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How Dads Shape Daughters’ Relationships

Dad can create a daughter's conscious and unconscious relationship expectations.

Many years ago, I sat with my family in the lobby of a restaurant waiting to be seated. Out of nowhere, a very little girl toddled around the corner and walked straight up to my 6’5”, 325 pound dad and laughed and babbled at him. It was a scene straight from the movie Monsters, Inc.

Within seconds, a young man equal in size and stature to my dad rounded the corner and in a very deep, kind voice said to the toddler, “Rachel, where did you go?” Rachel laughed and her dad picked her up high in the air, nodded an acknowledgment to my dad and walked out of the restaurant.

Even my dad was a little surprised at the little girl’s courage, but it didn’t take a Ph.D. to deduce that not only was tiny little Rachel not afraid of my big, huge dad, she was actually attracted to him. When I say “attracted” I don’t mean in a creepy, inappropriate way. I mean that in a group of people of different heights and sizes, she was drawn to the one who most resembled her own dad.

It makes sense, doesn’t it? As infants, we take in a complete sensory experience of our everyday surroundings and this shapes our perception of normalcy. If, like Rachel and me, everyday experiences included a giant, deep-voiced, lumberjack man, then that is what we imprinted as normal. Not only does this influence ring true, but many, many studies (including this one from the Journal of Genetic Psychology) have shown the influence of fathers on their daughters’ relationships.

If there was a dad or other male caregiver in your early life, he probably set the first model of how a relationship with a man would be. And for better or for worse, regardless of circumstances, most children love their parents/caregivers unconditionally and accept the attachment and love that is (or is not!) given in return as normal. Our first attachment patterns shape our expectations for future attachments. Overtly and also unintentionally, our parents teach us how to approach our lives and relationships—they teach us how to express and receive love, how to handle disagreements, how to process feelings, etc. Our parents shape and color the lens through which we see and organize meaning about other human interactions.

So a woman’s early relationship with dad, who is usually the first male object of her love, shapes her conscious and unconscious perceptions of what she can expect and what is acceptable in a romantic partner (for heterosexual women).

In my years of psychology practice, I’ve met very few women who did not unconsciously or consciously pick a romantic partner based on the characteristics of her father. I don’t mean only physical characteristics, although that can also be present—I mean relational pattern characteristics. Even the women that state they chose partners who were opposite of their dad are basing their decisions on the relationship (or non-relationship) with dad—a choice to go opposite is still a choice based on dad.

So, does this mean that today Rachel is married to a lumberjack who chases her around in restaurants? I have no idea, but chances are whatever relationship she’s in is influenced by her early relationship with her father. What does this mean for all us? A lot. And in upcoming posts I’ll address exactly what. Topics will explore how different, early attachment patterns (including no attachment) can affect our current relationship choices and how we respond in relationships. Please stay tuned and join in the conversation!

Follow Jen Kromberg on Twitter @JenKrombergPsyD