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The Unavailable Father: How Women Can Cope

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Fathers Day is tomorrow. You may be excited that you found the latest gadget that will thrill your dad, or relieved that all that is required of you is a distant phone call. Your relationship with your father is meaningful in its presence and absence, in its strengths and deficiencies. Dr. Sarah Simms Rosenthal explores the impact of the disappointments—small and large—in women’s relationships with their fathers in her book The Unavailable Father: Seven Ways Women Can Cope with a Broken Father-Daughter Relationship.

In the book’s introduction, we learn about the author’s relationship with her own father, whose rage, incessant criticism and disapproval were directed at her. She talks about her experience of mourning something she never had: an emotionally close and loving relationship with her father. In a mere paragraph Rosenthal captures a powerful component of father-daughter relationships—an underlying, often unconscious, sexual undercurrent. She writes: “I recognize now that my father’s sexual possessiveness with respect to me would seem to suggest a strong, if twisted, attachment. I cannot explain this.” While the author focuses on the impact that the lack of unconditional love, consistency, and safety in a father’s parenting may have in the father-daughter relationship, she avoids further exploration of this deeper, ubiquitous, unspoken realm. Often, a father’s attempt to deny and suppress his sexual feelings towards his daughter leads to emotional unavailability, anger and abandonment.

The book consists of two sections: “Part One: The Stories,” and “Part Two: The Path to Recovery.”  The first part consists of six chapters, each of which represents a type of unavailable father: disapproving, mentally ill, substance abusing, abusive, unreliable and absent. In each chapter we read compelling and moving stories of women who were raised with these types of fathers, their struggles and their triumphs. The reader will inevitably ruminate on her own relationship with her father and will likely find herself reflected in these pages. Rosenthal exclusively offers success stories: stories of women who have created successful lives and relationships despite their difficult early experiences with their fathers. This is both a strength and weakness in the book: while the message is that healing and success are possible despite profound pain and disappointment, the exclusivity of “happy endings” lends a touch of unreality.

The second part consists of two chapters: “Assessing the Damage” and “The Path to Recovery.” Rosenthal offers The Father-Daughter Relationship Assessment Questionnaire, 40 questions assessing a woman’s experience with her father. The reader is encouraged to categorize her father according to his general level of unavailability and the father “type” he may fall into. The author describes the impact of these fathering types on daughters. This process allows the reader further reflection on the emotional and behavioral consequences of her relationship with her father.

In the final chapter, Rosenthal spells out the steps a woman can take towards resolving her emotional pain. “While there are different types of unavailable fathers who leave their daughters with very different types of problems, there is only one path to recovery.” However, for many, overcoming childhood difficulties, disappointments and traumas may take many forms. The steps Rosenthal offers are very clear and linear in the tradition of self-help literature and cognitive-behavioral approaches to psychotherapy. Yet the path to healing (not only father-daughter relationships) often takes circuitous forms. In the first step, “Understand What Really Happened to You as a Child,” Rosenthal suggests that a woman talk to her father and other family members. Yet for many women, particularly those who come from abusive, mentally ill or substance abusing families, this is not always advisable. The process of understanding what happened to us may be more of a re-construction, a creation of a cohesive narrative out of a jumble of memories that may be chaotic or confusing, rather than an archeological discovery of a hidden past or a “fact-finding mission.” Seeking the cooperation of family members in this process who have proven, over and over again, to be unreliable and untrustworthy, may not work.

The subsequent steps along the path to recovery include a reevaluation and examination as well as a process for changing attitudes and behaviors. While making these changes can be easier said than done (as these are often anchored deeper into the fabric of our being), these steps nonetheless may serve as a starting point and may offer women guidance through the personal process of healing.

Michal Tziyon is a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist in private practice. Her website is www.nypsychotherapy-mtziyon.com. E-mail her at michal.tziyon@gmail.com

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