During treatment for opiate addiction, Megan talked a lot with her counselor about her family of origin, childhood, and, in particular, her father’s aloofness. As a child, Megan always blamed herself for her inability to “connect” with her father Sam. Megan’s mother lavished affection and attention on her but Sam seemed to simply tolerate her presence. Whenever she tried to talk to her father, he would mostly just say a few words to acknowledge her or attempt to shorten the conversation by saying things like “life is hard” and “you just have to learn to deal with it”.
Megan could not remember having one deep conversation with her father. “It was like he was there, but he wasn’t,” she told her counselor. “Once, when he found me crying in the kitchen after my boyfriend broke up with me, he didn’t ask why I was crying. He just walked by me, grabbed a beer out of the refrigerator, patted my shoulder and left.”
Megan’s recovery counselor told her that her inability to develop a close relationship with Sam was not her fault. Her counselor described Sam as a classic example of an emotionally unavailable father. She explained to Megan that men often have difficulty expressing certain emotions such as love, compassion, empathy, and fear. “Many men are taught by their fathers that ‘real men’ only project a strong, stoic, fearless image,” her counselor explained. “Some men may also experience a series of disturbing life events during childhood and adolescence that cause them to become emotionally unavailable as adults.”
Why Men Hide Their Emotions: A Deeper Definition of Emotional Unavailability
Chronic emotional unavailability is more common among men than women. This is largely because deeply ingrained cultural definitions of masculinity make it harder for men to cultivate emotional intelligence. Although gender identification has become more flexible and expansive in the 21st century, “old school” masculine ideology remains stubbornly embedded in American culture.
Fundamentals of identifying as “masculine” include not being a “sissy” (i.e., crying, showing fear, not taking risks), striving to gain respect from financial/career achievements, and never revealing weaknesses. Emotionally unavailable fathers like Megan’s probably learned “how to be a man” from their own emotionally unavailable fathers.
Hidden Ways Men Express Strong Feelings
Instead of verbally communicating what they feel, men may convert what they view as “feminine” emotions into more acceptably masculine emotions. For example, Megan told her counselor that when Sam’s brother unexpectedly died in a car accident, Sam didn’t cry or show sadness. Instead, he remained stoic for the first few days, then started lashing angrily out at her and her mother.
“I was seven years old when his brother died,” Megan said. “About a week after the funeral, I remember I spilled a glass of milk on accident. It went all over a new dress I was wearing. He started screaming at me. Said I didn’t appreciate everything he did for me, like buying food and clothes. Mom told him to stop but he just kept criticizing me.”
Fathers described as workaholics by their children are often emotionally unavailable. Working 10 or 12 hours a day when it’s not genuinely necessary to work that much is one way to avoid developing warm, close relationships. Workaholic fathers justify strong feelings of fear of emotional intimacy by telling themselves they are simply “providing for their family” as a man is expected to do.
Just “Being” Physically Present
Emotionally unavailable fathers often claim they were always there for their children because they came home from work every day, ate dinner at the table with the family, and spent weekends at home doing necessary chores (mowing, washing the car, cleaning out the garage). Children may see an emotionally unavailable father physically in the home all the time, but that does not come close to making up for being an emotionally available father.
Mental Health and Relationship Problems Caused by Emotionally Unavailable Fathers
Megan’s non-relationship with her father no doubt contributed to her substance use disorder. Her need for constant reassurance that she was loved, fear of abandonment, failed relationships with older men, and her assumption that everything wrong in her life was her fault alone eventually led her down the path of addiction to painkillers.
Megan had never taken opioids when her doctor prescribed OxyContin for severe pain caused by breaking her knee and elbow in a car accident. She remembers clearly the first time she took a dose of OxyContin: “An indescribable feeling of dreamy euphoria overwhelmed me. I felt no physical or emotional pain. I felt like nothing mattered anymore, nothing at all. I believe I became instantly addicted after taking that first pill.”
After her fractures healed, her doctor refused to write more prescriptions for OxyContin. Desperate to get high and suffering withdrawal symptoms, Megan visited a run-down, neighborhood bar known for catering to drug dealers, prostitutes and addicts. Unfortunately, she found what she was looking for. She also found herself in jail when her supply ultimately dried up.
What Fathers Can Do to Break the Cycle of Emotional Unavailability
It can be extremely difficult for fathers to overcome their inability to develop close, nurturing relationships with their sons and daughters. In Megan’s case, Sam agreed (after much urging from Megan’s mother and his sister) to attend family counseling therapy with Megan while she was in a residential recovery program. When the truth became too hard for Sam to cope with, he walked out of a few therapy sessions.
However, he always returned grudgingly to ensuing sessions. Megan’s counselor employed several psychotherapies to help Sam objectively interpret his actions as an emotionally unavailable father. The counselor used cognitive behavioral therapy and motivational interviewing techniques to help Sam understand why he found it hard to develop a loving relationship with Megan.
Today, Sam and Megan’s relationship has improved to the point where Megan feels comfortable talking to her father about her addiction and her fears of relapse. Sam feels more comfortable listening and empathizing with Megan. Megan also has a better understanding of why her father was emotionally unavailable to her as a child and teenager.
FHE Health provides inpatient and outpatient addiction and mental health services to residents of Broward County and throughout Florida. Contact us today to speak to a caring staff member if you or someone you know needs help dealing with an addiction or mental health issue.