In your case, where an apology has never been forthcoming, forgiveness becomes largely about you and not about your dad. You want to find a way to heal internally and forgiveness can help. But the true issue is forgiving yourself. When we are hurt as children, we carry pain that comes from a belief that, in some way, this hurt was deserved, familiar or in some way our fault. Commonly when we get hurt as adults and can’t get over it, we likely have allowed a deeper spot of pain to be activated, reminding us of a past hurt or humiliation. Healing this inner pain is what allows us to forgive others. It helps us understand that people cause pain because of inner issues that drive their ugly behavior, not because anyone deserves to be treated that way. Getting rid of this pain is getting rid of the feeling “I am a person who deserves this.” It’s believing that the offender is a sad, possibly pathetic individual who allows their issues to get in the way of being a better human being.
In situations where there is no apology, it would clearly be unwise to “forget” and open yourself to similar emotional treatment in the future. Again, we’re discussing truly offensive issues here and not our garden-variety issues – being late for dinner, not being as polite to our spouse as we should and such. In these situations we want to ask for and receive forgiveness quickly but still, depending on how much it hurt, the interaction should be with a genuine desire to better understand one another and become closer through this understanding.
In upcoming columns, I’ll discuss the issues of children when there is an infidelity. But for now, identify more clearly how much of your ongoing hurt over your father’s actions has to do with your loyalty to your mother who “hasn’t recovered.” Simply put, would your pain have subsided and your relationship with your dad been much different if your mother recovered and moved on with her life emotionally? If the answer is yes, then you need to consider whether you are helping your mother by maintaining this loyalty. I believe, after 20 years, your mother has every right to feel however she wants, but you should no longer be expected to feel any of her pain over this, at least not to the extent that it gets in the way of your own pain and relationship with your father. Perhaps a conversation with your mother is in order to help you be rid of any of these loyalty issues.
If you never have had a conversation with your father about this issue, it might be time. But tell him what you want from the conversation. Explain up front that you are not looking for him to assess blame, but just to understand how hurtful it was for you to lose his presence or love. If he begins to blame your mother, bring him back to “we are only here to salvage our relationship” and how that will come through his understanding your hurt – regardless of exactly how much was his fault.