Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambivalence in Older Parent-Adult Child Relationships: Mixed Feelings, Mixed Measures

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambivalence in Older Parent-Adult Child Relationships: Mixed Feelings, Mixed Measures

Article excerpt

Intergenerational ambivalence-mixed or contradictory feelings toward a family member in another generation-has been extensively investigated over the past decades using several different measurement methods; however, little consensus has emerged as to whether these methods have similar conceptual underpinnings and can be similarly interpreted across genera- tional locations. In this research, we investigated two of the most commonly used methods for measuring ambivalence: (a) a direct measure that treats ambivalence as a unitary construct that is acknowledged by the individual and (b) an indirect measure that regards ambivalence as a dualistic construct based on the coexistence of conflict and affection from which ambivalence can be inferred. The first purpose of this study was to investigate whether these two operationalizations are not only empirically distinct but also conceptually distinct by virtue of having different associations with important characteristics typically related to ambivalence. The second purpose was to determine whether ambivalence is experienced differently by parents and adult children in order to highlight the importance of generational location in the assessment and interpretation of ambivalence.


Ambivalence is the mix of positive and nega- tive emotions toward the same relational object, considered to be both a source of neurosis (Freud, 1913) and an intrinsic property of most human relationships as structured by irreconcil- able demands for opposite behaviors (Merton & Barber, 1963). Understudied for years, ambiva- lence received renewed attention by family scholars in a special issue of the Journal of Marriage and Family in 2002. Since that time, a breadth of empirical research has studied the topic of intergenerational ambivalence, relying on either direct or indirect measurement strate- gies but with little attention devoted to the degree of overlap in their distinctiveness and mean- ing. Although several studies have compared these types of measurements (Lüscher & Lettke, 2004; Pillemer & Suitor, 2004; Suitor, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2011), there remain gaps in our understanding of how these approaches are to be interpreted given that they purport to measure the same underlying construct.

Direct Measure

The unitary character of ambivalence, as assessed by direct measures, has its philosoph- ical roots in sociological literature that concep- tualizes ambivalence as greater than the sum of its opposing forces. Coser (1956) elaborated this position by stating "converging and diverg- ing motivations may be so comingled in the actual relationship that they can be separated only for classificatory or analytical purposes, whiletherelationshipactuallyhasaunitarychar- acter sui generis" (p. 64). Lüscher and Pillemer (1998), critiquing approaches that considered parent-child relationships as either close or con- flicted, argued that both love and hate can coexist in intergenerational relationships as "contra- dictions at the subjective level, in terms of cognitions, emotions, and motivations" (p. 416).

Direct measures of ambivalence typically ask a series of questions about the degree to which respondents have opposing feelings about a parent or child. Pillemer and Suitor (2002) developed a quantitative survey-based strategy to directly measure ambivalence by asking respondents to rate the degree to which they have "mixed feelings"; "get on each other's nerves, but nonetheless feel close"; or feel "torn in two directions" toward a parent or child (Pillemer et al., 2007, p. 782). This direct measure has been used in several studies (Lowenstein, 2007; Pillemer et al., 2007; Pillemer & Suitor, 2002; Suitoret al.,2011)andhasshownhighreliability in tapping what has variously been labeled subjective, felt,oracknowledged ambivalence about a target individual.

Indirect Measure

An alternative empirical approach to assess- ing intergenerational ambivalence is rooted in the intergenerational solidarity-conflict frame- work (Bengtson, Giarrusso, Mabry, & Silver- stein, 2002; Lowenstein, 2007). …

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