An Introduction to Father Absence Theory

What is ‘father absence’?

Father absence is a term used by researchers to indicate that a child has lived for part or all of their childhood in a house without their biological father. This will be because the child’s parents have split up or because they never lived together in the first place. It does not usually apply to children whose fathers have died, as this is a very different kind of psychological event. It also does not mean that the children had no contact with their father or that they did not have a good relationship with their father. You can see your father very regularly and get on really well, but still be termed ‘father absent’, simply because of your living circumstances.

A brief history of Father Absence Theory

Back in the 1960s people became concerned about whether people (especially men back then – they were less worried about women) developed differently if they grew up without their father in the house. This concern partly originated with the long absences of soldiers fighting in the Second World War. Sure enough there were differences – the general opinion was that boys who grew up in mother-only homes initially developed a more feminine idea about themselves (or gender identity) in childhood, but then reacted to this by adopting a more masculine set of behaviours (or gender role) in adulthood. A review of all the research, carried out be Stevenson and Black in the 80s, showed however that it was hard to get a consistent picture from all the different studies.

In 1982 two anthropologists, Pat Draper and Henry Harpending, published a ground breaking theory which suggested that these differences we were seeing would actually have been beneficial differences to our ancestors – that they were an evolved pattern of reactions to certain circumstances. They suggested that children who grew up ‘father absent’ learned that long term relationships and full time fathers were not necessary for having children in that social environment, and therefore they grew up in a way that helped them to reproduce effectively and efficiently without offering paternal care (if male) or requiring it (if female). Because girls did not need to wait for a husband, they argued, it was possible to start having children earlier in life and earlier in relationships. Their original paper is online here:

Later on, other researchers (e.g. Barkow) suggested that if the daughters of ‘absent’ fathers should reproduce early, then we ought to see them be biologically ready to have children at a younger age – i.e. they ought to reach puberty earlier! And sure enough, we now have at least 15 separate studies all showing that early father absence (before about 11 years at the latest) is linked to earlier age of ‘menarche’, or first period, in girls.

This was an extremely important finding because this shows that there were real developmental differences between girls from different kinds of family. Jay Belsky (along with Pat Draper again, and their colleague Lawrence Steinberg) produced a paper in 1991 that attempted to give a developmental model for how this phenomenon occurred. They suggested that family stress (including father absence) affected parenting practices (e.g. the more stressed the family, the harder it was for the parents to spend quality time with the children), which affected how the children’s attitude to relationships developed and also their psychological coping practices, which in turn affected their physical development. For instance, because girls need a certain amount of body fat in order to start their periods, it may be that more depressed girls (due to family stress) lay down more fat deposits earlier due to stress hormones affecting their bodies, and then start their periods earlier than other girls.

However, it is impossible to say whether earlier age of puberty in girls is actually the result of father absence, or whether in fact both of these things are due to some other factor such as genetics. If you’re interested in taking part in research addressing this question, please visit my research site.

Rough Guide to Boothroyd & Perrett (2006)

Why did you do this research?

Given all the data linking age of puberty with family structure, there is surprisingly little research looking at other aspects of physical development. One study (Comings and colleagues) suggested that the link between family and puberty could be due to a particular gene – they found that one version of the gene controlling how our sensitive our bodies are to testosterone was more common in girls whose parents had separated and was also linked with earlier puberty. This is what made me want to look at how family background related to physical masculinity (because, of course, the more sensitive we are to testosterone, the more masculine we ought to look).

Another study carried out in Dominica by Mark Flinn and his colleagues suggested that father absence should also be related to health. Children in stressful family homes or with separated parents had higher overall levels of the stress hormone cortisol – which we already know is bad for our immune systems – and also showed more sickness. That’s what made me want to look at apparent healthiness.

What did you do?

My colleagues and I collected facial photographs of female students in St Andrews for two years. The women were all asked to tell us about their family background. From this I could create three groups – ‘father absent’ girls whose parents separated when they were children, ‘father present’ girls whose parents were happily married, and also a third group of girls who said that their parents did not get on well during their childhood but did not (at least at the time) separate.

I then used a computer to create an ‘average’ face from each group. Because the computer calculates the average location and colour of every single part of the face, anything that was randomly different within a given group just became very average (which is why all the faces look so similar!). What stands out is anything that all the faces in the group have in common. We can see in the image that the face on the right has a more oval shape, more curved eyebrows and apparently bigger eyes than the other two faces; this is clearly the most feminine face.

Images of girls from different family backrounds
Average facial images of three groups of young women; from left to right: those with separated parents, those with unseparated parents who rated their parents' relationship as poor quality, and those who reported their parents' relationship as good quality. Image (c) Perception Lab, St Andrews

All the faces were rated by observers (as this is actually a good way to assess facial masculinity and health) and I found that the girls with happily married parents looked the most feminine and healthy (which made them particularly attractive), while the other two faces looked more masculine. The girls whose parents had stayed together despite marital problems looked less healthy than the other two faces.

Finally, we had also been collecting body measurements from all the girls in the lab. Analysing these showed me that father absence was linked with being heavier and having more body fat. Furthermore, the worse the girls rated their parents’ relationship (whether they separated or not), the heavier they were and the less curvy their bodies were. Given that having a curvy waist is an aspect of body femininity, this again showed a difference in femininity/masculinity.

The reasons for these links are as yet unknown (they may be genetic, or due to effects of stress or some other factor), however this opens up a new and interesting area of study with implications for future developmental research.

Why are these differences there?

Good question. The differences between girls in terms of health and weight are easier to explain. We already know that stress is bad for our health, and that high levels of stress hormones are linked with weight gain – particularly weight gain around our waists, which of course makes us less curvy. So it seems natural that stressful events in childhood (and beyond in some cases) should affect our health.

The differences in terms of facial masculinity are much harder to explain at this stage. We could be looking at profound early stress affecting hormonal development, or perhaps reduced male-relative pheromones in the household affecting hormonal development, or on the flip side, it could simply be that there's a certain genotype (like the gene Comings’ identified, see above) which is associated with physical masculinisation *and* marital breakdown. It's really impossible to say which it is at this stage and I’m keen to run more research to find out.

What is the significance of these results?

The reason the research is particularly interesting is that most research into the children of separated parents has concentrated on behavioural outcomes (e.g. the higher rates of behavioural problems) or on reproductive development (the earlier puberty); other aspects of physical development have not been looked at before. These results show that we should be looking at more of the biological systems that relate to both relationship behaviours in parents, and development in children. Since these results can't be explained by sociological theories it really strengthens the idea that there's some kind of hormonal or other biological process going on. As a researcher I find this very exciting. It opens whole new avenues of research.

And what does this mean for me?

At the present time it's very hard to say what this means for the average person. This is because the results are only showing that there's a link between family background and physical development; it's not showing why the link is there. Until we know whether the physical masculinisation is genetic or environmentally caused (and if it's environmental, what the actual causation pattern is), then it's impossible to make any recommendations. At a rough guess I'd say we have a good 5-10 years work ahead of us before it's ready for 'application'!

Anyway, here’s answers to some questions I’ve been asked before…

1. My parents split up - does this mean I’m masculine/unhealthy/unattractive?

No. It might mean that you might be slightly more physically masculine or less healthy than you would otherwise have been; alternatively nothing your parents could have done would have changed your current appearance. Plus, the differences I’ve found are very very subtle. If you look at the images, you can see that they’re actually quite attractive anyway, and the differences are fairly small. No one should worry about this; as someone with divorced parents myself I certainly don’t feel concerned and didn’t bat an eyelid at my own results. I’m happy with my appearance and that’s far more important than worrying about whether I’d be prettier if I’d had an idyllic childhood!

2. I’m considering divorce – what does this research mean for me and my children?

Again, almost nothing. Since we don’t know where these differences came from, I don’t know if there’s anything that can be done to prevent them (or even if they’re worth preventing – they are very subtle as I’ve said). The health-related results are more applicable in that they support other research which suggests that long term family stress is not good for people's health. There's not really anything new in this; other researchers have already suggested that long term marital conflict is more stressful (in the long run) than separation, and it's long been established that stress relates to health. This is not to say that it should necessarily affect your decision about whether to separate though, as each family is unique and will make the decision that works best for them, but it does help confirm what we partially already knew: that long term stress is not good for our (or our children's) health.

3. You find that parental separation relates to higher weight – but what about anorexia?

To the best of my knowledge, none of my participants had eating disorders. Yes, family problem are sometimes thought to be amongst the potential triggers of eating disorders including anorexia, but since that was not the case in my students these results can only apply to those who don’t react to parental divorce in that way. Plus the causes of anorexia are very complicated and debated so I don’t see a conflict there.

If you have any further questions, please don’t hesitate to contact me.

If you are interested in further research, please continue to my research site.

If you have any concerns related to your own or your parents' relationship, the following organisations may be able to help:

Its Not Your Fault