Father Wound #3: The Emotionally-Distant Dad
This is the fourth in a five-part series on “father wounds” and the way that Jesus came to heal those wounds. Be sure to go back and read the introduction, “Your Father Isn’t God the Father,” as well as “Wound #1: The Never-Satisfied Dad” and “Wound #2: The Time-Bomb Dad.”
The Emotionally-distant Dad is one of the more common—but subtly dangerous—types. He may have been stable and consistent, but he didn’t express much emotion to you. He never made you feel special or told you he was proud of you. Stephen Poulter says in his book, The Father Factor, that this fathering style made up approximately 50 percent of nuclear families between 1945 and 1980 (p. 125). It’s the “Leave It to Beaver” dad. He’s a good guy, and by some cultural standards he’s a “good dad.” But while he’s often around, he’s just not emotionally there.
Maybe you grew up with a dad like this. I remember reading a book that claimed there are three things every child needs to hear from their father:
- I love you.
- I’m proud of you.
- You are good at _______.
But you never heard that. And that left you with an insatiable desire to prove yourself so you could hear that from someone. Years ago, I found the most incredible quote by Bo Jackson—a professional football and baseball player—who some argue was the greatest athlete ever to live. Bo said,
My father has never seen me play a football or baseball game. Can you imagine? Here I am, Bo Jackson, one of the so-called premier athletes in the country, and I’m sitting in the locker room and envying every one of my teammates whose dad would come in and talk, have a drink with them after the game. I never experienced that.
There isn’t much Bo Jackson could have done to excel more in athletics. Yet at the very top of his game, he still felt the wound of an emotionally absent father.
Kids who grow up in an environment like this not only fail to develop a healthy relationship with their fathers (which should be obvious), but they also struggle to develop healthy relationships with others. Because they’ve never learned to open up emotionally in the home, they don’t have the skills to be vulnerable in other relationships—not with their spouses or their kids or their friends. In fact, they find it tough to make real and lasting friendships at all. They may be extroverts with lots of acquaintances, but deepening those relationships is a challenge.
Tragically, this relational deficit often plays out in a repeating cycle: Unless you do something to break the cycle, you may end up creating this same kind of emotional distance in your kids.
So to all the dads out there: Connect with your kids. Whether you saw this modeled in your own father or not, know that you have a chance to provide your children with something much more valuable than material stability. You can give your children relational and emotional capital for them to cash in on for the rest of their lives.
The alternative is to continue a cycle of distance, usually cloaked in good intentions. Emotionally distant dads usually aren’t aware of the damage they’re causing. They think, “I’m doing my job, because I’m providing for the family.” Sadly, many men feel like they are good dads if they provide food and shelter for their families. To that, I ask you: “Really? Is that the standard?” As pastor John Bryson says, possums give their offspring food and shelter. Is that the bar we want for godly fatherhood?
Connect with your kids. You can give them relational and emotional capital for them to cash in on for the rest of their lives.
How can we break this cycle of emotional deficits? Not simply by trying harder. We become emotionally invested fathers when we see the emotional investment of our Heavenly Father.
The Father is so emotionally connected to you that, according to Jesus’ parable of the prodigal son in Luke 15, he literally could not be happy while you were away. Every day the prodigal son was gone, the father stood at the door waiting for him to come home. I’m sure the father was a busy man with lots of things to attend to, but he could not be happy when his boy was wandering and hurting. So every day, without fail, he stood at the gate and looked out over the horizon. Days passed, which turned into weeks, which turned into months. Still the father stood looking and longing.
And when his son started to come home, the father couldn’t help himself. He lifted up the corner of his robe and sprinted out to receive his son home. He gushed over his returned son in extravagant terms. And that, Jesus said, is how your Heavenly Father longs for your return to him.
John Piper says that many of Jesus’ parables end with a charge to the hearers. They are supposed to go and do something with their newfound lesson. Not so with the prodigal son. In the parable of the prodigal son, he gives no action step. Why? Because we are supposed to just stop and worship. This is the love the Father has for us! Who can fathom it?
“Behold what manner of love the Father has bestowed on us” (1 John 3:1).