“How therapy saved my relationship with my father”

Written by Nell Frizzell

At 28 years old and fresh out of a break-up, writer Nell Frizzell found she had a dearth of men she could talk to in her life. And so, she sought out a male therapist. Here, she recalls how he transformed her relationships with men altogether, including her free-spirited father.

“I think I need to talk to a man.”

Ten years ago, almost to the tea break, I was standing at the kettle in my then-office, unburdening myself to a colleague. Her parents, I knew, were psychotherapists. She had a clear-eyed, no-bullshit openness about mental health that, in 2012, felt relatively rare. Carly Rae Jepsen and Olly Murs were in the charts, my local allotments had been dug up to make a concourse for the Olympic Park and ‘cigarette trousers’ were a thing; talking openly about your psychological welfare was, well, not.

At the time, I had just log-flumed out of a six-year relationship and into my panic years. Single, renting, child free, nearly 30 and in an entry-level job, I’d also lost my claim to the man who’d loved me, looked after me and lived with me between the ages of 22 and 28. The man who had helped me buy a washing machine, who had driven me from Leeds to Cornwall on holiday listening only to Beatles albums, who took me to car boot sales and built shelves and fixed my bike and told me I looked nice. I had lost the male voice in my life; my central male figure. I had no brother, no uncle I was close to, and there were few purely platonic men in my life – especially not ones who I felt able to lean on in that way. Meanwhile, my father and I were teetering somewhere along the semantic edge between being distant and being estranged. 

Since my parents had separated when I was 17, my father had remarried, had more children and I had pulled away from him like a horse rearing up from a firework. We rarely spoke, I hardly visited and when he tried to befriend me on social media, I outright refused, explaining that if he wanted to know what I’d been up to, he should email me. In truth, I didn’t want this man – who knew little of the day-to-day details of my life, couldn’t remember my address and had to be reminded of my birthday – to watch my curated successes online. It felt like a shortcut; I wanted him to have to work harder to have me.

So when I told my colleague that I needed to speak to a man, it wasn’t an expression of internalised misogyny. I had instead realised that as far as the eye could see, my life was populated with well-meaning, articulate women, with roughly my background, my principles, and who would reflect back to me several variations of all the same things I’d heard already. My mother, sisters, cousins, best friends, former housemates and co-workers: all were willing and able to listen, to comment, to unpick. I had the female perspective; I had it in droves. What I needed at that moment was the male perspective; for someone who could really explain why men do the things they do. Whichever way you sliced it, I needed a man to talk to. 

Writer Nell Frizzell and her father

My colleague very kindly asked her parents if they could recommend anyone who fit my particularly gendered bill and they came back with a man who worked out of an office near where I swam. It was a 45-minute bike ride from my house, nearly an hour from my office; it was more than I could really afford but I went. Not a week has gone by that I am not grateful that I did. I have now been seeing my therapist for a decade. He is white-haired, British, quiet, thoughtful, wears a suit and I know nothing of his private, sexual, physical or romantic life. In short, he is the antithesis of my father and was therefore the perfect person to unpick what some might call my ‘daddy issues’ with.

But before we continue, let’s first tackle this most unhelpful of phrases. To have a complicated relationship with your primary male caregiver, and for that to have subsequent impact on how you interact with men over the rest of your life, is not rare but neither is it inconsequential. Yes, my previous partner was older than me. Yes, I seek the approval of male authority figures. Yes, I know how to perform a particular kind of femininity that I think will endear me to older men. But the nuanced woven picture of my own father-daughter relations, and the ramifications that has had on my adult identity, do not deserve to be dismissed by a reductive, sexist phrase.

‘Daddy issues’ is something lecherous male comedians joke about while leering hopefully towards bar staff half their age; it’s an accusation levelled at a woman who dares to sleep with men older than her (while a man sleeping with a woman half his age is either congratulated or, well, a ubiquitous Hollywood casting trope). Men get an Oedipal complex; women get ‘daddy issues’. The former sounds like an interesting and complicated psychological phenomenon, the latter like something you’d find printed on a £3.99 T-shirt or a search term on a free porn site. I didn’t go to therapy because I had ‘daddy issues’, I went to therapy because I realised I needed to fix my relationship with men.

The first time I met my therapist, I felt safe but without any of the soft, maternal associations that word might evoke. His room was bare, I could smell his aftershave, he spoke very little and when he did it was with unshrinking clarity and a certain cool reasoning. He didn’t laugh at my jokes, he didn’t answer my questions about himself, nor did he react any differently when I discussed sex to when I described my bike’s new handlebars. Instead, over and over and over again, he presented me with the story I was telling myself about my life. He repeated phrases I had used, questioned statements, asked me to explain myself, to show my workings. Just once, in the whole 10 years I’ve known him, has he told me that he cares about me. Not loves, not likes, not is entertained nor enjoys my company; he just cares. In a professional capacity. But it has been enough. 

With him, I can allow the little Nell – who felt ugly and exposed and rejected by the male world – to speak. And here’s the thing – he hasn’t left. I have. I have had breaks from therapy, but he has always had me back when I feel, once again, wobbly and exposed. He has taught me that men can be relied on.

As a result, he has allowed me to uproot and examine some of my most formative relationships. That’s right; we’ve discussed my dad. Now, my father is an incredibly fun man. The best uncle. A great guy at a party. The one who climbed a tree at Glastonbury and could put out matches with his own feet. He is capable, community-minded, fearless and laughs easily. He can fix roofs and unblock drains, has an exceptional record collection and has travelled across the world. He taught me that the love of a man felt like being celebrated, whipped along on adventures and earning praise. Within our relationship I learned to talk about music rather than vulnerability; to be responsible so he could be glamorous; to wear my need for men as lightly as possible. I have long held a secret fear that, were I to become boring or difficult, I would be left; that men stayed when you didn’t invest too heavily in them staying. I’m not saying this is my father’s fault; I’m just saying it’s something I’ve uncovered. By unpicking my understanding of various male roles – father, lover, teacher, companion – within the safe confines of the relationship with my therapist, I have been able to come to trust men. It has undone years of casual sex, poor self-image, romantic failure and parental separation.

Three years into being with my therapist, I had learned to be vulnerable and honest and demanding of men in a way I didn’t dare in my early 20s. This work was catalysed one afternoon, three years into therapy when after being dumped by a 24-year-old who had slept with me beside a mountain and then told me he didn’t want a girlfriend, I chose not to phone my friends or mum or sister; I phoned my dad instead. I cried down the phone – something I’m not sure I’d ever done before – while he sat at his desk at work. I told him I felt unlovely and unlovable. He stayed quiet, didn’t start talking about ukuleles or his latest embroidery project or the history of skiffle or The Mahotella Queens. And then, when I had emptied myself out down the phone, he said, gently: ‘Just because someone doesn’t want you doesn’t mean you aren’t a good person. It’s not about you. They’re just the wrong one.’ My father doesn’t give advice very often, but when he does, it’s worth noting.

Unsurprisingly, once I had come to better understand my father, and recognise the aspects of him that resided in me, I started to have better relationships with men more generally. I went from chasing people who couldn’t love me – because they were in relationships, lived far away, were the wrong age, were heartbroken themselves, etc – to men who were willing to try. I began to believe in my own self-worth; I became more comfortable with the traits I’d inherited from my father (love of performing, excellent pain threshold, flamboyant taste in sandwich fillings, strong legs); I dared to rely on men, rather than simply desire them.

I don’t think it is a coincidence that once I’d started to confront my so-called daddy issues in therapy and invite my father back into my life, my partner arrived. It was a work trip abroad, followed by a drink in a Travelodge when we got back. The second time I ever met him, I woke up in bed next to his handsome face and told him I was in love with him. I felt the fear he’d run away but I did it anyway. I told him I wanted commitment – the very thing I had once been so scared to ask of my own, fun, immigrant father, who by now had a new family, his own relationship and a second chance at fatherhood. It worked.

Today, my partner and I live around the corner from my father. Every week, my dad takes my son to nursery so I can have therapy. Right now, they’re all sawing up a pallet in the garden. If I need to talk to a man, I have a choice of four.

Square One by Nell Frizzell (Bantam Press, £14.99) is out now.

Images: Nell Frizzell

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