Talking With My Dad About Breaking the Bonds of Enmeshment With My Mom
When I was in my early twenties, I called my dad and asked him to have lunch with me. He hesitated one moment and replied, “Don’t you want your mom to come?“
“Well, Dad, no…this time I want it to be just you and me.“
“Okay. Sure. Where do you want to meet?“
Up to that point, when I’d call home, the conversations would always begin like this, ”Hey Pris!” he would gaily exclaim. “How are you? Let me get your mom.” I would hear him put the phone down, footsteps trailing off to go find my mother. “Betty, Margaret’s on the phone…”.
It’s not that he wasn’t interested. I’m sure that after the call he would ask my mother what we’d talked about — what tidbits I’d shared with her of what was going on in my life. Yet we didn’t talk much. One on one. But I was twenty-three years old and I wanted to get to know my father; I longed for a more direct connection with him rather, than through my mother.
We had that lunch together. It felt awkward. But it also felt like I was creating a new chapter in my life, and trying to begin changing a dynamic that I’d recognized as damaging. To me and to my mother. That dynamic was enmeshment — when there aren’t appropriate boundaries between two or more people in relationship (often a parent with a child) with one another. And my mother and I were very enmeshed. I knew way too much about her adult life as I’d served as her confidante in many ways. And she was way too involved in mine.
it had not been malicious on her part. But I needed to shift away from a strange and unhealthy loyalty to my mother that hinted that I was doing something wrong by having a relationship with my own dad — apart from her. The process took my father and I about twenty years to accomplish; slowly but surely, we got to know each other. Years later, my dad explained his distance from me during one conversation, “Your mother needed you more. So I stepped out of the way.”
Sometimes families are complicated.
Disappointing my dad…
Don’t get me wrong, my dad was there when I needed him. I knew I could rely upon him. Sadly, I gave him more than his fair share of opportunities to prove this to me, as it took me years to gain any true emotional maturity.
Here’s an example.
I’ll never forget sitting in the middle seat of a U-Haul, with my father driving. He was helping me move out of the first house I’d ever bought; I was getting divorced, leaving that husband and house behind. As we drove away, I was bouncing around in the front seat, chatting it up with the guy seated to my right who’d helped us move my stuff out. I was already involved with him romantically, and I was acting as if I didn’t have a care in the world.
I glanced over at Dad. There was a single tear rolling down his cheek. I had to look away.
That tear etched itself in my memory, causing me inner shame for years. One night, as we were forging our new, healthy dynamic, I apologized to my father for the immature, self-centered girl that I’d been on that day. Regretful tears slipped down my cheeks, he looked at me with a little surprise. And forgave me.
Why do I tell you all of this?
Because if my relationship with my father had not grown through the years…if I’d never told him I wanted to get to know him better, if he hadn’t shared a little more with me about himself… then maybe I’d never have told him I remembered what had happened in the U-Haul. I might never have asked for forgiveness. He’d never have known that I’d seen his disappointment — that I’d seen him.
It was a wonderful moment between us. Fortunately, there were many others before he died in 2007. It took years for that relationship to blossom, but it was worth the work and not settling for what it had been for so many years.
Fathers can be so important, from childhood and well into adulthood. You may not have a father like mine. You may have had an abusive, angry, or controlling father or stepfather. Or perhaps your father was not part of your life at all, due to tragedy or absence, in which case you have to mourn the void left where there should have been a loving, supportive parent to guide and nurture you.
What you need to know before you risk vulnerability…
Perhaps my story makes you wonder if you could have a conversation with your own father. Maybe you want forgiveness, or maybe you want an understanding of things that happened. Perhaps it might be time to have a conversation with him about difficult or complicated feelings that you’ve had for years. It can be very vulnerable to do this. So what do you first need to consider?
You have to decide if he’s capable of having that conversation without becoming defensive, irrational, angry or blaming. And of course, you need to be able to do the same.
If not, it’s not a good idea to try. You’ll get hurt all over again. But it can help in a way to realize and accept that he isn’t withholding something from you that he’s capable of giving. He simply doesn’t have it to give.
My father did have that to give, and more. He gave me the gift of understanding and forgiveness. It’s a gift that I’ll never take for granted.
And one I wish for you.
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Originally published on June 13, 2015; republished on April 15, 2023.
Photo by edwin josé vega ramos from Pexels.