Shedding light on the role of these family processes may be especially important for understanding well-being in midlife because the middle years may be a point in the life course where the consequences of negative relationships are especially detrimental. First, this is the period in which adults are likely to experience transitions that may fuel distress and discord with family members, such as launching young adult children and becoming caregivers to parents. Second, comparisons of emotion regulation across the life course have shown that midlife adults are more likely to react strongly to family conflict than are older adults (Blanchard-Fields et al. 2004
; Charles and Carstensen 2007
), consistent with socioemotional selectivity theory (Carstensen 1992
), thus making midlife a period during which such transitions and ensuing conflict may be especially problematic.
Our aim in this article is to extend our understanding of the role of negative family interactions on adults in midlife. One question that has not been addressed in this literature that we propose is important to consider is whether the consequences of such tension differ by the role relationship between the individual and the source of tension. In other words, is conflict from some role partners more consequential for well-being? To address this question, in this article, we examine the differential impact of tension with spouses, mothers, and siblings on psychological well-being in midlife, using data collected from 495 adult children nested within 254 families.
1.1. Family Networks and Psychological Well-Being
Scholarship on role salience provides a basis for anticipating differential effects of multiple family relationships on psychological well-being (McCall and Simmons 1966
; Nevill and Super 1986
; Super 1990
). In particular, theoretical and empirical work on interpersonal relations has shown that the more salient a role partner’s position within one’s social network, the greater the impact of negative interaction with that individual on well-being (Carr et al. 2014
; Cheng et al. 2011
). Further, Kahn and Antonucci’s convoy model suggests that role partners’ salience within an individual’s social network may vary depending on an individual’s stage in the life course (Kahn and Antonucci 1980
). In this paper, we are particularly interested in the impact of ties with family members whose salience is especially high in midlife. The literature on family networks suggests that in midlife, the most salient kin ties, beyond one’s own children, are spouses, mothers, and siblings (Antonucci et al. 2001
; Rossi and Rossi 1990
; Suitor et al. 2015c
Based on the theoretical and empirical literature, we propose a set of three hypotheses regarding the relative salience of ties with spouses, mothers, and siblings for psychological well-being. As mentioned previously, the literature on family relationships and well-being in adulthood has focused primarily on the benefits and costs of marriage (Carr and Springer 2010
). By midlife, marriages are typically well-established, and for many individuals, spouses are primary sources of support (Antonucci et al. 2001
; Cutrona 1996
). Thus, it is perhaps not surprising that the spousal relationship is strongly associated with well-being. Research on marriage and mental health has demonstrated that the impact of marriage on well-being is highly dependent on the quality of the marital relationship (Umberson et al. 2013
). In particular, marital dissatisfaction is detrimental for psychological well-being (Proulx et al. 2007
; Umberson et al. 2013
). Given the primacy of the spousal relationship, we expected that spousal tension would be more strongly associated with depressive symptoms compared to tension with mothers or siblings.
The attention to spousal relationships mirrors a larger pattern in family scholarship that has tended to emphasize the marital tie (Fingerman and Hay 2002
), and reflects an assumption that as individuals age and form new family ties (e.g., spouses), those ties take priority, whereas the ties with their families of origin (e.g., parents and siblings) become less important (Carr and Springer 2010
; Umberson et al. 2013
). Research over the last several decades, however, has shown that parents and adult children maintain enduring ties across the life course, regardless of whether adult children marry (Suitor et al. 2013
). Further, a growing body of research has demonstrated that relationships between parents and children have implications for the well-being of both generations in adulthood (Gilligan et al. 2015
; Polenick et al. 2016
; Suitor et al. 2015b
; Umberson 1992
). In midlife, individuals often indicate that their relationship with their mother is very central in their lives, but they often rank this relationship below their relationships with their spouse and own children in terms of importance (Antonucci et al. 2004
). Taken together, the literature on adult families demonstrates that mothers remain a central member of individuals’ family networks across the life course; therefore, we predicted that tension with mothers would influence the well-being of midlife individuals. However, given the primacy of the spousal relationship, we expected that the impact of tension with mothers would be weaker compared to the impact of tension with spouses.
Relative to spouses and parents, the sibling relationship has been given little attention in the study of relationship quality and well-being in adulthood. The absence of attention to adult siblings is surprising, given that family scholars have documented the important role that siblings play in one another’s lives throughout the life course. In particular, adult siblings typically express feelings of closeness, conflict, and ambivalence toward one another (Antonucci et al. 2004
; Fingerman et al. 2004
; Gilligan et al. 2013
; Suitor et al. 2009
), maintain contact (Connidis and Campbell 1995
; Spitze and Trent 2006
) and continue to exchange emotional and instrumental support (Campbell et al. 1999
; Connidis and Campbell 1995
; White 2001
; White and Riedmann 1992
). In fact, for many individuals the sibling tie is one of the most enduring kin relations across the life course (Bedford and Avioli 2012
). In midlife, individuals report especially close relationships with siblings; however, individuals typically situate siblings as less important members of their network than spouses and mothers (Antonucci et al. 2004
). Nevertheless, earlier studies have demonstrated an association between sibling relationship quality and psychological well-being in adulthood (Cicirelli 1989
; Paul 1997
In this work, Cicirelli
) was not able to compare the impact of sibling relations relative to relationships with other key members of the kin network. Paul
) did provide such a comparison, finding variations in the associations between the quality of ties with mothers, spouses, and siblings and a variety of well-being outcomes. However, due to the small sample size, it was not possible to either include controls or make comparisons between the impacts of relationships with various family members.
Taken together, based on the literature on the maintenance of strong ties between siblings in adulthood and bivariate correlations found in other studies, we anticipated that sibling tension would be associated with psychological well-being, but such tension would be less strongly associated with depressive symptoms than would tension with spouses and mothers.
In summary, based on a combination of theoretical arguments and empirical evidence, we hypothesized that there would be notable differences in the consequences of ties with these three role partners, with relationship quality with spouses having the greatest impact, followed by relationship quality with mothers, and finally with siblings. It is important to note that although we anticipated substantial variations in the impact of these ties on well-being, we hypothesized that all three would predict depressive symptoms.
1.1.1. Gender within the Context of Family Networks
Up until this point, we have discussed the association between family networks and psychological well-being without taking gender into consideration. Classic arguments developed by Chodorow
) and Gilligan
) regarding socialization have often been used to explain girls’ and women’s stronger emphasis on interpersonal relations across the life course, relative to that of boys and men (LaSala 2002
; Silverstein et al. 1998
; Suitor and Pillemer 2006
; Suitor et al. 2015a
). Given the stronger bonds women form in interpersonal relationships, it is reasonable to assume that these interpersonal relationships have stronger consequences on women’s than men’s psychological well-being. However, the empirical findings regarding gender differences in the association between interpersonal relationships and well-being are inconsistent (Umberson et al. 1996
Recent research comparing the association between marital quality and well-being outcomes has produced mixed results, and some scholars have shown that the effects of marital quality on psychological well-being are similar for men and women (Lee and Szinovacz 2016
; Umberson et al. 2006
; Williams 2003
). Similarly, some studies have not found gender differences between parent–child relationship quality and well-being for sons and daughters (Fingerman et al. 2008
; Suitor et al. 2015b
). Further, the research on sibling relationships in adulthood suggests that the association between sibling relationship quality and psychological well-being varies by gender depending upon the dimension of relationship quality and psychological well-being considered (Cicirelli 1989
; Paul 1997
Thus, based on the theoretical literature on gender and interpersonal relations, we thought that it was important to explore whether patterns in the association between psychological well-being and tension with various family ties differ by gender. However, given the inconsistency in the literature on family ties and psychological well-being, we did not make a specific hypothesis regarding the strength of the association between tension with spouses, mothers, and siblings and psychological well-being for men and women.
1.1.2. Other Factors Affecting Psychological Well-Being
It is important to control for several characteristics that have been found to predict depressive symptoms. These include age, educational attainment, parental status, employment, and self-rated health. Specifically, poor physical health and unemployment predict increased depressive symptoms (Clarke et al. 2011
; Schieman and Glavin 2011
), whereas age has been found to have a curvilinear relationship to depressive symptoms (Clarke et al. 2011
). Educational attainment also predicts depressive symptoms, with those who are better educated reporting fewer depressive symptoms than those who are less educated (Clarke et al. 2011
). Therefore, we included these characteristics throughout the analyses.