Assuming your dad was more distant than cruel, more clueless than horrible, should you try to pursue a better relationship? That's a definite maybe, according to life coaches and mental health experts. According to The Mighty, for example, anyone wondering if their dad is too toxic for a reconciliation should first ask themselves: "If you were to meet your parents as strangers at a party, how long would it take before you excused yourself to do anything else rather than talk to them for one more minute?"
If more time together seems like it would be tolerable, maybe you can patch things up with Pop this Father's Day. Send a simple text, perhaps, spend a little time together on the phone or ask Dad out for coffee. Maybe the big talks won't happen now, but this could be a first step.
Manage your expectations
You may have to give yourself permission to revisit how dad let you down as a child and how it shaped your adulthood. It's healthy to keep in mind that in some cases he may not have known any better, advised life and wellness coach Elizabetta Franzoso. "There is no manual for becoming a father. Becoming a father is something we learn by integrating what we learn fatherhood to mean, in the way that it was acted out by our own fathers." If granddad was also not the warm, fuzzy, attaboy sort, is it any wonder that dad isn't?
Professional dating coach Scot McKay also encouraged adults to reach out to their fathers instead of waiting. "It's easy to go those same months or years (or decades) simply being 'cordial' with one's father, being careful never to talk about anything deep lest old wounds be opened," he said on his EDUMCKAYTION blog. "But this matters because you have the chance to be a healer in your family, and therefore establish yourself as a leader."
Jorja Leap’s “Project Fatherhood” is a culmination of four years of conversations and weekly meetings with the fathers of Jordan Downs that reflect the authentic experiences of these men as they navigate parenthood. (Photo courtesy Beacon Press/TNS)
McKay doesn't sugarcoat the odds of immediate success, though. "It's altogether possible that he may have been going along his merry way all this time somewhat, if not completely, oblivious to your true thoughts and feelings toward him," he said. "As much as it may take your breath away to imagine it, your father may very well have thought he was demonstrating a solid, valid example of manhood for you all these years – even though the actual effect was disastrous."
So how do you break through? McKay recommended telling Dad you love him. "Admit you made mistakes of your own – including letting this conversation wait too long – and apologize. Say what's on your mind confidently, without wavering. This is especially important to you guys who are reading this, because you're seeking to represent the strong, masculine side of showing love, owning up to mistakes and seeking to make them right."
And if you fail? "You can at least rest a bit easier knowing you stepped up and did your part," McKay said.
Breaking the uninvolved dad cycle
Are you yourself a distant dad? According to psychotherapist Robert Rannigan at the Good Men Project, that's a topic worth exploring no matter what you decide about your own father.
Know this: the stakes are high. "Behavior problems, delinquency, depression, substance abuse and overall psychological adjustment are all more closely linked to dad's rejection than mom's," researcher Ronald Rohner, the director of the Center for the Study of Interpersonal Acceptance and Rejection at the University of Connecticut told LiveScience. "Knowing that kids feel loved by their father is a better predictor of young adults' sense of well-being, of happiness, of life satisfaction than knowing about the extent to which they feel loved by their mothers."
To break the cycle, you need some insight into how a distanced son becomes a distant father. "Keeping distance from danger is a universal self-protective response. Fathers who hold themselves away from their children often experience their own children as dangerous emotionally," Rannigan noted. "Men who stay away from their children don't understand or believe in themselves enough. They haven't had sufficient exposure to healthy fathering."
To stop the cycle right now, make a decision. "The man living his experience as 'I wasn't good enough for dad to choose me' must either wake himself from the nightmare with healing self-love or continue to dream walk around his love-hungry children," Rannigan advised. "Deeply wounded men – isolated from father love, distanced from father-child intimacy – are part of social confusion which can be healed by men courageous enough to look at their own fear and sadness with love."