It’s been worrying me lately because we’ve decided to start having children in a year or two. Seeing him act distant towards his daughter makes me worry that he’ll end up being distant towards our children, too.
I decided it was time to do a little research so I could better understand my husband. My reading yielded several key factors which contribute to fathers drifting away from their children:
First of all, studies show that a negative father-ex-spouse relationship adversely affects the father-child relationship. According to Heather Koball and Desiree Principe of National Survey of American Families, “visitation between nonresident fathers and their children often depends on the quality of the parental relationship” (Koball & Principe 1999). Meanwhile, research by Judith Selter from the Center for Demography and Ecology University of Winsconsin-Madison indicates that those fathers who had less pre-separation conflict with their ex-wives prior to divorce were more likely to receive joint custody and subsequently were increasingly likely to spend more time with their children (1997). The more acrimonious the relationship between the divorced parents, the less likely the father is to see the children, and vice-versa.
Second, research shows that the type of custody a father has tends to affect how much effort he puts into his relationship with his kids. Fathers with joint custody spend more time with their children than fathers who do not, even if both types of fathers have visitation rights (Selter 1997). Koball & Principe note that while nonresident fathers who pay child support are more likely to see their kids than those who do not, “having a support order [in of itself] was not related to more frequent father visitations for children who were born to married couples” (1999). This research suggests to me that having their parenting rights removed leads men to abdicate their parental activities.
Finally and perhaps most importantly, men struggle to navigate the undefined role of the divorced father. In What About the Kids? Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee say that some fathers, “can’t figure out how to bring off the role of visiting dad. How does one maintain a relationship with one’s children outside the family home? A father can become uneasy about who he is…He has a hard time figuring out if his job is to entertain the kids…or assist with homework, or what” (2003). Besides that, Gorden E. Finley of the Department of Psychology at Florida International University asserts that a conflict exists between society’s expectation that men be involved in nurturing their children and the reduced opportunity that these men have to be involved in their children’s lives (2003). So, some divorced fathers have no idea how much they should nurture or not, while other dads would like to nurture their kids more but can’t because of their custody situation.
Upon reflection I can see these themes being reflected in our home. While my husband continues to have visitation time with his daughter, I can tell that the tense relationship he has with his ex has negatively affected the quality his visitation. We do not agree with many of her parenting choices, and the outcome of those choices frequently makes it difficult for my husband and me to enjoy time with his daughter. While DH disagrees with his ex’s parenting, he refrains talking to her about it much because doing so usually ends in conflict. Meanwhile, it’s exhausting to constantly deal with the fall-out of her choices while having limited ability to influence the situation. Not having a clearly defined father role must make the situation even more difficult. I imagine DH must feel caught between a rock and a hard place.
Looking at things this way, I think my husband seems distant towards his daughter because it’s the only way he knows how to cope. It’s not the most positive conclusion to come to, sure, but now at least I feel like I don’t need to worry about the relationship he’ll have with our future children.
Finley, G. E., “Father-Child Relationships Following Divorce.” Encyclopedia of Human Ecology, Volume 1: A-H, 2003.
Koball, H. and Principe, D. “Do Nonresident Fathers Who Pay Child Support Visit their Children More?” National Survey of American Families, 1999.
Selter, J. A. “Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody on Nonresident Fathers’ Involvment with Children.” Center for Demography and Ecology University of Winsconsin-Madison, 1997.
Wallerstein, J. S. and Blakeslee, S. What about the Kids? Hyperion Books, 2003