Couples as Partners and Parents over Children's Early Years

By Carlson, Marcia J.; Pilkauskas, Natasha V. et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2011 | Go to article overview

Couples as Partners and Parents over Children's Early Years


Carlson, Marcia J., Pilkauskas, Natasha V., McLanan, Sara S., Brooks-Gunn, Jeanne, Journal of Marriage and Family


We used data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study to examine how couple relationship quality and parental engagement are linked over children's early years-when they are infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. Our sample included 1,630 couples who were coresident over Years 1-3 and 1,376 couples who were coresident over Years 3-5 (1,196 over both periods). Overall, we found that better relationship quality predicted greater parental engagement for both mothers and fathers - especially in the infant to toddler years; in contrast, we found little evidence that parental engagement predicted future relationship quality. In general, married and cohabiting couples were similar in how relationship quality and parenting were linked.

Key Words: couple relationship quality, dyadic data, early childhood, Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, marital satisfaction, parenting.

Family scholars have long recognized the interdependence of family relationships (mothers and fathers, parents and children, siblings). In a given family system, dyadic relationships affect one another and influence individual-level change (Chase-Lansdale, Kiernan, & Friedman, 2004; Cox & Paley, 1997; O'Brien, 2005). Among family ties, the marital relationship has often been viewed as central to nuclear family dynamics (Cummings & O'Reilly, 1997). An extensive empirical literature has examined how marital quality is linked to parenting or the parent - child relationship, which provides strong evidence for a positive correlation - better marital quality is linked to better parent -child interaction (e.g., Erel&Burman, 1995).

Although developmental theory rests on the notion that relationships (and individuals) change over time, few studies have addressed the potentially changing nature of how couple relationship quality is linked to parenting as children grow and develop (Grych, 2002). Existing longitudinal studies have often covered only two time points (Krishnakumar & Buehler, 2000; Schoppe-Sullivan, Schermerhorn, & Cummings, 2007), observed families only during the toddler years (Belsky, Youngblade, Rovine, & Volling, 1991; Cox, Owen, Lewis, & Henderson, 1989), or have been limited by small, nonrepresentative samples (Erel & Burman, 1995) - although research on marriage in general has begun to include diverse samples (Fincham & Beach, 2010). Further, although scholars have noted the potential for reciprocal effects (Belsky et al., 1991; Goldberg & Easterbrooks, 1984; Grych), most studies have focused on how relationship quality affects parenting - rather than vice versa (but see exceptions below). In addition, although cohabitation has become a more common locus for childrearing (Kennedy & Bumpass, 2008), there has been little attention to differences between cohabiting and married couples (Grych).

In this article, we extend previous research on how couple relationship quality and parental engagement are linked in several ways. First, we use data from three time points in early childhood - when children are infants, toddlers, and preschoolers - and we use methods that enable us (a) to assess whether there appears to be a causal association between relationship quality and parental engagement (fixed-effects models) and (b) to evaluate the directionality of the observed associations (structural equation modeling). Second, we use data from a large, diverse, nationally representative sample of urban births in the late 1990s. Third, we examine both mothers' and fathers' parenting, and, fourth, we test whether the associations differ between married and cohabiting couples. Our results can be generalized to urban couples who live together (either cohabiting or legally married) during the 5 years subsequent to a child's birth. This research provides new information about how adults' relationships as partners and parents are linked as children develop from infants to toddlers to preschoolers. …

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