- Research has shown that men tend to have more distant relationships with family members than women.
- Women often play a more central role in holding together the different generations of the family.
- Strengthening men’s family relationships will take more than Christmas cards, but they might just be a good place to start.
The family is an institution that is revered, celebrated, and admired, especially at this time of year. During the holidays, it is hard, if not impossible, to avoid the images of family members spending quality time together around a dining table or cuddled up on the sofa wearing matching pajamas. Although many of us see family through the lens of perfection, the reality is that the family as an institution has its flaws, one of which is potential gender inequality. In families headed by mothers and fathers, women tend to do more child care, housework, and caring for elderly family members (OECD, 2019), and whilst this gap is declining over time, it persists. But what we talk about less often is the fact that this inequality spreads into the quality of relationships themselves: men often have more distant relationships with family members than women.
Large-scale studies have consistently found that fathers and adult children have less engaged relationships compared to mothers (Kim et al, 2020). In a similar vein, estrangement—a term that generally refers to relationships that are distant and negative—is more likely to be experienced by fathers than mothers. In a 10-year study of approximately 10,000 adults, 20% experienced estrangement from a father compared to 9% who experienced it from a mother (Arranz Becker & Hank, 2022).
The question of who does the caring work is an important one when it comes to thinking about the quality of parent-child relationships over time. For example, in studies of divorced dads, it is those fathers who were more involved in their children’s lives before the divorce who maintained the closest relationships afterward (Kalmijn, 2015). But there are other factors to consider, one of which is the question of who does the work of maintaining the relationships. This is where the Christmas cards come in.
If a relationship is to survive or even thrive, some degree of effort is required. Someone needs to organize parties or reunions and someone needs to coordinate support if a family member falls ill. Someone needs to arrange visits, make phone calls, or send texts, emails, letters, and cards. And these kinds of acts, which some researchers refer to as kin-keeping, tend to be done by women. In 2018, the Greeting Card Association estimated that of the $1.7 billion that the U.K. public spent on greeting cards, 85% of all cards were bought by women (Greeting Card Association, 2018).
There are of course those families in which children grow up with a single father or two fathers, without a mother in the home, or with a father who is their primary caregiver. Many more will grow up with fathers who are divorced or separated and who do their own kin work. Whilst these fathers may not have a “kin keeper,” they might also avoid some of the barriers that men in heterosexual marriages can face when it comes to maintaining family relationships, some of which can be significant.
The barriers to love
There are wider structural factors that shape how fathers engage in parenting. For example, when it comes to parental leave following the birth of a child, few countries in Europe have parental leave policies that are equal (BBC, 2020). Similarly, when it comes to custody arrangements following divorce or separation, joint physical custody, in which a child lives with each parent for at least 25% to 50% of the time, is far from the norm (Steinbach, 2021).
Another important factor that shapes how mothers and fathers engage in parenting is the co-parenting relationship: the way that parents work together in raising their children. This relationship is an important one whether parents are married, separated, or divorced. One aspect of this relationship is whether parents encourage or discourage one another’s parenting role, which some researchers refer to as “gatekeeping” (Altenburger, 2022). Historically, research has focused on the ways that mothers “close the gate” to fathers’ involvement in the child’s life, but more recently there has been recognition that mothers and fathers both engage in gatekeeping and many factors shape the ways in which they do so. These include their beliefs about motherhood and fatherhood, their views about the roles of men and women, as well as their confidence in their ability to perform the role of parent. All this is to say: parents are rarely an island unto themselves. The relationship between parents is an important one that shapes the relationship between parents and their children.
Why should we care that men’s relationships with family are the most fragile?
On an individual level, closeness to family isn’t necessarily a worthy goal. Although estrangement from a child, parent, or sibling is deeply stigmatised, maintaining distant relationships with family members has been acknowledged to be a healthy solution to an unhealthy relationship (Scharp & Dorrance Hall 2017).
But if we think of society as a whole, there is good reason for wanting to strengthen the quality of men’s family relationships. Men report greater feelings of loneliness than women (Barreto et al 2021). Another compelling argument for change is that an even distribution of caring work and kin work would not only lighten the burden that falls on women, but would be an important milestone in achieving gender equality. Putting gender aside, follow-up studies of human development consistently find that the quality of our relationships reflects the quality of our lives (Vaillant, 2012). Those relationships do not need to be family relationships, but the lessons we learn about love and gender often start there.
There is evidence that these patterns are beginning to shift over time. For example, one study in North America found that gendered patterns of family relationships were stronger in the older generation than the younger one (Fingerman et al 2020). But the pattern persisted: women were more involved in maintaining family ties than men. If we are going to create meaningful change in the quality of family relationships, it will take more than Christmas cards. But men can take responsibility for the maintenance of their family relationships, and their partners can resist the pull to do this work for them. Christmas cards might just be a good place to start.
Altenburger, L. E. (2022). Similarities and differences between coparenting and parental gatekeeping: implications for father involvement research. Journal of Family Studies, 1-25.
Arranz Becker, O., & Hank, K. (2022). Adult children's estrangement from parents in Germany. Journal of Marriage and Family, 84(1), 347-360.
Barreto, M., Victor, C., Hammond, C., Eccles, A., Richins, M. T., & Qualter, P. (2021). Loneliness around the world: Age, gender, and cultural differences in loneliness. Personality and Individual Differences, 169, 110066.
BBC. 5 Feb (2020). Finland to give dads same parental leave as mums. https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-51384614
OECD. (2019). Enabling Women's Economic Empowerment New Approaches to Unpaid Care Work in Developing Countries. OECD Publishing.
Greeting Card Association (2018). Publishers – The Market – Facts and Figures 2017. https://www.gca.cards/publishers-the-market-facts-and-figures/
Kalmijn, M. (2015). How childhood circumstances moderate the long‐term impact of divorce on father–child relationships. Journal of Marriage and Family, 77(4), 921-938.
Kim, K., Birditt, K. S., Zarit, S. H., & Fingerman, K. L. (2020). Typology of parent–child ties within families: Associations with psychological well-being. Journal of Family Psychology, 34(4), 448–458. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000595
Fingerman, K. L., Huo, M., & Birditt, K. S. (2020). Mothers, fathers, daughters, and sons: Gender differences in adults’ intergenerational ties. Journal of Family Issues, 41(9), 1597-1625.
Scharp, K. M., & Dorrance Hall, E. (2017). Family marginalization, alienation, and estrangement: Questioning the nonvoluntary status of family relationships. Annals of the International Communication Association, 41(1), 28-45.
Steinbach, A., Augustijn, L., & Corkadi, G. (2021). Joint physical custody and adolescents’ life satisfaction in 37 North American and European countries. Family Process, 60(1), 145-158.
Vaillant, G. E. (2012). Triumphs of experience. In Triumphs of Experience. Harvard University Press.