Absent Father & His Son’s Love-Life
This post is about the possible effects of an ‘absent father’ on a son’s adult love-life. I meet men who can trace some of the difficulty they are having in their love-lives to the fact of their own father’s emotional and physical absence in their lives. Unfortunately, emotional absence and its close relative ‘neglect’ can occur even when a father is physically in your life.
The state of ‘absence’ I am talking about here includes both physical and emotional unavailability. I’m going to divide this love-life theme into what a man might experience and what a woman might experience with an emotionally and physically absent father.
This post will focus on what a man might experience with a father who is emotionally and physically unavailable. I’ll talk about a woman’s experience of an absent father in a separate post. I’m also going to organize our treatment of this topic into three parts: your emotional need for your father, what you should learn from your father, and what parts of your father’s personality you might identify with. Our focus will remain exclusively on what can happen to your adult love-life.
MEN: A son needs his father as a stable presence while growing up. To put it plainly, a son needs to feel that his daddy loves him. This simple emotion has a lot to do with how you feel about yourself and others. When you feel loved, it is easier to give and receive love without feeling compromised. When your father loves you, you feel as though being loved has something to do with having love to give. If this simple need does not get met because of your father’s absence two things will happen: grief and a search for it somewhere else.
The grief part is trying to deal with the loss. If you are lucky enough to work through this feeling without too much self-criticism and self-blame (children like to blame themselves for things like an absent parent) you’ll naturally get to a point where you’ll try to find the love you didn’t get from your father somewhere else. You have options. You can get it from your mother, from other men in your family, from coaches, teachers, or even male friends. The point is, you have a need for love from your father and you are trying to meet that need in other relationships.
Depending on how successful you were getting that need for fathering met early in your life, some of your need for a father might still be unsatisfied when you enter adulthood. Now here’s where the need can affect your adult love-life. When we bring ‘unfinished childhood and/or adolescent needs’ into a love relationship, for starters they don’t belong there. You can’t get the love you didn’t get from your father now in your adult love relationship.
If this were possible life would be very different. There is only one chronological childhood. If you don’t get what you need then, you have to grieve the loss, let go, and move on. The great secret is whoever built us put in a fail safe. We have ‘internal resources’ that can be used to cope with and develop beyond the limited love our parents give us.
If you do end up trying to get your parenting needs satisfied in adulthood, what usually happens is conflict between the limitations of your adult love relationship and your semi-conscious need to satisfy childhood needs for your father’s love. And by the way, in situations like this gender doesn’t really matter much. You can want a wife or girlfriend to love you in a way that psychologically reminds you of what you wanted from your father.
The point is, when these kinds of needs get ‘transferred’ into your adult love-life, there is usually conflict and disappointment. You have to complete the work of grieving the loss and getting used to the limited but enjoyable love available to you in adulthood. That’s the way out of this problem.
Now what happens when a man’s father is absent and he doesn’t get taught the ‘lessons’ he should have gotten from a loving father? Fathers are supposed to teach their son’s a lot of things about being a man. One of those lessons is how to be a man in love. Another is how to treat a woman when you’re in love. This can be taught sitting in a chair talking about the birds and the bees, showing a young son by example when father and mother or sister interact, or both.
These fathering lessons help a son learn how to be a loving man. If you don’t get the lessons because your father is absent, once again you have to deal with the loss and go looking for it somewhere else. By the way, there are plenty of mothers out there who have the maturity and wisdom to guide their sons into a stable adulthood. They wear two hats, so to speak, quite well. Problems occur when sons go looking for fathering lessons in the wrong places and from the wrong people. If the loss of a father’s loss is not adequately grieved, it can turn to aggression and violence with the guidance of other men with unresolved loss turned to aggression and violence.
Next, there is the issue of what happens to a man’s personality when he has an absent father. More specifically, the aspects of a man’s personality that have something to do with being in love. When a son has an unavailable father he is inevitably influenced by that unavailability. In the simplest cases, he learns to be unavailable himself. Now in love relationships he is semi-consciously unavailable as his father was unavailable to his mother.
This is a lesson learned by example that becomes part of a man’s persona or personality. The influence of absence can also show up in the form of picking people to love who are unavailable. Once again gender is not the controlling factor. A man can pick a lover who is unavailable emotionally, physically, or both to ‘re-enact’ this unresolved experience of an absent father.
In many cases, this kind of parental absence is taught to sons who teach their sons, who teach their sons, and so forth through generations. It’s a great thing to witness a man who becomes aware of this pattern in his own life and chooses not to pass it on to his son. Awareness and practicing something better regardless of how it feels is really the only way to ‘purge’ this kind of identification with your father’s absence out of your personality. Dr. T. Jordan