A good friend of mine recently revealed that as her father lay dying, she whispered in his ear "Thank you for leading me to Jimmy." Her dad had been a very loving man whose constant emotional support had given my friend a deep sense of self-worth and the belief that she was deserving of kindness and success. There had been many problems in her home, but this was a message she got loud and clear, and though she was often riddled with anxieties, she went on to marry Jim, a man whose regard and love for her (and hers for him) has been unshakable.
This scene brought to mind a number of my young adult clients with histories of painful relationships with men. Each of them had distant, demanding or otherwise difficult fathers and were either desperately seeking boyfriends, settling for mean ones, tolerating hurtful criticisms and physically intimidating behaviors, and/or blaming themselves whenever things went wrong.
The fact is a difficult or painful relationship with Dad often results in difficult, painful relationship with men. This is because it is from their fathers that a girl first experiences love from a male figure. This is where she forms the basis of how love feels, both in terms of quality (hopefully gentle, approving, warm) and how she feels about herself within that love relationship (hopefully admired, honored, important, good enough, convinced that a better daughter could not be found).
A daughter whose father is supportive and loving will tend to choose relationships that reflect her good sense of self. She expects to be treated well because she deserves it. If she's not, she's more likely to want out: "I'm pretty terrific. I don't like the way Max flirts with every girl in front of me. He's a jerk."
Not so for girls who experience emotionally distant, demanding, or critical fathers who, despite their love, fail to convey that their daughters are lovable, worthwhile and enjoyable people just by being who they are. For such a girl, love may become associated with harsh judgments, high expectations or yearning for closeness, and the idea that somehow she is not good enough or has to earn love. This girl may think, "I'm not as good as other girls. Maybe if I lose weight, wear more makeup or learn how to be funnier, Max will stop looking at other girls. I'm lucky he's dating me." On the surface it's Max. But in many cases there is another stronger quest going on: it is an unconscious battle to "get Dad to love me."
And that's the most critical problem. Difficult fathers often fail to instill in their daughter a sense of being good enough to love. They often fail to model how she should be treated. Instead, they may leave her lost in the struggle to figure out what she can do to be loved more, or be lovable at all. The boyfriend, as a substitute for Dad, becomes the new love object that must be won over.
Even if such a daughter does choose a kind guy, she is usually still saddled with an unease. Any time the boyfriend looks at another girl, she may panic. When he gets annoyed she might fear that the relationship is over and go into overdrive to please him. She will have trouble believing that she can be imperfect and yet still loved, and this very anxiety could cause the relationship to collapse.
So, dads, treat your daughters as you'd want a guy to treat them. Respect her thoughts and opinions. When she does something good, tell her, and when she tries but does not succeed, applaud her efforts. When she makes mistakes, tell her in a way that criticizes her actions, not her person, and when you lapse and treat her poorly, apologize during a calm moment.
This is not to say that girls with fabulously loving and available dads don't stumble into unhappy relationships with mean guys, but for the most part, they are better able to climb out of them. A bell goes off when a boundary of kindness is overstepped and she says, "Oh, wow. I'm too good for this."
Finally, just because an adolescent or young woman chooses a difficult or hurtful guy doesn't necessarily mean she has a distant or harsh father. Maybe Mom is hypercritical or self-involved and Dad doesn't know how to step in. Maybe this daughter has poor social skills and thus her self-esteem is low. Perhaps, despite supportive parents, she doesn't fit the classic sought-after "pretty girl" image and is aching to fit in, so almost any boy will do.
Nevertheless, dads can play a big part in modeling how their daughters should be treated by boys. Knowing this can empower a father -- and help to lead his daughter to her "Jimmy."