Dads and Daughters – Bridging the Post Divorce Gap

Dads and Daughters – Bridging the Post Divorce Gap

A priority in all of our lives is “relationship value”, or our feeling of belonging. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in psychology describes 5 basic components of needs and how we are motivated by them.


This five-stage model can be divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. The first four levels are often referred to as deficiency needs (D-needs), and the top level is known as growth or being needs (B-needs).

Deficiency needs arise due to deprivation and are said to motivate people when they are unmet. Also, the motivation to fulfill such needs will become stronger the longer the duration they are denied.

Everyone in a blended family has needs, several are not met and the lack of communication is usually a key component.  Daughters need their fathers, although often it’s difficult for fathers to understand their value in their daughter’s lives.  Fathers can provide approval, encouragement, love and their relationship has a significant impact on their children.

However, divorced fathers often struggle to build relationships with their daughters. Quite often, the mother has more time (custody) with the daughters than the father does. They have more in common; have an easier time communicating, building trust and solidifying their bond.

For divorced fathers, the task can be more challenging. Their time if often limited, they can struggle finding common interests and trying to compete with the mother can be an almost impossible task.

Additionally, when mothers share resentments toward their ex-husbands with their children, they also bond over a common enemy. Teaching children to distrust and/or dislike their fathers has a negative impact on the relationship between the fathers and daughters.

Fathers have few options when this is happening. They can stay silent and hope their daughters will someday gain their own understanding of their family’s dynamics, or they can have open and frank discussions challenging what their daughters have heard. In that instance, challenging what the mother said can cause even more division between the fathers and daughters, only furthering the divide.

The resulting strain on an adolescent daughter’s relationship with her father can be overlooked. Teens, in particular, become busy building their social networks. Their priorities are changing; however, the importance of a father’s place in his daughter’s life is very real, even if this is not recognized until much later.

A father’s involvement in his daughter’s life is a critical factor in her self-image and self-esteem. According to psychologist Kevin Leman, fathers are crucial to their daughter’s future, stating, “That evidence shows that a father’s relationship is one of the key determinants in a woman’s ability to have a successful life and marriage.”

When the absence of a strong relationship is felt among young adult females, it can be difficult for them to communicate their desire to re-connect. Will they be betraying their mothers if they reach out to their fathers? What do they have in common? How do they start and with a history of secrecy, loyalty, distance and mistrust, just how will they find a common ground to build a foundation?

To add salt to the wound, how will they re-connect if their father is remarried? He has a wife who is sharing his life, love and priorities. They share intimacy, which is a very high priority in a relationship and in particular, very important to men. He shares his inner most fears, success and thoughts with his wife. His wife provides a sense of belonging and satisfies several of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.

Young, adult daughters who have been distant from their fathers may feel as though they need to compete with their stepmothers for top seat in their father’s lives. Their drive to make up for lost time and re-capture their spot as daddy’s girl can fuel the fight. Something is missing, and as they realize the importance of what that is, they are also realizing someone else holds their father’s attention.

One of the ways they can attempt to find their place is to (consciously or even subconsciously) sabotage the wife. They can enlist passive aggressive tactics in her presence, and demean her in conversations with dad when she’s not around.

Clueless stepmothers have the hardest time understanding how they can be liked by so many other people, but just loathed by their stepdaughters. Likewise, clueless fathers can’t understand where all the hate is coming from and continually claim that they hate being “stuck in the middle”.

The adult children often ask for alone time with their fathers, hoping to re-connect. Stepmothers feel the sting of being excluded by young women who continually show them disdain and disrespect.

As a child of divorce, I can remember not realizing how much I wanted a relationship with my father until I was in my mid-twenties. Having spent my childhood seeing him mostly over holidays and in the summers, we didn’t have a very strong connection.

I knew he loved me, but I also realized he had several other priorities: career, sex (was no secret that my dad was a ladies man), entertainment. He was quite religious, and I can remember him describing the difference between agape love (which he had for me) and eros love (which he had for his wife). I remember thinking at the time that obviously eros love beat agape love hands down in my dad’s mind. My main takeaway from my childhood was that I felt like an afterthought to my dad.

Trying to find my way into his life was difficult. His shared his life with his wife and her son on a daily basis. I brought my family to visit for holidays and sometimes in between when I was in my 20’s & 30’s. I enjoyed our times together, which were usually spent talking about surficial things… politics, religion (I mostly listened for the sake of avoiding an argument), my kids, work, school, etc. Seemingly missing was the personal type of conversation that had always come so easy with my mother. On this level, I didn’t know how to tell him how important he was to me or ask him how important I was to him.

Once while visiting, he had a list of all his website passwords on top of his desk. Almost all of them had some version of my name in them. I remember thinking that maybe he thought about me more than I assumed he did.

My dad passed away just over a year ago. For the first six months following his death, I kept contemplating why we could never have that conversation. Only in the last few months, have my thoughts of regret turned to focus on what we did manage to accomplish.

I shared my interest in genealogy with my father over 10 years ago. I didn’t realize at that time, how much our relationship would grow by sharing time over a common interest. When he visited me, we’d head to graveyards to look up ancestors, and when I visited him, we’d do the same.

During one visit we made our way to a snowy graveyard on the side of a mountain in the middle of nowhere. It overlooked a beautiful valley and the sun was shining, casting a warm glow on the field below. We hit the jackpot that day, locating several members of a family we had been looking for. We got answers to some questions and still managed to leave with more questions, providing plenty of conversation. We stopped for lunch on the way home and met up with some distant cousins over margaritas.

We visited court houses, churches, libraries and genealogy centers. We spent time visiting new relatives we had found, planned a reunion together for people we had never met, and emailed each other new discoveries often. We both joined a historical society and worked together to raise a donation for the group.

I never asked that his wife be excluded; however (fortunate for me) she had no interest. While he shared everything else with her, genealogy was one thing he only shared with me. There was no competition on the subject of genealogy. I wasn’t taking anything from her nor asking anything from her.

While it took me many years to figure out my place in his life and what he meant to me, I finally resolved to be grateful for what I had. Focusing on what I missed out on, how he could have tried harder to be in my life when I was a child, or resenting how much more his wife and son were more present in his world than I was never brought me any sort of resolution.

Prior to this realization, it was difficult for me to understand what motivated him or what his priorities were. Without oversimplifying the matter, my takeaway is that men often satisfy their needs to belong in ways that don’t require children.

High-fiving buddies over a team’s touchdown, catching the eye of a beautiful woman, getting praise from the boss, scoring a birdie, benching more weight, and sex… all events described in Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Fighting with the ex, visiting with a teen who shares nothing in common, feeling the tension between the wife and the kids when they visit; these events can be challenging with little immediate reward.

It can be tough satisfying one’s own needs while simultaneously fulfilling everyone else’s in a divided family. Combined with the many contributing challenges following divorce, just finding some sort of peace with everyone in the family can be difficult.

As a stepmother to three adult stepdaughters, I have seen hints from them that they may be warming to the idea of wanting a better relationship with their father. They spent many years under the influence of others who were determined to undermine a bond between them and their father, they have their own similar fractured/distant relationship with him.

Having been married now for nearly 25 years, I admit to being the only person my husband confides in completely. We share a life, a family, a relationship and intimacy. These are all important needs we both share and receive from each other. And there’s only room for one wife in our family.

Successful relationships are based on mutual respect, and demanding that a father betray his wife in order to make up for lost time is treating him like a child. This kind of control is a lose-lose when it comes to creating a fulfilling, peaceful relationship.

Hopefully young, adult daughters can come to the realization that they don’t belong in the role of the wife. That doesn’t mean they lose. Realizing their role in their father’s life and appreciating the value that they can gain from their father and also give to him is an invaluable gift. Continuing to fight for top dog position is a waste of energy, time and fuels resentment.

When my father told me about eros and agape love, I positioned them vertically, as in one had to be more important than the other. In reality, they are like water and air, we need both. They aren’t comparable, but they are both important.

Children of divorce can benefit from letting go of past expectations, forming new and realistic expectations for the future, and hopefully finding some common ground that doesn’t require a husband/father to abandon his marriage.

While I never did grow a love for cars, sports or deep political conversations, I did manage to find some common ground with my dad. In hindsight, our shared love for genealogy wound up bringing me what I felt was missing for so long, a relationship with my dad. Now that he’s gone, it makes me appreciate our time together even more.

If you are a child of divorce looking to bridge the gap with your dad, find something that you are both interested in and pursue a positive relationship with him. Do not make enemies with his wife or give him ultimatums. You don’t have to be buddies with her.  However, if you are hostile toward her, you will be tainting your own efforts to rebuild a relationship with your father.  If your presence brings her grief, you can imagine that she will influence your opportunity to bond with your dad. Your goal is to reconnect with your father, so don’t let your feelings about having a stepmother get in your way.  Nobody wants to have a stepmother, but how we react to having one is our choice.  There’s room for everyone at the table.

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