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Why Fathers Are Psychologically Set Up to Withdraw From Their Families

Dads don't want to shut down emotionally, they just don't feel properly prepared for the alternatives.

There are a lot of tropes about fathers, but one tends to stick out the most: the distant. He’s there, he’s present — sort of — but he seems distant and far away. He’s the dad on Stranger Things who reads the paper at breakfast and doesn’t really seem to engage with his family; he’s the dad who comes home from work and immediately retreats to the den. It’s a cliche, but it’s a cliche for a reason. Men tend to withdraw.

Dads withdraw emotionally not out of lack of love for their families, but often an overwhelming amount of it combined with an inability to cope. This impulse is relatively universal and not entirely their fault. When boys are brought up to believe that many emotions are not acceptable, learning to deal with them as a man can be a challenge, but learning to deal with them as a new parent is a minefield. As much as fathers shut down for the same reasons men do in general, when children are involved the stakes become higher. Dads can feel less in control than ever before and double-down on this distancing, leaving their spouses and kids to wonder what the hell is wrong.

“Men have just as much ability to experience and express emotions. However, these activities are not supported by much of our culture,” therapist Rich Oswald told Fatherly. “The biggest training deficit for men is centered around relationships. Topics include self-awareness, communication, and empathy.”

Despite stereotypes, research shows that men are just as emotional as women, but they just hide it more effectively, often to their detriment. A growing amount of psychologists are acknowledging that these repressive masculine norms about emotions are partially responsible for many of the mental health problems men have. Children are also taught how to manage their emotions at a young age, not through sit-down lessons, but through modeled behaviors. While a mother’s emotions matter, studies show that how dads model emotions is especially crucial for boys. Fathers in past generations were expected to be relatively absent breadwinners, and withdrawal is what many dads today were raised on.

When men lack the training to deal with a situation, they’re more likely to feel useless and retreat, and emotional situations are more likely to cause this as a result. Becoming a parent is an intensely emotional experience, but not always in the way men expect. Some men report experiencing a love-at-first-sight connection with their babies, but others have to be more patient, clinical psychotherapist Kevon Owen explains. 

“Men come in and tell me about how they know a guy who broke into tears when they heard the heartbeat,” Owen says. “There is no shame in not having the same level of emotional reaction as those guys. The sound of the heartbeat on those machines sounds like a poorly recorded hand drum. Give it time.” If such high expectations aren’t enough to make these dads retreat, insecurities about parenting will. There’s evidence that when mother’s act like experts, fathers withdraw even further because they don’t feel like they have anything to offer.

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“I’ve had men say they feel like they were just the sperm donor,” psychologist Erika Martinez told Fatherly. This is understandable since mothers have a nine-month head start in bonding with babies in utero, and infants are more dependent on women when their breastfeeding.   

“The man doesn’t have that.  His relationship with the child starts at birth, so the mother becomes the expert in that baby by default. “

It’s worth noting that even for men with more progressive ideas about gender roles, being a provider is still a predominant value for fathers, which requires a lot of energy. Many dads might seem more withdrawn when they’re actually exhausted and not communicating that effectively.

“It’s hard to go full-throttle at work in order to live up to that and still have something left to give emotionally at home,” Martinez explains.

The biggest mistake dads can make is feeling guilty about the impulse to withdraw, because that only makes it stronger, experts agree. So the best thing they can do for themselves and their families is to stop being so hard on themselves, because that’s how they got into this mess. And sure, mothers can encourage fathers to participate in child-rearing and exercise compassion and understanding when they make mistakes, but it’s really up to men to show up over and over again, even if they don’t always know what they’re doing.

“Men want to solve problems, and their lack of knowledge and training is a problem that can be solved by getting information, support, encouragement and experience,” Oswald says. To build that experience, fathers have to fail by participating instead of running away.