The quality of the father-daughter relationship – good, damaged, or otherwise – profoundly impacts daughters in multiple ways. Many authors posit that a daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man.
Studies show that if a girl grows up with a damaged relationship with her father, her self-esteem will be lower than one who does not. In fact, she may seek out partners who confirm her low opinion of herself. Women who have a wound in the father- daughter relationship may gravitate to men who treat them poorly – unaware of the root of their issue. However, when it is brought to their attention, they can reverse this pattern and pick partners who honor and respect them.
Many of the women I’ve interviewed for my book “Daughters of Divorce” talked about being attracted to or marrying someone like their father. Sandra, age twenty-six reflects: “I’ve had several partners who were like my dad. I guess I felt that the way my dad treated my mom was the way I deserved to be treated. I’ve been in many bad relationships where there was physical and emotional abuse.”
According to author Dr. Peggy Drexler, awareness of the father-daughter wound and willingness to accept responsibility for changing is key. She writes: “Even the most troubled, overwrought baggage-laden relationship is not without hope – if not for reconciliation, then at least of the daughter finding a new way of seeing her father that might help her make sense of the forces and motivations that shaped his motivations and actions.”
4 Action steps to repair the father-daughter wound:
- Take an inventory of your relationship with your father and honestly accept any wounds that exist.
- Make an effort to talk to your father and/or others who can answer questions that may help you understand any reasons for his absence or distance.
- Take an inventory of past and present intimate relationships and any similarities between them.
- Set a goal to work on your relationship with your dad (if possible) and to become more aware of the impact this relationship has on your choice in partners.
Many experts believe that adults unconsciously repeat unhealthy patterns from parent-child relationships. For example, picking partners who are unavailable in ways that are similar to how a parent was unavailable. Therapist and author Jasmin Lee Cori writes: “In these cases healing is often a matter of becoming more aware of the pattern, working through these childhood wounds in therapy or other places, and making new choices in terms of love relationships.”
Elizabeth’s story illustrates the importance of repairing damage done to a father-daughter relationship and working through any wound that exists. When Elizabeth, age twenty-eight, was eight years old, her father moved out suddenly, leaving her with a mother who became depressed. When her father walked out, Elizabeth felt confused and stopped believing in herself.
Even though Elizabeth visited her dad several times a year, she remembers feeling resentful because she became the caretaker of her mother who succumbed to depression. “I missed out on a lot as a teenager — mostly because I was worried about my mom being alone,” Elizabeth says.
Growing up without a father who was there for her emotionally, Elizabeth developed a strong yearning for male attention and she jumped headlong into relationships with men in need of rescue. Filled with self-doubt and anxiety about finding a partner, she endured a series of brief, failed relationships with unsuitable men. She had difficulty setting boundaries and so the men in her life took advantage of her kindness. At times, she sabotaged relationships that had good potential by being mistrustful and controlling.
Elizabeth lacked the self-confidence to ask for what she needed from partners because she felt unworthy of love. She explains: “When I felt like a guy was getting too close, I would push him away. That way, it wouldn’t hurt so much when he left. With the help of a therapist, Elizabeth gained insight into the source of her issues and she has learned to trust her judgment and begin to pick partners who are a good match for her.
Due to the caretaking role she played with her mother, Elizabeth was attracted to men with problems. She became accustomed to measuring love by the amount of pain she felt and she developed codependent tendencies – causing her to love too much and to become obsessed with her partner’s well-being. By becoming absorbed in their problems, she neglected her own.
However, Elizabeth is learning that loving someone doesn’t mean you have to control or change them. Ultimately, she’s come to realize that she can only truly work on herself. To be able to heal her wounds from the rupture of her relationship with her father, Elizabeth is letting go of the past and creating a life filled with hope and optimism.
In contrast, Megan, age thirty-two, has a close bond with her father. After her parents’ divorce her dad made a huge effort to focus on her needs – attending her dance recitals and spending three nights a week and holidays together. Megan told me that her dad made her feel like she could do anything. Rather than distancing himself after his breakup with her mom, he tuned into her needs and reassured Megan of his love for her. As a result, her love for her father has soared and they have remained close through the years.
After dating for two years, Megan and Evan are planning on moving in together and have a commitment built on love, trust, and intimacy. Megan reflects: “I’ve dated a lot of guys but feel confident that Evan is the type of partner that I can build a life with. We share the same values and interests – plus have a fun and passionate relationship.”
Megan exudes a sense of confidence that is common among women who have a strong bond with their fathers into adulthood. They are well adjusted, accomplished women who have an inner strength and resilience that will help them to navigate the challenges of intimate relationships.
Megan’s story illustrates how dads can make a tremendous difference in the lives of their daughters. Dr. Kevin Leman notes, “Fathers leave an indelible imprint on the lives of their daughters. They shape their daughters in ways so profound that many women live unwritten rules they’ve never thought to question. These rules were ingrained into them so deeply, many women don’t realize that though they may graduate from college, get married, and even give birth to a half dozen males, they’ll never stop being Daddy’s Little Girl.”
Many women underestimate the importance of their father in their lives. The vast majority of women in our study were profoundly affected by their relationship with their fathers. Without exception, they all spoke about wanting a closer bond with their dads – even when their relationships had been strained or difficult. A father’s presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter’s life will affect how she will relate to all men who come after him.
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Fathers and Daughters: An Essential Bond After Divorce