Marital Representations and Engagement Coping for Unmarried, Expectant Cohabitors Melissa A. Curran & Leslie A. Bosch Abstract Across recent decades in the U.S., romantic partnerships and family structure have undergone drastic changes. Nearly 40% of all births in the United States were to unmarried women, with approximately 50% of these births to women cohabiting with the fathers of their children (Cherlin, 2010). Often, negative consequences of cohabitors are noted: High rates of union instability, lowered commitment and happiness, and heightened rates of depression (Cherlin, 2010). Positive experiences of cohabitors are less often discussed. To understand the heterogeneity of cohabitation (e.g., Kiernan, 2004), the goal of the current study is to examine how cohabitors use engagement coping as understood by marital representations. Engagement coping is described as taking action to reduce negative emotions and to make situations better. Marital representations include both how the individual remembers the content of their parents’ marriage (i.e., conflict, affection, conflict resolution, communication) as well as how the individual tells or represents these experiences (i.e., insight). Our sample, recruited from the community, consists of unmarried cohabitors pregnant with their first child together (N = 37 individuals). As hypothesized, engagement coping is higher for cohabitors who recall negative content from their parents’ marriage in insightful ways compared to cohabitors who recall negative content in the parents’ marriage but with lower insight. These findings are helpful in illustrating the heterogeneity of cohabitation.
Background Cohabitors are often viewed negatively (see abstract). Wanting to move beyond this purely negative focus on cohabitors, we tested engagement coping as understood by marital representations. Engagement coping is defined as taking action to reduce negative emotions and to make situations better (Carver & Connor-Smith, 2010). Marital representations, to some extent, can also be understood through the lens of taking action. Individuals who remember their parents’ marriage or romantic relationship as negative (e.g., high in conflict, low in affection, conflict resolution, or communication) can potentially insightfully process these memories. Such individuals do well as partners and parents, including demonstrations of emotional attunement toward their spouse two years postpartum, even after controlling for prenatal emotional attunement (Curran et al., 2006), a trend toward more supportive coparenting in triadic family interactions two years postpartum (Curran et al., 2009), and also being the least likely to involve their own children in marital conflict seven years postpartum (Curran et al., 2011). In contrast, the associations for those who recall negative content, but with lower insight, are much worse (i.e., lowest emotional attunement; least supportive coparenting; most likely to involve children in marital conflict; Curran et al., 2006, 2009, 2011). These aforementioned studies, however, are almost always specific to spouses. How such associations between marital representations and engagement coping apply to pregnant cohabitors, a group of individuals more typically at risk than married couples, is unknown. We suggest that cohabitation is not always negative. Thus, we hypothesize (HYP) that engagement coping will be higher for pregnant cohabitors who recall negative content experiences in the parents’ marriage with high insight, versus with low insight.
Methods Participants: • 37 individuals (20 women; 17 men): Recruited from hospitals, Craig’s List, social service agencies • Age: Range 18 to 32; Mdn = 24 • Education: Mdn = some college or Associate’s degree • Family income: Mdn = $30,000 to 39,999
Results We find support for our HYP: Engagement coping is higher for cohabitors recalling negative content with high insight versus cohabitors recalling negative content with low insight (B = 2.10, p = .0079). Tests of simple slopes (if different from 0): Significant for high insight (B= 0.55, p < .05); NS for low insight (B = 0.44, p = .098).
Engagement coping: Participants completed a survey about coping (Carver, 2007) in their home or online. This survey is described as taking action to reduce negative emotions and to make situations better. Sample item: “I've been concentrating my efforts on doing something about the situation I'm in”; = .86 (9 items) Marital representations: We used the Representation of Marriage Interview, or RMI (Jacobvitz, 1992). What do individuals recall about their parents’ romantic relationship (content) and how do they tell these stories (insight)? Using an established coding scheme (Curran & Feldman, 2008), coders rated: Content = sum of conflict, affection, conflict resolution, communication ( =.81), and Insight = sum of connections and richness (r = .68)
Conclusions and Implications These findings are important in demonstrating the heterogeneity of cohabitors, such that cohabitation is not always negative. For pregnant cohabitors who recall negative content (i.e., high conflict, and lower affection, conflict resolution, communication) about their parents’ marriage with low insight, engagement coping is lower than for those who recall negative content with high insight. Given the struggles that many cohabitors may face (e.g., relational instability, lowered commitment), it is important to identify variables that are amenable to change (i.e., marital representations, coping). Focusing on emotional (engagement coping) and relational (marital representations) characteristics of pregnant cohabitors allows researchers to know more about cohabitors, including those who may have fewer issues navigating the transition to parenthood (i.e., individuals who remember negative content but with high insight) versus those who may struggle more during this transition, and therefore require more assistance (i.e., individuals who remember negative content with low insight).
Acknowledgements This research was supported in part by grants to the first author from the Office for the Vice President for Small Research Grants at the University of Arizona, and the Norton Fathers Endowment and the Frances McClelland Institute for Children, Youth, and Families. (Pictures from: http://trailblazingwoman.com.au)