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My question is about my father. For as long as I can remember, I didn't want to say goodbye to him or stand next to him in church. That would mean he would be giving me a hug, but instead of putting his head over my shoulder, as in a typical hug, he would put his head against the skin of my neck. This felt inappropriate and made me pull away. Recently, his eyes have been unable to stop looking at my breasts when we speak.

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Also, he walked in on me when I was on the toilet, and he remained standing in the doorway, stammering apologies, looking at me. When I left the bathroom, he had stormed out the back door of the house.

Most disturbing was a dream I had. The night before I was returning to my boyfriend of nine years after visiting my parents and siblings, my father did not want me to go. He said, "You think you love him, but you don't." He had a phone confrontation with my boyfriend and I heard my father say, "Does looking at my daughter make your d--- hard?" Hearing him say this, I felt disgusted and numb. How could my father speak about me this way?

That night, I dreamed that my father was pulling me forcibly by the wrist to his bedroom. He was naked; I was screaming for Charlie. That was the end of the dream, but it still crosses my mind six months later. Do you think this dream was my mind's way of warning me to stay away from my father? I don't remember any sexual abuse from him, but always felt that the way he hugged me was the wrong way for a father to do that. One other thing is that when we were children and we did something wrong, he put us across his lap and spanked us, very hard, with his hand. If I had children, I'd consider that abuse. What are your thoughts on all of this?

This sounds like it must be someone else's story, not mine. I'm 29 years old, in love, enjoy my friends; and, as a freelance proofreader, I'm also writing a book. It's not often that I speak to my parents because both of them seem incapable of loving me. What does it feel like for my mother to stroke my hair? What does it feel like to laugh like I normally do or even feel comfortable at all when my father is around? I don't know. My younger sister also went through years of discomfort while near my father. We don't know the reason.

I appreciate your time and thoughtful advice.



ask dr-robert ask psychologist todos santos ask psychologist dr robert saltzman

Dear R.R.--

Thanks for your question, and particularly for having presented it to me it so well. Most often I end up proofreading the questions I receive, and sometimes even rewording them so that they can be understood, but yours needed no help at all. It was not until I got to your last paragraph that I understood: I was reading the carefully crafted writing of a pro. Anyway, a pleasure.

Now to your question. Without knowing your parents personally, I cannot make an airtight determination, but judging from what you have written, I suspect that your father has strong sexual feelings towards you, has had them for a long time, and that these probably were expressed in various inappropriate ways--not just the ways you have mentioned, but in others, possibly more sinister, perhaps when you were too young to remember. Since you mention your mother's coldness, I suspect either that she is cold sexually, and so he turned towards his daughters as an ill-chosen outlet for his sexual frustration, or, alternatively, that she became aware of his feelings for you, and has been cold towards you due to her own sexual jealousy.

Certainly the things you mention in your letter such as staring at your breasts, or the vulgar and outrageous question he put to your boyfriend suggest that this man is seriously troubled--wounded, that is, in his sexuality. Since the male brain is deeply programmed to view any nubile woman as a possible sperm repository, many men find their daughters sexually attractive, but most are able to deal with those feelings (to sublimate them, as a psychologist would put it) in healthier ways--ways that do not give their daughters the creeps, as your father's unwanted attention gives you the creeps.

Your dream is, in my estimation, a fairly accurate representation of the psychological situation between you and your father, and I think you should heed it, but not necessarily by staying away from him. Of course you might deal with this problem by avoiding him, but appropriate and measured confrontation, as I will explain below, would serve your psychic needs far better in my opinion, even if eventually it were to lead to estrangement.

Judging from your letter, you are a well-balanced, happy, and productive person, so I think it likely that you will not need psychotherapeutic help to deal with this unfortunate, and not uncommon, situation. I believe you will be able to heal a lot of this on your own. Here are my suggestions for approaching this important healing work:

1. Apparently both parents are incapable of loving you in the way that I know you wish they could. Please use whatever compassion you possess to forgive them and let them off the hook. In other words, although the "inner child" in you wishes that they would love you properly, this is unlikely, so you will do better to put that expectation aside, and simply work on seeing them as very flawed, wounded people who do not have much to give. This is not their fault. No one is to blame for any of this. Believe me, being either one of them is much sadder and more difficult than being you, and being you is all you have to do. They will have to suffer in their own private hells privately, and I do feel sorry for them.

2. Discuss this matter in detail with your sister and with your boyfriend. Try to be as open and comprehensive in your conversations as possible. Do not hold back. If you end up weeping, that's OK too. In other words, get support for your struggle with this. This is important because the struggle is likely to take both time and patience on your part. Although I have opined that you can do this without professional help, do seek out a good therapist if it feels right to you. In other words, get the support you need, no matter how. This will be important in empowering you to carry out the next suggestion.

3. Begin to treat your father like the creep he is, and do not mince words; tell it like it is. In other words, do not suffer silently--confront him. If he stares at your breasts, ask him why he is staring at your breasts. If he denies it, do not accept that lie. Tell him that you have seen him staring, do not like it, and will not put up with it. If he touches you in a way that does not feel proper, tell him so, and demand that he stop immediately. If you embarrass him, so much the better. Take the initiative. Put him in his place. Come to your full strength as a grown woman; you are not a child! No woman, daughter or not, should allow herself to be misused by any man--not even a little bit. Do not concern yourself with the outcome of any showdown. Just do it! As long as you stick to what you feel and know, as long as you speak your truth and refuse to accept false denials, you will win all of the psychic skirmishes, even if he continues to deny.

4. Forget about trying to determine whether or not your father's actions constitute sexual abuse. That is only a legal question. The plain truth is that your father has abused you, and the proof is that you feel abused. In more direct terms, whether or not his treatment of you ever involved genitalia, or inappropriate fondling (or wandered into any of the other areas subject to so much foolish hair-splitting about what is abuse and what isn't) is not the point.

I am sorry for your suffering. Male sexuality is a powerful force that sometimes goes very far astray of what is needed socially, and when it does go amiss often women and girls end up being hurt by it.

My best advice to you is this: enjoy what you have--youth, boyfriend, interesting work, good companions--and let the rest of it go.

Be well.

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