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 dad hasn’t spoken to his mother in more than 30 years. The first (and only time) I’ve seen her in person was at a family party when I was 19. My dad didn’t know she’d be there and told my younger brother he wasn’t allowed to say hello. Afraid to rock the boat, I didn’t approach her either. It’s my understanding that she was an abusive parent and unfaithful wife. My dad expresses the utmost disdain for this woman.

I’m now in my late 20s. Recently my mom told me that my grandmother had to move in with my dad’s brother and sister-in-law because of medical issues. I’d love to see my uncle, aunt, and cousins, but I’m conflicted. Turns out my dad isn’t currently speaking to his brother and sister-in-law either (for reasons aside from their harboring my estranged grandmother).

Visiting my uncle’s house would already have been a risky move, but now that my grandma is there, I don’t know what to do. I’ve always wanted to meet her despite the horror stories I’ve heard. But I’m worried my dad would see my fraternizing with them as a betrayal.

Having a dad who loathes his mother meant some rocky times in my childhood as well. I’ve been to therapy and done a lot of work to be where I am today. But the thought of angering or disappointing my dad still gives me ulcers. Should I try to meet my grandmother before it’s too late?

Nicole
Baltimore


Dear Nicole,

I think you already know the answer to your question, so let me help you with the part that’s getting in the way of your acting on it. You sound clear about wanting to cultivate relationships with your extended family, but you’re struggling to embrace the fact that, as an adult, you’re free to choose how to live your life.

Children don’t have this freedom, so if a parent chooses to alienate a child from a grandparent, the child misses the opportunity to form what might be a meaningful relationship. Studies show that when kids are close with their grandparents, they’re less likely to become depressed as adults. Grandparent-grandkid relationships can be a source of comfort, learning, and fun, even with those grandparents who had a challenging relationship with their own child many years ago. Many grandparents will relate to their grandchild in a different way than they related to their own child.

Of course, parents understandably limit or block access to a grandparent under certain circumstances. Maybe the grandparent is an addict, a sex offender, or otherwise creates an environment that is physically or emotionally unsafe for the grandchild. But sometimes, in an attempt to work through their unresolved childhood wounds, parents use their own children as pawns in a battle that has nothing to do with that child—and while the war is waged against the grandparent, the child becomes a casualty.

What’s happened here is that a conflict between two adults (your father and his mother) has been superimposed on a child (you). This sometimes happens between divorced parents, too, when a child is made to feel that having positive feelings toward the other parent is not okay, because of a battle going on between the adults: Can I hug Dad warmly in front of Mom? Do I have to edit out all references to Mom in front of Dad because he feels betrayed by her? You seem to be in a similar predicament now: Can I tell my dad that I want to spend time with the woman who hurt him but who has done nothing to me?

Your father may have very good reasons for choosing not to be in contact with his mother, but those reasons aren’t yours and never were. He doesn’t realize that instead of keeping you safe by separating you from your grandmother, he’s left you feeling unsafe because there’s no room for you to have a self that’s separate from his.

Now is the time for you to take ownership of yourself as a fully formed adult, and the first step is to recognize that, without intending to, your father has been asking his children to ease his childhood pain. I don’t know the nature of his conflict with his mother, but it sounds as if, at the very least, he felt she couldn’t acknowledge—or help soothe—that pain. By forbidding you from meeting her, he’s asking you to see what she couldn’t, which is how much pain she caused him—and in this way, he finally gets the validation he has needed. But nobody can heal this for him but himself. And without even realizing it, he is hurting his own child, unable to see her pain.

As infants, we form a healthy sense of self through a process called mirroring. Our emotions are mirrored back to us by our parents, and through this process of being seen and accepted for who we are, we learn to accept not just ourselves for who we are, but others for who they are. Many children who don’t get this kind of mirroring become adults who seek out mirroring from others. As a result, boundaries between themselves and those around them become blurred: You’re either with me or against me. They believe they are asking for loyalty, but loyalty has nothing to do with giving up one’s feelings, thoughts, or desires. There’s another word for that: manipulation.

That seems to be what is going on here, with your father asking you to fight his fight for him. But you’re an adult now, and you are free to leave this fight. You can tell your father that you have a lot of compassion for how hard his childhood must have been and how much pain his mother caused him—and that, also, you’d like to get to know your grandmother, especially given that she’s ill and you don’t know how much time there will be to do so, as well as visit other relatives he may feel hurt by. You can tell him that the latter doesn’t negate the former, that you can both love your father and want to form relationships with people who caused him pain. You can explain that in order for you to have a closer relationship with him, he’ll need to fight his own battles without conscripting you into his army. You can tell him that if you have children, you will do the same for them—letting them form their own relationship with their grandfather and draw their own conclusions about who he is.

When you do meet your grandmother, you may find her to be exactly as your father has described her, or you may see aspects of her that your father can’t. Whatever happens, at least you’ll base your relationship on your own lived experience, and not somebody else’s.


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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