“Daddy issues” is a gendered term, often lacking empathy, that refers to the link between challenges in relationships and less-than-ideal father figures.
Some people identify with the term “daddy issues.” Others feel it minimizes their emotional experience and trauma, placing blame on the person who lived through it instead of acknowledging its complicated roots.
The term is often over-applied so that even women in secure relationships may be told they have daddy issues if their dating patterns or sexuality don’t match cultural norms about sexual attitudes and behaviors.
Anyone, not just women, can be negatively impacted by a difficult relationship with their dad (or any other primary caregiver). Childhood emotional neglect, for example, may impact your adult relationships.
If you’ve experienced difficulties in your adult relationships as a result of growing up with a father who didn’t meet your needs in childhood, it’s possible to heal and build habits that serve you.
Experts once thought that girls who grew up without a father figure would reach sexual maturity earlier and become more sexually assertive, or “promiscuous,” but this theory has since been debunked.
Meanwhile, research does link childhood sexual abuse with a higher chance of potentially harmful sexual behavior and revictimization in adulthood.
Physically or emotionally abusive parenting could also promote behaviors that some people may place under the label of “daddy issues.” But this may also be the case if your dad was:
- often or always absent
- emotionally unavailable or detached
- controlling or overbearing
- unreliable, whether financially, emotionally, or physically
- a source of rejection
- experiencing substance use symptoms or addictions
A 2015 study also cites having an insecure attachment style with your dad as a source of symptoms of depression in daughters.
Daddy issues and attachment theory
The concept of daddy issues may have originated with Sigmund Freud and the Oedipus complex. The theory says a child forms a strong attachment with a parent of the opposite sex and has feelings of competition toward their same-sex parent. Freud identified this behavior with boys and their mothers.
Soon after, Carl Jung developed the concept of the Electra complex, which involves the same dynamic between a daughter and her father.
While most psychologists no longer adhere to these theories, they still help explain how cultural beliefs about daddy issues might have formed.
A more current psychological explanation comes from psychologist John Bowlby’s attachment theory, which suggests that your earliest relationships with caregivers inform how you connect in adulthood.
Having a dad who wasn’t consistent in meeting your needs could lead to different kinds of insecure — as opposed to secure — attachment styles.
Various parenting experiences may lead to different styles of insecure attachment.
Life rarely fits into cookie-cutter patterns. So, not everyone will experience these situations in the same way. But if you feel your history with your dad impacts your romantic relationships, one or a mix of these example scenarios might seem familiar.
Whether your dad lived at work or left the family early on, he wasn’t around much. Even if he was physically present, he didn’t seem interested in anything you cared about.
Now, you find it hard to trust potential partners.
Maybe isolation and avoidance feel safer, even if you sometimes feel lonely.
Past relationships may have ended because a partner wanted you to open up or commit when you didn’t feel ready. But you’re indifferent or fearful of getting too close to someone else.
You never knew what to expect from your dad. Sometimes he was engaged, other times distant. He might have had a habit of venting to you when he was stressed or sad, and you often felt responsible for consoling him.
In the present, relationships are a source of anxiety for you.
You feel stressed when you have to spend time away from your partner, and you often worry they might leave you for someone else, even if there’s no evidence to indicate that’s the case.
When disagreements arise or your partner is invested in their own activities and space, you feel a strong sense of dread.
When you were a kid, your dad was often erratic or even scary. He may also have demanded strict obedience, with harsh punishments for anyone who stepped out of line.
Your current relationships are rarely uneventful.
You might fight, break up, and make up with a partner many times. Somehow, past relationships have always left you feeling hurt.
How’s your relationship with your dad? If the answer is “nonexistent” or “it’s complicated,” it may be worth digging deeper to shed light on your attachment style and possible defense mechanisms.
A few signs that your history with your dad (or any primary caregiver) may be impacting your adult relationships include:
Fear of abandonment
A 2018 literature review indicates that insecure attachment is often connected to fears of being abandoned or alone. It’s valid to fear the loss and instability these situations can cause if a primary caregiver, like your dad, rejected you or left.
Signs of abandonment fear in your current relationships may include:
- people pleasing tendencies
- bottling up your feelings when angry or upset
- being hyper-alert to signs your partner may want to leave you
- interpreting questions or disagreement as a rejection of you as a person
Tying sex to self-esteem
While sex is part of many healthy relationships, using sex to bolster your self-esteem can hamper other forms of intimacy in relationships. It might also cause you to override your own desires to please others.
A 2016 study found that women who were abandoned by their fathers in childhood experienced more anxiety and jealousy in their romantic relationships.
Signs you might be experiencing anxiety or jealousy in a relationship include:
- codependent behaviors
- snooping through your partner’s phone or private belongings
- anger or fights after spending time apart
Needing lots of reassurance
Most people need some level of reassurance from romantic partners.
But needing high levels of reassurance about your partner’s feelings and intentions can also be a sign that you don’t feel secure in your relationship, especially if your childhood caregivers didn’t do much to validate your emotions.
You may also live with symptoms of dependent personality disorder.
Patterns of abuse
Growing up with a father who was abusive toward you or other family members could create a pattern of abuse in future relationships.
There are many reasons why you may establish relationships with abusive partners. Sometimes, you just go back to what feels familiar because what feels familiar also often feels safe. But when the connection isn’t really safe and doesn’t serve you, it might be time to consider an exit plan.
Daddy issues, relationships, and sexuality
One belief about so-called daddy issues is that if you have them, you’re more likely to have relationships with older men who act as a substitute father figure.
But even if your relationship with your dad isn’t stellar, there’s nothing inherently inadequate about being in a healthy relationship with an older partner.
It’s still never a bad idea, though, to consider how your upbringing may influence your adult relationships.
People also connect some types of sexual play or kinks to the term “daddy issues” — but enjoying these things doesn’t necessarily mean you have a strained relationship with your dad, either.
If you feel like your relationship with your dad is negatively impacting current relationships, healing is possible. Some things may help, including:
- Journaling. Getting your thoughts about childhood experiences and your dad onto paper could help you identify trauma cycles and generational patterns.
- Checking in with your self-talk. Self-talk can be informed by how we were talked to in childhood, and identifying these patterns is the first step toward changing self-abusive habits.
- Therapy. If you live with attachment trauma, forms of therapy that involve the body — like somatic therapy — may help you uncover and process trauma from many years ago. Talk therapy may also help you process difficult memories about your upbringing.
Books for healing
Want to explore this topic more on your own? You might find the following books helpful:
The term “daddy issues” can be used to stigmatize emotional needs or complicated childhood relationships. In reality, anyone — not only women — may experience insecure attachments and other challenges stemming from a conflicting father figure.
If you feel you have personal challenges in your relationships, it’s highly advisable that you seek the support of a mental health professional. They can help you work through insecure attachment styles, abandonment concerns, or childhood trauma. You’re not alone and healing is possible.