Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Hopelessly Devoted? Relationship Quality during and after Incarceration

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Hopelessly Devoted? Relationship Quality during and after Incarceration

Article excerpt

The dramatic rise in incarceration in the United States, as well as its consequences for offenders and those connected to them, is by now well known (Sampson, 2011; Wakefield & Uggen, 2010). The 2.3 million individuals currently incarcerated, as well as the many others released annually from prisons and jails, are not solitary individuals but are instead connected to family members as romantic partners and parents (Glaze, 2011). Given the family roles inhabited by currently and formerly incarcerated individuals, the majority of whom are men, it is unsurprising that mass incarceration has wide-ranging collateral consequences for family life (for reviews, see Wakefield & Uggen, 2010, and Wildeman & Muller, 2012). Perhaps most substantially, a relatively large literature documents that incarceration increases the risk of marital dissolution (Apel, Blokland, Nieuwbeerta, & van Schellen, 2010; Lopoo & Western, 2005; Massoglia, Remster, & King, 2011; Western, 2006; also see Geller, 2013).

But the focus on marital dissolution leaves a number of answered questions about the collateral consequences of incarceration for family life. For one, although many individuals behind bars are in nonmarital romantic relationships, relatively few of the incarcerated are in marital unions (Western, Lopoo, & McLanahan, 2004). Therefore, any examination of incarceration's consequences for marital dissolution is inapplicable to a large segment of the incarcerated population, potentially underestimating the familial consequences of incarceration, and it may be at least equally informative to examine incarceration's consequences for relationship quality among (marital and nonmarital) romantic partners. On a related note, incarceration does not unequivocally lead to relationship dissolution (e.g., Comfort, 2008), and understanding the quality of the relationships among couples who remain together may provide broad insight into family functioning that has been overlooked in studies of marital dissolution.

It is not immediately obvious whether incarceration will be deleterious, beneficial, or inconsequential for relationship quality among couples who maintain their romantic relationships. On the one hand, there are a number of challenges associated with maintaining a relationship during or after incarceration- including lack of shared time together, the economic costs of maintaining contact, and the emotional toll experienced by both partners-that may strain romantic relationships (e.g., Comfort, 2008; Massoglia et al., 2011). On the other hand, qualitative research suggests that the time spent apart during one partner's incarceration allows couples to find their relationship stride in ways not possible outside of the prison walls (e.g., Braman, 2004; Comfort, 2008). Alternatively, because the incarcerated are not a random slice of the population and are instead disadvantaged across an array of characteristics, it is also possible that incarceration has no independent association with relationship quality.

In this study, I considered these possibilities with data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study (FFCWB; see http://www. fragilefamilies.princeton.edu/), a longitudinal cohort of new parents and their children, to provide the first systematic quantitative examination of the association between incarceration and relationship quality among couples who remain together despite incarceration. Understanding the potentially complex association between incarceration and relationship quality is important given that high-quality romantic relationships are positively associated with health (e.g., House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988), parenting (e.g., Grych & Fincham, 1990), and relationship longevity (e.g., Gottman, 1994) among adults and positively associated with child well-being (e.g., Crosnoe & Cavanagh, 2010; Grych & Fincham, 1990). Furthermore, research suggests that parental relationships may be one mechanism through which paternal incarceration exerts deleterious effects on children (Geller, Cooper, Garfinkel, Schwartz-Soicher, & Mincy, 2012). …

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