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War of the wounds by Judith Stadtman Tucker

page three

Whose war is it, anyway?

First and foremost, it's important to take into account that the vast majority of divorced or never-married parents -- somewhere between 75 and 90 percent -- settle on custodial arrangements without resorting to costly and acrimonious court battles. Despite the amount of media attention they've managed to attract, proponents of the father's rights movement represent a minority of divorced dads. Naturally, how these men differ from all the other divorced and separated fathers who aren't kicking up such a fuss is the first question that pops into my mind. It may well be that some of these dads have been treated unfairly by the courts, although research suggest that when fathers seek primary or joint custody of their children, they often prevail (and as noted earlier, a history of spousal abuse does not appear to be a strong deterrent to awarding shared custody in these cases).

With that in mind, there seems to be a distinct possibility that the circumstances fueling the grief and outrage of father's rights activists are related to personality factors rather than systemic ones. In a methodical evaluation of factors that predispose couples to high conflict divorce, Janet R. Johnston, co-author of Impasses of Divorce: The Dynamics and Resolution of Family Conflict (1999), found that "separation engendered conflicts (the humiliation inherent in rejection, the grief associated with loss, and the overall helplessness in response to assaultive life changes) interact with vulnerabilities in the character structure of some divorcing individuals, making them especially prone to unresolved hostility and ongoing disputes." Johnston also found strong evidence that "In divorces marked by ongoing disputes over the custody and care of children, both inside and outside the court, there is often a history of domestic violence in the family and a likelihood that the violence will continue after the separation."

A recent survey of 800 family law judges in major U.S. cities found that judges cite "parents' ability to cooperate and communicate, both parents being involved in the child's life, geographic proximity, parental agreement and parental stability" as the top five reasons they would order joint custody. Judges also reported that lack of parental cooperation and communication was near the top of their list of reasons for awarding sole custody. A 1998 study of mothers' custodial preferences also found that mothers were more likely to favor joint custody over sole maternal custody when they were experiencing low-levels of conflict with their former spouse, low levels of anger/hurt over the divorce, had few visitation problems and considered their ex-husbands competent parents.

Given that marriages rarely break up because both spouses' need for intimacy is being met and everyone is getting along fabulously well, it's something of a no-brainer to surmise that some, if not most, of the couples who become embroiled in protracted custody and visitation disputes simply aren't capable of sustaining the kind of non-adversarial relationship that's necessary for effective co-parenting after divorce. As Don E. Stott, a family court mediator in California, wrote in a 2002 article for the American Journal of Family Law, "A significant number of child custody disputes are indirectly a result of the biological parents simply not liking each other. Each holds the other totally responsible for the failed relationship and feels the other should be punished by any means available. Although the vendetta against the other parent has a negative effect on the relationship of the children, the energy expelled to 'get' the other parent can be tremendous." Stott also estimated that 65 percent of the custody disputes he mediated were related to "one or both parents being remarried and were directed, at least partially, by the new spouse." According to Stott, the desire of one parent to move to a new city or state also lands divorced parents in conflict mediation. One of the most disturbing factors of these entrenched custody wars, he remarked, "is that parents spend thousands of dollars on attorneys, expert witnesses, and court costs, each motivated by their anger toward the other parent -- funds that could be better spent on raising the children."

This is not to dismiss the real distress non-custodial fathers may feel due to separation from their children. The tales of woe father's rights advocates recount tend to be maudlin and somewhat suspect -- for example, one man describes the two year-old son he's never met as "the love of my life" (one might imagine that actually living with a two year-old for any length of time would temper his boundless affection). And what proportion of these fathers' sense of injustice is triggered by the emotional deprivations of non-custodial parenting and how much is motivated by the presumption of male entitlement and a desire to control the lives of their ex-wives and children is, in most cases, impossible to discern. (Some groups, including Fathers 4 Justice, actively discourage members from using sexist language or "personal attacks" that might make the father's crusade look bad.) But I think it would be a mistake to assume the anguish these men report is simply a ploy to gain sympathy for their cause.

I've seen numerous testimonials of father's rights activists' torment over not having a more constant role in their children's daily lives -- and frankly, I don't buy it. Anyone who's been an active caregiver knows that, emotionally speaking, life with children is a mixed bag. Not to mention, you can find an equal number of heartrending stories from mothers who report they've been screwed over by abusive ex-husbands who used the "friendly parent" strategy -- speaking and acting before the court as if they were the more reasonable and accommodating parent in the dispute -- to gain shared custody. But it did strike me that when these angry men express the tenderness of their feelings for their children, it sounds as if they're new to the experience of being madly in love.

Maybe this isn't as far fetched as it sounds. A recent article by Sean Elder in Psychology Today suggests that men today feel "blindsided" by the escalating emotional demands of egalitarian marriage ("The Emperor's New Woes," April/May 2005). "Men have come to accept -- even celebrate -- their wives' careers and paycheck while learning, step-by-step, how to bathe the baby and baste the turkey," Elder writes. (Note to S.E.: There's no such thing as maternal instinct -- women learn these things "step-by-step" too, big guy.) But in an age where it's no longer enough for a husband and father to be a good breadwinner, some men are floundering as they try to figure out how to "do" intimacy. In Edler’s words, the "job description" of being a good husband and father "has expanded to include listening and that least measurable of skills, empathizing. Today, not cheating on your wife or beating your kids doesn't make you a good husband and father." Men, Elder notes, "did not ask to have their roles redefined." But while some fellows may be lagging in their interest and ability to make conscious connections with their wives, Elder reports that "men have quickly become masters at another kind of intimacy: fatherhood."

Many contemporary fathers feel they are an upgrade from the previous version. Warm, loving, generous fathers are lionized in the culture rather than scorned, points out Terry Real [a Boston-area psychotherapist specializing in men's relational issues]. "The current generation of men is much better as fathers than their fathers were," he says, "but it's not clear to me that we're much better husbands than our fathers were." The difference is that much less risk is involved in being vulnerable or intimate with your child than there is with your mate. The relationship of parent and child is not that of equals, and while we have a lot of expectations of our children, we generally don't look to them for emotional fulfillment.

This perspective might explain why father's rights activists are so bitterly resolute in their quest for "justice," but it's doesn't excuse their possessive and bullying behavior. Nor does it imply that the fundamental problem facing the men crusading for father's rights is the dissolution of traditional gender roles. To the contrary, all available evidence suggests that the majority of fathers are able to navigate new expectations of married and divorced life without leaving so much ill will in their wake. And needless to say, mothers can also play a role in keeping post-divorce antagonism alive. But the whole truth of the alleged dilemma of non-custodial fathers seems far more complicated by personal characteristics than those who uphold their rights are prepared to acknowledge. My impression is that for many -- if not most -- of these disaffected dads, the critical adjustment needs to take place at the individual level, not a legislative one. In any event, it's unlikely the damaged hearts of these displaced patriarchs can be repaired by imposing joint custody on their children's browbeaten mothers -- however sweet the taste of victory.

mmo : june 2005

Judith Stadtman Tucker is the founder and editor of the MMO.

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