Your dad teaches you how you deserve to be treated by a man — what did you learn?
A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close connection with her father. A dad's presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter's life will affect how she relates to all men who come after him.
I understand this firsthand because I had a close bond with my father before my parents' divorce, but our relationship suffered drastically after he remarried when I was eight years old. Fortunately, I was able to reconnect with him as a young adult and heal our relationship.
My research for my book, Daughters of Divorce, spanned over three years and was comprised of over 300 interviews with women who reflected upon their parents' divorce. The most common themes to emerge from these interviews and surveys were trust, self-esteem issues and a wound in the father-daughter relationship.
There's good news: it's usually not too late to heal the wound between a father and daughter.
In a divorced family, there are many ways that a father-daughter relationship can suffer. According to researcher Linda Nielsen, after a divorce only 10-15 percent of fathers and daughters get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting. All girls need a loving, dependable father figure to establish a positive identity as a female and cultivate feelings of self-worth. However, many fathers may lose contact due to fear of being rejected by their daughter after divorce. Some remarried dads may become preoccupied with their new lives or may lack the financial resources to support two families.
Unfortunately, many mothers don't understand the importance of the father-daughter bond and might not encourage it. Consequently, many daughters of divorce have damaged relationships with their fathers. If the damage is severe, a girl can grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and troubled relationships with men.
It's important to realize that you are not alone.
Many daughters of divorce have trust and abandonment issues that surface as they emerge into young adulthood. Hopefully, your feelings of mistrust will lessen if you find ways to mend it, such as extending trust to partners who show you in word and deed that they are trustworthy. Establishing a healthy level of trust with a partner is possible, but takes time and effort.
Based on my research, if your father fits the description of a distant, unavailable or absent dad, you are likely to suffer from some degree of "Daddy Hunger." One type of distant father is passive — he seems to lack confidence in parenting and avoids conflicts at all costs. On the other hand, some absent dads lack the maturity, interest or ability to nurture a relationship with a daughter who may put demands on them.
In my experience, daughters of divorce who grow up with a distant, unavailable or absent father tend to grow into adulthood with a diminished sense of trust in men and faith that relationships will last.
A father is his daughter's first love, so of course that relationship will affect how she interacts with other men. According to author Meg Meeker MD, the love he gives her is a starting point for other relationships. After all, a daughter's relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man.
Girls are particularly vulnerable to the loss of an intact family. Daughters tend to define themselves through relationships and identify with their mother, so they might have a hard time coping if they perceive rejection from their fathers.
It's not uncommon for a girl to have a delayed reaction to the powerful effects of parental divorce. This delayed reaction coined the "sleeper effect" by distinguished researcher Judith Wallerstein, which may make relationships problematic during young adulthood, just as a young woman is establishing who she is and what she desires from intimate partners.
In order to repair your relationship with your father, you need to examine your preexisting beliefs about him, as well as his ability to restore his connection with you. Remember, it's never too late to strengthen your relationship with your father.
Self-defeating beliefs that are obstacles to healing your father-daughter wound:
My father isn't capable of changing. It might be true that your dad is resistant or doesn't show much initiative, but maybe you haven't tried the right approach. For example, calling him would give you more control than simply waiting for him to call you. He might respond in time.
There's nothing my father can do to improve our relationship. The first question should be: Have you identified what you want to change about your relationship? Be specific and come up with a plan of action.
Negative or rigid thinking such as "If I try something different it might make things worse." For daughters of divorce, this usually means it hurts too much and you'd rather be numb than feel the pain.
Once you've examined your beliefs about your father's ability to change, you are ready to begin transforming your relationship with him.
10 tips for reconnecting with your father:
- Be honest about your relationship with your father and any wounds that exist.
- Let go of self-blame and forgive your dad and yourself (for whatever you told yourself about your relationship with him).
- Examine your relationship with your father and attempt to reconnect if there have been any wounds. He may be able to help you be your best self.
- Look at ways you may have accepted an unhealthy romantic relationship to fill the void your dad left (dating unavailable men or ones who are all wrong for you).
- Give up your dream of a perfect connection with your father and accept that tension may exist and must be confronted. All relationships go through rough patches.
- Expect resistance and be patient. It may take time to iron out the kinks in your relationship.
- Explore your intentions and desires. Counseling and talking to close friends can help you to come up with realistic goals.
- Create healthy boundaries. It's not necessary to dredge up past hurt every time you meet with your father. Asking questions about the past can promote healing, but allow time for you and your dad time to reconnect before discussing the past.
- Request a change and be patient. Try one request at a time and have realistic expectations.
- Express your thoughts, feelings, and wishes clearly and calmly. This could be verbally, a letter, or a release ("I release you from not being more active in my life"). You may decide not to share your letter or release with your father, but this step can still be therapeutic — especially if your dad died before you were able to reconnect.
It's possible to repair your wound with your father so that your past hurt doesn't have a negative impact on your present relationships. You may want to seek professional help if your relationship with your father doesn't seem to be improving or you need more guidance or support.
For the most part, I have noticed that with work and patience, relationships between fathers and daughters can and do improve. Examining your relationship with your father and practicing forgiveness will allow you to create a new story for your life.
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