The Psychology Behind Strained Father Son Relationships
Over the years of working with men in therapy, I discovered that the issues that so often come up about careers or relationships could often be traced back, sooner or later, to the lack of relationship with their fathers.
A man in therapy who I’ll call “John” describes his experiences with his father as follows,
My father was a successful clothing salesman who worked a lot, but even when he was home on weekends he wasn’t available. All of my life I’ve suffered from uncertainties about my masculinity. I think it’s because he never shared anything about himself with me. He didn’t tell me what kinds of problems he wrestled with, what he felt, or what it meant to him to be a man. I’ve had to make it all up for myself, and I’m never sure I got it right.”
The German novelist Franz Kafka reveals about this about his father in “Letter to My Father.”
“What was always incomprehensible to me was your total lack of feeling for the suffering and shame you could inflict on me with your words and judgments.”
Kafka goes on to say that the hostility his father expressed against him as a child, he now turns against himself. “My father’s method of upbringing had saddled me with a general load of fear, weakness and self-contempt.” As an adult, Kafka was haunted by his father’s hostile and impatient presence in his mind.
The American writer and poet, Robert Bly, gave voice to similar sentiments in his poem, “My Father’s Wedding 1924”, “…his skin was bark-like then, made rough to repel the sympathy he longer for, refused, and didn’t need.”
These descriptions are representative of how men recall their fathers relating to them. But even more striking than the obvious damage and wounds, is the repressed longing. Many men are love-starved for their fathers (and fathers for their sons) and deny it. To let this “out of the bag” is to face a great deal of anger, rejection, and sadness.
What is possible between a father and son? What can men do with the array of untapped emotions that shield them from knowing themselves? As adult men we can’t pretend away old unresolved wounds because the hurts eventually resurface in other areas of our lives. The unexpressed hurt and anger often transfer onto our love relationships, parenting, challenges at work, and problems with authority.
If we decide to tackle this wounded relationship in therapy, we will invariably encounter an array of painful childhood memories. We will experience waves of disappointment, rage, and grief at the loss of what we never had with our fathers. By bravely revealing and working through this boiling cauldron of emotion we may come to a meaningful resolution.
Most men will have a strong pull toward salvaging something of a relationship with “the old man.” We may still have a desire to address the damage, and try to have a more personal relationship with our fathers. Perhaps a facilitated conversation in therapy would provide an opportunity to deal with the unfinished business, leftover resentment from our childhood.
In such a conversation, could a father accept his “son’s version” of the past? In cases of neglect, physical or emotional abuse, could a father acknowledge his wrong doing without excusing his behavior? Could he own up, or at the least be open and curious about his son’s experience of him as a parent (which isn’t easy if the father has been abused or neglected himself)? If a father can truly accept his son’s perception of things, together father and son can begin to loosen the ‘Gordian knot’ and move forward.
In thinking of men I’ve worked with, I also wondered how they might feel if their attempt at having an honest father-son exchange was a complete failure. How would they react if their father denied the reality of past events, if they were met by a cold wall of “You got it wrong, and here’s why”? At that point there would seem to be no hope for repair. They could either deny their feelings about their father’s past behavior, or maintain a superficial connection to him, or they could address their own feelings and work towards a resolution. Their attempts for reconciliation may or may not reach their father, but the real psychological work entails making a concerted effort to sort out this jumbled knot of confused, disturbing experiences and memories within themselves.
Personally, I have twice attempted to untie this knot , first with my father and much later with my own son. At the time of my wife’s pregnancy, for no apparent reason, there was a sudden resurfacing of memories from my childhood. These were largely unpleasant memories of abuse at the hands of my father, which he called discipline. I wanted to try to deal with this upsurge of memories and intense resentment that was coming from deep within me.
After trying to talk to my father and getting nowhere, I asked him if he’d be interested in therapy to address this leftover anger I felt towards him. He responded with, “go pick on someone else in the family.” He thought I was exaggerating the events of the past, and was extremely uncomfortable with my account of what had happened. This created a stalemate between us, and every time I saw him I was tense and would entertain vengeful fantasies. It was as though there was a neon sign that would flash on his forehead, “guilty of abuse”. But I was determined to sort out these feelings, even if it wasn’t going to directly involve him.
As part of my own therapy, I was able to vent intense feelings of righteous anger, victimization, and outrage. This ongoing venting of rage and hurt eventually opened up a totally unexpected memory. I came to realize that there had been a time when I was really young where I actually had wanted something from my father. It was a shock to have this memory. I was pleased to know that once there had been a time where I had actually wanted my father’s attention and love. I also came to realize that this did not change anything with him, but it meant a lot to me to uncover this wanting feeling for him. Unfortunately, nothing in the realm of relationship was possible with my father. So I had to let go and feel the pain of that old rejection and my anger, and then I was able to disengage and move on.
When I had a son of my own, I was tested as a father myself. The first early years with my son started off really well, but as he developed and became more autonomous and defiant, sadly, I was unable to manage my reactivity to his testing of boundaries, etc. as all children do. I couldn’t turn this around, and lost my handle on his development. When he was around 5 or 6 years old, things started to “go south” between us. No matter how much I had promised myself that I wouldn’t repeat and recreate the hostile relationship I’d had with my own father, I felt almost compelled, unconsciously, to reenact my own childhood with my son. Here it was happening to me, not as extreme, but still a strained relationship, and this broke my heart that I was still so psychologically immature.
I ended up on quite a roller coaster of a ride as a father. My son is now a grown man and we are currently sorting out our relationship. Now I am the father open to dealing with the issues with my own son. I am willing to acknowledge my shortcomings and listen to his childhood experiences, as painful as they are to hear. We are slowly making our way through our troubled history moving towards something of a relationship.
As men face the truth about their father-son bond, they will experience both pain and liberation. As they make their way through this emotional labyrinth, it can become a true “rite of passage.” The son can emerge with a stronger sense of his identity and a solid sense of his own masculinity. The son can come to feel more integrated as a man and perhaps willing to see his father more realistically, with both positive and negative traits. Both father and son may be able to recognize more clearly how their negative unexpressed feelings may still be impacting their intimate relationships as well as intruding into their friendships with men.
The optimal outcome, as men move forward toward resolving their feelings with their fathers, is to no longer be entangled with them through anger or hurt. Men can bring their newly earned individuation and energy into their love life, work life and friendships with other men.
Deryl Goldenberg, PhD is a clinical psychologist in private practice in Santa Monica and Santa Barbara and has focused his work on Male Psychology and Couples Relationship issues for over 30 years. To learn more about Dr. Goldenberg, visit his website or email him here.Tags: child abuse, child happiness, father, parent child communication, parenting