My dad was just 61 when he died. I never had the deep and meaningful relationship with him that I craved. From the day he divorced my mother when I was aged three, I probably saw him a couple of times a year. On those occasions, we got along extremely well and I enjoyed his company very much. But there was so much missing from what could and should have been a powerful bonding relationship between father and son. It’s an absence that has affected me profoundly and still does.
Not having a father around can have serious knock-on effects for children, for teenagers, and ultimately for adults like me.
- For children, arguably the biggest effect is the loss of key resources—money and time. Less money often means a poorer environment in which to be brought up. In the UK, for example, 60 percent of lone parents receive housing benefit compared to 10 percent of couple parents. That can influence education and well-being. Less time also adds pressure for the main carer lone parent, who may then overcompensate with either too much love or too many boundaries and hence be less likely to use the “authoritative” parenting style that benefits children most.
- For teenagers, the lack of a father figure increases the risk of externalized problem behaviors and also internalized well-being issues.
- For adults, especially women, the experience of parental divorce can warp our view of healthy relationships. It makes marriage less likely and divorce more likely, regardless of background.
So it’s easy to generalize about the effects of divorce and extent to which fathers are involved in their children’s lives. But it’s also wrong.
It should be fairly obvious that divorce following a high-conflict relationship can actually benefit children in the short term, not least because of the immediate reduction in stress levels. The American sociologist Professor Paul Amato has led the way in researching and demonstrating the role of the parents’ pre-divorce conflict in the child’s post-divorce well-being. What’s little known, but equally obvious when you think about it, is that it’s the low-conflict divorces that damage children most, usually because they don’t see it coming. Finding an explanation for why mummy and daddy don’t love each other anymore ends up warping your view of relationships that go pop for no reason or you as a relational saboteur.
Here in the UK, the vast majority of separating parents, married and unmarried, were in “low-conflict” relationships before they split up, according to preliminary findings that we at the Marriage Foundation hope to publish later this year. This is a really serious and little-known problem that is rarely discussed in the public arena.
A fascinating new Dutch study, published this week in the Journal of Marriage and Family, builds on this idea of looking at the state of family life in childhood and then seeing how it affects the way fathers relate to their adult children many years later.
Needless to say, the overall main effect of divorce during childhood was very clearly negative on father relationships later on in adulthood. Both the level of contact and the quality of the relationship between adult children and their fathers who were divorced was generally poorer than it was between adult children and their fathers who were still married.
But it turns out that what happened when the family was still together—at least ten years earlier—also has a long-term impact, in some cases moderating the impact of divorce altogether.
- Involvement: More married fathers have good relationships with their adult children than do divorced fathers. However, the more fathers were involved in childhood, the better the relationship later on in adulthood, even to the extent that divorced fathers who were most involved do as well as married fathers who were least involved. The study authors sensibly speculate that fathers have to work harder to stay involved after a divorce. That’s more likely to happen if they were involved at the beginning.
- Education: This is a really interesting one. Better educated fathers tend to have better relationships with their adult children, regardless of whether they are married or divorced. For the less well educated, married fathers do a lot better. And this finding is independent of income. So it’s the father’s education, rather than financial support, that seems to lead to better father-child relationships.
- Conflict: This finding rather tempers the Amato finding that children do better when a high-conflict relationship ends and worse when a low-conflict one ends. In the long term, few children of divorce maintain good relations with their father once they become adults, regardless of whether the parents were more or less conflicted. However, parental conflict during childhood makes a huge difference over time if the parents are still married. Few adults have good relations with their father if the parents fought, whether or not the parents are still together. But a high proportion of adults still get on well with their fathers, if they are still married and didn’t fight earlier on.
What do I conclude from all this?
This new study is another useful piece in the jigsaw of evidence that says marriage matters. But it also shows that fathers being involved and couples keeping conflict under control also matters. My own unsatisfactory experience fits fairly well with the research findings.
It doesn’t have to be this way.