Why Are Father and Son Relationships So Difficult?

Of course not all father-son relationships are difficult. The majority of families fall under what we can call healthy or good enough.

However, for those that are difficult, it can get so bad its negative effects could last the sons’ lifetimes.

I’m prefacing this by saying that successfully working out a father-son relationship is highly possible. Research even finds that a father and a son need not live under the same roof to have a thriving relationship. Of course for best results, they should be together. But, in the bigger picture, the chances of coming up with a legitimate excuse to screw up the relationship are extremely low.

It is said that fathers lose their affectionate behavior towards their sons when the latter becomes a teenager. After all, fathers can be poor at expressing emotions or, perhaps, love.

In this post I discuss six reasons why father and son relationships can be so difficult and touch on what such relationships should be like, instead.

why are father and son relationships so difficult

Why are father and son relationships so difficult?

1. Fathers show “love” through qualities of traditional masculinity, but this side of love goes out of hand.

For millennia, men have been teaching boys to socialize following unwritten rules of the “pecking order” of male social groups. To survive in such an order, fathers teach their sons to avoid traits that can make them vulnerable, such as anything emotional. It’s essentially teaching them to “become a man.”

These “man traits” can be anything like competition, independence, self-sufficiency, aggressiveness, assertiveness, dominance, and forcefulness.

While nothing’s wrong with such traits per se, neglecting the other side of it—the sons’ wellbeing—can take a toll not only on the sons’ health but also their relationship with their father.

What’s worse is that these men incorrectly believe that all masculine traits can be expressed as love. Is it reasonable at all for a father to constantly maintain aggressiveness, dominance, or forcefulness over his son?

These fathers may think they’re doing their sons a favor by being mean all the time but in reality they’re hurting the relationship. It’s okay to show fear, anxiety, loneliness, and other feelings that traditionally are not “manly.”

Related: Why Do Fathers Hate Their Sons? (What Can Sons Do?)

2. Abusive fathers.

A father abusing his son is creating the perfect time bomb that will set off in the son’s adulthood.

From neglect to abandonment to outright physical affliction or what have you, the sons later realize, once they develop their sense of agency, that they’ve been deprived of a normal upbringing.

Confronted by their fathers’ hostility, the sons develop a sense of blame and hate toward their fathers.

All those repressed emotions will later come out, subconsciously or not. But in any case, the sons resort to accepting that they have nothing for their fathers but ill will and that their relationship with them difficult, if they don’t choose to cut them off already.

These sons instead seek emotional solace through their intimate partners. However, the burden and damage brought upon by prolonged distress from having an abusive father are undeniable.

Related: ‘Son Hates Father’ Complex: Reasons and What You Can Do

3. There was an absence of a positive and nurturing relationship.

This is subtle but can be as equally damaging as having abusive fathers.

You may disagree but giving the son his basic needs is not enough, unless the relationship is positive and nurturing.

Deprived, the sons don’t learn how to form and act in normal relationships in the first place, because no one taught them. How would one expect his relationship with his father himself to thrive?

Many fathers think that by giving their sons the minimum, their sons are set for life. It’s a do-it-yourself sort of self-discovery. You’re on your own. Which is ironic because the son’s future relationships will largely influence his life, including his career, love life, and money.

The sons may learn relationship skills on their own but it will be hard to reconcile them with those they’ve learned from the enmeshed relationship they had with their fathers. They have the mental tools but unlearning destructive behaviors can take a long time.

4. The son grew up different from his father’s expectations.

Even if, say, the son did grow up to his father’s expectations, in one way or another he will still choose a path of his own, do something else alien to the father, and just be his own person.

Research shows that a father’s rigid expectations can cause low self-esteem and relationship satisfaction with their adult sons.

These rigid paternal expectations are sort of a double whammy:

  • they suppress the son’s self, thus he doesn’t have an idea of what he truly wants
  • the shame the son feels for not supposedly meeting his father’s expectations

It’s a twisted situation that results in the son being a clone or a 2.0 version of his father, when he should be his own person!

This other “person” imposed upon him yields feelings of contempt, resentment, and hate towards his father. The son will know he has not developed into the man he should be because of his upbringing.

Related: 24 Signs of a Bad Father-Son Relationship You Must Watch Out For

5. Harmful alcohol use.

Research shows the association between negative psychological effects of a traditionally rigid father, and harmful alcohol use.

Like a wild animal set free, sons that grew up with authoritarian fathers enjoy the opposite of that—by going dangerously carefree under the influence of alcohol.

Alcohol is an easy escape from the hurt sons feel with who should have been their hero, their father. It’s instant happiness and freedom.

After around two decades of living in a toxic household, the sons subconsciously feel they deserve all the good feelings they can acquire, let alone enjoy. They meet like-minded people who also probably suffered the same fate at home. Then drinking becomes a habit.

They become slaves to substance abuse and squander their income.

Not limited to their relationship with their father, their other relationships also suffer because of it. Getting sober for only half of the day, at work, is not the way to live.

6. Either or both the father and the son refuse to seek help or at least give the relationship some thought.

It’s a two-way relationship. Even if one is all emphatic and willing to mend the relationship, it would not matter if the other party refuses to cooperate. This is the real tragedy in which reconciliation seems impossible.

What’s worse is when both the father and the son do not have an inkling of an idea that they have a dysfunctional relationship. They act mainly based on their mood, which shouldn’t be a problem if they got along well.

Related: 8 Effects of Emotionally Distant Fathers on Sons

What should a father and son relationship be like?

The father-son relationship, above all, must be grounded in love. The values of “traditional masculinity” may come later. Sure, there’s tough love, and I’m an advocate for it, but love should always be the north star. Fathers should not stretch their sons to their breaking point at the expense of a loving relationship.

Apologies and taking responsibility. Many fathers think they should appear perfect. After all, they are the strongest in the household and they keep the family safe from outside harm. But that image gets into their head that sometimes they hurt those around them but act as if nothing happened. Actions have consequences and any reasonable person will embrace them.

Supporting each other. A father and a son can be opposites but that’s not the point. A loving relationship allows both parties to support each other even if they don’t like their (legally accepted) lifestyle. They are simply happy the other one exists and they’re able to share their lives together.

Prioritizing health. “Health is wealth” is a cliché for a reason. A good father-son relationship encourages prioritizing their health (physical and otherwise) because this is the foundation of a solid relationship in the first place. You can’t live when you’re dead.

Trusting in knowing that outside help is available. It’s knowing that as a dyad, a father and a son can’t be certain about everything. Something eventually crumbles and that’s okay. They can seek help. Life is tough as it is, but through the company of others (professionals included), it could feel much easier and more manageable.


Image Credits: Photo by Christin Hume on Unsplash

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