Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital and Cohabitation Dissolution and Parental Depressive Symptoms in Fragile Families

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Marital and Cohabitation Dissolution and Parental Depressive Symptoms in Fragile Families

Article excerpt

The consequences of divorce are pronounced for parents of young children, and cohabitation dissolution is increasing in this population and has important implications. The mental health consequences of union dissolution were examined, by union type and parental gender, using the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (n = 1,998 for mothers and 1,764 for fathers). Overall, cohabitation and marital dissolution were both associated with increased maternal and paternal depressive symptoms, though for married mothers, depressive symptoms returned to predissolution levels with time. Difference-in-difference estimates indicated no differences in the magnitude of the increase in depressive symptoms by type of dissolution, though pooled difference models suggested that married fathers increased in depressive symptoms more than cohabiting fathers. Potential time-variant mediators did not account for these associations, though greater family chaos was associated with increased maternal depressive symptoms, and decreased social support and father - child contact were associated with increased paternal depressive symptoms.

Key Words: cohabitation, dissolution, divorce, fixed effects models, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing, mental health.

The negative effects of marital dissolution (including informal or legal separation and divorce) for adults and children are well known in the United States (Amato, 2000) and the fear of divorce impels some low-income couples not to marry at all (Gibson-Davis, Edin, & McLanahan, 2005). Cohabitation has grown dramatically (Fields & Casper, 2001), yet little research has compared the consequences of cohabitation dissolution to divorce (Amato, 2010; for exceptions see Avellar & Smock, 2005; Blekesaune, 2008). Mental health may be negatively impacted by cohabitation dissolution (Blekesaune; Meadows, McLanahan, & BrooksGunn, 2008; Rhoades, Kamp Dush, Atkins, Stanley, & Markman, 201 1).

Understanding the consequences of union dissolution among cohabiting parents is critical; 4 1 % of children in the United States in 20 1 1 were born to unmarried mothers (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 201 1). Of these mothers, nearly 60% were estimated to be cohabiting (Lichter, 2012); 64% of cohabiting parents' unions dissolved within 5 years of the birth of their child (Kamp Dush, 201 1). Early childhood is a critical phase of the life course (Shonkoff et al., 20 12) in which parental mental health problems were associated with poor child outcomes (Feng, Shaw, Skuban, & Lane, 2007). The mental health consequences of marital dissolution were most pronounced for parents of young children (Williams & Dunne-Bryant, 2006); thus, examining the consequences of union dissolution among parents of young children is of particular importance. Further, although mental health across the transition to divorce has been rigorously examined (Blekesaune, 2008; Johnson & Wu, 2002; Wade & Pevalin, 2004), potential mechanisms that would explain this decline have yet to be determined. Declines in social support and increases in family chaos associated with union dissolution may underlie declines in psychological functioning among parents experiencing union dissolution. Using the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a sample of primarily lowincome, urban, racially diverse parents of young children was studied to compare the mental health consequences of cohabitation dissolution to marital dissolution using methods that carefully account for selection and time-variant sources of heterogeneity.

This study examines four research questions. First, are cohabitation dissolution and marital dissolution associated with similar increases in depressive symptoms among parents of young children? Second, is the negative association between union dissolution and depressive symptoms exacerbated when mental health is measured earlier in time before the dissolution? Third, does the negative association between union dissolution and depressive symptoms lessen with time? …

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