REFLECTIONS ON MEN'S LIVES FOLLOWING DIVORCE AND REMARRIAGE
Kay Pasley, Ed.D.*
As a researcher, I have become increasingly interested in men's lives after divorce and remarriage as defined by men themselves, especially by those who are fathers. Much of our existing research on men following divorce is based on women's reports of men's experiences. Clearly, women's perceptions offer important, albeit limited, insight to understanding men's experience because we know that men and women don't see the same experience in the same way. This is especially true when we talk about custody, visitation, and child support. As such, some of my recent research is exploring men's realities about fathering as they move from one marriage to another. This interest stems from the desire to understand what it is about men's experiences with divorce/remarriage that results in their gradual disengagement from their children. Not all men relinquish their responsibility and connection; in fact, recent findings show that some divorced fathers disengage while others re-engage, especially after remarriage.
However, enough men disengage to cause social concern. For most public policy makers this concern focuses on child support payment, and recent laws have been enacted to increase the chance that fathers pay the child support they owe. Public policy makers have been less attentive to custody and visitation issues, even though research shows that nonresidential parents (usually fathers) with weak bonds to their children are less likely to remain financially responsible to them.
What do we know about fathers that disengage? First, some findings suggest that divorce is especially difficult for fathers who report having been highly involved with their children prior to separation. Men note that being relegated to a typical visitation pattern (e.g., every other weekend) diminishes their ability to father and this translates into feeling less competent and less satisfied in the fathering role. Underlying these feelings is the belief that courts devalue the father's role; fathers aren't as important as mothers. Part of the emotional distress reported by fathers after divorce stems from this implicit devaluing and their sense of loss due to the reduction in contact with their children. Another reason men disengage from their children is because of the stress the children show as they move between their mother's house and their father's house. Fathers see their children in pain, and some fathers are willing to sacrifice contact to protect their children from more pain. Other fathers disengage because, unconsciously or consciously, they desire to decrease their own emotional pain.
We also know that distance is problematic for fathering. Logically, those fathers who live a greater distance from their children, especially when resources are scarce, are less likely to maintain contact. Remarriage, especially when stepchildren live in the household, affects a father's availability for children from the prior marriage; more members in the family system results in less time and resources available to individual members. In stepfamilies, stepfathers also are left with financial responsibility for stepchildren. When stepfathers are also fathers and financially responsible for children from a prior marriage, they may make decisions to provide for one unit over another. In cases where a prior spouse "has a good job," a father may believe that his children have less need for such support from him. If the former wife has remarried, a father may believe that because the stepfather has more daily access to the children (and therefore all the benefits that he lacks), his contact may be less needed or desired.
Former wives and new wives play a key role in helping or hindering a father's continued contact with his children. In the last issue of STEPFAMILIES, Dr. Cheryl Buehler discussed some of the dynamics of the former-spouse relationship that affect children and the ongoing relationship between parents. Working out an amicable relationship is best for all. Even a neutral relationship can benefit the father-child relationship. Conflict between former spouses makes everyone's life more difficult.
Importantly, much of this literature has treated fathers as if they are a homogeneous group. I argue that such is not the case. As researchers we must be increasingly sensitive to diversity within groups if our findings are to be of use to others. Men define themselves as fathers in unique ways. Because of their unique definitions, they will behave differently with their children. For example, if a man believes that being a good father is caretaking or nurturing his child, he is likely to value more highly his contact with the child and to behave in ways that promote this contact. Another man may define fathering primarily in terms of providing. In this case, he would pay child support regularly, but he might be less invested in seeing his child. To date, we know very little about the ways in which men as fathers define themselves and how their beliefs about fathering, especially in postdivorce families, affect their continued involvement in their children's lives. The more we come to know about men's lives from men themselves, the more understanding we have about the complex nature of fathering after divorce.
* A list of references on fathering after divorce and remarriage can be obtained by writing: Dr. Kay Pasley Dept. Of Human Development and Family Studies, University of North Carolina at Greensboro, Greensboro, NC 27412. This was published in the quarterly STEPFAMILIES, Winter 1994.