Hi Eddie, my name is Carlie and I’m 26. Anyhow, my dad and I get in a fight almost every time I go home. I know I probably play some part in this, but it feels like he is intentionally picking out things in my life to criticize and then it just turns into a yelling match. It really upsets me and my mom. I try to make up with him after, but he never really apologizes. Since this keeps happening, I’m getting bitter toward him and finding it harder and harder to forgive him. How can I learn to forgive him and keep the relationship even if he won’t apologize?
Carlie, my dear friend, I’m so sorry your dad yells at you. That is not OK, and it shouldn’t happen. Because even if you’re a terribly difficult person to be around, and even if you provoked him, and EVEN if you yelled and screamed at him, dads shouldn’t yell at their kids. This makes me sad, Carlie. You shouldn’t be treated this way. So, let’s think through this together.
First, a few disclaimers:
1. You being 26 means the advice will be quite different from someone who is, say, 16. As an adult, I’m going to give you a more active role than a child, who should just be protected.
2. Good parents mess up sometimes and give vent to their anger. It doesn’t make it OK, but it also doesn’t make them villains. However, seeing as he refuses to apologize, your dad doesn’t sound like a guy who’s messing up, but rather a man who’s got some real issues. Therefore, this advice will assume that the issue is more systemic, rather than an unfortunate parenting misstep.
3. I didn’t get enough info about your mom to know if she’s trying to help out, or if she’s just cowering in the corner. My hope is that she’s helping and doing more than conferring with you after you take the abuse. But because I’m not sure about her, I’d be making some pretty sweeping guesses which, if I’m wrong, isn’t helpful for you or honoring to her. So, she’s going to be left out of this article.
Having appropriately disclaimed, let’s break down your question:
“It feels like he is intentionally picking out things in my life to criticize and then it just turns into a yelling match.”
There’s something to be learned here, Carlie. And even though you already know this article is going to land with me saying what I said in the beginning (he shouldn’t yell at you, ever), there’s still something to glean from what’s happening.
You’ve pointed out a classic cycle of miscommunication between you and padre. Here’s the scenario: You go home for dinner and he says something, I don’t know what it is, but that something makes you feel negative (sad, hurt, embarrassed, offended, I don’t know—but it’s not good) and in turn, you reply with something else (which makes dad feel negative)—and now the oven is getting pre-heated. So, your little something else makes him mad, and now he’s out to get you, which he does. And what was once a little quip or comment explodes, which is when the yelling starts, and any hope of any actual communication, progress or civility is tossed out the window. You’re both burning hot and out to hurt.
The problem with this cycle is that nobody gets heard. Whatever his little something was at the beginning is now lost, and nothing changes. You leave and then you come home again, and it all repeats itself. What’s sad about this, outside of the obvious arguing, is that you probably both have something valid to share. His comments may hurt you, and they may be wrapped in unkindness, but he may actually have some wisdom – but who would know that? It’s cloaked in anger. Which leads me to your next thought …
“…I try to make up with him after, but he never really apologizes.”
This part destroyed me. Carlie, your dad’s anger is one thing (and it’s a big thing), but to not apologize is indicative of a problem that’s akin to cancer coursing through his body. That is, a person who doesn’t apologize doesn’t know grace—and that’s terminal.
His inability to apologize either means that he feels no remorse, feels remorse and can’t express it, or feels remorse and chooses not to express it. Either way, he is locked into a place that makes it impossible for him to love well. And what’s worse? To apologize is to forgive, and to forgive is to realize you have been forgiven. I want him to know that whatever he’s locked in, whatever he’s done, and whatever motivation cause him to lash out and hurt his girl can be forgiven. Until he knows that, the cycle continues—despite your best efforts.
Which leads us to your last thought …
“…Since this keeps happening, I’m getting bitter toward him and finding it harder and harder to forgive him. How can I learn to forgive him and keep the relationship even if he won’t apologize?”
Carlie, of course you’re getting bitter, how could you not? A dad—a protector—and in many ways the very earliest image of God that a child can conjure, isn’t supposed to yell and hurt and show no remorse. That’s a form of abuse. And no measure of relational progress can happen when the perpetrator of violence refuses to change. Which means you have a difficult choice ahead of you.
Do you try and break the cycle of miscommunication? You can. If he says something when you go home, you can turn the other cheek and not reply. This would stop the bleeding and prevent the fighting. However, it strips you of a voice, which ends the abuse but puts a nail in the coffin of any hope for a real relationship.
But what else can you do?
You can’t change him—he has to decide to go to go down the road of healing, and you can’t make him better. Again, Carlie, listen to this, you can’t make your dad better. All you can do is pray for him and hope to God that somehow he’s brought to his knees by his inner turmoil.
Until that time, you have to be the woman God has designed you to be. Which means you must remove yourself from the cycle by going home less (if at all), and then using the space away to mourn the loss of the dad you should have had.
We don’t all get the best dads, but we have a loving and gracious Father who cares, protects you and intervenes on our behalf. Allow Him to do that—and take of yourself.
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Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.