Multiple Roles and Psychological Distress: The Intersection of the Paid Worker, Spouse, and Parent Roles with the Role of the Adult Child

By Voydanoff, Patricia; Donnelly, Brenda W. | Journal of Marriage and Family, August 1999 | Go to article overview

Multiple Roles and Psychological Distress: The Intersection of the Paid Worker, Spouse, and Parent Roles with the Role of the Adult Child


Voydanoff, Patricia, Donnelly, Brenda W., Journal of Marriage and Family


This article investigates relationships between psychological distress and objective and subjective aspects of the roles of paid worker, spouse, and parent and examines the inter.section of these roles with the adult-child role in relation to distress. The sample consists of mothers and fathers of children aged 10-17 years interviewed for the 1992-1994 National Survey of Families and Households (NSFH). Hours helping and caring for parents show positive relationships with distress. Objective and subjective aspects of the roles of paid worker and spouse show consistent relationships with psychological distress among mothers and fathers. Subjective aspects of the roles of spouse and paid worker moderate some relationships between helping and caring for parents and psychological distress for mothers. The parent role is unrelated to distress.

Key Words: adult child, multiple roles, paid worker, psychological distress, spouse, work.

A large research literature attempts to explain relationships between involvement in multiple roles and psychological distress. This research reflects two competing approaches. The role-strain approach proposes that the greater the role accumulation, the greater the demands and role incompatibility and the greater the role strain and conflict (Burr, Leigh, Day, & Constantine, 1979; Goode, 1960). Role strain and conflict are positively related to psychological distress. The role-enhancement approach suggests that performing multiple roles provides rewards and privileges that assist in the management of multiple roles and outweigh the negative effects of role accumulation (Marks, 1977; Sieber, 1974). Thus, performing multiple roles is negatively associated with psychological distress.

One way to increase understanding of the impact of multiple roles on psychological distress is to examine the contexts in which they occur, for example, role content, the circumstances and contingencies associated with roles, and the combinations in which roles occur (Messias et al., 1997; Moen, Dempster-McClain, & Williams, 1989; Wheaton, 1990). This approach moves beyond asking whether involvement in multiple roles is related to psychological distress by assessing the conditions under which relationships occur and in what form. This study distinguishes between two contexts: objective structural conditions (time in role activities) and subjective psychological conditions (subjective reactions to roles). Objective structural conditions address the concrete demands and resources associated with roles, whereas subjective psychological conditions involve subjective perceptions and experiences of roles.

An intersecting context is the extent to which relationships between involvements in multiple roles and psychological distress vary by gender. Again, there are two competing hypotheses. The sex-role hypothesis predicts that, due to gender differences in role demands and salience, gender moderates relationships between role involvement and psychological distress. Because family roles such as spouse, parent, and caregiver are considered more demanding and important for women, these roles should be more strongly related to distress for women than for men. Paid work, believed to be more demanding and important for men, should be more strongly related to distress for men than for women. The social-role hypothesis predicts that, given that stress-related effects of social roles inhere in the roles themselves, comparable role involvements should have similar effects on psychological distress for men and women.

This study investigates the extent to which objective and subjective aspects of roles of the paid worker, spouse, and parent affect relationships between aspects of the adult-child role and psychological distress for mothers and fathers of children aged 10-17 years. The sample consists of families in which parents are most likely to have children at home and older parents. The analyses are conducted separately for mothers and fathers to assess the extent to which relationships differ by gender. …

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