In low-income families, father depression hurts couples


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Summary: Fathers who are in economic distress and present with depressive symptoms have higher levels of emotional conflict and verbal aggression than mothers.

Source: Ohio State University

When fathers in struggling families show symptoms of depression, the impact can be particularly damaging to the couple’s relationship, a new study finds.

The researchers found that fathers’ depressive symptoms—but not mothers’—were associated with higher levels of destructive conflict, such as verbal aggression, between parents in families that were having trouble paying bills.

This could be because fathers feel more stressed than mothers because they can’t alleviate their family’s material hardship, said Joyce Y. Lee, lead author of the study and an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University.

“The role of breadwinner has long been recognized as a defining feature of traditional fatherhood,” said Lee, who conducted the work as part of her PhD at the University of Michigan.

“When fathers feel that they are not making financial efforts to meet material needs in their families, it can lead to depression and more conflict with their spouse.”

The study was recently published in the journal family relationships.

The results are particularly important because, according to Lee, most studies of the role of poverty in family relationships have focused on mothers.

“We really didn’t understand the role of fathers’ mental health in key family outcomes for families living in poverty,” she said.

“These results show the importance of understanding what happens to fathers.”

The study data came from the Building Strong Families project and included a racially diverse sample of 2,794 mothers and fathers from low-income backgrounds. Data was collected from 2002 to 2013 in eight cities across the United States.

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

In addition to income poverty, understanding material hardship is important because it affects families at all income levels, including those who would not normally 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 their rent or mortgage, or were evicted for not paying .

The results showed that income poverty was not associated with maternal or paternal depressive symptoms—but material deprivation was associated with both maternal and paternal depressive symptoms.

“Material hardship seems to capture the links between economic struggles and poor parental mental health better than family income,” Lee said.

The more often participants reported having trouble paying their bills, the more likely both moms and dads reported feeling depressed, having trouble sleeping, and having trouble concentrating.

However, the magnitude of maternal depressive symptoms was not associated with destructive conflict between parents. But the fathers’ depressive symptoms were associated with more damaging conflicts.

Verbal aggression can consist of blaming your partner for things that go wrong and dismissing a partner’s opinions, feelings, and desires.

“We found that material hardship by itself didn’t directly lead to interpersonal conflict,” Lee said. “But material hardship worked indirectly through the fathers’ depressive symptoms in their connection to higher levels of destructive conflict.”

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

But even more important may be addressing the material hardship that leads to parental depression and conflict.

This shows a depressed looking man
The researchers found that fathers’ depressive symptoms—but not mothers’—were associated with higher levels of destructive conflict, such as verbal aggression, between parents in families that were having trouble paying bills. The image is in the public domain

“If the basic needs of housing, food, utilities and medical care are not adequately met, then interventions to support parents in managing their conflict will be of limited help,” Lee said.

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

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

See also

This shows an elderly lady reading a book

“These can help deal with material difficulties at what remains a very challenging time for many American families.”

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.

Financing: 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 news from depression research

Author: Jeff Grabmeier
Source: Ohio State University
Contact: Jeff Grabmeier—Ohio State University
Picture: The image is in the public domain

Original research: Open access.
“Examining Mechanisms Linking Economic Insecurity to Parental Conflict in Low-Income Couples” by Joyce Y. Lee et al. family relationships


Investigating mechanisms linking economic insecurity to parental conflict in low-income couples


The current study used the family stress model to test the mechanisms by which economic insecurity contributes to maternal and paternal mental health and the functioning of couple relationships.


Although low household income has been a focus of poverty research, material deprivation—defined as everyday challenges related to making a living, including difficulty paying for housing, utilities, food, or medical care—is common in American families.


The participants came from the “Building Strong Families” project. Couples were racially diverse (43.52% Black; 28.88% Latinx; 17.29% White; 10.31% Other) and lived on low incomes (N = 2794). Economic insecurity included income poverty and material hardship. Bayesian mediation analysis was applied, utilizing the previous evidence base of the family stress model.


Material deprivation, but not income poverty, predicted higher levels of depressive symptoms in both the mother and father. Only paternal depressive symptoms were associated with higher levels of destructive parental conflict (i.e., moderate verbal aggression that couples use that could harm the partner relationship). The mediation analysis confirmed that material hardship worked mainly through paternal depressive symptoms in connection with destructive conflicts between the parents.


The economic stress of meeting the family’s daily material needs sets the stage for parental mental health problems, which translate into destructive parental conflict, particularly through paternal depressive symptoms.


Family strengthening programs should consider interventions to address material needs (eg, comprehensive needs assessments, links to community resources, employment training for parents) as part of their efforts to address parental mental health and couples’ destructive conflict behaviors.

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