Near the end of Cormac McCarthy’s devastating novel, The Road (2006), the father and son duo who have traveled the post-apocalyptic landscape together, have to say goodbye to one another.

The father is dying. The father tells the son ‘you have my whole heart‘.

There is no doubt that this is a terrible loss for the son. But equally, there is the sense that, in time, in the future, the son will internalise the positive side of their relationship and may take confidence and courage from it.

A lot of sons are not so fortunate.

Do your problems relate to your absent father?

Is there a link between the emotional and psychological problems that men develop as they mature, and the relationships they had with their father’s when they were younger?

Does the lack of a father in a child’s, or an adolescent’s life, shape the problems they go onto experience in later life? Problems that are seen in;

  • relationship issues
  • addictions; drugs, sex, gambling, food
  • crime
  • compulsive behaviours
  • problems regulating mood
  • work and employment problems

Attachment Theory – Absent Father

Culturally we have become used to thinking about our emotional development in terms of early attachment issues.  John Bowlby’s work on Attachment Theory tends to privilege our early relationship with mother rather than father.  In this article, I am thinking about men and their fathers, particularly men who grew up without their fathers.

Absent father and identity issues

For a son, an absent father leaves unanswered questions which can create problems building up, developing and maintaining a coherent and constructive sense of personal identity.

A father might be the person who helps his children develop confidence in themselves. Who helps them to develop a sense of right and wrong, a moral compass. Through loving his children’s mother a father might help build a safe and secure home for his family. A father might be a role model in terms of showing his children how to grow up, mature, work, and so help his children plan for when they want to leave home.

Family separations affect a child’s development

Divorce in a child’s early years has been linked with problems internalising and externalising thoughts and feelings. It has been linked to emotional problems and to socialising.  It has consequences for academic performance.  Consequences that may go onto relate to or involve;

  • Mental health
  • Behavioural problems
  • Employment
  • Relationship issues
  • Educational achievement
  • Youth offending, crime

Absent Father – Case Example

Frank (not his real name) came to see me because of low mood. Frank said he felt depressed and sometimes had suicidal feelings.  He put these feelings down to problems at work.  It turned out Frank had a history of leaving employers prematurely.  He would get work, work through the probation period and then leave a few months later.  He began things, he didn’t stick at them.

This was true of his relationships too.  He was attractive and liked dating women but could not seem to stick at relationships.  He could date, but he could not commit.

Frank could not develop the relationships he needed, relationships that would have supported him to develop himself more fully. Yes, he could get women. But he could not stay with them. Though he could find dating exciting, it was a surface excitement. In reality, he was a lonely man.

Similarly, because he never stuck at work for very long, he failed to build a credible and interesting CV. This meant he never earned the kind of salary he might have been able to. Or got the chance to get more interesting work.

In this case, the therapy needed to be able to go beyond the normal routine whereby Frank starts something but leaves before it goes anywhere meaningful and helpful. The therapy needed to be able to develop and activate the hitherto missing part of Frank in a way that could lead to him being able to have more satisfying and sustained relationships, work and creativity.

Could psychotherapy help break the pattern?

Could it help Frank find a route into longer-term work and commitments that might allow him to get greater long-term satisfaction in other areas of his life?

In this case, it did.  It was possible to create a greater sense of understanding of what Frank’s problems related to.

Frank’s dad had walked out on him and his mum almost before Frank was born.  His father was always coming and going.  The therapy helped Frank to see that it was this underlying history of his relationship with his absent father, which undermined his capacity to develop commitment and consistency in himself.

In a situation like this, it is always possible that the client will break off therapy prematurely and so do to me what his father did to him.

  • Psychotherapy is partly an art, a craft. A psychotherapist should help you to develop a working relationship, a therapeutic alliance. A psychotherapist works to help you avoid repeating the same dysfunctional patterns.

A lot of people tend to brush off their early experience, they want to focus only on the here and now.  This makes sense, but often, like Frank, the problems you are trying to address have their roots in your earlier experiences.  Growing up with an absent father can be such an issue.

Our problems relate to things that have happened to us

If you are trying to come to terms with a problem, it is useful not just to look at the symptoms you are struggling with at the moment, but to think in terms of where and when these problems started to develop.  In my work, I try to develop a sense of context.  I try to find out how a person’s life developed?  What were the key events in childhood, etc?  How might current problems relate to these things?

Can you develop confidence in your future?

Some models of psychotherapy and counselling like to prioritise your past. They are interested in where your problems developed. Other models tend to look at people and consider where they are trying to go?

A lot of emotional problems develop out of a loss of confidence about how our lives are going to develop. Where there has been an absent father, there is often a lack of confidence about the future. Psychotherapy can address these anxieties and doubts.

Why psychotherapy? How does it help with an absent father?

It is part of a natural defensive tendency to hide our wounds from the world.  We want to avoid them being further irritated or inflamed.  But it is important that we don’t lose sight of them ourselves.  An absent father is a significant wound.

Paradoxical though it may sound, our wounds often turn out to be the source of our strengths.

It can feel too painful and difficult to approach them without help.  A lot of addictive behaviour stems from the wish to shield ourselves from our wounds.  But this is usually a very destructive solution.  The addict, the drinker, the gambler, the sex addict all may get temporary relief from the pain of the wound of the absent father.  But longer-term the wound is still there and the addict’s life is generally in a worse state than it was before.

Psychotherapy is a confidential relationship

This means that you might be able to develop the confidence and trust to talk about your worries and concerns.  In my experience, people who do this tend to find relief in the act of talking. It is a weight off their shoulders.

It comes as a surprise to find that they have been able to speak about the story, the pain of their absent father.  In my experience people feel better for doing this.

It is part of developing and repairing yourself.  Instead of endlessly being destined to go around the negative cycle you find an alternative.

This is vital and necessary work

This is why legends and myths address the subject of the absent father.

Stories about heroes pursuing their destiny.  Stories in which heroes have to go on a journey to break out of the pattern they are trapped, the life they are stuck in.

In Homer’s Odyssey, it is the search for the absent father that mobilises the plot.  In Star Wars, Luke Skywalker’s absent father is key to the journey that follows.

Psychotherapy is a place where this work can be undertaken.

  • How will you find a way to break your own pattern?
  • To work with your wounds instead of against them?

Having the chance to speak in a confidential setting is key to developing a genuine sense of personal freedom. Out of this, you may be able to develop a clearer understanding of how your problems have developed, and of what you can do to change the way your life develops.

  • Out of these beginnings, psychotherapy and counselling may be the starting point to developing greater insight into yourself.
  • To being able to change things and so to release yourself from your present situation.

This article was written and published by Toby Ingham, click here for more information