Moods, Stressors, and Severity of Marital Conflict: A Daily Diary Study of Low‐Income Families

AuthorMeghan P. McCormick,Patricia Chou,E. Mark Cummings,JoAnn Hsueh,Christine Merrilees
Published date01 July 2017
Date01 July 2017
M P. MC  JA H MDRC
C M State University of New York– Geneseo
P C Research Alliance for New York City Schools
E. M C University of Notre Dame
Moods, Stressors, and Severity of Marital Conict:
A Daily Diary Study of Low-Income Families
Objective: To examine links between nega-
tive moods, stressors, and daily marital con-
ict, and to test whether participation in a
family-strengthening program moderates those
Background: Some family-strengthening inter-
ventions have shown positive effects on low-
income married couples’ relationships. Yetlittle
is known about how these programs inuence
low-income families’ daily functioning.
Method: Families randomly assigned to the
program participated in 10 weeks of relation-
ship education. Control group families received
no services. Thirty months later, participants
reported on the severity of marital conicts over
a 15-day period, as well as their moods and
Results: Dyadic models demonstrated that al-
though moods like anger, anxiety, stress, and
sadness were associated with more severemari-
tal disagreements, associations were less strong
for wives assigned to the program than to the
control group. Although stress related to money
was associated with more severe disagreements
for husbands, associations were weaker for
MDRC, 16 East 34th St., 19th Floor, New York, NY 10016
Key Words: Conict, diary, intervention, low-income,
negative moods.
husbands assigned to the program than for
those to the control group.
Conclusion: Family-strengthening interventi-
ons may be able to reduce the tendency for
negative moods and stressors to manifest in
more severe marital conict.
Implications: Programs may benet from exp-
licitly addressing the moods and stressors that
individual husbands and wives report experienc-
ing in their daily lives.
Marital conict is one of the most studied aspects
of marital relationships (Gottman, 2014), likely
because of marital conict’s association with a
host of negative outcomes for couples and fami-
lies, including depression, substance abuse, and
divorce in adults, and behavioral problems in
children (Sears, Repetti, Reynolds, Robles, &
Krull, 2016). Although most work on marital
conict has focused on middle-class White fami-
lies, low-income and racial/ethnic minority fam-
ilies may be at higher risk for experiencing more
conictual home environments (Jackson et al.,
In response, family-strengthening interven-
tions specically designed for low-income
married couples have been developed to support
families in creating healthy environments for
their children, where conicts are constructive
Family Relations 66 (July 2017): 425–440 425
426 Family Relations
rather than destructive (Hawkins & Erick-
son, 2015). However, there is currently some
controversy in the eld over whether these
programs can improve low-income couples’
relationship quality. Although some programs
have demonstrated sizable positive effects on
couple outcomes (Hawkins, Blanchard, Bald-
win, & Fawcett, 2008), recent evaluations
of family-strengthening interventions tested
outside of laboratory conditions and with
low-income married couples have had smaller
effects on outcomes such as relationship quality
and communication (Hsueh et al., 2012). In typ-
ical randomized trials of family-strengthening
interventions, surveys and videotaped obser-
vations are used to assess program impacts at
follow-up points. Assessing discrete points in
time provides only a brief snapshot of marital
functioning and may mask more nuanced under-
standing of how low-income families engage in
marital conict in their day-to-day lives and how
participation in a family strengthening program
inuences that daily functioning. The present
study addresses these important gaps in the
literature and uses an embedded diary study to
describe low-income and racially and ethnically
diverse families’ daily marital conict, nega-
tive moods, and stressors. The study then tests
whether participation in a family strengthening
program may have attenuated links between
negative moods and stressors and severity of
marital conict in this sample of families.
Literature Review
Researchers have argued that it is not whether
couples experience conict but rather the nature
and severity of conicts, and whether disagree-
ments are resolved, that predicts adult and child
well-being (Cummings & Davies, 2011; Notar-
ius & Markman, 1993). Destructive or misman-
aged marital conict, characterized by verbal
and nonverbal hostility and negative emotional-
ity, is associated with negative behaviors (Cum-
mings & Davies, 2011; Rinaldi & Howe, 2003).
In contrast, constructive marital conict, char-
acterized by support, problem solving, and con-
ict resolution, is associated with positive emo-
tions and behaviors (Kinsfogel & Grych, 2004).
Given that constructive conict is associated
with improved marital quality, it may be most
important to help couples limit destructive and
severe conict rather than eliminating conicts
or disagreements (Hawkins & Erickson, 2015).
However, conict tends to be exacerbated in the
presence of stressors or negative moods (Mad-
hyastha, Hamaker, & Gottman, 2011), so daily
stressors may provoke destructive and severe
There is little empirical research sub-
stantiating these dynamic patterns in the
transmission of behaviors and emotions within
low-income, racially and ethnically diverse
families. Low-income couples are about twice
as likely to break up or divorce relative to more
afuent families (Bramlett & Mosher, 2002). In
the face of economic hardships, couples may be
even more likely to experience severe marital
conicts (Hawkins & Erickson, 2015). When
many demands and stressors are evident, and
there are few sources of support, as is more
likely for low-income couples (Trail & Karney,
2012), spouses may have a diminished ability
to exercise coping skills when severe conicts
occur (Karney, Story & Bradbury, 2005). One
would expect that low-income married couples
might experience greater transmission of neg-
ative behaviors, emotionality, and affect in the
context of marital conict. When one spouse
displays negative behaviors or affect, it may
be more likely to be reciprocated by the other
spouse and manifest itself in a severe conict
(Mitchell, Eby, & Lorys, 2015; Sears et al.,
According to the sensitization hypothesis,
which is empirically supported by extensive
research on individual responses to repeated
exposure to destructive conict (Cummings &
Davies, 2011), heightened negative emotions
and behaviors during conict sensitize couples
to conict. Consequently, couples are posited
to be more reactive to conict as a result of
repeated exposure to conict. Furthermore,
emotional security theory (EST; Cummings
& Davies, 2011) provides a theoretical model
to account for sensitization. According to
EST, repeated exposure to destructive conict
increases emotional insecurity in relationships,
motivating greater emotional and behavioral
reactivity in response to the greater perceived
threat associated with heightened emotional
insecurity. Following EST, couples may also be
more vulnerable to mismanaged and destructive
conict in the face of stressors outside of the
marriage (Jackson et al., 2016). Even so, links
between stressors, moods, and conict remain
unexplored among low-income, racially and
ethnically diverse families.

To continue reading

Request your trial

VLEX uses login cookies to provide you with a better browsing experience. If you click on 'Accept' or continue browsing this site we consider that you accept our cookie policy. ACCEPT