I'm coming around to thinking my father isn't a complete failure in relationships. This isn't an easy idea to embrace given his two divorces and series of between-marriage girlfriends that didn't work out (including that one who busted into our house during my summer vacation and scattered his torn-up love letters on the carpet).
My mother left my father when I was 12 so I witnessed him heartbroken and phone dating in the early nineties. As a teen, it made me cringe. Why was he talking in that "I'm happy and confident" voice that wasn't his voice at all? He was trying so hard and it made me wonder if his desperation would lead him to settle with the first person who came along, even if it was a bad match. And believe me, sometimes he did.
But now that I'm older, and have gone through my own series of relationships, including one divorce, I'm looking back and thinking I may have judged my father too harshly. And I wonder, can I learn lessons from his mistakes without taking the avoid-becoming-those-things-I-abhor-in-him-at-all-costs attitude?
According to Geraldine Piorkowski, a clinical psychologist and author of Adult Children of Divorce: Confused Love Seekers , we can indeed shoot ourselves in the foot if we overreact to the qualities we think make our dads bad at love.
"Negative models are often extreme," Dr. Piorkowski says. "So, for example, if your father used to be a very angry man, you'll tend to blame yourself for even normal anger. You limit your repertoire, whereas the healthy individual has a wide range of responses."
Dr. Piorkowski says a person in that kind of situation may try to be a "superkind Superman," but instead end up being an emotionally two-dimensional "robot."
I talked to a couple of male acquaintances with divorced dads. (Both spoke to me on the condition of anonymity as they figured some of their thoughts wouldn't make for the best Father's Day gift. Go figure.)
One of the men, in his mid-30s, had a father who was very short-tempered with his mother. That tendency to blow up is something he recognizes in himself. "I'll find myself getting angry and cursing in the way he would and I stop and think, 'That's a dadism.' It's kind of scary," he says, explaining that he tries to be more "even keel" with his wife. While Mr. Scared-to-be-angry admits he knows he needs to find a comfortable balance between not being his father and not being a robot, for the time being, he expresses his rage mostly when alone. "If I'm by myself, I'm not worried," he says.
Another man I spoke to, also in his 30s, has the opposite issue. Recently released from a three-year sentence in a bad marriage, he has come to realize he had taken on the same zero-conflict approach to his relationship that is currently ruining his father's second marriage.
"It's not the worst relationship," he says of his father and stepmother, "but certainly I look at it and it's one that I'm not sure I'd want to see myself in - at any age." Now that's what I call faint praise. Mr. Zero-conflict says when he looks back now at his marriage, he can't remember getting into even one fight. "Which is strange," he admits. "Resentment builds on both sides because you're really not getting a ground on issues. You end up in bad patterns and that's absolutely what I did, and it mirrors what my father is doing."
The happy ending here is that Mr. Zero-conflict is now with a woman whose work includes counselling, so she's helping him to engage in healthy conflict.
"The generational effect is really powerful and it's hard to break that mould," he says. "I hope I can slowly change things. That's not saying my father did anything wrong. It's just what he learned from his father."
Jeffrey Zimmerman, a psychologist and author of another book called Adult Children of Divorce (popular topic, I guess), says before you start overreacting to your father's behaviour, it may be a good idea to have a talk with him. He says our views about our parents are often frozen in the way they were when we were children. He told me the story of a man whose father told him as a boy to do "whatever it takes" to succeed in his career no matter the sacrifice on his relationship.
"Twenty-five years later," Dr. Zimmerman says, "the father - now in his late 70s - might have a whole different view and be able to say, 'You know, son, I told you that you should do whatever it takes, but I was wrong. My job was important but I've had three failed marriages and I don't want that for you.'"
As a serial monogamist who can count his months of singledom on, well, four hands, I think it's fair to say I inherited some of my father's being-alone anxiety. My attempt at correcting this is to be hesitant and fearful at the beginning of every relationship. Not so awesome.
But you know, these days, I'm thinking maybe my father is not really a failure at relationships, just someone who puts himself into them over and over again no matter how many times he gets burned. He makes them a priority in his life. And that's not such a bad role model to follow.
This Father's Day, I'm going to take Dr. Zimmerman's advice, call up my dad and see what wisdom I can glean from his garbage bin of tattered loves.
Who knows, maybe I'll get some good tips on phone dating.
Micah Toub's memoir, Growing Up Jung: Coming of Age as the Son of Two Shrinks , will be published in April, 2010.