July 19, 2017 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization
The excellent Linda Nielsen recently wrote this piece about fathers and daughters of divorce and what they can do to mend the relationship that, all too often, is damaged or destroyed by court orders and/or their violation by mothers (The Conversation, 7/10/17). In so doing, Nielsen, perhaps inadvertently, reveals much of the cultural zeitgeist on divorced dads and what they face when they’re kicked to the curb by mothers and courts.
In a 2002 study involving nearly 2,500 children, researchers found that daughters’ relationships with their fathers were more damaged than sons’. What’s more, estranged daughters are more likely than estranged sons to suffer negative effects from the damaged relationship.
I’m not sure that study is the final word on the issue of who suffers more – sons or daughters – from the loss of a father to the divorce process and its aftermath. But whatever the case, Nielsen’s topic is daughters and, it turns out, she’s counselled young women whose relationships with their dads have been damaged by divorce. After some 30 years of studying the problem and trying to help young women, she has some good, practical advice.
If you were a child at the time your parents divorced, you probably were unaware of a lot of the obstacles your dad was up against in trying to maintain a close relationship with you. In fact, in a 2002 survey of 72 family lawyers, 60 percent agreed that the legal system is biased against fathers.
Kids, particularly young ones, don’t understand the divorce process and especially the fact that, by getting divorced, fathers’ legal ability to be with or even contact their children is often sharply limited. They only know he’s mostly gone from their lives and the hurt that engenders can lead to blame. Mothers of course can encourage that natural tendency to blame Dad who is, after all, not there to tell his side of the story.
Nielsen then asks daughters to answer some questions. In the process of doing which, she channels their thinking toward the realities that fathers face – realities that may have never occurred to their daughters.
So, if the child saw a therapist, did that person make sure Dad was involved? Did the girl spend as much time with Dad as with Mom? Did teachers, coaches, principals, doctors, etc. treat Dad the same way post-divorce as they did during his marriage to Mom? Did they keep him informed as much as they did her mother?
All of those are issues that seldom occur to kids and by asking them to address them, Nielsen makes the children (who may have become adults) place themselves in Dad’s shoes and realize that the court and many other people in their lives made it hard for him to be the father he and his daughter wanted him to be.
Then she takes on the cultural milieu in which divorce and child custody occur. In so doing, she asks the girls to consider how their own perceptions of their fathers and the situations they found themselves in may have been skewed. So she asks the girls to say what they believe to be true about various things relating to divorce and custody:
True or false? Most divorce cases are filed by men. Most divorces happen because the husband is abusive, alcoholic or otherwise unfit. Divorced men usually marry much younger women. Fathers are more likely than mothers to commit adultery. Fathers tend to lose interest in their kids following divorce. Fathers do better financially from divorce than do mothers. Mothers are more apt to become depressed following divorce.
All of those are generally assumed to be true and so it wouldn’t be a surprise if daughters of divorce believed some or all of them. The problem being that they’re all wrong. Getting the daughters to commit to their beliefs about those topics and then showing how those assertions are at odds with the facts again allows the girls to see their fathers’ situations for what they are, i.e. not easily surmounted.
Even though she may never come right out and say negative things to you about your dad, your mother can still give you a negative impression of him in other ways – the expressions on her face, her tone of voice, the way she acts after she’s talked to him or when you’re going to spend time with him.
Unfortunately, this happens to millions of daughters – especially when dad has remarried but mom is still single.
So has your mother subtly or not so subtly indicated that she was mistreated by your father? That he doesn’t miss you? That he’s responsible for the divorce? That his remarriage means he doesn’t love you as much as before? That he’s stingy and/or selfish? Etc. Those questions force the daughters to come to grips with the fact that messages they may have gotten from Mom have affected their view of Dad and not always accurately.
For young women who are “out of the nest,” Nielsen has found that the main reason they haven’t reached out to their father is that they’re afraid to do so.
I’ve found that the best way to reconsider your impressions of your father is to reach out to him and hear about his perspectives, feelings and experiences. After all, if your mother was awarded custody, she likely had ample opportunity to share her feelings and experiences with you. Why would you deny your dad the same opportunity?
Most daughters tell me that the reason they haven’t contacted their father or the reason they won’t talk to him about certain divorce-related issues is that they’re afraid.
What are you afraid of? Angering your mother? Being rejected? How likely is it those fears would come true? If they did, would you feel worse than you do now with a strained or uncomfortable relationship with your dad?
In answering these questions, you might find that your fears are exaggerated and are unlikely to occur. You might also realize that even if the worst did happen, it is not as damaging to you in the long run as never having tried to improve your relationship with your dad.
In Nielsen’s 30-year experience, the effort to seek contact with Dad is “well worth it” for the young women who do. The experience is almost never as bad as they fear and often leads to a reestablished adult relationship.
I’ve written a lot recently about efforts to repair the relationships between alienated parents and their kids. This has some similarities. The girls Nielsen discusses may not be classic cases of children alienated from their fathers, but the distance and lack of contact produced by court orders and mothers’ behaviors can look a lot like alienation. Nielsen provides a valuable approach to healing those damaged relationships.
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