As he was growing up in Germany, Bjorn Leonards didn’t exactly see eye to eye with his father. More like nose to nose, because the pair faced off in a single argument after another. Today, the 38-year-old furniture maker from Viroqua, Wis., has an open friendship with his pediatrician father. However for most of his life, the two were at odds.

“When I was 12 or so, I wanted to go to church with my parents, but my T-shirt wasn’t tucked in. It had been one of the biggest fights we ever had,” remembers Leonards. “Such things as appearance were very important to him, but it seemed like he didn’t care who I had been on the inside.”

This family cold war converted into a deep freeze after Leonards dropped from college and declared he wouldn’t attend school of medicine or take on his father’s practice. Instead, he rambled around Central America and southern Europe before apprenticing to some furniture maker. At this, his father cut off his financial support and Leonards severed communication, eventually going so far as to move to the United States, putting an ocean together.

Leonards’s story may be a serious case, but its general contours are normal of the sometimes-rocky path traversed by men and their fathers. Psychologists who specialize in the area agree that the father-son relationship is one of the most complex in a man’s life – which it’s a relationship that can affect others.

Unmet expectations on both sides can leave fathers withdrawn and sons exasperated. But even if there’s no open warfare, many men long for a deeper friendship using the men who raised them. Building that kind of rapport can be hard work, however the rewards are commensurate with the effort.

Understand the Divide

It may help to understand that many of the forces driving fathers and sons apart are natural life processes. Beginning in their early teens, boys start to differentiate themselves from their fathers, often by openly rebelling against the home rule.

As painful because it is for both parties, this adolescent mutiny is an integral part of a boy’s development, says Lewis Yablonsky, PhD, professor emeritus of sociology at California State University Northridge and author of Fathers and Sons: Life Stages in One of the Most Challenging of All Family Relationships. “The son is building their own identity,” Yablonsky says. “He needs to find his own way in the world.”

In many families, however, this natural stage turns into a lifelong disconnect. Some fathers are surprised and hurt by a son’s overnight transformation from darling child to snarling teen – and they either fight back or simply retreat in the relationship.

Moreover, whether by nature or nurture, fathers are frequently less open than mothers regarding their feelings and emotions, says Neil Chethik, author of FatherLoss: How Sons of All Ages Come to Terms with the Deaths of Their Dads. “There’s a self-containedness about many men,” Chethik says. “We’re not usually overflowing with all kinds of words and emotions.” This reticence can deepen the divide between fathers and sons.

Other forces conspiring against father-son bonding are cultural. Work, for example, frequently pulls men from their families. Add divorce or separation, that are so common to modern families, and the cumulative effects of these various factors can leave a lingering distance between fathers and sons that lasts long past adolescence – and can harm a man’s adult relationships and life choices.

“When we’re not reconciled with this fathers, there’s something inside of us that remains restless, and there’s another thing that remains kidlike,” Chethik says. “We don’t really develop until we have come to terms with our fathers. We want our fathers to bless us in a way that brings us into adulthood.”

Find the Love

For lots of men, the work of reconciliation begins when they have their own children. That’s because being a parent is bound to change a man’s view of his own parents, says Chethik. “When we become fathers, we realize our fathers may have messed up, but we're messing up, too,” he says. “Therefore we begin to think of them weight loss human.”

Even if you don’t have kids of your own, recognizing that your father is just a man is the critical initial step in building a better relationship. To a child, parents are giants – invincible and all-knowing. “That’s an image that our fathers can’t live up to,” Chethik explains. “We have to pass the point where our fathers have to be perfect. That’s an internal battle for a son, but it’s a precondition to reaching out.”

Frequently, however, lingering childhood resentments prevent this from happening. A powerful tool in finding freedom from resentment – as well as in being able to move beyond holding a grudge – is forgiveness. Ron Jenson, coauthor together with his son Matt of Fathers and Sons: 10 Life Principles to create Your Relationship Stronger, recommends that whenever it comes to residual bitterness about their fathers, men “grieve it and then leave it.” He tells his clients to jot down the things they’re angry about after which tear up the paper and bury it in the backyard in a spirit of forgiveness. After which to seek forgiveness from their fathers.

“Forgiveness changes us emotionally and physically, dissolving the stagnant weight of resentment and flooding the body with fresh new energy,” writes Mary Hayes Grieco, emotional coach and author of The Peaceful Heart: A Practical Guide to Unconditional Love and Forgiveness. Releasing trauma and adopting a spirit of forgiveness, she continues, “mends our tattered personal boundaries, and empowers us to maneuver forward with more hope and creativity.”

“One man in the 50s had been estranged from his father for years. His father had even taken him out of his will,” Jenson remembers. “This guy was bitter and hurt, and it poisoned every relationship he was in. He went through this process, and he told me that asking for his father’s forgiveness was the toughest thing he’d ever done. He feared he would say no. But instead, his dad slapped the table, jumped up and shook his hand. They made it right, and it positively affected every relationship in his life.”

Make Your Own Way

Some men might not feel as comfortable using such a direct approach. They may find that engaging in a different way – even if they don’t officially bury the hatchet – might help heal their strained relationships using their fathers. “Some men may be reluctant to talk about their feelings,” Chethik says, “but they’re generally not unwilling to tell their stories.” Men may use this propensity for storytelling to develop a closer relationship. Telling one another how they met their wives or describing their senior high school experiences can help fathers and sons open emotionally.

That’s how it helped Bjorn Leonards and his father. After his children were born, Leonards reopened communication and lastly went back to Germany to assist plan a family reunion. His father started telling stories about his childhood – about being evacuated to a boarding home during the war, the asthma that everybody thought would kill him and the seminary where he was sent as a boy of 10 – stories that allowed Leonards to sympathize with his father’s struggles.

Since then, Leonards’s father has come to visit the United States a number of times, recently to the home that Leonards had remodeled himself. At some point during the visit, he slipped into Leonards’s workshop, switched on the stereo, and started oiling among the carpentry projects there. Later he explained, “I just wanted to know what it feels like to be Bjorn.”

For most men, earning their fathers’ acceptance includes a profound effect on their relationships as well as their self-image. “There’s something about the words ‘I’m proud of you’ coming from a father that cannot be duplicated and clears away any wreckage in the relationship,” says Chethik.

That certainly continues to be the case for Leonards. “He was impressed with my work, and that meant a lot to me,” Leonards says. “He took the time to get to know what it’s like for me and to appreciate my work.” As well as for his part, Leonards has grown not just to forgive his father, but to value him in turn. “There’s a beautiful flow between us now,” he states. “It’s something I never thought could happen.”

Forging Forgiveness

Being able to find forgiveness in their relationships with their fathers is a major step for sons in mending hurt feelings – and in being able to move forward with their lives. Emotional healer and author Mary Hayes Grieco outlines eight steps of forgiveness:

1. Be prepared to change: State your will to create a change in attitude. Be ready to devote your energies to locating forgiveness and moving forward in life.

2. Express your emotions: Share the painful emotion of your experience with a compassionate person.

3. Let go of expectations: Release the unfulfilled expectations you are holding onto.

4. Develop good boundaries: Take responsibility for your actions and give your father responsibility for his.

5. Most probably to The healing Process: When you let go of your old resentments, be receptive to the fresh energy, the peaceful feelings and the experiences that accompany a new attitude.

6. Discover the lost love: Free of your old hurt, you are able to send unconditional love to your father.

7. See the good: Change your view of your father; see the good in him and discover the positive aspects of the situation.

8. Spot the physical change: When you find true forgiveness, you are emotionally and physically transformed. Pay attention to these changes and permit time to integrate them into your life.

Facing the Father Wound

Every boy, in his journey to become a man, takes an arrow in the heart of his heart, in the place of his strength. Because the wound is rarely discussed and even more rarely healed, every man has a wound. And the wound is almost always given by his father. – John Eldredge, Wild at Heart

The “father wound,” as John Eldredge describes it, is handed down generation to generation, most often as the result of sons not hearing what they needed to hear from their dads. Men learn they are men, suggests Eldredge, by having their fathers (or father surrogates) notice and reflect their sons' evolving man-ness-competency, mastery, strength, bravery, intelligence and so on-back to them.

Under the best of circumstances, this occurs through male bonding and adventure, through affectionate and approving gestures, and thru a variety of attendant verbal and nonverbal “you've got what must be done,” “nice shot!” and “atta boy!” messages. In this way, fathers bestow a growing feeling of adult masculine identity onto their sons.

But if this doesn't happen, or when a father instead reflects a surfeit of criticism, disdain, disappointment or ambivalence for his son, the son never fully matures. Instead, he lives having a private fear that he is no acceptable or worthy man.

Best-selling author and spiritual teacher David Deida writes in more detail about this “father wound,” and proposes what may seem a radical solution: “Live such as your father were dead.”

In his book, The clear way of the Superior Man, Deida notes that “a man must love his father and yet be free of his father's expectations and criticisms in order to be a free man.” With this in mind, he suggests the following exercise…

  • Imagine that your father has died, or remember when he did die, and then think about: How would you have lived differently if you had never tried to please your father? Never tried to show your father that you were worthy? Never felt burdened from your father's critical eye?
  • For the next three days, do at least one activity a day that you have avoided or suppressed because of the influence of your father. In this manner, Deida suggests, you can practice being free of expectations and attitudes that originated with your father, and that you may have internalized without realizing it. -PG

This article continues to be updated. It originally appeared in the September 2006 issue of Experience Life.