DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #42: No is Golden


Dearest Sugar,

I’m writing to you with half of the answer already in my heart. I felt I should say this up front, since conventional wisdom says that no matter what advice a mixed-up person gets, they always end up following their own.

I’m not writing to you about my relationship issues, but rather about my upcoming wedding, which my fiancé and I are planning together at his father’s house in the countryside. He’s from Europe and I’m from the United States, so unfortunately, my guests will be far fewer and I have to think a lot harder about who merits an invite.

I’ve come to a point in my life (I’m 30) where I feel like I’m doing all of the things necessary to move forward without necessarily forgetting my past. On the contrary, I’ve been in therapy for the past year, trying to come to terms with a childhood filled with all of the usual pitfalls that cause kids to grow up into bitter, emotionally damaged adults. Alcoholism, drug abuse, physical and emotional abuse—along with a mother who depended on me from the time I was five to assure her that my father wasn’t dead in an accident on some dark road somewhere—all caused me to live most of my twenties on a precarious ridge between responsible living and disastrous freefall.

But I got lucky. I got away from my family and lived in another country. I found the forgiveness within me to reestablish a relationship with my mother. I gathered up the courage to achieve what I like to refer to as a certain modicum of  “normality.” People underestimate the importance of normality, I feel. Normality means no one is screaming, fighting or insulting one another. Normality means I’m not sobbing in my room, again. Normality means Christmas and New Years and other family holidays are a joy.

Normality means, perhaps, for some people, getting married.

And so here I am, getting married to a sincere, sensitive man with a perfectly normal family who will, for the first time, meet my dysfunctional, fractured and still very unaware-of-it-all family members.

This scares me to death.

But what scares me even more is this: I don’t know what will ultimately weigh the heaviest. Inviting my father to my wedding—the man at the source of most of the pain I felt as a child—or not inviting him (and thus not recognizing the “truth” of where I come from, and of my past).

I should explain.

This father of mine, although in possession of many, many, many faults has recently found his way back into my life after years of non-communication. He is a big part of my youngest brother’s life. And now, it turns out that my soon-to-be husband wants to include him in our wedding.

The last time I saw my father, he was stoned out of his mind and drunk, and was supposed to drive my brother and me to the train station (and didn’t). He was torn up over a bad relationship, but still.

This all feels so complicated and I’m conflicted. I’m not expecting our wedding day to be perfect, you know. Part of me feels like, despite all of the drama that could occur, maybe this is an opportunity to include my father in an important part of my life and that this could be healing for him, and even cathartic to some extent. But then I imagine my mother’s face when he’s drunk a few too many, while my fiancé’s family looks on in horror. (By the way, my father isn’t the friendly, funny kind of drunk.)

I want to turn the proverbial page but my hand is frozen, unable to make a decision.

At the moment I feel like the easiest thing to do would be to just not invite him, not run the risk, not be nervous on “our day.” But then, I never have chosen the easiest thing.

Please help!
Daughter with (maybe) expired Daddy issues


Dear Daughter,

Every time I read your letter a terrible screeching alarm goes off in my head. Please don’t invite your father to your wedding, sweet pea. There isn’t one word in your letter that tells me you that you want to or should.

Let us first dispatch with your fiancé, since he—not you!—is the one who’d like to include your father in your wedding. I presume he had good intentions when he proposed this—Hollywood-inspired visions of profound revelations and touching reunions brought on by the magic of the day, no doubt. But you know what? His opinion on this matter has no bearing whatsoever. The decision about whether to invite your father isn’t even a tiny bit up to him. Your fiancé’s suggestion tells me that he has neither a clear understanding of your familial history, nor an awareness of your deeply dysfunctional dad. I suggest you have an exhaustive conversation with him on these subjects rather soon. Like now.

I commend you for working so hard to heal the wounds of your childhood, honey bun. I know how painful that is to do and I know how very much richer your life is for having done so. But as you are surely aware, forgiveness doesn’t mean you let the forgiven stomp all over you once again. Forgiveness means you’ve found a way forward that acknowledges harm done and hurt caused without letting either your anger or your pain rule your life or define your relationship with the one who did you wrong. Sometimes those we forgive change their behavior to the extent that we can eventually be as close to them as we were before (or even closer). Sometimes those we forgive continue being the jackasses that they always were and we accept them while keeping them approximately three thousand miles away from our wedding receptions.

It sounds to me like your father fits into the latter category.

Which means, darling, you need to look sharp. If the words love, light, acceptance and forgiveness are written on one side of the coin you’ve earned by creating the beautiful life you have in the wake of your ugly childhood, on the other side of that coin there is written the word no.

No is golden. No is the kind of power the good witch wields. It’s the way whole, healthy, emotionally evolved people manage to have relationships with jackasses while limiting the amount of jackass in their lives.

I’m talking, of course, about boundaries. I’m talking about taking a level gaze at “the man at the source of most of the pain” and making an informed decision about an important event in your life in which you put yourself and your needs and your desires front and center. It’s really very clear when you think about it, isn’t it, hon? Your father wronged you as a child. He wronged you as a woman. And he will very likely wrong you on your wedding day if you give him the opportunity to do so.

This is not because he doesn’t love you. But love doesn’t make a mean drunk not a mean drunk or a narcissist not a narcissist or a jackass not a jackass. At your wedding, your father will most likely behave the way he has behaved for all the years you’ve known him. Even if he doesn’t, what’s the best case scenario? That you spend your wedding day worrying that your father is going to make an ass of himself and humiliate you and enrage your mom and alienate your in-laws, but he doesn’t? Does that sound like fun? Is that what you hoped for? Is that what you want?

Of course not. You want your father to be a prince. And if he can’t be that, you at least want him to be a decent human being. You want the enormity of your big day to be bigger than whatever measly little shit shack he’s been living in all of your life. I know this. I understand that ache. I have a wretched father too. When I think about him for more than five seconds at a stretch I can still feel my daddy sorrow all the way down to the very tips of my toes. Oh, but baby girl, your father is not going to do anything you want him to do because you want him to do it. Not one damn motherloving thing! You simply didn’t get that kind of dad. You got the kind who will only do what he can.

That you’ve gone to the door of his shit shack and knocked is a noble act. The strength and faith you called upon when you sought to heal your relationship with your father will shine through your life, regardless of what happens between the two of you. That is a magnificent thing, Daughter. It was created entirely by your grit and your grace. It belongs to you. Let it be the thing that guides you when you speak to your father about why he isn’t invited to your wedding. You wrote that not inviting him is the “easiest thing to do,” but I encourage you to make it the hardest thing. Use your decision as an opportunity to have a frank conversation with him about how his behavior affects you and your ability to truly let him back into your life.

If your father is a man worthy of your deepening affection, he’ll respect your decision even if his feelings are hurt. He’ll understand that his exclusion is not a punishment, but rather a consequence of his lifetime of poor fathering and bad behavior. He’ll tell you that there are other ways for him to celebrate your marriage and he’ll find a way to do it.

If he’s not a man worthy of your deepening affection, he’ll throw a fit. He’ll blame you for his failures. He’ll tell you that you’re selfish and mean. Possibly, he’ll X you out of his life. Or maybe it won’t mean anything to him that his conduct is so deplorable that his daughter has chosen to exclude him from her wedding. Perhaps he’ll simply let this—like so much else—roll right on by.

But you know what? No matter what he does, one thing is certain: he won’t screw up your wedding day. Which, really, sweetie, should be perfect. Or as close to perfect as it can be. And hard and sad as it is, it’s up to you alone to make it that way, just like it’s been up to you to make your perfect life.

I know it will be, dear one. I don’t even need an invitation to see.