Getting Your Family through Hard Times

The New York Times , April 8, 2009
By Stephanie Coontz

The historical record isn't pretty. Job and income loss are strongly associated with increases in marital conflict, separation and divorce. During the Great Depression, economic hardship was so severe that many couples could not afford to divorce. But although divorce rates went down, domestic violence and desertion went up. In addition, unemployed men often refused to do housework and child care when their wives went to work, compensating for loss of their "breadwinner" role by insisting on their masculine prerogative not to do "women's work."

But we have never before gone into such a severe recession with such a backdrop of support for flexible gender roles. Hostility toward working wives is much lower than in the past, and respect for their contributions to the family is at an all-time high.

Men are doing more housework and child care than ever before, and they report feeling far less threatened by the prospect of being stay-at-home dads. If couples can nurture this flexibility, minimize lingering ideas that a man's masculinity depends on his paycheck and take the opportunity to rethink the escalating consumerism and workaholism of the past 30 years, couples may be able to build new family priorities that can strengthen their marriages in the long run.

A critical point is whether couples can remember and express the things they admire about each other. People under stress often cease to notice and acknowledge the helpful things their partners or children do, responding only to the irritating ones. This undermines the "economy of gratitude" that sustains mutual trust and obligations in a healthy family, creating the psychological equivalent of a credit crunch.

Conflicts are inevitable in times of stress, but they don't have to erode a relationship if people build in enough positive interactions to counteract the negative ones. John Gottman , a psychologist at the University of Washington, even has what amounts to a formula for doing so: Relationships that thrive balance every negative interaction with four to five positive ones. Remembering to tell your spouse and children what you appreciate about them, find ways to lighten each day with some humor, and take time to cuddle.

Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education at the Council on Contemporary Families. Her most recent book is Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage.

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