My parents divorced more than a decade ago after nearly 30 years of marriage. My dad has always been verbally abusive and an alcoholic, and he was awful to me and my siblings when we were growing up—he would occasionally not remember to pick us up from school, and would choose to do other activities over being present at our various events.
After the divorce, he used money to control everyone in his life, evading paying my mom any alimony or child support. This caused a lot of financial stress for her, a stay-at-home mom who raised me and my siblings. She did not have money to pursue bringing him back to court. I’m very resentful and do not like him as a person.
He is now getting old, and over the past few years, he has lost some close family and friends. Because of this, he has started calling and texting me and my sisters so often that I decided to block him. I have told him, “Dad, stop—I have a full-time job and pets and a husband and a house and my own hobbies and interests, and I don’t want to talk to you.”
Last week, he showed up to my job unannounced and my co-worker told him I was not there. Three weeks earlier, he drove to my condo and knocked on the door uninvited. We recently moved and I did not give him my new address in order to avoid this exact scenario, and now he is badgering me for my new address and doesn’t understand that I do not want to give it to him.
My husband and I want to start a family in the next few years, and I’m worried things will get worse if I don’t address this now in some way. Please help.
Dealing with a difficult parent like your father can be both frustrating and overwhelming, so I understand why limit-setting has been a challenge. You’re right that if you don’t address this now, it will create more problems later. But in order to set boundaries effectively, first you’ll need to get clarity on the kind of relationship you want with your dad.
You don’t say what kind of contact you had with your father in your adult life prior to the losses he experienced in the past few years, but reflecting on this is important. If you did talk, did you have to call him most of the time, leaving you to feel his absence like you did as a child? Did he call you, but without being intrusive, as he’s doing now? Did you enjoy aspects of your conversations with him, or merely tolerate them? I’m asking because though you say that you don’t like your father “as a person,” it’s not clear to me (as it might not be to him) whether you want limited contact with him, or no contact at all. My guess is that you don’t know the answer to this question yet either.
That’s because in many families, when there’s been abuse, the abuse is never spoken about, even when the child becomes an adult and the relationship continues. Instead, there’s a trove of unspoken feelings that are acted out in a kind of dance between the participants. Perhaps for you this materializes in a dynamic along these lines: You feel you can’t talk with your father about the pain of his verbal abuse, drinking, and absence, and you try to manage those feelings by creating distance not only to protect yourself, but perhaps also to communicate how much he hurt you. Meanwhile, if he doesn’t fully understand how he has hurt you, he might not understand why you’re blocking him, and in his desperation to have a relationship with you, he’s reaching out the only way he can—by showing up in person, as inappropriate as this is. Remember too that your perception of your childhood might be different from his because people don’t always realize how their behavior affects others. He may believe that he was an imperfect but loving father who provided for you. And even if he is aware of the ways he failed you, he might feel guilty for, say, not being a present father, and instead of expressing that to you directly, he’s trying to be present now, albeit in a way that is tremendously inconsiderate of your needs.
You won’t know what you want and what he’s capable of until you have an honest reckoning with each other, and now would be the time to do this. Instead of skirting around the issues by saying you’re too busy to talk to him, you might say “Dad, I’ve asked you not to call or come by partly because the way you’re doing it feels excessive and intrusive, and partly because there’s a lot unspoken between us that we would need to talk about before I know what kind of relationship feels comfortable for me. Would you be willing to see a therapist with me so we can find a way to have a better relationship than we’ve had in the past?”
His response—and how he handles the therapy, if he chooses to go—will help inform how much of a relationship you decide to have with him and what limits to set. Things to look for: Does he acknowledge and take responsibility for how his behavior has affected you? Does he try to make repairs? Does he make room for your perceptions of events, even if they differ from his? Is he willing to look at his drinking and talk to you with kindness? In therapy, many patients ask me how they can have a relationship with their abusive parents, and I say, “Well, first they have to stop being abusive.”
Once you determine what kind of relationship is possible, you can set boundaries accordingly. Setting boundaries with a parent can feel daunting, especially if your boundaries haven’t been respected in the past. But keep in mind that boundary-setting has two parts. The first is simply stating the limit: Dad, unless there’s a dire medical emergency, can you please just call once, and I will call you back when I have time to talk? This will help us get closer because I’ll feel better about our relationship. The second part is maintaining the limit. If your dad calls you more than once before you’ve had a reasonable amount of time to respond (a couple of days, not a month), you might say: Dad, I asked you not to call me more than once before I have a chance to respond. If you do that again, I’m going to block your calls, because it makes me feel like you don’t care about what’s important to me.
Remember that your boundary is an agreement you make with yourself about what you will or will not tolerate. That’s why the consistency of your response is key. In other words, if sometimes you let it slide when your father calls incessantly, you’re not only sending him the message that it’s okay to treat you this way, but you’re doing what your father has done to you—not honoring your needs. How he responds to your boundaries will also help you make other decisions, such as when (or whether) to share your address, what staying in contact looks like (and whether that’s possible), and how you will (or will not) allow yourself to be spoken to.
You have an opportunity at this difficult juncture to create a new relationship with your father—one in which you have spoken your truth, communicated it with grace and kindness, and made healthy choices about your own well-being. If he declines to go to therapy with you, this new relationship will likely entail setting tighter limits and maintaining them with absolute consistency. If he’s open to working on what needs healing, you might come to see him through a more nuanced lens and find aspects of your relationship with him that you enjoy. Either way, getting clarity on your relationship and maintaining healthy limits will not only help you grow as a person but prepare you to be the kind of parent to your future children that your father was not able to be for 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.