“Do you think Dad is having an affair?” I asked my mother one day, after he’d spent another late evening at work with an attractive co-worker.
I was maybe 14 or 15 at the time — an age when kids are well aware of their parents’ shortcomings.
“Of course not,” she said. “You know your father; he likes to help people.”
My dad did like to help people. Still, years later, both my mother and I discovered that we didn’t know him all that well. He had been cheating on her back then, just as my second husband had cheated on me — an unfortunate kind of mother-daughter bonding. She told me of his infidelity, which she’d only recently discovered, just as I was about to divorce for the second time, at midlife; my mom, then in her 70s, decided to stay married. I couldn’t help but wonder if somehow, perhaps unconsciously, the father I loved and admired had somehow set me up for a life of questionable romantic attractions.
There’s quite a bit of research that indicates that may be true. In fact, there’s been an increase in studies in recent years on how fathers impact their children in general — from language development to depression. And we’ve long heard that women are attracted to men like dear ol’ Dad. “The greatest impact on a woman’s romantic choices and ability to feel comfortable in her own sexuality is how her father related to her in childhood,” journalist Victoria Secunda wrote in “Women And Their Fathers: The Sexual and Romantic Impact of the First Man In Your Life.”
A cheating father is no different. According to clinical psychologist Ana Nogales, author of “Parents Who Cheat: How Children and Adults are Affected When Their Parents Are Unfaithful,” 80 percent of adults who witnessed infidelity as a child said their father’s cheating affected the way they feel about love and relationships and 70 percent said they believe it impacted their ability to trust others.
But a father obviously doesn’t have to be unfaithful to influence his child’s love life. He can just not be around. Daughters, especially teens, who have little contact with their fathers, whether through divorce or abandonment, “had great difficulties forming lasting relationships with men,” one study notes.
Journalist Jonetta Rose Barras, author of “Whatever Happened to Daddy’s Little Girl: The Impact of Fatherlessness on Black Women,” says “the fatherless woman syndrome” is devastating African American communities. “You develop these handicaps based on the absence of your father,” she said in an interview with NPR. “So you don’t believe that you’re lovable or worthy of love. You suffered the triple fear factor — fear of rejection, fear of commitment, fear of abandonment. You actually get involved with sexual activity because you’re looking for someone to love you. You have rage, anger and depression issues, and then you overcompensate, either using drugs, using work. And so these things come out in your life in ways that, kind of, alienates you in relationships.”
It’s just as bad if fathers are physically present but emotionally absent. “The daughter who has a fulfilling relationship with her father is usually more trusting, more secure and more satisfied in her romantic relationships than the daughter with troubled or distant relationship with her dad,” regardless of whether her parents are married or divorced, according to Linda Nielsen, a professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and an expert in father-daughter relationships.
Despite my disappointment in my father’s choices and the pain he caused my mother, I came to a place of forgiveness and compassion for him, as well as for my former husband. And, just as important, I found compassion for myself, addressed my family-of-origin issues and vowed to never let them determine my love life again. It’s been a process, but a healthy and satisfying one.
As we approach Father’s Day, some of us may have more to thank our fathers for than others. For those who don’t, at least we can stop blaming Mom for once.