Do we subconsciously seek partners who can fill the roles in our lives our parents once held?
Before he walked me down the aisle on my wedding day, my father tried to say something, but what came out was a choked hiccup-sob. If I hadn’t had a glass of champagne and a Valium, I might have cried, too. Instead, I steadied myself on his arm. My father, my hero, my first love, delivering me to my second love. Not giving me away, I thought, but letting go.
I was young when I first married, and I was nervous. I took those vows seriously, and I meant to keep them. Even on that day, I knew divorce was a possibility. Given statistics, it was more a probability, really, and an unremarkable one. If I’d seen that I was marrying a taller, dark-haired version of my father, I would have thought, How unoriginal, Laurel. But that wouldn’t have stopped me, because I loved my father and believed he was a good man.
My father and I never vowed to love each other for better or for worse, in sickness and in health, ’til death do us part. That would have been creepy, but also needless. I believed that parents and children shared a tacit bond that only death would sever. After that, there would be happy memories and photos and stories to share.
Growing up, I was Daddy’s little girl. I loved him blindly, but my allegiance was more a matter of necessity than love. I sure as hell wasn’t Mommy’s little girl. My mother came to me when she needed a confidant, someone to adore her, a mediator for her arguments with my father. By the time I was 12, I knew my place: I was the peacemaker.
She sometimes tried to participate in my life, but it was hard for her, and confusing for me. Watching me excel at activities might have made her proud, but it left her on the periphery of a spotlight she craved. So we weren’t close. Her hunger for attention and her unpredictable rages kept her from being close to anyone for very long. Those of us who shared a house with her were close by proximity. I was stuck.
One night when I was in high school, my mother and I argued in the kitchen. I must have been too dismissive—a trick I’d learned from my father—because she came at me swinging. I batted her hands away and pushed her so hard she fell. I saw my father watching from his recliner in the living room, doing nothing. The next day my mother clutched her back, groaning. I knew her pain was exaggerated, that she was slipping easily into the role of victim. She got no sympathy from my father. Then again, neither did I. He walked around whistling, his customary response to strife. Whistling past the graveyard. He was a really good whistler.
I was Daddy’s little girl, but he failed me in a way that I saw from a very young age. He didn’t stand up to my mother’s craziness. He didn’t protect me from her, or admit that her behavior wasn’t OK. When I left for college, my mother waved goodbye from the front door as I got into the car with my father. During the four-day drive to St. Louis, I quickly and handily forgot how my father had never once had my back. I looked forward.
I was 23 when I met my husband. I had just moved to Chicago and I was tired of chasing men who weren’t interested in me, or feigning interest in those who were too interested. John was neither. He was just the right amount of interested, and interesting. What you have here, Laurel, is a good man. Once I had him, though, I wasn’t sure what to expect of him.
I wanted a partner, one person in my life who would care about me and watch out for me. I didn’t want to be put on a pedestal or have my needs come first, but I craved the safety of knowing that someone had my back. There was a familiarity about him, about us, that made our relationship comfortable. I was too young to understand or question that comfort.
On our wedding day, I didn’t know what our marriage would be like, but I would have laughed had someone suggested we would end up like my parents. How could we when he was a good man and I wasn’t a crazy narcissist? But I’d been lying to myself about what kind of man my father was.
In reality, he was aloof, uncomfortable with emotions, withholding of praise. I also underestimated the ugly parts of my mother that lived in me. She was too many kinds of crazy to list, and some of that stuck to me. I could be moody, jealous, short-tempered. And angry. I had so much anger then, without understanding why.
I understand it now, too late. I had constructed an idealized version of my father and how close we were, and we both lived that lie for decades. I might have been able to forgive his failure to shield me from my mother if I hadn’t buried it too deep to remember. Instead, I tried to fulfill that imaginary bond within my marriage. I was trying to experience the safety of parental love through romantic love. That’s rather fucked up, Laurel.
It was no coincidence that I chose John, nor was it surprising that our marriage followed a path similar to my parents’. We saw it happening. We fought it for 14 years. Our battles were tame compared to my parents’ explosions, tempered by real love and affection. But there was still a vital piece missing: I rarely felt as if he had my back. To be fair, I didn’t have his, really. We were two grown children scrabbling to fill voids we didn’t know existed. In trying so hard to get the love I needed, I became as unlovable as my mother had seemed to me as a child.
By the time our daughter turned 3, we had reached a place I could no longer bear: We were as unhappy as I suspect my parents are still. I didn’t want our daughter growing up in the scary environment I remembered, and so I asked for a divorce.
I can only speculate about my parents unhappiness because it’s been more than a year since I spoke with either of them. My mother and I had an argument that I decided would be our last, and I stepped away from what had always been, well into my 40s, an erratic and damaging relationship. She retaliated by demanding that my father end all contact with me. I didn’t believe he would grant her this, but I was wrong. I have tried off and on to make contact with him, but I picture him sitting in his recliner, reading my texts and emails, doing nothing.
A few weeks ago, four years after we split up, my ex-husband and I had our first honest conversation about our marriage and divorce. He apologized for some stuff; I apologized for some stuff. We agreed we’d done the best we could, that it was time to move past the rancor so we could have an amiable—even fun—co-parenting relationship with our daughter and my husband.
I left my marriage for good reasons that my ex and I don’t regret, and we are now friendlier than I ever expected.
My father left me out of cowardice, and a father-daughter renaissance seems unlikely. Maybe one day I’ll stop being angry with him, but I doubt I’ll ever stop feeling the pain and the weight of his betrayal. He chose to break that unspoken bond between parents and children, and in doing so he left me with little more than unhappy memories, bittersweet photos, and sad stories to tell.
Laurel Hermanson has been been a freelance writer for more than 10 years and is the author of Soft Landing, a novel.
Photo of the author and her father on her wedding day.