All the women in my life have daddy issues

I try to help them but they don't seem to understand what I'm saying

Published September 1, 2010 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I just found your column and it's great. I enjoy your insights on the human condition and that's what prompted me to write you.

I have three women in my life that have "daddy issues." I know that's probably not the clinical term for it but it suits their situations. Sure, there might be other factors in their life that might explain their actions but after knowing all three for most of their lives it seems like daddy issues are their biggest psychological hurdle. I'm a 32-year-old guy, just to clarify.

Woman 1, I've known since high school and she grew up in a home with a neurotic mother and her on-again-off-again boyfriend who was addicted to drugs. Her biological father never seemed to care much for her after he got married again and had a child with his new wife.

She was very creative and funny when she was younger but she started dating high-risk guys as she got older: junkies, alcoholics, abusers, hitters. Usually, older than her but not always. I've always tried to gently tell her that these guys were no good but she either kept telling me that she could change them or resented my advice as she saw it as a veiled attempt to get her to dump the guys and go out with me.

I eventually broke off contact with her because I couldn't take the late-night, sobbing phone calls or how she dumped Alcoholic A for Junkie B. I heard from a mutual friend, she started smoking crack.

Woman 2 is another friend of mine I've known even longer (since kindergarten). She grew up in a home with a complete family unit but with an overbearing mother and an alcoholic, distant father. Thankfully, she doesn't do drugs but she lives in a rich fantasy world.

She always had low self-esteem (which I find preposterous as she is good-looking and has a vibrant personality) and dated older guys. For instance, her date for the junior prom was a 21-year-old guy who she told her parents was 18. She was married to a guy who was six years her senior but their marriage fell apart as he was too immature (her word) and he was cheating on her.

After the marriage ended she started dating a guy who's 18. She and I had kind of a falling out when I told that that's not really appropriate for a woman of 32. Sure, age is just a number but I think her actions speak to a larger problem. She told me many times that she doesn't want to grow up. I fear she's going to mess up this kid's life or he's going to move on and hurt her. He's in town for summer break (he goes to college on the West Coast and plans on transferring back to the East Coast next semester to be closer to my friend) and she won't return my phone calls or e-mails.

Woman 3 is my sister. She and I grew up in a home with a workaholic mom and an overbearing, emotionally abusive stepfather. I have my own issues that I'm starting to work through ... but that's a whole other letter.

A while back she disappeared, which put my mom and me through an emotional ringer. She turned up a year later, announcing that she was going to be married to a man 23 years her senior (she's younger than I am). He seems like a nice guy but their relationship is creepy. As far as I can tell, he doesn't abuse her in any way but he and my sister tend to drink a lot.

We've kind of drifted apart since I told her that I support and love her but I don't wholly approve of her marriage and she moved a considerable distance away for work. I'd like to reconnect with her but I'm finding it difficult.

So, I guess my question to you is how do you deal with or try to help women who have "daddy issues"? I mean, I could be way off-base with my assessment (as you like to say, I'm not a therapist), but there seems to be a common thread here. I don't really feel comfortable telling any of the three women to seek help. Woman 1 has already tried and failed therapy many times, Woman 2 hasn't been, as far as I know, and she doesn't seem to think that she may have some kind of emotional issue, and I don't want to tell my sister to seek help as it might ruin her marriage. And that's my dilemma.

Thanks for your advice.

A Friend and Brother

Dear Friend and Brother,

When you see these women, you feel like you know what is going on with them and would like to help them. But they are not receptive to your help. They seem closed off. This is puzzling and frustrating. Because you recognize what is going on.

Of course you do. You know what it is like to grow up with that sort of thing.

We pick out people who have the same kind of unhappiness we do. And we gravitate toward them and try to help them.

Many of us are like this. Every time we try to help someone else and fail, it feels weird. It feels bad. We do not know exactly what is going on but it is upsetting.

Until one day we realize that what we are doing is avoiding our own pain. We have learned to act as though it is not our pain that is at issue, but other people's.

A part of us feels that we have conquered certain things and wants to share our strength. But another part of us wants to admit that we are the one who is in pain. We want to be the center of care and attention. But we focus on others. We have told the world that we are OK, we're fine, and feel we have to be true to that. It's these other people who need help. We are generous and kind; we are willing to give them help. But they don't seem to appreciate our help.

And why is that?

Because they recognize us. It is like one drowning person offering to help another.

But we go on like this for a long time, trying to fix the unhappiness of others, skating on the surface of our feelings while underneath we are a colossal mess, a roiling chaos of abuse and anger and hurt and fear and brilliance.

And then one day we fall through the ice.

Only then, when we realize that we ourselves are drowning, do we call for help. Only then, when are we truly helpless, is it permissible to cry wolf.

So let me speak to you in this way. I sense that we are a lot alike. At the risk of sounding formulaic, my guess is that your childhood with your stepfather involved deep emotional pain, which you have not yet fully felt or allowed to come to the surface. You have pushed this pain aside and will tell people that you have mostly gotten over it. But the truth is far from that. The truth is that you are in a holding pattern in which you do not seem to be able to make genuine contact with others. You try, but something does not happen. There is no genuine warmth there. You would like to be rescued from this but you feel you have to do it on your own.

You feel you've mostly got it together and just need to make some adjustments.

Me, I think you are in for a surprise, that you can scarcely imagine what is actually coming your way. But don't worry. It will be weird and scary but you will come out the other side happier. If you go to this place of pain and chaos and hold yourself under long enough, if you can sit with these feelings of deprivation and outrage, with the help of a positive witness such as a therapist or a spiritual guide, you can be helped. And then you can in turn help others.

But you have to really go there. It is not pretty. There are monsters.

You cannot help these women until you have gone into the scary depths yourself and battled what is there. You must get some scars. You must take some blows. Then they will recognize the scars on you. They will see that you have been through what they have been through and have come through on the other side.

It won't take much talk then. It will be evident. They will feel it. You won't need to correct them or lecture them. You will be a quiet source of strength and an example. It will be simple. They will want to be with you and they will watch how you have dealt with these things and either take your lesson to heart or not. It won't be your problem. In that way, you will become useful to them. 

Write Your Truth.

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By Cary Tennis

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