Daddy Issues

Our first-ever guide to handling the oft-overlooked but very important "other" man in your life. Now you'll be better prepared to tackle Dad's pre-wedding behavior (why is he suddenly always in the garage?), not to mention his "day of" wardrobe. Plus, a special section to help with his big toast.

Photo: Andrew Reilly Photography

"I love my dad, but what the hell is wrong with him lately?"

If your father's started seeming strangely distant and maybe even downright grumpy, his behavior is actually perfectly normal. No, really—according to Meg Meeker, MD, author of Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters (Ballantine Books), he's acting out because your upcoming wedding has struck a deep emotional cord. Here, Meeker explains why, and what you can both do—together—to navigate this potentially tumultuous time in a healthy, loving way.

Weird behavior explained

An impending wedding can trigger deep-rooted insecurities, including separation anxiety, qualms about entrusting one's daughter to another man's protection, and personal fears about aging. "For most men, fatherhood is a major part of their male identity," says Dr. Meeker. "And when a daughter decides to get married, her father can feel as if he's on the brink of losing that essential part of himself." Your dad may start to reflect on fatherhood, assessing the job he's done. "Many men feel that their time to nurture and teach a daughter is over once she's married," Meeker says. "Which leads to the number one fear a father has leading up to his daughter's wedding day: the loss of control." Your dad's reaction to this fear, as you may have experienced, can be to withdraw from you and the whole wedding-planning process, or even to lash out in anger.

Meanwhile, he could also be struggling with late-onset empty-nest syndrome—the depression and loss of purpose that plague parents when their kids leave home. "This is common for mothers to go through when their kids leave for college; however, fathers usually experience it when their children marry," explains Meeker. "So your engagement is essentially your dad's grieving period." (Nice!) And since men in general have a more difficult time identifying or talking about their emotions, it's likely he won't communicate how he's feeling. "Men are more apt to express their fear or grief through anger than sadness," says Meeker (hence the passive aggressive remarks and/or F-bombs flying around lately).

Oh, great. Anything I can do to prevent this?

"During your engagement, make it a point to spend quality time with your dad," says Meeker. Take the initiative (because he probably won't) and gently ask him how he's feeling about your getting married—particularly if you sense that he's becoming emotionally distant. Also very important: Get him involved in planning—for example, ask him if there are any family traditions you might include. It will also put your father more at ease if you affirm your love for him, says Meeker. If you feel comfortable, let him know directly that, though your relationship might change, no one will take his place, and that you look forward to and will treasure this phase of your relationship with him.

What about him­—What can he do?

Your dad will likely be less belligerent and feel less awkward if he has some awareness of the "real reason" he's yelling/avoiding you/drinking too much. Maybe your mom could clue him in? Failing that, your dad "should spend some alone time reflecting on his life with you," suggests Meeker. Also, try to verbally walk him through the wedding day so his emotions don't knock him off guard at the last minute—after all, you want him to enjoy this day, too. Then give him a schedule of the wedding day (in case he wasn't paying close enough attention).

 
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