Academic journal article Family Relations

How Do Disadvantaged Parents View Tensions in Their Relationships? Insights for Relationship Longevity among At-Risk Couples*

Academic journal article Family Relations

How Do Disadvantaged Parents View Tensions in Their Relationships? Insights for Relationship Longevity among At-Risk Couples*

Article excerpt


Drawing on longitudinal, qualitative interviews with parents in the Fragile Families Study, this paper examines the narrative frames through which partners in stable and unstable unions viewed tensions over economic issues, domestic responsibilities, personal problems, communication, trust, and their family and social networks. These interviews suggest that parents in stable unions framed tensions as manageable within the context of a relationship they perceived to be moving forward, whereas those in unstable unions viewed tensions as intolerable in relationships they considered volatile. Three years later, parents' narrative frames generally guided their decisions about maintaining or dissolving relationship, but some parents changed their interpretations in response to unexpected positive or negative events, with important implications for union longevity.

Key Words: at-risk families, couple narratives, family stress and conflict, fragile families, union stability.

Given the instability of many cohabiting and marital unions in the U.S. today, scholars in several fields have been interested in understanding why some relationships are more likely to endure than others. Although a large, interdisciplinary literature has identified individual, relationship, and socioeconomic factors associated with couples' decisions to divorce or delay marriage, these factors only appear to tell part of the story about why relationships have changed dramatically in recent years (Ellwood & Jencks, 2004). Some researchers have pointed to the importance of understanding partners' subjective perceptions of their relationships in addition to the objective correlates of union transitions, noting that these explanations do not always converge (Amato & Previti, 2003; Surra & Gray, 2000).

Previous studies have examined partners' perceptions of significant stages of their relationships, such as courtship, cohabitation, the first years of marriage, the transition to parenthood, and divorce (e.g., Chadiha, Veroff, & Leber, 1998; Cowan & Cowan, 1992; Holmberg, Orbuch, & Veroff, 2004; Sassler, 2004; Surra & Hughes, 1997; Vaughan, 1986). Although this literature provides important insights into marital expectations and transitions, couples today are forming and dissolving enduring relationships in diverse types of unions, many of which involve children. More than one out of three births now occurs to unmarried parents and about one quarter of these births are to women who are living with their partners (Bumpass & Lu, 2000). The majority of parents who are unmarried when they have a child later marry their child's other parent or another partner (Graefe & Lichter, 2002). However, couples who are cohabiting at their child's birth and those who marry following a nonmarital birth tend to be more economically disadvantaged than those represented in previous studies and are disproportionately African American and Latino. Although couples who have followed a less traditional path to family formation have received increasing policy attention in recent years because of their fragility, we have limited information about how they view some of the factors that enable and constrain relationship longevity (Fein & Ooms, 2006).

This study fills an important gap in the literature by using a unique set of longitudinal, qualitative interviews with mothers and fathers who participated in the Fragile Families Study to examine how a diverse sample of cohabiting and married parents who had a nonmarital birth interpreted tensions in their relationship or issues that parents identified as causing stress or conflict between them. Specifically, this study had two aims. The first aim was to distinguish between how parents in stable unions, or those unions that remained intact during the study, and parents in unstable unions, or those that dissolved during this time, interpreted tensions in the early stages of their relationships. …

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