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The News Story – How to save marriage in America

Given that contemporary society seems to be ridding itself of “traditional,” breadwinner / homemaker, marriages, we might think that cohabitation, childless marriages, and career-centred bachelor lives have assumed that place.  However, a recent article in The Atlantic indicates that “child-focused” marriages have replaced more traditional marriages.  Despite their egalitarian nature – as seen by the shared tasks of domestic work and paid employment – the fact that modern marriages seem to be centred on children may be a hopeful sign for continuation of the natural family.
This article claims that, while marriage used to be a contract regarding gender-division of labour, today’s marital contract is seen as “a commitment device that supports high-levels of parental investment in children.”  Because of their focus on children, parents in these marriages tend to have a more conservative view of marriage and the family.  For instance, those most likely to enter into child-centred marriages are “now most likely to agree that ‘divorce should be harder to obtain than it is now.’” 

It is promising that, despite the decrease of the more traditional marriage, an increase in marriage that includes and emphasizes children has occurred.  If child-focused marriages are contracted with the intention to provide the most beneficial environment for children, we might expect that parents will be less likely to divorce or entertain conflict.   Thus, we might think that focusing on children might strengthen and stabilize modern marriage.  Additionally, recent research indicates that high quality parent-child relationships might strengthen and stabilize marriage for a different reason – children who experience such relationships with their parents will be more likely themselves to form healthy intimate relationships later in life.

The New Research – Teaching teens about relationships

Much research has centred on the factors that contribute to adolescents’ later abilities to forge their own healthy intimate relationships.  A good parental marriage has already been identified as one crucial factor, as adolescents imitate positive relationship views and behaviours that they learn from watching their parents interact.  Also crucial, researchers from the University of Alberta have discovered, is the quality of the parents’ relationship with the adolescent.

The researchers highlight two purposes in their study: 1) to uncover the association between parent-adolescent relationship quality and later, young-adult intimate relationship quality, and 2) to examine the possible but more indirect association between adolescent-parent relationship and mental health during adolescents’ transition to adulthood.   Data came from the Add Health study, which collected, among other things, “information related to social, economic, psychological, intimate relationship, and health domains.”  The researchers measured survey responses to questions concerning parent-adolescent relationship quality, parent-young adult relationship quality, depressive symptoms, self-esteem, and intimate relationship quality, while controlling for sex, age, race, education, religiousness, relationship length, and relationship type.

The results were “striking”: “. . . parent-adolescent relationship quality directly predicted quality in an intimate relationship 15 years later.”  Moreover, the researchers comment that “[t]his is even more impressive when one considers that this finding persisted after accounting for the influence of concurrent parent-young adult relationship quality, mental health during adolescence and the transition to adulthood, sex, age, race, and level of education.”  The researchers also discovered that good mental health (as shown in answers to questions about self-esteem and depressive symptoms) also worked indirectly to help adolescents achieve high-quality intimate relationships after their transition to adulthood: “Specifically, parent-adolescent relationship quality was associated with increased self-esteem in the transition to adulthood, which ultimately predicted higher intimate relationship quality as a young adult.”

The researchers conclude by outlining directions for future research, and also by declaring that the “results from this study point to the importance of incorporating developmental processes earlier in life, in particular the quality of the relationship between parents and adolescent children and the intrapersonal processes across the transition to adulthood for understanding relationship quality during young adulthood.”  What would be interesting to know—and what the researchers do not discuss—is whether parents’ marital status played a role in their ability to have these essential good relationships with their adolescent children.  One would speculate that, given the hurt and physical separation that typically arise after parental divorce, children would feel closer to parents who were married and living in the same household during their adolescence.

Source: Bryce J. Christensen and Nicole M. King, “New Research,” The Family in America Vol 28 Number 1, Winter 2014.  Study: (Matthew D. Johnson and Nancy L. Galambros, “Paths to Intimate Relationship Quality From Parent-Adolescent Relations and Mental Health,” Journal of Marriage and Family 76 [February 2014]: 145-60, emphasis added.)

This article has been republished with permission from The Family in America, a publication of The Howard Center. The Howard Center is a MercatorNet partner site.

Nicole M. King is the Managing Editor of The Howard Center’s quarterly journal, The Family in America: A Journal of Public Policy, the United States’ leading journal of family-policy research....