The Father-Daughter Wound
Now all the plagues that in the pendulous air Hang fated o'er men's faults light on thy daughters! - Shakespeare
Every week wounded women come into my office suffering from a poor self-image, from the inability to form lasting relationships, or from a lack of confidence in their ability to work and function in the world. On the surface these women often appear quite successful—confident businesswomen, contented housewives, carefree students, swinging divorcees. But underneath the veneer of success or contentment is the injured self, the hidden despair, the feelings of loneliness and isolation, the fear of abandonment and rejection, the tears and the rage.
For many of these women, the root of their injury stems from a damaged relation with the father. They may have been wounded by a bad relation to their personal father, or wounded by the patriarchal society which itself functions like a poor father, culturally devaluing the worth of women. In either case, their self-image, their feminine identity, their relation to masculinity, and their functioning in the world is frequently damaged. I would like to take the example of four women, each with a different relation to her father, each with a different lifestyle. What they have in common is inadequate fathering and a resulting way of life that obstructed their ability to form relationships and their capacity to work and to live creatively.
Chris was a successful businesswoman in her late thirties. The oldest of three daughters, she had been a hard-working, straight-A student in school. Upon graduation from college, she found a good job with a thriving company. She put so much effort into her work that by the time she was thirty Chris had risen to a top managerial position. About that time she began to experience tension headaches, insomnia, and complained of continual exhaustion. Like Atlas, she seemed to carry the weight of the world on her shoulders, and soon she became despondent and depressed. She had a series of affairs with married men whom she met in different professional contexts, but she could not seem to find a meaningful relationship. And Chris was beginning to long for a baby.
She began to feel hopeless about the future, for her life had come to be merely a continual series of work obligations with no relief in sight. In her dreams were images of children who were either injured or dying. By the time Chris came into therapy, she felt trapped by a compulsion to be perfect in her work and by an inability to let go and enjoy life. She remembered her childhood as unhappy. Her parents had wanted a son, not a daughter, and her father especially expected great things from his children. If they were not the first in their class, the children soon learned they would receive disapproval from their father. To please her father, Chris had worked hard. Instead of playing with her friends, she studied and eventually went into her father's profession. Since Chris was the oldest, her father seemed to expect more of her. And when she did well, he rewarded her by taking her to his office and spending time with her there. When she reached adolescence, he was very strict, seldom allowing her to date and criticizing her few boyfriends. Her mother accepted the father's authority, completely seconding all his decisions.
In reality, Chris was living her father's life and not her own. Though she had rebelled against some of her father's values by having sexual affairs and smoking pot, in essentials she was still trying to live up to his ideal of hard work and achievement. In effect, she was still living the life her father's "son" might have led. Realizing this in the course of therapy, Chris was gradually able to let go of her compulsive perfectionism. She began to explore her own interests and started writing short stories, an activity which her father criticized as "impractical" and "indulgent." She began to meet new people, and although she still had to struggle with her tendency to be perfectionistic, she began to feel energetic and hopeful about life. For Chris to differentiate herself from her father's expectations is an ongoing process, but the more she does so, the more her own natural path continues to emerge.
A different pattern resulting from an impaired relation to the father is illustrated by the case of Barbara. When I first met her, Barbara was a student who wanted to enter graduate school. She was in her late twenties, twice divorced, with a string of abortions, a history of drug abuse, a weight problem, and a poor relation to money. Although bright and talented, her ability to work and discipline herself to study was undeveloped. Every semester, instead of finishing her course requirements, she asked her teachers for an "incomplete" grade. Soon her bill for analysis had run up to several hundred unpaid dollars. Feeling guilty about the debts and incompletes, she suffered a series of severe anxiety attacks.
Barbara had had no model for self-discipline or success. Her father had been away in wartime when she was a young child. Later, he moved from job to job and gambled, never able to settle down into anything permanent. Her mother was pessimistic and depressed and told Barbara that if she didn't succeed in marriage the first time, she would never succeed. With this combination—an unreliable father and a depressed, pessimistic mother—Barbara had no adult model for success. Her dreams were frightening. Pathologically murderous men were trying to kill or cripple passive young girls. Sometimes she herself was the victim. With her loose and unstructured lifestyle, Barbara was repeating her father's pattern. She was also fulfilling her mother's negative projections that a woman could not succeed.
Once Barbara became aware that she was repeating her father's pattern and her mother's projection of failure, she began the slow and gradual process of separating herself from these patterns and finding her own path. First she learned to manage money, paid off her analytic fees, and even was able to save a sizeable amount for her future studies. To do this required giving up the drug that was eating up so much money. Eventually she was able to do her school work on schedule and wrote an outstanding dissertation. And, finally, she learned to control her eating patterns and lost twenty-five pounds. These achievements gave her a sense of her own power and the ability to accomplish what she wanted. In the course of this process the images of men and her father began to change. From destructive, murderous images, they changed to men who were helping the women figures in her dreams. In one dream her father gave her an expensive, elaborately embroidered robe, a tribute to the strength of her emerging feminine image.
Quite often women who have had easy-going, indulgent fathers who were not successful in the world will compensate for the father's lack by trying to succeed for him. Susan's father loved her very much. The two reveled in their relationship, which was playful, teasing, and flirtatious. The father put more energy into the relationship with his daughter than into the relationship with his wife. Susan's mother was a very ambitious woman who had expected great worldly achievements from her husband. That he was a simple man who enjoyed life so much that he was not at the top of his profession disappointed her deeply. Susan unconsciously had picked up this disapproval from her mother and compensated by becoming exacting and perfectionistic herself. Her father, who was dominated by his wife, did not actively oppose his wife's ambitious expectations for the daughter, and so Susan lived out her mother's unlived ambitions. Caught by her mother's ambitious, controlling, perfectionistic attitude, Susan lost her relationship to her relaxed, easy-going, child-like side.
Tags: Parenting and Families