Masculinity, Dads & Dealing With Estranged Children

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Masculine ideals can make it harder for fathers to reconcile with estranged children. Here are some tips for overcoming those barriers.

Thomas Markle, father of the Royal Wedding bride, is not the only dad who wasn’t at his child’s wedding, and not the saddest one. At least he was invited. Each year, thousands of fathers won’t attend their child’s wedding—and not because they lack the desire, but because their grown children don’t want anything to do with them.

As the background drama that attended the Markle family shows, weddings can shine a harsh light on family dynamics. Longstanding conflicts around loyalty, past injuries, or unmet needs often flare up under the pressure, and for families who are already alienated, weddings can be especially explosive or painful. According to Stand Alone, a charity that provides research and support on the topic of estrangement, two-thirds of estranged family members report that weddings are a highly challenging event. This mirrors what I commonly see in my practice, which focuses on family estrangements.

Fathers might especially struggle with the impact of estrangement from a child—in part because men aren’t great at getting support or in maintaining friendships. For the past seven years, I’ve conducted a weekly webinar series for estranged parents. On average, mothers are ten times more likely to reach out for help than fathers. In addition, fathers seem much more likely to give up before mothers in working toward reconciliation.

For some dads, the problem is that humility clashes with masculine ideals. You need to be humble to acknowledge parental mistakes, accept responsibility, take the high road, and show ongoing empathy. That doesn’t always fit with ideals that call men to always “win,” to always be in control, to be self-reliant, to be obeyed.

The key, I’ve found, is to help dads see that humility is not the same as humiliation. This allows them to hold on to their conceptions of themselves as men, while doing the challenging and necessary work required of reconciliation.

New requirements of fatherhood
Up until the recent past, norms for fathers have been less clear and prescribed than those for mothers. As a result, fathers have historically been less emotionally involved, less worried, less encumbered by guilt, and less shepherded by powerful expectations of what constitutes good parental behavior. Traditional gender roles may make men more vulnerable to later estrangement after a divorce since the children may feel loyal to the mother in whom they could confide. This still appears to be true, despite studies indicating that fathers have tripled the amount of time they spend with their children in the past three decades.

Fatherhood is not motherhood. Each gender brings its own assets and liabilities curated by temperament, class, their childhoods, and, perhaps most important, the era that defines behavior appropriate to their gender. Either parent may find themselves estranged after a divorce—sometimes years after—because of the ways that it can trigger a re-alignment of long-held bonds of loyalty, gratitude, and obligation. Divorce can cause a re-examination of lives with a parent prior to the divorce and shift a child’s perspective so that it’s more in line with the parent whom they have chosen to support against the other parent. It can cause the child to view the parents more as individuals with their own strengths and weaknesses rather than a singular unit of which they’re a part. It can also bring new people into the child’s life with whom they have to compete for emotional or material resources.

Estrangements from a father can occur for many reasons: his unwillingness to address or repair past neglects or hurts; a refusal to accept a child’s sexuality or romantic choice; ongoing resentment about how he treats or treated the other parent—or any number of other failures.

Yet, while common wisdom is that all parents get what they deserve, my clinical research reveals a different truth: you can be a good parent and still not get a Father’s Day card or an invitation to your kid’s wedding. To read more from JOSHUA COLEMAN, click here.