Over the last several decades, there has been a steady decline in the number of fathers participating in the rearing of their children. The proportion of children living in two parent homes has dropped significantly where 1 in 3 children in the United States live with just their mother. There is no doubt that the presence of a father makes a huge impact to a child. Statistics show improvement in grades as well as a decrease in sexual promiscuity, teen pregnancies, juvenile delinquency, and incarceration. But just because a dad is physically present in the home does not necessarily mean children are getting their needs met. What about the dad who is present but unavailable? When this happens, several conflicting and even destructive patterns occur:
First, there is a huge burden placed on mom. When fathers are distant and unavailable to their children, mom feels the burden of meeting their children’s emotional needs and can easily become overwhelmed. Adding to this struggle is the dangerous tendency for a mom to seek emotional comfort in her children or in one particular child, more often her son. This is referred to as “parentification” where the child feels the extraordinary pressure of meeting his or her mother’s emotional needs. Now, a parentified child does not necessarily have to be a bad thing, it can help them develop resilience and skills for success into adulthood. Where it becomes a problem is when the demand to meet family needs is greater than the child can developmentally handle. Although it can happen with her daughter, it is not uncommon for a mother to find emotional connection with her son whose role develops into a type of “surrogate” father or husband.
Second, fathers reflect to their children what marriage and relationships look like. For a daughter, her father represents every man she will meet. Many women from emotionally distant dads will often gravitate toward men who reflect this same pattern of emotional distance. They may find themselves in difficult or strained relationships and some even give up on relationships altogether. On the other hand, dad’s example models for sons how to treat their wives and children. Either way, the pattern is passed down. Neither daughters nor sons have learned the skills it takes to be in and maintain a healthy, deeper, and more intimate relationship with another person.
So why do some men have such a difficult time with intimacy in relationships? I say “some” because not all men struggle with this as much as one might think. As you probably might have guessed, however, it is complicated. One thought is the fact that men, like all of us, are imperfect. They have been wounded by their own experiences too. They likely came from a home where their own dads were either physically gone or emotionally distant. Without having learned the skills themselves, they simply cannot pass on what they don’t know. Another issue is the stereotypes and negative messages we hear about men today. In the media, men are often portrayed in a negative light. For example, they are shown as stupid, liars, sexist, bumbling buffoons, self-centered, lazy, or horny. If you don’t believe it, watch the sitcoms that have been out for the last few decades and even many commercials. Pay closer attention to the way men are portrayed, it’s quite eye opening! Unfortunately, this message gives girls the false belief that males are not valuable or “worthy of my time,” while boys internalize a sense of shame and guilt, feeling inadequate and “less than,” all of which is perpetuated into adulthood and the cycle continues.
But you can break the cycle in your family! The beginning of changing that cycle starts with first seeing it clearly for what it is and then learning the tools of change. If you have struggled with any of these issues in your family growing up or maybe you find yourself repeating this pattern, consider learning more about your own family dynamics. A genogram is a great tool to help understand better what has happened. It helps reveal the many false messages we accept as truth. Whatever you decide to do, however, try to remember that this is not about hating your father or bashing mom and dad. Rather, it is about trying to understand, which leads to acceptance and forgiveness, and then we are free!
We all struggle with different issues in our families. If this article struck a nerve, made you stop and think, or even if you found it surprising or you disagree, please leave a comment below. I would love to hear your thoughts!