New York Times

Family Relations: An International Comparison


July 30, 2010, 12:00 pm
Family Relations: An International Comparison

Nicole Bengiveno/The New York Times A multinational study finds surprising differences from country to country in how elderly parents describe their relationships with adult children.

It’s not just you.

Compared with elderly parents and adult children in five other industrialized nations, Americans are twice as likely to have “disharmonious” relationships, a new multinational study has found. And we’re correspondingly less likely to have “amicable” relationships marked by strong affection and relatively free of conflict.

Geography is destiny, apparently. The study of nearly 2,700 parents over age 65, published recently in The Journal of Marriage and Family, turned up significant national differences.

German and Spanish parents described relationships with their adult children as more detached. The English reported the most amicable families. Israelis operated with a high degree of ambivalence, meaning they indicated strong positive and negative emotions. Norwegians placed somewhere in the middle.

And Americans (at least, the Southern Californians who represented us, participants in another ongoing multigenerational study) took the prize for conflict — defined not as shrieking, plate-smashing dysfunctionality, but as a higher incidence of arguing and criticism than reported by families abroad, combined with lower levels of attachment.

“American families can be characterized by greater strain,” said Merril Silverstein, a social gerontologist at the University of Southern California and the study’s lead author.

Let’s not overstate our discord. Most American parents — 51 percent of the United States sample — still managed to maintain positive connections with their children, and so did a plurality of those surveyed in other countries. Still, 20 percent of American relationships were deemed disharmonious, compared with 3 percent in England and 9 percent in the sample over all.

(The study, let me point out, asked parents — most in their 70s — about their relationships with one randomly chosen child. We might have seen a different pattern if the researchers had asked the children what they thought.)

Now to the really intriguing question: Why? Though the survey didn’t attempt to pinpoint reasons for discord, or lack of it, the researchers have some theories. They chose countries with very different social policies and with a variety of cultural values relating to families, and they believe these play a role.

“Though it might be invisible, our choices and our emotions are shaped by the options that are available or not available to us,” said Dr. Silverstein. “And that’s influenced by where we live.”

In countries without strong governmental support for the elderly, for example, “families are compelled to care for each other, and it forces them into situations they might not want to be in,” Dr. Silverstein said.

Norwegians, for instance, enjoy virtually cradle-to-grave state assistance. They don’t have to be as deeply involved in their parents’ care as, say, Spaniards or Americans. “The idea that families should care for their own is ingrained in U.S. ideology,” Dr. Silverstein said. But government support is weaker, with more gaps, so — no surprise to readers here — we frequently feel we have to wade in and face the not-always-harmonious consequences.

Cultural variations also enter the equation. In Spain, a far higher proportion of the elderly participants — 22.5 percent — lived with their children than was the case in the other nations, a situation that might mitigate feelings of detachment. Among the Spanish, having “distant and infrequently seen children is more deviant and has greater meaning,” the article pointed out.

As for the amicable English (75 percent of their parent-child relationships fell into that category), they have strong social supports, but they also have, to quote from a previous study on this subject, “a cultural tendency to inhibit the expression of strong negative emotion.” Maybe elderly English folk don’t feel any less disgruntled with their children; maybe they just swallow their disappointments and disagreements. Israelis, on the other hand, let it all hang out.

Across the entire sample, by the way, mothers said they had closer relationships with their children than did fathers, and daughters were said to be closer than sons. The odds of conflicted or ambivalent relations increased when parents faced disability or poor health, and when their children helped them with household chores.

“Any time there’s dependence in the relationship — certainly it’s true with adolescents — there are resentments, expectations that aren’t fulfilled, feelings of powerlessness,” Dr. Silverstein said. “We’re negotiating these role reversals that are uncomfortable for people.”

Some things, it seems, are universal.

-New York Times
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