Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Do Positive Feelings Hurt? Disaggregating Positive and Negative Components of Intergenerational Ambivalence

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Do Positive Feelings Hurt? Disaggregating Positive and Negative Components of Intergenerational Ambivalence

Article excerpt

Two overarching themes have guided theory and research on intergenerational relations across the past three decades. The first theme emphasizes family solidarity and highlights the role of adult children and older parents as primary sources of emotional and instrumental support for one another (Bengtson, Gans, Putney, & Silverstein, 2009; Silverstein & Bengtson, 1997). In contrast, the second theme focuses on the potential for conflict and estrangement between older parents and their adult children (Suitor, Sechrist, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2011). The concept of intergene rational ambivalence was developed to integrate these positive and negative dimensions of parent-adult child relations (Lüscher & Pillemer, 1998; Pillemer & Lüscher, 2004).

A hallmark of ambivalence theory is the assertion that relationships between older parents and adult children are characteristically ambivalent; that is, rather than being based uniformly in either solidarity or conflict, intergenerational relationships involve a fundamental interplay between positive and negative elements (Pillemer & Lüscher, 2004). The theory proposes that family relationships are characterized by such simultaneous positive and negative feelings in part because of structural contradictions inherent in family roles (Connidis & McMullin, 2002; Pillemer & Suitor, 2005). In research conducted over the past decade, studies have confirmed that ambivalence (measured in a variety of ways) is indeed a common characteristic of parent-child relations in later life (Fingerman, Pitzer, Lefkowitz, Birditt, & Mroczek, 2008; Kiecolt, Blieszner, & Salva, 2011; Lowenstein, 2007; Pillemer et al., 2007; Pillemer, Munsch, Fuller-Rowell, Riffin, & Suitor, 2012; Suitor, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2011; Wilson, Shuey, Elder, & Wickrama, 2006).

Most research to date has focused on demonstrating the extent of intergenerational ambivalence and on establishing potential predictors of ambivalent feelings (cf. Birditt, Fingerman, & Zarit, 2010; Pillemer et al., 2007, 2012; Wilson et al., 2006). Recently, scholars have begun to address an additional question: Does ambivalence in older parent-adult child relationships affect individual outcomes? On one hand, some scholars (Fiischer, 2004; Lüscher & Pillemer, 1998) have postulated that ambivalence is so fundamental to intergenerational relations that it may be a normative experience rather than an upsetting one. Furthermore, some theories of sociological ambivalence suggest that mixed feelings provide greater freedom for individuals and expand opportunities for action (Coser, 1966) rather than creating distress.

In contrast, empirical evidence has demonstrated that ambivalent feelings toward one's parents or adult children have detrimental, rather than positive or neutral, consequences on well-being. Specifically, recent studies have found higher ambivalence scores to be associated with greater psychological distress among older parents and their offspring (Fingerman et al., 2008; Kiecolt et al., 2011; Suitor, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2011).

One question that has been raised regarding the association between intergenerational ambivalence and psychological well-being is whether this finding is actually due to the presence of contradictory feelings (Fingerman et al., 2008; Fingerman, Sechrist, & Birditt, 2012; Suitor, Gilligan, & Pillemer, 2011). In this article, we explore whether, alternatively, the association might be explained primarily by the negative dimension of ambivalence, rather than the combination of negative and positive dimensions. To examine this question, we use data that were collected from 254 older mothers and a randomly selected adult child from each of the same families as part of the Within-Family Differences Study (WFDS; http://web.ics.purdue. edu/~jsuitor/within-family-differences-study/).

The WFDS provides an opportunity to test alternative explanations for the association between intergenerational ambivalence and psychological well-being found by previous investigations (Fingerman et al. …

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