Trying to Have a Relationship With My Abusive Father

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Reader’s Question

I am 20 years old and have a younger brother. My relationship with my father has been nothing more than a history of abuse by him. My brother has also felt the brunt of my father’s violent rages, but he has maintained a decent relationship with him.

My dad isn’t a bad person most of the time and can be quite amusing at times. I’ve tried many times to bond with him, but it just doesn’t work. He has such a violent temper, and when he goes off there is little that can stop him. In his anger fits, he uses threats and sometimes physical force against us to get his way. He is also very controlling. If he does something wrong, he refuses to acknowledge that it ever even happened and blames us for his mistakes.

I often got into confrontations with my father, mainly on the topic of his anger towards my family. My mom tells me not to fight with him and to try and build up a relationship but it has always been difficult.

When I was 12 my parents considered a divorce due to my dad’s abuse against my mom and the accusations both have made about having secret affairs. I was pulled into this conflict by my dad, who would give me private talks about how horrible my mom is, and he threatened repeatedly to hurt me if I told her about these talks. Once I talked back to him, telling him the fights between him and my mom were due to his anger issues, and he threatened to kill me because I just didn’t “get” the real reason they fight.

My father has told me that he was molested as a child and that I would never have it as bad as he did growing up. Now, I try to keep my distance from him. But there have been times when I was forced to confront him, like when he attacked my mom and I had to pull him off of her. He blamed us for his failing marriage and left for a short time. A few months later, he came home and acted as though the incident never even happened.

Now, my brother is dorming at college. My dad has gone back to his anger fits because my brother did not spend enough family time with him. My dad started to say this was my mom’s fault so I intervened, yelling at him that it is because of his violent temper that he never had a relationship with any of his kids and that he is alone. He yelled back, that I always hated him (not true), threatened to divorce my mom, threatened to walk out and also threatened to kill me. He left us that night, saying “F— this family!” but came back the next day. A couple of weeks have gone by, and he hasn’t mentioned the fight once; I still try to avoid him.

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Now he is acting as though the incident never happened. I don’t want to confront him about this and get into another fight because my mom is begging me not to, but I can’t just avoid this. I am uncomfortable whenever he tries to talk to me because all I can remember is the abuse. I still want to try and form a relationship and honor him, but I don’t know how anymore. What should I do?

Psychologist’s Reply

Your situation sounds not only volatile, but complicated, and there’s no way to adequately assess it remotely. However, there are some things that seem abundantly clear and are worthy of comment.

You are now an adult and have the right and responsibility to set limits and boundaries. You certainly don’t have to tolerate any abuse and should do your best to avoid and/or walk away from such situations. You also don’t do yourself any favors by yelling, screaming, or accusing. From what your dad has told you, he clearly has some issues. And, from what you’ve reported, there appears enough denial about those issues to go around. Rather than take a counter-combative stance, it’s important to draw some firm lines and to stand on them. I make these points not only in my first book In Sheep’s Clothing [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], but also in my soon to be released book, Character Disturbance [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK].

You might make it clear that you both yearn for and are open to a better relationship, and encourage your father to face his denial and to seek the help he needs. In the meantime, be true to your own responsibilities and do your best to step away from or avoid behaviors that are threatening or abusive. In time, that will place more of the responsibility for change where it belongs.

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