The Father-Son Archetype in Therapy

I was recently asked to deliver professional development to some counsellors and psychotherapists on the topic of “men’s issues.” I left my son’s football game to do so and found a gathering of about 60 people. Perhaps 10 of these were men and all but one or two of them sat on the periphery of the very large room.

I started by reading a poem called Rain From Nowhere by Murray Hartin. It speaks of a man with a young family. We catch him on the day he intends to end his life. After years of drought, he can’t see any way to hold on to the farm, which has been in his family for generations. That same day, he receives a letter from his father telling him of the tough times he’d had on the farm and how important it was to hang in there for his wife and children.

Everything will be all right, assures his dad. It’s a heartbreaking poem. I can’t read it, even to myself, without tears rolling down my cheeks. The whole room cried with me. When I composed myself again, I asked these therapists what it was about the poem that moved them. It was, predictably, the father-son relationship.


Thanks to C.P. Storm for this Flickr Creative Commons image.

I then asked everyone to briefly consider some words they would use to describe God. It’s an old trick and a good one. Although I was reluctant to try this in an increasingly secularized world, I thought the age group (averaging about 50 years of age) would enable me to get the traction I was wanting. After a minute, I asked them to consider the same question about their fathers.

Before I could go on, one bright spark spoke up to say the descriptors of God and their father were the same. A few others echoed their agreement. ‘Were they?’, I asked innocently, ‘such as what’? A few very chirpy women close to the front said some lovely words like “unconditional love,” “acceptance,” and “supportive.” I thanked these women very much, raised my eyes to the horizon and said “men?” Well, out it poured – “distant, angry, non-existent, and judgmental”! The contrast was stark.

I’d been asked to speak to this group partly because I train therapists myself, but also because I have been co-hosting men’s weekends twice a year since 2004. They are incredibly powerful events — weekends without booze or drugs, no experts speaking down to people, no theorizing, no therapy and no talking over people. We speak openly and honestly of our own life experiences. We welcome silences. Tears and laughter are profuse. Within hours, hugs are commonplace. By the end of the weekend we do an affirmation ceremony — each of us saying just what it is we treasure about the others. That is the hardest thing of all. We call the weekends Celebrating Manhood, and that’s what we do.

When these weekends began, the four of us who acted as hosts thought it was our duty to create themes to guide the weekends. We needn’t have bothered. Regardless of what we thought might be helpful – relationships, our working lives, changing roles – again and again the topic returned to father-son relationships.

And there was something I noticed over the years of revisiting this inexhaustible well of hurt and sadness. Time after time I was deeply affected by the emotions of these brave men who would talk and cry in front of people they often hadn’t met prior to the Friday evening. My own father, long dead, was emotionally detached at best, yet he was not violent, not an alcoholic, not irresponsible nor emotionally abusive. So the many conversations about fathers were not true of me, yet they found a very deep resonance within me. I began to recognize that this is how we experience archetypes. These stories go deeper than our personal relationship to our father in this lifetime.

There is a very profound father-son archetype that lies at the root of our relationship to our own God, or gods, or higher self, or whatever you deem to be the part of us that needs desperately to shine but so often cannot. And the damage or neglect that came from our own fathers is reflected strongly in this relationship with our higher self. We know deeply that this is not how it’s supposed to be. At some level we experience that great being of light at the core of our own self and long for its expression in our lives. When we struggle, we do so against the backdrop of unconditional love that we sense awaits us yet is never attainable.

By the end of my talk I felt I had to affirm the many female therapists in the room. They struggle with their male clients, and many with the men in their private lives. I could only applaud them for caring so much and continuing to try. They know men are worth it, whether they see much evidence of this or not. And these women were very often the first port of call for men who finally muster their courage to ask for help. Yet, in the end, I think that men need to make meaningful contact with other men. It’s only here that we meet our Gods and our demons.