Warning: file_put_contents(): Only 0 of 92 bytes written, possibly out of free disk space in /home/flfl1154/git/flwg.com.au/sources/global.php on line 625
View topic: Fathers and the Experience of Family Separation – Family Law Web Guide
Donate Child Support Calculator
Skip navigation

Fathers and the Experience of Family Separation

First National Conference on Mental Health of Persons Affected by Family Separation (2002).

First National Conference on Mental Health of Persons Affected by Family Separation

Education Centre, Liverpool Hospital, Liverpool

10-11 October 2002

Fathers and the Experience of Family Separation

Dr David Crawford, Professor John Macdonald

Men's Health Information and Resource Centre, UWS Hawkesbury

A Population Health Approach to Separated Fathers

There has been some effort to apply a population health approach to men's health

(Macdonald et al 2001 /www.health.nsw.gov.au/public-health/phb/dec01html).

By a "population health approach" we mean a systematic look at the health situation and needs of given groups within society and the attempt to address those needs with approaches and initiatives based on evidence.  Obviously, within the population group we label "men", there are several sub-groups. One such group is separated fathers.

In this context, by "separated fathers" we mean men separated by relationship breakdown from their children and partner.
 
Divorce and Separation

Australian research indicates that divorce is rated as one of the most distressing life events for men and women.  Separation because of marital difficulties is rated lower, but still a very distressing experience on par with having an abortion-miscarriage or continuous financial problems (NHMRC, Rodgers 1995)

Children and mothers have traditionally been the focus of research on well-being after divorce, whereas only limited attention has been paid to the distress of fathers following divorce  (Stone, 2001).

Divorced men have a shorter life expectancy - that is die earlier -  than those men who have not experienced a relationship breakdown.
 
Some Facts and figures

ABS figures show that in 2000 there were some 50,000 divorces, with 23,600 involving children.  Some 42% of first marriages end in divorce.  The AIFS indicates that in 1994 men were most likely to divorce between the ages of 30-49 years.

Overwhelmingly studies show it is women who initiate separation and divorce.

Australian Institute of Family Studies research (Aust. Divorce Transitions Project 1997), shows that 64% of women compared to 21% of men initiated separation.  (Repeats a 1984 study - in 65% cases women initiated separation-divorce.)

Based on ABS statistics Micheal Green, estimates that in 1997-8, approximately 400,000 fathers were living apart from their children, he suggests that 20% of Australian fathers live without their children.  It is estimated that 88% of separated children live with their mothers.

In the AIFS study - the main reasons given by men and women for separation are

- communication problems (27% of participants) (which can refer to an array of emotional related reasons - not being understood/ feeling needs not being met/ loss of affection/ feeling unappreciated);

- drifting apart-incompatibility (eg loss of love and trust, changed values), and

- changed lifestyle desires.

The Mental Health of Separated Fathers - Separation - The Emotional-Psychological Impact

There is slowly growing research on the emotional distress fathers' experience in the aftermath of separation, lasting at least up to two years.

The Director of a community agency that helps families in conflict said at the Men and Family Relationships conference in 1998,

When separation occurs many men are taken by surprise - they just didn't see it coming - and they feel like they've been hit by 'a ton of bricks'. Initial disbelief and shock gives way to an inner numbness and despair. An overwhelming sense of loss develops as they face the harsh reality that their future role in the lives of their children will most likely be on a part-time basis only. (Susan Price 1998).

In 1984 Jordan (a counsellor with the Family Court) conducted a study of 164 Brisbane based men on the effects of separation and divorce - 75% of the men were under 40 years

- separation was mostly initiated by women (65%), and often came as a total shock,

- most striking effect was in area mental health,

- over 60% reported long-lasting stress related symptoms (for 1-2 years after separation) such as sleeplessness, reduced energy, poor appetite and excessive tiredness,

In 1994 Jordan conducted a follow-up study with a new sample of divorced men and the original group - and had similar results

- the symptoms of headaches, sleeplessness, reduced energy peaked at separation but tended to abate 1-2 years later

- 33% of this group reported having the stress related symptoms one to two years after separation,

- of the original group of divorced men, 10 years later, over 60% were coping well,

- but 1/3 claimed they would never get over the divorce, and 2/3 still felt dumped.

Around separation a great proportion of men experience considerable psychological distress.  And whilst most of the divorced men cope well after about two years, yet a sizeable number do not.  But it is important to consider what is happening in their lives at this time.
 
Separated fathers trying to cope with daily living issues

Some of the issues newly separated fathers have to deal with:

- loss of family life and identifying framework of father-parent, a very personal-emotional issue about self-identity,

- loss of emotional connection-support of family life,

- disconnection with their children,

  + 'many fathers say that the thing they have missed most is the everyday world of their children growing up' - (Green 1998)

  + Jordan comments in his 1994 study, most of men do not walk away from their children and continue to care greatly about them,

- having to establish a new home, life routines and establish new friendships.  Finding a new home and fitting it out is not an easy process,

- Financial problems - fathers should provide child support - but often the man must finance two households, his new home, and in some cases the family home occupied by his ex-partners and children,

These men have to totally re-establish a new life.  As Micheal Green says, 'these things are not trivial'.

Family Law and Financial Problems

There is abundant evidence that family law and related financial issues are especially problematic for separated fathers, with implications for their mental health and well-being.

Family law has been a longstanding problem area for separated fathers, (raised as long ago as in submissions to the 1991 Federal parliamentary committee).

Some of issues include problems of access to children, court proceedings, maintenance and even false allegations of abuse (as documented by Green), being encountered by large numbers of separated fathers.

Green as a QC, is very critical of the Family Court system describes it as, 'depressing, divisive, hostile and costly' (1998, xi), and

- The 'father is seen as the disposable parent',

- Fathers are usually allowed little more than fortnightly contact with their children.

The Central Coast Health Service conducted a men's issues phone-in in 1999. It received 100 calls about major issues in the men's lives affecting their health,

- 57% of the callers were aged 25-44 years and 38% were unemployed,

- Family law problems were the most common issue - for over 50% of callers,

- Specifically, separation-divorce and financial problems,

- Main issue for callers was around fulfilling involvement with their children,

- Half of the financial problems related to issues of child support, settlement and legal fees to gain child access.

 

A great many of these men were upset about the loss of their children, many expressed extreme frustration at how little support they received in their attempts to maintain on-going relationships with their children, despite in some cases attempts by mothers to cut them off.

Small scale US research of low-income young fathers (under 30) reported similar problems with custody, access and financial family law matters (Lehr &Macmillan 2001).

Another small scale American study shows that conflict over custody arrangements affect fathers' sense of well-being after divorce.  However, clarity about the father's post-divorce role and subsequent satisfaction, as well as a new relationship, have been identified as factors that positively contribute to a separated fathers' well-being (Stone 2001).

Financial problems

Under current Child Support Agency arrangements 2/3 non-resident parents support their children (Green 1998, 237).

A Family Court research report of 1992 found that 27% of fathers claimed the maintenance system was financially crippling, forcing them to live in shared accommodation or with their parents.

Large numbers of fathers it appears by anecdotal evidence, are having financial problems, especially those with new families, but information is not readily available from the relevant federal agencies.

Australian research published last year shows current government formulas for determining child support devalue the role and financial needs of non-resident parent.

It is estimated that where contact with one child is for only 20% of nights of the year, the cost (principally household & transport) represents more than 40% of the total yearly costs of raising that child in an intact, middle income household (Henman & Mitchell 2001).

Another contentious issue - with settlement there is often unequal distribution of property in favour of the mother, usually because of her lower earning power, she may receive - as Green mentions - 65-70% of joint assets.

Whilst this can be understandable where mother has custody, the separated father may not be able to purchase another property.

Separated Fathers and Suicide

At the Men's Health Conference in 2001, it was suggested by the then assistant director of the Federal Men & Family Relationships' program, that one separated man commits suicide each day (Orkin 2001), there are many anecdotal stories of recently separated men taking their lives.

Research by Cantor on suicides in Qld over 1990-2, shows that separated men are 6 times more likely to suicide than married men, and this was greatest in the age group upto 29 years.  Separated males aged 30-54 are 12 times more likely to suicide than separated women.  But divorce, in contrast to separation, doubled the risk for females of the 30-54 age group (Cantor & Slater 1995).

They comment that, 'males may be particularly vulnerable to suicide associated with interpersonal conflict in the separation phase'.

The Qld Health Suicide Research Project is a study of some 2600 suicides in Qld for 1990-95.  In a sub-group (n=294) that reported on relationship separation and length of time, 73% of suicides occurred within one month of the relationship change.

It concluded that, 'separated martial status is a major risk factor for males', (Baume, Cantor, Taggart 1998).

US-Canadian military studies have documented that relationship problems are by far the most common obvious precipitant of male suicide (Canetto & Sakinofsky 1998).

US Air Force study in 1988, reported that relationship problems seemed to be associated with 94% of Air Force personnel suicides.  Sakinofsky found that relationship problems were the apparent leading 'cause' of 72.7% of Canadian military suicides.  These authors attributed these findings to the male cultural scripts about gender and suicide operating in the military (1998, 18).

Assistance and Ways of Coping

With regard to separation, it is generally considered that women rather than men are more likely to seek help and emotional support from friends, doctors, psychiatrists, religious counsel and marriage guidance groups. One Family Court report stated that a considerable proportion of men may turn to less 'interpersonal' sources of comfort, such as their job, hobbies, other interests and alcohol (Bordow 1992).

A National Health & Medical Research Council report suggests that alcohol consumption is high in divorced and separated men.  Rodgers refers to a study in the Hunter region of NSW, that found 26% of divorced-separated men were high-risk drinkers, compared with 6.1% of married men (1995, 109).

Counselling services for those in martial separation are available through the Family Court and voluntary groups.  However research for the Federal Attorney-General's Department showed men reluctant to use such services, among some reasons being a belief that counselling 'doesn't work', and the services are really for women (Donovan 1998).

At the recent national Men's Health Conference, there was some debate about the 'male-friendliness' and suitability of counselling for men - this is an issue that needs exploring.
 
Societal Role of Fathers

Some writers on men's issues such as Peter West of UWS point to the marginal role fathers are generally accorded in family settings including the family law system - 'disposable dads'.  Certainly in much research,  and many public reports and public programs, the term 'families' is code for mothers and children.

Some examples: A research report of Family Action Centre at Uni of Newcastle, on Fathers' Access to Family-Related Services, talks about the invisibility of fathers.

It observes, 'studies that purport to examine the needs of families, parents or consumers frequently concentrate solely on the needs of mothers' (Fletcher 2001, 13).

The federal Department of Family and Community Services released a useful report in 1999, yet its title - Fitting Fathers into Families-  implies that fathers presently have to be re-shaped and re-worked to 'fit into the family'.

The report prepared by Graeme Russell, included a random telephone survey of 1000 fathers, and a review of ideas about fatherhood among family service providers and professionals.

Some key findings:

- paid work is a major barrier for fathers to be an effective parent,

- 68% said they did not spend enough time with their children,

- about 50% of fathers report having extremely warm, close relationships with their children,

- 48% of professionals consulted in the study believed that upto 24% of fathers physically abuse their children, and, 31% of professionals believed the same number sexually abuse their children.
 
The report's conclusions included that:

-  many family service providers- professionals 'hold unduly negative views of fathers'.

- 'Being a father is challenging yet relatively unsupported in contemporary Australia, and the role of fathers remains stereotypically gendered'.
 
Services for Separated Fathers - Men in Crisis

Recently separated fathers are a high risk group for suicide and self-harm.  The period immediately after separation is the most difficult time for such men.  But, look in the telephone directory for services for separated fathers - virtually all the services are for women.

The Federal Department of Family and Community Services has funded some pilot services under the Men and Family Relationships initiative, principally focussed upon relationship counselling, education, parenting skills with an aim to reduce domestic violence.

MensLine Australia, a 24 hour family telephone counselling service was established in September 2001, by a community group with funding of $1.6m from the Federal program.  It seeks to assist separated men, and men having relationship difficulties with partners, children and ex-partners.  In the first six months of operation relationship issues accounted for 71% of its calls.

MHIRC is aware of some praiseworthy community projects and groups for separated fathers:

- MENDS

- Fathers Support Service, led by UnitingCare Burnside, Parramatta, and

- Dad's in Distress.

The above projects feature support groups for separated men, and some development workshops were men can comfortably learn about relevant issues, such as child development, parenting, dealing with the Child Support Agency.

MHIRC contacted men's health officers from two area health services, who indicated that there are no programs for recently separated fathers provided by their local health services.

Society's response to the issue of separated fathers

The way in which our services deal with separated fathers should be seen within the broader context of how the wider society sees them and values them, or, as is generally the case, ignores them.

We in the Men's Health Information and Resource Centre suggest that a salutogenic perspective is an essential element of a population health approach. By this we mean the inverse of a pathogenic perspective - the focus on the pathological and pathogenic, sickness. In the case of boys and men this means the usual focus on disease by the medical profession but a considerable emphasis from the world of psychology on boys and men behaving badly: ADHD, male violence and the like.

What we have seen of both society's and many structural responses to separated fathers suggests a distinctly pathologising approach, either deliberately or through omission, that is to say, by ignoring their needs and even rights.

We need to build a service approach which moves away from this pathologising perspective, to build on what is health seeking in males and provide environments, including health service environments which foster their health and well being.

Observations and Conclusions

The importance of a father in the lives of children has been well documented by local researchers such as Russell and Edgar.

We suggest there is clearly a need to re-examine community health and counselling services to establish ways to make them more appealing and suitable to men of all ages;

One such example being Lifeline Melbourne. In this program, men's psychological needs and culture were taken as starting points of a male-friendly counselling service,  - moving away from a "well, you know what men are like" approach.

We must help create a society that fosters the health (is salutogenic) for all its members. It is to be hoped that society at large will begin to adopt a more inclusive view of families. This would mean, not just taking the attitude that men have to do more for families, but that our society has to be organised in such a way that enables men to play a role and that that role is acknowledged.

This presentation has been on the health of the fathers' rather than the children, though both are, of course, interlinked. We must object to post-divorce arrangements that allow the children to become needlessly distant from their father.

The mental health of the father must become a consideration - they are not 'disposable dads'.
 
A Final Comment

We have here, as so often in the neglected area of mental health, an issue that links justice, human rights and the mental health of separated men.  Such men are at risk of poor mental health.

It is important to challenge policies and practices that ignore men's rights of contact and involvement with their children. It is time for changes to such policies and practices to facilitate fathers' continued contact with their children.

References

Baume P, Cantor C, McTaggart P, 1998, Suicides in Queensland 1990-95: A Comprehensive Study, Australian Institute for Suicide Research/Queensland Health, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Bordow S, 1992, Review of Family Court Research, Family Court of Australia, Office of the Chief Executive, Sydney.

Central Coast Area Health Service, Men's Issues Phone Forum 1999 - Central Coast, Health  Promotion Unit, Central Coast Health, Gosford.

Canetto  S, & Sakinofsky I, 1998, The Gender Paradox in Suicide, Suicide and Life-Threatening Behaviour, Vol 28, No 1, Spring (American Association of Suicidology).

Cantor C, & Slater P, 1995, Marital Breakdown, Parenthood and Suicide, Journal of Family Studies, Vol 1, No 2, October.

Fletcher R, Silberberg S, & Baxter R, 2001, Fathers' Access to Family-Related Services, Research Report, Family Action Centre, University of Newcastle, September.

Green M, 1998, Fathers after Divorce, Finch Publishing, Sydney.

Henman & Mitchell 2001, Estimating the Costs of Contact for Non-resident Parents: A budget standards approach, Journal of Social Policy, preview copy.

Jordan P, 1998, The Effects of Marital Separation on Men Ten Years On, National Forum on Men and Family Relationships, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra, June.

Orkin G, 2001, The Men and Family Relationships Initiative of the Department of Family & Community Services, 4th National Men's and Boys' Health Conference, UWS, September.

Lehr R, & Macmillan P, 2001, The Psychological and emotional impact of divorce: the noncustodial fathers' perspective, Families in Society, Vol 82, No 4, July/August.

Price S, 1998, Scaling the Brick Wall, National Forum on Men and Family Relationships, Department of Family and Community Services, Canberra, June.

Rodgers, B, 1995, Separation, divorce and mental health, in Jorm A (ed), Men and Mental Health, National Health & Medical Research Council, Canberra.

Russell G et al, 1999, Fitting Fathers into Families: A report for the Department of Family & Community Services, Department of Family & Community Services, Canberra, January.

Stone G, 2001, Father postdivorce well-being: an exploratory model, The Journal of Genetic Psychology, Vol 162, No 4, December.

Weston R, 2000, Financial living standards after divorce, Family Matters, No 55, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Autumn.

Wolcott I, & Hughes J, 1999, Towards understanding the reasons for divorce, Working Paper No 20, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne, June,

OVERHEAD 1

AUSTRALIAN DIVORCE AND SEPARATION

- SOME STATISTICS

Overheads

For the Year 2000

No. divorces

- 49,900

- 23,600 involving children

ABS 2001 Marriages and Divorces Catalogue, 3310.

Some 42% of first marriages end in divorce.
Men and Family Relationships Conference, Canberra, June 1998

Men were most likely to divorce between the ages of 30-49 years.
AIFS 1997
 
Initiating Separation & Divorce

Australian Institute of Family Studies:

Australian Divorce Transitions Project 1997

- 64% of women compared to 21% of men initiated separation.

- Jordan's Family Court study - 1984 - wife initiated separation 65% cases

OVERHEAD 2
 
Fathers living apart from children

Estimates were approximately 400,000 fathers living apart from their children in 1997/8,

Estimates that 88% of separated children live with their mothers

- approximately 1 million children under 17 years.
M Green, Fathers after Divorce 1998

Another estimate by Dads in Distress reported in recent film

- presently some 558,000 non-resident fathers

- 300,000 children see their father less than once a year, and

- unemployment among separated father is three time the national average

(basis of these figures - unclear)

OVERHEAD 3

MENTAL HEALTH OF SEPARATED FATHERS

The Director of a Queensland community agency that helps families in conflict said,

When separation occurs many men are taken by surprise - they just didn't see it coming - and they feel like they've been hit by 'a ton of bricks'. Initial disbelief and shock gives way to an inner numbness and despair. An overwhelming sense of loss develops as they face the harsh reality that their future role in the lives of their children will most likely be on a part-time basis only.  (Susan Price 1998).

Men and Family Relationships Conference, Canberra, June 1998

Emotional realm

- Initial shock - feeling dumped - suicide is a risk factor in immediate period

OVERHEAD 4

EMOTIONAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL IMPACT ON SEPARATED FATHERS

Jordan's 1984 research on 168 Brisbane based men

- over 60% reported emotional distress - sleeplessness, reduced energy, excessive tiredness (depression) - lasting 1-2 years;

- 66% did not want separation

Follow-up study 1994 (original group and new group-158)

- mental well-being problems - headaches, poor memory - most common at time of separation for both groups

- Confirmed stress-related symptoms - sleeplessness, reduced energy - can last 1-2  years,

- Men do not walk away from their children - 90% report strong attachments to children and that they continue to care greatly.

Original 1984 group

- 10 years later, over 60% say were coping well,

- whilst stating coping well - were signs had still not come to terms with separation

  + 30% still angry at their ex-wives

- 1/3 claimed they would never get over the divorce, and 2/3 still felt dumped.

FINDING

- These studies identify that subsequent living alone main predictive factor for those finding marital separation difficult to cope with. (Jordan 1998)
 
OVERHEAD 5

Daily living issues for fathers

- loss of element of personal identity - as father-parent

- loss of emotional-love setting - living without kids

- establishing new home - life routines,

- family law problems - access, court process - false allegations of abuse

- financial - demands of child support, income deductions

OVERHEAD 6

SOME QUOTES:

AFTER THE SEPARATION I WAS HOPELESSLY ADRIFT.  I FELT INTENSE PAIN.  I ALMOST HAD A BREAKDOWN. I LIVED FIRST WITH MY MOTHER AND THEN WITH A MATE.
GRADUALLY I SORTED MY LIFE OUT AND I MOVED INTO A PLACE OF MY OWN. - Bernie, p24

FROM THE OUTSET EACH OF THE COURT COUNSELLORS WAS A WOMAN. IN MY VERY FIRST SESSION I WAS IMMEDIATELY ASKED: 'Did you physically abuse your wife?' THERE HAD NEVER BEEN ANY SUGGESTION OF ABUSE. I FELT AN ANTI-MALE BIAS RIGHT THROUGH. I GOT THE IMPRESSION THEY CONSIDERED MEN UNABLE TO MANAGE, CARE AND LOVE THEIR CHILDREN.  WOMEN WERE SEEN TO HAVE THESE QUALITIES AS A MATTER OF COURSE. - Louis, p176

I WAS IN CONSTANT AGONY OVER THE CHILDREN.  I REALLY FEARED WHAT WOULD HAPPEN TO THEM. WE HAD CLOSE BONDS  BUT THESE STARTED TO BE STRAINED AFTER THE  SEPARATION. I COULD SEE THEIR HURT AND DISAPPOINTMENT.  I WORRIED HOW THEY WOULD TURN OUT. - Charles, p49

FATHERS AFTER DIVORCE - MICHAEL GREEN
 
OVERHEAD 7
 
SERVICES FOR SEPARATED FATHERS - MEN IN CRISIS

MensLine Australia, a 24 hour family telephone counselling service for men experiencing relationship difficulties.

Established in September 2001.

In the first six months of operation relationship issues accounted for 71% of its calls.

MHIRC is aware of some praiseworthy community projects and groups for separated fathers:

- MENDS - workshops for newly separated fathers and men,

- Fathers Support Service, led by UnitingCare Burnside, Parramatta, and

- Dad's in Distress - based at Coffs Harbour - establishing chapters around the State

The above projects feature support groups for separated men, and some development workshops were men can comfortably learn about relevant issues, such as child development, parenting, dealing with the Child Support Agency.
1 guest and 0 members have just viewed this.

Recent Tweets