks for reading,

Antony Pinol

Twenty-nine years old. Living in Carlisle in England. Graduate in Philosophy. Caregiver. Christian. Writer. Contact: antonypinol22@gmail.com

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