Relationships in Early Adulthood

What you’ll learn to do: examine relationships in early adulthood

2 interlocking fingers with matching tattoos

We have learned from Erikson that the psychosocial developmental task of early adulthood is “intimacy versus isolation” and if resolved relatively positively, it can lead to the virtue of “love.” In this section, we will look more closely at relationships in early adulthood, particularly in terms of love, dating, cohabitation, marriage, and parenting.

Learning Outcomes

  • Describe some of the factors related to attraction in relationships
  • Apply Sternberg’s theory of love to relationships
  • Summarize attachment theory in adulthood
  • Describe trends and norms in dating, cohabitation, and marriage in the United States
  • Describe challenges, transitions, and factors associated with parenthood

Attraction and Love

Attraction

Why do some people hit it off immediately? Or decide that the friend of a friend was not likable? Using scientific methods, psychologists have investigated factors influencing attraction and have identified a number of variables, such as similarity, proximity (physical or functional), familiarity, and reciprocity, that influence with whom we develop relationships.

Friends laughing and chatting as they sit on a bench on public transportation.
Figure 1. Great and important relationships can develop by chance and physical proximity helps. For example, seeing someone regularly on your daily bus commute to work or school may be all that’s necessary to spark a genuine friendship. [Image: Cheri Lucas Rowlands, https://goo.gl/crCc0Q, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/rxiUsF]

Proximity

Often we “stumble upon” friends or romantic partners; this happens partly due to how close in proximity we are to those people. Specifically, proximity or physical nearness has been found to be a significant factor in the development of relationships. For example, when college students go away to a new school, they will make friends consisting of classmates, roommates, and teammates (i.e., people close in proximity). Proximity allows people the opportunity to get to know one other and discover their similarities—all of which can result in a friendship or intimate relationship. Proximity is not just about geographic distance, but rather functional distance, or the frequency with which we cross paths with others. For example, college students are more likely to become closer and develop relationships with people on their dorm-room floors because they see them (i.e., cross paths) more often than they see people on a different floor. How does the notion of proximity apply in terms of online relationships? Deb Levine (2000) argues that in terms of developing online relationships and attraction, functional distance refers to being at the same place at the same time in a virtual world (i.e., a chat room or Internet forum)—crossing virtual paths.

Familiarity

One of the reasons why proximity matters to attraction is that it breeds familiarity; people are more attracted to that which is familiar. Just being around someone or being repeatedly exposed to them increases the likelihood that we will be attracted to them. We also tend to feel safe with familiar people, as it is likely we know what to expect from them. Dr. Robert Zajonc (1968) labeled this phenomenon the mere-exposure effect. More specifically, he argued that the more often we are exposed to a stimulus (e.g., sound, person) the more likely we are to view that stimulus positively. Moreland and Beach (1992) demonstrated this by exposing a college class to four women (similar in appearance and age) who attended different numbers of classes, revealing that the more classes a woman attended, the more familiar, similar, and attractive she was considered by the other students.

There is a certain comfort in knowing what to expect from others; consequently, research suggests that we like what is familiar. While this is often on a subconscious level, research has found this to be one of the most basic principles of attraction (Zajonc, 1980). For example, a young man growing up with an overbearing mother may be attracted to other overbearing women not because he likes being dominated but rather because it is what he considers normal (i.e., familiar).

Similarity

When you hear about celebrity couples such as Kim Kardashian and Kanye West, do you shake your head thinking “this won’t last”? It is probably because they seem so different. While many make the argument that opposites attract, research has found that is generally not true; similarity is key. Sure, there are times when couples can appear fairly different, but overall we like others who are like us. Ingram and Morris (2007) examined this phenomenon by inviting business executives to a cocktail mixer, 95% of whom reported that they wanted to meet new people. Using electronic name tag tracking, researchers revealed that the executives did not mingle or meet new people; instead, they only spoke with those they already knew well (i.e., people who were similar).

When it comes to marriage, research has found that couples tend to be very similar, particularly when it comes to age, social class, race, education, physical attractiveness, values, and attitudes (McCann Hamilton, 2007; Taylor, Fiore, Mendelsohn, & Cheshire, 2011). This phenomenon is known as the matching hypothesis (Feingold, 1988; Mckillip & Redel, 1983). We like others who validate our points of view and who are similar in thoughts, desires, and attitudes.

Reciprocity

Another key component in attraction is reciprocity; this principle is based on the notion that we are more likely to like someone if they feel the same way toward us. In other words, it is hard to be friends with someone who is not friendly in return. Another way to think of it is that relationships are built on give and take; if one side is not reciprocating, then the relationship is doomed. Basically, we feel obliged to give what we get and to maintain equity in relationships. Researchers have found that this is true across cultures (Gouldner, 1960).

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Love

Heterosexual young couple standing in an embrace.
Figure 2. Romantic relationships are so central to psychological health that most people in the world are or will be in a romantic relationship in their lifetime. [Image: CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Is all love the same? Are there different types of love? Examining these questions more closely, Robert Sternberg’s (2004; 2007) work has focused on the notion that all types of love are comprised of three distinct areas: intimacy, passion, and commitment. Intimacy includes caring, closeness, and emotional support. The passion component of love is comprised of physiological and emotional arousal; these can include physical attraction, emotional responses that promote physiological changes, and sexual arousal. Lastly, commitment refers to the cognitive process and decision to commit to love another person and the willingness to work to keep that love over the course of your life. The elements involved in intimacy (caring, closeness, and emotional support) are generally found in all types of close relationships—for example, a mother’s love for a child or the love that friends share. Interestingly, this is not true for passion. Passion is unique to romantic love, differentiating friends from lovers. In sum, depending on the type of love and the stage of the relationship (i.e., newly in love), different combinations of these elements are present.

Taking this theory a step further, anthropologist Helen Fisher explained that she scanned the brains (using fMRI) of people who had just fallen in love and observed that their brain chemistry was “going crazy,” similar to the brain of an addict on a drug high (Cohen, 2007). Specifically, serotonin production increased by as much as 40% in newly-in-love individuals. Further, those newly in love tended to show obsessive-compulsive tendencies. Conversely, when a person experiences a breakup, the brain processes it in a similar way to quitting a heroin habit (Fisher, Brown, Aron, Strong, & Mashek, 2009). Thus, those who believe that breakups are physically painful are correct! Another interesting point is that long-term love and sexual desire activate different areas of the brain. More specifically, sexual needs activate the part of the brain that is particularly sensitive to innately pleasurable things such as food, sex, and drugs (i.e., the striatum—a rather simplistic reward system), whereas love requires conditioning—it is more like a habit. When sexual needs are rewarded consistently, then love can develop. In other words, love grows out of positive rewards, expectancies, and habit (Cacioppo, Bianchi-Demicheli, Hatfield & Rapson, 2012).

Link to Learning

Dive deeper into Helen Fisher’s research by watching her TED talk “The Brain in Love.” (https://www.ted.com/talks/helen_fisher_studies_the_brain_in_love?language=en)

The model of the Triangular Theory of Love displays 6 types of love evenly spaced around the outside of a triangle, and one type of love at the center of the triangle. The types of love outside the triangle include: Infatuation (Passion), Romantic Love (Passion + Intimacy), Liking (Intimacy), Companionate (Intimacy + Commitment), Empty Love (Commitment), and Fatuous Love (Passion + Commitment). At the center is Consummate Love (Intimacy + Passion + Commitment)." title="The model of the Triangular Theory of Love displays 6 types of love evenly spaced around the outside of a triangle, and one type of love at the center of the triangle. The types of love outside the triangle include: Infatuation (Passion), Romantic Love (Passion + Intimacy), Liking (Intimacy), Companionate (Intimacy + Commitment), Empty Love (Commitment), and Fatuous Love (Passion + Commitment). At the center is Consummate Love (Intimacy + Passion + Commitment).
Figure 3. The Triangular Theory of Love. Adapted from Wikipedia Creative Commons, 2013.

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Attachment Theory in Adulthood

The need for intimacy, or close relationships with others, is universal and persistent across the lifespan. What our adult intimate relationships look like actually stems from infancy and our relationship with our primary caregiver (historically our mother)—a process of development described by attachment theory, which you learned about in the module on infancy. Recall that according to attachment theory, different styles of caregiving result in different relationship “attachments.”

For example, responsive mothers—mothers who soothe their crying infants—produce infants who have secure attachments (Ainsworth, 1973; Bowlby, 1969). About 60% of all children are securely attached. As adults, secure individuals rely on their working models—concepts of how relationships operate—that were created in infancy, as a result of their interactions with their primary caregiver (mother), to foster happy and healthy adult intimate relationships. Securely attached adults feel comfortable being depended on and depending on others.

As you might imagine, inconsistent or dismissive parents also impact the attachment style of their infants (Ainsworth, 1973), but in a different direction. In early studies on attachment style, infants were observed interacting with their caregivers, followed by being separated from them, then finally reunited. About 20% of the observed children were “resistant,” meaning they were anxious even before, and especially during, the separation; and 20% were “avoidant,” meaning they actively avoided their caregiver after separation (i.e., ignoring the mother when they were reunited). These early attachment patterns can affect the way people relate to one another in adulthood. Anxious-resistant adults worry that others don’t love them, and they often become frustrated or angry when their needs go unmet. Anxious-avoidant adults will appear not to care much about their intimate relationships and are uncomfortable being depended on or depending on others themselves.

Table 1. Types of Early Attachment and Adult Intimacy
Secure “I find it relatively easy to get close to others and am comfortable depending on them and having them depend on me. I don’t often worry about being abandoned or about someone getting too close to me,”
Anxious-avoidant “I am somewhat uncomfortable being close to others; I find it difficult to trust them completely, difficult to allow myself to depend on them. I am nervous when anyone gets too close, and often, love partners want me to be more intimate than I feel comfortable being.”
Anxious-resistant “I find that others are reluctant to get as close as I would like. I often worry that my partner doesn’t really love me or won’t want to stay with me. I want to merge completely with another person, and this desire sometimes scares people away.”

The good news is that our attachment can be changed. It isn’t easy, but it is possible for anyone to “recover” a secure attachment. The process often requires the help of a supportive and dependable other, and for the insecure person to achieve coherence—the realization that his or her upbringing is not a permanent reflection of character or a reflection of the world at large, nor does it bar him or her from being worthy of love or others of being trustworthy (Treboux, Crowell, & Waters, 2004).

You can watch this video “What is Your Attachment Style?” from The School of Life (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2s9ACDMcpjA) to learn more.

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Applications of Sternberg’s Theory

Click through the following interactive to review and apply Sternberg’s theory.
https://h5p.org/h5p/embed/554153

Trends in Dating, Cohabitation, and Marriage

Dating

In general, traditional dating among teens and those in their early twenties has been replaced with more varied and flexible ways of getting together (and technology with social media, no doubt, plays a key role). The Friday night date with dinner and a movie that may still be enjoyed by those in their 30s gives way to less formal, more spontaneous meetings that may include several couples or a group of friends. Two people may get to know each other and go somewhere alone. How would you describe a “typical” date? Who calls, texts, or face times? Who pays? Who decides where to go? What is the purpose of the date? In general, greater planning is required for people who have additional family and work responsibilities.

Dating and the Internet

The ways people are finding love has changed with the advent of the Internet. In a poll, 49% of all American adults reported that either themselves or someone they knew had dated a person they met online (Madden & Lenhart, 2006). As Finkel and colleagues (2007) found, social networking sites, and the Internet generally, perform three important tasks. Specifically, sites provide individuals with access to a database of other individuals who are interested in meeting someone. Dating sites generally reduce issues of proximity, as individuals do not have to be close in proximity to meet. Also, they provide a medium in which individuals can communicate with others. Finally, some Internet dating websites advertise special matching strategies, based on factors such as personality, hobbies, and interests, to identify the “perfect match” for people looking for love online. In general, scientific questions about the effectiveness of Internet matching or online dating compared to face-to-face dating remain to be answered.

It is important to note that social networking sites have opened the doors for many to meet people that they might not have ever had the opportunity to meet; unfortunately, it now appears that the social networking sites can be forums for unsuspecting people to be duped. In 2010 a documentary, Catfish, focused on the personal experience of a man who met a woman online and carried on an emotional relationship with this person for months. As he later came to discover, though, the person he thought he was talking and writing with did not exist. As Dr. Aaron Ben-Zeév stated, online relationships leave room for deception; thus, people have to be cautious.

Cohabitation

Cohabitation is an arrangement where two people who are not married live together. They often involve a romantic or sexually intimate relationship on a long-term or permanent basis. Such arrangements have become increasingly common in Western countries during the past few decades, being led by changing social views, especially regarding marriage, gender roles and religion. Today, cohabitation is a common pattern among people in the Western world. In Europe, the Scandinavian countries have been the first to start this leading trend, although many countries have since followed. Mediterranean Europe has traditionally been very conservative, with religion playing a strong role. Until the mid-1990s, cohabitation levels remained low in this region, but have since increased. Cohabitation is common in many countries, with the Scandinavian nations of Iceland, Sweden, and Norway reporting the highest percentages, and more traditional countries like India, China, and Japan reporting low percentages (DeRose, 2011).

In countries where cohabitation is increasingly common, there has been speculation as to whether or not cohabitation is now part of the natural developmental progression of romantic relationships: dating and courtship, then cohabitation, engagement, and finally marriage. Though, while many cohabitating arrangements ultimately lead to marriage, many do not.

How prevalent is cohabitation today in the United States? According to the U.S. Census Bureau (2018), cohabitation has been increasing, while marriage has been decreasing in young adulthood. As seen in the graph below, over the past 50 years, the percentage of 18-24 year olds in the U.S. living with an unmarried partner has gone from 0.1 percent to 9.4 percent, while living with a spouse has gone from 39.2 percent to 7 percent. More 18-24 year olds live with an unmarried partner now than with a married partner.

Census graph showing that the percentage of those between ages 18-24 living with a spouse declining from 39% in 1968 to 7% in 2018. Living with a partner has increased from almost nonexistent to almost 10%.
Figure 4. The rates of those between ages 18-24 living with a spouse have gone down dramatically, while rates of those living with a partner are gradually on the rise.

While the percent living with a spouse is still higher than the percent living with an unmarried partner among 25 to 34-year-olds today, the next graph clearly shows a similar pattern of decline in marriage and increase in cohabitation over the last five decades. The percent living with a spouse in this age group today is only half of what it was in 1968 (40.3 percent vs. 81.5 percent), while the percent living with an unmarried partner rose from 0.2 percent to 14.8 percent in this age group. Another way to look at some of the data is that only 30% of today’s 18 to 34-year-olds in the U.S. are married, compared with almost double that, 59 percent forty years ago (1978). The marriage rates for less-educated young adults (who tend to have lower income) have fallen at faster rates than those of better educated young adults since the 1970s. Past and present economic climate are key factors; perhaps more couples are waiting until they can afford to get married, financially. Gurrentz (2018) does caution that there are limitations of the measures of cohabitation, particularly in the past.[1]

In 1968, 81.5% of of people between ages 25 and 34 lived with a spouse, while only .2% with a partner. In 2018, 40.3% of people lived with a spouse while 14.8% lived with a partner.
Figure 5. Rates of those living with spouses between the ages of 25 and 34 has been declining, while those cohabitating is on the rise.

How long do cohabiting relationships last?

Cohabitation tends to last longer in European countries than in the United States. Half of cohabiting relationships in the U. S. end within a year; only 10 percent last more than 5 years. These short-term cohabiting relationships are more characteristics of people in their early 20s. Many of these couples eventually marry. Those who cohabit more than five years tend to be older and more committed to the relationship. Cohabitation may be preferable to marriage for a number of reasons. For partners over 65, cohabitation is preferable to marriage for practical reasons. For many of them, marriage would result in a loss of Social Security benefits and consequently is not an option. Others may believe that their relationship is more satisfying because they are not bound by marriage.

Think It Over

Do you think that you will cohabitate before marriage? Or did you cohabitate? Why or why not? Does your culture play a role in your decision? Does what you learned in this module change your thoughts on this practice?

Two women smiling with flowers on their wedding day.
Figure 6. While marriage is common across cultures, the details such as “How” and “When” are often quite different. Now the “Who” of marriage is experiencing an important change as laws are updated in a growing number of countries and states to give same-sex couples the same rights and benefits through marriage as heterosexual couples. [Image: Bart Vis, http://goo.gl/liSy9P, CC BY 2.0, http://goo.gl/T4qgSp]

Same-Sex Couples

As of 2019, same-sex marriage is legal in 28 countries, and counting. Many other countries either recognize same-sex couples for the purpose of immigration, grant rights for domestic partnerships or grant common law marriage status to same-sex couples.

Same-sex couples struggle with concerns such as the division of household tasks, finances, sex, and friendships as do heterosexual couples. One difference between same-sex and heterosexual couples, however, is that same-sex couples have to live with the added stress that comes from social disapproval and discrimination. And continued contact with an ex-partner may be more likely among homosexuals and bisexuals because of the closeness of the circle of friends and acquaintances.

The number of adults who remain single has increased dramatically in the last 30 years. We have more people who never marry, more widows and more divorcees driving up the number of singles. Singles represent about 25 percent of American households. Singlehood has become a more acceptable lifestyle than it was in the past and many singles are very happy with their status. Whether or not a single person is happy depends on the circumstances of their remaining single.

Stein’s Typology of Singles

Many of the research findings about singles reveal that they are not all alike. Happiness with one’s status depends on whether the person is single by choice and whether the situation is permanent. Let’s look at Stein’s (1981) four categories of singles for a better understanding of this.

  • Voluntary temporary singles: These are younger people who have never been married and divorced people who are postponing marriage and remarriage. They may be more involved in careers or getting an education or just wanting to have fun without making a commitment to any one person. They are not quite ready for that kind of relationship. These people tend to report being very happy with their single status.
  • Voluntary permanent singles: These individuals do not want to marry and aren’t intending to marry. This might include cohabiting couples who don’t want to marry, priests, nuns, or others who are not considering marriage. Again, this group is typically single by choice and understandably more contented with this decision.
  • Involuntary temporary: These are people who are actively seeking mates. They hope to marry or remarry and may be involved in going on blind dates, seeking a partner on the internet or placing “getting personal” aids in search of a mate. They tend to be more anxious about being single.
  • Involuntary permanent: These are older divorced, widowed, or never-married people who wanted to marry but have not found a mate and are coming to accept singlehood as a probable permanent situation. Some are bitter about not having married while others are more accepting of how their life has developed.

Engagement and Marriage

Most people will marry in their lifetime. In the majority of countries, 80% of men and women have been married by the age of 49 (United Nations, 2013). Despite how common marriage remains, it has undergone some interesting shifts in recent times. Around the world, people are tending to get married later in life or, increasingly, not at all. People in more developed countries (e.g., Nordic and Western Europe), for instance, marry later in life—at an average age of 30 years. This is very different than, for example, the economically developing country of Afghanistan, which has one of the lowest average-age statistics for marriage—at 20.2 years (United Nations, 2013). Another shift seen around the world is a gender gap in terms of age when people get married. In every country, men marry later than women. Since the 1970’s, the average age of marriage has increased for both women and men.

As illustrated, the courtship process can vary greatly around the world. So too can an engagement (https://nobaproject.com/modules/the-family#vocabulary-engagement) – a formal agreement to get married. Some of these differences are small, such as on which hand an engagement ring is worn. In many countries, it is worn on the left, but in Russia, Germany, Norway, and India, women wear their ring on their right. There are also more overt differences, such as who makes the proposal. In India and Pakistan, it is not uncommon for the family of the groom to propose to the family of the bride, with little to no involvement from the bride and groom themselves. In most Western industrialized countries, it is traditional for the male to propose to the female. What types of engagement traditions, practices, and rituals are common where you are from? How are they changing?

Contemporary young adults in the United States are waiting longer than before to marry. The median age of entering marriage in the United States is 27 for women and 29 for men (U.S. Bureau of the Census, 2011). This trend in delays of young adults taking on adult roles and responsibilities is discussed in our earlier section about “emerging adulthood” or the transition from adolescence to adulthood identified by Arnett (2000).

A fair exchange

Social exchange theory suggests that people try to maximize rewards and minimize costs in social relationships. Each person entering the marriage market comes equipped with assets and liabilities or a certain amount of social currency with which to attract a prospective mate. For men, assets might include earning potential and status while for women, assets might include physical attractiveness and youth.

Customers in the “marriage market” do not look for a “good deal,” however. Rather, most look for a relationship that is mutually beneficial or equitable. One of the reasons for this is because most a relationship in which one partner has far more assets than the other will result if power disparities and a difference in the level of commitment from each partner. According to Waller’s principle of least interest, the partner who has the most to lose without the relationship (or is the most dependent on the relationship) will have the least amount of power and is in danger of being exploited. A greater balance of power, then, may add stability to the relationship.

Societies specify through both formal and informal rules who is an appropriate mate. Consequently, mate selection is not completely left to the individual. Rules of endogamy indicate within which groups we should marry. For example, many cultures specify that people marry within their own race, social class, age group, or religion. These rules encourage homogamy or marriage between people who share social characteristics (the opposite is known as heterogamy). The majority of marriages in the U.S. are homogamous with respect to race, social class, age and to a lesser extent, religion.

In a comparison of educational homogamy in 55 countries, Smits (2003) found strong support for higher-educated people marrying other highly educated people. As such, education appears to be a strong filter people use to help them select a mate. The most common filters we use—or, put another way, the characteristics we focus on most in potential mates—are age, race, social status, and religion (Regan, 2008). Other filters we use include compatibility, physical attractiveness (we tend to pick people who are as attractive as we are), and proximity (for practical reasons, we often pick people close to us) (Klenke-Hamel & Janda, 1980).

A young couple posing for wedding photos in traditional Indian attire.
Figure 7. In some countries, many people are coupled and committed to marriage through arrangements made by parents or professional marriage brokers. [Image: Ananabanana, http://goo.gl/gzCR0x, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0, http://goo.gl/iF4hmM]

According to the filter theory of mate selection, the pool of eligible partners becomes narrower as it passes through filters used to eliminate members of the pool (Kerckhoff & Davis, 1962). One such filter is propinquity or geographic proximity. Mate selection in the United States typically involves meeting eligible partners face to face. Those with whom one does not come into contact are simply not contenders (though this has been changing with the Internet). Race and ethnicity is another filter used to eliminate partners. Although interracial dating has increased in recent years and interracial marriage rates are higher than before, interracial marriage still represents only 5.4 percent of all marriages in the United States. Physical appearance is another feature considered when selecting a mate. Age, social class, and religion are also criteria used to narrow the field of eligibles. Thus, the field of eligibles becomes significantly smaller before those things we are most conscious of such as preferences, values, goals, and interests, are even considered.

Arranged Marriages

In some cultures, however, it is not uncommon for the families of young people to do the work of finding a mate for them. For example, the Shanghai Marriage Market refers to the People’s Park in Shanghai, China—a place where parents of unmarried adults meet on weekends to trade information about their children in attempts to find suitable spouses for them (Bolsover, 2011). In India, the marriage market refers to the use of marriage brokers or marriage bureaus to pair eligible singles together (Trivedi, 2013). To many Westerners, the idea of arranged marriage can seem puzzling. It can appear to take the romance out of the equation and violate values about personal freedom. On the other hand, some people in favor of arranged marriage argue that parents are able to make more mature decisions than young people.

While such intrusions may seem inappropriate based on your upbringing, for many people of the world such help is expected, even appreciated. In India for example, “parental arranged marriages are largely preferred to other forms of marital choices” (Ramsheena & Gundemeda, 2015, p. 138). Of course, one’s religious and social caste plays a role in determining how involved family may be.

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Parenting

Having Children

Do you want children? Do you already have children? Increasingly, families are postponing or not having children. Families that choose to forego having children are known as child free families, while families that want but are unable to conceive are referred to as childless families. As more young people pursue their education and careers, age at first marriage has increased; similarly, so has the age at which people become parents. With a college degree, the average age for women to have their first child is 30.3, but without a college degree, the average age is 23.8. Marital status is also related, as the average age for married women to have their first child is 28.8, while the average age for unmarried women is 23.1. Overall, the average age of first time mothers has increased to 26, up from 21 in 1972, and the average age of first time fathers has increased to 31, up from 27 in 1972 in the United States.[2] The age of first-time parents in the U.S. increased sharply in the 1970s after abortion was legalized. Since the age of first-time parents varies by geographic region in the U.S. and women’s rights to abortion are being challenged in some states, it will be interesting to follow the norms and trends for first-time parents in the future.

The decision to become a parent should not be taken lightly. There are positives and negatives associated with parenting that should be considered. Many parents report that having children increases their well-being (White & Dolan, 2009). Researchers have also found that parents, compared to their non-parent peers, are more positive about their lives (Nelson, Kushlev, English, Dunn, & Lyubomirsky, 2013). On the other hand, researchers have also found that parents, compared to non-parents, are more likely to be depressed, report lower levels of marital quality, and feel like their relationship with their partner is more businesslike than intimate (Walker, 2011).

If you do become a parent, your parenting style will impact your child’s future success in romantic and parenting relationships. Recall from the module on early childhood that there are several different parenting styles. Authoritative parenting, arguably the best parenting style, is both demanding and supportive of the child (Maccoby & Martin, 1983). Support refers to the amount of affection, acceptance, and warmth a parent provides. Demandingness refers to the degree a parent controls their child’s behavior. Children who have authoritative parents are generally happy, capable, and successful (Maccoby, 1992).

Chart of parenting styles. Those with low warmth/responsiveness and low expectations/control are uninvolved. Those with low expectations and high warmth are permissive. those with high expectations and low warmth are authoritarian. Those with high expectations and high warmth are authoritative.
Figure 8. Authoritative parenting, or those parents who give high levels of support but also have high demands and expectations, are associated with the best outcomes for children,

Other, less advantageous parenting styles include authoritarian (in contrast to authoritative), permissive, and uninvolved (Tavassolie, Dudding, Madigan, Thorvardarson, & Winsler, 2016). Authoritarian parents are low in support and high in demandingness. Arguably, this is the parenting style used by Harry Potter’s harsh aunt and uncle, and Cinderella’s vindictive stepmother. Children who receive authoritarian parenting are more likely to be obedient and proficient but score lower in happiness, social competence, and self-esteem. Permissive parents are high in support and low in demandingness. Their children rank low in happiness and self-regulation and are more likely to have problems with authority. Uninvolved parents are low in both support and demandingness. Children of these parents tend to rank lowest across all life domains, lack self-control, have low self-esteem, and are less competent than their peers.

Support for the benefits of authoritative parenting has been found in countries as diverse as the Czech Republic (Dmitrieva, Chen, Greenberger, & Gil-Rivas, 2004), India (Carson, Chowdhurry, Perry, & Pati, 1999), China (Pilgrim, Luo, Urberg, & Fang, 1999), Israel (Mayseless, Scharf, & Sholt, 2003), and Palestine (Punamaki, Qouta, & Sarraj, 1997). In fact, authoritative parenting appears to be superior in Western, individualistic societies—so much so that some people have argued that there is no longer a need to study it (Steinberg, 2001). Other researchers are less certain about the superiority of authoritative parenting and point to differences in cultural values and beliefs. For example, while many European-American children do poorly with too much strictness (authoritarian parenting), Chinese children often do well, especially academically. The reason for this likely stems from Chinese culture viewing strictness in parenting as related to training, which is not central to American parenting (Chao, 1994).

The Development of Parents

Think back to an emotional event you experienced as a child. How did your parents react to you? Did your parents get frustrated or criticize you, or did they act patiently and provide support and guidance? Did your parents provide lots of rules for you or let you make decisions on your own? Why do you think your parents behaved the way they did?

Young couple with their baby girl.
Figure 9. Parenthood has a huge impact on a person’s identity, emotions, daily behaviors, and many other aspects of their lives. [Image: Kim881231, CC0 Public Domain, https://goo.gl/m25gce]

Psychologists have attempted to answer these questions about the influences on parents and understand why parents behave the way they do. Because parents are critical to a child’s development, a great deal of research has been focused on the impact that parents have on children. Less is known, however, about the development of parents themselves and the impact of children on parents. Nonetheless, parenting is a major role in an adult’s life. Parenthood is often considered a normative developmental task of adulthood. Cross-cultural studies show that adolescents around the world plan to have children. In fact, most men and women in the United States will become parents by the age of 40 years (Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012).

People have children for many reasons, including emotional reasons (e.g., the emotional bond with children and the gratification the parent–child relationship brings), economic and utilitarian reasons (e.g., children provide help in the family and support in old age), and social-normative reasons (e.g., adults are expected to have children; children provide status) (Nauck, 2007).

The Changing Face of Parenthood

Parenthood is undergoing changes in the United States and elsewhere in the world. Children are less likely to be living with both parents, and women in the United States have fewer children than they did previously. The average fertility rate of women in the United States was about seven children in the early 1900s and has remained relatively stable at 2.1 since the 1970s (Hamilton, Martin, & Ventura, 2011; Martinez, Daniels, & Chandra, 2012). Not only are parents having fewer children, but the context of parenthood has also changed. Parenting outside of marriage has increased dramatically among most socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic groups, although college-educated women are substantially more likely to be married at the birth of a child than are mothers with less education (Dye, 2010). Parenting is occurring outside of marriage for many reasons, both economic and social. People are having children at older ages, too. Despite the fact that young people are more often delaying childbearing, most 18- to 29-year-olds want to have children and say that being a good parent is one of the most important things in life (Wang & Taylor, 2011).

Table 2. Demographic Changes in Parenthood in the United States
1960 2012
Average number of children (fertility rate) 3.6 2.1
Percent of births to unmarried women 5% 41%
Median age at first marriage for women 20.8 26.5
Percent of adults ages 18 to 29 married 59% 20%

Galinsky (1987) was one of the first to emphasize the development of parents themselves, how they respond to their children’s development, and how they grow as parents. Parenthood is an experience that transforms one’s identity as parents take on new roles. Children’s growth and development force parents to change their roles. They must develop new skills and abilities in response to children’s development. Galinsky identified six stages of parenthood that focus on different tasks and goals (see Table 3).

Table 3. Galinsky’s Stages of Parenthood
Age of Child Main Tasks and Goals
Stage 1: The Image-Making Stage Planning for a child; pregnancy Consider what it means to be a parent and plan for changes to accommodate a child
Stage 2: The Nurturing Stage Infancy Develop an attachment relationship with child and adapt to the new baby
Stage 3: The Authority Stage Toddler and preschool Parents create rules and figure out how to effectively guide their children’s behavior
Stage 4: The Interpretative Stage Middle childhood Parents help their children interpret their experiences with the social world beyond the family
Stage 5: The Interdependent Stage Adolescence Parents renegotiate their relationship with their adolescent children to allow for shared power in decision-making.
Stage 6: The Departure Stage Early Adulthood Parents evaluate their successes and failures as parents

1. The Image-Making Stage

As prospective parents think about and form images about their roles as parents and what parenthood will bring, and prepare for the changes an infant will bring, they enter the image-making stage. Future parents develop their ideas about what it will be like to be a parent and the type of parent they want to be. Individuals may evaluate their relationships with their own parents as a model of their roles as parents.

2. The Nurturing Stage

The second stage, the nurturing stage, occurs at the birth of the baby. A parent’s main goal during this stage is to develop an attachment relationship with their baby. Parents must adapt their romantic relationships, their relationships with their other children, and with their own parents to include the new infant. Some parents feel attached to the baby immediately, but for other parents, this occurs more gradually. Parents may have imagined their infant in specific ways, but they now have to reconcile those images with their actual baby. In incorporating their relationship with their child into their other relationships, parents often have to reshape their conceptions of themselves and their identity. Parenting responsibilities are the most demanding during infancy because infants are completely dependent on caregiving.

3. The Authority Stage

The authority stage occurs when children are 2 years old until about 4 or 5 years old. In this stage, parents make decisions about how much authority to exert over their children’s behavior. Parents must establish rules to guide their child’s behavior and development. They have to decide how strictly they should enforce rules and what to do when rules are broken.

4. The Interpretive Stage

The interpretive stage occurs when children enter school (preschool or kindergarten) to the beginning of adolescence. Parents interpret their children’s experiences as children are increasingly exposed to the world outside the family. Parents answer their children’s questions, provide explanations, and determine what behaviors and values to teach. They decide what experiences to provide their children, in terms of schooling, neighborhood, and extracurricular activities. By this time, parents have experience in the parenting role and often reflect on their strengths and weaknesses as parents, review their images of parenthood, and determine how realistic they have been. Parents have to negotiate how involved to be with their children, when to step in, and when to encourage children to make choices independently.

5. The Interdependent Stage

Parents of teenagers are in the interdependent stage. They must redefine their authority and renegotiate their relationship with their adolescent as the children increasingly make decisions independent of parental control and authority. On the other hand, parents do not permit their adolescent children to have complete autonomy over their decision-making and behavior, and thus adolescents and parents must adapt their relationship to allow for greater negotiation and discussion about rules and limits.

Smiling graduate with his parents.
Figure 10. When a child achieves a new level of independence and leaves the home it marks another turning point in the identity of a parent. [Image: State Farm, https://goo.gl/Npw2fb, CC BY 2.0, https://goo.gl/BRvSA7]

6. The Departure Stage

During the departure stage of parenting, parents evaluate the entire experience of parenting. They prepare for their child’s departure, redefine their identity as the parent of an adult child, and assess their parenting accomplishments and failures. This stage forms a transition to a new era in parents’ lives. This stage usually spans a long time period from when the oldest child moves away (and often returns) until the youngest child leaves. The parenting role must be redefined as a less central role in a parent’s identity.

Despite the interest in the development of parents among laypeople and helping professionals, little research has examined developmental changes in parents’ experience and behaviors over time. Thus, it is not clear whether these theoretical stages are generalizable to parents of different races, ages, and religions, nor do we have empirical data on the factors that influence individual differences in these stages. On a practical note, how-to books and websites geared toward parental development should be evaluated with caution, as not all advice provided is supported by research.

Influences on Parenting

Parenting is a complex process in which parents and children influence one another. There are many reasons that parents behave the way they do. The multiple influences on parenting are still being explored. Proposed influences on parental behavior include 1) parent characteristics, 2) child characteristics, and 3) contextual and sociocultural characteristics (Belsky, 1984; Demick, 1999).

Parent Characteristics

Parents bring unique traits and qualities to the parenting relationship that affect their decisions as parents. These characteristics include the age of the parent, gender, beliefs, personality, developmental history, knowledge about parenting and child development, and mental and physical health. Parents’ personalities affect parenting behaviors. Mothers and fathers who are more agreeable, conscientious, and outgoing are warmer and provide more structure to their children. Parents who are more agreeable, less anxious, and less negative also support their children’s autonomy more than parents who are anxious and less agreeable (Prinzie, Stams, Dekovic, Reijntjes, & Belsky, 2009). Parents who have these personality traits appear to be better able to respond to their children positively and provide a more consistent, structured environment for their children.

Parents’ developmental histories, or their experiences as children, also affect their parenting strategies. Parents may learn parenting practices from their own parents. Fathers whose own parents provided monitoring, consistent and age-appropriate discipline, and warmth were more likely to provide this constructive parenting to their own children (Kerr, Capaldi, Pears, & Owen, 2009). Patterns of negative parenting and ineffective discipline also appear from one generation to the next. However, parents who are dissatisfied with their own parents’ approach may be more likely to change their parenting methods with their own children.

Child Characteristics

Small child crying
Figure 11. A child with a difficult temperament can have a significant impact on a parent. [Image: Harald Groven, https://goo.gl/cwemLg, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://goo.gl/eH69he]

Parenting is bidirectional. Not only do parents affect their children, but children also influence their parents. Child characteristics, such as gender, birth order, temperament, and health status, affect parenting behaviors and roles. For example, an infant with an easy temperament may enable parents to feel more effective, as they are easily able to soothe the child and elicit smiling and cooing. On the other hand, a cranky or fussy infant elicits fewer positive reactions from his or her parents and may result in parents feeling less effective in the parenting role (Eisenberg et al., 2008). Over time, parents of more difficult children may become more punitive and less patient with their children (Clark, Kochanska, & Ready, 2000; Eisenberg et al., 1999; Kiff, Lengua, & Zalewski, 2011). Parents who have a fussy, difficult child are less satisfied with their marriages and have greater challenges in balancing work and family roles (Hyde, Else-Quest, & Goldsmith, 2004). Thus, child temperament is one of the child characteristics that influences how parents behave with their children.

Another child characteristic is the gender of the child. Parents respond differently to boys and girls. Parents often assign different household chores to their sons and daughters. Girls are more often responsible for caring for younger siblings and household chores, whereas boys are more likely to be asked to perform chores outside the home, such as mowing the lawn (Grusec, Goodnow, & Cohen, 1996). Parents also talk differently with their sons and daughters, providing more scientific explanations to their sons and using more emotion words with their daughters (Crowley, Callanan, Tenenbaum, & Allen, 2001).

Contextual Factors and Sociocultural Characteristics

The parent–child relationship does not occur in isolation. Sociocultural characteristics, including economic hardship, religion, politics, neighborhoods, schools, and social support, also influence parenting. Parents who experience economic hardship are more easily frustrated, depressed, and sad, and these emotional characteristics affect their parenting skills (Conger & Conger, 2002). Culture also influences parenting behaviors in fundamental ways. Although promoting the development of skills necessary to function effectively in one’s community is a universal goal of parenting, the specific skills necessary vary widely from culture to culture. Thus, parents have different goals for their children that partially depend on their culture (Tamis-LeMonda et al., 2008). For example, parents vary in how much they emphasize goals for independence and individual achievements, and goals involving maintaining harmonious relationships and being embedded in a strong network of social relationships. These differences in parental goals are influenced by culture and by immigration status. Other important contextual characteristics, such as the neighborhood, school, and social networks, also affect parenting, even though these settings don’t always include both the child and the parent (Brofenbrenner, 1989). For example, Latina mothers who perceived their neighborhood as more dangerous showed less warmth with their children, perhaps because of the greater stress associated with living a threatening environment (Gonzales et al., 2011). Many contextual factors influence parenting.

Graphic showing the influences on parenting, including parent, child, and contextual influences. Parent characteristics include personality, developmental history, mental health, beliefs, knowledge, gender, and age. Child characteristics include temperament, gender, skills, behavior, age, and health. Contextual and sociocultural characteristics include social network, work setting, neighborhood, school, and culture.
Figure 12. Influences on parenting include characteristics of the parent and child, as well as the context and world around them.

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GLOSSARY

authoritative parenting: parenting that is both demanding and supportive of the child
 
authoritarian parenting: parenting style that is high in demandingness and low in support
 
cohabitation: an arrangement where two people who have not married live together
 
demandingness: the degree a parent controls their child’s behavior
 
filter theory of mate selection: the pool of eligible partners becomes narrower as it passes through filters used to eliminate members of the pool
 
heterogamy: marriage between people who do not share social characteristics
 
homogamy: marriage between people who share social characteristics
 
matching hypothesis: we tend to be attracted to those who are similar to us in age, social class, race, education, physical attractiveness, values, and attitudes
 
permissive parenting: parenting that is low in demandingness and high in support
 
proximity: a term for physical nearness which been found to be a significant factor in the development of relationships
 
reciprocity: we are more likely to like someone if they feel the same way toward us
 
social exchange theory: people try to maximize rewards and minimize costs in social relationships
 
uninvolved parenting: parenting that is low in both support and demandingness

 


  1. Gurrentz, B. (2018, November 15). Living with an unmarried partner now common for young adults. https://www.census.gov/library/stories/2018/11/cohabitation-is-up-marriage-is-down-for-young-adults.html
  2. Bui, Quoctrung & Claire Cain Miller (August 2018). The Age That Women Have Babies: How A Gap Divides America. The New York Times. Retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2018/08/04/upshot/up-birth-age-gap.html

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Lifespan Development by Lumen Learning 2019 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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