My Journey to Happiness Began with Ghosting My Family

Walter Rhein
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One of the most impactful moments of my life came when my dad called my family into the living room to announce he and mom were getting a divorce. I was eighteen, and I was surprised to recognize that his declaration left me with an overwhelming sense of relief.

I didn’t know it then, but my parents’ divorce would become a liberating moment that allowed me to break out of a self-destructive pattern of behavior. As a child, you look to your parents for your concept of the world, but you don’t have the context or the power to discern whether the model you’re being shown is a functional one.

Children love their parents, and they naturally seek their approval. Sometimes it takes a long time to remove the coping mechanisms that allowed you to survive in a toxic environment. Sometimes you don’t even recognize those coping mechanisms are a part of you.

A dutiful son

Prior to the divorce, I had a strong commitment to making our family work. I would go out of my way to smooth over arguments between my parents, and I felt guilty if I took time for myself. If I was away from home for a weekend, I inevitably returned to a toxic situation where their crumbling relationship had begun to fester.

It created extra work, so I habitually turned down time-consuming invitations from friends.

I developed a mindset of acceptance to our family situation. When my brother and sister complained about certain unfair treatments, I always advocated that they comply with my parents’ wishes rather than risk disharmony. Looking back, I recognize that to be poor advice, but in the context of a crumbling family, it appeared as the most prudent choice.

Affection through insults

My dad’s behavior extended back to his dysfunctional relationship with his own family. During reunions, they’d habitually run each other down. On the surface, they tried to play it off as “making jokes,” but there was true cruelty in some of the things they said to one another.

My mom always found my dad’s behavior hurtful. He’d make a biting comment and she’d let him know that she considered the words insulting. My dad, however, would never apologize. Instead, he’d act like he was the victim.

“I was only trying to interact with you, it’s your fault you took it the wrong way.”

When you’re growing up in a situation where you’re constantly run-down and insulted, you are desperate for anything you can grasp onto to transform the pain into affection. I learned to push the insults aside and respond in kind. As long as I didn’t “overdo it” and hurt my dad’s feelings, I could interact with him this way and achieve the approximation of healthy interaction.

My learned behavior hurt me socially

Naturally, when I engaged with kids at school, I relied on the same patterns that had become common at home. When something would happen in the classroom or on the playground, I always tried to come up with the most cutting and insulting comment possible. I legitimately thought that I would be praised for saying the meanest thing possible.

Instead, I inadvertently alienated people. My classmates didn’t think it was funny when I insulted them, but I couldn’t go to my dad for guidance. He’d just nod and make an offhand comment about how “kids were cruel and you could only rely on family.”

He always took a position of self-pity, but he was passing on a belief system that would make me dependent on him and his extended family. I was being programmed to alienate everyone around me so that I could only go to them for companionship.

Personal development

I never did challenge my dad on his beliefs directly, but I made efforts to make friends. I managed to have a significant, healthy relationship with a girlfriend that helped me break the cycle of treatment that my dad modeled. My mom was also a great help as she began to put her foot down and insist that we didn’t have to go to family gatherings.

My self-esteem began to grow, and my dad seemed oddly threatened by it.

The dynamic between my dad and his brothers and sisters was always bizarre. He had two sisters and three brothers and they were extremely competitive and mean to one another. They would always share gossip and never offer a compliment. My mom eventually refused to visit with them entirely, and my dad’s younger sister capitalized on this by making false and manipulative comments to besmirch my mom’s character.

After the divorce

I had always taken on the role of peacemaker in our family, and when my dad announced the divorce I felt I was instantly liberated from that role. He went on to say that he would see a lot of us because we were important to him, and I actually remember scoffing. I knew that unless I made an extra effort, I’d never see him again.

True to expectations, my dad always wanted me to drive up to visit him or attend an activity that he found interesting, always on a day that best fit his schedule. It became easy to come up with a reason why I didn’t have to go. As of today, I haven’t seen him in over twenty-five years.

I spent the first few years after the divorce doing my best to be supportive of my brother and my sister. My brother needed to finish high school, and I could tell he was in a very difficult place emotionally. I was worried that he’d engage in the type of self-destructive behavior that would lead to him dropping out of school without a diploma. Fortunately, he made it to the end and graduated with honors.

Asking for a change

Once my brother was out of high school, I thought it was an opportune time to discuss with my brother and sister how our relationship should change. I didn’t want to be in the same role that I’d always occupied, I didn’t want to interact with them with insults instead of praise and support.

I was surprised when they both responded very negatively to what I was asking. Both of them had maintained interaction with our dad, and I began to catch wind of some of the disparaging comments he was making about me. I felt he was trying to deflect his own guilt and their resentment over the divorce onto me, and I knew I had to take action.

I told my mom, brother, and sister that I thought it was best that we all take a break from each other for a year. At that point, I had moved to Lima, Peru to start over and work as an English teacher, writer, and translator.

They were angry with me for the suggestion, but I explained that I needed it for my own mental health.

A year of renewal

There is nothing more liberating in life than moving to another country and freeing yourself from familial expectations and habitual behaviors. I spent my year alone learning Spanish, and experiencing total immersion in a foreign language allows you to go through a period of profound personal renewal.

Memories can be provoked by odd stimuli. Sometimes a strong scent can bring back an image that you hadn’t considered for years. I found that the frustration I felt when I couldn’t make myself understood in Spanish brought back to mind images from similar moments when I was very young. I was able to work through a lot of critical memories and overwrite them with a superior thought process.

I taught myself that people do have a right to feel hurt when you make an insulting comment. I worked on suppressing my tendency to insult people at the least provocation. I couldn’t remove these impulses completely from my personality, they’re hard-wired in, but I got to the point where I have them under control, though I need to be mindful every day.

Life is better when you focus on not hurting people. It’s such a simple thing.

Reconnection

At the end of the year, I sent letters of apology to my mom, brother, and sister. I explained that I had to work on myself and that I felt I had become a much healthier human being. I was able to restore my relationship with my mother, but I still have only minimal contact with my brother and sister. They were hesitant to accept my apology and thought I had more transgressions to address.

Marriage and children

Throughout the years, I was often gripped by uncertainty. Many of the people who had been closest to me during my development as a person insisted that I was unhinged and in need of psychological help. I occasionally received messages from my dad, brother, and sister that I should seek out treatment. They insisted that their interactions with me had always been perfect and that I was being unreasonable.

While working as a teacher in a private school, I met my wife who was also teaching at the same institution. We got married and returned back to the United States in 2009. Today we have two wonderful girls who are 9 and 6 years old.

Make the family you’ve always wanted

I feel pride as I look on my family and compare it to the situation I experienced growing up. As a child, I’d always had the impression that my dad’s relationship with his brothers and sisters was more important to him than his relationship with us. For a time, perhaps I was on a path that would have led me to show more loyalty to my own brother and sister than I did to my wife and children. But my time away from my family allowed me to adopt a new set of values that firmly places my wife and children first.

The door is open for a reconciliation with all of them, but not at the expense of my ability to be the best father possible.

Ghosting can be a means of survival

We’ve all been involved in broken relationships. Sometimes it gets to a point where you find yourself making the same circular arguments over and over and over. It does you no good to remain trapped in a situation that has no chance of improving.

Ghosting your family is a radical act, but it does not, in itself, represent the end of a relationship. People who want to have a relationship with you are always empowered to make the personal changes that allow a healthy interaction to become possible.

Throughout the years, I received a lot of criticism about my choices, but they were always from people who were acting on a general perception of familial relationships. They did not know me, they did not know my father, so they really didn’t have any right to offer any criticism. You’ll find as you age that people like to perceive themselves as fountains of wisdom, and they’re equally inclined to be judgmental. I give you permission to ignore them.

The final revelation

I’ve had other relationships in my life where people drifted away and then drifted back in because they were meant to. The people who want to be in your life will find a way to do so. The last time my father surprised me was when my daughter was born. I assumed I’d hear from him at that moment, but there was nothing. No apology, no wish to meet his granddaughter, only silence.

In hindsight, I shouldn’t have been surprised. That is the person he has always been. I’m grateful that I know him now, and that he’s not in a position to undermine my relationship with my own children.

The journey to happiness

I certainly don’t have all the answers, and I do have a lingering sense of remorse that I haven’t been able to have more of a positive impact on my family. However, some outside observers have indicated that my actions have had a positive effect. I haven’t been an enabler, and when you make a hard choice, you do encourage self-reflection.

For anyone looking for a lodestone, let me offer you this. No matter how painful, always make the choices in life that allow you to become the best parent you can be. Ultimately, you can never go wrong when you act in the interests of your children.

My children are wonderful.

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Walter Rhein is an author with Perseid Press. He also does a weekly column for The Writing Cooperative on Medium.

Chippewa Falls, WI
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