UF Study: Strong Families Enjoy Most Support From Those Who Find It Difficult

Published: December 22 2003


GAINESVILLE, Fla. — The most positive attitudes about the value of marriage and the importance of families are found among groups that experience the greatest difficulty forming and maintaining healthy family relationships, a new University of Florida study finds.

People from low-income households, who have the highest rates of cohabitation, premarital pregnancy and having never been married, express the strongest support for marriage and families, including the idea of abstinence before marriage, said Ben Karney, a UF psychology professor who led the research.

“People seem to care deeply about family and marriage, but it turns out that a positive attitude towards marriage and stable families is not sufficient to bring about healthy, stable family relationships,” he said.

The statewide telephone survey, which was conducted between July and November with a $157,000 grant from the state Department of Children and Families, was designed to assist state officials in designing future programs to support families in Florida. Participants in the 20-minute interviews were selected from random digit dialing.

The survey found that while the average Florida family has many diverse characteristics, the overwhelming majority of Floridians agree on these important key points:

• A happy, healthy marriage is one of the most important things in life (92 percent)

• Children do better when their parents are married (80 percent)

• That government programs to strengthen families and reduce divorce are a good or very good idea (67 percent)

“The intent of this survey was to establish baseline information about the structure of Florida’s families, what they think about family issues and to identify what factors affect strong, healthy families,” said Department of Children & Families Secretary Jerry Regier. “We will use this survey as one of the many tools in our efforts, including working with local communities and private organizations, to strengthen Florida’s families on a variety of fronts. This is a dynamic process and we still have much work to do,” Regier added.

“Maintaining a healthy marriage is challenging. Divorce and unmarried birth rates in Florida are very high,” said Regier. “There is nothing more important than strengthening Florida’s families, and while no single survey answers every question, this is a useful tool that will provide a resource for further analysis,” Regier added.

Said Karney: “People who are unmarried do not value marriage any less than people who are married, especially among the state’s low income population. Rather they face real concrete obstacles that constrain their choices.”

The subject of these constraints came up again and again in the survey, Karney said. Couples in less-satisfying relationships were more likely to be experiencing a constellation of difficult events in their lives, including greater financial strains, problems with substance abuse and mental health concerns, he said.

Eighty percent of Floridians surveyed said they had been married, and more than half (65 percent) of people who were unmarried expressed their desire to be married, he said.

“When we asked unmarried people ‘Why are you not married?,’ one of the most frequent answers to that question was ‘Because I’m afraid if I married my current partner it would end in divorce.’ In other words, it is a fear of divorce, not a fear of marriage, that factors into some people’s decision to remain unmarried,” Karney said.

Unmarried people in low income households were more likely than those in high-income households to say that they couldn’t afford to marry, they worried about domestic violence or were concerned about a partner’s substance abuse problem, he said.

The UF study found that couples whose household income is higher are happier in their relationships, Karney said. The study also found that people in the most satisfying relationships spend an average of 22 additional waking hours per week in each other’s presence, he said.

Together, these results suggest that one reason partners in low-income households are less satisfied is that they may have less time for each other, he said.

“All the things that make relationships fulfilling and healthy, such as communication and sharing intimacy, take time and energy,” Karney said. “So anything that takes time away from the relationship or drains the amount of energy one has to devote to the relationship is likely to make the relationship harder.”

The study not only raises questions about patterns that take place within families, but how families interact with their environment, he said.

“One implication of these results is that if we want to help people’s families and their relationships, we’re going to have to take their entire lives into account,” he said.

“You can offer people relationship skills training, but you have to make sure there is time in their lives to practice the skills that they’ve been trained to do,” he said. “Otherwise, you’re giving people piano lessons without a piano.”


Cathy Keen, newsdesk@ufl.edu
Ben Karney, karney@ufl.edu, 352-392-0601