Thursday, July 28, 2011

The Distant Father / Overbearing Mother Syndrome

I’m sure you have all heard it, and many of you likely believe it.  It sounds plausible and satisfies the conscious or unconscious assumption that homosexuality is caused.  After all, homosexuality is an abnormality, a mutation, a deviation or, in many people’s minds (unfortunately), a perversion.

(This is another in a continuing series of posts, addressing common misconceptions about the "causes" of homosexuality, that were originally written as though directed to the general membership of the LDS Church.)

What is the “it” I’m referring to?  The theory that homosexuality is caused by a distant father and/or an overbearing mother.  This was first propounded by Freud over 100 years ago, and though it has been discredited, it is still clung to tenaciously by certain segments of our society that have an agenda concerning homosexuality.

The following are representative summaries of these theories [1]:

A number of therapists characterize the childhood experiences of the homosexual adult as a form of "defensive detachment" from a disappointing father. As children and adolescents, these men yearned for acceptance, praise, and physical affection from their fathers, but their needs were never met. The profound inner void that develops from a lack of physical affection and a father's love can lead a man to fail to internalize a male gender-identity … Once again, while there is some evidence to suggest a link between “distant fathers” and homosexuality, it does not account for all the homosexuals who have had close relationships with their fathers and their families, nor does it account for heterosexuals who have had weak relationships with their fathers …

For many in right-wing religious groups, the chief causative factor for the homosexual adult is a smothering, overly protective, seductive mother who so cuts the young boy off from his primary male role model - his father - that he is never able to see himself as a real man, responsive to women, and thus seeks out male partners instead, limping through life as a kind of pseudo-female … Again, while there is evidence to suggest a link between “difficult mothers” and homosexuality, it does not account for the large numbers of homosexuals who have normal loving relationships with their mothers and their families, nor does it account for heterosexuals who have had difficult relationships with their mothers.

Like I said, these theories have a certain appearance of plausibility to them.  I am a perfect case in point.

My father was a good man.  He loved to work, and he worked hard.  By the time I came along, he was spending a lot of time on the road and wasn’t home very much.  When he was home, he wasn’t the kind of dad – which wasn’t unusual for those times – to spend a lot of one-on-one time with his kids.  He wasn’t aloof; he just didn’t do a lot with me.  Not that I ever felt belittled by or otherwise marginalized by him; he just wasn’t around. 

I think it could, and should, be said that my father was no different than most of the other fathers of his generation:  he was not nearly as involved in the lives of his children as the typical “modern” father is.  And what was true of his generation was even truer of the generations that preceded him:  the overwhelming majority of fathers in generations born before World War I were “distant.”  Yet, there were no epidemics of homosexuality.  Hmmm.

As for my mother, she was certainly “overbearing.”  In fact, she could be downright abusive.  Yet, she did not single me out for her abuse.  I was the youngest of three sons, and each of us were the recipients of her disciplinary methods.  Whereas each of us was deeply scarred by what we experienced as children, my two older brothers did not turn out gay, whereas I did.   Hmmm.

When I was a teenager and young adult, I was aware of these theories about the “cause” of homosexuality, and I have to say that I think I believed them (which would hardly have been unusual for the times), at least in part.  I think that perhaps this was the main reason why I believed that my homosexuality could be “cured.” When I was introduced to the Church and read its teachings on the subject, I believed them. It wasn’t until later that I realized that these theories about the “causation” of homosexuality are wrong and that the Church was wrong about “curing” homosexuality.

There is much that can be read about research into the biological roots of homosexuality.  I will not attempt to write on this subject.  What I will do, however, is offer my own personal “testimony” that my parents did not “cause” me to be gay by what they did or by what they failed to do.  I am gay because I was born that way.  Put another way, while there is no question in my mind that my parents “sins of omission and commission” had an impact on my psychological and emotional development, they did not have an impact on my sexual orientation.

The only picture of me alone with both my parents


  1. I had a dream about this last night. My father was giving a lecture to a group of people in a classroom (including me) about why he disbelieves this theory. It was pretty good actually.
    Interestingly enough, my Dad,though he's the one that took me to the Evergreen conference, now feels like no, reparative therapy doesn't work.

  2. I think I believed this, or at least a version of this as a teenager. Because of this I spent my closeted high school years resenting my father for making me gay. I needed someone to blame. And that I think strained our relationship. I resented him for something he never did, and he never knew I felt that way. I feel bad thinking about it. I am sure he spent many hours wondering at the strange new rift forming between us.

    I'm not saying my Dad was the best Dad, but he tried to be involved, and he did his best. He didn't push me away, but the other way around.

    Your post actually makes me want to go talk to him, and apologize for that, and explain to him at least part of the reason we never got along when I was a teenager.

    Thanks IP. Great post.

  3. Dr Warren Throckmorton just posted an article related to this topic. It is not a thorough treatment of the matter, but is interesting, regardless.