Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambivalence in the Relationship of Adult Children to Aging Parents and In-Laws

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Ambivalence in the Relationship of Adult Children to Aging Parents and In-Laws

Article excerpt

The concept of ambivalence emphasizes the complexity of family relations and the potential for individuals to evaluate relationships as both positive and negative. Using multilevel models, we investigate ambivalence in adult children's relationships with their aging parents and in-laws (N = 1,599). We focus on factors predicting adult children's ambivalence toward parents and inlaws within a gendered kinship structure that shapes these relations. We conclude that ambivalence is a useful concept for representing the complexity of parent-child relationships and is produced within the context of social relations structured by gender and kinship. Results show greater ambivalence among dyads of women, toward in-laws, among those in poor health, for daughters providing assistance, and for adult children with poor parental relations in early life.

Key Words: aging, ambivalence, caregiving, gender, intergenerational relations, parent-child relations.

Understanding intergenerational relations and assistance across the later years has become increasingly important in conjunction with population aging and a lengthening life span. There is a tradition of sociological research that examines relationship quality among multiple generations of family members (Bengtson & Roberts, 1991; Bengtson & Schrader, 1982; Hareven, 1996; Roberts, Richards, & Bengtson, 1991; Rossi & Rossi, 1990). But a major challenge remains: how to incorporate the complexity of intergenerational relations in theory and empirical research.

One such complexity is the difficulty of accounting for aspects of relationships that are simultaneously positive and negative, or in other words, that generate feelings of ambivalence. The concept of ambivalence and research on ambivalent attitudes in close relationships has a long history in social psychology (Braiker & Kelley, 1979; Brown & Farber, 1951; Kaplan, 1972; Merton & Barber, 1963; Scott, 1968). Recently, sociologists have proposed ambivalence as an important and underresearched aspect of family relationships (Connidis & McMullin, 2002a, 2002b; Luescher & Pillemer, 1998). The relevance and utility of this concept for the study of intergenerational relations has been the subject of recent scholarly exchange (Bengtson, Giarrusso, Mabry, & Silverstein, 2002; Connidis & McMullin; Curran, 2002; Luscher, 2002).

This study provides one of the first attempts to use the concept of ambivalence in a quantitative analysis that provides an empirical assessment of the issues at hand. To our knowledge, up to the present there is only one other empirical study of ambivalence in intergenerational relations (Pillemer & Suitor, 2002). In our analysis, we use a sample of adult children and their aging parents and in-laws to assess factors that contribute to ambivalence in relations across the generations. We find that ambivalence characterizes over one quarter of relationships between adult children and their aging parents and in-laws. Results show systematic variation in ambivalent attitudes toward the parent generation that are shaped by gender and kinship structures within the context of socially defined expectations and demands, such as caregiving.


In this study ambivalence refers to contradictory emotions and cognitions held toward people, social relations, and structures (Luescher & Pillemer, 1998; Priester & Petty, 2001; Smelser, 1998). The concept of ambivalence has its roots in both sociology and psychology. We draw on both fields-psychology for issues related to the measurement of ambivalence and sociology for linking individual sentiments to their roots in structural arrangements. Psychological ambivalence has traditionally been viewed as the result of intrapersonal conflict and individual processes without reference to social structure. It is generally defined as contradictory states of individuals, such as conflicting emotions or attitudes, or contradictory relationships between intimates or groups (Raulin, 1984; Weigert, 1991; see Smelser for a review). …

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