Perceptions of Equity, Balance of Support Exchange, and Mother-Adult Child Relations

By Sechrist, Jori; Suitor, J. Jill et al. | Journal of Marriage and Family, April 2014 | Go to article overview

Perceptions of Equity, Balance of Support Exchange, and Mother-Adult Child Relations


Sechrist, Jori, Suitor, J. Jill, Howard, Abigail R., Pillemer, Karl, Journal of Marriage and Family


Intergenerational exchange has been a cen- tral focus of research on parent-adult child relations for several decades, describing and explaining patterns of support and the role that such exchanges play in intergenerational relationship quality (Davey & Eggebeen, 1998; Fingerman, Miller, Birditt, & Zarit, 2009; Kulis, 1992; Lowenstein, Katz, & Gur-Yaish, 2007; Sarkisian & Gerstel, 2004; Silverstein, Conroy, Wang, Giarrusso, & Bengtson, 2002). Although scholars have investigated the ways in which the balance of support between gener- ations shapes parent-child relationship quality (Ingersoll-Dayton & Antonucci, 1988; Kulis, 1992; Levitt, Guacci, & Weber, 1992; Rook, 1987; Schwarz, 2006; Schwarz, Trommsdorff, Albert, & Mayer, 2005; Thompson & Walker, 1984), far less attention has been given to the role of perceptions of equity in these processes. In the current article, we explore the relative effects of balanced exchanges of support and mothers' perceptions of equity in predicting closeness and tension between mothers and their adult children, using data collected from 413 older mothers regarding each of their 1,426 offspring.

EQUITY,EXCHANGE, AND INTERGENERATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS

Equity theory, an extension of classic exchange theory, proposes that individuals are the most satisfied with relationships in which they expe- rience a relatively equal exchange of resources, rather than being greatly overbenefited or under- benefited in their exchanges (Austin & Walster, 1974; Walster, Walster, & Berscheid, 1978). Equity theorists argue that this is because role partners in imbalanced relationships tend to feel anger and resentment when underbenefited and guilt when overbenefited (Austin & Walster, 1974; Sprecher, 2001a; Walster et al., 1978).

The salience of perceptions of equity has been documented empirically across a variety of relational contexts, including friendships, dating relationships, and spouses (Cate, Lloyd, Henton, & Larson, 1982; Desmarais & Lerner, 1989; Michaels, Edwards, & Acock, 1984; Roberto & Scott, 1986a, 1986b; Sprecher, 2001a, 2001b; van Yperen & Buunk, 1990). One might assume that the strong effects of perceptions of equity on relationship quality reflect the actual pattern of exchanges; however, there is little empirical evidence to support or refute this assumption. Studies comparing the relative effects of patterns of exchanges and perceptions of equity have found that they are not equally strong predictors of relationship quality, suggesting that perceptions of equity are not driven entirely by patterns of exchange (Sprecher, 2001b; van Yperen & Buunk, 1990).

The largest body of evidence on the relative salience of perceptions of equity compared to reported behaviors in explaining interpersonal relations is found in the study of the division of household labor. This line of research has shown that when women perceive the division of household labor as inequitable, both their own marital quality and that of their husbands decreases, regardless of the actual pattern of contributions to household labor (Frisco & Williams, 2003; Grote, Clark, & Moore, 2004; Kamo, 2000; Lavee & Katz, 2002; Suitor, 1991; Wilcox & Nock, 2006). These findings suggest that, at least for married partners, perceptions of equity and actual balance of exchanges differentially affect relationship quality.

Such a disparity in the effects of balanced exchanges versus perceptions of equity may be particularly likely when mothers assess their relationships with their adult children. The structure of the mother-child tie is inherently unbalanced for the first decades of the child's life. In fact, not only do mothers provide extensive unreciprocated support to young children, but they continue to provide more support to children than they receive until the mothers reach their 70s (Fingerman, Sechrist, & Birditt, 2012; Suitor, Sechrist, Gilligan, & Pille- mer, 2011). …

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