In low-income families, fathers’ depression hurts couples – Neuroscience News

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Summary: Economically challenged fathers who exhibit depressive symptoms have higher levels of emotional conflict and verbal aggression than mothers.

Source: Ohio State University

When fathers of families in economic difficulty show symptoms of depression, the effects can be particularly damaging to the couple’s relationship, according to a new study.

The researchers found that the depressive symptoms of fathers – but not those of mothers – were linked to higher levels of destructive conflict, such as verbal aggression, between parents in families struggling to pay bills.

The reason may be that fathers feel more stressed than mothers about not being able to alleviate their families’ material hardships, said Joyce Y. Lee, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State. University.

“The breadwinner role has long been considered a defining characteristic of traditional fatherhood,” said Lee, who did the work as part of his doctoral dissertation at the University of Michigan.

“When fathers feel they are not financially providing for their family’s material needs, it can lead to depression and more conflict with their spouse.”

The study was recently published in the journal Family relationships.

The findings are particularly important because most studies of the role of poverty on family relationships have focused on mothers, Lee said.

“We really didn’t know the role fathers’ mental health played in key family outcomes for poor families,” she said.

“These results show how important it is to understand what is happening with fathers.”

Data for the study came from the Building Strong Families Project and included a racially diverse sample of 2,794 mothers and fathers from low-income settings. Data was collected in eight cities in the United States between 2002 and 2013.

An important key to this study was that it included not only family income, but also material hardship as a measure of poverty that taps into families’ daily struggles to make ends meet.

In addition to income poverty, understanding material hardship is important because it affects families at all income levels, including those who would not generally be considered poor under federal poverty guidelines, Lee said.

The researchers measured material hardship by asking participants to rate how difficult it was for them to pay for utilities and medical care, and whether they had trouble paying rent or the mortgage or whether they had been expelled for non-payment.

The results showed that monetary poverty was not related to depressive symptoms in mothers or fathers, but material hardship was related to depressive symptoms in both mothers and fathers.

“Material hardship appears to do a better job than family income at capturing the links between economic hardship and poor parental mental health,” Lee said.

The more participants said they had difficulty paying bills, the more likely mothers and fathers were to say they felt depressed, had trouble sleeping and had trouble concentrating.

That said, the mothers’ levels of depressive symptoms were not related to destructive conflict between the parents. But the fathers’ depressive symptoms were linked to more harmful conflicts.

Verbal aggression can include blaming your partner for things that are wrong and rejecting a partner’s opinions, feelings, and desires.

“We found that material hardships themselves did not lead directly to interpersonal conflict,” Lee said. “But material difficulties operated indirectly via the fathers’ depressive symptoms in their connection to higher levels of destructive conflict.”

The results suggest more attention should be paid to the mental health of fathers in economically disadvantaged families, she said.

But perhaps even more important is addressing the material difficulties that lead to parental depression and conflict.

The researchers found that the depressive symptoms of fathers – but not those of mothers – were linked to higher levels of destructive conflict, such as verbal aggression, between parents in families struggling to pay bills. Image is in public domain

“If basic needs for housing, food, utilities and medical care are not sufficiently met, interventions to help parents manage their conflict will only be very helpful,” Lee said.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has likely compounded the challenges faced by many of these low-income families. We must prioritize making available and connecting families to additional resources,” she said.

Some ways to help families could include housing and utility assistance, employment services, Medicaid expansion, child tax credits and other direct cash transfers.

See also

This shows an elderly lady reading a book

“These can help with material hardship during what continues to be a very difficult time for many American families.”

The co-authors of the study, all from the University of Michigan, were Shawna J. Lee and Andrew C. Grogan-Kaylor from the School of Social Work and Brenda L. Volling from the Department of Psychology.

Funding: Support for the study came from the Administration for Children and Families and the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development.

About this depression research

Author: Jeff Grabmeier
Source: Ohio State University
Contact: Jeff Grabmeier – Ohio State University
Image: Image is in public domain

Original research: Free access.
To examine the mechanisms linking economic insecurity to interparental conflict among low-income couples” by Joyce Y. Lee et al. Family relationships


To examine the mechanisms linking economic insecurity to interparental conflict among low-income couples


The present study used the family stress model to test the mechanisms by which economic insecurity contributes to the mental health of mothers and fathers and to the functioning of couples’ relationships.


Although low household income has been a focus of poverty research, material hardship – defined as day-to-day challenges related to making ends meet, including difficulty paying for housing, utilities, food or medical care – are common in American families.


The participants were from the Building Strong Families project. The couples were of various races (43.52% Black; 28.88% Latinx; 17.29% White; 10.31% Other) and lived on low incomes (NOT = 2794). Economic insecurity included monetary poverty and material hardship. A Bayesian mediation analysis was used, taking advantage of the previous evidence base of the family stress model.


Material hardship, but not monetary poverty, predicted higher levels of maternal and paternal depressive symptoms. Only paternal depressive symptoms were linked to higher levels of destructive interparental conflict (ie, mild verbal aggression used by couples that could be detrimental to the partner relationship). Mediation analysis confirmed that material difficulties operated primarily through paternal depressive symptoms in their association with destructive interparental conflict.


The economic stress of meeting the family’s daily material needs paves the way for parental mental health issues that escalate into destructive interparental conflict, particularly through paternal depressive symptoms.


Family-strengthening programs may consider interventions to address material hardships (e.g., comprehensive needs assessments, links to community resources, job training for parents) as part of their efforts to address health parental mentality and the destructive conflicting behaviors of couples.

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