But a lot of us don't. For many of us, the most fundamental relationships, those with our parents, are broken. And that's wrong. We can feel it in the very fibre of our being. A mom is supposed to love her kids. A dad is supposed to be there and protect them. And maybe your parents didn't.
I spoke at retreats that last two weekends, and one of the stories I tell is of learning how to forgive the dad who left me when I was two, to only have a very sporadic relationship with me afterwards. For most of my teenage years I was really bothered by this, but I'm not in the least anymore, because God has worked a real healing in me.
Some of that you could call forgiveness. In this recent post we got into a bit of a debate as to what forgiveness really is; can you have forgiveness if the other person hasn't repented? I think you can, but I think it depends on the definition, and so that's what I want to talk about here. And maybe a better word than forgiveness is "freedom". When we talk about forgiveness we get all caught up in what we're forgiving and in what spiritually that means, but freedom we tend to understand. Jesus came to set us free, and He wants us to live in freedom. So how do you find freedom if you're haunted by bad relationships?
After sharing at one of these retreats, a university-aged girl came up to me to talk about her dad. Her story was similar to mine, she said, and what she just wants, more than anything, is for her dad to acknowledge that he messed up and hurt her. Yet he never seems to do that. Instead, he's active in his church and preaches about how to be a good father (he has a second family now). And all the while he's never really reconciled with his daughter.
Can she find freedom?
I think she can, and I think it comes in this form: giving up your expectations that he will one day realize that he was a jerk. Giving up on the idea that one day he will actually apologize.
Should he apologize? Absolutely. But the fact is that most parents who messed up never see that they did, indeed, mess up. They've built this whole fantasy inside their heads about how they did the best they could, and everything that went wrong is someone else's fault. I have a friend who was abused by her mother, and her mother still won't admit it. It was always because someone else was cruel to her. And her kids never understood her.
People can be so cruel to their kids, and sometimes we feel like the hurt would be made better if they could just acknowledge that hurt. If they just saw it, it would be like they were validating us as people, and confirming that our feelings matter. Our view of the world is indeed correct; they did mess up, we were hurt, and we are not wrong for thinking so. It's validating our personhood.
Is it the right thing to do? Yep. Is it going to happen? Most likely not, short of a miracle of God. People have this whole self-preservation system that often prevents them from seeing their own guilt. We can justify anything. And it's quite likely they will continue to justify it, all the way to their graves.
So what do you do? I told this girl she had to let go of the dream that one day he would apologize. It's not a question of whether or not he should; the problem is that as long as that dream is alive, then whenever she sees him she hopes that today will be the day. Her stomach is in knots. She gets a headache. She wants it so badly. And when it doesn't happen she gets angry all over again, as though he has hurt her all over again.
If she were to let it go, though, and just realize that he is a very imperfect person, and that he was not the father he should have been and that he never will be, then she can renegotiate a new relationship with him. Maybe she can get to the point where, as an adult, they can enjoy the occasional dinner together, or talk on the phone sometimes, and that's as far as it goes. Her emotional energy won't be drained by these small encounters; they can just be part of her life, and that's fine.
That's where I'm at now in my relationship with my dad. I'm not mad. I'm not angry. And we chat occasionally, and that's fine. And I got to that place because I let go; I said, "God, I want you to be my Father, not him, because you are the only person who can ever love me perfectly." And I looked to God for my affirmation.
Some may call that forgiveness; I don't want to put a label on it because then we get into the whole debate about repentance and reconciliation. The point, to me, is that by freeing him from the expectation that he will one day apologize, I freed myself from all the tension around our relationship.
Does that mean we have a close relationship? Nope. For that to happen, he would have to acknowledge what he did, because real intimacy isn't possible if it's based on lies. But we can find a type of relating that works for us, even if it's not what it should be.
And I don't have stomach pains anymore. I don't cry anymore. I don't really care anymore. God has given me so much more today, and I don't need my dad. Occasionally I grieve for the little girl I was who deserved more, but not very often. I am the person I am today because of the things that happened to me, and I'm quite happy with who God has made me to be. So I just accept my dad as part of my story, and decide that God will be the one who will fill the holes that my father left.
It is hard to release people of expectations, but when you do that, you really free yourself. You realize that you will never get the emotional affirmation that you need from them, and so you turn to God instead. And then you end the tension that surrounds that relationship.
Have you ever experienced this? Or are you still trying to let go of expectations? Tell me about it!
About Me: I'm a Christian author of a bunch of books, and a frequent speaker to women's groups and marriage conferences. Best of all, I love homeschooling my daughters, Rebecca and Katie. And I love to knit. Preferably simultaneously.