father's weekend 2021

Fathers and Daughters: Lessons in Loving Someone

As parents, we talk a lot about what daughters learn from their fathers. What I wasn’t all that aware of until this weekend, was how much I am learning from my daughter. Dads teach their daughters what a healthy relationship looks like. Well, daughters teach dads what a healthy relationship looks like as well. Let’s explore.

How We Should Treat Each Other

Just as a dad shows his daughter how a respectful and loving man feels, a daughter (as I learned this weekend in NYC with my 19-yo daughter, shows a dad what a loving relationship feels too. Here are the ingredients of a loving and respectful relationship:

  • flexible
  • positive and optimistic (says yes to most options and negotiates from there)
  • adoring (just good vibes all around)
  • playful teasing (not sarcasm or cynicism)
  • happy being together (the activity is less important)

What’s different about a father-daughter relationship is it is NOT a date. We are not on some faux romantic weekend. We’re really just spending time together. Sure, this weekend is in NYC, but even when I visited my daughter in her college town a few weeks ago, it is really just about having time. As a divorced dad, I lost a huge portion of my daughter’s childhood from 8 to 18. She finally moved out of her mom’s house in June, and our relationship has blossomed.

It’s not that her mom hates me, but I’d guess her mom never says anything good about me either. Actually, her mom inserts herself at every opportunity to diss me and cause unrest. It’s her role in my life, as a tormentor. I’m not sure why. Perhaps, it is this blog. Perhaps, that’s why she was so hurried to change her last name. (I give myself too much credit. LOL.)


As we are together, everything is really about being honest while being accomodating. We both have things we’d like to do. I’d like to go to an early breakfast with my daughter. She would like to sleep until noon. Okay. I have breakfast early and meet up with her at Starbucks for a coffee and breakfast sandwich. But the attitude is one of flex. We don’t care. “Whatever you want,” is the refrain we both float around about all of our plans.

Always Lead with Yes, Then Ask Questions

“Do you want to get breakfast tomorrow morning?” And her answer is always, “Sure.” Then the negotiations begin. And if it doesn’t happen, it’s okay. I asked. She said yes. And then life takes over. In this relationship we know it’s forever, so there’s very little point to being pissy or upset when things don’t work out as we would like. We make plans. We break plans. We forgive and move on without even needing to discuss it much.

Blunt Honesty and Teasing

Of course, there are things about me that irritate my teenage daughter. She’s happy to tell me when I’m being a dork or an old conservative white guy. (I laugh at that one every time, but hey…) She’s also happy to tease me about things I don’t quite understand about her generation or the generation behind her. She calls me out when I’m being dumb or old-fashioned. And the message is always, “and I love you anyway.” That’s what you want. Tell me what I’m doing that you don’t like, then tell me you’ll love me anyway. Perfect.

Pure Affection and Support

We’ve been through a lot. We both missed our connection when the divorce blasted me out of her life and out of the house where we had planned all of our shenanigans. But, that’s the way divorce is. Kids get less of their parents. In most cases, the dad is the parent that is given the losing end of that negotiation.

In my case, I got a 70/30 schedule even when I was negotiating and asking for a 50/50 schedule. In Texas, eleven years ago, I probably would’ve lost my family court battle had I tried to go for 50/50 shared parenting. Today, states are realizing the equal value of a dad’s love. I donate money and time to several Equal Parenting Reform organizations. My hope is that 50/50 parenting becomes the STARTING POINT FOR DIVORCE. (SEE: The Pre-Natal Agreement – my book about 50/50 parenting forever.)

How We Learn to Love

It’s said we learn most of our relationship skills and trauma from the family of origin examples we had. My dad, being a violent alcoholic was not a good example. My mom, being the unhealthy codependent was also not a very good example of healthy love. I got my education from two very dysfunctional people. So, what I’ve learned about healthy love I have learned from trial and error, from reading books about healing and healthy communication.

I’ve tried again and again to do better. With each relationship, I get an opportunity to lean into some aspect of my own healing. Sometimes, I fail because my plans were misguided (trying to be in a relationship with an alcoholic). And sometimes, I fail because the other person is unable to join me in evolving towards a clean and committed relationship. For whatever reason, I have been unable to find, build, or co-create a healthy lifetime partnership. I’m still trying. I have not given up.

Aspirational Love

Even today, I aspire for more than I am currently capable of. I have growth ahead too. I evolve with each partnership. It seems, the other person either fails to join me on the journey up, or they make choices away from the partnership. I learn either way.

What I am learning this weekend, with my daughter, is that I cannot settle for someone who does not treat me with the love and respect she does. I would hope the same for her, as she moves forward in her life. I hope to continue to be an example as her dad. I also hope to show her better and better examples of how two loving adults can be in a relationship. If I can give my daughter anything, it is an example of being a loving man.

She has shown me this weekend, what it should feel like with my partner. Amen.


John McElhenney – life coach austin texas
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