Sunday, June 16, 2013

Are You a Lonely Dad on Father's Day?

I am posting this on Father's Day of 2013, and in recognition and appreciation for the role that fathers play in the care and development of their children (of all ages).  All over the USA today, we celebrate fathers.  Special visits will be paid, handmade little gifts will be given, special meals will be served, and phone calls will be made to thank, shower affection upon, and generally to show appreciation of our fathers.

A well deserved thanks, indeed!  I am very thankful to my own father, to the father of my children, and to fathers in general.  It makes me wish that everyone could have such good fathers and men in their lives.  But what about those for whom this day seems a bit ... strained?  What about those who do not have a perfect relationship with their children?  What about those men who are divorced, for whom visitation is denied?  What about other men who perhaps have not "been there" for their little ones, but now they are wondering if and how the relationship can ever be repaired?  If you fall in that category, this blog post is for you.  The lonely Dad struggling with brokenness and pain in your relationship with your child or children.

Perhaps you are trying to figure out what went wrong and wondering how to make things better?  If you are estranged from your children and would like a closer relationship with them, I don't have all the answers, but I do have some suggestions about where to start in the search for answers.  My suggestions do not emanate from training as a counselor.  I am not a counselor.  Rather, my suggestions stem from training in principles of conflict transformation, reconciliation, and my application of these principles as a mediator for families who seek better ways of managing and overcoming conflict.  In my work, I see a lot of pain and brokenness.  I can't fix brokenness in relationships, but I try to help by giving people tools that help make things better.  Conflict transformation is one of those tools.

(Note, this post is only for men who may have slipped up on the job so to speak and are trying to set things aright, not for those who have committed criminal acts such as child abuse or incest.  That category of harm requires professional intervention and is far beyond the scope of what this blog post can address.)


For many, the unwavering love of a father for a child is exemplified in the story of the Prodigal Son, a story Jesus told in Luke 15:11-32.  A son is disrespectful of and leaves his father, squanders his inheritance, and lives a life that would bring his family name into shame.  But then, he runs out of options.  In desperation, he realizes that servants in his father's household live better than he is experiencing, and he decides to go beg his father to hire him on as a servant.  But when the old man sees the son, he is overcome with such joy that he welcomes him back as a lost son.  He sets a feast before him and pours out his love for the child.  The stained glass window below illustrates the love between the father and son in this story:

Evangelische St.-Georgs-Kirche auf dem Kirchplatz in Hattingen,
photo by Frank Vincentz and courtesy Wikimedia Commons

In the story of the Prodigal Son, imagine the father pining for his son, and the son yearning for his parental household.  Who doesn't desire a wholesome and right family life?  This is a healthy yearning.  This blog post is for those of you who experience on this day a sharp contrast between what is, and what you wish it would be.  My goal is for a happy ending, even if the journey is challenging.


The first thing I want to say is, just because things may be bad now, don't give up!  Your relationship with your child is a lifetime endeavor.  And, fortunately, every day is a chance for a new beginning. How can you get a new beginning?  Well, you can't go backwards in time.  If your relationship is broken, you cannot erase what has gone on before.  Sometimes there are lasting consequences to the decisions we make in life.  However, there is opportunity to change, as well. You have to start from here, and make today a new beginning.  Who knows how long the prodigal son was absent from his father's home.  But the father didn't give up.

 Does this mean we gloss over and "kiss and make up" and pretend that nothing has ever gone awry?  No.  True restoration of relationship is a much harder and demanding path than glossing over something and pretending nothing has ever gone awry.


No matter what the circumstances -- large or small -- the principles of conflict transformation are the same.  (And these are also the same steps followed by 12 step programs, for instance steps 4 - 9 of AA, HERE.)    If we have wronged someone, the first step toward reconciliation is to acknowledge our own part in the "wrong."  Then, one must make confession to the other person and ask forgiveness.

True restoration of relationship first requires from us accountability, which includes a deliberate acknowledgement and to turn away from what is wrong.  And then, from that point forward, we must be committed to doing what is right and then to take the steps needed to seek reconciliation and come back into relationship.  But we cannot fix what is broken, unles we identify what was broken to start with.


What can we do differently going forward, if we don't know or recognize what we did wrong in the first place?  Before we can even get to the point of turning and changing, we must be truthful about whatever it is that we may have done wrong, ourselves.  And then, we must be committed to change and to set things aright.  There is a lot that stands in the way, like weeds in a field that needs to be cleared.  One of the things that can stand in the way is our own willingness to be honest about our own role in creating the situation.

In our society, I observe a lot of men who profess to be victims of something that was outside their control.  It was the court's fault, or the law is biased against men, or their ex-wife's deliberately turned their children against them, or they were forced into the choices that led them far away from their children.  Blaming others has never been so easy as in this age of broken family relationships, divorce, anger, and (frankly) sinful lives.  And yes, you may be a victim.  For now, however, let's set aside the victim part, and focus only on what positive things you, yourself, can do.  Because you can't control other people, only yourself.

If you want to get past this sad and lonely and perhaps angry place, you must be willing to ask yourself, and be honest about what role you may have played in this story as well.  Only after the field is cleared of weeds will you be able to see clearly what the circumstances are and then to do whatever you can to correct it and make amends.

One reason we must do this challenging self-assessment to acknowledge our own shortcomings is that we cannot do better in the future unless we honestly acknowledge what we have done wrong in the past.  So, the first step in "moving beyond" to a new start at your relationship is to make a truly honest assessment, from the inside out, that nobody else but you will see, about what may have happened to contribute to the rift between you and your child.

There are some common obstacles to honest self-assessment.  These include blaming others or otherwise failing to accept responsibility, focusing on ourselves or failing to acknowledge the need of the other that has been neglected, focusing on what the outside world perceives rather than what is really happening deep inside the relationship, and (bottom line) failing to go beyond ourselves to look at this issue from the perception of the other person and their needs.  

One of the first temptations is not to accept responsibility, but rather to point blame elsewhere.  Engaging in a "pity party" may make me feel better.  It may make me feel more justified.  It may provide all kinds of explanations to the world.  But it won't make things right with my family.  Making excuses won't bring peace.  And it won't heal a relationship.  So, let's get out of the mud hole of feeling sorry for ourselves and on to drying off and seeing what is in your control that can be done to move past this place.  Are you ready to engage in some introspection about what part you, yourself, may have played in the circumstances that led to estrangement from your children?

This very challenging question, "what part have I played in the circumstances which led to my estrangement from my children,"  is not a question to and from the outside world.  It doesn't matter what the stranger sees or knows, or what can be proved, or how trivial the offense may have seemed to you now or at the time.  All that matters is how it affected your relationship with your child. I'm talking about deep matters of the heart, of the mind, of the body, and of the spirit.  I'm talking about private matters that perhaps only you know.  The only person I'm asking you to be honest with, is yourself.

Another temptation is to trivialize the "wrong."  The "wrong"  may be something completely "immaterial" as far as the outside world is concerned.  Several years ago, a husband in my mediation practice was puzzled about why his wife was leaving him.  In a private conversation, she said to me, "Let's just put it this way.  The other day he asked me to join him to go see an art exhibit. But then, he made me pay for my own admission to the exhibit."  Perhaps who paid $10 for the admission seemed trivial to the husband.  But it didn't seem trivial to the wife. It indicated to her that he was more concerned about money than he was about her needs.  His actions, in something he did to try and reach out and rebuild their relationship, had made her feel even more unloved.  I use this illustration to show that what one person considers trivial, the other person may ascribe great meaning to.  Physical and seemingly immaterial  issues can be even more pronounced in the case of a child, because the child is completely dependent upon their parents to meet their every need.

Another temptation is to look only at big and public things, rather than things only you know.  Everything must be looked at, even things that are most private.  In a family law case one time, I was speaking with a son who had been abusive toward his father.  When I named to the son some of the actions he had engaged in which were abusive, the son said to me, "you can't prove any of that."  In a court of law, maybe not.  None of it was provable.  But the father and the son both knew what the truth was.  In a court of the heart, in the matter of rebuilding a relationship, no amount of glossing over could erase the truth.  In order to heal that relationship, if ever it could be healed, the son would have had to acknowledge what he had done, turn from evil and commit to follow a different path, and beg his father's forgiveness.

Another temptation is to fail to look back far enough.  Root causes may be in the distant past.  In a divorce case I mediated one time, the husband had committed adultery.  No one else knew it, but the husband and wife did.  She tried to forgive.  They hung on together for many years, trying to make it work, but the bond of trust had been broken and could not be repaired.  Although it was several years before she left him, the adultery was the root cause.  The husband made a point of going around playing the victim and saying he didn't know why his wife was leaving him.  But as between the two of them: he knew, and she knew.  The husband's betrayal of trust was the only truth that mattered, as between the two of them.  It didn't matter that no one else knew, or how long ago it had been.

Oh, and here's another one!  Have you ever thought of being "strong" as a temptation?  In our culture, we put great emphasis on self reliance and on not letting one's self be seen as being vulnerable.  Yet, to be in a loving relationship involves making one's self vulnerable and open to the other person.  I see many men in my practice who don't seem to know how, who have perhaps never been taught, how to express their love for their child or other loved ones in their life.  The personal stories about this are perhaps too intimate for me to share, but suffice it to say, that if you love someone, find some way to express that to them in no uncertain terms, in a way that they will clearly hear and understand.  This doesn't mean sending flowers and a card once a year.  In his book "The Five Languages of Love," Gary Chapman identifies five languages of love:  gifts, quality time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and physical love.  Look at the embrace of the father and son in the illustration again.  It is okay for real men to show their vulnerability and to expres their love, verbally and physically.  If you have failed to do this, acknowledge it and resolve to change it by demonstrating your love in ways that those close to you will understand.

Failing to dig out root causes.  On the subject of root causes, here's another big one!  What if the anger or estrangement is coming from the mother (as in the case of divorced parents)?!!  If it is the mother standing between you and your children, that opens the door to ask, what you may have done to her, that you may regret or that may have caused her anger.  Why does she feel so strongly?

As you know, divorce is not just a physical separation of belongings and arranging for "custody."  Divorce also involves a process of emotional separation, with deep and profound emotional currents and eddies.  You may not have been able to heal your marriage, but the emotional business of divorce is not done until each party can move along, toward healing.  Is there something you have done, or something you have not done to her, or that she is taking offense at on behalf of the children?  If she is angry, why is she angry?  Is there some continuing wrong against her?  There was one case I became familiar with, a high profile case, where a man claimed the mother was keeping him from his children.  But the flip side of the coin was that he was stalking the woman and threatening her.  No wonder, then, that the relationship with his children was being affected.  You will not heal from your divorce until you can move beyond blaming the other person.


And then, after we get a clearer understanding of what went wrong, to heal the relationship we may need to apologize.  We may even need to beg the other person for forgiveness.   Because no matter what the outside world sees or thinks, the only thing that is important in healing a relationship is what happens between you and the other person in the relationship.  Acknowledging, making confession, and asking from the other person involves taking a risk.  Just as you can't control whether the other person loves you back, so also they may not forgive.  One theologian has compared offering an apology to offering a gift.  The other person is not required to accept the gift.   But you can't even get to the point of their forgiving, offering hope for healing of the relationship, until you take the first step.  Somebody has to take the first step.  Somebody has to make the offer, either of forgiveness or apology.  (Forgiveness is a topic for a different day.  The fact that someone else may have done something that you forgive them for is completely unrelated to each of our duty to offer apology.)

So, with regard to figuring out what role you may have played in the estrangement, privately and honestly answer the questions to yourself, what might be standing between you and them, emotionally?  Is it something you have done, or something you have not done?   Loving and apologizing.  Have you thought about it?


Now, after you have asked and answered some of these hard questions, privately and to yourself, ask further, are you willing to do whatever it takes to make things right?  What actions might you be able to do take to restore things as they should be, or as you would hope for them to be?

 (It is at this point that you may, again, ask yourself whether professional help may  be needed.  In addition to ordinary counselors and therapists, there is a new type of specialist called a "divorce coach" who works specifically with people recovering from or going through the emotional turbulence of divorce.  This blog post cannot be professional guidance, merely observations from a mediator.)

A few years ago, in my home state of South Carolina, there was a father who went all the way to the South Carolina Supreme Court to win an appeal saying that he didn't have to pay for college expenses of his son.  The way the law is set up, this was a father who could afford to pay, and it was a deserving child.  So forget all the excuses.  It was a father who was willing to spend more on winning a lawsuit than he would have spent on the child's education.  Imagine how that made the child feel?  Imagine now, if that father wanted to rebuild a relationship with his son, what would it take?  How could that father make things right, both emotionally and financially?  For, to take responsibility means, as much as possible, to put things aright in every way possible.

Let's take a more simple example.  What if the issue is support of your child.  Are you willing, going forward, to do not just what the law would require, but to truly support your child in every way they need it, both financial and otherwise?  In other words, I'm asking, are you willing to do what it takes -- emotionally, mentally, financially, spiritually, in determining life's priorities, etc. -- where the tire meets the road?  What if this involves major changes in the way you live?  Are you willing to "go there"?

And last but not least for today, I will leave the lonely fathers with a final thought  (as if I haven't already challenged you enough, for I know this is not easy).  But here's the last thought:


You are the adult.  Your child did not ask to be born.  Your child did not have the luxury of choosing who to have as parents.  A child has but one childhood.  What can you do to make it a good childhood.  A child has but two parents.   The primary responsibility for your relationship with your child rests upon you.  Because, you are the parent, and they are the child.  That's just the way it is.  It's not a two way street.  It's a one way street. It's up to you to call.  It's up to you to pursue that relationship.  It's up to you to take responsibility.  A child is born helpless and needy.  And they need their father.


Indeed, think about your own relationship with your own father.  If we are honest, don't we all want a father who loves us and who expresses that love?  I urge you that even if it is challenging and difficult, try to be the kind of man that you would desire in your deepest heart to have for a father.  And here, I also mean be the father you would want, not necessarily the father you were born with.

One time, I mediated a case involving a father who didn't want to assist with his (deserving) child's need that went beyond what would have been required by law.  This father said, "my father didn't do ___ for me, and I turned out okay.  I made it without that help."  Yes, he did "make it" without his own father's help.  But wouldn't he have preferred not to be completely on his own to do that?  Wouldn't he have preferred not to always go through life wondering, what he might have made of his life if he had received the type of support he truly needed from his father?  In the story of the Prodigal Son, the father is extravagant in his generosity, giving of all that he had to his son, to the point of making a fool of himself.

I am not saying that we must or should do more than we are able or become fools.  Every family has limitations.  Every family imparts its values to its children in the best ways it knows how.  And, to be frank, often divorces are the result of differences in values between what one parent desires and what the other desires.  One parent may think it more important to save for retirement, while the other parent thinks it's more important to pay for a child's education.  But again, this is an issue for honest, candid, and private assessment.  If your child doesn't know your limitations or your reasons, that is something to think about, too.  Are you being honest with them, are you teaching them your values?  That just gives you more to reflect upon, when you think about what kind of conversation needs to be had with your child, to open the door and pave the way for a better relationship in the future.


To encourage you in your journey, I quote the words from a song, and I also link to a YouTube video by the band America, "Lonely People".  Using words from that song, I encourage you, "don't give up, until you drink from the silver cup!"  Your children are worth it.  Just yesterday I wrote a blog entry about living one's life so that at the end, you will be able to say, "It has been good."  Having a right relationship with your children is one of those deep, long term things that will affect how you feel about your life in the long run, at the end of your days.  Your children may be your most enduring legacy.  They may be the most important investment you ever make.  Don't give up.

This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup
And ride that highway in the sky

This is for all the single people
Thinking that love has left them dry
Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup
You never know until you try

Well, I'm on my way yes, 
I'm back to stay
Well, I'm on my way back home, hit it

This is for all the lonely people
Thinking that life has passed them by
Don't give up until you drink from the silver cup
And never take you down or never give you up
You never know until you try

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