When it comes to picking a partner, different people seek different attributes. Some look for specific physical attributes, say, height, skin colour, and weight; some go for temperament and emotional qualities while others, especially women simply look for their fathers (or not).
Studies show that a lot of women end up dating or getting married to men who have certain recognisable similarities with their fathers.
While this often happens at a subconscious level (nobody goes around comparing their potential partners against their father’s personality attributes), these women end up settling with men who in one way or another resemble their fathers.
Many theories try to explain this phenomenon. The most popular one is the ‘Electra’ complex developed by Jung, which is the opposite of the Oedipus complex.
It attempts to explain the relationship between a girl and her father, claiming that at a certain period of development, girls are (again, subconsciously) attracted to their fathers and they exhibit jealousy towards their mothers.
Some scientists claim that it is this complex that manifests itself again at that later age, albeit with different characters. Beyond this theory, however, there are a couple of reasons why women might seek out mates that resemble their parents.
Dr J Wright, a relationship therapist, believes it has something to do with “pre-sexual programming.”
According to her, as infants, we develop an unconscious schema of what love is, based on the way we are treated by our primary caregivers. Then, as adults, we are attracted to people who stimulate us in the same way.
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Judith Adhiambo, 35, admits she has always ended up with men who somehow share certain attributes with her father.
“I am a daddy’s girl,” she says, “we are very close. He is the best man I have ever known. He is social, gentle, calm, and very friendly. I realised I am attracted to very friendly men, just like my father. I cannot help it; whenever I am around a friendly person, I get very comfortable.”
According to Dr Wright, young girls interactions with their fathers are their earliest communication with the opposite sex and so for some women, this might be the blueprint of relationships they carry into adulthood.
This is what other studies refer to as sexual imprinting and they suggest that it is an active process that involves the relationship between the child and the adult upon whom they imprint.
For instance, for Judith, being with such men simply feels familiar. It brings back the feeling of being a teenager again.
“Growing up, my father was my role model, he was also my best friend. I ran to him with all my teenage problems,” she laughs.
“We still talk a lot, but I have since moved out. I broke up with my first boyfriend just a year after we started dating. He had anger issues, but maybe I also had something to do with it. We could have lasted longer, but I was just not used to being quarrelled every day. When he left, I moved back home shortly, but only because I was looking to be comforted. Of course, my father was there for me just like back then when I was a teenager.”
Ashley, on the other hand, grew up without a father figure. The 23-year-old is a university student, studying Economics and is in her final semester.
“I am the firstborn in a family of two. I did not know my father. They separated when I was pretty young so I do not remember him at all. My sister came much later after he had left, but even her father also left us when she was just two years old. For most of my life, it has just been me, my mother, and my sister.”
Ashley was sent to a boarding school shortly after, where she spent most of her childhood. Later she joined yet another boarding school in high school.
“It was a girls’ only boarding school, even the high school one. The primary school was sponsored by a Catholic church, so other than the girls, there were just nuns. I did not miss my father though, even when I saw other girls with their fathers on visiting days. My mother would always come with my sister, and it was fun. However, much later when I joined campus, I started noticing that I was subtly craving for male presence.”
Dr Wright says that sometimes, certain women like Ashley, who have grown up completely without fathers or with unavailable ones may get into relationships to look for father figures.
For such women, their minds may subconsciously imagine what having a father would have felt like and so while looking for a partner, they will often settle for the men with those imagined attributes.
“At some point, I noticed that my boyfriends were much older than me and almost all of them ended up having commitment issues. The more detached they were, the more attracted to them I became. But I also became desperate and anxious and bothersome. I was always afraid they would leave, which they did, in the end,” she says.
Other than unavailability, such women may also easily fall for dominant men or men in powerful positions because they may be longing for dominance or stable father figures in their lives.
These, according to psychologist Suzanne Gachanja, are often women who “grew up with weak or unreliable father figures, the kind who are either hen-pecked husbands, or men who cannot provide for their families, or who don’t try their best to make ends meet.”
Others may prefer long-distance relationships, since they may also have detachment issues and are not quite able to avail themselves to their partners.
She also sensibly points out that, physically, we often subconsciously look for folk like ourselves.
And since a woman may resemble her dad, she may find herself with a man who ‘looks like her.’ And so looks like her father.
“When we say a couple looks alike, which people often do, it is not because they have stayed together for long or those other romantic reasons. It is because they subconsciously sought out someone who physiologically resembles them, maybe the eyes, facial structure, body shape, etc.”
However, there are women who when choosing a partner with whom to settle, go for the extreme opposite of what their fathers were.
Most of these women grew up with either abusive fathers who may have been violent towards them or their mothers, or they were drug addicts who caused them and their sibling's an unmeasurable amount of mental or income-related suffering.
These women may, in a healthy and ideal circumstance recognise the harmful patterns in the potential mates and reject them early enough. However, in the real world, this rarely happens.
Some of these women still end up with abusive men despite having seen their abusive traits early in their interactions.
Jennifer Harman, a professor of psychology and co-author of The Science of Relationships, attributes this phenomenon to familiarity. According to her, although it may not be a particularly healthy relationship dynamic, for these women, it feels comfortable.
This is because people will often fall into relationship patterns as adults which are similar to patterns they learned growing up. Although these patterns may not necessarily be unhealthy, sometimes they are, and they are more dangerous.
Dr Wright says that in this case, you might think that you are dating the extreme opposite of your father, and yet the unconscious mind finds a way of slipping back to what is comfortable.
Most of these women, however, simply end up with a ‘fix-it’ mentality. Because they have had difficult relationships with their fathers, they try to ‘fix’ their partners (who will, ironically, share certain attributes with the fathers) so as not to turn into their fathers.
According to Dr Wright, “this is your psyche returning to the scene of the crime. You are picking somebody who has the same issues (as your father) so that you can fix it and do a better job this time around.”
Florence Gathoni, 41, grew up with a father who was not only an alcoholic but was also physically violent to her mother and to his children, whom he beat for years until when he could not, having been rendered weak and sickly by liver cirrhosis.
“Before I began my therapy, I had had two toxic relationships. I know that is ironic, but somehow, without knowing it, I was trying to change them. Of course, I did not succeed. My first boyfriend was manipulative but he never physically abused me. The second one was worse. When I started therapy, my therapist pointed out to me how these men were sort of similar to my father. That was the first time I saw the resemblance.”
Florence says that she has learnt that for people like her, finding a partner like their parents allows them to work through issues that troubled them with their parents as children.
“She told me that if I do not break the cycle, I might keep on trying to find more and more people like my father until I have finally grown beyond that problem.”
With the help of therapy, the teacher and mother of three grew over her risky trait, and eventually met someone with whom she has happily settled.
But other women like Abigael disagree that women look for their fathers in their partners. According to her, childhood relationships with parents play an insignificant role in who they choose to date.
“None of my partners have had anything similar to my father. My father is a good person, but I do not go around trying to look for him in other people. If anything, I often find ‘good men’ boring! Women look for different things in men,” she says.
“I do not believe it has anything to do with the men themselves but rather what the woman wants or is comfortable with.”
According to her, women will always be attracted to the strong example of what a man is, whether good or bad, and it should not be interpreted to mean anything else other than one’s preference.