What is it about?

Our sample came from the Building Strong Families project, and we focused on 4,424 primarily lower-income, unmarried couples expecting their first child together. Following from an adapted family stress model, we tested the directionality (unidirectional or bidirectional) of associations among financial difficulties, depressive symptoms, destructive interparental conflict, and coparenting alliance for both fathers and mothers when children were 15 and 36 months old. Here is what we found: First, higher destructive conflict at 15 months for both fathers and mothers predicted lower coparenting alliance at 36 months for both fathers and mothers. Second, depressive symptoms predicted destructive conflict (but not the reverse). Specifically, fathers’ (but not mothers’) higher depressive symptoms at 15 months predicted both their own and mothers’ higher destructive conflict at 36 months. Third, contrary to predictions, financial difficulties did not predict depressive symptoms; instead, we found support for the reverse: For mothers only, higher depressive symptoms at 15 months predicted higher financial difficulties at 36 months.

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Why is it important?

The results support the use of the family stress model to understand the directionality of associations among key risk factors, especially depressive symptoms and destructive conflict, for primarily lower-income, unmarried couples expecting their first child together


Identifying the directionality of these associations -- via cross-lagged analyses -- is important as it provides critical information for intervention timing and focus. These are the kinds of questions best addressed by cross-lagged designs using longitudinal data, as such designs are useful in understanding which variables precede the other so that interventions can be most effective. A cross-lagged approach is also essential as the family stress model constructs that we study here using the Building Strong Families data are not typically ones that we could experimentally assign; for example, it would likely be unethical to assign couples to engage in higher versus lower destructive conflict while they are expecting their first child together.

Melissa Curran
University of Arizona

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This page is a summary of: Finances, depressive symptoms, destructive conflict, and coparenting among lower-income, unmarried couples: A two-wave, cross-lagged analysis., Journal of Family Psychology, June 2021, American Psychological Association (APA), DOI: 10.1037/fam0000821.
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