What Your Therapist Never Taught You About The Absent Father Wound

I’m a therapist specializing in helping men and the families who love them. I’ve been seeing people for more than 40 years, but it has only been in recent years that I’ve come to recognize the importance of the absent father wound on the lives of men and women.

When I was five years old, my mid-life father had a nervous breakdown. He took an overdose of sleeping pills and ended up in Camarillo State Mental Hospital, north of Los Angeles where we had been living since moving from New York City when I was a year old. The doctors told my mother he needed extended treatment and might never leave the hospital. My mother eventually got a divorce and I grew up without a father.

I didn’t realize the impact that an absent father had on my own life or on the lives of millions of men and women until I began writing my book last year. It’s called Return of the Puppet Man: Healing the Wound from a Father’s Absence. It will be published and available later this year, but am happy to send anyone who requests it the first chapter of the book, “Mad Father, Dutiful Son.” Just drop me an email and put “Father Wound” in the subject line.

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.”

What is the Absent Father Wound? It’s the negative effect of growing up in a home where a father was absent physically or emotionally. Like me, most of us adapt to whatever our life situation is and rarely associate our adult difficulties with childhood wounding.

However, large-scale studies over the last twenty years have demonstrated that Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACES), including the loss of a father through death, divorce, or distancing, can cause a number of effects on those experiencing ACEs including:

  • Smoking, substance abuse, overeating, and hypersexuality in adolescence.
  • Anxiety, depression, and hypersensitivity to loss as adults.
  • Difficulty finding and maintaining healthy adult love relationships.
  • Increased risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, diabetes, and cancer.
  • Working long hours, as a subconscious attempt to withdraw from relationships.

Why are we so powerfully impacted by the loss of a parent’s loving support and how can it have such long-lasting effects? This was a question I asked myself a lot when I began to wonder about my life-long bouts of depression, my hypersensitivity to loss, my irritability and anger, and my difficulty maintaining a healthy relationship (I’ve been married three times).  Could these problems be related to loss of my father at age five and how his loss impacted our family?

I got some interesting answers from research conducted by Matthew Lieberman, a distinguished social psychologist and neuroscientist, and reported in his book, Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. His research validates a view held by Aristotle and expressed in his Politics:

“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.”

Our social connections are vital to our life and well-being. Lieberman says, “Just as human beings have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.” But when we experience early losses, particularly those of a parent, our ability to connect socially is damaged.

Lieberman asserts that our large brains are indicators of our social nature and need to keep track of all the important social connections in our lives. The social scientist, Robin Dunbar, shows this relationship in his research. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size—specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer—is the size of its social group. Humans have big brains because we have big social networks. Lieberman says,

“Every time we are not engaged in an active task—like when we take a break between two math problems—the brain falls into a neural configuration called the default network,”

What’s surprised me about the default network is that according to Lieberman’s research, it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or making sense of other people and ourselves. Even at rest, our brains are evaluating and preparing to connect socially.

You’d think the brain would just rest when it was resting, rather than being active. But as Lieberman points out,

“Evolution has made a bet that the best thing for our brain to do in any spare moment is to get ready for what comes next in social terms.”

One study of adults found that the brain’s reward center, which turns on when people feel pleasure, was more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10. This is what the Dalai Lama and other spiritual teachers have found. The real key to a happy life isn’t accumulating more money for ourselves, but real happiness comes when we give to others.

We’ve become a society that neglects the social importance of connections. It’s why the father wound is so pervasive. We don’t recognize how important our early social connections with our dads really are. Recently psychologists and economists came together to put a monetary value on our social interactions.

It may help us to wake up to the importance when we see how much our social connections are worth in dollars and cents. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbors on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

These days it may be a lot easier, and more effective, to increase our social connections rather than trying to make a bunch more money.

They didn’t say how much we lose when we lose a father’s love, but I suspect it is substantial and it’s a wound that keeps on wounding. The good news is we can heal from these early wounds. In my new book Return of the Puppet Man: Healing the Wound from a Father’s Absence and the accompanying Playbook, I describe my own healing journey and guide people who want to heal their own father wounds.

I look forward to your comments. And if you’d like a free copy of the first chapter, email me.  (Please respond to my spamarrest filter when writing for the first time)

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  1. What if you’re aware of your father wounds, and come to terms and deal with it. Only to realise most of your relationship conflict also stems from your spouses father/mother wounds. Almost like, I’m not fighting you, but your parents?

    • Jack, Good point. In my new book the last chapter talks about “the father wound I never knew I had,” when I discovered that my mother lost her father when she was five years old. Many women have a father wound (my two former wives and my present wife) and until both partners address their wounds, relationships often suffer.

      • Seems like our inner child’s memory comes out in our interactions especially when we are stressed and with the people we’ve emotionally bonded (triggers). Sometimes we are left with: what, how, why. I just happen to be here? We’ve all these things triggering us and I guess in that state you’re fighting a child’s emotional intelligence.
        So in essence you should validate your spouse’s feelings that was never met as a child and in return your bond could strengthen from a fight that was most likely illogical to start with.
        Till you can get on the same page with your child wounds.

  2. Jay Gordon says:

    For many of us, what is worse than an absent father is an abusive one. Not even necessarily the physical variety. Mental abuse can be horrific to children. How can they possibly understand the motivation for cruelty? I never knew my birth father. There were a few contradictory accounts of him. Later I assumed they were constructed by my kind mother whose aim was to avoid my feeling unwanted.

    My stepfather was not permitted to physically abuse me. However, the mental games were prolific and devastating. I don’t recall him ever calling me by my given name. It was always some dismissive, insulting nickname. He commanded a significant collection of them.

    He made fun of me for doing volunteer work at the local hospital to teach handicrafts to long term children patients. I also distributed mail and flowers to other patients. It was all extremely satisfying. He felt work should never be done for free. If there is such a place as Hell, I hope he found his way there. And no, I have not learned the power of forgiveness.

    There was eventually a happier relationship with a real father, but that’s a sermon for another Sunday.

  3. Thank you for this enlightening article. It explains a lot about me and the intensity with which I experience loss of those close to me. My paternal grandfather died when I was 2.5 years old, and I didn’t realize the profound effect it had on me until I started my healilng journey in 1988 and I didn’t have EFT then so it took me a long time to work through that loss. I was very close to him and when he died, my father did not fill that vacancy. He was absent emotionally and worked a lot. He was also a WWII veteran that was stationed in the Phillipines, so that added to his “absence”.

    I’ve experienced many of the challenges you described, and the biggest challenge is to stay connected socially. Being a Vietnam Veteran has probably added to that challenge, and thanks to your article, I now have another area to explore and use EFT to help me heal more.

    I look forward to your new book and will send you an email requesting the first chapter.

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