DEAR DR. JENN,
I have never had a great relationship with my dad. He wasn't abusive but was pretty absent and emotionally unavailable growing up. I've also never had a long-term relationship and my friends have pointed out that my crappy choice in men perhaps stems from my relationship (or lack thereof) with my dad. I hate the term, but do I have "daddy issues"... and what does that actually mean? I want to better understand why my relationship with my dad is impacting my dating life so I can choose better partners and break out of this cycle. —Daddy Issues
DEAR DADDY ISSUES,
While the informal term 'daddy issues' gets thrown around a lot — usually in a derogatory way towards women, as if they are the ones who have done something wrong — another term would be attachment issues or attachment wounds. And it isn't just women whose adult relationships are affected by absent, unavailable, or abusive fathers.
As for why an unhealthy or nonexistent relationship with your dad growing up is impacting your relationships? Well, the father-child relationship is a profound and significant one that informs our beliefs about men, love, and romantic relationships. And it is a myth that only people with blatantly abusive fathers have 'daddy issues'. Oftentimes the subtle conflicts, neglect, disapproval, or disdain from a parent do just as much harm.
Here, a few things to understand about why our relationship with our fathers can cause us to form attachment issues (aka 'daddy issues').
1. Bad Mirrors
Parents are the psychological mirrors that reflect back to us who we are, how we define ourselves, and how we fit into the world. An infant is born without a sense of self and parents help create the first images of who they are and what their value is in the world. As children get older and their world becomes bigger, they discover more mirrors — friends, relatives, teachers, coaches, child-care workers — people they come across every day. For better or for worse, our primary caregivers— typically our parents — create the foundation for our sense of self through all of our interactions. Our father's words and actions are particularly powerful in this regard.
2. Kids are Egocentric
The way we are parented helps us form core beliefs about ourselves. Children are egocentric, meaning they think that anything that happens is all about them. This is a normal part of child development, not narcissism. The child whose father screams at her doesn't think to herself, "Wow, he must have some serious mental health issues. His parents must have yelled at him and he never worked through his rage. This guy really needs therapy!" Instead, she thinks, she must not be loveable and that there must be something wrong with her. These internalized messages are played out in our relationships and can do harm when we pick unhealthy or hurtful partners or when we sabotage good relationships.
3. Kids Naturally Protect Their Parent
Because children are dependent on their parents, no child wants to accept that his parents are imperfect, inadequate, or pathological. They must idealize their parents to keep themselves safe, even if — and many would say especially if —they are being abused. It is easier to think of themselves as "bad," given that most abusive parents convey that message ("If you weren't such a bad girl, I wouldn't have to hit you. Next time behave!"). As author John Bradshaw points out, "the great paradox in child-parent relationships is that children's beliefs about their parents come from the parents." Typically, a child makes himself the "bad" one in order to maintain a relationship with his parents and have care and protection from them, however flawed it may be.
4. We Form a Fantasy Bond
We all form what therapists refer to as the "fantasy bond." This is the illusion of connection with our caregiver when our emotional needs are not being met. This occurs in all parent-child relationships but is at its most extreme when abuse is present. Paradoxically, the more a person's emotional needs have been neglected, the stronger the bond, due to the increased need to idealize the family.
If we have a father who makes us feel unsafe, sends a message that our feelings are not OK, or teaches us negative messages about love and relationships, we tend to take that with us into our adult romantic relationships
—dr. jenn mann
5. We Are Always Trying to Heal
The unconscious mind doesn't know the difference between past, present, and future. It is always trying to heal old wounds in current time. According to author Harville Hendrix, Ph.D., the primitive part of our brain seeks to re-create the conditions of our childhood, so that we can correct them. As a result, without being conscious of it, we pick romantic partners with the same negative qualities as our parents who are bound to reopen our most sensitive wounds. This person may stir a deep sense of recognition within us and is someone who makes our unconscious believe that this person can make up for past traumas, but unsurprisingly, this often backfires and leaves us more wounded.
6. We Learn About the World from this Relationship
It has been said that family life is our first school for emotional learning: The interactions, experiences, and messages that we absorb over the course of childhood teach us the most fundamental lessons about ourselves; and have a profound effect on our daily interactions, relationships, emotions, communication, love, and marriage. This is where we learn whether or not it is okay to express our feelings; which topics are acceptable to talk about; whether or not it is safe to be vulnerable; how to communicate with our loved ones; if the world is a safe place; if people are trustworthy; and, of course, if we are lovable. If we have a father who makes us feel unsafe, sends us a message that our feelings are not OK, or teaches us negative messages about love and relationships, we tend to take that with us into our adult romantic relationships.
8 Signs You Have 'Daddy Issues'
1. You have anxious attachments.
Once you get past the initial honeymoon stage of the relationship, you feel enormous anxiety about your partner leaving, cheating, abandoning, or hurting you. You start to anticipate the worst, not the best, from the person in the relationship. This can play out as anxiety, anger, fear, and frustration on your end. You are scared of being alone. This leaves you more vulnerable to a relationship where you are not treated well because you are so scared to be by yourself.
2. You are afraid of being vulnerable.
Deep connected relationships require vulnerability. If you have been hurt, neglected, or abandoned by your father, your natural instinct is going to be to protect yourself from being hurt by people you love. Therefore, you are likely to be defended, untrusting, and closed off. While it is important to screen partners over time in order to determine that they are trustworthy, once a partner has passed the time test, vulnerability is an important part of the relationship.
3. You use sex to feel loved.
You need to have sex, and a lot of it, in order to validate your desirability. Sex isn't just about sex for you. It binds your anxiety (see anxious attachments) and helps you feel more secure with your partner. You use sex to feel loved and adored. Your self-esteem is dependent on your partner desiring you sexually. On the flip side, you may completely shut down sexually. Being that open and vulnerable may feel too scary and, therefore, you unconsciously shut down your libido. You don't want to have to depend on another person to meet your sexual needs so you just don't have them.
4. You have trust issues.
This completely makes sense. If the people who are supposed to love you, protect you, and care for you failed to do that, how can you trust anyone to do that? Trust issues can show up as insecurities, excessive fears that your partner will cheat on you, sex problems, and/or anxiety about sharing personal matters. Picking trustworthy people and then doing the work to open up to them is an important part of working through this common daddy issue.
5. You pick unhealthy partners.
Like I mentioned before, our unconscious mind is always seeking to heal old wounds in current time. We frequently pick up partners who have the same problems as our fathers. Sometimes it's not obvious because it is a different variation on the problem. For example, you have a father who is unavailable to you because of his alcoholism. You make a commitment to yourself that you will never pick someone who drinks or uses drugs but instead you end up picking someone who is a workaholic, has a gambling problem, or acts out sexually. It is still the same problem of unavailability, just disguised in a different form.
6. You have trouble setting boundaries.
You have a tendency to reveal too much too soon. Your boundaries may have been violated emotionally or even physically so you do not have a good sense of what is appropriate to share or do with a partner. You have a really hard time saying "no" when you don't want to do something because you're so worried about upsetting your partner or them leaving because you made a boundary. This can put you in a bad position that can range from uncomfortable to downright dangerous.
7. You put your partner on a pedestal.
You idealize your partner because you are hungry for an idealized father that you never had. You worry excessively about what your partner thinks about you, are constantly concerned about disappointing them, or see them in an elevated stature. This prevents you from seeing them for who they truly are. You end up spending too much time trying to impress and not enough time creating emotional intimacy.
8. You date people who are much older than you.
This is the classic daddy issue cliché but often ends up being true. You seek out or find yourself attracted to partners who are significantly older than you in order to re-create the father-child dynamic. You are seeking safety and security in an older person. Typically, the older person is more established and has more money and power. This leaves the younger person vulnerable to being controlled. In my clinical experience, the partners that seek out much younger people to have relationships with tend to like to control that person. This can be a very unhealthy dynamic.
How to Work Through Your 'Daddy Issues'
Awareness is the first step towards, but if you want to work through your 'daddy issues', therapy is always the best way. This can help you to better understand how the specifics of your relationship with your father are playing out in unhealthy ways in your current relationships. (If you are concerned about the cost of therapy, look into mental health clinics in your area. There are mental health clinics all around this country that will see you based on your ability to pay.)
You can also check out books about how our relationships with our fathers impact our romantic relationships (like my own book, The Relationship Fix) and further your insight by learning from podcasts, Ted talks, YouTube channels, and other online resources — just make sure that it's coming from a credentialed, legitimate professional.
In Hump Day, award-winning psychotherapist and TV host Dr. Jenn Mann answers your sex and relationship questions every week — unjudged and unfiltered.