Long-term relationships between parents


You are in an archived section of the AIFS website 


Content type
Family Matters article

December 1992


In this report from the Australian Institute of Family Studies' major study of parents and children after marriage breakdown, parents' feelings towards each other, the quality of their communication and the extent to which they share parenting are discussed. The findings point to the general recovery of parents from the high conflict of the crisis. Even cases in which early and continuing conflict has been high can later have satisfactory outcomes all round. Two possibilities are suggested by the long-term view of parental relationships after separation. One is that help and advice be scheduled at later times - after the storm, so to speak. The second is that diverse approaches be used.

Separation from a spouse has been likened to that experienced by children deprived of a mother. Responses to the loss include anger, hurt and blame and a sense of loss, longing and depression (Weiss, 1975, 1991). This loss is felt even when the separation is on balance wanted, and adaptation to it takes time. The longer-term adaptation of parents is not well charted - how lasting are the effects of the relationship between the former spouses, who remain co- parents, and how important these effects remain to parents' wellbeing?

Knowing more about how parents manage relationships after divorce is thus a basis for planning interventions in family law and other social assistance. Moreover, if parents have clearer notions, of what is in store and of the various relationships which work for others, they may be reassured in what they are doing, or see other options worth trying.

Parents need to maintain a relationship after divorce sufficient to co-ordinate their roles in the children's lives. They need to do this without pulling children into their unresolved conflicts, and they need enough distance to be able to establish independent lives. These are tall orders; how do they manage? What compromises do they make, and what are the benefits? What are the implications for services used by divorcing parents - family law, counsellors, information and advice agencies?

Some answers to these questions can be obtained from the AIFS study of a large group of 523 parents with two dependent children who were interviewed twice in the years following separation. Most of the children lived with their mother (86%), so the group comprised largely resident mothers and non-resident fathers. In this and many other respects our respondents were typical of parents with young children who divorce. Five per cent of parents no longer had a dependent child and were not included in the analysis of relationships, since they had reduced responsibilities in coordinating their children's care and upbringing. A rather larger group (20%) could hardly be said to have an on-going co-parental relationship since they had been out of touch for a year or more, and were thus only in some analyses.


Before concentrating on relationships between parents who were at least minimally in touch, differences between those who remained in touch and the twenty per cent who had not seen their children in the preceding year were investigated. Aspects of the separation, their later repartnering, qualities of the relationship with the other parent and their emotional state and wellbeing for the in- touch and out-of- touch groups are presented in the figure below.


The two groups were similar in their reports of communication, hurt and anger, but the in-touch group were significantly more cooperative and shared more parenting . They were also warmer and more attached to their former spouses and had a more positive view of the spouse as a parent. The two groups had, however, participated similarly in the decision to separate, and repartnered at a comparable rate. It is not possible to determine the extent to which these aspects of the relationship influenced the degree of engagement with the children, or whether contact over the years increased warmth and respect for the former spouse as a parent.

In terms of the impact of the parental relationship on changes in emotional and psychological wellbeing, comparison with the out-of- touch group showed that they appeared not to suffer emotional or psychological ill-being, although they were less positive about the former spouse as parent and obviously shared less parenting. Still, the in- touch group may have differed in other ways, and particularly in terms of their marriage and earlier relationship; there is no information on this point. It seems that pathways to recovery are various, but that non-resident fathers who remain in touch with their children and former spouses over the years, run some risk that their emotional wellbeing will be adversely affected if the relationship is troubled. Conversely, if the relationship is not highly conflicted or hostile and the fathers no longer feel hurt and blame their emotional state improves in the years past the initial crisis.

Other factors associated with earlier conflict might, however, have set in train events which led to the disengagement of the non- resident parent. Parents were asked whether they had experienced a little, some or a lot of conflict about access, both in the first year after the separation and currently. Parents who were not involved in parenting reported slightly more conflict initially as well as current conflict. Conflict appears to be associated with later disengagement, although disengagement does not abate the sense of continuing conflict and appears to have no effect on feelings of hurt and anger for either group. Conflict over access at either point was not significantly related to their general satisfaction with life or mood state, for either resident mothers or non-resident fathers. The wellbeing of engaged and disengaged parents did not differ significantly, which indicates that parents who continue to parent are apparently no more satisfied with their lives than those who drop out altogether, or those who proceed to parent on their own.

The main part of the following report is based on the 169 resident mothers and 129 non-resident fathers who were still bringing up children, and thus had a need to maintain a relationship as parents, though their marriage had ended many years before. Given the relatively small numbers of fathers as resident parents, on;y responses from resident mothers and non-resident fathers were subject to statistical analysis.

Three main questions were posed:

  • How do resident mothers and non-resident fathers perceive their relationship to their former spouse and co-parent?
  • What is the impact, if any, of being active in the decision to separate on the later relationship between the former spouses?
  • Does the parental relationship continue to affect their wellbeing even after so many years?

Non-resident fathers and resident mothers reported similar experiences in cooperation/flexibility in parenting, in degree of warmth and attachment, revenge/hate, in blame/hurt and in the general relationship. Mothers reported significantly more harmonious communication than fathers, but less sharing with their former spouse in parenting. The largest discrepancy was in views of the former spouse as a parent, where fathers were much more trusting, and secure in the competence of the mother than were mothers in their former husbands. The measure of the former spouse as parent included an item on danger to the child, which was rarely checked, but almost exclusively by mothers.

The separation decision affected the degree of hurt and blame still felt by both mothers and fathers; passive spouses remained significantly more hurt and blaming 5-8 years later. In this group, 75 per cent of mothers and 54 per cent of fathers perceived themselves as active in the decision to separate; thus fathers were more vulnerable to hurt and to continue to blame their former spouse for the end of the marriage even many years later. This risk factor is discussed more fully later.


The long-term life satisfaction of men and women after divorce of the parents in this study has been analysed by Ruth Weston (Weston, 1986; Weston & Funder, forthcoming). In general both parents recover from the marriage breakdown and the post-separation dislocation and their wellbeing is similar to that of the general population. The question raised here is whether the quality of the relationship between parents continue to affect the emotional state and wellbeing of resident mothers and non-resident fathers. More specifically, the issue addressed was that of the power of the relationship between the parents to change the emotional state and wellbeing of parents in the three years 2-5 years after separation and 5-8 years after separation.

For mothers, no aspect of the relationship with the former spouse appeared to affect their general emotional state or psychological wellbeing over the three years before the last interview. (See the table below.)


In contrast, for non-resident fathers a number of dimensions of the relationship with the former spouse were associated with changes in their emotional state - conflicted communication, less sharing, hurt/blame and a poor view of the former spouse as parent all tended to make men more depressed and anxious. In the case of psychological wellbeing, only the view of the former spouse as parent made a strong contribution. Overall, it appears that perceiving the children to have a competent mother continues to contribute to men's general satisfaction with life, but they remain vulnerable in a way not evident in resident mothers to lingering conflict, hurt, blame and anger.

Resident mothers are generally more negative about qualities of the relationship than non-resident fathers, although they consider communication to be more harmonious. For these mothers, however, the relationship appears to be less salient in their emotional and psychological wellbeing. Non-resident fathers generally perceive their relationships with the former spouse more favourably in most dimensions; various aspects of the relationship continue play a role in their emotional wellbeing, even in the longer term after separation.

The way in which parents recall the separation process continues to affect the amount of hurt/blame they feel for their former spouse. This is true for both mothers and fathers. It is important, however, to remember that about two-thirds of separations are initiated by women and thus men are more at risk of carrying the hurt that is associated with being passive in the process. Since the separation process clearly lingers in the lives of these men, some remedies may lie in intervening at this time.

Making a new attachment does not appear to affect the way resident mothers feel towards their former spouse, although entering a new partnership certainly increases women's sense of wellbeing (Weston, 1986). Non-resident fathers who have repartnered find the relationship with their former spouse more troubled than do the fathers who have remained single. This rather small group of fathers generally find relationships with their former spouse more rewarding; they are also more engaged in parenting.

It has been thought that remaining close to or attached to the former spouse is perhaps maladaptive (Weiss, 1975; 1990). In this study, however, although the non-resident fathers felt more warm and attached to their former spouses,this was not a significant factor in the wellbeing of mothers or fathers. Thus positive images of the former spouse, to the extent they continue, do not appear to be associated with distress as measured in this study. It is anger/revenge, hurt/blame, conflict and a poor opinion of the former spouse as a parent that appear to have an impact on the emotional state of fathers.

Marriage guidance counsellors and family therapists (Paterson, 1990) speak of the need for separating couples to develop a new personal script for an independent future. The ways in which individuation can be accomplished in the midst of demands on parents to co-ordinate their roles warrants further thought and parents should have access to information and advice on negotiating the many years of responsibility ahead. A one-off approach near the time of separation will not suffice.

The different perceptions of mothers and fathers under such conditions - the most common following divorce - showed fathers to be more positive about sharing, cooperation/flexibility, the general parenting relationship, and very particularly the former spouse as a parent. Thus fathers, contrary to a good deal of folk wisdom, appear to see aspects of the relationship with their former spouse which impinge most directly on the rearing of the children as more satisfactory to them, especially the trust they have in the resident mother as prime carer for the children.

One father of two boys 14 and 12 wanted more time with them: '...because they're boys and I'd like to bring them up more in my image rather than my ex-wife's...father and son relationship, woodwork and that sort of thing'. He had sought an order restraining his former wife from going interstate with the boys, but said that custody decisions should be made by parents on the basis of common sense about where they would be better off. '...bureaucrats create problems and bitterness'. In spite of this less than perfect and rather ambivalent picture of the parenting of his sons, he was quite satisfied with the former wife as a parent, while reporting himself to be well under average in sharing parental responsibilities. His satisfaction seemed to founded in tolerance of the former spouse's rearing of two teen-age sons.

Mothers were more likely to criticise the imbalance of responsibilities. One mother whose former husband was quite involved with the children - for example, they joined together to give the children combined Christmas presents - still had this to say: 'I think they need to be with him so he can have a dose of their bad behaviour sometimes.'

Some mothers lamented the quality of the father's relationship with the children: 'I want him to put aside time with them and not tell them he can't change his lifestyle for them'. A few had real fears for the care and supervision of their children. One mother refused access until the children's father promised not to allow the children to have guns without supervision when they visited his farm; the children were 9 and 12. Perhaps this last example reflects a lack of knowledge about age appropriate responsibilities and activities for children on a visit from the city.

Mothers perceive less conflicted communication than do fathers, however, and levels of conflict appear to have long- lasting effects on the continuing involvement of the non- resident parent, seen in the increased likelihood of co- parenting ceasing where conflict is higher. Although our study can only hint at causes, it suggests that non- resident fathers may be more sensitive to conflict and react more strongly - being driven from engagement with children or choosing to withdraw. One father described a subdued but drawn out battle to maintain contact with his children against his former spouse's obstructiveness. He said: 'At the end of it all, you're on eggshells. Some people think you should just get out, let it all go. Maybe they're right'.

Given that withdrawal from parenting does not seem to lessen conflict, one possibility is that more contact is actually curative, in that parents may learn how to negotiate better and to resolve lingering antipathies. Seeing the children more often did not, however, decrease conflict, anger, hurt, revenge, or change the view of the former spouse as parent. The out-of-touch fathers appear to be caught in the time warp of separation when conflict was fairly universally reported as moderate to high.


These findings point to the general recovery of parents from the high conflict of the crisis. Even cases in which early and continuing conflict has been high can later have satisfactory outcomes all round. One father, a shift worker, had several court orders to restore access so that he could accommodate his work and the children's schedules. The children, now 13 and 12 have more say in the arrangements. He would like them to live with him '...they would be better off with me for social reasons... have a brighter future ... and for selfish reasons'. He complies with his wife's wishes and pays maintenance through the magistrate's court though he doesn't like the incursion into his privacy. In spite of a rather troubled history, he thinks his former spouse is a better parent than two-thirds of the group who initiated separation and feels less hurt and anger than two-thirds as well and he is generally pretty content.

The remaining problems and their relationship to early conditions point to the need for a range of recommendations. Information on the probable course of recovery is required - if you hang in things generally get better. Working through the separation until some resolution of anger, hurt and blame is made seems very important. In the crisis period, it may be impossibly painful. Wolcott and Glezer (1989) have shown how men seeking help in a troubled relationships perceive insights into relationships are seen as instrumental to preserving the marriage; they are not convinced that insights into the separation or managing afterwards are useful goals.

Two possibilities are suggested by the long-term view of parental relationships after separation. One is that interventions be scheduled at later times, after the storm so to speak. The second is that diverse approaches be used. Husbands had greater difficulty seeing counselling focused on the process of separation as valuable. Perhaps treating issues unresolved at the time of separation within the context of education and advice for parents after divorce, rather than individual clinical approaches, with their overtones of dependency and abnormality, might be considered. Such education would not necessarily involve the couple together, but be available to individuals.

Anger, hurt and blame in the relationship with the former spouse continue to be tied to depression and anxiety and may have implications for a second partnership. Being alert to such a risk may be an incentive for both husbands and wives to consider the separation process in a new light and over a longer time span.

As one of the respondents in our study said five years after separation: 'I'm much better off lately. It's taken all this time...I'm no longer stuck with regrets and blame. I feel much more in control.' Perhaps it doesn't have to take so long.


  • Paterson, T. (1989), Lecture given at The Bouverie Family Therapy Centre, Royal Park, Melbourne, October.
  • Weiss, R. S. (1991), 'The attachment bond in children and adulthood', in C. M. Parkes, J. Stevenson-Hinde and P. Marris, Attachment Across the Life Cycle, Tavistock, London.
  • Weston, R. E. (1986), 'Money isn't everything', in P. F. McDonald (ed.), Settling Up: Property and Income Distribution on Divorce in Australia, Australian Institute of Family Studies, and Prentice Hall Australia, Sydney.
  • Weston, R., and Funder, K. (forthcoming) 'There's more to life than economics', in K. Funder, M. Harrison and R. Weston, Settling Down: Pathways of Parents After Divorce, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.
  • Wolcott, I. and Glezer, H. (1989), Marriage Counselling in Australia: An Evaluation, Monograph No. 8, Australian Institute of Family Studies, Melbourne.

* If you have difficulty reading any of the tables or figures, please contact the Institute for a photocopy