CONFLICT WITH EX-WIFE LIMITS INVOLVEMENT OF FATHERS WITH CHILDREN, STUDY FINDS
COLUMBUS, Ohio -- A recent study of divorced fathers revealed that conflict with their ex-wives can have a profound effect on reducing fathers’ involvement in their children’s lives.
The researchers found that lower levels of involvement between non-custodial fathers and their children were related to ongoing conflict with the children’s mothers. In addition, lower involvement was connected to greater geographical distance from their children and a lack of clarity concerning what the role of the father should be after divorce.
“I think we need to encourage more couples to use mediation during divorce and afterwards to help resolve some of the conflicts,” said Patrick McKenry, professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University’s College of Human Ecology. “That will help each parent feel that they’re being treated fairly and reduce the chances of ongoing conflict.”
McKenry co-authored the study with Randall W. Leite of Bowling Green State University. Their results were published in a recent issue of the Journal of Family Issues.
The issue is important because children whose fathers maintain strong involvement with them have a better sense of well-being, the researchers said. Also, involved fathers are also more likely to continue paying child support.
Fathers in general often get a bad rap after divorce, McKenry said, sometimes labeled as “deadbeat dads” on one hand or “Disneyland dads” on the other. Also, society tends to assume that if a father cares about his children, he will maintain contact -- but that assumption ignores how difficult it can be to maintain a relationship when fathers and children live apart, the researchers said.
To study the issue, the researchers examined data from the National Survey of Families and Households. The first wave of data was collected in 1987-88, in which 426 of the respondents were men who lived separately from the children due to divorce
Of those fathers, 117 who still had children under age 18 were included in the second wave of data collected in 1993-94. The researchers also included responses from 86 fathers who were divorced in the intervening years.
The researchers examined responses from the fathers regarding frequency of contact with their children; the influence fathers felt they had in their children’s lives; the satisfaction fathers felt in their role as parents and how important they felt that role was; how well-defined the father’s role was established in legal agreements (“role clarity”); and their geographic distance from their children.
The fathers were also asked how much conflict they had with their ex-wives over issues such as where the child lived, how the child was raised, money spent on the child, the father’s visits with the child, and the father’s contribution to child support. They rated their levels of disagreement from “no conflict” to “a great deal of conflict.”
In examining the data, the researchers found that the level of parental conflict directly affected the amount of involvement fathers had with their children, and indirectly affected the level of satisfaction these men had in their roles as fathers. It appeared that the less decision-making ability the fathers had in relation to their children’s lives, the more dissatisfied the fathers were.
“Our results suggest that conflict with a child’s mother not only directly influences the father’s involvement with the child but also is an important factor in the degree of satisfaction he experiences in his role as a father,” McKenry said.
Part of the problem is that many men have no idea how to be fathers when their children live in another household, McKenry said. “Some men need a wife playing a ‘gatekeeper’ role in their involvement with children,” he said. Others see the role of “father” as defined as a residential parent and simply aren’t sure how the role changes when they no longer live with their children.
“I think it’s clear we really haven’t done a good job in preparing men for the father role,” McKenry said. He would like to see more family life education geared to boys and men to help them learn more about parenthood. He also would like to see more elaborate parent education courses offered during and after divorce to help men learn how to parent on their own.