Benefits of and Barriers to Romantic Relationships Among Mothers in Ireland

AuthorKristin Hadfield,Elizabeth Nixon
Published date01 July 2017
Date01 July 2017
K H  E N Trinity College Dublin
Benets of and Barriers to Romantic Relationships
Among Mothers in Ireland
Objective: To examine what mothers expect of
their romantic relationships and what prevents
them from forming and maintaining relation-
Background: Although there has been research
on mothers’ attitudes toward and expectationsof
marriage, there has been limited examination of
their dating. It is critical to understand why par-
ents form romantic relationshipsand what might
cause them to cycle in and out of relationships to
understand stepfamily formation.
Method: On the basis of semistructured inter-
views with a convenience sample of 33 single
or repartnered Irish mothers, we conducted a
thematic analysis guided by a social exchange
Results: Mothers believed that being in a
relationship would enable them to enact their
preferred relationship roles, give them extra
support, and provide a different gender role
model for their child(ren). They found forming
long-term relationships difcult because of a
lack of suitable partners, limited time and sup-
port, stepparents’ possible negative inuences
on their child(ren), and their own personal char-
acteristics. Unlike previous studies conducted in
the United States, Irish mothers were not focused
on the economic viability of partners or on
economic benets associated with repartnering.
Fogg Building, Department of Biological and Experimental
Psychology, Queen Mary University of London, Mile End
Road, London, UK E1 4NS (k.had
KeyWords: Dating, Ireland,mothers, repartnering, romantic
relationships, thematic analysis.
Conclusions: Mothers believe that there are
several rewards to forming and being in a rela-
tionship, but they face many impediments that
may prevent them from forming long-term rela-
Implications: Practitioners may nd it useful
to focus on tempering mothers’ expectations of
relationship benets and on reducing mothers’
personal costs when forming and maintaining
There is relatively little research that directly
investigatesdating among mothers. The r esearch
that has been done in this area has tended to
be on the attitudes of mothers—particularly
low-income mothers—toward marriage (e.g.,
Bzostek, McLanahan, & Carlson, 2012; Cherlin,
Cross-Barnet, Burton, & Garrett-Peters, 2008;
Edin, 2000; Edin & Kefalas, 2011; Elliott,
Powell, & Brenton, 2015; Hitchens & Payne,
2017). However, every romantic relationship of
divorced and never-married mothers is unlikely
to lead to (re)marriage (Anderson et al., 2004;
Gray, Garcia, Crosier, & Fisher, 2015), which
suggests that attention should also be paid to
their dating relationships and experiences. The
relationships mothers form are much more likely
to be unstable dating or cohabiting relationships
than marriages (Beck, Cooper, McLanahan, &
Brooks-Gunn, 2010; Bumpass & Lu, 2000).
Indeed, nearly 40% of American mothers date
multiple partners within 2 years of divorce
(Langlais, Anderson, & Greene, 2015). Rela-
tionship transitions may be stressful (Hadeld,
Amos, Ungar, Gosselin, & Ganong, in press)
and tend to lead to worse physical and mental
Family Relations 66 (July 2017): 383–398 383
384 Family Relations
health outcomes for mothers and children in
both the short- and the long-term (Bachman,
Coley, & Carrano, 2011; Osborne, Berger, &
Magnuson, 2012). Although researchers have
investigated mothers’ expectations of marriage
and the early stages of stepfamily life, few
studies have been conducted examining the
initial connection between a mother and her
partner, the rewards mothers believe romantic
relationships will confer, or the impediments
they perceive to the formation and maintenance
of relationships. In this study, we attempt to
ll this gap through a qualitative investigation
of mothers’ perceptions of the benets of and
barriers to forming and being in a relationship
with someone who is not the father of their
This study is informed by the social exchange
framework (Thibaut & Kelley, 1959), which
suggests that people attempt to maximize the
rewards they get from a relationship while mini-
mizing the costs resulting from that relationship.
This framework focuses on the development and
stability of relationships, as well as on the factors
mediating that stability, and therefore it is agood
framework for the study of dating and the devel-
opment of romantic relationships. A key focus
of the theory is the role of individuals’ expecta-
tions in the evaluation of relationships (Sabatelli
& Shehan, 1993). The decision of single mothers
to form a relationship and then either continue
or terminate the relationship is based on their
own experiences in the relationship and in past
relationships, as well as their perceptions about
how the current relationship compares to what
they expect they would experience in an alterna-
tive relationship (or on their own), and to what
they believe others are experiencing in their rela-
tionships. From the social exchange perspective,
mothers will attempt to form and maintain rela-
tionships with the most rewards (e.g., pleasure,
status) and the fewest costs (e.g., effort, forgone
opportunities) relative to their experiences and
Humans have a strong drive to form rela-
tionships (Baumeister, 2011), with a particularly
strong desire for the sexual and emotional inti-
macy that romantic relationships can provide
(Sassler, 2010). Single mothers actively seek
relationships, go on dates, and are likely to form
at least one romantic relationship within 5 years
of the dissolution of the relationship with their
child(ren)’s father(Beck et al., 2010; Grayet al.,
2015). However, these relationships tend to be
unstable (Osborne, Manning, & Smock, 2007)
or “pass-through” relationships (Burton & Hard-
away, 2012), and single mothers are less likely
to get married than are childless women (Graefe
& Lichter, 2008; Lundberg, Pollak, & Stearns,
2016; Schneider & Hastings, 2015).
Romantic relationship formation can have
many health and well-being benets for moth-
ers (Braithwaite, Delevi, & Fincham, 2010;
Williams & Umberson, 2004). Single mothers
can benet from the formation of a long-term
romantic relationship or marriage through
reductions in material hardship and psycho-
logical distress (Lichter, Graefe, & Brown,
2003; Osborne et al., 2012; Williams, Sassler,
& Nicholson, 2008). However, the dissolution
of the relationships that single mothers form
can have particularly deleterious effects. When
single mothers enter and then exit a cohabit-
ing relationship or marriage, they experience
higher levels of poverty than never-married
single mothers (Lichter et al., 2003), as well as
poorer physical and mental health (Williams
et al., 2008). Additionally, these relationship
transitions can negatively affect children, with
each relationship formation and dissolution
increasing children’s anxious, somatic, and con-
duct problems (Bachman et al., 2011). Thus,
the formation of long-lasting romantic relation-
ships can be benecial to mothers and their
child(ren), but there are risks associated with
the dissolution of these relationships.
Research on mothers’ partnership transitions
and marital beliefs has identied several factors
that impede the formation and long-term success
of romantic unions. Edin’s (2000) examination
of low-income mothers’ views of marriage
identied ve reasons to avoid marriage or
remarriage. Two focused on nancial concerns:
affordability (partners’ earnings from a “good
job”) and respectability (partners’ current and
prospective social class standing). Three were
unrelated to nances: control (partners would
reduce mothers’ household and parental con-
trol), trust (stemming from negative experiences
in previous relationships), and experiences
of domestic violence. Sano, Manoogian, and
Ontai’s (2012) study of low-income, rural
mothers who experienced partnership changes
during the course of their longitudinal research
indicated that their relationship choices primar-
ily centered on their children. Central concerns
focused on the partner’s ability to be in a parental
role, concerns about the impacts of partnering

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