The hidden half of domestic violence
How to have eternal life
The Disenfranchised Father Syndrome
THE DISENFRANCHISED FATHER SYNDROME
Gerald L. Rowles, Ph.D.
About 30 years ago, Holmes and Rahe published the Social
Readjustment Rating Scale which ranked life events as to
their stress factor on a scale of 1-100. The number 1 rank
was "death of a spouse" (death of a child might be presumed
as very nearly equivalent) at 100, followed in 2nd place by
Divorce (73) 3rd place, Marital Separation (65) then; Changes
in financial state (38) Change in Living Conditions (25) Change
in residence (20). Compare these with: Christmas (12); Minor
violations of law (11).
For a divorced dad, that's a stress value of 221 pts (plus the
loss of the children) out of the starting gate. Over time, those
events may be compounded and reiterated with each court
trip and/or visitation sabotage. All too frequently, we must
also factor in the devastating effect of false allegations of
Other research findings from the Holmes and Rahe scale:
The more life events one experiences, the more likely they
are to get sick.
Individuals who have heart attacks had more significant
life events in the six months prior to the attack.
Individuals who became depressed had a larger number
of life events, particularly losses, than those who did not.
The gradual chipping away at an individual by stresses
that wear him or her down leads to susceptibility &
precipitates dramatic jumps in illness.
What distinguishes hospitalized groups from the non-
hospitalized is the number of "uncontrollable" life events
in the preceding year - "helplessness-inducing" life
This is the key variable - "uncontrollable". To the degree
that a dad is involved in an adversarial divorce, the number
and frequency of the accompanying stressful life-events
and the impact of the repeated experience of helplessness
is virtually inestimable in terms of describing what may
be an exponential experience of distress.
That some men are virtually or partially immobilized by
emotional pain that is bound up in a closed system,
comes as no foreign notion to me, both as a function of
my research experience and of that experience outlined
in the comments that follow.
But there is more to the Divorced Dads issue than
emotional distress, as Maggie Gallagher has so aptly
articulated in the linked column. I would point particularly
to the stats that indicate that an average of 56% of white
males, whether divorced or single, make less than
$18,000 per year - or about $8.00 per hour. The post-
divorce schedule posted elsewhere on the DA*DI pages
demonstrates how vulnerable these men are to the
potential for becoming "deadbeat dads" when the court
follows the "standard" award for child support.
In my experience working with more than 3000 divorced
Fathers, and in some cases their second families, through
the DA*DI network, I originally outlined what I then called
the Defeated Father Syndrome. In listening to their personal
experiences and emotional responses to the experience of
divorce and the attendant loss of their child or children,
these Fathers almost universally shared a symptom cluster
that bridged those symptoms associated with both
Depression and Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Their depression derived from loss of positive reinforcers,
a sense of helplessness, and a growing negative world
view. Their PTSD derived from the battleground of the
adversarial family court system in which they repeatedly
found themselves on the losing end of a losing proposition -
attempting to maintain their roles as Fathers. It is not
hyperbole to associate this experience with the
battleground. A 1995 headline in the Detroit News blared:
"Declaring War on America's Deadbeat Dads". The war
is real, as are its casualties - children and fathers, but
the "deadbeat dad" is largely fictional.
Recently, Dr. Sanford Braver published the results of his
exhaustive 8-year study of divorce. And in that account,
he not only "shatters" the many myths surrounding
America's divorced dads, but he also explores the notion
of the disenfranchised dad. In a glaring refutation of cultural
perception, Dr. Braver found that "men have more trouble
recovering emotionally" from divorce. He notes that "most
often the man - feels utterly powerless because he can do
nothing to prevent the breakup of the marriage." This is
entirely consistent with my experience in dealing with the
DA*DI dads. Hence, I attached the label Defeated. But this
is an outcome-based label. It fails to encompass the whole
of the divorced, battle weary father experience and what
precipitates that sense of defeat.
Dr. Braver much more adequately captures the precipitating
event in using the label Disenfranchised. He reports, "Fathers
are often obsessed with what they perceive as the profound
bias against them displayed by the courts and the legal
system." And the fact is that such a bias does exist, including
the presumption that all divorced dads are deadbeat dads.
Expanding on Dr. Braver's findings, Parke and Brott in Throwaway
Dads takes us another step closer to understanding the degree
to which the contemporary myth of the unfeeling, macho, uninvolved,
"deadbeat", if not "dangerous" dad belies the frequent, tragic-reality
of the post-divorce, disenfranchised, "visiting father." To their credit,
Parke and Brott take note of the fact that "hammering men over the
head" with their "wildly exaggerated ... shortcomings only fills them
with feelings of shame that serve to drive them further from their
families" ... and developing a sense of "being worthless and
The definition of disenfranchised is "to deprive of political rights",
"to enslave", "to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some
privilege or immunity". Such is the process of becoming a divorced
dad - a disenfranchised parent. These definitions are becoming even
more relevant as the Child Support Enforcement statutes become
more egregious - e.g., depriving Fathers of their licenses to drive
or practice their professions.
The following stressors are common in Fathers who have been
exposed to divorce and the deeply painful loss of marital attachment
and daily involvement in their child(ren)'s life:
the psychological shock of discovering that one's spouse
has filed for divorce.
the initial exposure to the prospect of divorce, and the
attendant losses including financial and lifestyle stability.
the extreme trauma of being compelled to psychologically
separate from the marital relationship while simultaneously
maintaining the parenting role.
the perceptual transition of the object of one's affection to
the perception of betrayal.
the emotional trauma of establishing a new home and
the added economic hardship of legal proceedings and
the associated and unrelenting punitive experience of
the family court system when attempting to maintain
some form of parental involvement in an adversarial
the shame and indignation surrounding false allegations
the immediate separation from their children.
the extended separation from their children.
repeated defeats in legal actions.
repeated accusations and investigations of alleged abuse.
repeated denial of court-ordered parenting time.
sabotage of the Father-child nurturance relationship by
the custodial mother.
the perceived or real ineffectiveness of legal representation.
the increasing perception of distance in shared emotional
and life experiences with one's child(ren) - a growing sense
an increasingly punitive association between the attachment
to their child(ren) and the hostility or indifference of an
emotional and physical exhaustion from frustrated attempts
to sustain a Father role.
the increasing realization that a Father has no legal rights
in the family court system.
Most Fathers who become non-custodial parents struggle on
valiantly for several years after the epoch event, attempting to
maintain some kind of normalcy in their relationship with their
offspring. But they gradually, and realistically, come to realize
that what is lost is greater than what is preserved. They
increasingly feel helpless to have a prominent influence in
their child(ren)'s lives. Consequently, in many cases the
motivation for career success is significantly diminished.
To the degree that the non-custodial Father was involved in
his child(ren)'s daily activities, and played an active and
nurturant parenting role, the levels of stress will be
Almost immediately, however, the stressors listed above
begin to form symptom clusters that are most often
associated with the following clinical syndromes.
Because of the singular and shared association with the
trauma of divorce and the loss of the Fatherhood role,
as well as the frequency of occurrence, a separate
diagnostic entity is warranted - the Disenfranchised
Father Syndrome. Diagnosis of either disorder requires
the presence of only four symptoms.
Significant Appetite and/or Weight Change.
Sleep Change: Too Little or Too Much.
Agitation or Lethargy.
Loss of Interest or Pleasure in Usual Activities.
Decrease in Sexual Drive.
Loss of Energy; Fatigue.
Feelings of Worthlessness or Inappropriate Guilt.
Slowed Thinking; Indecisiveness; Poor Concentration.
Recurrent Thoughts of Death, Suicide, Wishes to
P.T.S.D. (POST TRAUMATIC STRESS DISORDER)
Presence of a Significant Stress Event.
Presence of a Significant Stress Event.
Recurrent, Intrusive Recollection of the Event.
Recurrent dreams of the Event.
Sudden Feelings that the Event is Recurring.
Numbing of Involvement with the External World.
Markedly Diminished Interest in Significant Activities.
Feelings of Detachment/Estrangement from Others.
Exaggerated Startle Response; Hyperalertness.
Avoidance of Activities that Arouse Memories of the
Intensification of the Above Signs by Exposure to
Events that Symbolize the Traumatic Event
FIRST, THERAPY CAN HELP AVOID CHRONIC DISTRESS
How do we defend Fathers against the relentless societal
juggernaut that drives them into becoming portrayed as
psuedo-felons and fictitious-deadbeats? We must first
accept the fact that the historic male caricature of the
strong, unfeeling and impervious patriarch is a myth in
today's society. Many divorced Fathers are the battle-
weary casualties of a culture that no longer finds value
in Fatherhood, and a court system that is engaged in the
self-fulfilling prophecy that they will become deadbeats.
We must acknowledge that men can be weakened,
and that they frequently become disabled by the same
emotional bonds that they have been enculturated to
develop with their children - before becoming divorced
Mental Illness, such as PTSD and/or Depression is
disabling, displaying a continuum of severity that
substantially limits one or more of a Disenfranchised
Father's major life activities.
One way or another, dads experiencing several of the
symptoms of the Disenfranchised Father Syndrome
should seek out a receptive therapist who will not
unnecessarily add to the blame game. But learning
to expose the thought patterns that maintain the
dysphoria, and finding out about old feelings that
have grown callouses leading to rigidity is important,
whether it be in groups or one-to-one sessions.
As the nationally syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker
has so aptly surmised,
"The solution to deadbeat dads isn't criminalizing
fathers, but allowing them to be part of their
children's lives. Tonight, in a nation where
fatherlessness is recognized as one of our most
serious social problems, 42 percent of all children
will sleep in a house where their biological father
does NOT live. ... The wonder isn't that we have
deadbeat dads, but that we don't have more."
I would suggest that today's Disenfranchised Father is
in many, if not most cases, exhibiting an emotional
disability deriving from the divorce experience that
substantially limits one or more of his major life
activities. I would further suggest that evidence of
that disability, other than psychological tests for
disordered mood, comes directly from a sketchy
work history, and/or the inability to function at
optimal employment capacity.
It may very well be that Fathers who have been
imprisoned for failure to meet egregious support
provisions, may in fact be imprisoned for emotional
disability - the Disenfranchised Father Syndrome - a
self-fulfilling by-product of a profoundly biased legal
system. In the medical and psychiatric professions,
when the administered treatment inadvertently
produces a negative impact on the patient's well-
being, it is known as an iatrogenic illness.
In the case of Divorced Dads, I don't believe that there
is anything inadvertent about this sometimes profoundly
disabling iatrogenic outcome. Rather, it is a disingenuously
deliberate and biased, misapplication of the full power of
the State. We must resolve to restore equity, and the
Fatherhood franchise - for the health of our Dads, for the
health of our Kids, and for the future health of our Culture.
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JUNE is Domestic Violence Against Men Awareness Month