Some fathers live with their children and their children’s mother, some do not. Many fatherhood program participants have never been married, have separated or divorced, or have remarried, and many have struggled to maintain effective co-parenting relationships with the mother or mothers of their children. Remaining engaged in their children’s lives is more challenging for fathers if they never had or no longer have a romantic relationship with their child’s mother. Regardless of whether their parents are married, living together, separated, or divorced, children will have a better opportunity to have a close relationship with each of their parents if the parents have a healthy, cooperative relationship.
Conflict or violent relationships between parents, including emotional, psychological, or physical abuse, negatively affect children. Children who are exposed to violence are more likely to experience a range of problems, including difficulty forming and maintaining relationships, mental health issues, and aggression and conduct problems.8 In working with fathers or couples, programs should recognize that intimate partner violence is real, harmful for all parties, and possibly exists in some participants’ relationships. Any indicators of domestic violence should be addressed immediately.
Divorced and never-married fathers who do not live with their children often struggle to maintain effective co-parenting relationships and they may have children with more than one mother, which further complicates their situation.
Low-income fathers often face the additional challenge of not having sufficient education, skills, and other resources to bring to their relationships, making them less likely to be able to provide financially and build and maintain healthy relationships.9 Likewise, the stresses and anxieties that come with poverty can negatively influence relationships between partners and between parents and their children.10
Practitioners should help fathers develop the competencies needed for healthy relationships, whether they involve long-term romantic commitments, marriage, or co-parenting arrangements.
In recent decades, increasing numbers of children live apart from their fathers. In some cases, their parents have divorced or separated after marriage; in others, their unmarried parents have separated or never lived together.
The Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, which followed a cohort of nearly 5,000 children born in large U.S. cities between 1998 and 2000 (roughly three-quarters of whom were born to unmarried parents), sheds light on the relationships of low-income, unmarried parents.11 The vast majority of unmarried fathers in the study indicated they were romantically involved with their child’s mother at the time of the child’s birth. About half of these couples were living together and another third were living apart but romantically involved, and most said they wanted to stay together and eventually get married.12
Despite these positive expectations for the relationship at the time of the child’s birth, within five years, only one-third of the couples were still together. Because low-income, unmarried parents often have new partners and father additional children, these families tend to be very complex and unstable. Issues contributing to the instability include low economic resources, lack of employment options, mutual gender distrust, cultural norms that support single motherhood, and psychological factors that make maintaining healthy relationships difficult.13
Definitions of romantic involvement vary. One ethnographic study that interviewed fathers in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and Camden, New Jersey, revealed that a significant number of the men did not actually have meaningful relationships with the mothers of their children before the pregnancy and birth of the child. Often, the child motivated these men to make a more serious effort to create a family with the mother, but in the end, most of the men were not successful. Typically, these fathers had not really chosen the woman but "ended up with her because a baby was on the way." 14
"The old-fashioned ‘package deal’—where the adult relationship takes priority and men’s relationship with the children comes second—has been flipped. The fact that it’s now mainly about the baby [for non-residential fathers], and the mother is seen principally as a conduit to the child, is what is at the heart of the relationship’s fragility." 15
The types of relationship issues faced by non-residential fathersmay vary according to whether they ever lived with the mother and child or whether they ever developed a romantic relationship with the mother. Practitioners should consider the differences between “front-end” mother-father relationships, in which there never was a lasting or developed romantic connection, and "back-end" relationships that featured meaningful romantic connections over a number of years. The dissolution of back-end relationships is likely to be more intense and contentious.16
While practitioners may need to help fathers in front-end relationships shift their focus away from the child to better understand the mother’s point of view, practitioners working with back-end fathers often need to start by asking those fathers to first acknowledge their negative feelings about the ex-partner or spouse and then focus on what is best for their child. In both cases, the bottom line is to help non-residential fathers understand the importance of developing a cordial, empathetic relationship with their co-parent. Frame the issue around what is best for the children, instead of focusing solely on a father’s concerns about his rights or what makes him happy.17
Additionally, many of these fathers must navigate blended family dynamics as they or the mother of their child engage in new romantic relationships. Conflict with an ex-partner is an issue that can affect the relationships in a blended family. Whether deliberate or not, ex-partners can cause conflict and strain the residential parents’ relationship, which can hinder effective co-parenting.
Practitioners who understand these complex relationship dynamics will be better prepared to design appropriate interventions for the fathers they serve. For example, fathers who do not have meaningful connections with the mothers of their children will need help to gain the motivation and skills to build a strong relationship, whether a long-term romantic commitment or cooperative parenting alliance. Men in off-again/on-again relationships and those who have ended a relationship acrimoniously will be in special need of negotiation, mediation, conflict resolution, and problem-solving skills. The most opportune time to help these fathers enhance their relationship with the mother is before or soon after the birth of their child.
While individual circumstances vary greatly, fathers who live with their child’s mother tend to work more hours and earn higher wages than fathers who are not married or cohabiting.18 Stable employment and sufficient earnings can help promote and sustain healthy relationships, but working and striving to provide can also cause relationship strains.
In working with residential fathers, practitioners can reinforce the positive impact that healthy relationship skills can have on outcomes for children and parents. Although these couples are together in the same home, the quality of their relationship may vary greatly. Some may have a meaningful connection and commitment, while others might be stuck in negative or abusive patterns and struggling to make it work for the sake of the child. Cohabiting couples tend to be younger and have less college education than married couples, and cohabiting fathers tend to have lower incomes and are slightly less likely to be employed than married fathers (77% compared to 90%).19 Consequently, cohabiting couples may need more support to build economic stability, including job training and placement, as well as financial education to better manage less income and fewer resources.
"While some programs said that emphasizing to fathers how their child will benefit from their participation was a key motivator, others found that it was the unique, primary focus on the couple relationship that was the major attraction because so few programs for low-income families consider the couple relationship, and there was a palpable hunger for these kinds of services." 20
Married and cohabiting couples have as much to gain from services to enhance their relationship skills as parents who are separated or divorced or were never married. For instance, they can learn and practice positive communication and conflict-resolution skills and gain an understanding of why and how to create a low-conflict family environment for their children. As with unmarried, non-resident fathers, building relationship skills can be especially beneficial prenatally or just after the birth of a child, when support and encouragement may be particularly welcome.
Many fatherhood program participants balance complicated situations and relationships. They may live with some, but not all, of their biological children; they may be an adoptive parent or step-parent; and they may have children who live in several different households.
Multiple parenting relationships occur when parents have children with more than one partner and can increase relationship strains with serious consequences for children. Women who have children with multiple partners tend to maintain physical custody of the children, while men tend to live only with the children of their current cohabiting partner. Fathers in those situations are faced with competing demands on their time and resources, which often results in their spending less time with children from former relationships and providing less financially.21 One study of low-income fathers who were living with a partner and her children showed these men often used their very limited resources to help provide and care for those children, making it even harder to save money for their own biological children.22
Multiple parenting relationships also have consequences for the parents. Because of their responsibilities for children in other households and the complicated relationships they have with the mothers of those children, men in multiple parenting relationships tend to be less “marriageable” or less likely to be viewed as desirable life partners by new partners.
When fathers divorce and then re-marry, the result is a blended family with step-parenting challenges. Children typically spend time in both of their parents’ homes and have to forge relationships with their parents’ new partners. Step-parenting can lead to stress and conflict in the new marital relationship, as well as between ex-spouses and between parents and children.