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,

Following an acrimonious divorce from my mother, my father kidnapped me during what was supposed to be a weekend visit and hid with me in another state for three months before I was found by the police. He spent a few weeks in jail. I was 3 years old and have no memory of this whatsoever.

While my mother hasn’t spoken with him since and occasionally reminds me that she still hates him, she agreed to a settlement that allowed him partial custody every other weekend, because she thought “every son should have a relationship with his father.” But when I was a teenager, I started to notice her shift to being angry about my having a relationship with him (at age 16, I had the right to stop the twice-monthly visits).

I understand my mother’s problem with him, but I am 31 years old now, and the man that I grew up around and know now as an adult is someone who has been a great parent to me. He has offered invaluable life advice, as well as financial support when I fell on hard times, and I simply enjoy his company. I’ve never personally known this evil man my mother tells me about.

I’m in a serious relationship now, and my mother is very open about how much it hurts her when my partner and I spend time with my father. I generally tell her I don’t want to hear about it, or throw a barb about how she chose my father, not me. I imagine at some point, such as at my wedding, they will be thrust back together, and I worry about a big blowup or even my mother not coming to the wedding.

Nearly three decades have passed since the kidnapping, and the truth is, I love my father. I know I can’t make everyone happy, but how can I make things easier going forward?

Jon
Madison, Virginia


Dear Jon,

Often when people get divorced, at one point or another, their children will feel pressured to choose sides. This feeling might stem from something that happened during the marriage, such as if one parent was unfaithful or treated the other badly. Or it might come from something quieter, like a child simply noticing that one parent—say, the one who didn’t want the marriage to end—seems sad or lonely, even if nothing negative is ever said about the other parent. Whether amicable or acrimonious, divorce is generally painful for one or both adults, and the last thing children want to see is one parent suffering at the hands of the other.

At the same time, kids want to love both of their parents equally, which is hard to do when one person they love is being hurt by another person they love. So they work hard to keep the peace by managing their parents’ feelings. They spend so much time trying to make things okay for their parents—being careful at Dad’s house not to say anything nice about Mom’s new boyfriend, or laughing along with Mom’s “joke” about Dad’s chronic tardiness or tendency to drink too much—that they neglect to make things okay for themselves.

Making things okay for yourself, regardless of how your mom feels, seems to be your focus now, and that’s a good thing. But to do that, you’ll need to understand how the events of the past affect your interactions in the present.

You may not consciously remember those three months of the kidnapping, but children have an uncanny ability to absorb the emotions swirling in the air around them, and then to carry those emotions inside them for years to come. One way that people cope with being overwhelmed by feelings is to suppress them, and I was struck by how matter-of-factly you described what happened to you.

Something had to have gone very wrong in your family for the kidnapping to occur, and on some level, even at 3 years old, you would have sensed this. Young children thrive on predictability, stability, and routine—they feel safe when they know what to expect—yet one weekend, with no warning, you were separated from your mother, taken from your home and its familiar comforts (your bedroom, your toys or stuffed animals, your belongings), stripped of your daily routine (perhaps playing at the local park with children you knew or going to day care or preschool), and uprooted to another state. I don’t know how your dad explained this sudden move and complete estrangement from your mother, but whatever the explanation, most kids would find this situation extremely anxiety-provoking and confusing. Where’s Mom? Will I ever see her again? Does she miss me? Why didn’t she say goodbye?

Eventually, the police found you, and suddenly there was another loss. First you lost contact with your mother, and then your father, who had been your only parent for the past several months, was gone—in jail. You may also have had other caregivers to whom you became attached while in hiding (say, while your dad was working), and now those connections were cut off, too. All this is to say, it sounds like a chaotic situation that would have been hard for a young child to go through.

Why does any of this matter all these decades later? Because unmetabolized feelings come out in other ways—in a barb at your mom, in an idealization of your dad, in a sense of guilt around not meeting your mom’s needs, and maybe in ways you can’t anticipate right now in your future roles as a husband and perhaps a father. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that you’re seeking help now—as you contemplate marriage—around issues with your mom that you say have been present since you were a teenager. Part of you must know that it’s important at this point in your life to understand yourself and your relationship with your family on a different level.

To that end, I wonder what your understanding is of why your dad kidnapped you. He may have had good reasons for wanting to have full custody of you, but that’s different from stealing you and leaving your mother to wonder whether she’d ever see you again. Was he trying to save you from something and, if so, what? Or was this more about him—was he worried he wouldn’t get to see you as often as he hoped to after the divorce? Has your dad ever taken responsibility for what he did, or apologized to your mom (or you) for what he put you both through? Do you know how he feels now about that period in your lives and the decision he made?

Similarly, have you ever, as an adult, talked with your mom about what was going on for her during those three months—not knowing where her son was, if he was safe, if he was struggling without his mother, if she’d ever find her child? Does she understand why your father kidnapped you—what drove him to such a desperate measure—and what part she may have played in the acrimonious family dynamic that preceded it?

And then there’s the big blank in your own story. What was your life like during those three months? What were you told about why you were living in a new state without any contact with your mother? How did you take the news? Did you miss your mom? Did you live with anyone else—relatives? friends?—or was it just you and your dad? Were you in preschool during the day, and how did you adjust? What happened when the police found you? Was the sentence for kidnapping really just “a few weeks” in jail? (Sentences for kidnapping tend to be quite a bit longer, at least today.)

This is a piece of your history, yes, but also a piece of the present. No matter the answers to these questions, having them will allow you to know the truth of your life (without being afraid of it) and still love both parents for who they really are (without being afraid of hurting either of them). And this in turn will help you to express your needs with both parents in a more constructive way.

Because the issue right now is about your mom, here’s how that might go. You could say something along the lines of, “Mom, I love you very much, and I love Dad very much, too, regardless of how you feel about him. I’ve always spent time with both of you, and I’m going to continue doing that. But I’d like to understand why my spending time with him bothers you so much now.”

You may learn that she worries that your father will be a bad influence on your marriage, because of what happened in theirs (despite what a good father you find him to be). Or it might be that as you got older, she worried that you’d have a closer relationship with your dad, as some boys do, and that she would feel shut out, which would be an emotional repetition of what happened three decades ago. Or she might fear losing you now to your partner, as many mothers do, and she may be conflating those feelings of loss with the earlier ones of having someone else (your dad) take you away from her.

None of these issues are your responsibility to solve for her—a good therapist can help instead. But these conversations will help you to express your needs with a kind of compassion that will allow her to hear you. Instead of making a sarcastic comment, you can explain that expressing her lack of support for your time with your dad will have the opposite of its intended effect—it will drive you away from her, not him. Instead of worrying about what she might do for your wedding, you can tell her that as you start your own family, there may be times when she and your dad are in the same place, and that if she can’t manage her feelings in those situations and enjoy being with you, it will make it hard for you to enjoy being with her. And you can let her know that you want your future spouse and children to be close to her, but that if she talks negatively about your dad around them, it will give your family a negative impression of her—which is not what either of you wants.

This is how adult children create an authentic dialogue with their parents—by neither appeasing nor avoiding, but simply showing up in their truth and then letting their parents respond accordingly. The beauty of adulthood is learning that when you communicate with other people using compassion and candor, you don’t have to manage their responses; you just have to manage yours.


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.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to letters@theatlantic.com.