Celf Specialization: The Role of Marriage in Working Families
Working families command our attention for several reasons, not the least of which is the struggle they undergo on a daily basis to sustain themselves and to socialize the next generation. On one hand, the drama of the working family arises from common challenges and demands, such as the need for the adults to maintain their own sense of self-efficacy, the need for children to learn and develop, the need for spouses to manage their marriage, the need for parents to foster growth while exerting some form of control, and the need for breadwinners to support family members and their many activities. The accomplishment of these tasks is promoted or hindered by the personal characteristics of the family members, by the quality of their relationships with each other, by the resources they can generate or access, and by the strategies they can employ. From this perspective, a key task of working families is one of adaptation, or the continual need to adapt and respond to daily tasks, challenges, and occasional crises. Whereas failures in adaptation can be costly (e.g., in terms of emotional distress, or physical illness, or financial stress), adaptive successes can provide individuals, families, and society at large with the energy and optimism needed to work, to learn, and to create.
Because the bond between two adult partners is in many respects the starting point for a family, it may be advantageous for the analysis of adaptation in families to focus on these adults and their relationship. We might expect that the quality and nature of this relationship can have far-reaching repercussions for how the family functions as a whole. For example, when the relationship between the two primary adults in a family is characterized by respect and trust, by effective resolution of disagreements, and by empathy and support, we might then expect a higher level of coordination in managing the day-to-day tasks in the family, enhanced ability to contend with difficult situations and circumstances, a greater willingness to invest in the family, better models for children to emulate, and a greater capacity for effective performance in the workplace. In turn, these benefits could then feed back to strengthen and facilitate growth in the relationship between adults themselves. For example, a couple that responds well to a family crisis – a serious medical problem involving a family member, for example, or being laid off at work – is likely to gain strength and esteem from having done so, and is thus poised for future adaptive successes. A couple that falters in the face of such challenges may well become vulnerable to the potentially deleterious effects of even lesser stressors in the future.
A video-based data set involving several working families observed across numerous contexts permits analysis of many kinds of questions relating to the role of marriage in working families, including:
How much redundancy is there in what the two adults do in the family? At one extreme, are both partners capable of most important family tasks or, at the other extreme, can only one adult perform each task?
To what extent is there smooth coordination and synchrony between the adults versus continuing re-negotiation of roles and duties? Are there particular tasks in a family for which coordination is poor?
Do partners comment on the tasks completed by the other? Do partners have an egalitarian balance of power, or is one person in charge of who does what?
What is the emotional quality of communication between adults? Is it negative and critical or positive and supportive? Does it change when children are present?
How do spouses separate before going off to work? How do they reconnect at the end of their days?
The video record proposed for this project will provide an unparalleled opportunity to examine these and many other questions about the inner workings of working families, and particularly how the nature and quality of marital interaction shapes and is shaped by the numerous activities involved in family adaptation.