Feeling good about oneself can be a lifelong struggle for many children of divorce. When the parent who leaves becomes less involved, interested, and loving, many children develop an intense need for admiration, recognition, and connection. They can become stuck in an endless quest to gain approval and love by trying to be the person they think Daddy or Mommy wants them to be rather than having the freedom to grow, develop, and individuate.
I have worked with many people who experienced divorce as young children. For most, it was the father who left the home, became unavailable physically and/or emotionally, and therefore became the object of desire for the child. The work in therapy for these adult children of divorce is about developing positive self-regard in order to feel deserving of creating separate lives and building relationships that are satisfying and a reflection of their own wishes and desires. The therapeutic work can be both a painful and pleasurable process of discovering one’s own thoughts, feelings, and mind, separate from the idealized parent.
Lucy (not her real name) came to our first appointment and began to describe how unhappy she was with her life. She was in graduate school, in the second year of her MBA. “I hate it,” she said. “I don’t know what I was thinking when I decided I wanted to go into finance. I mean, I do know what I was thinking. I was thinking how happy my father would be that I would be just like him, a financial analyst. But now I’m in the middle of my last year and he never really asks about what I’m studying or about my internship. Sometimes he’ll lecture me on the kind of job that I should be looking for when I graduate, but we never have a conversation. All my life I’ve been trying to please him. I even moved to New York just to be near him—he left me and my mom and my brother when I was 8. I’m fed up! I hate him! No, I love him. He’s a wonderful man, but he doesn’t love me, never did. I don’t know what to do with my life. I guess I’m depressed. I’m sorry, I’ve been talking nonstop. Can you help me?”
I did believe I could help Lucy. We began our sessions, and Lucy proceeded to talk about her life. I learned that when her parents divorced, her father moved to the city from the suburbs. She saw him every other weekend until she was about 11, and then less often after that until high school, when it was not even monthly.
“I was so bored when Jed [her brother] and I visited him,” she said. “Jed is two years older, and he stopped visiting before I did. My father had a girlfriend, Mara, from the time I was 9. She had a son, Billy, who was 4 or 5 when they all moved in together. My father always seemed so involved with them. I never knew what to talk about. Mara was so pretty, and my father seemed so in love with her and Billy.”
I asked Lucy to talk more about what it felt like for her that her father had this new family.
“He never looked at me with the same smile or pleasure the way he looks at them,” she said. “I really loved him, but never felt he loved me. If I could just figure out how to make him love me and think I was special like them, then I could be happy. I thought maybe if I was prettier, like Mara, or made him laugh, he would love me too. Late in high school, I had the idea that I would go to college and major in business and maybe then I would have something to talk to my dad about. It didn’t work. I kept going back for more and I always ended up feeling rejected. You would think I would have figured it out and not have gone to grad school for business too. My problem now is I don’t know what I really want to do. I don’t know what I like; I don’t know how I’m ever going to have a boyfriend. I don’t know …”
Lucy’s description of her experience of herself in relation to her father was similar to the experiences of other children whose fathers left and started new families. As Lucy and I continued to talk together, it became clear that she desperately wanted her father to admire and recognize her as someone special. She felt constantly that she didn’t measure up, especially to his new family: “I thought, ‘What is wrong with me? Why is he always so distant? Why aren’t I good enough?’ ”
Lucy’s feelings of self-hate and despair about getting what she needed from her father kept her involved in a constant search for connection and recognition from him. When she decided that the way to get his positive regard was by going into finance, she never stopped to consider her own wishes and desires. When she began therapy, she had reached a place where it was no longer tenable to continue this pattern of seeking her father’s approval. But now what was she going to do, and how would she begin to develop positive feelings about herself?
As we worked, Lucy decided to take a leave of absence from graduate school. She wanted some time to explore what she might like and what she could be passionate about. This was not so easy at first. Lucy recalled that in high school and in college, she wrote for the school magazines and loved her English classes. In a session several weeks later, she was excited when she told me about a writing workshop she found at the local YMCA. She planned to try writing again. Then, the following week, she came to session and said, “I thought I would try the workshop. But that’s really not such a great idea. For me to be admitted, they want me to submit a writing sample. Who am I kidding? I’m not much of a writer.”
Lucy and I explored her anxiety about putting herself in the world to try new things and face the possibility of failure or rejection. As we talked about this fear, Lucy began to connect these anxieties with her experiences with her father.
“He never made me feel interesting or competent,” she said. “Even when I did something good, he would find something about it to criticize. I always see him as so smart and so handsome. I always thought everything he said was right. I guess that made me wrong a lot of times. I still see him as right about everything. I feel stupid and awkward when I’m around him. I guess that’s pretty much how I feel about myself everywhere most of the time. When this writing thing came along, I had a moment when I felt differently. I remembered how I talked to you about my writing and I remembered how much I loved it. I got so excited, and that’s when I looked for and found the workshop. Then I reverted back to my old ways. But I am going to try and steel myself and send in the writing sample and see what happens. I can’t keep myself stuck in this ‘I’m not good enough rut.’ ”
Lucy and I continue to talk about her worries of failure and rejection and her fear of taking risks to try new things in the world. Lucy tries to keep in mind that she is repeating the relationship with her father when she lets herself be guided by her old feelings of anxiety, low self-esteem, and low self-confidence. When Lucy joined an online dating site, she withdrew after emailing back and forth with an interesting man who asked her out. “He’ll never like me once he meets me,” she said. “I’m just not interesting enough.”
As we kept talking about expecting the world to be like her father, Lucy’s face lit up and she said, “You know, maybe it wasn’t me. Maybe it was my father that wasn’t so great. I never realized this before, but he didn’t know how to be a good father to me! Maybe he’s the incompetent one!”
As Lucy continues to grow and develop, she is becoming more aware of her special attributes. At the same time, she is becoming more able to see her father realistically rather than idealizing him as the special one. She is doing well in her writing workshop, now in its second year. She has sent a short story out in the hopes of getting it published. She has dated several different men and is beginning to think about what they have to offer her rather than what she doesn’t have to offer them. Lucy is changing the nature of her attachment to her father. She craves his approval much less and rarely looks to him to define what is good and valuable about her. She is becoming a person with her own wishes and desires and needs. She is becoming a person who can increasingly value herself in positive ways. She is on her way to a satisfying life.
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