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Contextualizing couples: Three essays on inequality, stress, and dyadic functioning as a longitudinal and reciprocal process

Deadric T Williams, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


In this dissertation, I use an integrated theoretical and conceptual model that consists of several theoretical frameworks to examine the following questions: (1) is there a longitudinal and reciprocal association between parental stress/distress and dyadic functioning? (2) does the association change over time? (3) does the association vary across social contexts (e.g., marital status, race/ethnicity, and poverty)? In order to explore these questions, I use longitudinal and dyadic data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-being Study, which follows a cohort of children and their parents from birth to five years of age. Through three separate analytic studies, the results indicate that (a) economic hardship affects both mothers' and fathers' depressive symptoms over time, mothers' depressive symptoms affect family hardships during the earlier years, and hardship and depressive symptoms are associated with distress in the relationship for both parents by their child's fifth birthday. No differences emerge between families (married and cohabiting); however, differences between mothers and fathers were revealed in the analysis for relationship distress; (b) parents' depressive symptoms and cooperative coparenting are longitudinally and reciprocally related. Differences between race and ethnic groups tend be largely contingent upon the developmental age of the child; and (c) the longitudinal and reciprocal association between parental stress and couple's relationship quality was largely unidirectional and only for mothers—that is, couple's relationship quality reduced maternal parenting stress. The findings were similar across families who did not live in poverty over time and for families who lived in persistent poverty. For families who experience transient poverty, only paternal parenting stress was associated with lower levels of couple's relationship quality. All in all, the results demonstrate that individuals within families are interdependent and parents are involved in interlocking trajectories as their child ages and develops over time. The variations across chapters points to the overall complexity of family life. Thus, rather than driving home a consistent message, the results illustrate that different domains, whether dyadic or individual, personal or interpersonal, move according to their own rules. To positively influence family life, multiple pathways must be targeted if we, as a society, are willing to help families achieve adequate financial support and family stability. These findings enhance our understating of interpersonal and contextual stressors, dyadic functioning, reciprocity within couples, and the importance of cross-partner associations.

Subject Area

Social research

Recommended Citation

Williams, Deadric T, "Contextualizing couples: Three essays on inequality, stress, and dyadic functioning as a longitudinal and reciprocal process" (2014). ETD collection for University of Nebraska - Lincoln. AAI3666231.