Academic journal article Family Relations

"How Can You Just Cut off a Whole Side of the Family and Say Move On?" the Reshaping of Paternal Grandparent-Grandchild Relationships Following Divorce or Separation in the Middle Generation

Academic journal article Family Relations

"How Can You Just Cut off a Whole Side of the Family and Say Move On?" the Reshaping of Paternal Grandparent-Grandchild Relationships Following Divorce or Separation in the Middle Generation

Article excerpt

On the basis of a qualitative study of 31 grandparents, this article highlights how separation in the middle generation can result in an erosion of trust and quality of paternal grandparentgrandchild relationships. Notwithstanding these changes, grandparents endeavor to support and remain involved in the lives of their grandchildren by, inter alia, compensating for a perceived lack of their sons' parenting skills, affirming their grandchild's position in the paternal kin network, and acting as a mediator between the separated couple to ensure continued contact with grandchildren. The findings suggest that the actions of paternal grandparents can potentially have important future implications not only for the grandparent-grandchild relationship, but also the relationship trajectories of their adult son and child in the post-separation family.

Key Words: critical role transitions, divorce, grandchildren, grandparents, intergenerational relationships, separation.

Divorce can have long-term repercussions throughout the family system, forcing family members to reorganize relationships and assume new roles (Mederer & Hill, 1983). According to the "critical role transitions" theory, family interactions and negotiation of critical transitions, including divorce, can have important repercussions on relationship trajectories of family members (Rodgers, 1964) and the resolution of key life transitions (Aldous, 1990). This theory suggests that the manner in which families respond and react to separation in the early phases of the relationship breakdown plays a critical role in determining the course of family relationships in the long term. The theory assumes a temporal dimension and acknowledges that transitions are negotiated in a disorganized manner. As Aldous (1996, p. 31) wrote, ' 'there is a period when families flounder, search for, and try out new ways before remaking their roles and 'settling' into new behaviors."

Support provided by extended family members across generations is thought to be increasingly important (Bengtson, 2001) and may facilitate the negotiation of role transitions in the post-separation context. This support may be particularly significant for fathers who are not granted custody of their children and who are required to assume the role of a nonresident parent. Little attention, however, has been given to how separation in the middle generation affects the paternal grandparent role and their experience of relationship change with their adult sons and grandchildren post-separation. Acknowledging the interdependence of family relations, this article seeks to address this gap in the literature by developing a greater understanding of paternal grandparents' subjective experiences of the nature of relationship change and the responses of paternal grandparents to the revised context in which they find themselves. The discussion applies to a sample of paternal grandparents residing in Ireland, a country where the experience of lone-parent families and their extended kin network is under-researched.


Grandparents can play an important role in families that are undergoing stress or crisis. It is argued that in times of stress they can act as a stabilizing force for the parents and "may also serve as a catalyst for wider family cohesion" by being the focal point of family contact and facilitating family meetings (Hagestad, 1985, p. 46). They can have direct and indirect influences on their grandchildren (Tomlin, 1998). In situations where fathers assume the role of nonresident fathers, Bradshaw, Stimson, Skinner, and Williams (1999) argued, they may be "invisible" facilitators in the maintenance of their son's relationship with their children. In addition, they can play an important mediating role in disagreements between the middle generation and grandchildren (Ross, Hill, Sweeting, & Cunningham-Burley, 2003). Successful maintenance of paternal kin relations can also have positive effects on grandchildren. …

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