Family Transitions

By Philip A. Cowan; Mavis Hetherington | Go to book overview

encouraging support for our 5-domain model of individual and family functioning.

Since couples who were in most distress during pregnancy tended to be in most distress after they became parents, and since 15% of the parents without an intervention had separated or divorced by the time their first child was 3½, it seems critical that mental health professionals begin to develop interventions for working with distressed couples as they are forming new families.

We have argued that the consistent average declines in new parents' satisfaction with their role arrangements and their overall marriage suggests that there are risks associated with the transition to parenthood. What, then, do we make of the fact that 5 years after the study began, about half of the couples remaining childless were divorced? The data in our study are quite consistent with census data on this point: having a young child functions as a protective factor in preserving the marriage during the early years of childrearing ( Glick, 1979; Houseknecht, 1987). But in the marriages that remain intact, there is a decided deterioration in both the quantity of partners' time together and the quality of their relationships as couples. There seem to be marital risks along each of these life pathways. It is not surprising to us that disenchanted partners with preschool age children are slower to divorce than childless couples. But we do continue to be surprised at the extent of distress reported by these parents of young children as they take stock of the realities of their life as couples and families.

Although not all of the couples experienced distress during this couple-to- family transition, our findings strengthen our determination to continue to develop and systematically evaluate preventive interventions targeted to helping parents cope with the strains of this major adult transition. The data linking the parents' well-being with their children's adaptation suggest that it will be costly--for the parents and their children--to wait until the parents feel distressed enough to seek relief from therapists or divorce lawyers. Even when the parents stay together, their dissatisfaction with their relationship as a couple tends to color the quality of their relationships with their preschool age children. And, as we have seen, the state of family life in the preschool years appears to foreshadow the children's adaptation their first year of elementary school. Our correlational data imply that family-based interventions focused on both marital and parenting issues--and addressed to both mothers and fathers--would be a fertile area for mental health professionals to pursue.


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

This study has been supported throughout by NIMH grant MH 31109. Preparation of this chapter was supported in part by funds from the Spencer foundation. We also want to acknowledge major contributions to the longitudinal study by other members of the research team: Dena Cowan, Barbara Epperson, Beth

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