How Having An Absent Father Fundamentally Changes Your Brain

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sad woman laying on couch thinking

When I was 5 years old, my middle-aged father had a nervous breakdown. He took an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in Camarillo State Mental Hospital.

The doctors told my mother he needed extended treatment and might never leave the hospital. 

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What ended up happening was this: My mother eventually got a divorce, and I grew up without a father.

I didn't realize the impact that an absent father had on my own life — or on the lives of millions of men and women — until I began writing my book, My Distant Dad: Healing the Family Father Wound. 

According to the National Center for Fathering, "More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency."

What is the absent father wound?

It’s the negative effect of growing up in a home where a father was absent physically or emotionally. Like me, most of us adapt to whatever our life situation is and rarely associate our adult difficulties with childhood wounding.

However, large-scale studies over the last twenty years have demonstrated that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), including the loss of a father through death, divorce, or distancing, can cause a number of effects on those experiencing ACEs including:

  • Smoking, substance abuse, overeating, and hypersexuality in adolescence.
  • Anxiety, depression, and hypersensitivity to loss as adults.
  • Difficulty finding and maintaining healthy adult love relationships.
  • Increased risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Working long hours, as a subconscious attempt to withdraw from relationships.

Why are we so powerfully impacted by the loss of a parent’s loving support and how can it have such long-lasting effects?

This was a question I asked myself a lot when I began to wonder about my life-long bouts of depression, my hypersensitivity to loss, my irritability and anger, and my difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship (I’ve been married three times). 

Could these problems be related to the loss of my father at age five and how his loss impacted our family?

I got some interesting answers from research conducted by Matthew Lieberman, a distinguished social psychologist, and neuroscientist, and reported in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect

His research validates a view held by Aristotle and expressed in his politics: "Man is by nature a social animal… Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to and therefore does not partake of society is either a beast or a god."

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Our social connections are vital to our life and well-being. Lieberman says, “Just as human beings have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.” 

But when we experience early losses, particularly those of a parent, our ability to connect socially is damaged.

Lieberman asserts that our large brains are indicators of our social nature and need to keep track of all the important social connections in our lives. The social scientist, Robin Dunbar, shows this relationship in his research. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size — specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer — is the size of its social group. Humans have big brains because we have big social networks.

Lieberman says, "Every time we are not engaged in an active task — like when we take a break between two math problems — the brain falls into a neural configuration called the default network."

What surprised me about the default network is that according to Lieberman’s research, it looks almost identical to another brain configuration — the one used for social thinking or making sense of other people and ourselves.

Even at rest, our brains are evaluating and preparing to connect socially.

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You’d think the brain would just rest when it was resting, rather than being active. But as Lieberman points out, "Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms."

One study of adults found that the brain’s reward center, which turns on when people feel pleasure, was more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10. This is what the Dalai Lama and other spiritual teachers have found. 

The real key to a happy life isn't accumulating more money for ourselves, but real happiness comes when we give to others. We’ve become a society that neglects the social importance of connections. It’s why the father wound is so pervasive.

We don’t recognize how important our early social connections with our dads really are.

Recently psychologists and economists came together to put a monetary value on our social interactions.

It may help us to wake up to the importance when we see how much our social connections are worth in dollars and cents. According to Lieberman, if you volunteer at least once a week, the increase in your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year.

Simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie — here, in the case of getting divorced — it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

These days it may be a lot easier — and more effective — to increase our social connections rather than trying to make a bunch more money.

They didn't say how much we lose when we lose a father’s love, but I suspect it is substantial and it’s a wound that keeps on wounding. The good news is we can heal from these early wounds.

RELATED: What It's Really Like To Marry A Fatherless Daughter

Jed Diamond is a licensed psychotherapist with a Ph.D. in International Health and a Licensed Clinical Social Worker.

This article was originally published at Reprinted with permission from the author.