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Stress Among Low-income Ethnically Diverse Newlyweds


Although the consequences of divorce are felt across the economic spectrum, these costs are particularly high among low-income couples who experience relationship dissatisfaction and divorce at a disproportionate rate. Unfortunately, intervention efforts to improve marriages among low-income couples have proven unsuccessful, likely because these interventions assumed that well-established predictors of relationship distress studied primarily among middle-class samples would generalize to low-income couples. The three studies in this dissertation draw upon well-established predictors of relationship distress—poor communication skills and the propensity to blame a partner—in an effort to evaluate how those concepts may operate differently after accounting for the stressors and resources within low-income couples’ environment. Studies 1 and 2 examine whether couples’ behaviors under certain conditions carried greater consequences for their relationship satisfaction than under other conditions. Results of Study 1 indicate that when couples’ environments changed and they moved to poorer or more affluent neighborhoods, the impact of the change on relationship satisfaction was dependent on couples’ communication behaviors. Although couples with varying levels of communication skills did not differ from one another when they moved to similar neighborhoods, constructive communication behaviors did predict which couples thrived versus failed when faced with the stress of moving to a more affluent neighborhood environment. Study 2 extends the first study by examining fluctuations in behavior within a given couple and by examining other contextual factors that may impinge on their ability to cope: stress from work, discrimination, and finances. Results of Study 2 indicate that downward fluctuations in effective problem-solving behavior predicted downward fluctuations in satisfaction only among wives undergoing high levels of chronic stress, whereas decreases in effectiveness were inconsequential among wives experiencing little stress. Study 3 addresses how another classic predictor of relationship satisfaction—couples’ maladaptive attributions—may function differently when couples face high cognitive demands that may make it more difficult to consciously refrain from blaming attributions. Specifically, Study 3 tests whether strain from finances and potential compensatory resources from extended social networks (i.e., financial and social capital and models of intact marriages) are associated with couples’ maladaptive attributions and whether these factors serve to exacerbate or attenuate the negative effects of maladaptive attributions on couples’ relationship satisfaction. Results of Study 3 indicate that spouses who reported having greater financial strain and who knew fewer married individuals were more likely to form maladaptive attributions for their marital issues and that the affluence and marital status of family and friends attenuated the negative effects of maladaptive attributions on spouses’ relationship satisfaction. Thus, although communication behaviors and cognitive appraisals may very well be a fundamental process in all intimate relationships, the results of this dissertation cast doubt on the assumption that the behaviors and inferences couples make affect their relationship uniformly or universally.

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