Divorced dads take their role loss hard

March 8, 1996

An alarming picture of despair, frustration and conflict is revealed in research into the impact of divorce on fathers.

As interest in the royal split reaches fever pitch, the Waleses could do worse than heed the warning of Newcastle University researchers who found that father-child relationships were unlikely to flourish if communication between the parents had reached stalemate.

Challenging the popular stereotype of drop-out fathers who abandon their children following marriage breakdown, the study found an overwhelming sense of loss for many fathers struggling to stay in touch with their children.

Twenty-seven per cent of fathers lose contact with their children five years after divorce, usually when the emotional, physical and financial costs of pursuing contact have become too great.

But most of those fathers remained bitter and resentful and many were angry about what in their view was a denial of the opportunity to be a "dad" as their children grew up.

The fathers saw their position not as one of opting out but of sacrifice for the sake of peace. Protecting children from continuing conflict was a major consideration.

Staying in touch with children was clearly related to income and resources, with unemployed men finding it hardest to provide for their children and develop a good relationship.

If parents did not talk, the study found, children had to live in fractured worlds, carrying the burden of making contact arrangements and conveying messages, often hostile ones, between parents.

"It is not easy for either parent, particularly if there is ongoing conflict between them," said Janet Walker, director of the Relate Centre for Family Studies at Newcastle and co-director of the project.

Her colleague Bob Simpson said the most important lesson from the research was that cooperative parenting after divorce was difficult.

"Fathers said they need better support services, access to counselling, parenting education, financial advice and more suitable housing so that their children are able to visit," he said.

When children had problems at school or with their health, parents tended to handle them badly if communication had not been established. Fathers reported more problems adjusting to life after divorce than those who work with their ex-partners to bring up their children.

Devoting time to being a good father, however, often meant putting in less effort to building a new life and relationships, resulting in loneliness.

Father-child relationships were sometimes able to work even when the parents failed to communicate but the study found it was considerably more stressful, particularly for the children.

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