Investigating how external stress does (and does not) impact marital functioning and outcomes
Barton, Allen Weas
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Research on marriage possesses a lengthy history aimed at understanding the dynamics contributing to the resiliency or deterioration of these unions. Such efforts have largely entailed two distinct routes, one focused on interpersonal behaviors and cognitions and the other on broader contextual factors. The current collection of studies contributes to the growing scholarship integrating these two routes, thereby providing a more comprehensive understanding of marriage in context. At present, three studies investigated how external stressors impact marital functioning and outcomes as well as couple processes that condition how and when this effect appears. Study 1 explored how levels of financial strain and neighborhood disorder influence trajectories of marital warmth and hostility among a sample of 280 African American newlyweds. Results of latent growth curve and other structural equation models found greater external stress to be associated with lower initial levels of perceived partner warmth and higher perceived partner hostility. Additionally, external stress was marginally associated with steeper declines in perceptions of partner warmth over time. Study 2 tested mediating and moderating roles of demand/withdraw communication and perceived partner gratitude, respectively, in the association between financial distress and marital outcomes. Across a sample of 468 married individuals, multiple mediation models found demand/withdraw to consistently link financial distress to multiple dimensions of marital quality. Moderated mediation models revealed main effects for perceived partner gratitude on nearly all marital outcomes as well as moderation effects that reduced the impact of negative communication on certain aspects of marital quality. Study 3 explored couple social integration, its determinants, and its direct and protective effects on marital satisfaction among 492 married individuals. Results from latent interaction structural equation modeling indicated couple social integration to predict greater marital satisfaction and offset declines in marital satisfaction associated with certain contextual stressors. Collectively, findings offer novel insight into how the surrounding context impacts a marital union as well as less-identified couple processes that can protect couples from the deleterious effect of external stressors. Results aide in better understanding marital dynamics and also contribute germane information for efforts to assist the maintenance and stability of marriages across different social contexts.