Do I Have to Forgive My Dad for Leaving?

Dear GoodTherapy.org,

My dad abandoned our family when I was in elementary school. A week after my birthday, actually. At 8 years old, I was man of the house.

My mom was already bringing home all the cash, since my dad never worked. Money-wise, our family’s situation didn’t change. But when my dad left, there was no more babysitter. I had to step up and be the parent for my own brothers, microwaving their dinners, teaching them to tie their shoes, and so on. This was back when kids could still play outside without the neighbors calling child services.

At the time, I figured my dad had rejected us. I got a whole inferiority complex about it in my teens. I looked for role models in all the wrong places. Therapy helped me get my act together, but it didn’t make the hurt go away.

Later, my mom told me my dad was an alcoholic. He didn’t abandon us for another family. He was just getting drunk in a bar somewhere. Instead of hating myself, I started hating him. I mean, it was bad enough to choose another kid over me, but to leave me for booze? It didn’t make sense.

I’ve worked hard to move on. I have my own children now, and I raise them as best I can. But a month ago, guess what happened? The prodigal father returned. He said he’s gotten sober and he wants to be a father again. He wants to meet his grandchildren.

My little brothers forgave him instantly. They were toddlers when he left, so his absence didn’t hurt them as much. They pity my dad for having an addiction. Now they’re pressuring me to invite him to my daughter’s baptism.

I told my brothers that I refuse to let that man back into my life. If they want to spend time with him, that is their business. But I spent my whole life learning to get along without my dad. I see no reason to restart a relationship that only brought me pain.

Do I have to forgive my dad? I feel like I’m chained to this person who almost ruined my life. Am I a bad person if I want to leave my deadbeat dad in the past? —The Abandoned Son

Submit Your Own Question to a Therapist

Dear Abandoned,

You are the only one who can decide what relationship, if any, you want to have with your dad. If you choose not to engage with him, that does not make you a bad person. Simply being related by blood does not require us to sustain a relationship, particularly if that relationship feels hurtful or harmful.

I would encourage you, however, to work on forgiveness. Not for your dad’s sake, or so you can build a relationship with him, but for your sake. Holding on to pain, anger, and resentment winds up being toxic. It casts a shadow over our lives and our relationships in sometimes significant ways.

Holding on to pain, anger, and resentment winds up being toxic. It casts a shadow over our lives and our relationships in sometimes significant ways.

Your father was not able to be there for you when you were growing up. That was painful and confusing. His limitations prevented him from being the dad you wanted or needed. Nothing he does now will change that. You can, however, change your understanding of your experience if you choose to. Your dad’s addiction prevented him from showing up for his family. It must have been a powerful force for him to miss out on so much.

It might help you to find other grown children of people with alcoholism to share your feelings and experiences with. They may be able to share their stories and their struggles in ways that help you clarify your own. There are usually groups and meetings you can attend to meet others who might have similar stories to tell. I also encourage you to reconnect with a therapist to work through how you want to handle the family pressure you are feeling to invite someone who hurt you back into your life.

It is possible to have compassion for your father and to recognize his struggles and limitations without choosing to allow him into your life. Whatever you decide, leading with anger or resentment may cause you more pain and regret. If you are able to release yourself from that hurt, you may be more likely to find peace with your choices.

Best of luck,

Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC

Erika Myers
Erika Myers, MS, MEd, LPC, NCC is a licensed psychotherapist and former educator specializing in working with families in transition (often due to separation or divorce) as well as individuals seeking support with relationship issues, parenting, depression, anxiety, grief/loss/bereavement, and managing major life changes. Although her theoretical orientation is eclectic, she most frequently uses a person-centered, strengths-based approach and cognitive behavioral therapy in her practice.

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