Absent Fathers: Effects on Abandoned Sons

Article excerpt

Absent fathers are pervasive in American culture. Father absence is pathological and severely affects the abandoned son's capacity for self-esteem and intimacy. The reason for and type of father absence is important in determining the effects on the adult son. This article discusses the impact of a father's absence on his abandoned son's struggle with self-esteem and intimacy and proposes a treatment model for abandoned sons.

Many adult sons abandoned by their fathers have difficulty developing and sustaining self-esteem, forming lasting emotional attachments, recognizing their feelings, or being expressive with their adult partners and children. These men must turn their attention toward their absent fathers and resolve the mystery of their absence to ensure that their current intimate relationships can succeed. The reasons for the fathers' absence are paramount, as these dictate the effects on the sons.

This article, based on published research and the author's clinical and supervisory experiences, explores the experiences of men abandoned by their fathers, delineates the impact on the sons' feelings of worth and their intimate relationships, and highlights treatment issues central to this situation.

The prevalence of absent fathers across class and ethnic categories suggests that this social problem afflicts many families with profound emotional, developmental, educational, and legal consequences for the abandoned sons (Arendell, 1993; Blankenhorn, 1995; Ilarado, 1993; Kruk, 1992, 1994; Lamb, 1997; Phares, 1992; Sills, 1995).

FATHER ABSENCE

SOCIAL CONTEXT

In the mid-nineteenth century fathers increasingly moved out of the home for economic reasons. Men came to spend less and less time in a parental role as they came to be seen primarily as economic providers for the family (Griswold, 1993). A major consequence of this shift, as described by Pleck (1987), was a change in role from being an active and present dominant influence in the family to being a physically absent and intermittent dominant influence. Fathers lost the regular opportunity to parent, and children lost their fathers.

Luepnitz (1988) contends that the predominant American family structure is patriarchal and, paradoxically, father-absent. This pervasive construct represents the economic and gender inequities present in American society. Fathers, by virtue of being male, earn more money than mothers, which in turn gives them power (one patriarchal feature) over the rest of the family (Auerbach, 1996).

Fathers can be absent in a variety of ways, both physical and emotional. Many of the reasons fathers are absent from the lives of their sons are direct consequences of society's impact on the family. For example, Mott (1994) cites both historical and contemporary economic conditions that force men to work outside of the home for long hours in habitually dehumanizing environments.(1) The result is alienation in both directions--the father from the family and the family from the father.

The prevalence of divorce and single-parent families also contributes to this discouraging situation. With father absence a major fact of family structure, it's no surprise that we find a vast majority of single-parent families headed by mothers and the minority by fathers. The U.S. Department of Commerce (1994) reported an increase in mother-headed families from 4.4 million in 1960 to 11.9 million in 1993. The percentage of children living apart from their fathers more than doubled between 1960 and 1990, from 17.5% to 36.3% (Blankenhorn, 1995).

Social and economic institutions do not support fathers who, upon divorce or separation, seek to actively parent (Keshet, 1980). Fathers who have joint custody of their children after divorce work fewer hours, earn less money, and typically feel powerless. These disincentives block many fathers from continued involvement with their children after divorce, even those who were involved with their children while married. …