Good Wednesday to you, Souls and Hearts Members,
“Your father really does love you deeply; he just doesn’t know how to express it.” How many mothers have said these or similar words to a son or daughter?
But “unexpressed love” is not love. I made this statement in passing in my most recent Interior Integration for Catholics podcast episode, number 95, titled “Trauma’s Devastating Impact on Our Capacity to Love.”
And that was the statement that has generated the most feedback from listeners in the last two days since that episode was released.
So-called “unexpressed love” is something – call it “potential love” or a desire to love, or something else, but it’s not love.
The desires of children for their fathers…
Look, we have a deep, intense desire to be loved by our earthly fathers. That’s natural. It makes sense. When we are little, we want to connect with our fathers, we want to engage with them. We see our fathers as our protection from danger, a source of safety. We want them to see us, hear us, know us, understand us. To comfort us, to soothe us when we are scared. To cherish us, to treasure us, to look on us with affection, with joy, with delight. We expect our fathers to give us good things, to will our highest good. We seek them as godlike through our childlike eyes.
And our fathers fail us. Being fallen human beings, our earthly fathers will eventually fail us. There’s no way an earthly father can live up to the idealized expectation of a son for his father or a daughter for her daddy. I have failed my own children many, many times.
And some fathers fail more than others. A lot more.
The greatest failure of fathers…
So how do fathers fail their children? In a million specific ways, but only in one main way and that’s when fathers fail to love their sons and daughters. That’s the major failure.
When a teenage daughter wonders aloud to her mother about why dad doesn’t seem to love her, when she’s feeling unseen, unheard, unknown, not cherished, not treasured, unloved…it’s usually because her she’s on to something.
Yes, teenagers are often really self-absorbed and often don’t like reasonable limits and find appropriate boundaries constricting and can rail against them. Yes, some teenagers can be manipulative and so on.
But the elephant in the room is so often that the teenage girl doesn’t feel loved by dad…because dad actually hasn’t been loving her.
And nobody wants to admit that.
Why? Because it’s so threatening.
Why we avoid acknowledging the unlove of fathers
Children are deeply wired, in their brains, to connect with their parents, whatever the cost. That’s why little children who have suffered terrible parental abuse will still generally sacrifice anything to stay with the abusive parents rather than be separated from them. Children have a deep sense of needing their parents.
And to not be loved by dad? Is it so hard to imagine an unloved son saying to himself “How horrible am I, if not even my dad will love me?” Children whose fathers fail to love them blame themselves for the lack of love, search for why they are unloved, and carry a burden of deep shame. They don’t want to believe that they have a father who is either incapable or unwilling to love them. That’s a seemingly hopeless predicament to their young minds.
Unloved children hold out hope that if they just are obedient enough, or pretty enough, or studious enough, or athletic enough, or popular enough or whatever enough, the floodgates of their father’s love will open and they will finally get what they need – attention, affection, affirmation, they will become loved, they will become whole. They are looking for salvation from their shame, their defectiveness. Episodes 37 to 49 of the Interior Integration for Catholic podcast were all about shame – how shame drives so many of our psychological symptoms and difficulties
And when mom says “Your father really does love you deeply; he just doesn’t know how to express it” or words to that effect, it can help aid the preservation of an illusion – the illusion that dad really does love the child. Mom often wants the illusion too – she doesn’t want to think that she’s married to man who doesn’t love their children – that’s a terrible possibility to consider. And perhaps even worse, it might lead mom to think the terrifying, unthinkable thought that “maybe he doesn’t really love me either…”
Why do Catholic fathers fail to love?
Usually, fathers’ failures to love are not because of bad intentions. Most Catholic fathers are not rubbing their hands with malice, actively willing evil upon their children. That’s actually fairly rare.
Much, much more common is that the fathers’ own unresolved trauma impedes their ability to live out the five characteristics of love – how love is affective (emotional), affirming, responsive, unitive, and steadfast. The most recent Integration for Catholics podcast episode 95 details the specific ways that unresolved trauma hinders loving, loving in the deep sense of charity or agape.
Shame holds so many fathers back from connecting deeply with their children. So many fathers, below their outward veneers have parts that feel terrible about themselves. The worse they feel about themselves, the less inclined they are to have the fears confirmed by their children or their wives, so they avoid their children emotionally and relationally. As I noted above, episodes 37 to 49 of the Interior Integration for Catholic podcast focus on the centrality of shame.
Unwillingness to be vulnerable
Because of shame, so many Catholic fathers are unwilling to be vulnerable – they strive to protect themselves from the feared attack. This is often so surprising to some fathers’ children (and sometimes their wives) because they can seem so impervious to emotional wounds. But they are not. Check out episode 89 of the Interior Integration for Catholic podcast titled Your Trauma, Your Body: Protection vs. Connection for a lot more information about how, because of trauma, we move away from connection to others and into self-protection.
Fear and anger
Shame and concerns about vulnerable often generate fear in Catholic fathers. Fears of being exposed as a fraud, an imposter. Fears of being judged unworthy, inadequate. And anger is often the emotion that men use to suppress their own fear and induce fear in others. If fathers’ anger makes other people afraid, fathers can locate the fear in the other person and not even see it in themselves. They can distance themselves from even the awareness of their own fear.
This one emerges much more often between fathers and daughters than you might think. So many times, I’ve heard daughters discuss how their fathers pulled away from them, right when they were in puberty, right when they needed their fathers most.
For men who have not had close, non-sexualized relationships with women as boys, before puberty, there is a tendency to sexualize closeness in relationships with women. Catholic men are usually aghast to discover fleeting sexual thoughts or desires toward their physically developed teenage daughters and interpret them in the most terrible light, imagining themselves to be perverts or monsters.
These men don’t understand that those experiences are not primarily about sex – but rather they represent impulses and desires for a nonsexual closeness and for other attachment needs. But because of how tangled sex and closeness and attachment are for these men and how out of touch they are with their emotional and relational sides, they struggle. Some respond by condemning themselves and withdrawing from their daughters to prevent any boundary violations. They are trying to protect their daughters from their horrible images of themselves, but their daughters don’t understand that and are left with an experience of rejection. These daughters don’t need their fathers to reject them. They do need their fathers to do their own human formation and recovery work, to resolve their internal conflicts and become much more integrated and whole.
Call to action for fathers who struggle to love their children.
- Love your children badly. That’s right. To attempt to love them and be awkward and to make mistakes is far, far better than to withdraw from the attempt to love. Who among us can really say they have mastered the art of Christian love? Who among us can really argue that they love with precision and efficiency, in masterful way? The more important something is, the less precisely we are able to do it. Loving is the most important of all. So love badly rather than not loving at all. That takes courage and humility.
- Pray for your children and for yourself as a father. Pray for your children individually and specifically – by name. Bring your relationships with them to our Lord and our Lady. And pray for your own self, in your role as father.
- Do your internal work. If you need psychotherapy or counseling, get it. Don’t make excuses. If you are not sure if you need therapy or counseling, check out our free course, A Catholics’ Guide to Self-Help. Therapy or counseling will help almost every man (and woman) who is considering it. If you’ve decided to seek professional help and want guidance on that, check out our free course, “A Catholic’s Guide to Choosing a Therapist.”
- Take time for your children. When they are little, that means every day. It doesn’t have to be hours and hours. This is time to just be with them. The “being with” is much more important than the doing.
- Listen to your children. So many of us, in the hustle and bustle, the demands and cares of our days, can tune out our children. Really listen. Listen to what they say. But then listen more deeply to what they mean. What are they communicating (often very subtly) about their attachment needs? Needs for safety, security, needs to be seen, heard, known, and understood? Needs to be comforted, soothed, reassured? Needs to be cherished, treasures and loved? Needs to be delighted in?
It’s not just about the child’s relationship with the father – it’s also about the child’s relationship with God.
Parts of us make God in the image and likeness of our earthly fathers (and mothers, too), for good or for ill. I see this all the time in clinical work. And it makes sense, if you think about it. Fathers seem godlike to little children and it makes sense in their developing minds that God is like dad. There is an unconscious generalization of experience of “father” to fill in the gaps of what God as Father must be like. You can check out episodes 23 to 29 of my podcast for a lot information on God images, how they form, 14 different kinds of negative God images, and what to do about them.
Let’s also not forget God’s providential care in all of this. No trauma or anything else can invalidate Romans 8:28: We know that in everything God works for good with those who love him, who are called according to his purpose. Whenever God allows fathers to fail, He has a plan to make greater good come from that failure. I’ve seen so many times how the failures of earthly fathers have been a springboard for sons and daughters to seek and to find what they really needed in the loving arms of God the Father. The lack of love from their secondary, earthly fathers was made up for by an outpouring of graces from their primary Father, our God.
If you are interested in joining me and so many other Catholics on a pilgrimage toward much more solid human formation, all grounded in a Catholic understanding of the human person, check out the RCC on our landing page.
Warm regards in Christ and His Mother,
P.S. Please continue to spread the word. Forward this email to those who you think might benefit.
P.S.S. Great news: We are archiving all of the past email reflections, going back to December 2022 on our Souls and Hearts blog. Make sure to check those out and from there, you can share them with others on social media as well.
P.S.S.S. Did you have a strong reaction to this reflection? Let me know about it. Reach out to me at email@example.com or in my twice-weekly conversation hours every Tuesday and Thursday from 4:30 PM to 5:30 PM Eastern Time on my cell at 317.567.9594.