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Journal Issue: Children and Divorce Volume 4 Number 1 Spring/Summer 1994

The Role of the Father After Divorce
Ross A. Thompson


To many fathers, equitable child custody arrangements are essential in light of the alternative. It is very difficult to maintain a successful "visiting" relationship with offspring as a noncustodial parent, especially as a father. It is not hard to see why. Consider the following description of this relationship from researchers who have long studied families of divorce:40 "At its core, the visiting relationship is ambiguous and therefore stressful. A visiting father is a parent without portfolio. He lacks a clear definition of his responsibility or authority. He often feels unneeded, cut off from the day-to-day issues in the child's life that provide the continuing agenda of the parent-child relationship. The narrow constraints of the visit are often reflected in the need to schedule a special time and place to be with one's child, the repeated leave-taking, and the need to adapt flexibly to the complex changing needs of the child. The forced interface with new adult figures within what sometimes is the father's former home, and the continued crossing and re-crossing of new family boundaries in the child's life, are murky and burdensome aspects of the visiting parent's role because they are largely undefined and therefore unsupported by social convention. They generate a changing mix of frustration, anxiety and gratification. The conflicting psychological strains on the visiting father usually pull him between the need to remain close to his children out of his love, dependence, sense of commitment, and legal obligation, and the countervailing desire to take flight in order to escape the painful feelings associated with the failed marriage. For a significant number of fathers, the urge to take flight can be irresistible."41

Studies of divorced fathers support this conclusion. Although a substantial minority of fathers maintain or enhance the frequency of visitation over time, for most men, contact with children may initially increase immediately after the divorce but then it typically declines, sometimes strikingly, during each successive year.6,42 The same reports indicate that, when visits occur, they are often social and recreational in nature, confirming the popular stereotype of the visiting father as a "Sunday Santa" or activities director. The absence of the visiting parent from the ordinary variety of daily activities that children experience—from helping with homework to sharing domestic tasks—undoubtedly contributes to the artificiality of their relationship and the feeling that the visiting parent has ceased to function as a genuine parent in the child's life. As an indication of this fact, in one study only half the children interviewed included their noncustodial fathers in their list of family members, and very few children did so when the father rarely visited.43 These researchers concluded, "[m]arital disruption effectively destroys the ongoing relationship between children and biological parents living outside the home in a majority of families."44

Some researchers have concluded from survey data that children's well-being is not significantly altered by whether fathers choose to remain involved after the divorce.45 But these findings, based only on children 11 to 16 years old, must be regarded cautiously because they are inconsistent with children's own preferences to see more of their fathers.46 In one study, more than 85% of children wished for their parents' reconciliation three years after their divorce.47 Moreover, as we shall see, patterns of involvement as a visiting father are strongly related to the reliability of child support payments, implicating the child's economic well-being in this relationship also.48

Difficulties in Maintaining the Visiting Relationship

Why, then, is the visiting relationship of the noncustodial father so difficult to maintain? Explanations vary and are multiply influential.6,49 The residential mobility of either parent can pose formidable geographical obstacles to regular visitation. The remarriage of one or both parents can likewise pose relational challenges to the maintenance of visitation, especially if it entails the assumption of responsibility for new offspring. The passage of time itself can impede the continuation of a visiting relationship, especially as noncustodial parents and children each develop new interests and relationships that they do not share with each other. Socioeconomic status is likewise also a positive predictor of the maintenance of visitation, probably due to the resources a noncustodial parent can devote to frequent visits with children. The manner in which the divorce was negotiated (involving litigation or private mediation) and the acrimony surrounding these negotiations also influence patterns of visitation because visitation is more likely when former spouses are cooperative. Even the way that visitation occurs—through overnight visits, weekends together, or only day visits—can predict whether visitation will be maintained.6 The significance of these diverse postmarital influences is reflected in the fact that, when researchers have examined the influence of the father's predivorce involvement with children on visitation, expecting that fathers who were strongly committed to their offspring during their marriage would likewise become committed noncustodial parents, they have been surprised to discover that predivorce parenting does not predict postdivorce visiting.46 The quality of a noncustodial father's relationship with offspring is shaped primarily by influences in postdivorce life.

Among the more salient obstacles to visitation is the desire of parents to limit the amount of mutual contact they must endure. Fathers may do so by neglecting to visit with offspring. Custodial mothers may do so by being unavailable when visits are to occur, by rescheduling visits for inconvenient times, or by raising objections to new visitation plans. Although mothers are usually not primarily to blame for fathers' lack of visitation, researchers have reported that they impose obstacles to visitation to a surprising extent: by some estimates, one quarter to one-half of fathers report serious visitation problems with their ex-spouses.6,50

Part of the problem is the ambiguity with which visitation expectations are sometimes defined in divorce statutes: by contrast with the precision by which child support awards are outlined in many jurisdictions, "reasonable" visitation can be interpreted in various ways. The broader problem, however, is that visitation almost inevitably requires contact between ex-spouses. Although custodial mothers often complain that fathers assume too little responsibility for children, they also report few efforts to consult with fathers concerning child-rearing matters and little interest in having more contact with the former spouse. In the words of one researcher, "coparenting conflicts with the preference of the vast majority of divorced individuals to establish as much distance as possible from their ex-spouses." 51 The "clean break" they desire after divorce may undermine the success of visitation.

It is important to note that a substantial minority of noncustodial fathers succeed in maintaining an ongoing relationship of frequent visitation despite these factors. About 15% to 25% of noncustodial fathers maintain weekly visits even several years after divorce, and the proportion may be growing.52 In the recent Stanford study, 64% of children reported seeing their fathers during the preceding month after more than three years had passed since parents separated.6 Thus diminished visitation is neither a necessary nor an inevitable long-term accompaniment of noncustodial parenthood.

It appears, however, that events of the early postdivorce years significantly shape a noncustodial father's expectation of whether he will be able to play a meaningful role in his child's future that guides his behavior concerning visitation, child support, and other postdivorce issues. Fathers who encounter significant obstacles to visitation may progressively withdraw from offspring and, in so doing, lessen their own discomfort and anxiety in the visiting relationship.53 Conversely, fathers who anticipate a meaningful future role in the child's life are likely to persist in visitation despite the impediments they encounter. The first year or two after divorce, therefore, may be the crucial period for establishing cooperation between former spouses that allows fathers a meaningful future parenting role with offspring. One way of doing so is with more explicitly defined visitation arrangements that have clear enforcement mechanisms and accessible modes of dispute resolution when visitation disagreements arise. Parenting plans that are jointly negotiated by parents, perhaps with mandatory visitation expectations—or "dual parenting orders"54—might help to foster continued involvement of fathers in the child's postdivorce life.

Involving fathers is important because, in the end, children are likely to benefit the most when fathers remain involved. To the extent that children desire continuity in parenting relationships after divorce, efforts to strengthen the noncustodial father's commitment to offspring are worthwhile. To the extent that children may benefit, as they grow up, from access to their fathers for guidance and support, efforts to ensure that noncustodial fathers do not disappear from the child's life are valuable. The tragedy of declining visitation is that children may lose any possibility of future access to a parent who may be capable of providing not only love and support but also a link to the child's heritage. And because the regularity of visitation and fidelity to child support orders are so closely linked, enfranchising fathers relationally also has important economic benefits for offspring.