Researchers Say Growing Up With A Troubled Or Harsh Father Can Influence Women’s Expectations Of Men, And, In Turn, Their Sexual Behaviour

By Emma Young

The power (or powerlessness) of parents to shape their children for good or ill continues to preoccupy psychologists and the public alike. Among evolutionary-minded developmental psychologists, one specific idea is that girls’ later attitudes to relationships is influenced by their fathers’ behaviour. For instance, US research has found that girls with disengaged, harsh, and often absent fathers are known to start having sex at a younger age, and to have more sexual partners. However many questions about these findings remain. For example: might other aspects of the girls’ childhoods be involved; what about genetic effects; and which aspects of poor-quality fathering are the most consequential?  

A new study of pairs of sisters, published in Developmental Psychology, provides some specific answers, particularly that it is contact with a poor-quality father, not paternal absence, that affects their daughters’ later relationships, including their expectations of men, and, in turn, their sexual behaviour.  

Danielle DelPriore at Pennsylvania State University and colleagues recruited 233 pairs of biological sisters who were all of reproductive age (18-36), born at least four years apart, and whose parents had divorced or separated before the younger sister turned 14. On average, the older sisters had spent 5.6 years longer living with their fathers than the younger sisters. 

This sister-pair design allowed the researchers to focus in, as much as possible, on the effects of the father’s behaviour, and his presence or absence from the home. They reasoned that, for each pair, while the younger sister would have spent less time living with their father, most other potential influences on their attitudes to men and their sexual behaviour – including childhood culture, religion, and even genes, to some extent – would be similar. 

The sisters all completed assessments of the quality of their childhood relationship with their father (rating his warmth or harshness, and his involvement in their daily lives, for example). They also rated levels of any paternal behavioural or mental health problems (noting drug abuse or suicide attempts, for example) while they were growing up. The women also completed assessments of their expectations for men as parents and partners, and reported on how many sexual partners they had had in the past year, and how many different sexual partners they would like to have, and expected to have, in future. 

The analysis showed that older sisters who were exposed to poor-quality paternal behaviour (particularly in terms of behavioural or mental health problems) reported lower expectations of the investment they were likely to receive from a male partner. These women also reported having more sexual partners. (Women who don’t expect to get much support from a partner may be more likely to engage in short-term relationships, it has been suggested.) For the younger sisters, who had spent significantly less time living with their fathers, the analysis revealed no effect of paternal behaviour on these measures. The researchers also gathered ratings of maternal warmth, and in contrast to the paternal findings, these did not relate to expectations of male partners, or sexual behaviour. 

“It appears that the father’s behaviour while in the home rather than his absence from the home has the strongest influence on his daughter’s sexual behaviour,” DelPriore and her colleagues concluded. 

There are certainly limitations to the study. An important one is that it’s based on self-reports of events and behaviour in the past, and retrospective reports are known to be vulnerable to bias and error. Also, it’s very hard to tease out the individual effects of numerous variables. But this study does go some way towards trying to isolate potential influences of a father’s behaviour on his daughter’s relationships with men, and in so doing “provides a modifiable target for interventions attempting to reduce risky sexual behavior” the researchers said. 

Emma Young (@EmmaELYoung) is Staff Writer at BPS Research Digest

The effects of fathers on daughters’ expectations for men


15 thoughts on “Researchers Say Growing Up With A Troubled Or Harsh Father Can Influence Women’s Expectations Of Men, And, In Turn, Their Sexual Behaviour”

    1. Yes hunny it is good to keep the bad away . Clearly u have no medical back ground

    2. Having no father is–without doubt–better than having a shitty one. Why would you think otherwise? What’s your evidence or reason? There are so many examples of people who have been raised well without a father, and lots of evidence to suggest that a bad father can really screw up a child’s life – even if unintentionally.
      I was raised with no father. I’ve now got a wonderful well-paid job (as a lecturer/scientist) with a wonderful partner (a scientist) in the best part of a wonderful city (Cambridge), with great prospects. I know that I am not a unique case. On the other hand, I was raised in a poor area and lots of my friends who had shitty fathers developed psychological issues, have no career plan, and find it difficult to stay in a relationship. Although these are merely anecdotes, they fit with the empirical evidence: poor (especially unpredictable) parenting leads to poor outcomes for children. It’s not about whether you have a father or not; it’s about the quality of relationships you have with your parent/parents/peers/teachers/etc.
      Maybe it is better to have a father than no father, but the evidence definitely suggests that the quality of relationships you have early in life (e.g., a secure attachment with your mother) is most important. Also, there are no golden rules. You can have a less secure attachment with your mother, but if you’re lucky enough to have good relationships with friends, colleagues, etc., later in life, then you may move from being insecure to secure. Life is complex. There are no obvious paths to success – but there are obvious paths to failure – such as having an abusive, unpredictable, insecure father!

      1. Also, the traditional argument is that a child needs a father because they need a good “male role model”. Maybe it is better to have a father than no father, I don’t know. But what I do know is that it’s not the most important (i.e., impactful) thing in a child’s life. For example, a boy can learn how men should behave from interacting with others and also from watching programmes and reading books. My role model when I was a kid was a cartoon character called Ulysses! Set in the future, (the 31st century), he showed incredible loyalty and bravery and had strong principles. Cartoons in the 80s had lots of characters we all aspired to!

      2. I was am the oldest of four children and the first daughter born. My father was a tyrantwhen he was angry. I was also subjected to an alcoholic mother , who my father divorced twice and remarried once. The second divorce he left my mother for her best friend of 18 years .She was a devastated mess . We were in custody if my father and my mom actually moved away.
        I left the home at 17.5 years old. My college the first time around was so disturbibf with no encouragement and now with 4 additional children there was no time at all for me.
        My father was impatient and a bully and eventually all my siblings left the best very young .
        My sister and younger brother were the least affected . My brother and i were a frigging mess for msny years after that. He was always reliving the lack of affection since the remarriage and finally my father and so never speak anymore . My trust of men or in developing friendships was zero for a very long time.
        I am a functioning addict to this day. Although I did graduate college several years later and always worked, two marriages ended in divorce and two kids who my father has had nothing to do with.I suppose it was more convienient for him and my step mother to ostrisize me and shun attention then to be adult about their decisions and support the kids it adversely affected.
        My current issues are now recanting and rerunning all the hints and inuendos I never figured out at first between my father me and the rest of my close family.
        I am having s hell of a time still with the depression and the bad memories. It still hurts I am living proof of that.
        I want to write to my father I sit and write a letter in my mind almost daily . I imagine I’ve now been removed from his will and the seperation will plague both my son and daughter ‘s lives .
        How can I finally put an end to this and what would be acceptable to send in a letter to my father at this point? Thanks Tamara

  1. There’s a huge confounding variable here though, and that is that all of the sisters who spent less time with the harsh/ill-suited father are younger. This means that the effects seen could be due to any number of things such as having been had an older, more experienced mother or even simply leavening by watching what her older sister was doing.

    The conclusions drawn here don’t even come close to be actually implied by the research. Sloppy.

    1. What. Ok if you actually were raised in any relation to this hunny you would know how much this makes sense

    2. I agree with you. On a related idea: the sisters most affected were the older sisters and, whilst that could be due to more time spent with the father, it might also be due to other factors. In particular there is a familiar pattern of the older sibling who, in the absence of the father, feels more responsible (than the younger sibling) for providing emotional support to the mother (becoming the so-called parental child); this older sibling comes to emotional harm as a result of trying to fill this role; and as a result of this harm uses poorer emotional coping strategies as an adult, leading to an association with more short-term sexual partners (as in the study) and possibly other behaviours, like increased alcohol and substance use, self-harm, gambling, eating problems.

  2. Another potential confounder here is birth-order, which has an impact on various psychological traits.

  3. I also wanted to add that my younger sister, as far as ten years ago married once had a huge church wedding and I was actually filing for my first divorce at that time and was asked by my sister and my side of the family to step down as moh maid of honor because I was a black mark in our family . I soent the entire receotion in the bar with my cousin drinking the entire reception and left early.
    I was the brunt of my father’s death for many years and many reasons. I naturally shielded my siblings many times and took the punishment or started to develop a knack for lying to him about everything to avoid punishment. So when in the end result my siblings no longer needed me around they jetted on me as well. I felt severly abandoned and was made an example of at many holiday dinners when not in attendance.
    My younger siblings are cruel and cold and calloused now and have no recollection if the divorces or the one sided favoritism shown to the other family children and consequently have become much like my father in that respect.
    I often wonder if snything ever affected them at all and so much so until I had the pleasure of gaining friendship with a Gestalt therapist, I really believed I was the inferior misunderstood and myarter like nut case they all seem to think I was or am.
    You know the main thing I actually wanted to share is two-fold.
    First, is the notion that even if you yourself have moved on and come to grips with the dysfunction and are ready to heal and discuss and move forward , expecting your family to be on the same page is insane in itself. The family almost always will revert to the dysfunctional behavior they have become unquestionably comfortable with .
    Second, I only wish I could have been more informed closer to when this actualky all started because not knowing the skill set of how to remove yourself as the family target of convenience or du jour at that very moment in my life has mushroomed and festered all these years to the piint of never being able to defend yourself with any hopes to come out respected and left alone and stop the consequential harrassement and biased thought patterns continually through out my life.
    Now I find it impossible to even explain what happened my own children .
    So, anytime I can hope this info coukd possibly help someone else caught into this web of indecency and dysfunction gives me a glimmer of reasoning of helping others to cope and see the obvious red flags in this level of close family dysfunctional behaviors.
    Thank you for your time.

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