I had no father -- will I always feel I need a man?

I don't want to be one of those women who can't be happy without a boyfriend or husband.

Published October 2, 2006 10:57AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

My father walked out on my mother when I was born and I never had any male figures in my life, no stepfather, uncles, older brother, cousins -- nothing. I have noticed that it is a lot easier for me to become friends with guys, and I always feel a lot more comfortable and at ease with males than with females. I have had only two serious relationships, including the one I am in now. Although I am not in love with this guy, I have this immense fear of losing him. I know that it is normal to fear the loss of someone who is close to you, especially since he is one of my best friends, but my fear is constant.

I have read that girls who grow up without a father will grow up seeking males and becoming very attached to them very quickly. I sometimes think that I have already fallen into this pattern, and I fear that I will continue to do so and only get hurt that many more times. I hate to feel needy, especially to be so desperate for a guy's affection -- the simple thought of it makes me sick! However, that is how I feel with this guy I am seeing. I never, ever felt this way until a few months ago, which is around the same time that I became angry at my father for leaving and felt the need to find him.

Does this fear of not having a man have to do with not having a father? Will I continue to follow this pattern for the rest of my life? How can I control this fear? I don't want to become one of those women whose happiness or satisfaction depends on a man.

Need for Affection

Dear Need for Affection,

The important thing is to understand the forces that are at work in your particular life. We all have forces at work in our lives. Many of these forces are hard to identify, or uncomfortable, or they do not accord with what we wish we were, or think we are. We develop values and ideas about how we should be, and then we find ourselves behaving counter to that, and it creates tension and conflict in our inner lives. That is what you are experiencing. And that is good. It is the beginning of complexity, which is the hallmark of adulthood. It is a sign that you are beginning to appreciate the ambiguity and contradiction in life.

I do not think you will continue to slavishly follow this pattern for the rest of your life. But this fact will always be there. You will always be a person who grew up without a father. Knowing this, you can live your life accordingly. This is what we call "self-knowledge." There are many ways to look at it. You could broaden your perspective a little to say that many women have a fear of not having a man, and there are many causes of it. For you, it relates strongly to the lack of a father. For other women, it may have to do with generally feeling insecure and frightened. Or they may have had a father who was undependable, who showed up and left and showed up and left over and over again, and so they may fear that men are always going to leave.

It's never so cut and dried. There is so much more to it. For one thing, just because you have a fear does not mean you have to act on it. If you know what the fear is and why you have it, you can just walk around with it for years. You can wake up and say, "Hello, fear, good to see you again. Now sit down and shut up." You do not have to build your life around this fear.

Men may come and go in your life and you will still be there. Men will come into your life and love you and go away. They will come into your life and not love you and go away. Later, when you are older, men will come into your life and die.

There is more to it, too. There is the whole idea of what a man is. What characteristics does a man have that you want? Do you want him to be your father? What would that mean? Since you didn't have a father, you may not know what that would mean. Would it mean just being like a mother except with a beard? What would it mean?

What I mean is that there is no simple answer for you. This is how you grew up. You have the right to seek happiness, to live with your fear, to dream of what your life might have been but to recognize what your life actually is. You have the right to choose, yourself, whether you have a man in your life. You have the right to live with your fears as they are.

You have just begun to sense just how subtle and complex life is, flavored by the past. You may or may not be able to control this fear. But you can live with it. It doesn't have to rule your life.

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