How Absent Fathers Impact Our Adult Relationships
Written by: the Editors of goop
Published on: January 15, 2020
Updated on: July 26, 2022
How can we heal from a relationship we may never have had?
It’s a question that leads the work of Jed Diamond, a family and marriage therapist. Diamond is the survivor of something he calls the father wound, a physical or emotional absence of one’s paternal parent. In his book, My Distant Dad, Diamond shares his personal experiences of having an absent father. After two divorces and years of working as a family and marriage therapist, Diamond made a connection between his father wound and his struggles. “Maybe if I healed the past,” he says, “I would, in fact, heal my present relationship.”
Great fear and anxiety can stem from the trauma of an absent father. And Diamond says that the father wound can become a generational issue. It can also affect everything in our lives—perhaps most importantly, our intimate relationships. Diamond believes that the key to breaking the cycle of hurt, misunderstanding, and loss, is recognizing what belongs in the present—and what belongs to our past.
When we dare to embark on the healing journey, we open ourselves to making peace with our wounded past. We are able to deepen our present relationships. And we can create real, lasting love with our partners. What wounded us in the past sometimes gives us the opportunity to grow in the future.
A Q&A with Jed Diamond
The father wound is the psychological, relational, and physical dysfunction that occurs in people who grew up with a father who was emotionally or physically absent.
Picture a hole in our souls, in the shape of our father. How does that affect how I feel about myself? How would that affect my ability to have a good relationship with anybody? How would it affect my self-worth? My physical health? A lot of these are related. In our culture, we have all of these physical conditions, and we don’t see the connection between these and what happened in childhood. For example, most people don’t go, “I’m overweight because I didn’t have the love that I needed when I was growing up.” We think we have a diet problem. But there might be a hole that has never been filled.
His presence. His unconditional love. His deep, abiding caring for who you are as you. Just as we often project a lot of our hopes and dreams onto our spouses, we’ll often project a lot of that on our children, too. We don’t see children as they are; we see them as we wish they were. What children need is to be seen for who they are and to have a loving presence in their life forever. You never outgrow that desire to have that presence in your life.
That definitely helps, but it doesn’t fix the father wound. You can’t avoid the fact that there is still going to be a deep question of what you lost when you didn’t get your father, and you’ll need to come to an understanding of what is still unhealed. It helps to have other support, but you still have to do some healing work to deal with the loss of your father.
Generally, women tend to be more in touch with the fear, pain, depression, and loss they feel in their present relationships, which tie in to the past. Whereas men tend to be more in touch with their anger. Men don’t get a lot of sympathy or empathy when they come across as angry or demanding, but often their anger is a cover for the hurt and the fear that they feel. And the opposite tends to be true for women. Sometimes the fear and the hurt are a cover for the anger that they haven’t dealt with. But when you understand this, instead of just being angry with your spouse or being afraid of losing them, you can say, “Where was the anger when my dad left? Where were the hurt and the fear because he was no longer there when I needed him?”
When you start getting into the father wound, you will almost always find generational wounds. When we’re in a relationship and we know something is wrong but we don’t know what, we just do the best we can to fix ourselves or fix the other person. But then we begin to decipher: It isn’t just him or her; it’s got to do with our past. All of a sudden, we can make these connections we didn’t even know existed. It’s the same thing with generational issues.
Often we are unconsciously afraid of passing our traumas down to our children. What I’ve found is that once you see the path in your life, the unconscious fear of passing it on to your children starts to lift. Once you recognize it, you realize you can fix that. You can heal that past. You can work through the things with your present relationship. You can actually heal it so you can feel real, lasting love and your children will grow up with parents who are present in their lives.
There are two categories of feelings: There are feelings of distance and anger, where we end up pushing away our partner. Or we become insecure and clingy. We want extra assurance from our partner—but that person can never give us enough. Our partner can feel that no matter how much they give us, it’s never enough. It’s all based on insecurity. Insecure attachment that happened in the past that leads to almost all of the relationship problems we have as adults. Almost all the fights, the not-great sex, the misunderstandings come from the unhealed issues from the past. Once we know that, we can become a bit more understanding and do a lot less blaming of ourselves or partners and take a lot more interest in healing.
In my adult life, it was difficult for me to have engaged, connected relationships. I was alternately clingy and very fearful I’d lose the relationship. I’d get very demanding if I didn’t get the love that I thought I needed or deserved. And then I’d push the person away.
When I realized that I was married for the third time, I was in a good relationship, and I didn’t want to mess it up, I began to look at the past a bit. But what really put my exploration and my desire to heal in the front of my consciousness was being in the stage of disillusionment—which I had recognized in my first two marriages, though I didn’t understand it then. I just told myself I had picked the wrong person. I thought there were only two stages of love and marriage: Stage one is falling in love, and stage two is building a life together and living happily ever after.
When the fights started happening, the misunderstandings, the hurt, and the stress, I initially thought I had picked the wrong person. In my case, I divorced twice. The third time, though, I got the idea that some of this has to do with me and my past. Maybe if I healed the past, I could heal my present relationship. And that’s where I really started doing some therapy for myself.
“Maybe if I healed the past, I could heal my present relationship.”
I found a counselor, and I did some guided in-depth work on healing. As I healed the past, I was able to heal my present relationship, and now we’ve been happily married for forty years. The beginning of my healing happened after my second divorce. I said to myself, “I’m a therapist after all, a marriage and family counselor. How can I do that if I’ve been married and divorced twice?” Something was wrong, and I realized I had better figure it out. I’ve found if you come to understand the father wound, you can heal it, and your relationships are going to become infinitely better than what most people experience.
I think the best way to explain it is to understand the disillusionment phase. (I’ve developed a guide that I call the Five Stages of Love: Falling in Love, Becoming a Couple, Disillusionment, Creating Real and Lasting Love, and Using the Power of Two to Change the World, outlined here).
What I’ve experienced is that in a relationship, when you first get together, you’re in love and everything looks wonderful. And then, at a certain point, it starts not being as wonderful. I’ve come to understand that when we fall in love, we project a lot of our hopes and dreams onto the other. A lot of what we see in the other person isn’t the other person. A lot of it is the projection of what we wanted and we didn’t get when we were a child. Part of the work is to get real with ourselves and to be real with our own history. To be able to say, “Maybe a lot of the difficulty I’m having isn’t because there is something the matter with my partner. Maybe it’s because I’m projecting my unrealistic expectations that don’t have anything to do with my partner—it’s really from my past.”
“Part of the work is to get real with ourselves and to be real with our own history.”
When you’re able to do that, then you’re able to get into the fourth stage of love, which I call Real Lasting Love. And what that looks like is: It’s real. I’m with a real person. They’re not perfect, and I’m not perfect. But when I’m able to really be myself, I feel securely attached because I’m not fearing that they’re going to leave me.
We’re always, in a sense, looking for love in all the wrong places. But when you’re starting to look for love in the right places, the sex gets really good, too. If it was already good, it gets better. There is security and real ease, there is a lot more humor, there’s a lot more fun, and there’s a lot more joy.
The simple beginning is to just know there is a solution. The first recognition is knowing that somebody has a road map. It’s feeling that there is some hope. Hope is step one. Step two is commitment. It is the courage to recognize that because there is a way to heal, we need to commit to figuring this out. The third step is support. It will help even more if you connect with somebody who’s been there before, who’s been over the territory and can guide you. And the fourth step: You have to understand that this is important to you. A lot of people give up on relationships. When you recognize that you don’t have to give up and that there is a way through it, you’ve got to decide if it is important to you. Because it is a journey.
If you were sitting here in my office with me, I would take you through some of the important questions, such as: How do you know if the wounds from a distant dad or an absent father had impacted your life? And then, what are the things you most fear in life? What are the things you worry about at night when you can’t sleep?
For example, some of the things I worried about were: I’m afraid my father is crazy. I’m afraid I’ll go crazy and end up like my father. I’m afraid those closest to me will leave me or die. I’m afraid I’ll be all alone. I’m afraid I’ll be forgotten. In my book, there are guided questions I take you through, and each one takes you a little deeper. What I’ve found is that it can be anxiety-provoking to go into these places. So you approach it gradually and gently. It’s nice to do this with another person or with your partner, so they can reassure you when they see you getting anxious or scared. So you do it slowly and when you’re ready.
Jed Diamond, PhD, LCSW, is a psychotherapist whose books include My Distant Dad, The Irritable Male Syndrome, 12 Rules for Good Men, and The Enlightened Marriage. He is the founder and director of MenAlive, a health program dedicated to men’s health and well-being.
This article is for informational purposes only, even if and regardless of whether it features the advice of physicians and medical practitioners. This article is not, nor is it intended to be, a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment and should never be relied upon for specific medical advice. The views expressed in this article are the views of the expert and do not necessarily represent the views of goop.