Martial status, social support and psychological well-being among low-income mothers in rural area

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

80 Pages, Grade: 2



CHAPTER I: Introduction
Psychological Well-Being and Poverty
Psychological Well-Being and Geographic Location
Psychological Well-Being and Race/Ethnicity
Problem Statement

CHAPTER II: Literature Review
Marital Status and Psychological Well-being
Marital Status and Race/Ethnicity
Marital Status and Poverty
Married Persons and Psychological Well-Being
Married vs. Non-Married Persons and Psychological Well-Being
Social Support and Psychological Well-being
Social Support and Geographic Location
Social Support and Race/Ethnicity
Social Support and Marital Status
Marriage as Social Support
Theoretical Framework
Social Selection Perspective
Family Stress Theory
Purpose of the Study

CHAPTER III: Methodology
Data Analysis

Demographics Characteristics
Descriptive Data Analyses of Variables
Marital Status and Depression
Social Support and Depression
Bivariate Relationships between Continuous Variables
Mean Comparison 1: Depression
Mean Comparison 2: Marital Status and Depression
Mean Comparison 3: Perceived Social Support and Depression
Multivariate Analysis of Variance 1: Marital Status and Social Support on Depression
Multivariate Analysis of Variance 2: Marital Status and Social Support on Change in Depression
Mean Comparison 4 and Multivariate Analysis of Variance 3: Race on Social Support and Depression

CHAPTER V: Discussion
Characteristics of Rural Mothers
The Relationship between Marital Status and Depression
Marital Status vs. Partner Status
The Relationship between Perceived Social Support and Depression
The Relationship between Marital Status, Social Support, and Depression
The Relationship between Life Changes and Depression
Summary of Findings
Future Research
Program and Policy Implications

APPENDIX: Depression Measure

APPENDIX: Social Support Measure

CHAPTER I: Introduction

Psychological well-being is defined as possessing the capacity for good decision-making, effective stress management, good communication skills, effective parenting, and caring for oneself emotionally, according to Dr. Donald Franklin (2003). Others define psychological well-being as a general reference to feelings of happiness and hopefulness (Marks, 1996; Ross et al., 1990). As these definitions illustrate, psychological health affects many aspects of life.

While some research has specifically measured psychological health by examining happy and hopeful feelings, most research measures psychological distress or the absence of psychological well-being (Coiro, 2001; Dooley & Prause, 2002; Hoyt et al, 1997). Psychological distress most commonly consists of feelings of sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, abnormal eating and sleeping patterns, and irritability, which are symptoms that commonly occur when experiencing depression (Ross et al., 1990). Psychological distress is frequently characterized as depression. Much of the research on marital status and well-being uses scores on measures of depression as an indicator of psychological distress (Brown, Brody, & Stoneman, 2000; Brown, Abe-Kim, & Barrio, 2003; Kim & McKenry, 2002; Lamb, Lee, & DeMarris, 2003). Distress can also be identified by measures of anxiety, happiness, and self-esteem (Horwitz & White, 1991).

Although psychological well-being is an internal state, it is affected by external factors. Some influential external factors include: economic stability, interpersonal and intimate relationships, and perceived social support. Geographic location and race/ethnicity play significant roles in how economic status, marital status, and social support affect psychological health. Healthy psychological well-being is reflective of an above poverty financial standing, the presence of intimate relationships, and the perception of social support.

In contrast, unhealthy, low psychological well-being reflects below poverty economic status, few or no intimate relationships, and little or no perceived social support. Research supports these impacts of economic, emotional and intimate support, and social support (Belle, 1990) on psychological well-being and raises questions for additional research: What makes these dimensions of life functioning influential? More importantly, what happens when any of these dimensions are diminished or absent? This study focuses on the impact of intimate and social support on psychological well-being measured by depression scores of impoverished, rural mothers.

Psychological Well-Being and Poverty

A substantial amount of research documents the relationship between psychological health and poverty (Amato & Zuo, 1992; Bruce, Takeuchi, & Leaf, 1991; Coiro, 2001; Dooley & Prause, 2002; Murry et al., 2002; Ross, 2000). Research suggests that continual economic hardships increase the risk for experiencing depression (Bruce et al, 1991; Hoyt et al., 1997; Human & Wasem, 1991; McGrath, Keita, Strickland, & Russo, 1990). Studies find poverty to be one of the life conditions associated with poor psychological health (McGrath et al., 1990; Rank, 2000). Webster (1995) defines poverty as a state, condition, or quality of being poor, having little or no money. According to the Economic Research Service of the United States Department of Agriculture, someone living in poverty has a total income less than an amount that is deemed to be sufficient to purchase basic needs of food, shelter, clothing, and other essential goods and services (2003). The 2000 Census revealed that poverty affected 34.6 million (12.1%) of the U.S. population (Proctor & Dalaker, 2002) . Therefore, many people who experience the various disadvantages of low income are at risk for poor psychological well-being.

Poverty is a pathway to poor psychological health, especially for women, because compared to more financially fortunate women, poor women more frequently experience uncontrollable adverse life events (Mazure, Keita, & Blehar, 2002). Some of the disadvantages of poverty include: increased likelihood of stressful events exposure such as crime and illness; low self-esteem; a sense of no control over life; chronic economic hardships; few social resources; poor health; unstable employment; marital problems and/or divorce; and racism (Amato & Zuo, 1992; Belle, 1990; Brown et al., 2003; Coiro, 2001; McGrath et al., 1990; Ross, 2000).

Low-income women with young children are particularly at high risk for low psychological health. Mothers on welfare possess an increased risk for high psychological distress because they experience stressors such as persistent welfare dependence and inadequate social support. Research suggests that poverty weakens a mother’s ability to cope with new problems and stressors, as well as her ability to use various types of social support (Coiro, 2001).

Psychological Well-Being and Geographic Location

Research finds that psychological health is related to regional economic conditions (Hoyt et al., 1997). Poverty occurs in both urban and rural environments; and has different effects for both settings. According to the 2000 Census, 16.7% of families living in central urban areas and 8.9% of families living outside urban areas fell below the poverty threshold (Proctor & Dalaker, 2002). Federal statistics show that poverty rates and unemployment are higher for rural families than for their metro counterparts (U.S. Census, 2000). The poverty rate in rural communities remains high (U.S. Census, 2001b), and persistent. Long-term poverty is much more common for rural families than urban families (Deavers & Hoppe, 1992; Imig, Bokemeier, Keefe, Struthers, & Imig, 1997). According to U.S. Census data (2001a), between 1999 and 2000, median household income fell for those living outside of metropolitan areas.

Findings vary as to which environment is more conducive to poverty. Contrary to the common thought of rural America being a healthy place to live, rural Americans are disproportionately poor, thus making them at greater risk for psychological problems (Human & Wasem, 1991). In contrast, rural poverty can be seen as less harmful because perceived social support and interactions revolve more around family and religion, thus providing a sense of belonging and support (Amato & Zuo, 1992; Weinert & Long, 1987). Studies find that social interaction and support are often absent due to geographical isolation for those living in rural poverty (Amato & Zuo, 1992). Economic and social dislocations are major contributors to psychological distress (Hoyt et al., 1997). In addition to the geographic isolation, rural areas lack available and accessible mental health services. Mental health services are mostly concentrated in urban areas. (Human & Wasem, 1991) Of the few available services, distances requiring travel to obtain services and the lack of public transportation limit access (Human & Wasem, 1991).

Weinert & Long found that people living in rural areas report high levels of perceived social support (1987). Such social interaction is considered beneficial because it often serves as a barrier from the stress that is experienced due to poverty.

Additionally, some researchers hypothesize that rural living is advantageous to psychological health because rural people rarely mention mental health issues, ignore moderate distress, or deny psychological problems (Weinert & Long, 1987).

For racial minorities living in rural areas, the isolation and economic hardships and lack of services or access to support services, is especially problematic. In general, Latin Americans and especially African Americans, experience a great deal of distress due to low socioeconomic status because they are disproportionately represented among the poor (Brown et al., 2003; McGrath et al., 1990; Murry et al., 2002). In the 2000 Census, 24% of self identified African Americans and 21.8% of self identified Hispanics fell below the poverty threshold, compared to 8% of self identified whites (non-Hispanic) who reported living under the poverty threshold (Proctor & Dalaker, 2003).

Psychological Well-Being and Race/Ethnicity

Ethnic minority mothers are more likely to experience a number of risk factors for psychological distress such as ethnic/racial discrimination, lower education, lower income, sexism, single parenthood, and marital dissolution (Brown et al., 2000; McGrath et al. 1990). Additionally, African American women have a risk of living in poverty that is three times greater than the risk for Caucasian women (Brown et al., 2000). For minorities, a population already vulnerable to developing distress because of environmental and financial stress, a sense of demoralization increases the risk of psychological distress. Impoverished Latino women are particularly at risk for developing distress because of high levels of stress and lack of resources (Brown et al., 2003).

Current Marriage promotion legislation is based on the belief that poverty can be evaded by being married. Research supports the notion that marriage buffers economic instability and strain (Fox & Bartholomae, 2000). Through providing resources to escape financial hardship, marriage can prevent depression. However, much of the research is focused on more economically advantaged people.

Problem Statement

In 1996, legislation was passed establishing the Temporary Assistance For Needy Families program (TANF). This program had four “family formation” goals: “to provide assistance to needy families, to end dependence of needy parents on government benefits by promoting job preparation, work, and marriage, to prevent and reduce the incidence of out-of-wedlock pregnancies, and to encourage the formation and maintenance of two-parent families” (Ooms, 2002). A focus on marriage was introduced in the P.L. 104-193, the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), which introduced incentives for states to focus attention and funds on promoting marriage (Levin-Epstein, Ooms, Parke, Roberts, Turetsky, 2002; Ooms, 2002). This marriage promotion legislation is intended to lower the poverty rate and reduce dependence on federal assistance by increasing the number of marriages, enhancing existing marriages, and decreasing the divorce rate (Ooms, 2002). In 2002, the House of Representatives and the Senate Finance Committee each approved their version of a reauthorization bill, providing $100 million annually for marriage promotion and family formation activities. However, as of April 2004, a final bill has yet to leave Congress.

Although this legislation has not been finalized and little is known about the effectiveness of marriage promotion among the welfare-reliant, it is being implemented by states. Ooms (2002) suggested that the marriage promotion movements ignoring the needs and circumstances of the population group that is most in need of help, the low-income couples. Along with knowledge about the outcomes of marriage promotion for financially unstable and rural people, little is known about the link between marriage and the rural poor. Additional exploration of these demographic communities is important because these communities are influenced by a plethora of factors and stressors that are not experienced by the rest of the population (Ooms, 2002). This study examines the marital and social support status and psychological health of a sample of rural, low-income mothers.

CHAPTER II: Literature Review

Over the last four decades, much research has been conducted on marriage. The focus of previous research ranges from general findings on the effects of marriage to more specific findings comparing different relationship statuses. Previous research consistently shows the positive effects of marriage on men; however, findings vary in regards to women. Additionally, much of this research focuses on economically stable women living in suburban areas. The studies of economically unstable mothers and psychological well-being that were done consisted of mothers living in urban cities, suburban areas, farm towns, or unidentified areas and focused on psychological health with regard to socioeconomic status and geographic location (Amato & Zuo, 1992; Brown, Brody, & Stoneman, 2000; Dooley & Prause, 2002; Hoyt, Conger, Valde, & Weihs, 1997; Murry, Brody, Brown, Wisenbaker, Cutrona, & Simons, 2002). Little is known about the effects of marital status on psychological well-being of low-income, rural, non-farm mothers.

Research conducted to date reveals variant findings regarding marital status and psychological health. Many studies find that marriage is indeed extremely beneficial, however, only for men. Some studies find that married women are able to experience lower levels of psychological distress because of the benefits of marriage (Brown et al., 2000; Green & Rodgers, 2001; McGrath, Keita, Strickland, & Russo, 1990). Other studies show that married women possess higher levels of distress and that marriage can be a source of conflict (Cotton, 1999; Horwitz & White, 1991). Such findings give support to the notion that marital satisfaction rather than marital status affects psychological health. Studies suggest that marriage can be a source of stress with the positive associations between marital status and psychological health related only to happy marriages (Fincham & Bradbury, 1990; Laakso & Paunonen-Illmonen, 2002). Marital satisfaction is a measure of comfort with disagreement and aspects of conflict resolution and communication. Marital satisfaction assesses the quality of spousal relationships.

These mixed findings regarding marriage and satisfaction lead to research questions: Is being married predictive of psychological health or are there benefits of marriage that could exist with relationships other than marriage? Does marriage enhance psychological well-being when the benefits of being married such as financial stability and social support are lacking or not present? Does economic status, location, or the existence of children affect the advantages of marriage?

Much of the research concerning marital status and psychological health focuses on economically stable men and women living in suburban areas. The few studies of women only, with regard to the influences of psychological health, consisted of women living in urban cities or farm towns, with no focus on the marital status variable. An abundance of studies examine the relationship between marital status and psychological health, marital status and gender, economic status and psychological well-being, economic status and women, and geographic location and psychological well-being. However, little is known about the effects of marital status on psychological health of low-income, rural, non-farm mothers. Additionally, research finds that life changes affect experience with poverty. More specifically, Rank (2000) found that divorce and separation was associated with approximately one-tenth of all periods of poverty. Of those below the poverty threshold, two-thirds escaped impoverishment because of income increases and one-third escaped as a result of family structural changes such as marriage. Changes in income and family composition aid in the escape from or the induction into poverty (Rank, 2000). If poverty is affected by significant life changes, can life changes such as changes in marital status and social support also affect psychological health?

Marital Status and Psychological Well-being

Research suggests that marital status and psychological well-being are closely associated (McGrath et. al, 1990). Marital status refers to the various relationship configurations (married, separated, and cohabiting) or the lack there of (never married, divorced, and widowed). Over the last four decades, much research focused on marriage (Gove et al., 1983; Horwitz & White, 1991; Kessler & Essex, 1982; Lee et al., 1991; Lorenz, Simons, Conger, Elder, Jr., Johnson, & Chao, 1997; Pearlin & Johnson, 1977; Simon, 2002; Stack & Eshleman, 1998; Williams, 1988). The focus of previous research ranges from general findings on the effects of marriage to more specific findings of comparing different relationship statuses.

Marital Status and Race/Ethnicity

Race and ethnicity are important considerations when determining effects of marital status on psychological health. Studies show that Latin Americans value marriage as something that is essential for achieving a meaningful life. Despite economic disadvantage, high rates of marriage exist for Latin Americans (Tucker, 2000). Additionally, Latin Americans desire marriage more than whites and blacks. Studies find that in comparison to Caucasians and Latinos, African Americans desire marriage the least (Oropesa & Gorman, 2000), are more likely to divorce, and are least likely to marry (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1998; Tucker, 2000).

Researchers find such low desire for marriage to be attributable to the belief by African Americans that marital success depends on economic security, which is perceived by African Americans as a factor that can be achieved by living together with someone (Tucker, 2000). Studies also suggest that the increased divorce rate and low marriage rate among African Americans is a result of a shortage of men, which is referred to as a sex-ratio imbalance (Tucker & Mitchell-Kernan, 1998). In addition to higher rates of divorce and separation, African Americans also possess a high rate of delayed marriage and unmarried cohabitation (Taylor, 2000).

As implied by high divorce and separation rates among African Americans, race has been found to be a significant risk factor to marriage dissolution (Kposowa, 1998). Kposowa (1998) found that almost half (47%) of unions among African American women were expected to dissolve by the end of 15 years of marriage, compared to an expected seventeen percent of unions among white women ending after 15 years of matrimony. Kposowa explained African American marital dissolution as an effect of socioeconomic status. The association between economic status and marital status is that low income suggests a lack of economic resources, which is a known source of stress (1998). With an income that is insufficient for meeting a family’s needs, feelings of deprivation are more likely, which may create marital conflict and tension. Such problems within a marriage decrease the satisfaction and happiness experienced within the union, which can ultimately lead to separation and/or divorce. Such an explanation is pertinent to African Americans because being black is strongly associated with low socioeconomic status (Kposowa, 1998).

Marital Status and Poverty

As stated above, through the presence or absence of essential resources, economic status affects marital status. Along with affecting the likelihood of marriage, poverty is also linked to increased separation and divorce rates (Rank, 2000). Rank (2000) concluded the lower likelihood of marriage among the impoverished to be attributable to a shortage of marriageable partners. Economically secure partners are desired and considered marriageable partners. However, poverty weakens the possibility of uniting with a financially stable person, thereby weakening the chance of marriage among the poor (Rank, 2000). Marital satisfaction is negatively affected by the financial stress experienced by impoverished married couples and often contributes to separation and divorce. Married couples in poverty often lack the resources that could be helpful in dealing with a strained marriage such as access to funds needed to alleviate the financial strains or to counseling/therapy to deal with the marital problems. With such limited resources, increased chances of divorce and separation exist for married couples with low socioeconomic status (Rank, 2000).

Married Persons and Psychological Well-Being

Research suggests that marriage contributes to an overall healthy well-being (Gove & Shin 1989; Lamb et al., 2003; Ross, Mirowsky, & Goldsteen, 1990). Married people enjoy the benefits of social support, immediate intimate emotional support, and economic support (Waite, 2000), as well as having lower morbidity and mortality rates (Coombs, 1991; Ross et al., 1990). Marriage is a legal, formalized relationship that facilitates association in a network that could potentially provide social support and influences one’s well-being (Cotton, 1999). Intimate emotional support, provided by a partner, is characterized as a sense of being cared about, loved, esteemed, valued as a person, along with having a confidante (Pierce, Sarason, Sarason, Joseph, & Henderson, 1996; Ross et al., 1990). Married people report higher degrees of intimate emotional support and also tend to report lower levels of depression (Stack & Eshleman, 1998). But is this true for all socioeconomic levels?

Marriage is assumed to be economically beneficial because it most often results in higher household incomes, which helps to potentially circumvent possible economic stresses and helps to provide for higher quality living, such as better housing, food, and services. The improved standard of living and lower risk of impoverishment contributes to a better overall psychological health (Gove & Shin, 1989; Stack & Eshleman, 1998).

While some studies show that married men and women experience improved holistic health (Waite, 2000), other studies find marriage to be emotionally disadvantageous for women and particularly beneficial to men (McGrath et al., 1990; Simon, 2002). Being married not only directly protects and improves men’s physical and psychological health, but such a committed state also reduces risky behaviors (Ross et al., 1990; Waite, 2000; Wu & Hart, 2002). Men’s lives are enhanced because they have someone who, by nature, is often nurturing and observant, thus directly paying service to his needs. For women, marriage is indirectly beneficial through the social assumptions of financial and emotional security and immediate social support. What happens when marriage does not provide these benefits?

Research further suggests that marriage, alone, is predictive of healthy psychological well-being (Acock & Demo, 1994; Kessler & Essex, 1982; Kim & McKenry, 2002). However, most research shows marriage to be beneficial in comparison to people who are not currently married (Gove, Hughes, Style, 1983; Horwitz & White, 1991; Kim & McKenry, 2002; Mastekaasa, 1994; Pearlin & Johnson, 1977; Stack & Eshleman, 1998; Williams 1988; Williams, Takeuchi, Adair, 1992), in terms of marital satisfaction (Waite, 2000), and with regards to what marriage provides.


Cohabitation is a unique quasi-married status because the couple is not married; yet they experience many aspects of marriage. Persons living together experience the instant source of confiding intimacy, a degree of mastery and self-esteem, and often experience integration into the network provided by the live-in partner. Because of the existence of these factors, those who cohabit are often thought to be very similar to married people (Kim & McKenry, 2002).

Although cohabitants live with an intimate partner, they still possess higher levels of distress when compared to married people (Kim & McKenry, 2002). People who live together experience financial distress and lower psychological health (Stack & Eshleman, 1998). People who live together often differ in attitudes and behaviors from those who marry (Wu & Hart, 2002). It could be implied that because of prior psychological distress, those who cohabit are unable to attract partners who desire the commitment and responsibilities that accompany marriage.

Married vs. Non-Married Persons and Psychological Well-Being

Non-married persons are defined as persons who never married as well as persons who were formerly married (separated, divorced, widowed), and persons who are cohabitating. Studies find that when compared to married people, non-married persons report possessing higher levels of psychological distress (Ross et al., 1990). Although non-married individuals may report happiness, hopefulness, and a sense of social support, when compared married people, non-married people do not possess as high a level of psychological health (Williams, 1988)

Examined closely, studies reveal inconsistent findings when comparing married persons to each subgroup of non-married persons. Some research shows that married people are much happier and have lower depression levels, followed by those who never married, and finally by those who were formerly married (Gove et al., 1983; Marks, 1996). Other research found that widowed and never married individuals, especially women, experience more psychological distress than separated and divorced persons (Williams, 1988). Research also found that the divorced and never married were substantially more depressed than married women (Acock & Demo, 1994).

Additional support for the proposition that separated and divorced persons experience the highest depression levels also suggests that married persons experience the least distress, and the single and widowed experience an intermediate level of distress (Gove & Shin, 1989; Pearlin & Johnson, 1977; Williams et al., 1992). Other studies found that people who cohabit experience less psychological distress than other non-married individuals (Stack & Eshleman, 1998; Waite, 2000). In addition to the possible increase in happiness for the never married, studies suggest that a possible decrease in happiness exists among the married (Lee et al., 1991). Thus the question arises, is marital status no longer suggestive of psychological well-being?

Previous studies reveal that compared with single people who are not in current relationships, married people are happier because of the idea that the married encounter higher levels of interaction with others (Stack & Eshleman, 1998). Many studies do not include persons living together in the non-married pool, but of those that do, people who cohabit were the happiest subset of non-married people. Cohabitation has many of the beneficial emotional characteristics of marriage such as an intimate relationship, a source of social support, regular sexual activity, and shared income, but also possesses the flexibility to end their relationship, an advantage of singlehood (Horwitz & White, 1998). People who cohabit are not considered to be equal to married people because cohabitation does not have the same legal status as marriage and has a negative association with financial satisfaction and health.

Past studies reveal that the idea that married persons are psychologically better off than never married persons who exhibit higher depression scores. Yet, more recent studies find this differential is no longer true or is losing validity. Some studies suggest that the state of marriage alone does not determine emotional health; rather the quality of the marriage determines emotional health (Haring-Hidore, Stock, Okun, & Witter, 1985; Waite, 2000; Kim & McKenry, 2002). Such inconsistent findings about the experience of depression and union statuses lend support for additional exploration of the relationship between marital status and psychological health especially among low-income and rural, low-income people and gives rise to questions. If the quality of the relationship is what predicts psychological health, could quality non-marital relationships provide the same benefits of marriage?

Social Support and Psychological Well-being

Marriage makes each spouse a part of a larger social network that could potentially provide various social resources. Sanderson (2004) defines social support as the presence or amount of social relationships, the perception of available assistance, and the receipt of assistance. Social support is a care resource that can be received from family, friends, colleagues, and healthcare personnel (Laakso & Paunonen-Illmonen, 2002).

Social support can be divided into two categories: emotional support and instrumental support. As aforementioned, the conveyance of care and love is emotional support. Emotional support also includes appreciation for others, trust, and listening (Laakso & Paunonen-Illmonen, 2002). Instrumental support is behavior that provides tangible assistance (Pierce et al., 1996). Laakso and Paunonen-Illmonen (2002) also suggest two other categories of social support: appraisal support and informational support. While appraisal support means affirmation, feedback, and social equality, informational support refers to advice, suggestions, guidance, and information giving.

Perceived social support refers to the perceptions of the availability of others upon whom one can rely for support should support be needed (Pierce et al., 1996). Social support is recognized as a variable that moderates the negative effects of potential distress and the many causes of depression (Cotton, 1999; Cutrona, 1996, Laakso & Paunonen-Illmonen, 2002). Furthermore, research finds that people who report depressive symptomatology often report lower quality and levels of social support as well (Davila, Bradbury, Cohan, & Tochluk, 1997). Social support is thought to enhance life by creating a sense of well-being, a sense of belonging, and a sense of hopefulness.

According to Green and Rogers (2001), social support is a stress reducer because it provides effective coping resources and helps people view events as less stressful than if they were handling the events in isolation. They found that the more social support a person perceives and/or receives, the less likely he or she is to perceive stress. They concluded that socially supportive relationships could promote psychological health because of a reciprocal association with mastery. Mastery is a resource that governs the use of other resources; that is, mastery influences the ability to get needed support and to determine when seeking help is appropriate. According to Green and Rogers, the role of mastery is not clear. One view is that greater perceptions of mastery are caused by effectively partaking in needed social support. The opposing view states that a sense of social support is important to the enhancement of mastery because it provides a secure base that increases one’s confidence to explore and experiment (Green & Rodgers, 2001).

Social Support and Geographic Location

While studies find that the general rural population perceives high levels of social support (Weinert & Long, 1987), research shows that low-income persons living in rural areas do not possess strong social networks because low financial resources and geographical isolation limit opportunities (Amato & Zuo, 1992; Hoyt et al., 1997). However, studies found that rural families are more likely to live near extended family, which grants access to social support from family (Struthers & Bokemeier, 2000; Taylor, 2000). Although rural areas are less likely to have easily accessible support services and resources, persons with a greater perception of social support are more willing to tap into the few present resources (Hoyt et al., 1997).

Social Support and Race/Ethnicity

Researchers find that ethnic minorities perceive higher levels of social support because cultural ties often reflect strong social/kin networks. For Latin Americans, the family offers security, a sense of belonging, and a source of strength and support (Becerra, 1998; Suarez, 1998). Helping out emotionally and instrumentally, kin social support serves as a resource in which one may turn to for help in times of stress or need. The support given consists of babysitting, giving personal advice, emotional support, and providing temporary housing (Becerra, 1998).

Similar to Latin Americans, McAdoo (1998) found that African Americans report frequently receiving extensive assistance from extended family members. Research shows that the marital relationship of parents is not what African Americans consider important. Rather, love, stability, and available resources within the family home are what are essential (McAdoo, 1998). Additionally, African Americans receive an abundance of social support from the church. The church is relied upon to provide solace, relief, support, employment, and financial assistance (McAdoo, 1998).

Social Support and Marital Status

Social support is one construct believed to play a protective role in buffering stress for the married and the non-married. However, Cotton (1999) found social support to be especially beneficial to non-married persons and people who are dissatisfied with their marriage because it helps to offset negative outcomes associated with singlehood and distressing unions. For widowed and never married persons, friend and relative social support is strongly associated with psychological health (Cotton, 1999). Regardless of marital status, if partner emotional support and/or social support from others are lacking, the married will experience higher depression levels. Most research provides evidence that the lower the level of social support, the higher the level of depression (Cotton, 1999).

Marriage as Social Support

Marriage can be a source of social support. Support by an intimate partner is distinctively helpful. Commonly, partners are most likely to be turned to for support in time of need (Beach, Fincham, Katz, & Bradbury, 1996). Research also found that available intimate emotional support is very beneficial in preventing distress from turning into depression (Cutrona, 1996). The presence of a supportive marital relationship is linked to reduced depression vulnerability in that marriage lessens one’s susceptibility to experiencing distress (Davila et al., 1997).

Additionally, through the increased social network provided through marriage, partners may find psychological benefits (Cotton, 1999). Nonmarried individuals are isolated from important social ties, derived through marriage and usually centered on home and family, which often generates feelings of security and belonging (Gove et al., 1983; Cotton, 1999). Without those ties, nonmarried people are more likely to possess lower psychological health.

Based on these research findings, psychological health is greatly influenced by various factors that, in some way, are experienced by everyone. More specifically, everyone falls into some category of marital status, socioeconomic status, geographic location, and group of perceived social support. Over time, many researchers examined the association between different relationship configurations (Cockrum & White, 1985; Gove & Shin, 1989; Lorenz et al., 1997; Marks, 1996); different geographic locations (Human & Wasem, 1991); and various perceptions of social support and psychological health (Green & Rodgers, 2001). Some studies even examined the combination effect of these variables, such as the affect of economic level and geographic location on psychological well-being (Amato & Zuo, 1992). However, the many studies on the influences on psychological well-being, research focused on the affects of marital status on psychological well-being, with mediating variables of poverty and rural, non-farm life, and the moderating variable of social support was not located. This study intends to fill this gap in the expansive literature on the relationship between psychological health and the many influential variables.

Theoretical Framework

This research is guided by elements of a social selection perspective and family stress theory. Many studies concerning influences of psychological health were conducted to understand the causal direction of psychological health and other external factors (Kessler & Essex, 1982; Lee et al., 1991; Marks, 1996; Mastekaasa, 1994; Wu & Hart, 2002). Proving to be difficult to determine causality, the intrinsic concept of social selection evolved. Some studies find evidence for this perspective (Mastekaasa, 1992), while many other researchers find evidence against this concept of social selection (Lee, Seccombe, & Shehan, 1991; Mastekaasa, 1994). Other researchers find the theory of family stress, a social causation perspective, to best explain the causal relationship between psychological well and marital status.

Social Selection Perspective

A social selection perspective views the connection between marital status and psychological health as a result of previous well-being. This perspective suggests that people with high levels of psychological well-being and low levels of psychological distress are more likely to be selected for marriage partners and actually stay married (Marks, 1996). The theory implies that those who never marry and those who separate or divorce have low levels of psychological well-being and high levels of distress prior to marriage, thus making more likely the dissolution of the marriage or absence of marriage (Mastekaasa, 1994). The social selection perspective suggests that some people are predetermined or predisposed to have high levels of distress, thus explaining why some people do not marry or their marriages do not last. Adherents to this theory argue that low levels of psychological well-being exist consistently over time (Lee et al., 1991; Mastekaasa, 1994).

The social selection perspective holds that, based on psychological and temperamental health, persons with preexisting distress are less desirable partners and are less capable of obtaining and/or sustaining relationships (Kessler & Essex, 1982; Marks, 1996). For that reason, when non-married people are studied, they present with low levels of psychological well-being and high distress (Wu & Hart, 2002). According to the social selection perspective, happiness does not necessarily increase because of marriage; instead, people who are already happy and psychologically healthy are more likely to be selected for marriage; and in turn, report lower levels of distress compared to the non-married (Stack & Eshleman, 1998).

While many researchers study the uncontrollable condition of the Social Selection Theory to understand psychological health, many others focus on the external and internal factors that contribute to psychological distress. The roles of external and internal factors are accounted for in the Family Stress Theory.

Family Stress Theory

The family stress theory employs the ABC-X model, which identifies causal relationships that specify deterministic patterns. The X factor is caused or determined by the combination of the A, B, and C factors (Burr et al., 1994). The “A” is the stressor, “B” stands for the family’s resources, and “C” represents the family’s perception of the stressor. The “X” symbolizes the distress and crisis that occurs as a result of the stressor combined with the effects of the family’s resources and perception (Boss, Doherty, LaRossa, Schumm, & Seinmetz, 1993; Boss, 2002). Family resources refer to the economic, psychological, emotional, and physical assets possessed by individual members and the whole family unit at the occurrence of the stressor (Burr et al., 1994).

Families experience stress when a disturbance in the steady state of the family occurs. These disturbances are caused by external and internal factors. According to Boss (2002), external factors consist of resources that are influenced by one’s environment, economic situation, and culture. The family does not control external factors. Internal factors refer to how one evaluates or defines the stressful event. One’s ability to utilize resources is contingent on how they perceive the stressor.

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According to this model, the various disadvantages to not being married, along with the experience of a stressor, all combine to create distress. Exposure to life stress increases the chance of developing emotional problems (Dooley & Prause, 2002; Kessler & Essex, 1982). Researchers found that non-married people experienced or were more vulnerable to exposure to a variety of stressful events such as financial strain, social isolation, and increased parental responsibilities (Kessler & Essex, 1982; Marks, 1996; Pearlin & Johnson, 1977).

This social causation perspective suggests that because non-married people are less likely to be protected by the barriers of marriage, they are most likely to respond to the stress in an emotional way and less likely to cope with the issue in an effective way, thus resulting in higher levels of depression (Kessler & Essex, 1982). Unmarried people are less likely to possess internal resources (mastery and self-esteem) and somewhat less likely to have access to social resources (integration and intimacy). When compared to being in a married union, living as a single person is less satisfactory (Mastekaasa, 1994). With the family stress theory, low levels of psychological health are attributable to the occurrence of a stressor; therefore these high levels of distress are not consistent over time. Experience of distress at one moment is not predictive of marital outcomes or later experiences of distress because the distress is an effect of the stress (Lee et al., 1991, Mastekaasa, 1994). According to these researchers, psychological well-being is relative, changes over time, and is contingent upon the existence of stressful factors and one’s ability to cope with the stress.

The ABC-X model suggests that higher levels of psychological well-being are results of marriage (Waite, 2000). Looking at the advantages of marriage, according to this perspective, married people have the potential to experience a reduced level of stress and crisis because the union provides one with coping resources and realistic perspectives. Stressors will be experienced but because they theoretically have better resources, such as higher financial standing and sufficient social support system, married people are better equipped to handle the stressor, and hopefully evade a crisis. With adequate resources, a family has the potential to work together to prevail over the potential crisis and achieve an even higher level of functioning than its pre-stressor functioning (Boss et al., 1993).

Research shows that aspects of being married make marriage more advantageous to mental health . Men benefit mentally and physically, while women benefit mentally (Zu & Randy, 2002). Married people have lower levels of experienced psychological distress because they are exposed to fewer stressful experiences than single or previously married people (Kessler & Essex, 1982). Not only are married people less likely to become psychologically distressed, they are also less affected by the emotional damage caused by the strains and frustrations commonly experienced by unmarried persons, such as economic hardships and parental role problems (Kessler & Essex, 1982). These stressors affect married people to a lesser degree because they have a spouse to either prevent these strains from occurring or to share the stress with and protect them from the full effects (Stack & Eshleman, 1998). Additionally, married persons are able to tap into the various coping resources of mastery, self-esteem, integration, and intimacy (Kessler & Essex, 1982).

Marriage affects the way people view themselves and their abilities. Often marriage promotes feelings of mastery at being a spouse, taking care of others, along with a higher self-esteem because the person feels desired and needed by his or her spouse. Self-esteem is an important psychological characteristic that improves psychological health by diminishing psychological despair and/or increasing motivation to cope better. Being married enhances mastery and self-esteem by providing a foundation for a sense of meaningfulness (Gove et al., 1983; Marks, 1996).

Through confiding, the existence of a spouse potentially provides the social resource of intimacy. Marriage is beneficial because it provides resources and relationships that promote psychological health. By providing emotional, social, and financial support, marriage maintains or enhances personal satisfaction and psychological health (Mastekaasa, 1994; Wu & Hart, 2002).

As mentioned previously, marriage has the potential to provide many types of support directly and indirectly. The direct support is the emotional support provided within the intimate relationship and the indirect support is the social support that is available through connections made through marriage. However, social support can come from people unassociated with the marriage. Any form of support is beneficial in buffering the effects of stress.

The definition of stress encompasses many aspects of life events. Sources of stress include a variety of frustrations, demands, and conflicts dealing with social relationships, partners and children, career, and significant events or changes (Lefrancois, 1993). According to the Social Readjustment Rating Scale created by T.H. Holmes and R.H. Rahe (1967), often stress is associated with positive and negative change in one’s life. Some changes frequently linked to stress are changes in marital status such as marriage, divorce, and separation. According to Holmes and Rahe (1967), these changes in marital status are ranked as some of the most distressing life changes. Other distressing life changes are changes in social support, including the gaining or loss of people or services that provide social support (Holmes & Rahe, 1967). Examples of social support changes are death of a close family member or friend, change in social activities, divorce, marriage, being fired at work, gaining a new family member, or child leaving home.

Purpose of the Study

The purpose of this study was to add to the body of knowledge about the relationship between marital status, social support, and psychological well-being among a sample of rural, low-income mothers. Findings have implications for both policy and programs. More specifically, this study tested the theories of Social Selection and Family Stress.

The exploratory research had 4 objectives: 1) to examine the relationship between marital status and depression, 2) to examine the relationship between social support and depression, 3) to examine changes in depression levels over a one-year period, and 4) to examine changes in marital status and social support of the rural, low-income mothers with regard to depression over time through a comparison of data collected at two points in time.


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Martial status, social support and psychological well-being among low-income mothers in rural area
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Oluwafemi Bolarfinwa (Author), 2009, Martial status, social support and psychological well-being among low-income mothers in rural area, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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