I’ve spent a considerable portion of my life trying to prove that I was still worthy of something despite growing up with limited access to my father. I was determined not to fall into the “fatherless Black girl” trope. But resisting that idea has seemed to hurt me more than it helped me.
Instead of accepting myself fully and acknowledging the way my dad’s unreliable presence hurt me, I covered it all up. I excelled in school. I highlighted the ways our off-and-on relationship made me different from those girls who didn’t know their fathers at all. And I made sure to talk about the similarities I knew of between my father and I at every opportunity.
I was thoroughly convinced there was no way my relationship with my dad was so unhealthy that it would impact other relationships. All the bad choices I made with guys were because it’s what I wanted to do. There was no way I was powerless and selecting partners in response to childhood pain. At least that’s what I told myself.
For over a decade, I unwaveringly believed that I was fine, and despite childhood — and current — turmoil in the relationship I had with my father, I was a stable, well-adjusted person.
Until a couple of weeks ago, that is, when a fight I had with my husband about birthday gifts spiraled into me preparing for a divorce by checking my bank account to assess my level of financial self-sufficiency. As I sat in bed scrolling through options for three-bedroom apartments in my hometown, I suddenly noticed a pattern.
Every fight we had ended with a cycle of me apologizing, almost begging profusely, and looking up places to move to when my introverted husband responded in silence. In my mind, every fight marked the end of our relationship. Because that’s how relationships went. My father’s conditional love left me unsure how to have healthy fights in relationships.
In retrospect, it was one of those “this is so cliché you should have seen it coming” fights. Due to my husband’s work schedule, for the first time in three years, we were actually together on my birthday and he didn’t meet my expectations for something huge and celebratory.
The frustration that my father had failed to even acknowledge my existence on my birthday was the true trigger. In my mind, my dad ignoring my birthday (in addition to Mother’s Day) was connected to some sort of wider scale effort to punish me for something I’d done (or hadn’t done). I sat backflipping through the last time we’d spoken. I needed to know what I’d said or done wrong.
The frantic quest for answers was something I’d felt since childhood, as I wondered why I wasn’t worthy of his love. Through the years, the unwavering threat of conditional love left me walking on eggshells. I needed this relationship intact to prove my value to the world around me. If that meant bending, or even breaking, in an effort to accommodate his expectations, so be it.
More often than I realize, I take that pain from my father’s rejection, and I apply it to someone safe — my husband. Yeah, he dropped the ball and he should’ve paid more attention to me on my birthday. But this is one of what will hopefully be a half-century of birthdays. He’s here emotionally or physically every day, and to allow a birthday disappointment to trigger the demise of our relationship is illogical.
But for me, the fight wasn’t really about my birthday; it was about someone downplaying my worth. And when my husband made it clear he wasn’t going to contribute the chaos, I crumbled. I begged for him to excuse my wide range of emotions because I was afraid that pointing out what I expected of him would motivate him to leave. So, I had to be ready to leave first even though he didn’t say he had intentions to go anywhere.
When we fight, I go into fight or flight mode. Subconsciously, I can’t allow another person to devalue me in a real or imagined way that feels too close to my relationship with my dad. Whenever I told my dad I was upset or disappointed in him, he dismissed me. To him, my world was based on false memories and my feelings of being mistreated weren’t valid. So I learned to excuse the missed holidays and play along. For awhile, it worked. If I faked it long enough, I’d get phone calls and text messages and even gifts. The right way to get what I wanted was to accept whatever level of attention was given to me, however meager or conditional. To challenge the way things were created a risk of losing it all.
I applied that behavior to the guys I dated. And when I noticed the pattern, I demanded more from everyone but the person who created the void — my dad.
Even now, asking for what I need from my husband leaves me with a fear that it’s easier for him to leave. Either I act out with a dramatic request, or I suffer in silence while my needs aren’t met.
I know my strategy is maladaptive, and I’m working on it. I’ve started being more open with him about how I feel and giving more praise instead of all criticism. I’m learning to explain that the way I respond to conflict is about how I feel about myself, not how he treats me. Seeing a counselor and having supportive friends is also significantly helpful. But there are decades of pain standing in the way of healing.
Over the next few years, I hope to learn to fight in a healthy way. I want to understand that every bump in the road isn’t the end of the relationship. I want a normal relationship where our problems are about us and I can see my husband for the consistency of his actions instead of the failures of my father. But most importantly, I want to understand that having “daddy issues” doesn’t make me less valuable than kids who hail from nuclear homes.
But I’m not there yet. And what I’m realizing is that maybe in order to get to that healthy place in my marriage, I might need to cut ties with the person who started this whole thing in the first place — my unavailable father.