Academic journal article Fathering

Learning Competent Fathering: A Longitudinal Analysis of Marital Intimacy and Fathering

Academic journal article Fathering

Learning Competent Fathering: A Longitudinal Analysis of Marital Intimacy and Fathering

Article excerpt

Although scholars have documented many links between marital relationships and parenting, these associations are not commonly explained in terms of behavior that is learned or achieved over time. This paper examines the idea that good fathering--conceptualized here as competent fathering--is the result of a developmental process, and that a loving, committed relationship between parents creates a context in which traits supportive of caring fathering are likely to be learned and practiced. After setting the stage conceptually, we provide a modest initial test of this hypothesis to discern the associations between three components of marital intimacy (emotional intimacy, commitment, and passion) and fathering. Results yielded positive, moderate concurrent associations between marital intimacy and fathering, and positive, low associations between these variables longitudinally. These associations give a degree of support to the notion of fathering as a developmental process, and confirm the sensitivity of fathering to the marital context.

Keywords: fathering, marital intimacy, parenting


The reciprocal impact of marital processes on parenting and on child well-being are increasingly recognized and studied (e.g., Fincham, 1998; Harold, Fincham, Osborne, & Conger, 1997). However, the potentially cumulative impact of these domains upon one another tends to be considered less frequently. That is, marriage and parenting are not typically viewed as developmentally linked to each other (Dollahite & Hawkins, 1998; Hawkins, Christiansen, Sargent, & Hill, 1993; Snarey, 1993). We examine parenting, and fathering in particular, in terms of behavior that is learned or achieved.

The purpose of this paper is to clarify how marital relationships precede and support competent fathering. The two goals of this paper are: (1) to develop the term "competent fathering" as a larger concept that subsumes the traditional notion of father involvement, and (2) to test the idea that marriage and fathering are linked by learning processes that establish caring qualities in both roles.

The Role of Intimacy in the Development of Competent Fathering

Development is characterized by a move from less differentiation to greater differentiation, and often consists of both qualitative and quantitative changes (Lerner, 1986). A developmental view of parenthood involves change in a person's sense of self--that is, who a person is, and who she or he will be (Cowan, 1991). Thus, rather than examining fathers' skills, we give attention to interpersonal processes that facilitate the development of qualities of good fathering. The concept tested in this study is the idea that an intimate, committed marital relationship helps create a foundation for competent, caring fathering. We test the idea that competent fathering rests on the development of interpersonal learning experiences across the lifespan, and particularly upon the experiences found in what Erikson (1964) labeled the intimacy stage of life. Many studies suggest that the most immediate developmental influence on parenting is an intimate relationship both prior to and concurrent with parenthood (Cummings & O'Reilly, 1997; Erel & Burman, 1995). That is, a loving, committed relationship creates a context in which traits of caring parenting are likely to be learned and practiced. If this hypothesis is accurate, higher levels of marital intimacy (measured here as emotional intimacy, commitment, and passion) should predict competent fathering both longitudinally and concurrently.

More common, however, is a "structural" perspective of fathering. In this view, the institution of marriage normatively connects children to fathers through proximity, which ostensibly increases involvement (Nock, 1998). Marriage in North America often provides the foundation upon which families are formed (Hetherington & Parke, 1993; Whyte, 1990), and by which children are protected and nurtured (Doherty, Kouneski, & Erikson, 1998), although this may be less normative than in past decades (Teachman, Tedrow, & Crowder, 2000). …

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