Do “well-fathered” daughters do better in relationships?
As the day to celebrate dad approaches, we think about our relationships with our fathers. Many women wonder how their relationship with their fathers affect them in adult relationships and how all of this relates to addiction and mental health. Ready to find out?
Meet Dr. Linda Nielsen
Over the past 30 years, Dr. Linda Nielsen has become an internationally-recognized expert on father-daughter relationships. She developed the first, and perhaps only, university course on fathers and daughters in the country. Author of five books on the topic, she also writes blogs for Psychology Today, the Institute of Family Studies at the University of Virginia, and the Huffington Post.
Dr. Nielsen writes:
Think of your relationships with men this way: A hungry person makes the worst grocery shopper. If you go into a grocery store hungry, you’re likely to buy junk food. You’re in a hurry and you didn’t have a list of healthy foods to buy. In the same way, daughters who do not have good relationships with their dads may have a ‘father hunger.’ And when they go “shopping” for men, they tend to make the unhealthiest choices.
In this interview, Dr. Nielsen offers a few tips on how fathers can do better and daughters can work with what they have. As a Relationship & Recovery Coach, I found it especially interesting to hear Nielsen speak about ‘father hunger.’ We talk a lot about ‘mother hunger,’ but I’ve never heard anyone talk about ‘father hunger.’ But it makes sense.
Dufflyn: Can we talk a little bit more specifically about what ‘father hunger’ looks like?
Dr. Nielsen: Okay, so she’s going to be choosing men who are trying to fulfill the role of a father instead of the role of a partner. Let me see if I can present this like a checklist:
- She’s constantly in need of approval, constantly in need of attention, like a little girl. A real partner doesn’t demand constant attention and constant approval.
- She picks men that are challenging and unavailable emotionally, because to her, that dynamic of chasing the unavailable is exciting for her. She finds healthy relationships boring. She needs the drama. So she will choose men that she needs to fix up. Because that’s dramatic. That’s exciting. Those are not healthy relationships. You don’t look up to your partner. You look straight in the eyes.
- She’s always checking up on the guy because she basically doesn’t trust that he’s gonna stay with her in the way that her dad— and I’m not talking about the dad physically leaving, but emotionally— if the dad was not there for her. The woman who was not well fathered resorts to sneaking around, checking his emails, checking on his phone, checking up on him— if you’re suspicious and nervous, talk it out.
- She also doesn’t know how to argue and express her anger effectively. A woman needs to learn from her father how to express anger and frustration with a man—how to be assertive enough without being aggressive. How do you assert your needs in a grown-up way? Don’t just cry, tell me what you feel, tell me what you’re upset about. Let’s talk it out like adults.
- She chooses a man whose packaging looks really good. Okay—he’s got money, or he’s good looking, or he’s got status, or he’s the package that looks really good on the outside. She doesn’t know how to unwrap the package and look at what’s behind the wrapper. She just looks at the surface. Turn the package over and look at how much salt and sugar is in the in the package. She doesn’t know how to do that, so she picks the guys who everybody else wants. So therefore, she’s making very superficial choices.
- She doesn’t see the imperfections because she puts him on a pedestal, the way a child does with a father. Just like little girls don’t want to see the imperfections in their dads—dad is not asleep on the sofa at 7:00 PM—he’s drunk and he, you know, he passed out. Even a teenager should be able to see that rather than making excuses for him.
How to Deal with ‘Father Hunger’
Dufflyn: So if a woman is reading this and she’s identifying with this checklist and she wants to improve her relationships with men, should she then begin by working on her relationship with her father?
Dr. Nielsen: Not necessarily, because by the time they realize they have a problem in their relationships with men, she’s not been well fathered for 25 or 30 years—he’s already had his impact on her. So I recommend, look at the checklist—how many of these describe you? So first you have to acknowledge, “oh yeah, I do this, I do this.” Here are the behaviors that are undermining your relationships with men. Yes, they come from your relationship with your father. But first, look at what the problems are, then tell the man that you’re dating what your problems are.
Put it right out there: “Look I didn’t have a great relationship with my dad. Because of that, I have a very hard time trusting. Because of that, I tend to be overly suspicious. I tend to get jealous very easily. I don’t know how to express my anger.” Name the things on the checklist that you identified with. I mean, he’s going to find it out anyway. If the woman puts it out there in the beginning, and says, “I know I have these patterns and this is what I tend to do. I’m trying to break the patterns, but when you see me do these things, I want you to understand where it’s coming from. And then if this is a relationship we both care about, we work on those things together.”
Is this the right package?
Dufflyn: So that’s for a woman who’s in a relationship. What would you suggest for a single woman?
Dr. Nielsen: If she’s starting to think, I might be interested in dating this guy, again, if she looks at that checklist and says, Why am I attracted to him? Why have I picked him? Is it because he’s more educated than I am? He’s got more money than I do? He’s got greater status than I do? Am I looking for a partner or for a daddy?
So she can sort of say, I’m about to reach for this package on the shelf. Let me look at my checklist and see…is there a pattern here? This might not be the right package for me. Now, a therapist or a good friend would help her to say, you’re doing it again. Someone who is there with her on a regular basis.
Recognizing the Triggers
Dufflyn: So if she’s single and dating, but not in a relationship, it’s about identifying the patterns as she begins dating and being aware of them. As we think about it in terms of addiction, one thing that occurs to me is that being in active addiction is going to prevent a woman from ever recognizing the patterns in the first place.
Dr. Nielsen: Sure. And then you look at what the triggers are that are going to set you off to drinking again. What were your patterns? Oh, well it’s 5 o’clock. And so in the same way you would be able to draw an analogy there…are you addicted to choosing the same type of men? And that addiction may have, in this case, come from problems in the relationship with your dad, but you have to recognize the triggers.
How to Be a Healthy Father Figure
Dufflyn: What are some of the specific skills or qualities that a healthy father figure can help engender in his children and especially daughters?
Dr. Nielsen: Boil it down to these really simple things:
First, spend time alone with your daughter alone from the time she’s a little girl.
No mommy, no stepmother—just the father and daughter. I don’t care if you go fishing, go to a movie, take a walk, sit down and play barbie with her—anything. But it has to be one-on-one. Don’t give it up when she’s a teenager. Don’t back off because the breast fairy has come— keep focused on the one-on-one time with your daughter as a young adult, in college, all the way through her marriage.
The second thing is start sharing personal stories about your life with your daughter.
If she’s five years old, tell her about the toys that you had when you were five. Show her pictures of you when you were a little boy. That’s what daughters care about. I don’t care about sports and politics and what movie you saw the last week. We need to get below the surface.
Now, do you see then how that’s going to carry over into a romantic relationship where you’re not going to have these kind of superficial —and sex is superficial, the one night, casual promiscuous kind of sex—that’s superficial, that’s not intimacy. But you learn personal intimacy from your father sharing personal stories with you. And then you come to expect that from a man and become comfortable with it.
For more support…
If you identify with some (or all) of what Nielsen is describing and you want support in working through this and creating healthy, empowering relationships, check out my weekly women’s group, HeartSpring.