“I married my father,” is frequently a painful realization, causing many women to seek therapy. Many confess that they are repeat offenders, unable to figure out what first attracted them to their partner’s characteristics that they later in the relationship find so unattractive.
“It’s as if I cannot help it. Why am I doing this to myself? I know I will end up in the same predicament as always, but something inside of me takes over. It’s complicated. Confusing.”
While there can be many reasons for any repetition compulsion, many women discover that at the base of their original attraction lies a longing to be seen and loved by their father when they were young. Their longing was already painfully frustrated then. Before we allow ourselves to become fully conscious of not having received ample attention, we transfer our need onto others with similar attributes and keep on the search. It is a futile attempt to finally receive that which feels so essential in life. It is not specific to women to hold onto longing and pretend that the impossible is still possible. Human beings are great in harboring hope. Unfortunately, the ability to hope and keep struggling against all odds can also lead to the inability to see clearly, let go and move on.
It is, however, specific to women that so many of us look to the parent of the other sex and find only conditional love, if any. When boys look to their mothers, they have a greater likelihood of finding unconditional love. The critical reader will now object and point out that many mothers are incapable of unconditional love. Indeed, females can be quite unloving and cruel to their sons as well. But traditionally – and thank goodness, this is improving with every generation — females seem more willing and able to love unconditionally, while males tend to expect something before they accept fully and embrace their children. While boys might ache for unconditional love from their fathers too, girls’ relationship to the opposite sex is influenced by the father-daughter dyad.
It is interesting how the father-daughter relationship has not much been the focus of psychologists who try to understand why women have difficulties in their heterosexual relationships. Mothers, on the other hand, are often found guilty for every single psychological, if not physiological symptom. It is important to note, however, that assigning blame is not the purpose of this article. It is critical for women to ask themselves what they were missing in their fathers in their youth and what strategies they used and may still use to elicit male attention. German Psychologist Julia Onken proposes that women use three main strategies to obtain love and attention from males.1 They might attempt to:
- Please males with their looks and/or their good-girl behavior (“I please, therefor I am”)
- Impress males with their performance and success (“I accomplish, therefore I am”)
- Defy males (“I get negative attention, therefor I am).2
Combination strategies work too, but many find that one strategy is dominant. Pleasing men is a definite favorite of trying to elicit love because of being least threatening and most supported by the male-dominated advertisement industry. Women learn quickly what men want and become dependent on beauty products to feel secure enough to manoeuver their world. Many of us are devastated by our aging process and try hard to hide it with anti-aging products, which, in reality, are “anti-women.” The mission to please and retrieve the love we never had seems to come to a halt. At least, so the woman who needs to please, we can remain nice and avoid being called “nasty” or “cold” by aging, judging men.
What is there to do? After facing our longing in its original context, after owning how we try to get unconditional love from a male and how hard we try to feel okay with a “father man,” we can feel the pain straight on. Our partners are no longer needed to fill our empty heart; the struggle with the surrogates can end. Instead of judging women who do not live to please men, who are relaxed about their career and need not excel in everything they do or compulsively defy authority, we can learn from them. They can become our sisters. Letting go of our fantasy to get what we needed a long time ago is painful, but with the help of other women, we can do it. Truth is, we can live without what we needed in the past. What we need today is our own unconditional love, radical acceptance of self and complete and kind attention. As fantasy goes, true happiness begins.
1) Julia Onken (1997). Vatermänner: Ein Bericht über die Vater-Tochter Beziehung und ihren Einfluß auf die Partnerschaft. Verlag C.H. Beck: München.
2) You might want to read about the positive sides of defiance here: “Seven Agreeable Ways to Be Disagreeable“
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© 2017 Andrea F. Polard, PsyD. All Rights Reserved.