by Henry Cloud
We hear much today about dysfunctional father problems. Many women note their poor choices in boyfriends and husbands, or they may develop depression anxiety or compulsive disorders and make the connection that they had a problem father. They recall absent, distant, critical, abusive, weak, or scary dads. They are relieved that their present struggles have a past pattern that now makes sense to them, and they begin working on their “father issues.”
It has helped women to realize the reasons for their problems and provides a root to the issue that much of their current pain has to do with a past relationship. In addition, we have made a lot of progress in unearthing the father issues for people, looking at all the damage dads can do and discovering how to recover from those injuries.
However, some of this thinking oversimplifies and confuses important issues. For example, picking bad men isn’t always due to having a bad dad, and having a distant father doesn’t always create depression. We must investigate more deeply than this. Many women who grew up with absent fathers also had mothers who were both nurturing and assertive. Mom took responsibility for both mothering and fathering needs and made sure her daughter grew up in a relationship with several safe men who could help in her character growth. These women may have grown up technically fatherless, but they still received all the “good stuff” they needed.
Some believe that all attachment problems are mom problems and that all aggression problems are dad problems. So the logic goes, if a woman has a hard time setting limits and being her own person, it’s because of fathering issues. This is true, but incompletely so. Moms also have a lot to do with childhood assertiveness, and dads are able to teach tenderness. In fact, as children we generally learn our first no, our first independent steps, and our first identity moves from none other than mom. Mother issues of assertiveness occur years earlier than dad issues, which are a secondary process.
Kristin, for example, knew she was picking the wrong men. She found herself in her mid-thirties, leaving a second marriage, and then quickly getting involved with yet another man. The men she chose all tended to be strong, self-assured, and in control. Yet when she committed to them, their self-control would quickly turn into Kristin-control.
When she talked to a friend about her destructive pattern, he said, “You had a distant dad, and you’re looking for his strength and protection in the arms of a husband.” That sounded logical. Kristin’s mother had been quiet and nurturing, so as far as she could tell, Mom wasn’t the issue. Kristin began working on the loss of her father. Yet after all her work, Kristin still found herself attracted to controlling men. It was only when she began seeing a therapist who recognized the deeper “mom” issue, that Kristin could truly begin to change.
The reality of Kristin’s background was worse than she thought: Mom’s quiet nurture disguised a passivity and lack of identity in Mom herself. So Mother failed to lead her daughter through the separating, individualizing, and assertion training that Kristin needed. She taught Kristin to be sweet, passive, independent, but not to strike out on her own. As little girls do, Kristin then reached out for Dad, to repair what Mom couldn’t. But he wasn’t there either. Thus begun the eternal search for the Knight and Shining Armor. The truth was, underneath the armored helmet was the face of a structure-building, assertive mother. Kristin had unknowingly disguised mother issues as father ones.
Like Kristin, you may think you “man” problems are “dad” problems. They may be, but keep in mind the possibility that two dynamics are in play here: the mother who couldn’t let go and the father who couldn’t make his little girl feel special. They tend to occur simultaneously.
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