When my dad and I stopped talking, a part of me felt relieved. I didn’t start to feel guilty about that sense of relief until the holidays rolled around. Officially, we're estranged, which is something lots of people and families don't like to discuss. Part of the reason is that estrangement is a weird, difficult word that looks more complicated than it needs to be. Estrangement is what happens when one person chooses to stop talking to another, and it feels totally off-limits to discuss.
So, we’re going to discuss it.
Estrangement often carries with it a big, gross feeling of shame. If something has happened in your family that has caused people to stop talking, many people may feel that it's a hush-hush matter — or, if it is mentioned, it may be talked about with a heavy tone of disdain, or disgust, or pain.
It wasn’t a huge, dramatic meltdown that caused my dad and I to stop talking; instead, our silence happened gradually, like water coming to a boil. By the time I realized what had happened, three months had passed. And then, 11.
The Benefits of Silence
Without the constant pressure of trying to figure out why my dad and I don’t click, I’ve been able to turn all of my attention back onto myself. It’s selfish, but I’m honestly okay with that for one big reason: focusing on what I wanted in life helped me start a career, move to a new city, and embrace that stage of life developmental psychologists like to call Emerging Adulthood — the time between adolescence and adulthood.
Back in 1995, psychologist Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, PhD, interviewed 300 people between the ages of 18 - 29. Despite their varying locations and social backgrounds, they shared a number of similarities that will feel very real for Millennials (which is a total buzzword, but stay with me). Arnett’s research led him to the following conclusion:
Emerging adulthood is a time of life when many different directions remain possible, when little about the future has been decided for certain, when the scope of independent exploration of life's possibilities is greater for most people than it will be at any other period of the life course.
It's not a coincidence that my dad and I stopped talking now, after seven years of trying to get along. At this point in my life, I’m somewhere close to being fully independent, and that means that I’m busy trying to figure out how to be an adult. In between finding an apartment and settling into a new routine, it was all too easy to set my issues with my dad on the backburner. Falling into silence felt like the easiest option, and time flies when you’re focused on yourself.
Now we’re here, mostly silent beyond one email and two voicemails over the past 11 months. All of those attempts at contact came from him, which I appreciate — but I wasn’t ready to bring him back into my life, or to start working through the problems that had created the rift in the first place. I wanted to learn more about him without having to break our silence — which is how I came to feel that running a background check (an investigation that combs a person's commercial, legal, and financial records for information) on him was the best option.
How A Background Check Changed Everything
Last Thanksgiving, my dad invited me up to his house three hours away to celebrate the holiday. We were still on rocky terms at the time, but his invitation felt genuine. This Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help remembering his invite as my mom and I cooked our own small feast. A few different factors ultimately motivated me to background check my dad after almost a year of separation: he’s not on social media, so I couldn’t appropriately act on my Thanksgiving memories by Facebook-stalking him; I was curious to see what he had on his public record; and I wasn’t ready to speak with him directly.
The report on my father started out with the things I already knew, like his most recent address and his phone number. I saw an old business picture of him from his LinkedIn profile and felt what I’d felt over the past year: numb. But everything changed when I realized I was able to view his history from the past few decades. I saw his old home addresses, a scattering of traffic tickets, the name of his old businesses. And while I intuitively knew that he had lived a full life before he became a father, seeing the facts of his past made me understand him on a different, and more important, level; I started to see him as an entire person, not just as a parent.
Our lives are composed of the small successes and failures that make us human. But when grudges take center stage in a relationship, it’s easy to think of the person as a wholly bad individual. Because of the distance that had grown between me and my dad, I remembered him negatively. I only focused on the frustrations I had felt when we spoke, and I couldn’t separate him from the issues of our short history together.
I started to see him as an entire person, not just as a parent.
When I saw the successes and failures of my dad’s life laid out in the background report, like the start of his first business, I was reminded of a simple truth: people are complicated, and just because a relationship isn’t perfect doesn’t mean it’s not worth having. I had let the bad stuff take up so much space in my mind that I wasn’t able to give my dad a chance to be my father. And now, looking back at that wide stretch of time behind us — the bad stuff wasn’t so bad. Our problems aren’t irreconcilable. There are still conversations we can have.
There are many good things about Emerging Adulthood, namely that it gives people a chance to start to become true individuals. But for me, one danger of this time was that it was easy to forget the effects that small actions can have on others. When so many other life events are occurring at the same time, problems with a parent who lives three hours away felt easy to set aside. It was easy for me, at least, and it was easy because I made an active choice to ignore the deeper issues in my relationship with my dad. Instead, I wanted to explore my uncertain future on my own.
I don’t regret running a background check, nor do I regret the time it has taken me to get to this point in my relationship with my dad. In fact, background checking him reminded me that estrangement isn’t a one-way street. I’m not the only victim in our separation; my dad is dealing with the silence, too.
I don’t know if I’m going to be ready to reach out to him before the holidays. However, as I try to figure out my place in my small part of the world, I know that I’m starting to think of him less as an issue and more as a diverse, complicated individual. After all, I’ve been reminded that he’s human — and I believe that will make all the difference.