Like most little girls, my father was my first love. I adored everything about him, even how he smelled (like pine trees and lemons). The sound of his voice on the phone still makes my heart skip a beat. Some of my happiest childhood memories involved listening to his stories about his Lebanese homeland, watching him play silly made-up songs on his guitar, and riding on the front of his bike to the park.
But our time together was bittersweet. After my parents divorced when I was 2, our visits were limited to every other weekend and summer break. I was always overjoyed to see him, but my happiness was marred by sadness because I knew we’d have to say goodbye too soon. Even though I was too young to remember what full-time life with my father was like, those goodbyes hurt so much. Every visit ended with an emotional breakdown for me, so much so that my father would beg, “No crying! You’re killing me.” I would cling to his shirt anyway, sobbing and breathing in his special smell, overcome with the feeling that my heart—my world—was being torn in two.
As a child, I clearly knew I missed my father terribly. But I had no idea just how much missing him would impact my relationships with men. Navigating dating and love was a lot harder without my father in my life.
Now that I have a 9-year-old daughter of my own, one who worships her father as much as I did, I am more aware of the critical role a dad plays in nurturing his daughter’s sense of confidence and guiding her toward true and lasting love.
He impacts her sense of self-worth.
My father’s opinion mattered to me a lot when I was growing up, and his absence, especially during my teen years when he moved overseas for a job, meant that I could not always turn to him for the affirmation I needed. My journey through adolescence was mostly navigated by my mom and was negatively influenced by her poor choices in the men she allowed in our lives. As a teen and young adult, I struggled with body image issues, insecurity, and depression. Today, I am still learning how to deal with stress in a healthy way.
I can see that same need for fatherly affirmation in my daughter. When she gets a new haircut or wants to show off a new dress, she runs to my husband first. His opinion matters most.
Linda Nielsen, Ph.D., professor of education and adolescent psychology at Wake Forest University, has been studying father-daughter relationships for more than a decade and even teaches a college course on the topic. She says that a present, involved father builds up his daughter’s self-confidence by consistently encouraging her and teaching her that she does not need a man to make her valuable.
“If a young woman gets that affirmation and approval from her dad, she is not going to be desperate to get it anywhere else because she already has it in him,” Dr. Nielsen told me. “Fathers teach us as women that we can be happy on our own without a man—that we are enough by ourselves.”
Studies show that girls with present and affectionate fathers are less likely to develop eating disorders, experience behavioral problems, and become depressed. Of course, not all fathers are affectionate, and some are overly critical, which also robs their daughters of the fatherly affirmation they need. But, overall, growing up in a father-absent home is a major risk factor for depression in teen girls, while having an involved father is linked to fewer psychological problems.
He affects her interactions with men.
My father’s absence left a huge void in my heart, and I went searching for something to fill it, especially when it came to dating. I often settled for less, mostly seeing guys who gave me just enough attention to keep me around. I had difficulty trusting, and I stayed too long in unhealthy relationships because I was so afraid to let go. When a relationship ended, I fell apart.
In fact, most of the episodes of depression I’ve had in my life involved the end of a relationship. I remember once telling a therapist that when my ex broke up with me, I experienced the same kind of panic I’d felt as a child saying goodbye to my dad. That was probably the first time I began to connect missing my father to how I related to men.
Just like me, my daughter thinks her dad is the smartest, best-looking, and best-smelling man she knows. One day when she looks for a mate, she will likely compare every young man to him. As the person behind our first experience with male love, fathers set the bar for our future relationships with men. In her book, Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters: The 30 Day Challenge, pediatrician Meg Meeker describes fathers as “a template for all male figures—teachers, boyfriends, her husband, uncles, and even God himself—in [a] daughter’s life.”
Not only do we look to our fathers as our most important male role model, but we also learn how to interact with men from them. According to Dr. Nielsen, it is dads—more so than moms—who “have the greater impact on the daughters’ ability to trust, enjoy, and relate well to the males in her life.” A girl who has been fathered well, she wrote in a recent article, “is the most likely to have relationships with men that are emotionally intimate and fulfilling,” and “to have more satisfying, more long-lasting marriages.”
Research bears this out, indicating that girls who grow up with absent dads are more likely to engage in early sexual activity and to become pregnant as teens. Women with poor father-daughter relationships are also more likely to have difficulty trusting and communicating with men and with forming lasting relationships.
When I asked Dr. Nielsen why young women who had weak relationships with their fathers often make poor dating choices, she compared father-hunger and dating to going shopping on an empty stomach. “A hungry person makes the worst shopper. You come home with junk food,” she says. “Likewise, a father-hungry young woman will go to the dating supermarket and often come home with the worst men.” Starved for father-love, we too often cling to men who give us the male attention we desire, but, without the example of a strong male character, we fail to be as discerning as we should be.
My relationship with my father has impacted my marriage in both negative and positive ways. I struggle with healthy communication, trust, anxiety, and things as simple as just knowing how to deal with a man. At the same time, my father-hunger issues led me to be intentional about looking for a man who would be a faithful husband and good dad and, when I found that person, to appreciate his role as a father.
For a woman, father-absence can create a wound that has the potential to damage her self-worth and cripple her future relationships with men, which, in turn, can harm her marriage and ultimately continue the cycle of father-hunger in her own children. But that doesn’t have to be our story! Healing can begin when we recognize what we’ve lost by our father’s absence and how we may have tried to compensate for that loss—and then become intentional about working on those areas in our life.
Dr. Nielsen, author of Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching Your Adult Relationship, shared with me some tips for young women who want to avoid letting father-hunger destroy their future relationships:
o1. Educate yourself about the impact of not having that quality father-daughter relationship. “Once you recognize the way you’ve tried to fill those needs, you can be more aware of where you are at risk,” she says.
02. Fight against the unhealthy behaviors that will damage your relationships. “You can’t change your inclinations,” Dr. Nielsen says. “But that doesn’t mean you are programmed to act on them.” For instance, you may notice you are drawn to unavailable men, but you can resist the temptation to become involved with this kind of man once you recognize this tendency.
03. Read books and seek other resources to help you learn how to overcome your weaknesses. These could, for example, be books on how to be assertive (something fathers typically teach daughters), on dealing with anxiety, and on healthy communication in a marriage.
04. Reach out. Don’t be afraid to share your hurt and weaknesses with your boyfriend or husband, and ask for his help (and patience) as you try to make changes to overcome the past.
My father-hunger issues have given me a deeper appreciation for the irreplaceable role that fathers play in their children’s lives. Today, as I watch my husband interact with our daughter, I am grateful that she is not missing those special moments with him that will shape her life. But what matters the most to me is that she will not spend her life aching for her first love and trying to fill that father-sized hole in her heart with anything else.
Editor's note: This article was edited post publication to include reference to Dr. Nielsen's book Between Fathers and Daughters: Enriching Your Adult Relationship.