Father-son estrangement: A straight guy problem?

Last Friday, I wrote about father-son estrangement and the new book by Joseph Nicolosi, Shame and attachment loss: The practical work of reparative therapy. Since then, I have looked off and on for illustrations of father-son estrangement in current events, literature and movies. Others are sending illustrations via email as well. Feel free to add examples in the comments section.

In these stories, both fictional and real life, the vast majority of abandoned or injured sons are straight. Of course, this is not research, but I reason that if the father-son disruption theme was so tied to homosexuality, I would find homosexuality in the sons. However, it looks like father-son estrangement is a straight guy problem.

Take this story, “Healing the Father-Son Wound” from straight guy John Lee.

Some of you may know what a rocky relationship I have had with my father. I was raised in an alcoholic home where there was tremendous physical and emotional abuse. I have written about this in my books as a way to heal and hopefully to help others. Because of my wound, I wandered through the swamps and deserts of a ten-year period of estrangement from my father. We didn’t see each other or talk during that time.

Lee goes on to describe a distant, shame-filled relationship which eventually resolved due to Lee’s efforts. This man was clearly “delight deprived,” as Nicolosi describes the typical situation he reconstructs from the narratives of his clients. It seems clear that Lee perceived his father as someone who fit the narcissistic, shaming father Nicolosi describes in Shame and Attachment Loss. On one visit, accompanied by his wife, to his father, he knew his dad was going to shame him.

My third visit was just before I came down with Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. Susan and I had spent about two hours at my parents’ house and were getting ready to leave when my father said, “Susan, did John ever tell you about the time…”

I froze in terror. I thought my dad was going to do to Susan what he always did to anyone who liked or loved me– tell a story that would make me look silly at best, stupid at worst.

As he began to talk, I began to shrink.

This sounds like it could come out of a reparative therapist’s casebook. Lee goes on to say that on this occasion, his father praised his son, which was completely unexpected. However, it seems clear that Lee’s historical feelings about his dad did not involve “shared delight.”

Remember that Nicolosi made inferences about the childhoods of both gay and straight males when he said recently:

In other words, that fact remains that if you traumatize a child in a particular way you will create a homosexual condition. If you do not traumatize a child, he will be heterosexual. If you do not traumatize a child in a particular way, he will be heterosexual. The nature of that trauma is an early attachment break during the bonding phase with the father.

There are many of these stories where straight males clearly felt traumatized (e.g., ignored, distanced, hated, unloved, etc.) by their fathers and did not become gay.  The experience of father-son estrangement seems universal with the longing for connection universal as well.

Related posts:

Shame and Attachment Loss: Going from bad to worse

Shame and attachment loss: Reparative therapy and father-son estrangement

Also read Fathers, Sons and Homosexuality for a father’s view of the reparative thesis.

20 thoughts on “Father-son estrangement: A straight guy problem?”

  1. Again, I agree with FG68: only all homosexuals have broken relationships with their fathers, while the reverse is not true. The problem is really that of the straight father who failed to bond with his son, and, unlike a simple father-son fallout, this bonding failure is long-lasting and pervasive (speaking from personal experience). Nevertherless, I do think that there are several routes to homosexuality, this father-son bonding failure not being the only one, but one of the major ones definitely.

    1. “[O]nly all homosexuals have broken relationships with their fathers …”

      I really do not see how a statement such as this can be made. From what I’ve seen of ‘life’, it looks definitively false to me.

  2. Fg68at – I understand your point but Nicolosi does make claims about straights as well when he says:

    In other words, that fact remains that if you traumatize a child in a particular way you will create a homosexual condition. If you do not traumatize a child, he will be heterosexual. If you do not traumatize a child in a particular way, he will be heterosexual. The nature of that trauma is an early attachment break during the bonding phase with the father.

    I can disconfirm this. My family was the classic triadic family. I am straight, with never a gay moment in my life. I grew up in a neighborhood with classic triadic families. Few families did not look like what Nicolosi describes (one who didn’t is gay); my three best friends in childhood (who are all straight) had the classic triadic family. This may be a composite memory but this description is typical of my memories of one of the guys. I have a recollection of him telling me he had to come home early because his mom was worried about him. I went home with him and his mom and dad were sitting in the living room. My friend asked if we could walk over to another friend’s house. The dad was reading the paper and then left the room. The mom looked distraught and said that he would have to be home by dark and wear a sweater. I learned later that the dad always left those “decisions” to the mom. My friend is straight.

    My experiences are not science and I get that. However, when the science is consistent with my experience, it is even more compelling. Given the life I have lived and seen in my lower-middle class neighborhood, the reparative drive theory makes little practical sense. For those SSA people, who did have that kind of life, it would make all the sense in the world. However, I hope that as a general theory, one can see that it does not fit all.

  3. but I reason that if the father-son disruption theme was so tied to homosexuality, I would find homosexuality in the sons

    When i have Nicolosi correct in my mind: You don’t should make a reverse thinking.Father-son-problems can lead to many different dificilities or to no difficilities. Only all homosexuals have a broken father-son-relationship. Not reverse.You can only cancel Nicolosis Theory with a gay with a good father-son-relationship. But i’m sure, he will find brokeness. And not a mother can tell him this, because: Why is the father not here? Then he is not interested, he had a broken father-son-relationship. 🙂

  4. Tudor…. Then why do they activate the panic brain area more than straights when they see men?

    And what study of MRIs in gay men are you quoting here?

  5. Maybe “panicky” is an extreme word for a range of temperaments. Whatever sounds closer to “feeling more panic than the average man” would be more fitting.

  6. @Timothy Kincaid

    Then why do they activate the panic brain area more than straights when they see men?

  7. @Rainer,

    I haven’t read Nicolosi or any other reparative/reorientative theorist in this area, but I may say something that he or others have said without knowing it, which doesn’t mean I paid any money to read their books. I’m not a professional, I don’t have to do it.

    I’ve been interested for a while in how many psychological processes related to gender work, physically, so if he says something that can be supported by empirical studies then it’s OK.

    THe story I told in the first comment was meant to show the whole picture, the context in which all the members of a family evolve. The older brother is resentful and holds many grudges to his family even today, because he thinks they always treated the little brother like he was something special. He actually grew apart from the whole family, and his family (father, mother brother) say that he grew up influenced by people from outside the home, that he never listened to them. The older brother grew up straight-assertive-married and autonomous from his family, the younger brother grew up only attracted to his own gender, lonely, single, depressed, depending on his family for some socialisation. THis case shows something significant, I think, because I don;t think they could be physically (genetically, etc) worlds apart.

    So what I’m saying is, this is not about Nicolosi or some other guy, because I get the feeling that there are people who feel good about attacking this guy or maybe they just use reactance on others, to make them discover the truth by themselves.

  8. @Eddy

    They say that it takes one to know one, but I wonder what does that really mean. Does it take one neurotic to know another neurotic, or one extravert to know another extravert or maybe an extravert is better at spotting neurotics? People of similar temperaments can probably spot each others’ “vibes” in a way that is different than how people who are different recognise them.

    The same thing happens with someone’s looks: usually, men who have feminine features and are slim are more likely to be perceived as gay if they are also unassertive. It’s important to stress this point, of how other people perceive someone and how they treat them based on perception. As I mentioned in that real story, the younger brother looks “pretty”, which I think it may have made people treat him differently, including his parents and peers. He was rejected by the other boys when he was a child and called names for not liking soccer. Most of the things that this man went through as a child are defined by what researchers call “sex-atypical.” So I think that the emotional memories that he recorded from his childhood in relation to boyhood are mostly negative. I think he perceived being a typical boy as being bad and nasty for no purpose (because he couldn’t enjoy that), and the feeling that he would get from being cornered by other boys would be panic, not alertness or anger to retaliate.

    Secondly – I think pretty boys are vulnerable to narcissism when they do not develop in an assertive way. So if a boy is perceived as pretty and is also panicky, it’s likely that others’ rejection will push him towards loneliness and self-care, soothing behaviours, to valuate himself, even by doing anything necessary to be praised by the people around him, which would make him feel good, in a dependent way. There’s plenty to say on this subject, but not enough time.

    One last observation… I’ve noticed that people who are very nervous, in a neurotic way, try to calm down by relaying the feelings of insecurity and helplessness to body movements, like fidgeting in their seats, keeping one hand close to the mouth, crossing their arms or legs or stooping their shoulders as if to protect themselves.

    I have to say I’ve noticed all these things in people I think are attracted to their own gender, but of course it’s one thing to be attracted and quite another to identify as “gay”. It seems to me that less typical men feel more panic when they see more typical men and they act either more submissive or defiant, depending on how they cope with it. I have also seen a few times some guys who got the blush response when they became aware of a more typical man approaching them. Generally speaking I think anxious men feel either annoyed because they feel vulnerable to more typical men or those who identify as gay probably feel good if they think they are the target of a another man’s attention. So it depends on how they cope with feeling dominated.

    All this stuff has a lot to do with how a boy develops during his childhood, with his parents and peers. The emotional brain is a lot more plastic during childhood than later and development is an ongoing process, it’s not something one can take a break from. Antyhing that disrupts development puts the child on a different track.

  9. On my opinion, Tudor’s story rather confirms the basic idea of Nicolosi (that SSA results from a lack of affirmed masculinity). With the first son, the affirming part was not the (estranged) father but someone else; but that’s a possibility that Nicolosi definitely acknowledges. With the other son, the (near) father wasn’t able to affirm the son’s masculinity, but I don’t think that Nicolosi wouldn’t deny that there are fathers who are just not capable.

    Well, the story tells us indeed that Nicolosi’s recipe as a recipe isn’t worth a lot because well-meaning fathers may suck whereas lazy fathers may find a successful substitute.

  10. Thom – Thanks for sharing that. It is more of a stretch to say that all homosexuals have experienced something like those things. It just isn’t so.

  11. Interestingly, both my older brother and I were estranged from my father. I ended up with same-sex attraction issues, but my brother never did. He has always been “straight,” but he has had other issues that may have been the result of our father’s estrangement, including some emotional detachment and later conspiracy issues. What made the difference? I was sexually-abused by an adult male, in addition to being separated from my father. Despite attempts to re-build a relationship with my dad and share with him about the abuse, that never occurred and may have magnified my estrangement impact, on top of the sexual abuse. I don’t think anyone escapes either of these events without impact, but I do think it is a stretch to say that it always results in a case of homosexuality.


  12. Nicolosi apparently suffers from tunnel vision..some of what he sees, he sees very clearly and accurately but it seems like he doesn’t realize he’s in a very narrow tunnel and that he’s oblivious to the fact that shame doesn’t play out the same for every person and he’s blind to the other sources of both shame and positive self esteem that can impact a child.

    I agree with Michael. His statements that say ‘this will cause thus and such’ are overstatements and cast a negative light on whatever credible insights he may have to offer.


    Thanks for your comments. I think you’ve dropped by before…good to hear from you. Regarding your questions at the end of your post, there are no clear answers. The politically correct answer is that there is no clear way to tell the gay person in a room full of people. And, in essence, that is correct. It runs contrary to the very popular notion of ‘GADAR’ ( a light-hearted term describing how one gay person can pick out another). I believe that there are some people who could swiftly and correctly identify the gay person(s) in a room full of folks but most of us would only be making guesses. Years ago, as a gay person trying to figure out who else was gay on my college campus, I thought I had it down to a science…and it turned out that I was right more that 70% of the time. To my chagrin, the other 30% that I had incorrectly guessed as gay were ‘born-again Christians’. (I know some people would have a field day with that one!) But I think what I learned was that I wasn’t spotting homosexuality as much as I was detecting a difference from the ‘regular Joe College’ image. (Neither the gays or the born-agains were noted for lingering looks at boobs and butts; neither did their ‘conversation of choice’ revolve only around sports or chicks.)

  13. I think those who research this should ask the question how different life events can affect the development of certain temperaments. Anecdotically, I know one family in which the older brother grew apart from both his parents when his little brother was born. He became jealous and resentful of his parents and his brother and grew up learning all the guy stuff from his gang outside of the home. The parents shifted their affection to the younger brother, who grew up very sensitive and attracted to his own gender. The older brother is now married with kids and is an assertive type, whereas the younger brother is single, depressed and SSA-ed. Their father is a physician, a very sensitive guy, their mother is a bossy type. If you want a decision to be taken in the home, you have to ask her. The family itself is respected but considered aloof and distant, because the father being a doctor in a community gives them a certain status. So this is an example of a straight man, who had a bad relation with his father but grew up straight together with his male peers; his father is a sensitive guy who loved the younger brother more (they bonded, but they were both sensitive types); his mother also poured all her motherhood over the little brother, who grew up “not straight”.

    The younger brother looks kind of pretty. When he was a boy he was called names because he didn’t like playing soccer, like the other boys. I once saw one picture from a school party he went to and I have to say he was the most colourful boy in the picture. All the other boys were dressed in dark suits and didn’t seem to care much about what they wore, but he was in a corner, looking pacific and colourful.

    I think that a biological study of this family wouldn’t reveal much in terms of genetic differences or hormonal exposure. Every individual is a combination of male and female genes, whether they’re male or female, and traits tend to run in families, regardless of sex. I don’t think that scientists could find something particularly and exceedingly different in the younger brother’s biology that would make the difference between his orientation and his folks’ orientations. So the question is how a certain genetic-hormonal state that makes up a person goes through different life events that eventually puts them on a certain track. And in order to understand this, it’s important to understand how other people treat other people differently according to what characteristics they recognise as signaling what, when they’re children and adults. I have a question for commenters here: how do you recognise a man who you think is gay when you are at a table with many other people around? Or maybe in a group of people, at a party? I don’t mean how they dress, talk or move, I mean how do you recognise one from their emotional reactions that they are gay? Do they appear more panicky, do they appear very talkative, or do they share a lot of stories in a similar way with straight men? Or do they share as if they’re on different sides of the fence? Etc.

  14. Maybe Nicolosi ought to be looking more at the lesbian side of the equation. I wonder if it is not more accurate to say that father-daughter estrangement has a strong correlation with female SSA and gender confusion that father-son estrangement. It sure seems to me, anecdotally, to be heavily involved.

    The stories of straight sons estranged from and deeply wounded by their fathers are legion. My husband, all of my brothers and a huge chunk of the world fall into that category. I’ll go one step farther and say it is a microcosmic metaphor for (male, but not limited to male) estrangement from God. Just one more manifestation of the Genesis curse after the fall, IMHO.

  15. In these stories, both fictional and real life, the vast majority of abandoned or injured sons are straight. Of course, this is not research, but I reason that if the father-son disruption theme was so tied to homosexuality, I would find homosexuality in the sons. However, it looks like father-son estrangement is a straight guy problem.

    I have always thought so — or rather, that it is often a problem for sons and daughters — gay or straight.

    NIcolosi keeps saying “will” — as though it’s established fact — “…you will create a homosexual condition… he will be heterosexual, etc. He believes his favorite theory so much, that to him it is indisputable fact — in spite of evidence to the contrary.

    Could detachment from a father figure (or abuse) fuel a desire for male affirmation or lead someone to conclude, in correctly, that they must be gay? Yes. But make someone gay or straight? I seriously doubt it.

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