Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology

, Volume 39, Issue 8, pp 1149–1161 | Cite as

Maternal Relationship Instability Influences on Children’s Emotional and Behavioral Functioning in Low-Income Families

  • Heather J. BachmanEmail author
  • Rebekah Levine Coley
  • Jennifer Carrano


The present study investigated associations between maternal relationship instability patterns and children’s behavioral and emotional functioning in middle childhood in a representative sample of low-income urban families (N = 891). Data from the Three-City Study tracked maternal partnerships through the child’s life, assessing total marital and cohabiting relationship transitions and delineating transitions by developmental timing, and by directionality (i.e., entrances into versus exits from partnerships). Analyses linking instability to child behaviors at age 8 found that a greater total number of maternal relationship transitions predicted higher anxious, somatic, and conduct problems, with recent transitions (in the prior 2 years) driving these results. Consideration of partnership formations versus dissolutions indicated that recent entrances into new partnerships, and entrances into cohabitations, were most consistently associated with problematic functioning across numerous aspects of children’s emotional and behavioral functioning. Policy implications of these findings are discussed.


Relationship instability Low-income Behavior Marriage 



Core support for the Three-City Study was provided from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development through Grants HD36093 and HD25936 as well as the support of many government agencies and private foundations. For a complete list of funders, see This research project was supported by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, which is funded by a cooperative agreement, grant number 5 UOI AEOOOOOI-03, between the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation (ASPE) in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and Bowling Green State University. This project also was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (1R03HD055229) to the second author. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health & Human Development or HHS or of other grantors. A special thank you is also extended to the children and families who participated in Welfare, Children, & Families: A Three-City Study.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Heather J. Bachman
    • 1
    Email author
  • Rebekah Levine Coley
    • 2
  • Jennifer Carrano
    • 2
  1. 1.School of Education, Department of Psychology in EducationUniversity of PittsburghPittsburghUSA
  2. 2.Applied Developmental & Educational Psychology, Lynch School of EducationBoston CollegeChestnut HillUSA

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