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Feature Article


Fathering After Divorce

Reviewed and condensed by Arthur J. Schneider, Human Development Regional Specialist, University of Missouri Extension in Cooper County

The father-child relationship is especially fragile in American culture. There is a general expectation that mothers should be intimately involved and spend time with their children, but the same is not expected of fathers. Fathers are often relegated to support roles assisting the mother and perhaps coaching a sport.

Following divorce, mothers typically receive the majority of physical custody time. This can have a significant impact on the relationships between divorced fathers and their children.

Constance Ahrons, who studied 173 children from 98 pairs of divorced parents over a 20-year period, says that society views divorced fathers in a harsh light. In her book, We’re Still Family, she says that family values rhetoric typically focuses on absent fathers. Some scholars suggest the decline in marriage, increase in divorce, and the acceptance of out-of-wedlock births as additional reasons why fathers do not play a prominent role in their children’s lives.

Ahrons presents three divorced father stereotypes:

Disneyland Dads are fathers who engage children in recreation rather than providing real parenting. Ahrons asks, “What are dads to do when they only have limited time with their children - especially when the fathers live at a distance and the children’s friends and familiar toys and games are not available?”.

Deadbeat Dads are fathers who do not pay child support. Ahrons suggests that unemployment or financial difficulties in maintaining a household and meeting child support are major challenges for fathers.

Disappearing Dads are fathers who move away, remarry or cohabitate, focusing their attention on a new home, family or relationship. She found many fathers disappear because of continuing conflict and litigation or repeated feelings of loss associated with occasional visits. Many fathers report anger at not having sufficient time with their children.

Fathers in Ahrons’ study reported circumstances that acted as barriers to involvement with their children. Among the circumstances were the ex-wife’s anger, continued conflict over child support, maternal bias in courts, stepfather usurping their role, the custodial mother moving, and remarriage resulting in additional demands.

What do the children say?

Evidence from Ahrons’ research shows that half the adult children of divorce believed their relationships with their fathers improved after the divorce and 12 percent saw no changes. Most children reported that their relationships with their fathers also improved as they reached adulthood.

However, more than one-third felt their relationship with their fathers worsened after divorce. They blamed their fathers for the deterioration in the relationships. They also reported more anger than sadness about the loss. Children whose fathers abused them or their mothers felt relief when their parents divorced. Almost three-fourths of those who reported poor relationships with their fathers were daughters. Some children no longer considered their fathers a part of their lives.

Children who believe their fathers do not love them or want to see them question their self-worth and ability to be loved. In general, Ahrons found that children want to see their fathers more.

According to Ahrons, the most common cause for deterioration of the father-child relationship is that children feel displaced by their father's new wife and children. Regardless of age, children felt a greater sense of loss when fathers remarried within two years. Biological children believe their father’s loyalties will shift to their new family.

Remarriage is less likely to interfere with the mother-child relationship. Children in the study reported relationships with their mothers remained stable after divorce. Most felt even closer to their mothers following the divorce. Mothers tend to remarry later than fathers.

Fathers are often blamed when children experience a deterioration in economic condition. After divorce, mothers play a major role in encouraging continued communication between children and fathers. Fathers who have close relationships with their children are more likely to pay child support.

Ahrons found that children embroiled in parental disputes experienced painful loyalty conflicts and often sided with one parent, most likely the mother. This was especially true among young children.

Infidelity was the cause of about 10 percent of the divorces Ahrons studied. In adulthood, one-third of the children blamed infidelity for the deterioration in the father-child relationship. They reported being unable to forgive their fathers. Older siblings or relatives were their chief sources for information on infidelity.

Children who reported no change in their relationships with their fathers lived half- or full-time with their fathers or changed primary homes from mother to father at some point. Children had better relationships with their fathers if their fathers communicated with them frequently and consistently.

The study showed that other factors contributed to improved father-child relationships:

  • Fathers who become more involved in parenting after the divorce had closer relationships with their children. When a father’s relationship with his ex-wife was good, he spent more time with his children and assumed more responsibility for their upbringing.
  • Children who have the opportunity to get to know their fathers after the divorce may find they are not what their mothers portrayed.
  • Fathers who have matured over time are able to improve their relationships with their children.
  • The child’s age at the time of the divorce makes a difference in how he or she experiences marital breakup during the early childhood years.
  • Fathers who make it clear that they love their children and are interested in their lives develop better relationships.

Interestingly, Ahrons found that fathers who live far away from their children after a divorce do not necessarily lose their relationships with their children. When fathers let their children know they care and show up for important events in their children’s lives, relationships are stronger. Reliability and consistency are more important to children than frequency.



Ahrons, Constance. We’re Still Family. New York: HarperCollins, 2004.



Last Updated 05/12/2009


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