6 Ways the Father Wound Can Harm You and Your Family and What You Can Do To Heal

For most adults, the father wound, is invisible. Children are very aware of a father’s absence due to divorce, death, disconnection, or dysfunction. Children know the pain of a father who may not be a loving support for his family because the father may suffer from mental illness, have an alcohol problem, be preoccupied with work, or be physically or emotionally abusive. But humans are resilient. We get used to whatever we experience in childhood and by the time we become adults, the wounds have been covered over and we often forget their childhood origins.

This was certainly the case in my own life. When I was five years old, my father had what was called a “nervous breakdown.” He took an overdose of sleeping pills and was committed to Camarillo State Mental hospital, north of Los Angeles. After being hospitalized for three years, my mother was told that he would need to be hospitalized, perhaps for the rest of his life. My mother finally got a divorce and later married another man.

Gradually I came to forget the pain I felt losing my father. I learned to be independent and take care of myself and tried to make my own way into manhood without the presence of a father. But the father wound, like other effects of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), doesn’t go away just because our conscious mind has buried the experience or we have learned to “forget the past” and “get on with our lives.”

I became very successful in my career as therapist helping men and the women who love them. I had fourteen books published including international bestsellers, Looking for Love in All the Wrong Places, Male Menopause, and The Irritable Male Syndrome. Yet, my personal life was chaotic and dysfunctional. My first marriage ended in divorce and I quickly fell in love with a woman who slept with a gun under her pillow to protect her “from men.” That marriage was short-lived. I became increasingly angry, manic and depressed.

I had multiple layers of resistance, thinking that since I was a therapist I could handle the problems myself. Being male and being a therapist kept me in denial a long time. But I finally reached out and got help. I learned that I was not alone. According to the National Center for Fathering, “More than 20 million children live in a home without the physical presence of a father. Millions more have dads who are physically present, but emotionally absent. If it were classified as a disease, fatherlessness would be an epidemic worthy of attention as a national emergency.”

I began to connect the dots and understood that the father wound I experienced as a child had a lot to do with the problems I developed later in life. Roland Warren, past president of the National Fatherhood Initiative says, “Kids have a hole in their soul in the shape of their dad. And if a father is unwilling or unable to fill that hole, it can leave a wound that is not easily healed.” Kids with a hole in their soul grow up to be adults whose lives become chaotic and dysfunctional. Here are five ways the father wound can undermine our lives.

  1. We blame ourselves for our father wound.

When we fail to receive the love and support we need from our father, we grow up feeling something is wrong with us. Even though we know it’s not rational, we blame ourselves for our father’s absence. Maybe if I were a better kid my father wouldn’t have left, we think.

  1. We develop fragile self-esteem.

We may act tough, strong, and self-sufficient, but deep down inside we feel something vital is missing in us. Though we are not consciously aware of it, we are forever trying to prove ourselves to the father we lost.

  1. We are cut off from our feelings.

We live with a deep wound that we cover because it is too painful to deal with. Because we don’t allow ourselves to feel pain, we are cut off from our feelings, particularly the loving and tender ones. We might know what we should feel, but we are often numb and closed down.

  1. We are prone to addictions and other forms of escape.

We may drink, drug, use pornography, or become obsessed with our work. We tell ourselves we’re just blowing off steam, relieving stress, but we’re really running away from the pain from our past.

  1. We become depressed and take our anger out on others.

We become increasingly irritable and angry with those we love. We’re not aware that the anger we feel towards our lost fathers is being projected on to our loved ones. We become increasingly depressed, but are afraid to admit it.

  1. We are hungry for love, but are afraid to get close.

We often blame others for our unhappiness and push away those who care about us the most. We want to give and receive love, but the ghost of our lost father keeps us cut off and lonely.

Fortunately, there are some simple, though not easy, steps we can take to heal.

  1. Admit to yourself and another person that you are in pain.
  2. Accept that your behavior has been hurting yourself and your family.
  3. Commit to getting help and breaking the cycle of pain, escape, and more pain.
  4. Be willing to explore the father wound and learn how it has impacted your life.
  5. Ask yourself some hard questions. Was my father absent physically, emotionally, or spiritually when I was growing up? Did I feel the pain of his absence? Am I ready to heal the father wound?
  6. Release your shame, guilt, and anger. It wasn’t your fault that you didn’t get the loving support you needed from your father. He probably didn’t get it from his father.

Healing can take years, but it’s worth doing. You take one step at a time. If this article resonates with you, I invite you to share your comments and reach out. You are not alone. I want to hear from you, whether you are a wounded man or a family member living with a wounded man. There is a network of people and programs committed to healing the father wound. We can heal together. I look forward to your comments and questions.

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  1. Peter Charad says:

    Jed, every time I read anything of yours, it hits me right in the stomach! My dad had a ‘nervous breakdown’ when I was around 5 years old. I’m 73 and still remember the ‘shame.’ My mother used to take me with her to collect him after he had been given ECT – still hurts today. Not only the father wound, but because my mother took me as a surrogate partner, my life has been littered with very nice women who could never live up to her standards, even though she’s been dead for 32 years. I’m okay but still working on those wounds and doing my best to help others heal too. Cant remember if I sent you the YuTube of the talk I give. https://youtu.be/prMC8ckgg4I

    Best wishes. Peter

  2. Peter,
    Definitely sounds like we have similar stories. Would be interesting to talk with you sometime about our shared experiences. We’re about the same age. I was born December 21, 1943 and part of the reasons I’m writing this memoir if to help bring all these pieces together, not only so I can make sense of them, but hopefully to help others.

    Let’s do stay in touch.

    I hadn’t seen the video, but will take a look soon.


  3. Hi Jed, My husband and I are experiencing difficulties and are currently exploring the root causes of this in the hope that we can heal and reconcile. I’d be interested to hear whether you would consider my husband to have a ‘father wound’, as he wouldn’t say he does. His father left his mother for another woman when he was 5. His father set up home with the other woman and had two more children, while my husband remained with his mother. My husband saw his Dad very regularly (every week or so) and has always has a very good relationship with him and the rest of the family. As he has such a good relationship and saw him so often he doesn’t believe there is any pain around this. However I wonder whether his Dad leaving his home has in fact caused a wound. Even though it’s no way near as bad as being totally abandoned, do you think it would still cause damage?

  4. Pippa, It’s often difficult to know how lost fathers impact our lives. Humans are very resilient and usually bounce back from a loss. However, I’ve learned in working with men and women over the last 40 plus years, that often the father wound and its impact on our lives is not always apparent. If we experienced a serious break in the parental bond, as a result of death, desertion, abuse, neglect, or abandonment, the father wound may be more obvious and recognizable. However, even a break as you describe of a father leaving when a child is young can have an impact on our adult life and relationships many years later, even if the person has had a positive relationship through the years. The 5-year-old mind may be impacted more than we think and the wound becomes covered over and forgotten. Its certainly worth exploring in more depth. Thanks for commenting. If I can help further, let me know.

  5. Hi Jed, I’m curious to hear your take on same sex marriages, where children might grow up without a father or a mother, what do you think the long term psychological repercussions could be?
    PS: My father wasn’t absent, but I identify with 5 out of the 6 points above…

  6. Martin, The most basic thing children need is love, kindness, care, and support. This can come from a man and a woman, two men, or two women, and of course from extended families, other relatives, and the wider community. All children begin life with sperm from a father and an egg from a mother. Even if they grow up in a same sex family, they long to connect with the masculine and feminine energy from which they came. There are a lot of ways to raise healthy children. Most of them will be born into a family with a man and a woman. Let’s make those family units strong and loving, and support the other variations that a complex culture creates.

  7. Thank you for sharing your own experience as well as how we can work on our father wounds. It’s especially helpful to have the steps needed to move toward healing said so succinctly and kindly. Many of us are walking around with this wound still in our hearts, and not understanding the toll it takes on us as adults…not to mention the family members we love and who would like to love us back if only we were ready to accept it. Glad you are doing this important work.

    • Dianne, Thanks for the comments. These have been some of the most important things I’ve learned:
      Many of the problems we have from physical and mental illnesses to unplanned pregnancies, from chronic pain to broken marriages. All these seemingly unrelated problems have this in common. At the root are Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs). We don’t often recognize the connections between adult problems and childhood wounds, but once we understand them, we can begin undertaking real healing, not just band-aide, quick fixes. The impact of lost fathers on both men and women has been sadly neglected. I hope to shine light on these issues in my forthcoming book, From Madness to Manhood: In Search of My Lost Father and Myself.