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An Intro to the Father-Daughter Relationship

How our relationship with our father's affects our intimate and platonic relationships and why it's so important to learn about this highly overlooked dynamic.

header image by Derek Thomson

I’ve discussed the important roles Father’s have in our lives in a previous article, ‘Types of Damaging Fathers and How They Influence Who We Are’. The importance of a father’s role in our lives is not as widely discussed and invites a lot of different conversations, so I’m going to continue unpacking it bit by bit, starting by focusing on the relationship between Fathers & Daughters. This topic in and of itself, will take more than one article to flesh out so I presume I’ll write a series of articles around this sub-topic. So let’s start with one that offers an overview on the importance of deepening our awareness and education around this issue that is too often ignored and minimised.

The other night, I went to see Whitney, a 2018 documentary about Whitney Houston by Kevin Macdonald. Just last year I’d seen the first adaptation of her life, Whitney: Can I Be Me. The following evening, I curiously happened upon Maria Callas’ biopic, Maria by Callas. A few years ago, I saw Amy, the story of Amy Winehouse’s life. All three great artist’s sad life stories are deeply intertwined in their relationship (or lack thereof) with their fathers. Christina Aguilera has always been very vocal about her difficult relationship with her father and Lindsay Lohan’s dysfunctional relationship with her own has been discussed extensively in the media. Beyonce severed her professional relationship with her father, who managed her since 1988, after Live Nation audited him and found that he’d been stealing from her I Am… tour.

In the dramatic retelling of P.L. Travers’ life and her working process behind Mary Poppins, Saving Mr. Banks, it was very clear that her challenging childhood with an alcoholic father whom she adored and co-dependent mother shaped her life. The powerful writer never went on to marry or have kids of her own although she authored some of the most beautiful children’s books.

These are high-profile examples of female figures and their dysfunctional relationships with their fathers. But these kinds of relationships are rife in many women’s life, not just in those in the limelight. Every woman can be devastated by an unhealthy and/or inappropriate relationship with their father, and it happens much more often than we like to think or believe.

Why?

Our dad is the first male figure in our lives. Through him we get to know the world outside and we have our first experience of communicating with and understanding men. He is in fact the connection between us and the outside. He goes to work and brings home the experiences he’s had in the world. Through him, we women and daughters, have our first introduction to the ‘masculine world’ and a training ground for the attitudes, behaviours and experiences we connect with men and masculinity. Through our fathers, we learn the basics of how to relate to men when we grow up. It is also our first experience of being recognised through the eyes of a man.

When the topic of mothers arises during my counselling or coaching sessions, women typically relay stories of maternal tenderness or a continuous litany of complaints. What often characterises mother-daughter relationships is too much attachment/closeness. Often they are bound together through obligation, rage or suffocating devotion. The trick for us daughters is to learn to separate from our mums, break the umbilical cord and detach without defecting.

Fathers are another story. In many ways they’re role is ephemeral, vague and unclear.

Which is why the Father-Daughter relationship caught my attention. I wanted to find out what fathers teach us daughters about men and discover how fathers prepare us for our future romantic choices as well how they influence our platonic dynamics with men. I also wanted to find out what we women and daughters mean when we talk about our dads – men who are there and then aren’t, men who are in many cases a vague counterpoint during our childhood, men who too often are emotionally distant, too authoritarian, too devoted to martyrdom or maybe a conflicting concoction of it all.

Safe to say, figuring out fathers is not an easy task. They’ve only been considered much more than ‘the other’ parent, who takes a distant seat behind a mother, within the last 30 years. So much emphasis has been put on the maternal role that that of the father’s was totally relegated until so recently. Victoria Secunda, psychologist and author of Women and Their Fathers, indicated this in her statement, “Of all the pairings in the family, the father-daughter relationship is in fact the least understood, least studied by social scientists, and lowest on the agendas even of sensitive American fathers who are struggling to avoid repeating the mistakes of the past – especially with their sons”.

We must remember that it is not until a girl grows up and begins to fall in love and experience relationships with men, that the father-daughter relationship, with its gains and losses, begins to manifest. Only then does her ability (or inability) to connect with a man other than her father both platonically and (especially) intimately, get tested.

For some reason, for many of us daughters, our fathers remain an eternal question mark, on some levels indecipherable.

So this first article of the series serves as an introduction on the real importance behind the father-daughter relationship.

Did you know how deeply a father can impact our femininity and identity? How much of an imprint the relationship with our fathers leaves on our future intimate relationships? Are you aware that if and when a woman does want a loving partnership with a man, she will, however unconsciously, mirror or project her childhood experiences with her dad onto that relationship in adulthood?

The father-daughter relationship is in fact what decides the tone and nature of the relationships us daughters will go on to have.

Numerous studies prove that a woman’s openness to and ability for mutually loving and sexually fulfilling attachment is directly related to her relationship with her father. Research suggests that women who have difficulties in this area almost always had fathers who could not be counted on or who were emotionally and/or physically unavailable when they were growing up.

The main question I want to pose to you the reader today is:

Why do so many girls blossom into young and mature women who are attracted only to men who do not, and sometimes cannot, meet their emotional needs?

I strongly believe that awareness and education are very important factors in breaking the cycle. Victoria Secunda, an expert in the field, affirms that, “when women are able to examine they relationships with their fathers – and understand that their fathers are products of their own histories, gender training and lessons in intimacy, they can demystify men.”

Some of the women she interviewed, who were lucky to experience a positive example of a man in their father’s strength, affirmations and tenderness were on the whole more able, as adults, to feel good about themselves as women and human beings. Secunda found that these men were not mysterious for these daughters but “real, human and knowable composites of both good and bad.”

“Like their fathers,” she describes, “the daughters approach all areas of their lives -work, love, friendship- with the ability to draw as much from their ‘masculine’ strength of autonomy and productivity, as on their ‘feminine’ capacities to love and be loved.”

Indeed I believe that these well-fathered daughters do not feel that they have to judge themselves based on whether or not they have a man in their lives. And if or when they do go on to give shape to intimate relationships with men, their partnerships tend to be mutually nurturing, respectful and sexually satisfying.

What Victoria Secunda affirms that I’ve also found incredibly relevant in my own research around this topic, is that some daughters, upon discovering and fully understanding their fathers emotional and or moral ineptitude, learnt to live without their fathers. At the same time, relinquishing the compulsive and unconscious need to believe that all men are brutes or predators despite their early patriarchal experiences. These women, and I’m so blessed to count myself as one of them today, become more aware of the reality each day, whilst letting go of denial. They were able to hold their fathers accountable either for their inability to love or protect, or for their cruelty.

These women are the ones who reached a higher awareness around the fact that:

  1. the forces that moulded those men are deeply rooted and very strong and must be confronted and transformed.
  2. they as women and daughters do not have to protect or save their fathers and themselves by eternally failing in love.

When we become aware and get to know our father’s stories better as well as their relationship with themselves as well as us, we develop the capacity to dismantle the need to idealise or vilify the fathers of our childhood.

Their publicised stories suggest that Whitney, Amy, Christina, P.L. Travers, Maria and Beyonce maybe never did get to know their fathers, because on some level in their behaviours, their fathers remained inexplicable, ambiguous and eternal question marks. My dad remained a mystery to me until I started my journey through counselling and the Hoffman Process. It was my counsellor, Marilyn Shearer in Singapore who once asked me, “Elisabetta, I don’t want to spend another 3 years seeing you believe and talk about your father as if he was a martyr.” Those powerfully triggering words, led me to embark on one of the most powerful week retreats I experienced even until now, 20 years later. I got to know my father, I let go of denial and I saw the truth.

By leaving our childhood and childish expectations of a ‘father’ in the past, we women can begin perceiving men in a way that will enable us, if we so choose, to form loving, balanced and mature partnerships. We will be able to find the best that romantic love can provide: an intimate friendship between two integrated, strong, responsible and loving people.

The way for a woman to begin doing all the above is to embrace her courage and recognise and resolve her relationship (or lack thereof) with the very first man in her life: Dad.

Originally published at www.elisabettafranzoso.com

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