When thinking about father-daughter relationships, unfortunately, there is no “dad” without a “daddy.”
Since entering our collective vocabulary, terms like “daddy issues,” “fatherless behavior” and “father complex” have dominated the ways we discuss the complex relationships between women and their dads. All the difficulty, nuance and complications that exist in these relationships flattened into a singular, sexually tainted dimension: daddy.
This linguistic minimization means that any mention of the term triggers its associations with daddy kinks, if not outright discussions of sex. In a way, daddy has gone mainstream. The podcast “Call Her Daddy” has received criticism and acclaim for its unfiltered discussion of sex. The “Daddy Gang,” aka the fans of the show, number in the millions and eagerly await host Alex Cooper’s vulgar commentary each week.
But what are “daddy issues?” The top entry in Urban Dictionary defines it as “when a girl has a messed up relationship with her dad. usually the fathers fault. either he left or is acting like a total bitch.”
The page goes on to define an array of causes: child abuse, neglect, absent or emotionally unavailable fathers. It’s purposefully imprecise, encapsulating a range of traumas and experiences only loosely tied together through the common thread of fathers. “Daddy issues” is convenient; any traumatic experience or unresolved feeling can fall under the catch-all term. At best it’s an unwillingness to precisely name and identify our experiences; at worst it’s a misogynistic assumption that these women have had the same experience — or at least similar enough ones — and can be lumped together.
Daddy issues seem to mean something different to everyone. When I was introduced to the term, a friend told me that it didn’t apply to me because my dad was still alive. I simultaneously was relieved and annoyed upon hearing this. No girl wants to be labelled as having daddy issues; I certainly didn’t identify myself that way. But it felt like it was the only language there was to describe imperfect paternal relationships.
The relief was only temporary. That was just my friend’s subjective interpretation of daddy issues; later, others would tell me that emotional unavailability did, in fact, qualify. The precise meaning of the term never became clear to me. Anytime my friends and I tried to psychoanalyze our relationships with our fathers, we came to conflicting conclusions, each of us pointing toward a different aspect of daddy issues to justify our observation.
Throughout my adult life, I’ve struggled to define and understand my relationship with my father on my own terms. No matter how hard I try to make sense of my feelings and experiences, every conversation eventually turns to the same, empty idea: “You know, lots of girls have daddy issues.” But it couldn’t be that simple.
Growing up, I heard variations of the same refrain over and over again: “I thought your mom was raising you alone?” “I’ve never seen your dad before.” “Your parents are still together?”
I never quite know how to talk about my dad. My dad is 62 years old. He has a collection of vintage snowmobiles and pretends to dislike our cats. I inherited my nose and my addiction to diet soda from him, but unlike me, he prefers Coke to Pepsi. Still, all that feels too factual.
The truth is that my dad was physically present during my childhood but for the most part, he was emotionally unavailable. Our relationship existed on a superficial plane of awkward family dinners a few times a year, attending parents’ night at school and changing the oil in my car. It was nice, I guess. These interactions reminded me that he cared. But there was never any emotional closeness that came with it, and I grew resentful of his disinterest in me.
As a teenager, I would scream and cry about it, feelings that eventually subsided to passive indifference. We’re just not that close.
Things got better around my senior year of high school. There was a sense between us that my childhood had come and gone and now we were two adults with an obligation to one another. Yet, there was still no clear expectation of what our relationship would look like.
At the start of freshman year of college, my dad drove me down to Ann Arbor in his silver pickup truck. It wasn’t the traditional, teary-eyed goodbye that most people share with their parents. We were on a time crunch: I moved in at 2 p.m. and had a mandatory dinner for my scholarship at 5 p.m. We unpacked as quickly as possible, frantically tearing through boxes, and then enjoyed a meal the University had paid for. I said goodbye to my parents and entered collegiate life in the banquet room of the Cottage Inn on Williams Street. Oddly enough, it felt fitting, maybe even preferable to a drawn-out goodbye. Big emotional displays were never our thing.
When I try to talk about my dad, I feel a tension between wanting precise language to convey my experiences and knowing that there are no words that can express what it was really like. There’s no word for the experience of desperately craving love and validation and kindness from a person who couldn’t feel more distant. There’s no phrase that can encapsulate the sense of resignation and relief when you accept that you’ll never have a close relationship with your dad.
It’s no surprise that the hypersexuality of daddy has impacted the way we define “daddy issues.” The Kentucky Counseling Center’s page of “signs that you may have daddy issues” more closely resembles a Buzzfeed-style listicle than the website of a mental health provider. Their list is all about sexual preferences. If you “seem to want so much sex” or “are interested in much older men,” you may be afflicted.
The popularized coverage of “daddy” in a sexual lens has, in turn, distracted from the real, psychological issues behind the term. Daddy issues remain unclearly defined, making it difficult to articulate exactly what unresolved trauma and maladaptive coping mechanisms are at work. Moreover, the psychological basis for daddy issues isn’t much clearer than the meaning of the term itself. It’s an open question why so many daughters have complex relationships with their fathers. On top of the fact that fathers are an understudied population, researchers have had limited success gaining their participation in the few psychopathological studies targeting them or their families.
After spending a good hour scouring the faculty pages of several U-M department websites — women and gender studies, psychology, social work, psychiatry — I was able to identify only a handful of faculty members whose work was even tangentially related to father-daughter relationships. The ones I reached out to declined my interview requests, citing a lack of expertise or discomfort discussing familial bonds in relation to Oedipal terms like daddy issues.
Even if the underlying question (why many women have difficult relationships with their fathers) is firmly rooted in family psychology, our current zeitgeist tells us that it creeps too closely to Freudian pseudo-science.
Austrian Pscyhologist Sigmunds Freud’s most well-known contribution to psychology is the Oedipus Complex, a developmental phase where young men sexually desire their mother and envy their father. It’s lesser known female-equivalent, the Electra Complex, was introduced by psychologist Carl Jung and theorizes that girls undergo a period of psychosexual development where they resent their mothers out of desire for their fathers. Ironically, searching Wikipedia for “Daddy’s Girl” redirects to the Electra Complex’s page.
Psychologists have disproved Freud’s ideas, but they’re taught to students primarily as an influential, albeit disproven, historical perspective. And they’ve been hard to shake from pop culture. As a result, it seems like no researcher wants to touch daddy issues with a 50 foot poll.
Perhaps it’s the firm separation between pop-psychology and evidence-based research that makes daddy issues a double-entendre. With no one willing to thoroughly investigate father-daughter relationships, we’re left to fill in the blanks ourselves through buzzwords, psycho-sexual pseudoscience and speculation. And I’ve found the result — this hollow understanding of one of the most integral relationships in my life — to be truly devastating.
Despite my distaste for the term, daddy issues’ interlocking themes of father-daughter relationships and hypersexuality are worth examining. In both uses of the term, daddy issues centers on the man while vilifying the woman. It’s her fault for having an imperfect relationship with her dad, even if she was just a kid (why hasn’t the term “daughter issues” ever been coined for negligent fathers?). There’s something pathological about her preference for older men, but there’s nothing wrong with an older man pursuing a younger woman.
As a child and as an adult, she doesn’t have the agency to dictate her feelings or relationships on her own terms. She is the negative imprints of a man, she is the product of whatever he did to her.
To me, this flawed logic is at the core of why daddy issues misses the mark on father-daughter relationships. I struggle with my relationship with my father because I have agency. I’m an adult now — I choose when to call him, when I see him and what parts of my life I share with him.
Whatever happened in my childhood, whatever pain and disappointment I felt, I’m the one who has to decide how I’ll live with that.
My senior year of high school, my environmental science class took a field trip to the factory where my dad worked. We were learning about energy, and my dad was a maintenance technician at a coal-burning power plant.
For as long as I could remember, he and my mom had a post-work routine. The sound of his old silver truck let us know he was home before he even came through the door. He would walk in, still wearing his blue work overalls, lean back in the old swivel chair that sat at the computer desk and complain about his coworkers while my mom listened patiently. I hadn’t yet been to the factory he worked in before my field trip, but I had heard enough from those conversations that I thought I knew what it was like.
I was wrong. After exiting a bland conference room with stark overhead lighting, my class entered the main factory. It was dark and oppressively hot in there; the air was thick with soot and particulate matter. I could hardly hear my tour guide speak over the constant roar of the machinery. The factory floor was divided up by narrow walking rows to keep passersby from veering too close to the equipment and incinerators. I had difficulty gauging the actual dimensions of the space — the constant sensory overload was too disorienting. When my tour group returned to the conference room, I felt relieved it was over.
But after the field trip, I felt like I understood my dad a bit better. It was no surprise that when he came home from work, he was tired and irritable. Of course, it didn’t fully explain his emotional unavailability, and it certainly didn’t justify it. But I began to think about my relationship with my dad in a more contextual way. We were no white-picket-fence family, but that was the standard I held our relationship up to. As a child, I had always envied images of fathers pushing their daughters on swing sets in pristine suburban parks or taking them out for ice cream. I had moments like that, but they were few and far between, and they never lived up to the image in my head.
I began to think about what it meant to love each other in an imperfect world, and to what extent imperfect expressions of love reflect that. Maybe my dad was grouchy when he came home each day, maybe he rarely expressed outward affection and love toward me. But was working at a miserable job to support your family not an act of love?
I began to think about intergenerational cycles of trauma, too. The details of my dad’s childhood were murky to me, but I knew his parents had a rocky marriage and that his own father wasn’t particularly involved or affectionate. What does it mean to love your children when your own experiences of familial love are complex and imperfect?
Despite my newfound perspective, there was still a part of me that felt bitter and deprived. Maybe we didn’t exist in the ideal conditions for love, but I was a child. I can look back on our relationship and logically understand that he was never going to be the ideal, doting father.
But logic doesn’t make me feel better and it doesn’t heal my relationship with my dad.
I’m cognizant of the fact that I’m fortunate my father is alive, that he’s still married to my mother and that I’ve been able to know him. I’m fortunate to have the option to try to change our relationship. That’s part of what makes it so hard for me to discuss our relationship. My situation could be much worse, but we were never the picture perfect father-daughter pair.
And yet, the only language used to discuss these relationships rests at two extremes: You can either have “daddy issues” or be “daddy’s girl.” There’s no room in the middle for the messy realities of most women. Many definitions of “daddy issues” focus on the ways women cope with their flawed familial relationships, but we never talk about how women begin to heal from them.
So how do we move beyond these two reductive tropes?
Psychologist Pauline Boss’s concept of “ambiguous loss” provides a framework for understanding women’s complex feelings toward their emotionally-unavailable fathers. The term isn’t specific to father-daughter relationships and has been applied to a range of traumatic events including miscarriages, seeing a loved one lose their memory to Alzheimer’s and even to mass feelings of loss during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
Ambiguous loss refers to “unclear — and often unacknowledged — absences in (our) lives.” Boss further distinguishes between two types of ambiguous losses: type one, when “there is physical absence with psychological presence” and type two, when “there is psychological absence with physical presence.”
The concept was inspired by Boss’s relationship with her own father. He had come to the United States from Switzerland to study agriculture in the late 1920s, but after the Great Depression hit, he found himself unable to return home. He eventually went on to start a family in America, but was constantly homesick for Europe and the people he had left behind. Boss’s father was grieving without loss, and his inability to find closure left him emotionally detached from his own family.
Conceptualizing father-daughter relationships through ambiguous loss centers the difficult emotions the woman feels and emphasizes her path toward closure and resilience. It helps bridge the gap between daddy issues and daddy’s girl, offering a way to think about these relationships without infantilizing, hypersexualizing or amateurly-diagnosing women.
I first heard about Boss’s concept while listening to an interview she did with The New York Times. I had put on a podcast while I was at the gym, and listening to Boss, I had to resist the urge to burst into tears in the middle of the Intramural Sports Building. Before she even noted that she had first observed ambiguous loss in her own father, I had already connected the idea to my relationship with my dad.
Ambiguous loss is, of course, just a concept. But it was refreshing to give language to my experiences and to hear someone talk about them in a way that gave them dignity and legitimacy. It made me consider our relationship in a different way.
For the first time in my life, I considered that I was grieving. Grieving for a version of father-daughter love that I so desperately wanted but never had. Grieving for all the things left unsaid. Grieving for the person I wish he could’ve been and for the hard realization that he is an imperfect person, too.
Whatever your relationship looks like with your dad — or with any important male figure in your life — we can all learn something from ambiguous loss. Maybe you’re struggling to come to terms with how your relationship has changed in adulthood. Maybe you’re coping with having aging parents. Maybe you’re realizing that you never gave your dad enough credit for the subliminal, subtle ways he showed his love.
As an adult, I’ve realized that being a parent isn’t as easy as I thought while growing up. There comes a time when we all begin to look at and love our parents differently, when we start to understand their flaws and struggles.
I haven’t always been able to say it, and it’s taken me a long time, but I can now: I love my dad.
I could write a novel trying to sort out my mixed emotions or trying to identify the ideal conditions for love or trying to understand why so many women have difficult relationships with their fathers. But there’s no point in that for me.
Deciding to rebuild or reframe your relationship with your dad isn’t the right choice for everyone and I don’t fault women who pick differently, but it’s the right choice for me. I love my dad.
Statement Columnist Haley Johnson can be reached at email@example.com.