By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
My parents divorced when I was nine years old. When I was young, I was Daddy’s Little Girl, and never far from his side. I have fond memories of my dad taking me to the park, helping me with homework, and coming to my soccer games. The saddest day of my life was Christmas Day of 1991, when my dad left suddenly due to an argument with my mom over where they were going to put the Christmas tree. I know now that they didn’t breakup because of the tree, but since that day I’ve always hated Christmas.
After my dad moved out, he’d pick me up every Wednesday night and we’d go out for fish and chips at his favorite diner, but things were never the same between us. Occasionally he’d come to my games, and he never forgot my birthday, but our time together felt awkward. We rarely spent time together at his apartment because of my stepmother and her two kids. I never felt welcome when my stepmother was around. For some reason, he picked them over me and I’ll never forgive him for that. As I got older, I wanted my dad to become part of my life – meet my friends and boyfriends – but it just didn’t work out. He always had a reason why he couldn’t come to a soccer game or drive me to an event at school.
I’ve been dating the same guy for two years now and we’re starting to have problems. Jake says that I’m too needy and that my trust issues are driving him away. Believe me that’s the last thing I want because he’s the best boyfriend that I’ve ever had. He’s loyal, honest, and caring yet I go crazy when he’s ten minutes late meeting me somewhere or coming over to my apartment to hang out. I’m beginning to wonder if our problems have anything to do with my relationship with my father.
Now that I’m an adult I crave time with my dad but I don’t know where to start. He has my cell phone number but he doesn’t call. I don’t want to just show up at his apartment because his wife or one of my stepsisters might be there. Is it normal for me to want to spend time with my dad at my age? I still love him and I know he loves me but I’ve felt rejected by him for a long time.
Lauren, age 29
Like you, I had a close bond with my father before my parents’ divorce, and our relationship suffered drastically after he remarried. First of all, it’s important for you to realize that you are not alone and that it’s not too late to heal your father-daughter wound. In a divorced family, there are many ways that a father-daughter relationship can suffer. After a divorce, only 10-15% of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of shared parenting. All girls need a loving, predictable father figure to establish a positive identity as a female and feelings of self-worth. Many remarried dads become preoccupied with their new lives or may lack the financial resources to support two families. Consequently, most 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.
In terms of how your “Daddy Hunger” affects your relationship with Jake, you are insightful and wise to see a connection. Keep in mind that your father left suddenly when you were nine years old, too young to understand the complexity of divorce. Girls are particularly vulnerable to the loss of an intact family, because they tend to define themselves through relationships and often have a delayed reaction to the powerful effects of parental divorce. Many daughters of divorce have trust and abandonment issues that surface as they emerge into young adulthood. Hopefully, your feelings of mistrust towards Jake will lessen if he continues to show you in word and deed that he is trustworthy. Establishing a healthy level of trust is possible but takes time and effort.
Based on my research, your father fits the description of a passive dad – one who loves you but is mute of passion. He seems to lack confidence in parenting and avoids conflicts at all costs. Passive dads tend to marry controlling women who make decisions for them. In my experience, daughters of divorce who grow up with a distant or passive father tend to grow into adulthood with a diminished sense of trust in men and faith that relationships will last. After all, a father’s presence (or lack of presence) in his daughter’s life will affect how she relates to all men who come after him.
In order to repair your relationship with your father, you need to examine the beliefs that you have about your father and his ability to restore his connection with you. The following are a list of self-defeating beliefs that may be obstacles to healing your father-daughter wound:
- My father isn’t capable of changing. It might be true that your dad is resistant or isn’t showing 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 kind.
- There’s nothing he 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.
- 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 I’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 changing your relationship with him. The following are guidelines for forgiving your father:
- Give up a dream of a perfect connection with your father and accept that tension may exist and must be worked through. 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 with close friends can help you to come up with realistic goals.
- Request a change and be creative. Try one request at a time and lower your expectations.
- Create healthy boundaries. It’s not necessary to throw in the kitchen sink and dredge up past hurt every time you meet. Asking questions about the past can promote healing but be patient.
In closing, it’s possible to repair your wound with your father so that your past hurt doesn’t have an impact on your present relationships. For the most part, I have noticed that with work and patience relationships between fathers and daughters can and do improve. Examining your parents’ divorce from an adult perspective and practicing forgiveness will allow you to create a new story for your life.
Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
Do you ever wish that you could have a closer relationship with your father? If so, please share your comments or questions with us. Be sure to order my new book “Daughters of Divorce: Overcome The Legacy of Your Parents’ Breakup and Enjoy a Happy, Long-Lasting Relationship.”