Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor's Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My oldest daughter (from my first marriage) hasn’t wanted a relationship with me for more than 25 years. I remarried about 28 years ago and have two children, both daughters, with my current wife. My oldest daughter was a bridesmaid at the second wedding and seemed accepting of the new family dynamic. Her mother had also remarried, a few years earlier.

My daughter is now 48 years old, and her sisters are 27 and 28. Although we have encountered one another at extended-family events (christenings, graduations, her brothers’ weddings, etc.), she does not acknowledge me, my wife, or her sisters. I want to reestablish a connection, and my younger daughters are disappointed that she doesn’t want to get to know them.

Over the years, I have tried various overtures to reconcile: I’ve been sending Christmas and birthday cards every year, and once or twice I’ve written notes inquiring about her life and interests and concerns—but no response.

I’m 70 years old now and a cancer survivor, and I hurt every day about this situation. I so want to have her back in my life, connecting with her sisters. What can I do?

Mike
Philadelphia


Dear Mike,

Being estranged from your daughter is understandably painful—your love for her comes across in your letter—and you should know that many parents are living with a similar kind of heartbreak. If you want to reconnect with your daughter, though, you’ll need to get curious about her pain—the pain that has made the idea of contact with you so hard for her.

I don’t know how your divorce and subsequent remarriage affected your daughter, but in ways you may not have realized, she got hurt. Although she was a bridesmaid at your wedding and “seemed accepting” of the situation, there’s a good chance that her feelings ran deeper. Often in these situations, parents want so badly for their kids to be okay with what’s going on (because, let’s face it, for you, your new marriage was a happy event) that they don’t see what’s happening beneath the surface with their children. Your daughter likely tried, in her college-age way, to let you know she was upset about something, and if she didn’t feel heard then, you’re going to have to hear her now.

To hear her, you’ll need to acknowledge that the two of you have what therapists call separate realities. Parents, for example, tend to believe that they acted in the best interests of their children, while the children may feel that their parents failed to do just that. Both “realities” are valid because they’re simply two perspectives on the same situation. Separate realities are a normal part of any relationship—including between spouses or siblings or friends—and relationships go more smoothly when each person can see some truth in the other’s reality. But there’s a caveat: When it comes to children who are hurting—including adult children such as your daughter—it’s a parent’s job to make the effort to see the child’s reality first.

That’s why your contact with your daughter over the years, though well meaning, has probably felt a bit tone-deaf to her. By sending annual holiday cards and asking “once or twice” in the course of two decades about her interests and concerns, you’ve shown that you’re thinking about her; but by giving short shrift to the elephant in the room—directly acknowledging that you’ve hurt her—you’ve created the impression that you don’t care about her inner world (a perception that likely led her to cut off contact in the first place). Of course, it’s hard for most parents to hear how they disappointed their kids, especially if they tried their absolute best, but unless you can see how you contributed to her feelings of anger or hurt, nothing will change between you. Right now the only way she can communicate her pain to you is by inflicting it on you in return—with her distance. But once you’re able to receive this message by other means—by understanding what she’s gone through—the indirect message becomes unnecessary.

You can start with a sincere apology. A sincere apology is heartfelt and empathic and entirely about the person receiving it. A letter in this spirit might go something like this: “I owe you an apology, and I wish I’d offered it much sooner. I know that I’ve hurt you deeply, and I’m truly sorry for that. I would like to know more about your experience, because I’ve come to realize that I failed to see earlier that I put you through a lot of pain. You may be so hurt and distrusting of me that you don’t want to open up lines of communication, but I want you to know that I love you deeply and I’m committed to really listening to you and hearing you in a way I should have long ago. One idea I have is that maybe we could talk about some of this, at least initially, with a therapist of your choice. Of course, I love and miss you very much, but I also want to respect where you are. I hope that at some point you’ll be willing to talk with me about this. Whatever you decide, I want you to know that I’m starting to see my role in your pain, and am so sorry for it.”

Notice that the apology doesn’t ask for her forgiveness, something that would lessen your pain. It doesn’t offer reasons or justifications for why you may have made certain choices that affected her. It doesn’t imply that she’s overly sensitive. (“I’m sorry if I hurt you” is different from “I’m sorry that I hurt you.”) It doesn’t manipulate her with your age or health status. It doesn’t say that you’d like her to befriend your daughters, who are 20 years younger and from another marriage, and who may have made her feel like less of a priority to you at a time when she needed you most. (Asking her to alleviate your younger daughters’ pain will simply reinforce her belief that you can’t see hers.)

Of course, she might not respond at first—or ever. If she doesn’t, you might consider replacing your holiday cards with another invitation to understand her pain. If she does eventually respond, remember that you’re there only to listen and come to understand her better, and that you’ll need to start slowly, giving her all the space she needs. Let her decide on what she’s comfortable with—she may, for instance, feel comfortable establishing email communication but not be interested in phone conversations or meeting in person.

Whatever the outcome, you’ll have a lot of feelings about what’s happening. Because you don’t want to burden your daughter with them or respond poorly to her because you’re struggling with your own pain, seeing a therapist can help you navigate this process in a way that’s healthy for both you and your daughter. In talking with a therapist, you may even discover more about what led to the estrangement, leaving you less in the dark about the distance. At the very least, you’ll develop coping strategies for what is a difficult and protracted process that has the potential to be immensely gratifying for each of you.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.

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