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Understanding Relational Experiences of Low-Income, Cohabiting Parents: A Qualitative Investigation


Background and Aims: Unmarried, cohabiting couples account for an increasing number of childbirths in the United States today. These relationships generally face different challenges than those of married couples. Because of their heightened risk for economic and social problems and family dissolution, these disadvantaged, unmarried parents have been called “fragile families.” While previous studies have focused on the stressors and challenges these families face, this study uniquely uses an ecological framework to understand the strengths and protective factors that help these couples sustain their relationships over time.

Methods: This qualitative secondary data analysis study uses couple interviews collected as part of the Time, Love, Cash, Caring and Children Study, an intensive longitudinal study of a subset of 49 couples who had non-marital births across three cities, Chicago, Milwaukee, and New York. This dissertation focuses on the couples (N=12) in the study who maintained their relationships over the 4-year course of the study. This study also selected negative cases (N=2) \ to test emerging hypothesis and patterns.

Results: The analysis revealed multiple ecosystem levels impacting the couples, although the level emphasized most heavily was the dyad, specifically relational strategies and commitment. At the interpersonal level, couples described strengths of active fathers, effective communication, and teamwork around managing finances. In terms of social support, couples benefited from two forms of support primarily from family: intangible and emotional help, such as free childcare, and tangible support in the form of financial assistance. At the contextual level, these low-income couples emphasized the importance of neighborhood safety and recreation as well as availability of certain public assistance programs such as Supplemental Nutrition for Women, Infants and Children (WIC). This study highlights the ecological and interpersonal factors that may be important in sustaining relationships for low-income, cohabitating couples over time. Implications for social work practice, policy and future research are discussed.

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