Journal of Contemporary Psychotherapy

, Volume 38, Issue 4, pp 205–213

Reconsidering Psychoanalytic Notions of Paternal and Maternal Roles in Situations of Father-Absence


    • School of Social WorkUniversity of Arkansas at Little Rock
Original Paper

DOI: 10.1007/s10879-008-9077-1

Cite this article as:
Jones, K.A. J Contemp Psychother (2008) 38: 205. doi:10.1007/s10879-008-9077-1


Traditional psychoanalytic literature describes the father as occupying a critical role in child development. The father’s loss or absence is seen as hindering development from early infancy throughout childhood and even into adulthood. Father absence is defined as any situation where the father is psychologically disconnected from his children, whether or not he is currently living in the same home. Dramatic shifts have occurred in the American family over the past several decades, which have resulted in changes for both the father and mother’s role in child development. With the increasing divorce rate and rise in single parenthood, father-absence has become common, and a multiplicity of family forms has emerged. However, psychoanalytic ideas regarding maternal and paternal roles have not been modified to encompass these changing family forms. Research is beginning to show that children can develop in families that are not the traditional mother-father unit. Two case examples are provided to examine various factors related to unresolved separation-individuation issues, and how psychoanalytic ideas regarding the paternal and maternal functions can be used in either a modified or unmodified manner in organizing the clinical material.


FatherLossAbsencePaternal deprivationSeparation-individuation

Since World War II, the father’s role in child development and the impact of his absence have been topics for scientific investigation. Some of the earliest research on father absence involved children who were separated from their fathers by war. These studies focused on fantasies in father-absent versus father-present children (Bach 1946); the nature of the mother-child relationship (Seplin 1952); maturity level and anger expression (Stolz 1954); delinquency (Glueck and Glueck 1950); and sexual identity development (Altus 1958).

Early studies sparked many investigations on the unique role that fathers occupy in the lives of their children and the consequences of paternal loss or absence. Briefly, these studies show that absence of the father can adversely affect cognitive (Juby and Farrington 2001), moral (Daum 1983) and social development (Clark et al. 2000), and have a negative impact on peer relations (Mitchell and Wilson 1967), self concept (Parish and Taylor 1979), self esteem (Miller 1984), masculine development (Beaty 1995), and academic achievement (Booth 1996). Additionally, it has also been suggested that father absence predisposes adolescents to a heightened sense of entitlement (Bishop and Lane 2000), increased levels of juvenile delinquency (Juby and Farrington 2001), drug and alcohol abuse (Brook et al. 1985; Jones and Benda 2004), and a host of psychiatric problems (Beck et al. 1963).

Traditional Psychoanalytic Perspectives on the Role of Father

Freud envisioned the father as occupying a critical role in both the pre-Oedipal and Oedipal stages of development (Freud 1927). Winnicott (1960) saw the father’s role beginning as early as conception, while others have advanced the idea of the father as an attachment figure in his own right (Abelin 1975; Lamb 1997). Father-attachment is then thought to spur the development of a sense of internal other in relation to an actual, or fantasized paternal figure (David 2002; Freud and Burlingham 1943; Target 2002). Along self-psychological lines, the father is seen as an important selfobject, where he supports the child’s development of a sense of real and cohesive self (Kohut 1977). Even though Kohut did not specifically address fathering in his writings, within the context of self psychological theory, an empathic father who provides both mirroring and an object who can be idealized, is seen as critical in the formation of his children’s sense of inner self (Leibman and Abell 2000).

Psychoanalytic notions of paternal influence has consistently portrayed the father as a figure of importance in the acquisition of masculinity for boys (Loewald 1951), a modulator of aggression (Herzog 2001), and important in developing a sense of mastery and industry (Ross 1982).

Fathers and the First Separation-Individuation Period

Margaret Mahler studied young children and their movement through the subphases of separation-individuation—differentiation, practicing, rapprochement (Mahler et al. 1975). One of Mahler’s collaborators, Ernest Abelin (1975), suggested that it is during separation-individuation that the father becomes aligned with reality in what he referred to “as a buttress for playful and adaptive mastery” (p. 249). Abelin postulated that successful negotiation of the separation-individuation subphases “might be impossible for either [mother or child] to master without their having the father to turn to” (p. 248). Masterson thought that the formation of a paternally based internal representation, or father “imago,” functioned to help the child test his emerging sense of self as being separate from mother (Masterson 1988, p. 33). Mahler thought that the internal presence of the father facilitates a sense of otherness and individuality that guards against fears of engulfment (Mahler et al. 1975).

Greenspan (1982) noted several functions the father serves in the earliest stages of development. For Greenspan, the father occupies the role of a “second other,” who fosters the child’s sense of security in moving out from maternal dependence (p. 127). A separate function, according to Greenspan, relates to how the father aids in the child’s capacity to integrate affective and behavioral polarities. When these functions are present, the child is able develop a healthy sense of optimism, impulse control, and a healthy degree of assertiveness with intimate others. The father, as a second other, also provides an object of security and safety while expressing anger toward the mother. More recently, the notion of father as occupying the role of “second other” or “second object” has been challenged. For example, Liebman and Abell (2000) in their review of the psychoanalytic literature on the role of father, point out that the father as a figure who enters the child’s world from afar as a secondary figure, may be more a “cultural artifact of the traditional family structure” (p. 93). Within this context, the father’s role is seen as more instrumental (financial), versus expressive in nature.

Abelin hypothesized that during the practicing phase boys shift their primary attachment from mother to father, where the father comes to occupy what Abelin referred to as “nonmother” space (Abelin 1971, p. 239). Greenson (1954) elaborated on the need for the father during this period as a figure that helps the child to “dis-identify” with mother and “identify” with father. It was from this identification with father that Greenson saw a healthy sense of maleness and gender identity developing in boys.

Mahler described the “rapprochement subphase” when the father becomes a fully separate and idealized object as distinguished from mother (Mahler and Gosliner 1955; Mahler et al. 1975). Abelin referred to the father of this period as a “less ambivalent alternative,” meaning that the father was not a figure embroiled in the intense struggle for separateness (Abelin 1975). Both Abelin and Mahler clearly saw the father as occupying a unique position: to aid the child in the move toward greater psychological separateness and the formation of an individuated sense of self.

Abelin advanced the notion of “early triangulation” and how triadic relationships—mother, father, child—play important roles in the development of self and object representations that are separate, in addition to core gender identity in boys (Abelin 1980). Abelin theorized that a more concretized sense of self emerges from this period where the small child, for the first time, recognizes his or her exclusion from the mother father relationship. Abelin suggested that the child also internalizes the relationship between the parents (Abelin 1980).

Fathers and the Second Separation-Individuation Period

Adolescence has been described as being a “massive ‘hatching’ or differentiation process,” where the early adolescent struggles to achieve psychological distance from the longings directed toward both preodipal and Oedipal objects (Esman 1980, p. 286). Esman felt that the father’s role during early adolescence was to “promote…the process of separation from the primary dependent attachment to the mother” (Esman 1982, p. 270). Both Greenspan (1982) and Esman (1982) proposed that the role of father as a reality based protective external object continued to be of great importance during adolescence.

Peter Blos (1967) also saw adolescence as being a “second individuation,” where, under normative circumstances, both maternal and paternal objects are relinquished. For Blos, adolescence is a phase where engulfment fears are evoked, calling forth a need for the protective father of the dyadic stage. Blos also hypothesized that in late adolescence this same protective father must then be relinquished for healthy development to proceed.

The father’s role in psychoanalytic theory has gone through several transitions, to its current point of recognizing the father as occupying a central position in facilitating child development, from infancy throughout childhood (Leibman and Abell 2000).

Reconsidering Paternal and Maternal Roles in Cotemporary Society

Psychoanalytic formulations regarding parental roles were developed during a time when fathers and mothers occupied more traditional roles in their families. The impact of father-absence was, accordingly, conceptualized within the context of traditional paternal and maternal roles. Such notions, in their more unmodified form, continue to fit in situations where clients grew up in family systems that replicate the more traditional family structure. However, they may not fit as well with clients who either live in, or who have grown up in family structures that do not resemble the traditional two-parent (mother and father) form, or in situations where maternal and paternal functions were shared and exchanged between parents or caretakers.

Psychoanalytic theory often clings to the notion of the two-parent family with traditional parental roles as the norm, without considering the dramatic changes that have occurred in family structure and parental roles over the past thirty years (Mander 2001). For example, divorce rates have dramatically risen and currently up to one third of all childbirths occur outside marriage, leaving many households fatherless (Blankenhorn 1995). There has also been a significant rise in both single and blended parent families. Combined, these changes have resulted in dramatic shifts in the form and structure of what used to be the more typical “nuclear” family.

A second major shift has been the changing role of both mothers and fathers in the American family. Historically, the father occupied the role of provider, educator moral authority and law maker. The industrial revolution then ushered in the role of father as provider and sex role model. More recently, the father has come to be seen as the “new nurturant father,” who functions as a co-parent and is more expressive and available to his children (Lamb 1997). There is also a growing sentiment that the role and presence of fathers in their children’s lives is dramatically diminishing over time (Blankenhorn 1995; Popenoe 1996).

Women’s roles have also changed dramatically over the past several decades. Historically, women were kept economically, socially, and politically powerless by their exclusion from the workplace. These conditions sparked the feminist movement, which eventuated in more rights and autonomy for women. As women gained power, in conjunction with economic changes, more and more women entered the workforce, thus further altering the structure of the family system.

At present, there is no way to easily define the “typical family,” given the variety of family forms and various roles parents occupy in the lives of their children. The various family forms and parental roles that are present today are certainly not what were typical during the era when traditional psychoanalytic theory was developing. What was once considered the traditional family where mother took sole care of the children and household functioning, while father provided economically certainly does still exists, but is no longer the norm (Mander 2001; Popenoe 1996). In its place are families with both mothers and fathers working full and/or part time; stay-at-home fathers/mothers; stepfathers/mothers; custodial fathers/mothers; gay and lesbian couples with children, and single parent fathers/mothers.

Over the past several decades there has been an extensive amount of research conducted on the roles of mothers and fathers that has yet to be fully integrated in the psychodynamic literature. This research has tended to focus on what is similar, what is dissimilar, and areas of overlap in regard to the functions of mothering and fathering. One of the leading authorities in relation to this area of inquiry is Kyle Pruett, who over the course of several decades has studied the father–child relationship and how it is both similar and dissimilar when compared to the mother–child relationship. In his most recent work Pruett (2000) coins the term “fatherneed,” which he describes as a word with two meanings: the first is to call attention to the father’s need for his children; while the second relates to child’s need for the father (p. 7). Pruett believes that the need for the father is “pre-wired” from infancy, and thus biologically based (p. 26). For example, he notes that by six weeks of age infants distinguish the father’s from the mother’s voice; by eight weeks infants are capable of recognizing differences in maternal and paternal handling styles; and, toddler-age children seek out father’s more physical style of play (Pruett 2000).

Pruett (2000) sees fathers as not only offering a special style of play that facilitates development, but also a unique way of holding the child so that his/her face is turned outward; encouraging novelty-seeking behavior and exploration of the world; teaching the child mastery over frustration; using more complex speech patterns; and, expecting achievement.

Pruett (1987) believes that fathers, like mothers, possess the capacity to bond with and nurture their children. Pruett believes it is the nature of the attachment that is critical for healthy child development. He states that “Parental nurturance, warmth, and closeness are shown over and over again to be connected to healthy child development regardless of whether it is the mother or father at the helm” (Pruett 2000, p. 21). Thus, in Pruett’s view, the father is fully capable of providing those functions once thought to be included in the maternal domain—attachment and nurturing (Pruett 1987).

Pruett (2000) advances the idea that social convention, versus biological determinants, account for the traditional division of parental responsibilities, noting that: “Once we look closely, we see nurturing skills in both mothers and fathers. In fact, the very essence of nurturing—the ability to be selfless and patient, loving yet consistent, tolerant but expectant, and, above all, the capacity to share and make sacrifices of one’s own emotional, spiritual, material, intellectual assets—ultimately transcends gender” (p. 18).

These “enduring parental skills,” Pruett notes, are not dependent on the gender of the parent (Pruett 2000, p. 18). In fact, after an extensive review of the research related to father–child issues, Pruett (1998) states that “the majority of the developmental-enhancing intimate transactions that grow healthy, loving infants eventually will turn out to be gender-neutral [and that] mothers and fathers share much of the competent nurturing domain, and that is what matters to children” (p. 1257).

Along a similar line, Lamb (1987) found that research on mothers and fathers during the newborn period resulted in no observable differences in parental behaviors. He also found that when fathers assume the primary role of caretaker, they are as competent as mothers in parenting (Lamb 1997). Thus, the role of mother and father is interchangeable, and “very little about the gender of the parent seems to be distinctly important” (Lamb 1997, p. 10).

Other theorists and researcher have pointed to the “interchangeability” of the maternal and paternal roles (Dienhart 1998). Davids (2002) has pointed out that throughout the evolutionary process mothers and fathers have occupied separate, but complimentary domains: the internal domain of mother that pertains to aspects of survival—nurturance of the infant, recognition of need, dependency issues, the provision of empathy; and the external domain of father that pertains to limit setting, establishing boundaries, aiding separation, coping with deprivation/frustration, and other functions that aid the child in taking his or her place in society. Davids proposes that each domain—maternal and paternal—can be fulfilled by either the mother or the father, or even by someone other than the natural parent. Davids even proposes the idea that a single parent can fulfill the necessary functions that encompass each domain of maternal and paternal functioning. Drexler (2001, 2006), in her research, found that the co-parents in lesbian families were able to provide both the maternal and paternal domains in ways that supported their children’s needs for love, support, nurturance, and independence.

Thus, it is not so much the gender of the person providing the parenting, or necessarily a two-parent household per se, as it is the quality of parenting, combined with the “stability of the emotional connection and the predictability of the caretaking relationship,” that predict positive child adjustment (Silvertein and Auerbach 1999). Both researchers and theorists in the area of child well-being are increasingly moving toward a systemic model, whereby multiple indicators of child health (psychological and physical) are being included as risk factors. The recent UNICEF (2007) report is a good example of this trend, where children in 21 of the richest nations were assessed in regard to six headings: material well-being, health and safety, education, peer and family relationships, behaviors/risk, and children’s own subjective sense of well-being. The study included forty separate indicators relevant to children’s lives. Clearly, child-wellbeing and risk is a complex phenomenon that cannot be reduced to a single event or factor.

Shifting the Paradigm in Support Multiple Family Forms

Various authors and researchers (Biller and Kimpton 1997; Blankenhorn 1995; Popenoe 1996) have advanced the notion that a plethora of today’s social ills—juvenile delinquency, child poverty, teenage pregnancy, poor academic performance—are the direct result of father absence. Those advocating this position point to the growing body of research that supports the notion of a healthy and functional family as composed a married heterosexual mother and father. However, there is a separate body of research that is challenging the premises upon which this argument rests. For example, McLoyd (1998) has concluded that families without fathers are more likely to be poor, and that it is the negative effects of poverty that causes child behavioral, emotional and psychological problems. Hetherington et al (1998) have argued against the idea of divorce as being a single event. Instead, it is the end result of a cycle of negative events, all of which may have a negative impact on children’s well-being. Similarly, Rutter (1979) concluded that it is the intrafamilial conflict before the event of divorce that may be more pathogenic than the resulting single-parent family structure.

Studies on single-parent families have tended to take a “mother-blaming approach,” without considering the overall antecedent and systemic impact of father absence (Phares 1992). In their review of studies pertaining to father absence and adolescent development, East et al (2006) found that many studies point to the importance of the father’s role in child development. However, they also noted several gaps in the literature that point to the father as “an independent variable and predictor of detrimental psychological well-being” in children and adolescents” (p. 292). For example, they reviewed several studies where “father absence” was not adequately defined, noting the multiple reasons why a father might be absent from the home (p. 285). They also noted the tendency of researchers to overly scrutinize the remaining single-parent mother; the lack of a multicultural perspective; and the failure of studies to articulate the importance of father love, and just how father’s actually influence their children.

Children can grow and thrive in households that are not traditional. Single mothers can raise children without significant behavioral problems when there is stability and lack of conflict in the home (Najman et al. 1997). Other studies on father absence have focused on the male child’s need for a father in the development of masculinity. Children growing up in lesbian and gay households are as likely to achieve a heterosexual gender orientation, when compared to those growing up in a heterosexual two-parent family (Pleck 1997). More recently, Drexler (2006), in a single case study design, evaluated the effects of growing up in a lesbian family and its effects on male Oedipal conflicts, gender development, and masculine identity, and found no negative effects in any of the three dimensions assessed. In a separate study Drexler (2001) compared lesbian with heterosexual parents and found no differences in children’s moral development, as might be predicted within the context of traditional psychoanalytic theory that focuses on the identification with the father and internalized moral capacity.

Clinicians need to differentially assess the multiple family forms in regard to their unique strengths and weaknesses, and to move away from frameworks that more rigidly define and compartmentalize parenting roles. Such a shift also supports the idea that both traditional and non-traditional family forms are to be assessed not according to structure alone, but instead, by the degree to which maternal and paternal needs were, or were not met by those in parental positions.

Case Illustrations

The following two case vignettes focus on the developmental tasks of the first and second separation-individuation periods, where traditional theory positions the father’s role as vital to successful resolution of these separate phases of development. The first case involves a 6 year-old boy who grew up in a non-traditional family system—a stay-at-home father and then single parent mother. The second case involves a 50-year-old man who grew up in a more traditional family where father was the breadwinner, and mother was the primary caretaker. In both cases the father was not available (one physically and one psychologically) to perform the functions required (according to traditional theory) for successfully negotiation of the stages of separation-individuation. In the first case, traditional concepts of the mother and father’s role are modified in organizing the clinical material, whereas in the second case, traditional theory is utilized in a more unaltered form.

Case #1

The first case is of a 6-year-old boy named Justin, whose mother brought him to treatment for aggressive behavior and refusing to go to school. Shortly after Justin was born his father lost his job and was consequently home with his son caring for his needs while mother worked. The quality of Justin’s attachment to father was compromised by the fact that his father used drugs and drank excessively. As Justin’s father’s drug and alcohol use worsened, so did his parent’s marriage. The final break came when Justin was 4-years-old. Following the separation Justin’s mother allowed visitation with his father, however, there were several occasions when he was suppose to come to visit and failed to show. During such times Justin would stand in front of the window waiting for his father and then burst into tears when mother urged him to step away because father was not coming. Over the next two years the frequency of visits with Justin’s father diminished to the point where he had no contact with him at all. Justin and his mother moved several times and problems began to surface when Justin entered Kindergarten. Up until Justin turned six his grandmother cared for him while mother worked. Justin felt safe with his grandmother and she never had problems with him while he stayed with her during the day. However, when the first day of school came Justin refused to go, saying he was “too scared.” Mother initially tried to coax him into going, but then quickly backed down. The next day mother called an area mental health agency for help and an appointment was set with a therapist.

Justin and his mother were assigned to a male therapist. During the first therapy session the therapist went to the waiting area and introduced himself to Justin and his mother. Justin hid behind his mother and would not openly greet the therapist. When Justin finally worked up the courage to enter the therapist’s office, he quickly found another hiding place behind some book shelves. The therapist then went over to where Justin was hiding and convinced him to come out and play a game. Justin then poked his head out and said, “What game?”

The initial assessment revealed that Justin was experiencing unresolved issues related to the tasks of separation-individuation. Before Justin’s father left he occupied the role traditionally allocated to the mother—primary caretaker, while mother worked outside of the home. Up until the age four Justin had been equally attached to both parents and was not showing any signs or symptoms of unresolved separation-individuation issues: uncontrollable temper tantrums, aggressive efforts to control parental figures, extreme ambivalence, over- or under-dependency (Mahler et al. 1975). However, issues related to separation did surface when Justin was sent to school. It was at this juncture that he could not bare separation from his mother—he was simply too terrified to venture into what he experienced as an unfamiliar and frightening world. Evidence of separation issues were also apparent during the first therapy session when Justin overly clung to his mother and then hid from the therapist, who most likely represented a dangerous unfamiliar figure.

Justin clearly continued to need both the paternal and maternal functions in meeting his needs for nurturance, safety and support, in order to achieve greater levels of independence, autonomy and self-sufficiency. When Justin was challenged to move forward and outward into the world, he regressed to an earlier, more dependent and less autonomous developmental level, thus hindering his entry into school. In regard the fatherless child in a single-parent family, Pruett (2000) proposes that the risk factors associated with being fatherless can be overcome by the single-parent, but not without careful planning and help. Pruett recommends such things as helping the single-parent, typically the mother, recognize “fatherneed” as being vital for the child; assuring a paternal presence in the child’s life; altering expectations so that the remaining parent does not feel she has to fulfill both maternal and paternal roles; working through the ambivalence associated with the absent father that may be projected onto the child and/or all men. Pruett provides encouragement to single-parents in general by stating, “Being fatherless does not mean a child is doomed any more than being motherless does” (p. 160). Pruett points to the management of risk factors that must be lowered in order to reduce the negative impact of father-absence.

Working within the context of Justin’s current family structure, the therapeutic goals revolved around his continuing need for both maternal and paternal supports in negotiating the tasks of separation-individuation. The therapist achieved this goal by: (1) gradually encouraging Justin to meet individually with the therapist, thus helping him take small and safe steps in the direction of increased separateness; (2) playing competitive games with Justin where he was able expand upon his ability to be more assertive and active; (3) developing a plan whereby mother would support and encourage independence by rewarding Justin in his efforts and progress toward attending school and other steps toward autonomy; (4) referring Justin to a Big Brother program where he could establish a relationship with an other-than-father male figure; (5) working with Justin to strengthen his use of role models in both his immediate environment (interested uncles) and in the media; (6) working with Justin’s mother to decrease her sense of guilt, while at the same time helping her to establish clear behavioral expectations and limits for Justin, and lastly; (7) supporting the Grandmother’s role in fostering a sense of connectedness, safety and attachment.

Case #2

The second case involves a 50-year-old man named Roy, who presented with depression and issues around marital infidelity. Roy has been married twice. He has been married to his second wife, Margaret for over 25 years and they have four children together. Roy is a successful lawyer, while Margaret has spent much of her time and energy raising the children until the last child left for college a few months ago. Margaret currently works part-time managing office affairs in Roy’s firm, where he is the lead attorney and owner of the practice. Over the course of time Roy and Margaret have been married, Roy has had multiple affairs, none of which Margaret was allegedly aware.

Roy and Margaret’s marriage is characterized by no overt conflict. In fact, they have never actually argued over anything. Margaret manages the money, pays the bills and supplies Roy with a weekly allowance and organizes their social life along with most other affairs of living.

Roy was the youngest of two with one older sister three years his senior. Both he and his sister were closest to their mother. Roy’s father worked in a local bank and was seen in the family as dominated by mother. Roy felt that he never really new his father and did not feel connected or close to him. He remembers always obeying his mother, even into adolescents and young adulthood. Shortly after graduating from Law School, Roy met his first wife, Betty. After a few months of marriage Roy started having affairs, eventually divorcing Betty because, according to Roy, “she was too controlling.” After the divorce Roy moved to another town and met Margaret, his current wife, at a local singles bar. Approximately three years after they married Roy started having affairs with young women who worked on and off in his law office. Over the course of 25 years Roy had a total of five affairs, each lasting from several months to three years.

Roy entered treatment with depression as the presenting problem. He was placed on an antidepressant and referred for therapy. During the first therapy session (the therapist was male) Roy revealed that he was having an affair with Cindy, a young woman at work who was 25 years his junior. Roy told the therapist that when he is with Cindy he feels “alive” and “like a man.” During times he cannot be with Cindy he feels “down” and “deflated.” He went on to say that he especially feels “bad” when he has spent too much time with Margaret, whom he has never really found to be sexually attractive—they rarely have sexual intercourse. When with Margaret, Roy indicated he has a “yes dear” attitude, meaning he does what she says and never resists or argues. As therapy proceeded Roy made the decision to stop seeing Cindy. He felt that if he were to give his marriage with Margaret his “best shot,” then he would need to terminate the relationship with Cindy. Roy’s depression worsened after several days of not seeing Cindy and tension mounted in the marriage. He began to feel uneasy being in the same room with Margaret and spent several nights sleeping in a spare bedroom. As Roy distanced, Margaret became suspicious that he was having an affair and became increasingly demanding and more controlling. Roy responded to this by trying to console Margaret and reassure her that everything was okay.

In assessing father related dynamics it is apparent that Roy’s development was effected by his psychologically absent father. Even though father was in the home, Roy did not experience him as an inner presence and thus was not afforded the paternal functions necessary for the successful negotiation of critical developmental tasks.

Eva Seligman (1982) outlined the special role that fathers play in personality formation. Seligman describes her work with several patients, both male and female, all of whom experienced some degree of father-absence. Seligman defined “father-absence” as an experience of father being unavailable. A common theme among her patients was the experience of father not being an active presence. Fathers were experienced as being weak and dominated by their wives. There also existed an unconscious collusion between the mother and child to maintain and prolong their mutual dependence upon one another. Seligman referred to these patients as existing in a state of being “half-alive” because they appeared to “dwell, at it were, in a state of permanent twilight, of non-differentiation, inexorably trapped” (p. 1). Seligman found reluctance in her patience to relinquish the dependency and sense of safety they felt in the mother-child dyad. Seligman hypothesized that: “Without the father’s emotional support, it….becomes almost insurmountably difficult for a child to be properly born and confirmed in his own identity, and to negotiate the unavoidable separation from the mother, a prerequisite to a satisfactory adult heterosexual commitment. The ‘absent father’ syndrome encourages a mutually collusive ‘embrace’ with the mother, nourishing a shared illusion of ‘oneness,’ from which the developing child cannot extricate himself, leaving him neither in, nor out, of the womb, but wedged, so to speak, half-way, half-alive, half-born” (p. 10).

Seligman noted that those who are stuck in such a state then require increasingly rigid defenses that serve to cover up and disguise weakness, dependence and helplessness. As adults, her patients sought out and maintained relationships that made them feel safe and secure, but required a high degree of subservience and passivity to the point where they were left feeling humiliated and continuously undermined.

It would be tempting to conceptualize Roy’s primary difficulties as emanating solely from his relationship with his domineering and over-controlling mother. However, to do this would miss the powerful impact of psychological father absence and the contributing effect this had on Roy’s life and relational dynamics. Roy did not experience his father as a positive “presence” in his life. His father was seen as weak, ineffectual and dominated by his mother. Thus, his father could not have functioned in his required and needed role during Roy’s negotiation of the separation-individuation stages—both the first (childhood) and second (adolescence) phases. As a result, Roy became fixated in a relationship with his mother that demanded subservience and compliance with her needs.

Roy’s mother and father were not sufficiently connected to one another, which normally provides a boundary between parents and child that acts as a shield against harmful affects, impulses and conflicts being directed toward the child (Herzog 2001). The absence of both a connection to father and the protective parental shield left Roy in the most vulnerable position of having mother’s needs overly focused on him, which left little room for a separate and individuated existence. He remained tied to mother and unable to voice anger, frustration, separate thoughts, wishes, or ambitions. When he did manage to make his own individuated choices, mother punished him.

When Roy finally left home he met and married two women who replicated his early attachment to mother. In his second marriage to Margaret, Roy felt smothered and over controlled by her. His connection to her was conflicted in the sense that he wanted to be taken care of by her on the one hand, while on the other hand he desperately needed to be separate. In order for Roy to sustain the fragile connection to Margaret and not provoke the anxiety associated with loss and abandonment it was required that Roy remain passive and submissive. This meant that he did not feel free to voice anger, frustration, or any overt differences between him and his wife. Left in such a humiliated and “half-alive” state, Roy then coped with his situation by having affairs with women who made him feel alive, strong/manly and in control. Unconsciously Roy also associated Margaret with more maternal forces, which acted as an inhibitor in regard to any sexual desire being directed toward her.


Traditional psychoanalytic ideas regarding maternal and paternal roles have not been modified to reflect recent shifts in family forms. Non-traditional families can provide environments where maternal and paternal needs are met. Views of a healthy family may need to be broadened. Previous notions of which parent provides the “maternal” versus “paternal” functions need revision. Family forms and parental roles are significantly altered, defined and shaped by cultural and economic conditions.

Clinical practice must correspond with current-day realities. An over-reliance on outdated ideas regarding family structure and paternal roles may lead clinicians to see deficit and ignore strength and opportunity for change.

In situations of father-loss, absence, separation and divorce, additional research is needed that controls for the multiple variables that can lead to poor outcome in children. It is believed that fathers can provide traditional maternal needs—nurturing, and mothers can fulfill the traditional masculine needs.

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