Editor's Note: The following article, originally published on July 15, 2019, is our third most popular blog post of the year.
The research literature is becoming increasingly clear about the substantial importance of fathers in the lives of their children. Unfortunately, far too many children in the United States and throughout the world experience father loss. As discussed previously on this blog, father loss can negatively impact children in a variety of different ways, even on a biological level. Compounding this issue are myths about fatherhood that are perpetuated in our society, including those that can lead to misleading assumptions about dads that can diminish the contributions active fathers make in the lives of their children. To promote healthy family functioning and child development, we need to readily acknowledge the unique role of fathers.
If research is any indication, daughters need their fathers, and he, in many ways, represents “a daughters first and most influential love.” The relationship between fathers and their daughters has been explored many times on this blog (e.g. here & here). Even so, the father and adult daughter dyad remains the least explored dyad in family relationship research. Much more exploration and investigation is certainly needed to influence the work of educators, clinicians, policymakers.
One of the reasons that father and adult daughter relationships should be supported and encouraged is to help young adult women make better decisions concerning sex and romantic relationships. As explained on this blog by Timothy Rarick:
Sadly, many adolescent girls in our sexualized Western world today find themselves in a tragic predicament. The conditions in our culture of both rampant fatherlessness and sexual promiscuity are incompatible with forming secure and healthy relationships with boys and with establishing stable families for the next generation. A young girl’s sexual development can significantly outpace her neurological and emotional development—the very resources needed to guide her sexual choices.
Father involvement provides a buffer to a variety of negative outcomes, such as early sexual initiation, teenage pregnancy, dating violence, and risky sexual behavior. In particular, when father-daughter relationships are founded on open communication, trust, and higher levels of contact, these negative outcomes are further reduced.
For Katie’s thesis, we recently investigated how father involvement, father absenteeism, and the parental relationship impacted young adult women. We were also curious about what emerging adult daughters hoped to learn from their fathers about romantic relationships. Specifically, we focused on the emerging adult (18-29 years-old) population and interviewed a sample of 24 women in this age group (M=20.7) ranging from freshman to graduate students at a Mid-Western University. The participants were recruited using flyers passed out in many different classrooms throughout the university. Each participant was interviewed for approximately 50 minutes. Through the steps of qualitative analysis, nine unique themes emerged, which were then organized into four distinct categories: father presence, father absenteeism, parental relationship instability, and learning from fathers. The majority of the participants discussed the importance of father presence (i.e. “being there”) and expressed a strong desire to have their fathers present in their lives. The participants explained that when fathers were present this provided reassurance about relationships with men and helped these participants to feel more supported. Our key findings are organized into the four categories below:
Father Presence. Most of the participants indicated that (1) fathers can give daughters hope for romantic relationships, especially when fathers are committed in their own romantic relationships, and that (2) fathers can influence daughters’ perceptions of relationships. By observing their fathers’ behavior, they learned more about the need for support, loyalty, trust, and closeness in relationships.
Father Absenteeism. Consistent with the research literature, father absence seemed to have a negative impact on the women in our study. For instance, the participants stated that when their father was absent (e.g., from divorce, separation, abandonment, or incarceration) they had more (3) difficulty trusting others. Father absence also seemed to create more uncertainty for emerging adult women, with many saying they were (4) not sure what to expect in romantic relationships. Sadly, as one participant explained:
With my dad not being in my life, I kind of have an idea of how a man is supposed to treat me, but…I really don’t know what to do, what not to do, what’s acceptable and what isn’t acceptable in a relationship. So…I don’t really know what a good relationship is, or what one is supposed to be like. I have only seen the bad: like when my mom talks about my dad and says, ‘He’s not a good father and he was never a good boyfriend, either.’ I just go off what I see in the movies because I don’t really know. So, I feel like my relationships end because I have these high expectations of what I think relationships are supposed to be like, and then they’re not.
Parental Relationship Instability. By observing their parent’s relationship, the young women became (5) aware of that parent’s relationship shortcomings. These relationship flaws taught daughters “what not to do” in their own romantic relationships. Also consistent with previous research, participants indicated that they were (6) fearful of mirroring a parent’s relationship.
Learning from Fathers. The women who participated in our study also indicated that ideally, their father would teach them and discuss (7) relationship expectations (e.g., effort required) and believed that their (8) fathers could be the example. The participants also explained that they wanted their fathers to communicate the importance of (9) staying true to oneself. Regarding relationship expectations, one young woman observed:
Dads definitely need to tell their daughters how they should be treated in a relationship and to not settle. Fathers should also explain to their daughters that they should not let whoever they’re in a relationship with walk all over them, and make sure it’s known that her opinion matters, too. Relationships are not one-sided, and it’s all about compromise...
One of the most important findings from our study involved the importance of father-daughter communication about sex and romantic relationships. Fathers need to have the courage to ask their daughters about relationship concerns. The majority of our participants believed that a lasting benefit from these conversations would be an increase in closeness with their fathers. Uncertainty in romantic relationships, especially among emerging adult women, can stem from many things. The results of our investigation provide further evidence that fathers play an important role in what their daughters believe about dating and marriage.
D. Scott Sibley, Ph.D., LMFT, CFLE is an Assistant Professor in Human Development and Family Sciences at Northern Illinois University. He researches commitment in couple relationships and romantic relationship formation. Learn more about Dr. Sibley and his research team at DecideToCommit.com. Katie Granger, M.S. is a Research Associate in the Center for P-20 Engagement at Northern Illinois University. Beginning in the Fall of 2019, Katie will be a first-year doctoral student and teaching assistant at the Iowa State University in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies.
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