The Value of Dad

Copyright 2008 by Neil Chethik –

If you want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at his relationship with his mother. This apparent nugget of wisdom has been around long enough to gain almost unquestioned acceptance. Yet, despite my best investigative efforts, I have discovered no evidence to back it up.

On the other hand, in a study I recently completed for a book on men and marriage, I found striking confirmation for an alternative hypothesis – one that has special relevance in this week before Father's Day: If you really want to know how a man will treat his wife, look at his relationship with his father.

“My dad had a high kindness quotient,” a 43-year-old public relations manager told me recently. When it comes to his marriage, he said, “I try to be every inch my father's son.”

It's understandable that we would link a man's relationship with his wife to his bond with his mother. After all, mothers and wives are women; thus, a man's attitudes toward one might seem likely to mirror his attitudes toward the other.

I began my research expecting to confirm this conventional wisdom. Working with the University of Kentucky Survey Research Center, I conducted a national survey of 288 American husbands of all ages and backgrounds, as well as face-to-face interviews with 70 additional married men.

I was startled by the findings. The quality of a man's relationship with his mother, it turned out, did not predict the quality of his marriage. Sons who had good relationships with their mothers were just as likely as those who had poor relationships to argue with their wives, to separate from their wives, and to get divorced.

Reeling from that surprise, I faced this one: The quality of a man's marriage, my survey showed, was strongly correlated with the quality of his relationship with his dad. Men who had good bonds with their fathers tended (as compared with those who had poor – or no – relationship with their dads) to divide the housework more fairly, argue more fairly, require less marital counseling, divorce less often, and be more happily married overall.

In retrospect, I shouldn't have been surprised. Men learn how to be men – and how to relate to women – by watching their fathers. As a 30-year-old schoolteacher told me: “I think about how my dad handled various situations all the time. I think about how he reacted to things, how he spoke, how he managed when he was angry. He is a constant gauge…, something I can measure myself against.”

This is not to say that men who have experienced poor fathering are condemned to be poor husbands. Indeed, some of the most heroic stories I heard while researching my book were about men who overcame the abuse of a violent father – or the emptiness left behind by an absent one – to become loving husbands.

But the research reminds those of us who are fathers, especially fathers of sons: How we treat our wives and children today may echo for generations to come.

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Neil Chethik is a writer and speaker. He is author of FatherLoss: How sons deal with the deaths of their dads (Hyperion) and VoiceMale: What Husbands Really Think of Their Wives (Simon & Schuster). Reach him at or at .

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Copyright 2009 Neil Chethik