Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Stress in Childhood and Adulthood: Effects on Marital Quality over Time

Academic journal article Journal of Marriage and Family

Stress in Childhood and Adulthood: Effects on Marital Quality over Time

Article excerpt

We work from a stress and life course perspective to consider how stress affects trajectories of change in marital quality over time. Specifically, we ask whether stress is more likely to undermine the quality of marital experiences at different points in the life course. In addition, we ask whether the effects of adult stress on marital quality depend on childhood family stress experiences. Growth curve analysis of data from a national longitudinal survey (Americans' Changing Lives, N = 1,059 married individuals) reveals no evidence of age differences in the effects of adult stress on subsequent trajectories of change in marital experiences. Our results, however, suggest that the effects of adult stress on marital quality may depend on childhood stress exposure. Stress in adulthood appears to take a cumulative toll on marriage over time-but this toll is paid primarily by individuals who report a more stressful childhood. This toll does not depend on the timing of stress in the adult life course.

Key Words: childhood stress, cumulative disadvantage, life course, marital quality, stress.

Although recent research demonstrates that, on average, marriages tend to decline in quality over time (e.g., Umberson, Williams, Powers, Chen, & Campbell, 2005; VanLaningham, Johnson, & Amato, 2001), most theories of marital quality work from the assumption that some marriages are more likely than others to deteriorate (Bradbury & Karney, 2004). A number of studies suggest that exposure to stress may contribute to marital quality decline (e.g., Cohan & Bradbury, 1997). We know little, however, about how ephemeral or lasting these stress effects are or which marriages are most vulnerable to stress. The effects of stress on marital quality may be ephemeral for some marriages, long lasting for others, and largely neutral for still others. Moreover, marital quality may be more vulnerable to stress at specific points in the life course.

Recent theoretical work merges the life course perspective with a stress model to consider how stress shapes individual outcomes over the life course (Pearlin & Skaff, 1996). According to the life course perspective on stress, individual lives follow unique trajectories of change over time, and these trajectories are shaped by social context as well as the occurrence, timing, and sequencing of stressful events and situations (Wheaton & Gotlib, 1997). We work from this stress and life course perspective to view the marital quality of individuals as following a developmental trajectory over time, experiencing ups and downs as well as periods of stability and calm. We hypothesize that these individual trajectories are altered by exposure to stress. Life course theory suggests that marital quality may be more vulnerable to stress at certain points in the adult life course. The life course perspective also recognizes that childhood experiences have enduring effects over the life course (Wheaton & Clarke, 2003), and we examine whether the effects of adult stress exposure on marital quality depend on reports of childhood stress exposure.

Our goal is to add to life course research on stress and marital quality in three ways that reflect our theoretical perspective. First, we rely on a national longitudinal survey of individuals aged 24-96 years to consider how a measure of stress in adulthood contributes to marital quality and whether the effect of stress on marital quality depends on age of the respondent. This allows us to examine whether stress has stronger effects on marital quality at different points in the adult life course. Second, we take a broad view of the life course and consider how stress exposure in childhood may affect marital quality in adulthood, particularly in response to stress in adulthood. Third, we use growth curve analysis to correspond to our conceptualization of individual marriages as having their own developmental trajectories. This method is uniquely suited to a life course analysis of stress and marital quality over time, allowing us to incorporate baseline levels of marital quality as well as trajectories of change in marital quality over time and in relation to stress. …

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