Men’s Experiences with their Fathers

Source: Gruenert, S. & Galligan, R. (2007). The differences dads make: Young adult men’s experiences with their fathers, Journal of Applied Psychology 3(1), 3-15.


Research shows that a child’s social, emotional, and cognitive functioning outcomes are strongly tied to their relationships with their fathers, even into adulthood. An Australian study addresses this subject by seeking to understand the impact of men’s relationships with their fathers on men’s wellbeing, in the context of a broader investigation of men’s experiences of intimacy.


This study involved 194 (heterosexual) male participants from various communities within the city of Melbourne, Australia. They were recruited from universities, a counselling centre, a lifestyle conference, a centre for personal and relational growth, a men’s group, and various sports clubs.

Participants engaged in self-reported evaluations of depression, social avoidance and distress, adult romantic attachment styles, psychological well-being, life satisfaction and intimacy, to name but a few of the measures used.

Depending on their responses to the evaluations, several factors were considered in order to create five distinct profiles of intimacy styles into which the participants were organised. The factors considered included:

  • Men’s intimacy with their fathers
  • Men’s intimacy with a male best friend
  • Men’s memories of mothers while growing up
  • Men’s memories of fathers while growing up
  • Traditional “masculine values”, including a fear of homosexual relationships (homophobia)
  • The need for respect from others
  • Romantic anxiety and avoidance

Based on these factors, the five intimacy profiles created were:

  1. Secure: This describes men who report good relationships with both parents growing up, and high levels of intimacy with their fathers. They experience the highest level of intimacy with their best male friend relative to other profiles, and express little anxiety or avoidance in their romantic relationships, leading to a secure style of romantic attachment. They also held non-traditional views for males, typically without homophobia, and had the lowest need for the respect of others.
  2. Anxious: Men in this cluster had the highest levels of anxiety about their romantic relationships. Nonetheless, they reported good relationships with their mothers and moderate relationships with their fathers growing up, and only moderate intimacy with their fathers and male best friends. They held traditional masculine views encompassing some homophobia and had a high need for respect from others.
  3. Resilient: Men here reported very low levels of intimacy with their fathers, and poor and moderate relationships with fathers and mothers, respectively, growing up. Nonetheless, they reported very high levels of intimacy with their best male friends, held non-traditional views for males, without homophobia, and had little need for the respect of others. They also experienced low levels of anxiety in their romantic relationships.
  4. Foreclosed: Men in this group had good relationships with both parents growing up, and high levels of intimacy with their fathers. But they had very low intimacy with their best male friends, moderate anxiety and avoidance in their romantic relationships, traditional masculine views encompassing some homophobia, and a high need for the respect of others.
  5. Fearful: Men in this cluster had the highest level of avoidance and anxiety in their romantic relationships. They reported the poorest relationships with their mothers among all groups, and poor relationships and low intimacy with their fathers, as well as low intimacy with their best male friend. They also expressed traditional masculine views and moderate need for the respect of others. The largest group of participants fell into the anxious cluster (34%), characterised by a moderate degree of closeness with their fathers and a tendency to be fearful or avoidant of romantic relationships.
Key Findings
  1. Well-being differences: Men’s intimate experiences, including their relationships with their fathers, make a difference to their wellbeing. Those in thesecure, resilient, and foreclosed categories reported greater satisfaction with their lives than those in the fearful and anxiousclusters. Depression was present among more among those in the fearful and anxious clusters, whereas personal growth was found more among those in the resilient and secure clusters. Social anxiety and fear of judgment were found more amongst those in the fearful category.
  2. Memories of fathers: Researchers had the participants, from across the five relational categories, describe a “clear and important memory” and a “close memory” of their father from childhood. Those in the secure and foreclosed clusters reported positive clear/important memories, which involved warm regard including the expression of admiration, respect and love for their fathers. Fearfulrespondents recalled events that were uncharacteristically kind of their fathers and which boosted their self-esteem for a moment; they did not express admiration or respect for their fathers. Memory examples from the resilient category reflected a void in the father/son relationship, and in some cases a clear distaste for their fathers. Notably, men’s memories of their fathers indicated that positive and intimate fathering generally involved both verbal and non-verbal components, and included recreation and sport, emotional and practical availability and support, consistency and reliability, approval and guidance, and appropriate boundary setting.

This study sheds light on the complex nature of men’s intimate relationships, and the importance of father-son attachment and intimacy in contributing to men’s well-being across the life span. There are different verbal but also non-verbal ways in which fathers can create intimacy with their sons. Ultimately, when fathers share positive time in an activity with their child, they can help create memories, feelings, and experiences that serve as a template for future relationships, including romantic relationships.

At the same time, the study also shows how multiple relationships in men’s lives, particularly relationships with mothers, are important in off-setting less than ideal fathering, though not completely.

About the Author: The Dads for Life Resource Team comprises local content writers and experts, including psychologists,counsellors, educators and social service professionals, dedicated to developing useful resources for dads.

First published on 06-02-2013.