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Study: Dads’ money woes can set stage for family conflict

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Low-income families can find it rough paying for housing, food and other necessities — and those insecurities might take a toll on parents and their relationships.

But fathers might bear the brunt of that instability, increasing destructive conflict within their families.

A recent study in the journal Family Relations finds that fathers who have trouble making ends meet are more likely to be depressed, and that 1 in 5 might have volatile relationships with their partners as a result.

The research drew on data from about 2,800 families involved in the Building Strong Families project, which followed a national group of low-income families with small children between 2005 and 2008. The families had an average monthly family income of $2,363.

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Researchers wanted to know how material hardship, which occurs when it’s tough to pay bills, afford health care or keep stable housing, affected parents’ mental health and relationships with one another. Previous research didn’t focus on how fathers’ experiences with finances might affect their families.

Both mothers and fathers with trouble making ends meet had more depressive symptoms. But for 21 percent of the fathers, material hardship contributed to depressive symptoms, which then led to destructive conflict called verbal aggression — such as yelling and putdowns — that can damage relationships. Mothers didn’t show the same effect.

Traditional gender roles could be to blame, Joyce Y. Lee, an assistant professor of social work at Ohio State University who led the study, said in a news release. “When fathers feel they aren’t economically providing to alleviate material hardship in their families, that can lead to depression and more conflict with their spouse.”

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The researchers say their analysis method makes it clear that income doesn’t reveal the whole story for stressed-out parents.

Fathers’ stress-depression-conflict cycle could be alleviated with employment training and efforts to connect them to community programs, among other things, the researchers write. But programs that don’t take hardship into consideration could overlook families whose incomes exceed eligibility thresholds, yet still face economic instability at home.

“If basic needs for housing, food, utilities and medical care aren’t sufficiently met, then interventions to help parents manage their conflict is only going to help so much,” Lee said.

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