When couples become grandparents: factors associated with the growth of each spouse.

Author:Taubman-Ben-Ari, Orit


This correlational study examined perceived personal growth among couples who recently became grandparents, investigating its association with attachment style, self-differentiation, and the perceived growth of the spouse. In addition, the background variables of age, education, and physical health were examined. The sample consisted of 206 Israeli couples who were approached six to 24 months after the birth of their first grandchild. The results showed that grandmothers reported higher growth than grandfathers. Lower education, lower attachment anxiety, and higher perceived growth of the spouse were associated with the perceived growth of both men and women, in the regression analysis. Older age and lower physical health, along with higher self-differentiation among less educated women, were also found to be connected to the perceived personal growth of grandmothers. Furthermore, higher avoidant attachment was associated with less growth among healthier grandparents and with more perceived growth among less healthy grandfathers. Hence, both the individual's internal resources and his or her partner's perception of growth were associated with self-reported growth in the transition to grandparenthood. The study not only sheds further light on the potential for growth inherent in the transition to grandparenthood, but also provides the first indications of associations related to sharing this experience with a spouse.

KEY WORDS: couples; growth; transition to grandparenthood

The transition to grandparenthood is considered a major life event (Taubman--Ben-Ari, Ben Shlomo, & Findler, 2012) and is generally perceived as a positive experience (Sands, Goldberg-Glen, & Thornton, 2005). Grandparenthood may offer a sense of completion and a sense of satisfaction or provide an opportunity to reflect on one's influence across generations (Ashford, LeCroy, & Lortie, 2006). Such benefits notwithstanding, this life transition may also exact certain costs, including anxieties, feelings of incompetence, and burden (Findler, Taubman--Ben-Ari, NuttmanShwartz, & Lazar, 2010), which, in turn, may generate stress. Indeed, grandparenting has been associated with increased stress (Musil & Ahmad, 2002), and studies have found that one major risk factor for psychological distress in later life is the decline in physical health (for example, Cummings, Neff, & Husaini, 2003); another risk factor is the elderly person's social status, thus, their own perception of their position in the social hierarchy (Demakakos, Nazroo, Breeze, & Marmot, 2008). In addition, becoming a grandparent is symbolically associated with old age, regardless of a person's chronological age or vitality, and this, too, may engender stress (Gauthier, 2002). In other words, inherent in the transition to grandparenthood is the potential to experience both positive and negative emotions and cognitions.

In the wake of the 21st century, there has been a growing tendency to focus on individuals' strengths and resources rather than on distress, depressive symptoms, and other pathologies following life transitions (Linley, 2003). Theory and research have highlighted the potential benefits of challenging life events, stressing that the need to adapt to demanding circumstances may also engender personal growth (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Although most of this literature deals with traumatic life events, growth need not be related exclusively to dire experiences; it may follow on any challenge to core beliefs and the resulting reexamination of existing ways of thinking (Tedeschi, Calhoun, & Cann, 2007). Recognizing this possibility, recent studies have exan-tined growth in the wake of more mundane events, such as a romantic breakup (Tashiro & Frazier, 2003), academic studies (Anderson, Walter, & Lopez-Baez, 2008), and the transitions to parenthood (Sawyer & Ayers, 2009; Spielman & Taubman--Ben-Aft, 2009; Taubman Ben-Ari, Ben Shlomo, Sivan, 8: Dolizki, 2009; Taubman--Ben-AM, Findler, 86 Kuint, 2010) and grandmotherhood (Ben Shlomo, Taubman--BenAM, Findler, Sivan, & Dolizki, 2010; Taubman Ben-AM et al., 2012). Indeed, even positive experiences that are life altering and entail stress, such as the transition to grandparenthood, may also be challenging to the individual's schemas and life narrative and, thus, lead to the experience of growth.

The term "growth" refers to a sense of development, rather than a return to baseline. Three broad areas of growth are generally reported: (1) enhanced interpersonal relationships and greater appreciation of others, (2) changes in self-perception in the direction of increased resilience and maturity, and (3) a reexamination of life philosophy and setting of new priorities (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). These general categories are represented in the positive changes and signs of growth in the wake of the transition to grandparenthood that have been reported in the literature since the 1960s. In their classic study, Neugarten and Weinstein (1964) suggested that grandparenthood may engender an experience of biological renewal, continuity, self-fulfillment, a chance to succeed in a new emotional role, and the indirect expansion of the self through the grandchild's achievements. Later studies have indicated that those who enjoy being grandparents feel younger and hope to live longer than those who do not take pleasure in their new status (Kaufman & Elder, 2003), and that grandparent identity meanings are related positively to self-esteem and negatively to depressive symptoms (Reitzes & Mutran, 2004). In addition, it has been shown that grandparenthood may represent an opportunity to reexperience parenthood without the attendant responsibility (Kornhaber, 1987) and that more positive grandparent identity meanings may encourage a heightened sense of well-being by providing a sense of authenticity, meaning, and purpose (Reitzes & Mutran, 2004).

Research reveals that internal resources may contribute to growth following a stressful experience (Tedeschi & Calhoun, 2004). Among these are certain personality traits or ego resources (for example, Taubman--Ben-Ari et al., 2010), including attachment security, an internal resource that may help an individual to cope with and adjust to stressful events (Mikulincer & Florian, 1998). Attachment security has been found to be especially relevant in the context of parenthood.

Bowlby (1988) maintained that the quality of attachment interactions during infancy produces mental working models that organize cognition, affect, and behavior and shape both the self-image and social and intimate relationships. Furthermore, he claimed that the successful accomplishment of affect regulation, which occurs as a central part of the formation of attachment, is a cornerstone of a broader experience of emotional security.

Since the late 1990s, self-report studies of this notion among adults have used two basic dimensions of attachment: avoidance and anxiety (Brennan, Clark, & Shaver, 1998). Individuals high on avoidance are characterized by a distrust of others' goodwill and a preference for emotional distance, rely mostly on themselves, and fail to use proximity seeking to relieve distress. Those high on anxiety display a strong need for closeness combined with an overwhelming fear of rejection, tend to rely mentally on their emotional state, and use emotion-focused coping strategies. Moreover, people high on either anxiety or avoidance are likely to appraise stressful events in negative terms and to report high levels of distress (for example, Fraley & Shaver, 1997). In contrast, those low on the two dimensions exhibit the secure attachment style: They are comfortable with closeness and interdependence and rely on support seeking and other constructive means to cope with stress.

Studies conducted among mothers have indicated that those with insecure attachments are more vulnerable to symptoms of depression and lower well-being in response to stressful life events (Berant, Mikulincer, & Florian, 2001; Simpson, Rholes, Campbell, Tran, & Wilson, 2003). Findings regarding the association of attachment style to mother's growth, however, are less consistent. Whereas one recent study indicated that attachment avoidance and anxiety do not play a role in mothers' personal growth one year after birth (Taubman--Ben-Ari et al., 2010), another study conducted among both mothers and fathers a short period after the birth of their first child revealed that fathers who were more anxiously attached also reported greater stress-related growth (Spielman & Taubman--Ben-AM, 2009). Spielman and Taubman--Ben-AM suggested that fathers higher on attachment anxiety are more apt to experience the demanding transition to parenthood as a stressful situation, leading them to hyper-activate their attachment system and seek emotional closeness (Simpson et al., 1992), which might enhance their sense of growth.

To the best of our knowledge, only one study has examined the association of attachment to women's perceptions of the transition to grand-motherhood, and no prior investigation has considered grandfathers. The findings indicated that the higher the maternal grandmother's attachment anxiety, the greater her sense of growth during her daughter's pregnancy (Ben Shlomo et al., 2010). According to the authors, people with less stable personality strengths are more strongly affected by situations that shake their existing equilibrium or that entail some degree of uncertainty, even when the change is positive in nature. For such people, the very notion of change inherent in the transition to grandmotherhood undermines their precarious sense of self and their ability to feel in control of the situation. Following this initial finding, we explored the associations of attachment style and personal growth in the transition to grandparenthood, and related to grandfathers as well as grandmothers.

Another fascinating feature of personality that...

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