That was a question numerous readers wanted answered as I was writing The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book; most usually, they wanted to know whether or not one parent’s love could somehow mitigate or change the effect the other unloving parent had on their development. This particular question focuses on a loving father but the observations could apply equally to a tyrannical father and a loving mother.
Abandoning the image of the scales
Let’s start with the word “outweigh” here because it betrays a common misconception about the impact of events and circumstances on psychological development. We like to think of the good outweighing the bad, that the presence of one reasonably loving, attentive, or even vaguely supportive parent will countermand the effect of a toxic one, or that something good happening in our lives at an otherwise difficult time will “balance” things out. Alas, that’s simply not true in psychological terms.
We are, thanks to evolution, hardwired to pay more attention to bad things, which we store in an easily retrievable part of memory. Yes, the same place our forebears stored the helpful observation that undercooked pork can kill you or that standing under a tree during a thunderstorm is dangerous is where we unconsciously park our mother’s dressing us down for no reason or playing favorites with our brother. Remember the psychological truism that bad events and experiences affect us more and leave more of a mental impression than good ones.
Similarly, even though we like to think that the affection of one parent can somehow buffer us from the abuse of the other, that turns out not to be true either. According to the work of Ann Polcari, the abuse leaves its mark nonetheless, untouched and unmitigated by the affection offered by the other parent. So, strictly speaking, the experience of a father’s love coexists with the damage done by the unloving mother. And vice versa if a toxic and controlling father is the head of the household.
Daughters and the fathers’ spheres of influence
In a healthy if imperfect family, in which love and consideration are part of everyday life and people try to work through their problems, fathers influence daughters in myriad and often underappreciated ways. How they handle stress, setbacks, and problems may provide daughters with a model of coping behaviors that is either different from or adds nuance to what they’ve learned from their mothers. In a family setting where the father works and the mother manages the household, the father may provide a bridge to the larger outside world and provide an example daughters can follow; many daughters trace their worldly ambitions back to their working fathers. When there are two working parents, they may provide the child with her first glimpse of the challenges of partnership and responsibility; her parents’ efforts at resolving those challenges are absorbed as both unconscious and conscious lessons learned and will inform her own path forward as an adult.
In a dysfunctional family, it’s hard to move away from specifics; it’s one thing to grow up with an angry, combative, or authoritarian father who towers over you and makes you frightened and quite another to have a father who is emotionally absent, and all the other possible variations in between. A father who does support you in some ways can become an “island of security,” one of the models that you will be able to draw on in adulthood to change your attachment style from insecure to “earned secure,” in therapy or through a close and caring relationship, as you tackle your own behaviors learned in childhood from an unloving mother.
Remember that when you ask a question like this one and there’s no definitive or generalized answer to be drawn from research, you should really see it as an opportunity to plumb your own experience and to answer the question yourself as best you can. Again, one of the important tools at hand to make the unconscious conscious is for you to become both the one who questions and the one who answers. Following are some suggested questions for you:
- How engaged was my father with parenting?
- How would I describe the role he played in the dynamics of the family?
- In what ways did my parents’ marriage influence the family dynamic?
- What positive things did I learn from my father?
- What negative things did I learn from my father?
- If I were to write about my father’s influence, what would I highlight?
Writing your answers down so that you can review them at a later date is highly recommended.
The value of a father’s support
This isn’t to minimize the effect of a truly supportive and loving father. Many women trace not just their getting through childhood to their fathers but also the flowering of their own talents. One woman whose musical talent was nurtured by her father became a violinist; another was encouraged by her attorney father to follow in his footsteps, which she did. My own father wasn’t toxic; in fact, many of my strengths as a person can be traced back to him, and there’s no question that he loved me in his way. But he died when I was 15, and I suspect that, had he lived, his not having my back— and joining Team Mom, which I believe he would have—would have become a real issue. Did my father not see how she treated me? I believe he did, alas, and accepted it because he saw mothering as her exclusive domain and didn’t want to take her on at any cost. The sad truth is that I suspect that, had he lived, I would have ended up divorcing them both in the end.
But even if the word “outweigh” isn’t the right one, nonetheless having a father who cares and supports you can be a beam of light in an otherwise dark childhood room.
This post is adapted from The Daughter Detox Question & Answer Book: A GPS for Navigating Your Way Out of a Toxic Childhood. Copyright© 2019, 2020 by Peg Streep. All rights reserved.
Photograph by Lauren Lulu Taylor. Copyright free. Unsplash.com
Photograph by Elena Mozhvilo. Copyright Free. Unsplash.com
Baumeister, Roy and Ellen Bratslavsky, Catrin Finkenauer and Kathleen D. Vohs, “Bad is Stronger than Good,” Review of General Psychology (2001), vol.5, no.4, 323-370.
Polcari, Ann, Karen Rabi et al, “Parental Verbal Affection in Childhood Differentially Influence Psychiatric Symptoms and Wellbeing in Young Adulthood,” Child Abuse and Neglect (2014), 38 (1), 91-102.