On my Facebook newsfeed recently, I saw a quote that went something like this: “You can’t destroy someone else and decide how hurt they get to be.” Like most things on Facebook, it’s a little overdramatic and it’s an overgeneralization. But the idea behind it is something that everyone should know — you can’t hurt someone else and then dictate how hurt they should be or how long it should take to get over that hurt. To me, this quote also means that no matter how many things you do to try to make up for it, it is up to the victim to decide when to forgive you and whether the offense is forgivable. Over the past week or so, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. In general, I like to think I’m a forgiving person, especially when it comes to family. As long as I see any possibility for improvement of our relationship in the future and that person is putting in as much effort as I am, I am willing to forgive past transgressions. But when the offenses are so great and the hurt so deep, and the person shows no sign of changing, what then?
This question is made more difficult by the fact that he and I come from such different cultural backgrounds. Which is right? If I asked a Chinese relative about this, they would tell me that I’m being ridiculous. He doesn’t beat you, he doesn’t show preferential treatment to his sons over his daughters, he visits you when he can, he brings you gifts, he paid for your education. What more can you ask for? Of course he left you when he and your mom got divorced. What could he have done, taken you with him? A child needs her mother. Of course he moved away to Florida and then to China in search of better career opportunities — that’s what a man does. Can you imagine your life if he hadn’t done that? Could you have attended the universities you did? Have you thought about how much better your life is because you don’t have student debt? Plus, many fathers who divorce and remarry don’t even stay in contact with their children from previous marriages. He went above and beyond. Now you owe him your gratitude and hospitality as long as he lives.
On the other hand, if you asked a random American off the street, they would probably disagree with my Chinese relative. You would be perfectly justified in never speaking to him again simply because he cheated on your mom and left you with her, they would say. Even if you were to forgive him for that, what about the fact that he married someone you despised and didn’t invite you to his wedding? What about the fact that while you lived in Ann Arbor, he visited you twice in your entire childhood? What about the fact that he didn’t come to your high school graduation? What about the fact that he openly dated his girlfriend (while he still had a wife) for more than five years before he admitted that she was his girlfriend and he has yet to formally introduce her to you? What about all the times he has lied to you? What about the fact that you’re doing him a huge favor raising the child he neglected and he questions whether it was the right choice because now that child is resentful of him? What about the fact that he comes into your home, leaves the toilet seat up wherever he goes, and complains that there are dishes in the sink and not enough food in the fridge? What about the fact that when you went to visit him as a child, there were cobwebs in the bathtub and the toilet was clogged and the house hadn’t been cleaned in a decade? What about the fact that when your high school boyfriend went to visit his house, you were the one who had to vacuum dead lizards and cockroaches out of the guest bedroom?
What about the fact that he congratulated you on your engagement and then turned around and said that he didn’t think your marriage would last? What about the fact that, two days before your wedding, he said he thought you were too unstable to be married? What about the fact that his excuse for not knowing anything about you is that he never lived in the same house as you? What about when he was getting a divorce and he made you tell your siblings about it? What about when he was hacking his then-wife’s computer and he made you create a spreadsheet of her properties? What about when he was too tired from staying up all night talking to the private investigator he hired to stalk his then-wife so he threw the car keys at you and told you to re-park his car? What about the fact that all he’s ever said about your blog is that he wishes you wouldn’t air the family’s dirty laundry? What about the fact that every time you try to tell him about your work he says that artificial intelligence will replace your job in a few years? What about the fact that he cannot remember anything you tell him because he is never listening to you? What about the fact that he never smiles or responds to anything you say to him? What about the fact that he can barely offer a grunt when you talk to him about the things most important to you but he will turn around and laugh and joke with a business partner?
To my father, I would say: it’s not the things you have done, it’s the things you have not done. It’s not my fault that Billy Bob doesn’t want to talk to you anymore and hides in the next room to avoid sitting next to you. I never told her how to feel about you, and I almost never talk about how I feel about you. The only time I spoke negatively of you is when she asked me why I thought she needed therapy. And I was honest. Because she was neglected for years. I have simply encouraged her to work through her feelings about you in the safety of a therapist’s office. She has run away from those feelings for years. When I let you stay in my house, it is for her benefit. I invited you to her choir concert, to her golf lesson, to her therapy session, even though she did not want you there. Why would I do those things if I wanted to sabotage your relationship with her? Her anger and disgust towards you is hers alone. If I were her, I would hate you, but she is her own person and she forms her own opinions. Maybe you should think more about why she acts the way she does towards you instead of blaming that on me. She talks to us all day and all night but she doesn’t have more than two words for you. Trust me, I don’t have anything to do with that. As for me, I refuse to be another minion in your life that you take advantage of. Your ego is the size of a planet and until you stop blaming others for all your problems, you will never repair your relationships. I’ve been your therapist and life coach and nanny since I was ten. I quit.