Esther Perel is a psychotherapist, a best-selling author, and the host of the podcast Where Should We Begin? She’s also a leading expert on contemporary relationships. Every other week on the show, Perel plays a voicemail from a listener who has reached out with a specific problem, then returns their call to offer advice. This column is adapted from the podcast — which is now part of the Vox Media Podcast Network — and you can listen and follow for free on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen.
I’m 36 and about to start family therapy with my mom and dad in hopes of finding some healing and doing some repair work on a relationship. My question is, what does one do when harm has been caused in a relationship and you know you’re most likely not going to get the apologies you need or the repair to feel fully okay in that relationship? My dad kept a strong authoritarian parenting style: lots of lectures, lots of tone policing. My mom was a bit more passive. The result was that I rarely felt in control of myself. I didn’t have a voice, didn’t feel valued. Now, as a 36-year-old adult, not much has changed in our dynamic. I see the ways this has affected my own relationships and the way I move through the world, and I’m working to heal and grow from that. Part of my growth, ideally, is to be able to bring this history of harm to my parents and say, “When these events happened, this was the impact, and this is the type of repair work I need to do with you to feel okay in this relationship,” but what do I do when that hasn’t been successful in the past, and it seems clear that I might never get the apologies or the repair that I feel I need? I don’t want to cut ties with my parents, but I also need to get to a place where I feel enough peace to be in relationship with them.
The Phone Call
Esther Perel: I was listening to your question and I just thought, Ah! An anniversary! A first time I took my parents to a family-therapy session with me. Now that’s an event, so that’s where we should start. Why now?
Caller: I’m just starting family therapy with my own parents, which I’m really grateful for. I think it’s been a long time coming and I’m really hopeful. One of the biggest questions I have is how I’m supposed to navigate a relationship with someone, my dad, who has these political values and beliefs that feel to be in conflict with a part of my identity.
Esther: And it’s a struggle for you, I understand. Is it also a struggle for him or is it a situation where you have a problem with someone who doesn’t see what the problem is?
Caller: I think it’s a mix of both. I know that it is a struggle for him as well because he desires to have a stronger relationship with me and I desire the same.
Esther: And he thinks, why are you making this so complicated? This could be so easy if only … and you put me in the wrong when there’s nothing wrong. I love you as you are. What does my political views have to do with you and our relationship? Is it something like that?
Caller: Yes, definitely. I think for him it’s, Why can’t we just agree to disagree? We’re two people with different beliefs, but obviously for me, it’s, well — I don’t know how to agree to disagree about a part of my identity. And that’s where the disconnect is.
Esther: And when you say a part of my identity?
Caller: My sexuality. I’m pansexual. My dad, in terms of political affiliation, beliefs, values, he’s very conservative. I wouldn’t say he’s religious, but he has some ties to Christianity, some kind of history, background in religion, and I know that really influences how he sees and moves through the world.
Esther: But for him there is no contradiction between his values or his beliefs and his love for you.
Caller: That’s right.
Esther: Whereas for you, you see a duality. You see an inconsistency, you see a rejection of you by virtue of what he believes. It’s not so much that he says agree to disagree, it’s that he says, I don’t experience the conflict that you attribute to me.
Caller: Yeah, I think that’s right. And for some reason it’s not enough or it doesn’t affect change in our relationship when I try to bring up some concrete examples of how the way I move through the world as a pansexual is very different from the ways that he moves through the world as a straight man and how our experiences aren’t the same.
Esther: How was the first therapy session, first of all? And why now?
Caller: The first therapy session was yesterday and I have to say, I feel really proud. I think it went well. We have been to family therapy before, but very minimally. All three of us — me, my dad, my mom — we were able to say things that needed to be said. It felt like a good place to start.
Esther: What’s one thing that stood out?
Caller: For me, it has always been very difficult to feel like I’m allowed or that I have space to express to them anything I need to express. That really stems from childhood and their parenting styles. I was able to show up last night and say some things that I have felt for a long time and that I’ve not necessarily been able to express verbally to them before.
Esther: Can I ask you for a glimpse?
Caller: So my dad has always been an authoritarian, and he would agree with that, in terms of his parenting style, from the time I was young through my teen years, my early 20s, and beyond that …
Esther: How many children in the family?
Caller: There’s four of us, I’m the oldest, so I was the guinea pig. It was lots of lectures, lots of tone policing, which was really challenging. I almost always felt like I don’t have a voice. I don’t have a lot of autonomy. I don’t have a lot of control over my surroundings and my place in this family. And that exists even now in our family dynamic. So in our session last night, I expressed what I think is a core memory for me that I’ve never shared with them growing up.
Esther: And what was the situation?
Caller: In my childhood home where we grew up, my bedroom was at the end of a long hallway. I don’t know how old I was — I think I was probably in my early teens. I know it was a morning, a weekend morning, and I was sleeping. My dad was playing with our family dog and he was throwing a tennis ball at my bedroom door, and that’s how I woke up. He was doing that over and over. I’m sure for my dad, he’s just playing with the family dog. But the experience for me and the reason why it feels so representative of what it felt for me, this sense of, I’m in this confined space. I know if I open the door and say, “Hello, I’m sleeping, what are you doing? Why are you throwing this heavy object against the door over and over and over?” that would launch him into a long lecture. I know my tone would be perceived in a way that was not okay. I know that I would have gotten in trouble. So it was this feeling of: I was woken up in this kind of crappy way, I have no control, I can’t say anything, I can’t stop it, and that feeling I carried with me all the time into my adulthood. In some ways I still feel that in my lack of ability to say, Hey, you know what? I’m pansexual, and I don’t vote for these people because these people want to strip me of my autonomy. And it hurts me that you vote for these people. It makes me feel unloved. Or, when you do this thing, it has this impact on me. I still feel like that little kid who’s stuck in her room with no voice, no control, no ability to do or say anything for herself.
Esther: Very normal, very common. We go home, we regress. It’s as if we just enter a whole persona and a whole set of patterns and relationships and behaviors that are very young. But then we leave and somehow ten years grow inside of us as we go into the world.
When you were talking to them yesterday, what matters to you more, if there’s any priority? Is it the ability to say this to them? The ability for them to understand your journey? Or do you actually want them to change?
Caller: You’re really calling me out here. If I’m being completely honest, the ideal is that I come home to visit them one day and they have a pride flag flying in their yard and they’re excited to go to the pride parade with me and shout to all their friends and everyone on the street that they’re my biggest cheerleaders and allies, right? That they change the way they vote. I say they — it really is mostly my dad.
Esther: Where is your mom in the story?
Caller: My parents are still married. I think my mom has always been a bit more passive, a bit less vocal about a lot of things, including her beliefs.
Esther: Deferential. He makes the statement and she’s deferential. Is one of the goals in therapy to actually also hear more of her?
Caller: I would like that.
Esther: What is your father’s stance toward your being out? Maybe it’s less about how he votes and more about how he responds to you. Does he pretend like it doesn’t exist? Does he hide it? Does he integrate it as part of how he is in relationship to you?
Caller: Kind of none of the above. He’s never said anything indicating that he has a problem with it. I don’t even know that it’s fair to say that he has an issue with my sexuality. He certainly has not said anything specifically to make me feel like he is an ally or that he is totally cool with it. He just doesn’t say much about this part of me, and that feels significant to me because he is so vocal about everything he thinks, everything he believes, how he feels.
After I came out to my parents, I think there were some conversations that took place about, you’re our firstborn, you’re my kid, I love you, I’d do anything for you. So that feels supportive and positive, but he’s never indicated I think this is great or I am fully in support of this specific part of who you are. The only kind of messaging about the way he feels about my sexuality is the way he votes.
Esther: You know, it just occurred to me, he may be voting for whoever he votes for for ten other reasons.
Esther: This is just part of the package. There’s probably many ways to have this conversation, but one way is to actually leave out the politics. Because there is a way in which you experience a disconnect in a place where he doesn’t. And this is not about agreeing to disagree, this is really that we talk about a lot of things, and you are very vocal about a lot of things, and so it’s often interesting to me that that part of me is kind of left outside. It’s been cut in the editing room. Can we ever talk about that? How is that for you?
It’s not a conversation in which you demand acknowledgement from the start. There’s a part of it that says, I want a certain kind of acknowledgement from him about that part of me. The rest is probably there, but this piece is not included and it is integral to who I am. Even if he said years back, “You’re my child and you’re my eldest and I’ll always be there for you,” there’s something I still miss and I long for it, but I can’t demand it. I can hope for it, and I can lead us together to it by — instead of fighting his contradictions — actually embracing his contradictions. It’s the opposite. You have the capacity to vote one way, be with me another way. There is a way in which you handle separate parts in a very interesting way, and I’m curious about that. Because he, in a way, is able to live with dualities more than you.
Caller: Interesting. Okay.
Esther: You’re more totalistic. This is who I am. I need acknowledgment of this whole thing. If you feel this way here, you vote this way there. Things need to align. You’re actually more unilateral, interestingly. You think you’re more open-minded, but in his own way, he may be — not open-minded — and you may have gotten something from him that you don’t associate to him.
So how do you do it? You come to him with curiosity. I know there is longing. I know there’s a feeling of something that has never really been massaged and united that you really hope for, but there may be a different way to get there that is less critical of him — and more inviting. When I mean embracing, I mean inviting. I don’t think you need to be a cheerleader of it, but there is an invitation. I’m different from you, and at the same time — because you probably have more in common than peers. So it’s: “You’re very important to me, first of all, because otherwise I wouldn’t be going to therapy with you now in the hopes that we can create something. There’s a kind of a closing of the loop that I’ve been waiting for, hoping for, and that comes from you. Your opinion matters to me a great deal. Your acceptance of me, your recognition of me, your embrace of me would change my life.”
I’m taking you down a different path here because you’ve been in a trench. You’ve been in one silo and I see how you’ve been and you would like to extract this from him. You’re not going to get it like that. You’re not going to pull that out of him. He’s going to become more recalcitrant if he feels criticized. But if you actually tell him how important he is to you and that’s why you’re coming to him …
Caller: I think what you’re saying makes sense. I think he and I both desire to have a stronger relationship if we didn’t …
Esther: That’s clear.
Caller: I wouldn’t be pushing for family therapy and he wouldn’t be interested in agreeing to it …
Esther: Has that been stated clearly?
Caller: I think so.
Esther: Said out loud as you just did to me?
Caller: Yeah. We talked about it during our first session.
Caller: Listening to you share everything you just shared, it’s true. I have been kind of stuck in one track. One thing that hasn’t been mentioned that is probably relevant is that and I and my mom will need to work on in family therapy is: My parents did out me to some of our family members.
They told me they were going to. I begged them not to. The messaging that they gave me was, We need to break this news to your younger siblings. And that hurt, especially the framing of that and the feeling that this thing that is so core to who I am and it’s really important to me and to have that agency and power. To have someone forcefully reveal such a deeply personal part of who I am and tell me ahead of time we’re doing this, too bad — it’s something that we’re going to have to work on because I’m still clearly dealing with some pain around that.
Esther: So you think your parents went and told your siblings? What was the meaning of the message? We need you kids to know?
Caller: Part of it I think is my dad needing to feel — and this is a thing that happens a lot — like he has control over the narrative. That he is delivering this challenging news or something. For me, because it’s about me, it’s hard for me not to see it as if he thinks there’s something wrong with this. He doesn’t want me to share this thing that’s about myself with my younger siblings.
Esther: And so have you ever checked that with him?
Caller: We’ve talked about it …
Esther: We make meaning in our lives and this happened and you interpreted it a certain way. What is it ten years later? Ten years later this narrative — as in your narrative — has never been checked or challenged either. You decided that that’s what it meant and that’s what he did, which may be the case. But it’s actually an opportunity to say when you told my brothers and sisters, what was going on for you?
Caller: Yeah, we’ve talked about it a little bit. We’ve had that conversation, probably not at the length that we will need to. In the past when I’ve asked them “why did you do this? Why couldn’t, like, these are my siblings …”
Esther: No, that’s not the same. You’re not asking a question. You’re telling them, I disagree with what you did because you betrayed me, because you revealed my inner truth to my siblings without giving me the chance to own my own identity and my own self revelation. That’s not a question.
Esther: It’s the way you experience it and it has such truth to it, but the question is really something else: What was happening for you? Did you feel that you needed to remain in charge of the family? You don’t even have to ask. Just sit with it and see what comes. What was happening to you? Why did it seem so important for you to be the people to deliver this message? Tell me more. Then sit back and see, because it may be exactly what you’re saying, but it may also be … something different.
We walk with this emotional inheritance and we decided that this is what it meant then and it becomes the pain we carry. Sometimes when we have the opportunity that you have — which is really I’m bringing my parents to family therapy and they’re coming with me very willingly because we all would love to clear some of this debris between us — then it’s an opportunity to ask the questions that you’ve wondered your whole life and that you answered alone and have lived with alone and have made you feel more alone than you would like to feel in your own family with your parents.
Caller: Yeah, that’s right.
Esther: Do you want to speak with them together or separately?
Caller: Sometimes I feel like my mom and dad come as a package deal.
Esther: I hear it. That’s why I asked the question.
Caller: Yeah, but they’re so different. I think I view them and speak about them as a package deal because that’s the only way I’ve ever known them. I think my mom has always followed my dad’s lead and that works for her and that works for them, but they’ve always and only been one entity. They’re two separate people, but they operate as a team for, better or for worse. So I’m very much not used to having separate conversations with them. It’s not something that has happened very often.
Esther: Maybe the perfect opportunity as you are sitting mediated in a therapy session to actually say, “These are differentiated conversations. What I need to talk about with you Dad is separate and they may be differently with you when they are not in this what you call package deal — especially for her, actually.” His voice resonates louder, and she gives echo to his voice. In some way, you don’t know enough what she really thinks or feels.
But I want to go back to before when you said, I have been in one track. As I’m looking at it, I’m thinking: How do you get to do this new conversation with them without going back to the same thing you’ve been doing, but in a different context? I’m going to do the same conversation, but I’m going to do it in therapy and see if that’s going to help me get to where I want to go. That’s an option. But another option is: What is it that I really want to have with my parents? What do I want to experience here? What is it that I want to change between us? Not: How do I want to change them?
Caller: That’s pretty tough.
Esther: It’s tough. You didn’t ask me to make it easy for you.
Caller: No, it’s so true. I can only control myself, right? For a long time, it has felt like I’m just banging my head against the wall, trying to convince people around me to change so that our relationship can be better or so that I can have an easier experience.
Esther: You do that with others too?
Caller: No, just my parents.
Esther: The chosen ones.
Caller: The chosen ones. That’s right. I think a big factor that influences me is anger. A history of hurt. For me, the experience with my parents has been, when a lot of kind of crappy, harmful things have happened over time with no space or ability to do any repair work, it kind of builds. The result for me has been that I feel angry, and what that means is that any time something happens with them, it’s all dredged back up.
Esther: How big is the pile?
Esther: So you accumulate.
Caller: Yeah. And I don’t desire that.
Esther: I understand. But it intensifies your feeling that you’re right and they are wrong and they have wronged you. So it becomes a part of your identity.
Caller: Right. It isn’t fun or healthy. But I also think there’s a piece that’s like, I have to somehow figure out what I’m going to do for myself, even if I can’t get the repair work or the apology that I feel like I need from them.
Esther: What other parts are there to the repair work?
Caller: I think it is the parts of my childhood that I feel still linger in the ways that we communicate. I still don’t feel seen or heard. I don’t really feel like there’s space for me. I don’t really feel like they know me because for so long, there wasn’t space for me to express or freely be myself. And I’m not just talking about my sexuality, I’m just talking about anything.
Esther: I don’t feel seen or heard or known and that’s because of them? Or, I realize that I too found it more difficult, and it may have exactly to do with outing and not outing. As I kept certain things inside, I kept other things inside, too. So, I experienced this, but it’s not just because that’s what they did to me.
Caller: Mmhmm. I’m not, by any means, choosing to hold back or to not allow myself to be known by them. The lectures and not having autonomy, not having a voice as a kid sort of morphed into my teen years where it was more of that.
By the time I got to my 20s, I already don’t feel known or seen or heard. So I’m just going to do my own thing. We’ve just been in that cycle. But as I’ve grown into my adulthood and I’ve created this life for myself. As time goes on, I feel more and more disconnected and distant from them.
Esther: Can I ask you what it’s like for your siblings? How much this is unique to you versus familiar?
Caller: My three siblings are, in a lot of ways, a lot like my mom. Pretty passive. I am a lot like my dad.
Esther: We already know that.
Caller: I think for my siblings, they seem to be pretty happy not making waves. I feel like more of a disruptor. Because of that, I think I create conflict or tension or maybe discomfort for them. I recognize that in times when I’ve shared these types of things with them, they understand. But I think my siblings are just much more content with kkeeping the peace.
Esther: It doesn’t get to them the way it gets to you because they’re not competing with him, which you do more. The image I had is: Imagine you’re listening to music that they completely don’t relate to. You would just simply not share that music with them. You’d say, I listen to music that you people find very unpleasant to the ear, but that doesn’t create a disconnect. It creates a difference. And part of what you’re describing is that there is a challenge between you and particularly him, where every difference becomes a reason for disconnect. Here’s the question I can imagine you would have, or I’m imagining for you. There’s a part of you that really wants him to come your way. You feel in some way he wronged you, and the repair is that you want him to accept this and to acknowledge it and to apologize for it. You’re realistic enough to know that that may not happen. So you’re trying to think, What can I expect and what can I do once I don’t get that apology? But that’s part of the same track you’ve been in. It’s actually still in the same story. I get it that I may not get what I’ve been wanting, but I still expect the same thing. And he may or may not give it. But it doesn’t really involve a change of view, because there’s a part of you that — rightly so, understandably so — says, “Why should I be the one to try to be understanding of him?” Because that’s, of course, where I’m going to suggest we go, rather than him be understanding of me.
Esther: Partly I grew up and I am accepted by the way that he knows how to accept me. I have to live with the acceptance that he does that in a partial way. I actually don’t want partial. I want totalistic. I may not be Republican, but there is a certain dogmatism inside of me too. We are similar, we just happen to vote on the other side of the spectrum. It’s not like I am more nuanced. I want total acceptance, and recognition, and be seen, and be heard, you know. And he’s a smart guy, so it’s to say to him, “How do you do it? How do you see me and love me while at the same time you think that, you vote for this, you don’t agree. And yet you’re completely there for me. If I ever need you, there would be no discussion how much you would show up, and I know that.”
Caller: Yeah, it’s true. I do know that. And he has.
Esther: That needs to be highlighted too, because for some reason, I’m the one struggling with this either-or. If you recognize this, you can’t also think that. That may have to do with how I experienced your lecturing at me. But I know that there’s a certain part of intransigence inside of me.
Caller: Everything you’re saying is really resonating with me, even if it’s challenging.
Esther: I know it’s challenging because there’s also a part that says, I’m the underdog. I’m on the victim side. There is, of course, a reality to that, true in society. But in the context of your family, it actually is not exactly what has happened. Your dad is a traditional man who has a complete sense of what it means to be in charge of the family. He was going to make sure that the discovery of your identity was not going to throw the family into a disarray. That’s his mandate, you know. So it had coherence to it, even though it felt like a betrayal of you. And at this stage, it’s also about you actually understanding who he is and that, in my family, we have profound disagreements. See, it’s the opposite. We have profound disagreements, and despite those disagreements, we manage to really hold each other dear.
Caller: When you frame it that way, it’s really beautiful.
Esther: Does it resonate?
Esther: Because beautiful is fine …
Caller: It does.
Esther: But it needs to feel true and authentic to you, right?
Caller: It does, it really does. A minute ago you mentioned just this idea of showing up for one another and my dad is the first person I would call if my car broke down or if we’re in some sort of bind because I know that he would get on a plane and be here.
Esther: In that moment, none of his different belief systems, values, views about my sexuality would have the slightest importance. This is actually really beautiful in a family — people grow up and become different, have different values, different lifestyles, different sexual orientations. Sometimes the other people may or may not be cheerleaders of that part. They may not go with you to Pride.
Esther: But they’ll fly from wherever they are without having to ask twice. And you see this as a problem. I understand how you see it as a problem, but I also see it as actually a strength of your family.
I thank you for coming to me and saying, I’m stuck. I’ve been wanting something and I’m kind of digging my heel in this particular way. I present my dad as the rigid one and the authoritarian one, but I’m actually in my own version. I have a certain kind of all-or-nothing dogmatism inside of me. That’s not what you said, but you are open to hearing it and to say: Is there another way for me? I know what I want, but is there another way? I hope that you got a beginning of another way.
Caller: I think I did.
More From This Series
- ‘Where Does the “Evil Voice” in My Head Come From?’
- ‘Why Does Part of Me Want to Cheat?’
- ‘I Lost My Husband to Suicide. How Do I Recover Who I Was Before?’