Everyday gender conflicts in low-income couples

Paula England, Emily Fitzgibbons Shafer

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


WHAT ARE the everyday bones of contention in couples' relationships? Research on middle-class couples emphasizes women's longing for more emotional intimacy and the inequity of the fact that employed women still do most of the housework, though it isn't clear whether these are the issues that couples would say are most important. We know less about the issues of contention in lower-income couples, especially given that many studies of working-class couples have been limited to white, married couples and are decades old. In this paper, we explore the issues that low-income cohabiting or married couples with children identify as their main conflicts.1 Low-income couples have the obvious problem of less money, making disagreements about spending priorities more difficult to solve. Lifecourse trajectories differ profoundly by class in ways that might affect couple conflicts. At lower education and class levels, and among disadvantaged minority groups, women get pregnant earlier, often before marriage, pregnancies are more often unplanned, and fertility is higher (Ellwood and Jencks 2001; Edin and Kefalas 2005; Musick, England, and Edgington 2005; chapter 2 this volume). Among the poor, children are often the main source of meaning in women's lives (Edin and Kefalas 2005). Relationships break up at higher rates, so repartnering leads many households to include the woman's children from a past as well as the present partner (Carlson and Furstenberg 2006), which may lead to disagreements about how stepfathers should act (Cherlin 1978). To explore couple relationships among low-income parents, we use the Time, Love, and Cash among Couples with Children Study. As part of this longitudinal, qualitative study of new parents, we employed a couple discussion at the end of the couple interviews two and four years after they had a baby. In this discussion, the couple was asked to identify two important issues that they didn't see eye to eye on. The interviewer asked them to explain each side, and then left them alone to discuss the issue for ten minutes. Our analysis comes from a content analysis of the videos and transcripts from these sessions, supplemented by other data on the couples from the qualitative interviews and the quantitative survey data from the Fragile Family and Child Wellbeing study (Fragile Families). After coding all conflicts into nine categories, we focus our analysis on two issues, because they came up most often and had a clear pattern to which gender took what position. In about a third of the couples, one of the two issues selected concerned women wanting more attention from men. Women want men to spend more time with them, talk and listen to them more, and show more affection. Few men articulate this grievance. About a third of couples chose our second issue: how strict the child rearing regime should be, with fathers generally wanting things stricter than mothers. We call the issues we examine here everyday conflicts. We know from what the couples in this study told us in individual interviews that many have had serious problems such as sexual infidelity (see chapters 5 and 6, this volume). Few parents chose this issue when couples were interviewed together, however. This is in part because sexual infidelity broke up some couples, and those who broke up, though interviewed individually, typically did not participate in the couple interviews two to four years into the study that we use here. Additionally, people may shy away from talking about infidelity in front of a partner because to do so is destabilizing. Thus, what we describe are the chronic conflicts that couples are willing to talk about, have a clear pattern to which gender takes what position, and are seen by couples as important. We make no claim that they are the issues that break up relationships, but they are the everyday stuff of gender conflicts in low-income couples with children. We also make no claim that they are the same or different than those of middleclass couples. To facilitate future comparisons, we think it important to document what coupled life looks like in the low-income population, where patterns of partnering and childbearing are very different.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationUnmarried Couples with Children
PublisherRussell Sage Foundation
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781610441865
ISBN (Print)9780871542854
StatePublished - 2007

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • General Social Sciences


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