Who are the worst fathers in history

Interview: When the father is missing

Those who have never met their biological father will suffer from it for a lifetime, says the psychoanalyst Horst Petri.

Read an excerpt from the new edition of GEO WISSEN on the subject of "Fathers":

GEO KNOWLEDGE: Professor Petri, the loss of the father played no role in psychoanalysis for a long time, even Sigmund Freud barely said a word about it. Why?

HORST PETRI: Freud wrote in his work “The Interpretation of Dreams” that the death of the father was “the most significant event, the decisive loss in a man's life”. He expressly referred that to himself. But he didn't deal with the subject any further. Perhaps it reminded him too painfully of the deep offense caused by the death of his own father. In addition, at that time psychology was primarily concerned with early childhood and the mother-child relationship. The father was a negligible factor in the well-being of the children.

What was the reason for you to finally bring the topic to light?

I was supposed to give a lecture entitled “The Absent Father” in the mid-1990s, but found that there was hardly any substantial specialist literature on it. I said that I had to think about it a little longer first. And then suddenly the subject caught me.

Because you realized that it affects you personally too.

I first looked at the files of my previous patients - and I was shocked to discover that a great many of them grew up fatherless. I hadn't discussed that in the meetings with them. A second shock set in when I realized that I, too, had been affected by a long absence from my father. Between the ages of three and nine, my father was practically never at home, but was busy building bridges for the Reichsautobahn. There was no real bond between us at that time. I should have come across this at the latest when I underwent training analysis during my psychoanalytic training. But the absence of the father played no role here either.

You then coined the term “father deprivation”. A very awkward word.

It is borrowed from the term “mother deprivation”, which refers to children who grew up in homes and hospitals. Father deprivation describes different constellations: for example, fatherlessness when there was never a father for the child. Then the loss one suffers when the father dies or disappears permanently. And finally the absence of a father - from years of absence from the war to a divorced weekend father.

Which of these is worst for children?

Certainly the fact that I never had a father. Anthropologically, it is now considered certain that there is a great need of children to develop in a three-way constellation with mother and father. If, however, the mother enters into a new, stable partnership in a relatively short period of time, i.e. a surrogate father is there, the loss is not quite as dramatic. But even this child will at some point worry about its biological origin, wants to know where it actually comes from - thousands of medical histories attest to this.

Are children who have never had a father more likely to come to terms with the loss than children who consciously suffer it? Who have to experience a separation of the parents?

Of course, how the father was lost and how the family deals with it plays an important role. If the son is taught what a wonderful person the father was, then the son may identify with the positive image of the father and relate it to himself. But there is also the danger that the dead father will be idealized in such a way that he becomes an unattainable hero for the son, on whom he repeatedly fails.

Can you give us an example of this?

I had a 53 year old patient who had to overcome some professional failures in the past few years. He had never met his father, who was killed in the war. But since he was the only child, the mother projected all the positive qualities of her husband onto the son, constantly telling him how successful the father was as a young architect. I asked him whether his current crisis had something to do with the fact that he could never reach the greatness that was attributed to his father. That preoccupied him intensely. In the following hours we were able to slowly let the overpowering role model die. And the patient was able to concentrate on the question of who he actually is himself. Soon his professional blockage and his low mood also dissolved.

In today's generation of young fathers, father deprivation is mostly a result of the separation of the parents. Does this also change the symptoms?

These men mostly completely deny the early pain, saying that the father has not been an issue for them for a long time because they have not seen him for decades and they grew up with their mother. But then suddenly they sit with me and need help. I have four patients between the ages of 30 and 40, all of whom have young children. Women can no longer stand the men because they are unable to respond to the family with empathy. You are very performance-oriented, very capable and successful - but emotionally like being tied up.

After all, these men come to you in the first place.

But often only after a breakup, or when the woman has told them that she wants to break up. A world collapses for men, they are often completely helpless, develop severe fear of abandonment and depression. In the conversations it turns out that these men have so far hardly taken care of the children, but they are now fighting furiously for the family. They try to get rid of their feelings of guilt and to profile themselves as a good father, to make up for everything that has been neglected. In doing so, they are often so overprotective and absorbing that the children are considerably restricted in their free development.

And is that a consequence of one's own father deprivation?

Because of this deprivation, they have never learned to develop a good quality bond with the opposite sex and with their own children. Your emotional ties with people you are close to have lost depth. And then there is what is known as the transgenerational transmission of the trauma: They neglect their own children because they have not experienced it differently and in any case assume that they are expendable.

You can read the full interview in the new issue of GEO WISSEN on the subject of "Fathers".

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