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The Psychology Behind Strained Father Son Relationships

psychology strained father son relationshipsOver 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.


  1. How can I as a father fix the wounds of verbal abuse inflicted in my son 23 years of age. I am truly sory and would like to repair the damage before it is too late?

    • Just reach out and take it step by step. Let your son know that you want him in your life. That you were wrong and now you see it. That you regret the time lost and the way you acted. Honestly answer questions that your son has. Give him space and time to heal. Respect his decision in regards to the relationship between you two disregarding of how that “hurtful” may seem to you.
      I write as a daughter who had such a father. I’m 43 and still trying to heal over what my father said and did to my mother, me and brother when I was in my early years of life. I speak from experience. So far only rare contacts seem to work for me especially when his words during our last phone conversation started with “I have not changed, I’m the same…” That’s not what I wanted to hear and the way I look at it, I am the one who needs to accept that no matter what I do, I am the one who needs to accept the reality: he will never regret it or changed despite my attempts to heal the relationship and the nucleus of my family: my mother and brother. We all still carry the weight of our past.

      Pray and be calm, have patience and reach out, help out, really BE there if you want to heal your relationship with your son. Good luck!

  2. What if you’re dad does not like talking to you

    • Cooper, I am a dad of two wonderful boys 17 and 19. I can tell you as a dad if some dads come across like they don’t like talking to their son, I really believe that the dad may be terrified at disappointing the son with a poor response or he may not have the correct answer and because of this will give defensive posture.

  3. My friend, Charles, would not talk to his father no matter how many times he tried to reach out. Charles ia suffering in his relationships, had 2 failed marriages. Now seeing me but would not open his heart. Often sounds angry and insecured, jas abandonment issues.

  4. Dr. Goldenberg,

    Thank you for an your article and words-framework-mindset-approach to help me to reach out to my adult (29yr) son.

    The early years with my son were good to excellent, when he turned 11 or 12 he became a bit of a firecracker(normal) and sadly, my response was similar to my father’s; bullied and intimidated. My father didn’t have a father to teach him; his father died when my father was 8yrs or so.

    For a few weeks, I blamed the acrimonious divorce, his mother remarrying and moving out of state. The I accepted that it was ME. I was the adult. I failed. I lost my son.

    A while back I read approx 95%+ (?) of estranged relationships reconcile. I also read that the longer the estrangement, the harder to reconcile.

    Thank you for encouraging us to reach out and take it step by step.

    I have hope and low expectations.

  5. I have two sons. One is 21 and the other 20 years old. Both have a terrible childhood with absolutely poor relationship with their father. He thinks that he loves them but to the extent that his weird “love” choked life out of both. He still refuses to understand and acknowledge the problem while blaming everything on everybody else. The result being the 21 years old has developed mental illness while the 20 yeras old has cut all ties with dad.
    What should I do as a mother to help both my sons?
    P.S: We did not have a healthy happy marriage and now living seperately after 22 years of marriage. Believe it or not we are not divorced yet for the kid’s sake!

  6. Thank you for publishing this.

  7. Uzma your remarks are making me instantaneously live my past. I am living the same path as your son who has cut all ties with his dad. I would like to know if there is any chance that I will have a future with my father in my life. I want us to be friends with him again. I think of when I was 6 or 7 years old when my dad was my buddy.

  8. Thank you for this article, and for me, it hit the nail on the head. I am father to two kids, 3 and 4 and I love them to death. However my response to them testing their boundaries has been immature, for the reasons you mentioned above. It is already changing the once great dynamics between us, and something I am aware of, but find it so hard to change.
    I do realise that the clock is ticking and I do not have much time to turn things around. Sometimes I feel reckless and say to hell with it, they will miss the love I have to offer. However I know that it will hurt both parties, I am also the adult, in a position of control, and they are the children, who are so new to this world.
    Fortunately, my wife, their mum, is a lovely woman, who is our rock.
    I have counselling once a week to try to sort out my emotions. I read around the subject. I write emails that gets sent to myself at future dates, that so that my mental recollection of events is kept in check. I also acknowledge and accept my short comings as a person, and that I can be better.
    It’s not easy when you add in the everyday stresses of money, work, other relationships, and past history. But my kids have hopefully around 80 years ahead of them and every improvement I make to myself now, will be an investment that will keep on growing well after I am gone.

  9. GLAD I came across this.my father never knew his father and his mother was acknowledged as a sister caus she was not married.ive always seen myself as the dog of the family .no matter how cruel parents can be you still keep going back looking for affection.i suppose they could not find the balance between a behaved child and one that could have any confidence.I have a beautifull daughter which at 20 i adore.i never wanted a son and its only now i know its because i did not want to make my fathers mistakes.to this day he still gives me no respect.its not that my opinion is right or wrong its never asked for. trying to learn that their is a time to cut ties and start trying to heal the hurt.

  10. i dont much like my oldest son and he doesnt like me . i dont feel he was ever treated badly but at the age of 17 him and my ex conspired to drive me out of my home . to attempt to get closer to him to this day would result in me getting shivved again — no thanks . he can stay his ass in chicago and ill stay my ass in central indiana where i belong .
    i dont have to like somebody just because im related to them . thats absurd thinking .

  11. I don’t know if anyone could give me advice. I’m 17 and my dad left when I was 3. He is an alcoholic and has 4 other kids (Other than me and my 2 sisters) with 4 different woman. I was just told he is having his leg amputated and they have found lung cancer. (He smokes about 2 packs a day). I got over the fact that he is not in my life anymore and moved on but after 9 years of no contact he tried to come back into our lives. I don’t know if I should talk to him. I was told it is a high risk surgery to remove his leg and I don’t know if I don’t say something I might never be able to. Only thing stopping me from saying anything is my pride. I told him off and to never speak to me and my family again because all he causes is pain for us. I’m sorry for rambling. This is my first time ever talking about this with anyone. Sorry again for the long post

  12. After reading this article i am encouraged and have some insight what to expect tomorrow. I am meeting with my youngest (38) He was adopted by my wife of 30 years as a single parent (we were dating) We have been at odds since his high school years and we both have had venomous words exchanged through the years. I will post again after our meeting.

    Thanks Doc

  13. This was helpful to read through both the comments and the article. Thanks for posting. Knowing my father didnt have have much of an emotional relationship with his father or mother I can understand how he didnt mature emotionaly, but blaming his oldest son for the failure of 1 of 3 failed marriages I cannot accept. Ive tried to keep some hope alive that he’ll maybe one day take repsonsibility for his own shortcomings instead of blaming everyone else. Ive tried to be a friend as an adult but still its not enough. I dont bother helping him on the farm anymore because he makes the simplest tasks so miserable. Im hoping he has finally met a woman that can help him mature into a fulling loving adult but not sure we’ll make mends in this lifetime. Sure has done a huge number on my self confidence and alot of stuggles with personal identity.

  14. Deryl, I found your article very appropriate and timely for me. I, too, was raised by an abusive and emotionally detached father. I attempted to connect with him on his deathbed 9 years ago but he was not open to it at all. I’ve struggled for many years to get in touch with the long buried anger and pain toward my father but could not even feel these feelings until recently during a conversation with my elderly mother who was even more abusive toward me growing up. She mentioned how my father, while dying, was worried about me not treating her right after he died. I got pretty angry with her for trying to put me on a guilt trip and how divisive and blaming my father was with me even on his deathbed. But now I am able to grieve the loving relationship that I never had with him and thus finally finding peace within me. I am also a father to our 11 year-old son. While I love him like I’ve never loved anyone else, I still at times tend to ignore him as I get all wrapped up in my head by my own thoughts. I have been in therapy, off and on, for half my life working to reconnect with the inner-child that was so abused and neglected while growing up. This child wants the adult in me to first belief that he was really hurt deeply by his father and that my adult-self would be there for him. Being able to feel and reclaim my anger and pain being rejected by my father is truly a gift to me as it allows me to let go of the long-held pain that’s been robbing me of life energy. I appreciate your article and wish you the best your journey of healing.

  15. hi! I must say a very big thanks to not only the person who posted this but also to the people commenting&sharing their experiences with others. I’m 22 also a victim of an abusive father. Growing as a kid my father deprived me from developing my own natural talents in addition to his abuse and maltreatment.

  16. Your article touches on many of the issues I’ve always had with my father. He was abused by his father as a child so it damaged him emotionally and he has always been unable to express himself for fear of rejection by others. This leads to his extreme behavior of being hostile, critical, demeaning, etc. and at the other end of the spectrum cry (literally) like a victim when he has pushed you away. His wounds are so deep that I had to realize that I cannot help him and even trying to have a relationship to him continues to be detrimental to me. He likes to use the faults and misfortune of others as something to bond himself with others. He cannot stand to see others happy or express happiness and if he does he has to find something negative in order to be a joy kill. I’ve come to the idea that his “ceiling” of happiness must be about a 2 or 3 out of a scale of 1-10. If he sees anyone above a 2 or 3 he has to do whatever he can to bring them to his level so he can digest it. It is very sad to see a person grow old (he’s 72) without having really ever lived a life. He has no friends to speak of, been through three wives (all left him because of his guilt-trips and emotional and psychological abuse) and his children (all grown adults now) have very little to do with him. He does no wrong in his own mind and it makes it impossible to communicate in any sense of reality to him. I think this is ultimately his own protection mechanism from being hurt anymore than he ever was and again I have no way of helping him resolve his issues and he is far too proud (from the good ol’ boy south) to even consider anything being wrong with him. All I can do is love him from a distance. I’m glad my parents divorced when I was very young so I had the opportunity to experience life differently with my mother and stepfather. Had I been raised completely by my father I would probably be dead or in jail or in a nuthouse. Of course he would never admit that any of that would be the result of his behavior.

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