Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Change, Disengagement, and Renewal: Relationship Dynamics between Young Adults and Their Fathers after Divorce

Academic journal article Journal of Marital and Family Therapy

Change, Disengagement, and Renewal: Relationship Dynamics between Young Adults and Their Fathers after Divorce

Article excerpt

Little is known about children's perceptions of their parents' divorce or how children construct meaning around the divorce and their subsequent relationships with their parents. The focus of this study was to learn about the experiences and the meanings young adults had constructed about the divorce process and their relationships with their fathers in the years after the divorce. The findings revealed a broad spectrum of experiences and several key issues that gave meaning to both the disengagement and the reengagement with their fathers. Loss, trust, acceptance, availability, and support are a few of the vital issues addressed. Implications for family therapists are discussed.


Processes associated with the divorce experience tend to change parent-child relationships. These changes are also intertwined with other aspects of everyday life, normative stressors, and relationship changes due to children's continual development. Hence, it is difficult to ascertain exactly how divorce transforms parent-child relationships. The purpose of this study is to provide a description of how young adults see their relationships with their fathers, as well as to explore the connections they make with regard to how divorce might have changed or shaped their feelings about their fathers.

The literature on father-child relationships after divorce presents a rather dismal picture of "fading fathers," Disneyland dads, and devitalized relationships between fathers and children (Arditti, 1995). The decreasing quantity and quality of contact between children and noncustodial parents is well documented (Furstenberg & Nord, 1985; Furstenberg, Peterson, Nord, & Zill, 1983; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1976). It should be pointed out, however, that research on father-child relationships after divorce has relied primarily on structural measures such as child support payment or visitation frequency, or global measures of relationship quality. Although information gleaned from quantitative studies of father-child relationships has elucidated certain connections (Arditti & Keith, 1993; Seltzer, Schaeffer, Charng, 1989), little depth is available with regard to understanding qualitative aspects of father-child relationships during the divorce process and beyond. Most research and theory tends to emphasize the problematic nature of father-child relationships after divorce, without really exploring who defines them as problematic and why.

We know little about how children may elicit or discourage their father's involvement after the divorce (Arditti 1995). Furthermore, there is some evidence that children's perspectives and their construction of reality are significant predictors of well-being and may be more important than the actual presence of the parent (Wenk, Hardesty, Morgan, & Blair, 1994). Hence the present study is less concerned with documenting the state of affairs between children and fathers than with examining how young adults construct meaning around their past and current relations with their fathers and perceive their fathers' involvement.


Children and the Construction of Meaning

With regard to studying children and divorce, Kurdek (1993) reasons that the appraisal of life events is often more important than their mere occurrence. Social constructionism provides a rich theoretical context from which to study divorce and parent-child relationships, for such inquiry. Gergen is concerned with understanding "the processes by which people come to describe, explain, or otherwise account for the world (including themselves) in which they live" (1985, p. 266). Applying social constructionism to this study forces us to challenge conventional beliefs about the desirability of divorce, attributes attached to "children of divorce," and definitions of successful father-child relationships.

Social constructionism emphasizes the historical and cultural context and the influences of that context on an individual's interchanges with others. …

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