Unresolved Issues in Adult Children's Marital Relationships Involving Intergenerational Problems

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Unresolved Issues in Adult Children's Marital Relationships Involving Intergenerational Problems*

When their first child was 5, 30 couples discussed an unresolved issue in their marital relationship that involved one of their parents, and how they would resolve this issue. Five intergenerational themes were identified in these disagreements: (a) balancing nuclear vs. extended family time, (b) changing rules and roles, (c) pleasing parents vs. spouse, (d) struggling with power, and (e) fearing future obligations. Most couples decided to resolve the issue between themselves.

Key Words: conflict, grandparents, intergenerational relationships, marriage.

Prior to the last 10-15 years, researchers believed that family ties had weakened as a result of growing divorce rates, substance abuse, child abuse, poverty, single-parent families, teenage pregnancy, and crime (Robertson, 1995). However, there is contrary evidence in the literature to suggest that family bonds are not weaker than in earlier points in history (e.g., Fingerman, 2000; Putney & Bengtson, 2001). Intergenerational linkages may be even stronger as a result of individuals living longer and sharing more years of experience (e.g., Lawton, Silverstein, & Bengtson, 1994; Uhlenberg & Kirby, 1998). The relationship of adult children with their parents does not end when children grow up and leave home. Many adult children continue to rely on their parents for emotional and financial support (Norris & Tindale, 1994; Rossi & Rossi, 1991) and for help with childrearing (Hagestad, 1987a; Lawton et al., 1994).

Despite evidence that many adult children and their parents are still actively involved in each other's lives, there has been little research on the nature of these relationships, especially when they are conflictual (Bengtson, Rosenthal, & Burton, 1996; Clarke, Preston, Raksin, & Bengtson, 1999; Mancini & Blieszner, 1989). We know even less about how problematic relationships with parents may influence adult children's marital relationships. For example, do couples argue about issues such as their parents spoiling the grandchildren or about the possibility of all three generations sharing a residence? Further, if such problems cause trouble between spouses, how does the couple attempt to manage or resolve these issues within their marital relationship? With these questions in mind, this study used an open-ended couple discussion to accomplish four purposes: (a) to identify what types of unresolved issues couples experience as a result of intergenerational problems, (b) to explore how gender influences the types of unresolved marital issues couples discuss that are associated with intergenerational problems, (c) to explain how couples manage these issues within their marital relationship, and (d) to demonstrate how intergenerational ambivalence explains themes of unresolved issues in marital relationships associated with intergenerational problems.

Conceptual Frameworks

Family stress theory and research show how life course transitions, such as the birth of the first child, a child going to school, an adolescent child leaving home, or the loss of a parent, can lead to stress in families (Boss, 2001; Boss & Kaplan, 2000). When a family experiences the birth of their first child, parents and grandparents may need to adjust their positions in the family. For new parents, there is a feeling of uncertainty about family roles and boundaries within intergenerational relationships, as the birth of a child alters the external structure of the extended family and creates boundary ambiguity. As a consequence, some adult children are unsure about how they want grandparents to be involved in their lives and their child's life. Their response to changing roles and boundaries within the intergenerational family following the birth of a first child may be understood by applying the conceptual framework of intergenerational ambivalence. …