My sister and I have always had a rather fraught relationship with my father. He failed to form bonds and took no interest in us, seeing us as a nuisance. I remember wondering why it was like this and why he didn’t love us. My mum always told us differently, until it became so clear that he was also horrible to her (coercive control through bullying, vicious comments on her look and her attitude), that she could no longer pretend he was just a bit stressed. He exhibited aggressive behaviour – verbally and through his actions. He stole from me, went through my things, violated my privacy, and repeatedly told my sister she was fat. I did not trust him and took no pleasure in being around him.
When I was 18, my parents’ marriage ended. When my mum finally got enough money together, we left.
My sister has suffered immensely with a lack of self-confidence, depression and anxiety, primarily, I believe, because of the cumulative effect of his behaviour. I am more stable, but my feelings towards him are of worry and distrust. I don’t feel anything for him. I see him roughly every six months when he is in the area and he has little to say, apart from things about himself.
My sister does not speak to him and he constantly bombards her with threatening emails, texts and surprise visits.
He says he is hurt by my sister’s lack of communication, and refuses to believe that he could possibly be wrong. He calls her mad, he thinks she is unreasonable, and has said that it would be better if she were dead, as he would be able to deal with this better.
I am getting married next year, and so debate has come around as to whether he will be invited. If I had the final say, I would not invite him. I don’t like him, but I accept, begrudgingly, that he is my father. I am also afraid that if I don’t invite him, he is likely to turn up unannounced and the day will be spoiled for me and my partner, who has supported me the whole way through this.
My sister and mum are accepting of whatever decision I make, and will support me. I am on the verge of inviting him, with a clear proviso that he is not allowed to accost my sister or my mum and air any grievances with them. I would rather he wasn’t there, but I feel somewhat coerced by those around me (not their fault) because of the potential repercussions if he isn’t there. I accept it could change things for the positive. If he sees my sister, he might leave her alone – maybe …
Although this is all coming to the fore because of the wedding, it is a situation that has dragged on for the past decade.
I think it may help you to see the relationship between you all as reins. The one you hold, leading from you to your dad, is entirely your own to hold and drop or pull at if you want; ditto that leading from you to your sister, and your mother. Reins leading anywhere else, to anyone else, are not your responsibility. What you are trying to do is hold everyone’s reins and they are pulling in different directions, and thus it is impossible to hold a steady path.
I consulted Andrew Balfour, who is a psychologist, a psychotherapist and CEO of the charity Tavistock Relationships. His first thought was how struck he was “by your feeling of being trapped by the situation. Whether to invite your father or not; damned if you do, damned if you don’t. Either way, it seems you feel he will be an uninvited guest in your mind whether he is actually there or not.”
Balfour also said something that may get to the heart of the matter: “It is striking that you have been moved to seek help at the point where you are to be married. Perhaps the anxiety is that the difficulties from the past may somehow intrude into the new life you are trying to make for yourself.” He thought that maybe you felt the past would not let you go and that this “may be a very powerful expression of the underlying anxiety about whether you can be free to make your own life, unencumbered by the past”.
Balfour felt a resolution might be to invite your mother and sister into the dialogue, to “find a way of sharing it with them, of recognising this sense of coercion and of thinking together about it. Together with them, you may be able to think about where the pressure is coming from, and it may then be possible to come to a shared decision where you are not shouldering the burden of responsibility alone.”
I think this is wise advice, a united way forward – if it works. But I do also think that it is your day and if you can’t be utterly selfish on your wedding day (I note that twice in your longer letter, you said that if it were up to you alone you would not invite him), then I’m not sure when you can be. You say you can’t keep him away, but I would look at the practicalities of this if you can. You owe your father nothing and you will not be able to control his behaviour so in the absence of a perfect solution (there isn’t one) go for the one with the least impact on you.
This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 30 June 2017.