Q: I haven’t seen my father in over 10 years. He is an alcoholic, and he left my mother and me when I was 9. For some reason that is beyond my comprehension, he has contacted my mother and would like to see me this Father’s Day. I have very bad memories of his rants, and I do not want to see him – ever! My mother says I am an adult, and she refuses to be an intermediary. She told me to write to you! Do I have to talk to him? What’s good ex-etiquette?
A: The philosophy of good ex-etiquette is “good behavior after divorce or separation,” and I suggest the 10 rules of good ex-etiquette as a guide for better communication to those who must deal with an ex after a breakup. They can be used by everyone – parents, extended family, even children, but in your case, there are some very serious issues that must be dealt with prior to a discussion about ex-etiquette. I call them red flags.
I’m reading between the lines here, but if you haven’t heard from your alcoholic father in 10 years – and, all of a sudden, he’s reaching out, that’s a red flag. I suspect he’s in recovery and working “the steps.” Step 8 in AA’s 12-step program suggests you make amends to those you have harmed – and not talking to your child for 10 years would definitely qualify. If it’s so, you are dealing with someone completely different from what you remember. Try to make your judgments accordingly.
That said, it also sounds as if Dad maybe looking for a special event to use as a catalyst to set a meeting with you. He chose Father’s Day because it’s coming up and might seem like the appropriate day – but there are so many emotion-filled memories attached to your relationship that Father’s Day, particularly this one, doesn’t fit. I like the idea of a goal, something to work toward, but I suggest you both seek the help of a counselor to guide you through your reconciliation (if there even is one). Without the help of an experienced counselor, it would be easy to get into an emotion-filled discussion that could make further communication impossible. It’s a good idea not to open old wounds unless there’s a plan for healing in place.
So what if Dad is not in recovery? What if he’s just reaching out because Father’s Day is coming up and what the heck? If that’s the case, to ensure your own safety and well-being, get clear about what behavior you will and won’t tolerate. If you don’t want to see or hear from him, say so. (Ex-Etiquette Rule No. 8: “Be honest and straightforward.”) Don’t be afraid to tell him no for now.
Finally, just because you haven’t seen your father for years doesn’t mean you aren’t dealing with the fallout from having an alcoholic parent. Whether or not you choose to talk to Dad, may I suggest you look into local Al-Anon meetings in your area for guidance and support.
Jann Blackstone, Ph.D., is the author of “Ex-Etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website, exetiquette.com, at firstname.lastname@example.org.