Fathers and Daughters: An Essential Bond After Divorce By Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW
The relationship a daughter has with her father is one that has a profound impact on her life. The breakup of a family often changes the dynamic of the father-daughter relationship and it can be a challenge to stay connected. Research has shown that fathers play an important role in the lives of their daughters but that this relationship is the one that changes the most after divorce.
There’s no denying that a woman’s relationship with her father is one of the most crucial in her life. The quality of that connection – good, damaged, or otherwise – powerfully impacts dads and daughters in a multiple of ways. A father’s effect on his daughter’s psychological well-being and identity is far-reaching. A daughter’s sense of self, for instance, is often connected to how her father views her. A girl stands a better chance of becoming a self-confident woman if she has a close bond with her father.
While divorce can be problematic for all children, it poses unique challenges for girls, in part due to a tendency they have to crave emotional closeness more than boys do. She may feel that if her family is broken, she is broken. Due to a delayed reaction to divorce or a “Sleeper Effect,” a girl might go undercover, and develop an increased sensitivity to loss that may go unnoticed.
Why is the father-daughter relationship so vulnerable to disruption after a parents’ divorce? Dr. Linda Nielson, a nationally recognized expert on father-daughter relationships, posits that that while most daughters of divorce are well adjusted several years after their parents’ divorce, many have damaged relationships with their fathers. Unfortunately, if the wound is severe, a girl may grow into adulthood with low self-esteem and trust issues.
Dr. Nielson found that girls tend to spend more time with their mothers (and less time with their dad) after their parents’ divorce. In her extensive research, Dr. Nielson found that only 10 to 15 percent of fathers get to enjoy the benefits of joint custody after the family splits.
My research for Daughters of Divorce spanned over three years and was comprised of 326 interviews of young women who reflected upon their parents’ divorce. The most common themes that emerged from these interviews were trust issues and a wound in the father-daughter relationship. My previous study published in the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage concluded that lack of access to both parents and high conflict between them contributed to low self-esteem in young women raised in divorced homes. Most of the young women that I interviewed expressed a strong desire to improve their communication with their fathers yet lacked the tools to be able to pull this off.
Certainly a strong father-daughter connection is a challenge when it comes to post-divorce relationships. In a recent episode of Oprah’s Lifeclass Bishop T.D. Jakes concludes “It’s not a lack of love that stops an estranged father from reconnecting with his child – it’s the fear of rejection.” Bishop Jakes recommends that every father needs to “court” his child and discover his or her world in order to reconnect.
In his recent book Always Dad, Paul Mandelstein, advises divorced dads to find ways to play a crucial role in their daughter’s life. He suggests that divorced parents call a truce with their ex-spouse – to put an end to active fighting and to collaborate. The father-daughter connection, even several years after a family dissolves, is heavily influenced by consistency in contact and the quality of the relationship.
Daughters who have a strong relationship with their father are more likely to be self-confident and mature – possessing a purpose in their lives. A daughter’s relationship with her father is the first one that teaches her how she should be treated by a man. But Dads often lose touch with their daughters after a family splits up and they don’t always know how to reconnect. I know firsthand about this loss because I experienced it with my own father and fortunately was able to heal the rupture in our relationship.