Exploring family mysteries

Exploring family mysteries
15 July 2011

When teenage sweethearts Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan married and had children, they faced a familiar puzzle. “At some point when our children were in middle childhood, we looked at each other and wondered what had happened to our relationship as a couple,” says Carolyn. “At the same time, all around us, friends were divorcing and families were breaking down. It seemed obvious we were not alone in this.”

So far, so usual. Findings from dozens of studies in the US and abroad show that not only do levels of satisfaction tend to decline over time in couple relationships; they also tend to be negatively affected by the birth of a baby.

But Phil and Carolyn Cowan are not such a usual couple. First, they have spent more than three decades not only as partners in marriage, but as professional collaborators. Second, they have been able to bring their personal insights to their work as psychologists and family researchers at the University of California, Berkeley.

Work at the Psychology Clinic at the University of California, Berkeley, showed that, in many cases, the so-called “problem children” referred to them for help turned out to have “problem parents.” The problem with the parents was not necessarily that they displayed poor parenting behavior, but rather that the couple’s own relationship was in trouble.

“This was a big surprise,” says Carolyn. “To realize that difficulties between couples could be as important for children’s adjustment as the interactions between the parents and the child was not something anyone expected.”

This realization has been at the heart of Carolyn and Philip’s contributions to the field of family systems research. With others, they have set out to test whether interventions designed to strengthen a couple’s romantic and co-parenting relationship could have an impact on children’s emotional well-being and behavior in the longer term.

Fostering empathy
In 1979, the team secured funding for the first of what would become three longitudinal intervention studies. The Becoming a Family Project was set up to work with couples when they were becoming parents. It confirmed findings from the early cross-sectional studies showing that, on average, couples report declining satisfaction in their romantic relationships after their first child.

However, an important trend stood out in the longitudinal data. The decline was most significant for couples that displayed difficulties before they had a child. “There is a lot of continuity and predictability from before the baby arrives. Marriages that are happy and satisfied in the early years are likely to be stable in the longer term because these couples are better able to adjust to life’s stresses and strains together,” says Philip.

The Becoming a Family Project tested the effectiveness of a couple-focused intervention, designed to promote healthy conflict resolution, communication and problem-solving, as well as greater empathy between partners. Couples who participated in a weekly couples group for six months maintained their marital satisfaction for five years, while control group couples’ satisfaction declined as usual. The evaluation showed not only positive effects for the couples’ relationships, in the form of greater satisfaction and stability; it also highlighted the significant impact the intervention could have on children’s developmental competencies.

“Families make the transition to school, not just the child”
The Cowans’ second longitudinal study built on this finding. Phil’s early career in community psychology in the 1960s had provided some good evidence that children’s difficulties at primary school had their roots in much earlier problems in the family system. In the Schoolchildren and their Families project, Phil, Carolyn, and their team followed the children beyond their first year of school into the first, fourth and ninth grades, to explore whether the impact of the couple-focused program would extend to children’s social and academic competence, and their patterns of developing problem behaviors, in their transitions to primary and high school.

Those children who demonstrated early success in their transition into primary school were also successful in moving to high school. But the study also found that a relatively small amount of intervention early on with families has significant benefits for the child almost a decade later (See: Family-based solutions to school-based risks).

Challenging conventional wisdom
The model proposed by the Cowans is a significant departure from accepted wisdom. In the UK, at least, family policy aimed at strengthening families has been focused on providing greater access to parenting interventions, focusing attention on the parent-child relationship. A program that also deals only with the couple relationship – while it aims to affect children – feels almost counter-intuitive. Time will tell whether policy-makers in the UK and elsewhere will follow the US example, where substantial funds are now being plowed into couple-focused initiatives.

The Cowans officially retired in 2005 but as emeritus professors at Berkeley, their academic pace has scarcely slowed. They mounted the Supporting Father Involvement project in 2009 along with Marsha Kline Pruett and Kyle Pruett. Run across five counties in California, it aims to discover whether the programs they have spent the last three decades developing and testing will help low-income families who are Mexican American, African American, and European American. In these families, the pressures imposed by poverty, unemployment or community deprivation magnify family issues, but early results suggest that the same pathways are at work.

What further family mysteries are waiting to be explored? The Cowans stress that the model they have developed needs to be applied to many more groups of parents to discover whether cultural and ethnic differences affect the results they have seen thus far. In addition, researchers need to better understand the exceptions to the rule. For example, why are some couples able to be effective parents despite an unhappy romantic relationship?

For now, at least, the Cowans’ research has a message for couples struggling to solve the mystery of how to balance parenthood with marital harmony: You are not the only ones!

Links:
(Family-based solutions to school-based risks): article reviewing the 10-year follow-up study to be published early July on Prevention Action.

The Supporting Father Involvement Program: http://www.supportingfatherinvolvement.org/cowans.html

Explainers

Philip Cowan

Philip Cowan is professor emeritus of psychology at the University of California. Family systems and children’s development are at the heart of his research and over three decades he and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan. have conducted several large-scale longitudinal studies of families and interventions to support them. For instance, the Becoming a Family Project followed a group of first-time parents, from late pregnancy until their child completed their first year of school. 

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