My Father Says He’s Happier When We Don’t Talk

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Reader’s Question

I believe my father has Narcissistic Personality Disorder and am hoping to get advice on whether I should try to re-initiate a relationship with him, and if so, how.

I figured out that my dad probably has NPD while I was in therapy about him — the therapist suggested that it fit, and from all my readings it does perfectly. Although he is very smart (went to a very famous university), he’s not a high-functioning narcissist — he recently declared bankruptcy after a series of progressively crazier get rich quick schemes, lost our house, ran three marriages and relationships with both his kids into the ground, and last I heard now works a minimum wage job and lives with his parents.

I haven’t spoken with him for several years and before that contact was extremely intermittent. In the past 5 years he only tried to initiate contact when I was about to graduate from university (and this is the only time in recent memory that he’s been nice to me — he wanted to come to my graduation). For a while I tried to initiate contact with him about once every 6 months, but things always exploded very quickly, so I stopped.

In most ways I’m happier without him in my life. I’m generally a very happy and functioning individual — long-term relationship with a wonderful man, great job, about to go to graduate school, a ton of friends, great relationship with my mother (divorced from my father) and brother. I live all the way across the country from him. And contact with him is difficult: when not in a screaming rage, he’s the type of person with a personality disorder who can make you question your own reality…talking to him always makes you feel like the ground has shifted under your feet.

He apparently doesn’t really care to be in contact with me (although presumably I will hear from him if I get pregnant or get another degree), and he told me once he’s happier when we never talk. Yet I can’t get over the relationship. His birthday was a few days ago, and it put me into a deep funk. It’s illogical: he brings nothing to the table as a person, and all my fond memories of him date back to when I was age 7 or 8.

Although thankfully they don’t spill over into other relationships, with him I easily get into a codependent cycle where I try to change him and help him see the error of his ways. I fear falling into this pattern again. Yet at the same time I know that people with personality disorders can get treatment, and I have a hunch his family (who are in general extremely unhealthy, and most of them hate me) might be tired enough of his freeloading that they might be at least vaguely supportive of an ‘intervention.’ Obviously, these two impulses are at odds.

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Should I re-initiate contact with him? Should I try to get him to seek treatment? If so, how?

Psychologist’s Reply

The bottom line of my answer will be, what’s in it for you? Will this be an opportunity for you to test your assertiveness and boundaries? Will this give you a chance to practice and avoid the old habit of codependency? Or will this be another attempt to rescue him, perhaps even a masochistic attempt at that?

I feel for you and the deep funk you had on his birthday. It sounds like you are grieving the loss of the good father you never had, or at least haven’t had since you were 7 or 8. To the extent that you are grieving that serious loss, give it the time it deserves. Reconnecting with someone in the present cannot take away the pain of losing someone of quality in the past. That is true even if you never had a ‘good’ father. We all have the dream of good-enough parenting and can celebrate the positive parenting we did receive while grieving the loss of that which we did not. Winnicott once said “the tragedy of childhood is not so much the bad things that happened, but often the good things that didn’t happen when they could have happened.” That is, lost opportunities for growth, love and development in childhood are the tragedies we live with as adults. It sounds like you need to address whatever legitimate complaint you have that is underlying that funk. You owe it to yourself, or at least you can’t help giving it to yourself. Otherwise, it is fairly certain that you will suffer another funk on his next birthday. You may suffer another funk anyway, but at least you can understand it and have some empathy for yourself should it come around.

As for treatment of your father, assuming your diagnosis is correct, be advised that a relatively small sector of psychology believe that personality disorders can be treated. Those would include psychodynamic psychotherapists and psychoanalysts. In the interest of full disclosure, I include myself in that group. However, the type of long-term intensive treatment that is required in psychodynamic psychotherapy is not for everyone. A patient needs to be motivated, have at least a normative cognitive capability, and be safe to himself and others should he ‘decompensate’ in treatment. He also needs to be able to resolve within himself to stay in treatment for the long term, and to afford such treatment. Would you say that your father is a good candidate for treatment given these criteria?

Therefore, I suggest that your question is all about you. It is a gift for us to have our parents survive into our adulthood. It can be a time of wonderful reconciliation, or it can be a time of reckoning. If you can be with him and not be codependent, then that may help you. If you can say what you need to say, or be who you need to be in his presence, then that could help you. To the extent that he is a good father, he might appreciate the chance to help you, even if it is difficult for him.

Your choice will be challenging, whatever you decide. Trying to be clear about what goes into your choice is perhaps the best you can do. You’ll be able to analyze the results at your leisure later.

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