When You Have A Complicated Relationship With Your Parent

by Melinda Fowler
Originally Published: 
A woman hugging her father with whom she has a complicated relationship
Scary Mommy and Kevin Kozicki/Getty

Yesterday I was folding laundry and listening to the ‘80s station on Pandora (truly, is there any other way to fold laundry?). As soon as “Against All Odds” by Phil Collins came on, I knew I was going to start crying. I always do. The song is about loss – the “empty space” someone leaves behind when they exit your life. And while it’s probably about losing a lover, to me, it will always be about my dad leaving.

“How can I just let you walk away

Just let you leave without a trace?

When I stand here taking every breath with you, ooh ooh

You’re the only one who really knew me at all.”

In the early ‘80s when this song was popular, I was six years old, my little brother was a baby, and my mother was a newly single mom. My father had left my mom when she was pregnant with my brother, and it felt like we spent our days driving around in my mom’s old beat-up Honda, listening to the radio, looking for my dad, and wondering when he was going to come home to us.

Of course, it was more complicated than that. He wasn’t lost; he was still in our lives, to some extent. We’d visit his apartment some weekends. Some nights he’d even stay over with us. But it was unclear whether things would ever be the same between my parents, and it always felt like we were at the mercy of my father’s whims, his likes and dislikes, his ability to keep a steady job, and where he might move to next.

We were always moving in those days, often because my dad didn’t like a particular town, or a job didn’t work out. My father was angry, volatile, indecisive. And my mother wanted nothing more than for the marriage to work out, and so she put up with it all, including a million different moves.


When I was eight, my dad came over to my mom’s house, took my brother and me in the car, and told us he was getting married to another woman. It felt totally out of the blue, and it was. He had only met her a few months before.

All the hope my mom and I had for our dad to come back to live with us one day for good was gone, just like that. Things were never the same. Never.

The woman he married was difficult, verbally and emotionally abusive at times, and my father didn’t do a great job defending us against her. When my mother wanted to move back home to be near my grandparents, my parents had to go to court to settle a custody issue. The court battle was brutal, and my parents were never able to communicate at all after that.

When I was a teen, I got into a major altercation with my dad and his wife. As a result, I began to develop a major panic disorder and stopped feeling able to visit my father. I tried in a few different ways to explain the hurt he and his wife had caused me, but all he did was defend his actions. He couldn’t listen to reason or to my feelings. And he cut off communication with me for a year.

Patterns like this have continued over the years. There have been more fights, more manipulative and abusive behavior from my stepmother, more justifications from my dad, etc. Just writing down all the hurt and pain that my father has caused me makes it hard to explain why I have kept him in my life at all.

At times, I have considered cutting him – and especially my stepmother – out of my life for good. Sometimes even texts, emails, and phone calls from them make my heart race out of my chest, and my stomach turn. It’s a relationship that is totally fraught, and riddled with hurt and pain.

I have worked on boundaries, like limiting visits and interactions, and making sure my needs are clear. I have expressed that certain behaviors are unacceptable. I have stood up for myself, and I am proud.

But I have also learned that some people just won’t change. They can’t. It doesn’t make sense for me to try to change them. And while I can express what my non-negotiable boundaries are, certain tenants of an old relationship dynamic just can’t be altered.

A few summers ago, after another big blow-out fight between me and my dad and stepmom, I was ready to tell them that I was done being in touch. I was starting to feel that I just couldn’t have this kind of thing in my life if I wanted to live a whole and healthy life.

But I just couldn’t take that final step.

When I was little, before he left, my dad was my rock. We had so much in common. We were both soft spoken, artistic, imaginative. My father was soothing, calm, and just … like me. “You’re the only one who really knew me at all” – that’s the lyric from the Phil Collins song that always gets under my skin.

As much as I have grown to see what a damaged person my father was and is – and as much as I see how so many of his actions over the years have hurt me – I know deep down, he loves me. And sometimes – when I see him interact with my kids, or when we’ll be talking on the phone and he’ll “get me” again the way so few people do – I see a glimmer of that dad I used to know.

Vlad Chețan/Pexels

And so I stay connected to him. It will always be complicated between us. When I see other grown women interacting with their dads, like everything is normal and fine, I always feel a twinge of jealousy. I wish I could talk about my dad all casual, without my voice cracking just by mentioning his name.

But I know I’m not the only one who has a broken relationship with a parent – who wishes dearly that things could be different, but who has had to make peace with the fact that it can’t and won’t. That things will never be what they once were, or what you hoped your relationship with your parent would look like or feel like – that there are things that are always going to be messed up, unfair, and emotionally triggering.

I don’t think there is one solution for how to deal with a complicated or even toxic parent relationship. We are all finding our ways. And what that looks like may change over the years. I think it’s mostly about being honest with yourself about how you feel, what you need, and how the relationship is impacting your life.

Most of all, if you are in a relationship like this, please know that what you are feeling is normal and okay. It’s okay to mourn the loss of what you hoped the relationship would be. It’s okay to feel love at the same time that you feel pain. It’s okay to not really have any clue how to make this work, how to stay, how to leave, how to let go, how to make peace.

We all find our way. It’s different for each of us. But please know that you’ve got this, and you aren’t alone.

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