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
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