Intergenerational Ambivalences: New Perspectives on Parent-Child Relations in Later Life: Volume 4


Table of contents

(18 chapters)

This fourth volume of our series on Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research addresses timely and pressing issues concerning intergenerational relations among adults within families. As our guest editors note, there has been a dramatic rise in research interest in this area, spurred in part by large scale demographic trends. Prominent among these are world-wide increases in longevity, which in turn have noticeably extended the shared lifetimes of generations. This rise in living multi-generational families and their member interactions have led to renewed discussions and debates regarding norms of filial responsibility and a resurging interest in changing patterns of kin assistance, among several other issues treated in this volume.

Every book has its unique history. Our own interest in intergenerational ambivalence developed in discussions during Karl Pillemer’s sabbatical in 1996 at the University of Konstanz Research Center on Society and the Family. Despite using different methods, samples, and research frameworks, both of us had come up with findings about intergenerational relations that could not be interpreted easily within existing theoretical frameworks. Kurt Lüscher’s study of family reorganization after older parents’ divorce pointed toward complex tensions between interpersonal closeness and distance, and between a desire to preserve traditional family forms and to strike out in new directions (Lüscher & Pajung-Bilger, 1998). Similarly, Lüscher’s work on family rhetoric (Lüscher, 2000) and on contemporary families (Lüscher, 1998) suggested the limitations of existing frameworks in these areas. Karl Pillemer’s research on elder mistreatment had revealed the paradoxical circumstance that extreme conflict and a high degree of solidarity coexist in abusive families (Pillemer & Suitor, 1992; Pillemer & Wolf, 1998; Wolf & Pillemer, 1997) and his studies of parent-child relationships had pointed to the prevalence of interpersonal conflict and unmet expectations (Pillemer & Suitor, 1998; Suitor & Pillemer, 1988, 1996) as well as their negative impact on parental well-being (Pillemer & Suitor, 1991).

Intergenerational relations imply dealing with ambivalences. This thesis is what the contributions to this volume have in common. Yet, critics may claim that it is not a new insight. Among them are those who recall that some of the greatest sagas in Greek mythology depicted what we now refer to as ambivalence. Others may argue that the experience of ambivalence pervades everyday life. Adult children, for example, feel ambivalent about placing their elderly father or mother in a nursing home. Parents have mixed feelings about their child’s living with a partner without an intention to marry and have children. A son’s or a daughter’s “coming out” as gay or lesbian is fraught with ambivalence on both sides.

Detecting and describing intergenerational ambivalence in historical populations is a challenge because historians are dependent, for the most part, upon the evidence that has survived, rather than on evidence elicited by researchers from participants. In this respect, the distant past is more problematic than the recent past, of course; and studies of recent (but past) generations have been able successfully to integrate documentary, statistical, and interview material (Hareven, 1982; Macfarlane, 1977). Still, such studies cover only a short stretch of past time. The purpose of this essay is to review research on family history dealing with the past three or four centuries in order to see how the subject of intergenerational ambivalence has been dealt with, if at all, and how it might need to be incorporated into historical thinking when certain kinds of situations come under scrutiny.

Although ambivalence is a common experience in family relations, the conceptualization of these relations has been focused on solidarity, closeness, and attraction on one hand, and on stress, distance, disruption, and abuse on the other. Ambivalence has not often been considered systematically for the analysis of intergenerational relations. Measurement instruments are not widely available for this purpose, because they tend to focus on one dimension at a time (Berscheid, 1983, pp. 115–116).

There is a long history of interest in the concept of ambivalence, as the contributions to the present volume show. It is therefore somewhat remarkable that until very recently, ambivalence has not been explicitly employed in research on intergenerational relations in later life. Given the popular acceptance of contradictory feelings about parents (Cohler, 1983) and the frequent portrayal of such contradictions in cultural products (Reinharz, 1986), this may be a major gap in research. However, the question remains: Is some degree of ambivalence in fact characteristic of parent-child relationships in later life? If so, do participants in these relationships identify ambivalence when it occurs? Further, is intergenerational ambivalence related to other variables of interest? This chapter presents results from a study that addressed the issue of ambivalence in older parent-adult child relations. Measures of intergenerational ambivalence were developed and employed in a sample of 189 older women.

Parents and offspring experience strong feelings for one another throughout the life span. Indeed, as other chapters in this volume suggest, this relationship is fraught with complexity. Yet, it is not clear whether ambivalence is specific to the parent-child relationship or whether it is characteristic of close relationships in general. Further, we do not know whether parents and children experience ambivalence in their tie throughout life or only at specific periods of life. In this chapter, we address two questions about ambivalence in the parent-child relationship: (1) Do individuals experience more ambivalence in their relationships with parents and offspring than they do in other social relationships? (2) Do individuals experience varying degrees of ambivalence in this relationship at different points in the life span?

This chapter reports on methods and results of an exploratory research project on intergenerational ambivalence between parents and their adult children. The study was conducted in 1998 and 1999 at the research center for “Society and Family” at the University of Konstanz. Its conceptual framework consists of the theoretical considerations and the schematic model touched upon in Chap. 2 of this book (see pp. 23–62) as one attempt to operationalize the concept of intergenerational ambivalence.

Relationships between adult children and their aging parents are challenged when parents need help or care. As a consequence, adult children often experience a transition in their filial role as older parents experience functional losses and the children have to reorganize and restructure their relationship with them (Lang & Schütze, 2002). This filial task competes with other demands of midlife (such as family and career demands). As a consequence, the filial role in midlife may be associated with contradictory experiences in the relationship with one’s parents, typically entailing a high potential for ambivalence.

…the astonishing struggle that lasts forever Francine Du Plessix Gray (2000). …the simultaneous sound of…both harmonies and dissonances Kurt Lüscher (2000). I wanted to watch my father die because I hated him. Oh, I loved him… Sharon Olds (1992).The concept of absolute absence or presence is not meaningful for adult children when an elderly parent’s mind is slipping away. This is a time of increased ambiguity in the family boundary, in which the status and roles of the demented elder are no longer clear, and often not agreed upon. Not knowing if a parent is absent or present, the potential for ambivalence in the adult children is high. Within this intergenerational context, the main thesis of this paper is that the ambiguous loss of a parent with dementia provides fertile ground for increased ambivalence in intergenerational relations (Boss, 1999, 2002). The heightened ambiguity and resulting ambivalence may or may not be problematic, depending on cognitive awareness and family processes.

A cursory look at the contemporary social scientific literature shows that the concept of ambivalence has gained prominence in analyses of contemporary societies and identities, and in analyses of interpersonal relationships and interactions. With respect to societal analyses, for example, Bauman has argued that the postmodern habitat “is a territory subjected to rival and contradictory meaning-bestowing claims and hence perpetually ambivalent” (Bauman, 1992, p. 193). “To live with ambivalence,” Varga suggests (Varga, 2001), is the postmodern pronouncement. By using ambivalence as an “interpretive category” rather than as a “research construct” (Lüscher, this volume Chaps 2 and 7), however, sociologists often leave unspecified whether this way of living entails different things for different social actors.

Understood as the simultaneous experience of necessarily conflicting attitudes, wishes, feelings, or intentions, the concept of ambivalence has a complex history in psychological and social analysis. Lüscher (2000) reviewed the history of this concept, initially used in the study of abnormal states, and then generalized to the realm of the usual and expectable in social life. It should be noted at the outset that the term “ambivalence” presents two problems for social analysis: adoption of a term initially intended to portray abnormal states for the expectable course of adult life, and the extension of a concept founded on the study of personal states to social analysis. Consistent with Bleuler’s (Riklin, 1910/1911) initial discussion of the term ambivalence,1 Freud (1909, 1912, 1912–1913, 1914) attempted to resolve the first problem by showing that ambivalence – as the experience of mixed and conflicting sentiments regarding those who are particularly important in one’s own life – inevitably emerges out of the child’s effort to resolve the tension between social reality and his or her own desire focused on the parents of early childhood. At the same time, Freud compounded the second problem by regarding the realm of the social as the personal writ large.

Parents and children can drive each other mad. At one moment, a parent may be encouraging and affectionate toward the child; in the next, the parent may be sending the child to his or her bedroom. Similarly, a child who seems helpful and cooperative can suddenly turn belligerent. Parents and children may partly resolve the mixture of negative and positive feelings they experience in such situations by remembering their basic love for each other. Nevertheless, the conflicting sentiments will be stored in the memory of both parties, contributing to a long-lasting melange of conflicting beliefs, feelings, and behaviors. What are the psychological consequences of this state of affairs in relationships?

In this volume, researchers have brought their expertise to bear on the ambivalence enacted and expressed by adult children and their parents towards each other. As Lüscher and Pillemer note in their seminal article (1998), using ambivalence as an organizing concept for the study of intergenerational relationships allows researchers to explore the inherent contradiction of roles and obligations. For example, at what point does a child become an adult child? Is this a judgment that both parent and child make? What happens when parent and child disagree? Even raising the question misses the point: One can never unidimensionally be an “adult child.” In the subtle and dynamic consciousness within which each of us dwells, we are always an adult and a child to ourselves and to our parents, as they were to theirs.

Pauline Boss is Professor, Department of Family Social Science, University of Minnesota; and a family therapist in private practice. Her research interests are in the area of family stress, specifically when there is ambiguous loss or boundary ambiguity in families. Her research has included various types of ambiguous loss ranging from loved ones physically missing after war or terrorism, to those psychologically missing due to Alzheimer’s disease or other chronic mental illnesses.Bertram J. Cohler is Professor, the Committee on Human Development, the College, and the Departments of Psychology and Psychiatry at the University of Chicago. His research interests include study of continuity and change across the course of adult lives, the family, narrative and writing the life story, social change and sexual identity, and the study of nostalgia in personal and popular memory.Frank Fincham is a Distinguished Professor and Director of Clinical Training at University at Buffalo. His interests include forgiveness, cognition in relationships, and the impact of interparental conflict on children.Karen Fingerman is Associate Professor and Berner Hanley University Scholar at Purdue University. Her research focuses on positive and negative emotions in relationships. Her work has examined mothers and daughters, grandparents and grandchildren, friends, acquaintances, and peripheral social ties.Elizabeth Hay is a Doctoral Student in Human Development and Family Studies at the Pennsylvania State University. She is interested in intergenerational relationships and how they contribute to health and well-being throughout adulthood.Lori Kaplan is an Assistant Professor of Neurology at the Rush Alzheimer’s Disease Center in Chicago, Illinois. Her research focuses on family systems and relationships across the life cycle. She has published articles on child custody arrangements after divorce, chronic illness and its effects on family relationships, and family caregiving to an elder with Alzheimer’s disease.David M. Klein is Associate Professor of Sociology and Director of Graduate Studies at the University of Notre Dame. His current research interests include intergenerational relations, romantic relationship formation, and the sociology of science with an emphasis on the development of theoretical and methodological perspectives in the family sciences.Frieder R. Lang is Professor of Human Development at Martin Luther University Halle-Wittenberg, Germany. His research interests are processes and mechanisms of the development of social and family ties over the life course, motivational psychology of human development and successful aging.Frank Lettke is Assistant Professor in the department of History and Sociology at the Universität Konstanz (Germany), Fachbereich Geschichte und Soziologie and directs the Research Center “Family and Society.” He is interested in intergenerational relations and the diversity of family forms. His current research focuses on family relationships in the context of inheritance.Dagmar Lorenz-Meyer is Assistant Professor of Gender Studies at Charles University, Prague, Czech Republic. Her research interests include institutional and practical arrangements of intergenerational relations, and gender equality in the enlargement process of the European Union.Kurt Lüscher, Ph.D., held a chair in Sociology at the Universität Konstanz (Germany), Fachbereich Geschichte und Soziologie until 2000, where he was also director of the research center on “Society and Family” (he is now professor emeritus). He has longstanding research interests in the family, the life course, and intergenerational relations. He has also worked extensively in the areas of socialization, child and family policy, and the relationship between family and the legal system.Greg Maio is a Reader in Psychology at Cardiff University. His research interests include attitudinal ambivalence, attitude change, relationships, and social values.Francesca Giorgia Paleari is Lecturer at Catholic University of Milano, Italy. Her research interests include family relationships, forgiving, and research methodology.Karl Pillemer is Professor of Human Development at Cornell University, where he also directs the Cornell Gerontology Research Institute. His research interests include the impact of life course transitions on family relationships, the causes and consequences of parent-child relationship quality, and the interaction between families and community institutions.Andrejs Plakans is Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Iowa State University, Ames, Iowa; and editor of The History of the Family: An International Quarterly (Elsevier). His research interests focus on post-1800 eastern Europe, and include historical demography, rural family structures, and kinship.Camillo Regalia is Professor of Social Psychology at Catholic University of Milano, Italy. His research interests include family relationships, self-efficacy beliefs and forgiving.Harry Segal is Senior Lecturer in the Departments of Psychology and Human Development at Cornell University, Ithaca, USA. His research interests include the clinical assessment of narrative, the implicit processes involved in the imagination, computational modeling of early experience, and the cognitive-affective aspects of transition from early to mid-childhood.

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Contemporary Perspectives in Family Research
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