Hugo Schwyzer explains how a dad who relies solely on emotional validation from his daughter (instead of his wife) might be causing unforeseen harm.
My daughter Heloise is nearly three. She’s tall and talkative for her age, and a source of wonderment and delight to her mother and to me. But as cute and charming and funny as she is, she is no princess. Or, to put it more accurately, she may occasionally dress up as a princess–but I am not her prince.
In August 2009, I posted a piece on my own blog, She’s got you wrapped around her finger: fathers, daughters, and a variation on the myth of male weakness in which I noted the extraordinary number of folks who expressed to me their certainty that I would treat Heloise as a flawless angel whose whims I could not help but indulge. But there’s an even more troubling aspect of the father-daughter relationship that needs calling out.
Becoming a parent for the first time in one’s forties has myriad advantages, not least that I’ve had the opportunity to watch a great many of my peers “do it all first.” (I have three high school friends of mine who are already grandparents.) And I’ve seen, a time or nine, an unhealthy triangulation occur with dads, moms, and their daughters. While the dangers of physical incest and abuse are real, there’s a kind of emotionally incestuous dynamic I’ve witnessed over and over between fathers and daughters, one in which dads seek from their daughters the validation and affirmation that they feel they are entitled to, but are not receiving from their wives.
Little children adore their parents. Really, it’s a lovely thing to come home each day and be welcomed, as I invariably am, with gales of excited laughter and delight. My daughter’s love is an impressive thing to feel. No matter what has transpired during the day, no matter what I’ve said or done (or failed to say or do), Heloise seems to adore me. It’s a wonderful thing, and I eat it up with wonder and gratitude and delight.
Of course, spouses aren’t the same as children. My wife loves me, a fact of which I blessedly have no doubt. But she most certainly doesn’t have me a on pedestal, doesn’t think I’m flawless, and doesn’t greet me with shrieks of joy everytime I walk into the house. Eira engages with me as a partner, and she challenges me and pushes me and asks me for things; I do the same for her. In a good marriage, iron sharpens iron, and the more friction in the sharpening process, the greater and more enduring the heat. Anyone who’s met my wife knows that she’s a tall, strong force of nature. (This is a woman who can dress down Israeli soldiers on patrol and make them blush apologetically. If you know the men and women of the IDF, you’ll know how astounding that is.) She loves me and she encourages me as I do her, but she doesn’t conceal her displeasure when she’s unhappy, and she doesn’t come rushing to me like something out of a Marabel Morgan book when I enter the house.
Here’s the thing: some men play their daughters against their wives, mistakenly believing that the way in which their daughters see them (as heroic and perfect) is the way that their spouses ought to as well. If a man hasn’t done his “work”, he may find himself looking at his daughter, gazing up at him with adoration, and he may start (resentfully) to contrast his girl’s fierce and uncomplicated devotion with the somewhat less enthusiastic reception he may be getting from his overworked and exhausted wife. In most cases, this doesn’t mean the papa will turn to his daughter sexually, though it surely, tragically, maddeningly does happen more often than we like to think about. But he may find himself relying more and more on the affirmation he gets from his adoring baby girl.
A wife’s affection needs to be earned anew each day; it requires a husband (I’m writing this, of course, from a heterosexist perspective) who can pull his weight in housework and childcare and the emotional maintenance of the family. Marriage is, as we are invariably reminded, hard work. Getting a small child to adore you is not anywhere near so difficult.Many husbands do tend to think that merely being married (or living together) entitles one to expressions of devotion from one’s partner.They buy into a myth about men and women, one that suggests that it’s a woman’s job to soothe, to affirm, to encourage, and to manage her husband’s emotions. Think of the execrable bestseller by Dr. Laura, The Proper Care and Feeding of Husbands. Dr. Laura often suggests that if a woman doesn’t validate “her man” well enough, then she’s to blame if he looks for that validation somewhere else. Men have needs, Dr. Laura insists, and the greatest need they have isn’t for sex, but for a woman’s affirmation and admiration. If they aren’t getting that from their wives, they will invariably find it from another woman.
Men’s capacity to self-soothe is just as great as women’s, and women’s need for affirmation is just as great as men’s. That ought to be a given. But Dr. Laura does speak for a great many people who have bought into this delusionary understanding of what it is that men are entitled to. And men who do believe that they are being deprived of what is rightfully theirs may indeed go elsewhere. Disastrously, for fathers of daughters, that “elsewhere” may be to their little girl. Again, that doesn’t mean physical incest in every, or even most, instances. What it means is that a great many dads (and it wasn’t until I became a father to a girl myself that I realized how common this was) start to rely more and more on the simple intensity of their daughter’s love rather than doing the much more difficult work to remain connected with their wives. I’m certainly not saying every father of a daughter does this, but it is common — and if you ask the mothers of daughters, as I have, you’ll hear plenty of anecdotes about this.
Princess culture is huge for little girls, as surely anyone who spends time around children between three and eight knows. I’m convinced that princess culture is in part fed by fathers’ longing for validation. After all, princesses need princes; giving your daughter her princess fantasy is a way for a man to feed his own longing to feel like a handsome prince, indispensable and heroic and good. The gulf between the “handsome prince” in his daughter’s eyes and the loved but decidedly imperfect man in his wife’s eyes grows greater and greater. All the more reason to do what more than one man I know has done, and spend one’s family time basking in a daughter’s affection — and then, after the kids have gone to bed, spend time compulsively using internet pornography. And of course, there’s almost no time spent actually engaging, face-to-face and eye-to-eye, with one’s wife.
This doesn’t mean that we won’t ever let Heloise dress up as a princess. But it does mean that as devoted to my amazing, lovely, grace-filled daughter as I am, I’m very clear that in that relationship, validation needs to be a one-way street. Plenty of daughters grow up with a sense that they are somehow responsible for taking care of their fathers emotionally, for being the good and understanding woman in his life (as opposed to the mother/wife figure, who is invariably cast as judgmental and cold.) To do this to a daughter is child abuse, and I am determined not only not to do it myself, but to call out other fathers of daughters when I see the signs of what can only be called emotional incest.
Heloise may or may not choose to play at being a princess as she gets a bit older. (We’ll neither forbid nor encourage it.) But in her little games, I will not play the part of the prince. I’m a father, and that is something utterly and wonderfully different. And if I need validation, I need to go and get it from my equal, my peer, and my partner — the spouse who will make me earn that validation, as she should.