Whether you realize it or not, chances are good that you’re attracted to certain traits in men that remind you of your own father…for better or worse. “We love our parents so unconditionally when we’re young, and we take in their characteristics without giving it any thought,” says father of two daughters Kevin Renner, a public speaker and author of In Search of Fatherhood: Stories from Women Around the World. “There are all kinds of beautiful women and handsome men in the world, and yet, we don’t feel an emotional attraction to all of them — but there’s a striking similarity between the men that heterosexual women feel intoxicated by and their own fathers.”
Psychologist Harville Hendrix calls this composite type of adult we’re attracted to “the Imago,” and it’s what he thinks causes “love at first sight.” That feeling of instant attraction is actually something other than true love; it’s the visceral response to someone who triggers a “lack of completeness” feeling in us — and why we project onto others the fantasy that they can make us feel whole once more. “At the heart of romantic attraction, it’s not so much that a man will ‘remind’ a woman of her father — at least, not at first,” says Renner. “All of that gut-feeling, emotional response usually takes place at a deeper, almost subconscious level in us.”
With that in mind, could you be dating someone just like your father? And if so, is that a good thing for you… or not? Let’s find out.
How to tell if your date exhibits similar traits as the man who raised you
Are you curious to know if the guys you’re attracted to share the same behaviors and personality quirks as your dad? Similar physical characteristics are one thing, of course, and you’ll probably be able to figure those out quickly (i.e., if your dad was tall and olive-skinned and you consistently go for men who happen to be tall and olive-skinned, well…it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to connect the dots). But to get a more complete picture of which paternalistic qualities you’re attracted to in a romantic partner, it’s important to really know the type of man your father is, both inside and out. “Come to the clearest possible understanding of who your father was,” advises Renner. “Was he distant, harsh, affectionate, abusive, attentive, etc.? Be really honest with your assessment, and then look at any parallels you can see in the person you’re dating.”
Renner suggests completing the following exercise to help you get clarity in this area: First, list the names of the three men who’ve most set your heart and soul on fire. Second, quickly think of and write down — without filtering anything — as much as you can about who these men were, both physically and psychologically (i.e., were they slender, dark-haired or bald, outgoing, gregarious, powerful, submissive, quiet, strong, etc.)? Finally, do the exact same thing for your father (or the principal male figure throughout your life). Now, what likenesses are you seeing between these lists?
Why dating paternal types can be a good thing
“If you drew the long straw when it comes to your father — as in, he was a great dad who helped lay down a healthy identity for his child, and you also have healthy relationships with men — my first tip is to go and hug your dad if he’s still alive,” says Renner. Regardless of whether your father was warm and constantly upbeat or explosive and withdrawn while you were growing up, it surely left a lasting impression on you. If your adult partner psychologically matches up with your father in some ways, it will likely trigger a lot of old memories and emotions. And while that can sometimes be extremely uncomfortable, it’s also an opportunity for you to sort out so much personal baggage from your own past.
“Romantic attraction offers a portal towards inner growth,” says Renner. “It’s within these relationships of emotional intensity and strong attraction that we get the opportunity to revisit and work through so much of the ‘stuff’ that got programmed into us as we were growing up.” All of this, of course, assumes that a woman grew up knowing her father, and that’s not always the case. If your own father was absent from your life, it creates another scenario entirely. Many women like this find themselves subconsciously attracted to men who are emotionally distant (or just plain unavailable) as a partner. However, if you’ve got positive feelings about your father and you two have a solid relationship that you still enjoy today, dating someone who’s a lot like your dad could lead to a happy, long-term romantic partnership.
Are there any drawbacks to dating someone who’s like your own father?
There are downsides to dating just about anyone, but if your memories of dad aren’t especially fond, watch out. “The downside to dating a man like your father is that it’s likely to become a tinderbox of old psychological entanglements; drunks, abusers, angry men… they all come out of the woodwork to date women who had these types of fathers,” explains Renner. “Fortunately, men who are kind, generous, open and decent do, too — and for those women who genuinely feel that’s the type of man they belong with, it’s wonderful.” Of course, these feelings often come from the “software programming” effect that our earliest relationships have on our minds, which is how we learned whether we were attractive or not, interesting or not, deserving or not, and so on.
The thing to ask yourself here is: What’s normal for you that might not be in your best interest during a long-term relationship? Is it an emotionally distant date, a boyfriend whose behavior is irresponsible, or a partner who’s a heavy drinker? Something that’s not particularly healthy might also just “feel” right to you, since it’s what you grew up around and are already familiar with seeing in men — but just because it’s comfy, it doesn’t mean that it’s the best choice while forming a committed relationship as an adult.
“Women who come from unhealthy father-daughter relationships have a different set of expectations than women who have what I like to call ‘long-straw dads,’” says Renner. “Unless they have a very strong mother (or surrogate parents) who can help offset some of the father’s damaging ways, these women often think they don’t deserve better than the men they currently have as partners.” If this sounds like you, simply recognizing that you have a pattern that can be broken is actually an enormous first step towards having a happy, healthy relationship in the future.
The dangers of projecting “daddy issues” onto your partner
Putting a partner into the “parent” role does happen, and can be good or bad for your relationship. “Take the example of a girl who grows up with a father who is strong, respectful and keenly interested in his daughter,” says Renner. “As an adult, she will be more likely to command the respect of other men in her life — not in an oppositional way, but simply through the clarity of her inner belief that she is their equal.”
Conversely, women with overprotective fathers who try to provide everything for their daughters tend to bring a sense of entitlement into their relationships. “If these women didn’t have to work for much and were given everything they asked for as little girls and adolescents, then that’s also going to be their expectation for the men in their lives after they’ve grow up,” says Renner. “Unfortunately, the expectation of being provided for and that smug sense of entitlement can suffocate a relationship if the woman’s partner grew up differently — in a household where responsibilities were handled in a more balanced way, for example.”
Since we’re living in an age where women and men are sharing more responsibilities at home and compete for breadwinner status in the job market, this is especially true for couples today. A woman may also consciously seek out and date men who seem like the polar opposite of her father. “For example: If you had an utterly irresponsible father, you may have made a conscious decision to only stay in relationships with men who behave in a responsible manner,” says Renner. “That’s fine, of course; it’s just a bit of a boomerang — or ‘counter-dependence’ — move, since you’re now depending upon something counteractive to what you grew up with at home in your relationship.”
5 qualities that reveal whether he’s Mr. Right... or Mr. Wrong
“Realize the importance of this father/daughter entanglement and the enormous consequences it can have on how you live, work, and love,” says Renner. “The better a woman is able to understand the quality of her relationship with her father, the more likely she is to find healthy relationships with men in her adult life and break any repeating patterns that haven’t been working.” Renner suggests completing the following simple exercise: First, give yourself 100 points to start. Then, rank the five words below (listed from best to worst) by assigning some portion of those 100 points to each word based upon where you think the center of gravity was in your child/parent relationship:
“An example profile might be 20-60-15-5-0; that would be the profile of a woman with a pretty solid dad,” explains Renner. “My guess is that this woman will have a far easier time entering into healthy relationships and sustaining intimacy with men than a woman whose profile looks like 0-20-20-40-20.” Once you know what kind of hand you were dealt here, you’ve got a place from which to start dissecting your adult relationships with men and understanding your true ability to find the love you want — and deserve — going forward.
Kimberly Dawn Neumann (www.KDNeumann.com) is a popular New York City-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in such publications as Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, Redbook, Maxim and frequently online. A certified dating/relationship coach, she’s publishedThe Real Reasons Men Commitand founded www.DatingDivaDaily.com. She feels lucky to have drawn a “long-straw dad” and hopes to find a romantic partner as supportive as he is someday.