How your relationship with your dad affects the type of men you date
It’s a hackneyed therapy joke that all women end up with a version of their fathers. Carl Jung called it the Electra complex – a latent desire to kill our mothers and possess our fathers – declaring it a stage of development every girl goes through between three and six years old. But while that might sound like a slightly creepy cliché, for many of us, a quick tally of our exes will bring up some uncomfortable similarities with the first man in our lives – whether you were aware of it at the time or not.
Relationship therapist Dr Judith Wright says it’s quite straightforward. Basically, the interactions we have with our fathers as young girls are our earliest opportunity to practise communication with the opposite sex. ‘It’s called pre-sexual programming,’ she explains. ‘As infants, we develop an unconscious schema of what love is, based on the way we are treated by our primary caregivers. Then, as adults, we’re attracted to people who stimulate us in the same way. It’s very common for a woman to say, “Oh, he’s too nice” about a potential partner, which is a sign that they had an unavailable father, either emotionally or physically.’
And while the thought of swiping right on a guy who’s the spitting image of your dad might make you shudder, sexual imprinting – where women actively, if subconsciously, seek out a mate resembling their father – is surprisingly common. A 2008 study from the University of Pécs in Hungary found significant facial correlations between women’s long-term partners and their dads, especially when it came to proportions in the nose and eye area. Comparing pictures of Brad Pitt with Angelina Jolie’s dad Jon Voight, Norman Cook with Zoë Ball’s dad, Johnny, or Nigella Lawson’s ex Charles Saatchi with her father Nigel, it’s easy to spot this phenomenon at work. Previous studies have shown that women use their primary father figure as a template for picking a mate even if they are adopted, suggesting that sexual imprinting is led by experience and not simply genetic.*
While I can’t say that any of my boyfriends have physically resembled my dad – balding and bifocals? Um, no thanks – I can recognise that I’m drawn to guys who are similar to him, often in surprising ways. Growing up, I idolised my father, but his alcoholism and my parents’ messy divorce made me determined not to end up with anyone remotely like him. And yet every time I’ve fallen for a guy who on paper seems completely different, certain characteristics – whether it’s an addictive personality or a similarly dry sense of humour – eventually come to light. At times, it feels like I’m doomed to date men like my dad, and the patterns of behaviour I’ve learnt from my parents are a vicious cycle that can’t be broken.
‘This is your psyche returning to the scene of the crime,’ explains Wright. ‘You’re picking somebody who has the same issues [as your father] so that you can fix it and do a better job this time around.’ In other words, despite recognising that your relationship with your father is unhealthy or even abusive, that doesn’t stop people craving what’s familiar. ‘You might think that you’re dating the extreme opposite to your father, and yet the unconscious mind finds a way of slipping back to what’s comfortable,’ says Wright. ‘I had a client who thought she was attracted to wealthy men as a way of rebelling against her father, who had been very poor. But it turned out these men were also dishonest and distant, just as her father had been. How much money they had in their bank accounts was just a distraction.’
Recent studies have shown that a daughter who has a secure, supportive, communicative relationship with her father is the most likely to create
and maintain emotionally fulfilling relationships with men in later life.** But even having a great relationship with your dad doesn’t always make dating easy. Jennifer, 35, was single for most of her twenties because she found it hard to meet a man who could measure up to her father. ‘To me, my dad is basically the best man there is. We’re very close, but he also has what I consider sterling attributes: he’s reliable, solid, dependable, kind and funny. As a builder, he’s practical enough to change a fuse with his eyes shut, but also smart enough to know how to invest money, talk world politics and spark conversation with anyone, irrespective of class. What I find striking is the disparity between the traits and actions that come so naturally to my dad, versus what the generation of guys I’m dating seem completely unable to do, such as arranging a date without ghosting/flaking, planning ahead or just being able to straight-talk about things. My dad is the model that I wish other guys would live up to.’
But if the bond you have with your father is your blueprint for all future relationships, what does it mean if you grew up without knowing your dad? Sarah, 27, didn’t meet her father until she was 16. ‘As a teenager, I always defended the fact that I didn’t have a dad and insisted it didn’t matter. But I’m realising now that I’ve always gone for boyfriends who are unavailable in some way – guys who’ve just got out of long-term relationships or are based in other countries. If someone really likes me, I freak out, because I feel too vulnerable. I don’t have any male friends and I’m sure that’s because I have no template for what a non-sexual dynamic with a man would be like.’ Wright points out that women who haven’t had a male role model tend to be attracted to older men, not just because they want someone to fulfil that stable, powerful, father-figure role, but also because, as young girls, they might have imprinted on a grandfather, who was filling in as their primary male caregiver.
Mirroring your parents’ dynamic doesn’t just happen to heterosexual women, either. Sophie, 28, finds herself dating women who remind her of her mother. ‘My mum’s cheekbones and little snub nose are the things I’m always attracted to in girls. Personality-wise, my mum can be a bit offish with me, so I think that’s why I never like the girls who are immediately into me.’ In her current relationship, Sophie takes on a role similar to her dad. ‘I’ve just got back from a holiday with my girlfriend and I was the one who did all the map-reading and took charge of where we would eat, just like my dad would. Although you’d think those sorts of gender dichotomies wouldn’t exist as much any more, they really do. I think queer women grow up surrounded and inundated by heterosexual culture, so really it’s no wonder if we imitate what’s around us as our model of relationships.’
So what can you do if you feel you’re stuck in a rut of dating people just like your parents? Wright points out that being attracted to someone similar to your dad (or your mum) isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as long as your partner shares their best qualities. ‘Ideally, your partner will be an improved, evolved version of your mother or father.’ She advises writing a list of all the attributes your exes have in common with your dominant parent. ‘Just recognising these triggers and becoming aware of what patterns of behaviour you’re at risk of falling into can help break negative cycles of behaviour.’
Psychotherapy or counselling can help you to understand the motivations behind your relationship choices. Wright also recommends being upfront with partners when ‘daddy issues’ crop up. ‘Instead of panicking and running away, use it as a learning experience. By talking honestly about these impulses and where they come from, you’ll understand more about yourself and connect with your partner.’
Personally, I find it helpful to remind myself that however similar he sometimes seems (and however many dad jokes he tells), my partner is not my father and, ultimately, I am responsible for creating a new story – one that’s hopefully nothing like my parents’ marriage. ‘It’s hard to mentally divorce yourself from your parents,’ adds Wright. ‘But it’s only by separating yourself from them, and seeing your relationship as your new family, with its own traditions and rituals, that women can break free from the Electra complex and fully move on.’