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The relationship of family structure and family conflict to adjustment in young adult college students.

The relationship between family structure and child adjustment has been widely studied. The literature on divorce of the past 50 years contains dozens of studies of the relationship between family structure and various measures of child adjustment and psychological health. Some of the more frequently examined constructs include self-concept and self-esteem (Berg & Kelly, 1979; Boyd, Nunn, & Parish, 1983; Johnson & Hutchinson, 1988; Kanoy, Cunningham, White, & Adams, 1984; Landis, 1962; Parish & Dostal, 1980; Parish & Nunn, 1981; Parish & Parish, 1983; Raschke & Raschke, 1979; Saucier & Ambert, 1986; Schnayer & Orr, 1988), academic performance (Dancy & Handal, 1984; Guidubaldi, Cleminshaw, Perry, Nastasi, & Lightel, 1986; Hess & Camara, 1979; Landis, 1962; Saucier & Ambert, 1986), social adjustment (Enos & Handal, 1986; Guidubaldi et al., 1986; Heath & Lynch, 1988; Landis, 1962), ego identity (Grossman, Shea, & Adams, 1980), family concept (Isaacs & Levin, 1984; Rozendal, 1983), and general psychological adjustment and well-being (Cooney, Smyer, Hadestad & Klock, 1986; Dancy & Handal, 1984; Enos & Handal, 1986, 1987; Hetherington, Cox, & Cox, 1985; Kulka & Weingarten, 1979; Lopez, Campbell, & Watkins, 1988; Pett, 1982; Rosen, 1979; Wallerstein, 1985; Wallerstein & Kelly, 1979). In general, the results of these studies have been inconclusive. The discrepant findings of many of these studies may be due to a number of factors: poor study design, study instruments of questionable reliability and validity, differences in the demographics of the study populations, differences in subject recruitment, and different statistical analytic techniques. In addition, because many studies of divorced, single-parent families fail to include a comparison cohort of intact and/or reconstituted families, as well as fail to address the issue of sample size, Type II error is a potential problem.

In 1957, Nye suggested that the crucial factor in child adjustment was the "sociopsychological success or failure of the family" rather than its structural intactness. He observed that adolescents from "broken" homes (i.e., those who did not live with their original parents) "show less psychosomatic illness, less delinquent behavior, and better adjustment to parents than do adolescents from unhappy unbroken homes," and concluded that the traditional view of broken homes needed to be reconsidered. The idea that perceived unhappiness in the family was a potentially important correlate of adjustment was further investigated by Landis (1960, 1962), who found that an unhappy marriage was more disturbing to children than divorce. In a study of college students from divorced families, Landis (1960) reported that of the students who could remember what their home life was like prior to divorce, those who remembered their homes to be happy experienced more trauma than did those who saw their homes as characterized by parental conflict. Building on the work of Nye and Landis, Raschke and Raschke (1979) investigated the possible interactive effects of family structure and perceived family conflict on children's self-concept. One of the major conclusions of their study was that family structure was not associated with self-concept; rather, self-concept appeared to be related to perceived family conflict.

Emery (1982) studied the relationship between marital turmoil and child behavior, and proposed that "interparental conflict, not separation, may be the principal explanation for the association found between divorce and continuing childhood problems." This view was further developed by Dancy and Handal (1984), Enos and Handal (1986), and Slater and Haber (1984), whose work lends support to the psychological-wholeness model. This model views family conflict as the crucial variable affecting child adjustment. In contrast, the physical-wholeness model views divorce and the physical disruption of the intact family unit as the critical variable.

In the psychological literature, there is no universally accepted definition of "adjustment." In fact, adjustment has become such a widely used term that few authors even consider defining it. Much of the literature on divorce has focused on some aspect of child adjustment. Each study contains a unique perspective on the meaning of adjustment. Farber, Primavera, and Felner (1983) conceptualized adjustment to parental divorce as the "adaptation" to the "life transition" of divorce, and assessed adjustment in terms of the child's behavioral and emotional difficulties. In a subsequent study (Farber, Felner, & Primavera, 1985), post-divorce adjustment in adolescents was assessed by measures of anxiety, depression, hostility, and self-concept. For many authors, adjustment is somewhat recursively defined by the instruments used to measure it. Because there is no agreed-upon definition of adjustment, the term has been used rather loosely and nonspecifically in the psychological literature.

Interestingly, few researchers have attempted to study adjustment from a developmental, theoretical perspective, such as proposed by Erikson (1980). According to Erikson, the major psychosocial task of adolescence is identity formation. This core conflict, identity vs. identity diffusion, falls between the major crisis of the school-age child, industry vs. inferiority, and the major crisis of young adulthood, intimacy vs. isolation. Failure to resolve the identity issues of adolescence may lead to difficulty in establishing true intimacy in adulthood. Erikson defined ego identity as "the awareness of the fact that there is a selfsameness and continuity to the ego's synthesizing methods and that these methods are effective in safeguarding the sameness and continuity of one's meaning for others". Marcia (1966, 1980) operationalized Erikson's ego identity construct by developing four identity status profiles: identity achievement, identity moratorium, identity foreclosure, and identity diffusion. These were defined with respect to decision making in the ideological and occupational domains. Persons in identity achievement were distinguished by having experienced a crisis, during which they considered occupational and ideological alternatives, and subsequently having set occupational and ideological goals. At the opposite end of the spectrum were persons in identity diffusion. These individuals may or may not have undergone a crisis, and had not committed themselves to any ideological or occupational goals. Between these extremes were persons in moratorium and foreclosure. The former were distinguished by being in crisis, grappling with occupational and ideological issues. They had not yet fully committed themselves. Persons in foreclosure had not experienced a personal crisis but had made stable commitments nonetheless. These individuals tended to adopt the beliefs and commitments of others, particularly parents, without questioning their meaning.

Other than the work of Grossman, Shea, and Adams (1980), there is little in the literature that addresses adolescent identity formation among children from intact and nonintact families. The purpose of the present study was to extend the scope of previous research on the relationship between family structure and family conflict to young adult adjustment by using a measure of ego identity formation. For the purpose of this study, an intact family was defined as one in which the biological or adoptive parents lived together. A nonintact family was defined as one in which the biological or adoptive parents did not live together, either as a result of divorce, separation, or death. Nonintact families included single-parent families (divorced-not remarried and widowed-not remarried) and reconstituted families (divorced-remarried and widowed-remarried). Using family structure (intact/nonintact) and perceived level of family conflict (high, middle, and low conflict) as independent variables, ego identity status and psychiatric symptom status were examined as dependent measures. The physical-wholeness position would be supported if individuals from intact and nonintact families differed on measures of adjustment. The psychological-wholeness position would be supported if conflict rather than family structure was associated with adjustment.



Two hundred eighty-five undergraduate students were recruited from undergraduate classes at two Midwestern liberal arts colleges located in the same metropolitan area. Participants ranged in age from 17 to 24 years, and included 208 (73%) females and 237 (83%) students of Caucasian background. Sixty-two percent of the participants identified themselves as Catholic, 23% as belonging to another Christian denomination, and 15% indicated that they had another or no religious affiliation. Two hundred twenty-four participants (79%) were from intact families, 52 (18%) were from families in which there had been a divorce or separation, and 9 (3%) were from families in which a parent had died or the parents had never married. Eighty-eight participants (31%) were from families perceived as low conflict, 180 (63%) from families perceived as middle conflict, and 17 (6%) from families perceived as high conflict.


Assessment of family conflict. Family conflict was assessed by the Conflict subscale of the Family Environment Scale (FES) (Moos & Moos, 1986). The FES is a rationally derived, 90-item, true-false measure of family climate which has been called "the most widely accepted measure of family climate" (Kleinman, Handal, Enos, Searight, & Ross, 1989). Several investigators have used the FES to study the relationship between adolescent perception of family climate and adjustment. The nine-item Conflict subscale assesses "the amount of openly expressed anger, aggression, and conflict among family members" (Moos & Moos, 1986). Using the Conflict subscale, Kleinman et al. (1989) developed and validated cutoff scores for high-, middle-, and low-conflict families. High conflict was defined as more than one standard deviation above the mean; low conflict was defined as more than one standard deviation below the mean; and middle conflict was defined as within one standard deviation of the mean. The internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha) of the Conflict subscale is .75, and the two-month test-retest reliability is .85. Extensive information about the FES normative sample, reliability, and validity is provided in the FES manual (Moos & Moos, 1986).

Assessment of ego identity status. The Extended Version of the Objective Measure of Ego-Identity Status (EOMEIS-2) (Adams, Bennion, & Huh, 1989; Bennion & Adams, 1986) is a 64-item, self-report, Likertscale-formatted instrument that assesses ego-identity status in the ideological and interpersonal domains. Individuals are classified into one of four identity statuses (achievement, moratorium, foreclosure, or diffusion) for each domain. The ideological domain of the EOMEIS-2 encompasses occupation, politics, religion, and philosophical lifestyle issues, and the interpersonal domain encompasses issues of friendship, dating, sex roles, and recreation. The EOMEIS-2 was developed from Erikson's theories of human development and Marcia's operationalization of Erikson's theory of identity formation. A more comprehensive description of the theoretical framework of the EOMEIS-2 is provided by the authors (Adams et al., 1989).

Over the past decade, the EOMEIS-2 and its predecessors, the OMEIS and the EOMEIS-1, have undergone extensive testing with different populations of college students. Internal consistency (Cronbach's alpha) ranges from .60 to .80. Reliability and validity data from studies of the EOMEIS in various college populations, as well as cutoff scores for college-age subjects, are provided in the EOMEIS-2 manual. The instruments is presently recommended for use with single persons 14 to 30 years of age.

Assessment of current psychiatric symptoms. Current psychiatric symptom status was assessed using the Global Severity Index (GSI)of the Brief Symptom Inventory (BSI) (Derogatis & Spencer, 1982), an abbreviated version of the SCL-90-R self-report inventory of current psychiatric symptoms. Each of the 53 items on the BSI refers to the degree of distress experienced in the previous week. The GSI, which is derived by averaging the scores for the 53 BSI items, is considered the most sensitive single indicator of overall level of distress. The test-retest reliability of the GSI is .90. Additional reliability and validity data are provided in the BSI manual (Derogatis & Spencer, 1982). The BSI was normed on four population groups: psychiatric inpatients and outpatients, nonpatient adults, and nonpatient adolescents. Because college students were not specifically included in the normative sample, and the mean ages of the nonpatient adult (M = 46.0 years) and nonpatient adolescent (M = 15.8 years) groups did not adequately represent college students, BSI raw scores, rather than standard scores, were analyzed.


Students were recruited in their classrooms following a brief description of the study. Individuals who elected to participate were given an envelope containing the FES, EOMEIS-2, BSI, a brief demographic questionnaire, and a statement of informed consent. They were instructed to complete the forms anonymously.


When individuals from intact families were compared to those from nonintact families, no statistically significant differences were found with respect to the distribution of ideology identity status, the distribution of interpersonal identity status, and current psychiatric symptom status. The mean GSI score of individuals from intact families (M = .91, SD = .65) was not significantly different from that of individuals from nonintact families (M = .89, SD = .63).

When individuals from families perceived as low conflict were compared to those from families perceived as middle or high conflict, the distributions of ideology and interpersonal identity statuses did not significantly differ. However, individuals from low-conflict families reported significantly fewer psychiatric symptoms than did individuals from middle-conflict families, and those from middle-conflict families reported fewer symptoms than did individuals from high-conflict families.

To examine the interactive effects of family structure and perceived family conflict on adjustment, two 2 x 3 (Family Structure x Level of Conflict) factorial analyses of variance (ANOVA) were performed on two dependent measure mean scores: identity achievement and GSI. For the first analysis, each person's total identity achievement score was calculated by summing his/her ideology achievement and interpersonal achievement scores from the EOMEIS-2. High scores indicate a high level of ego identity achievement. The two-way ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of level of conflict, F(2,279) = 3.85, p |is less than~ .05. There was no significant effect of family structure, nor was there a significant interaction between level of conflict and family structure. The main effect of level of conflict was examined using the Scheffe method of post hoc comparisons tested at the .05 alpha level. The mean total identity achievement score of individuals from high-conflict families (M = 58.7, SD = 10.6) was significantly lower than that of individuals from middle-conflict (M = 65.2, SD = 8.7) and low-conflict families (M= 65.6, SD = 9.0). Persons from middle-conflict and low-conflict families did not differ significantly on mean total identity achievement scores.

When mean GSI score was examined as the dependent variable, the two-way ANOVA revealed a significant main effect of level of conflict, F(2, 279) = 4.67, p = .01. There was no significant effect of family structure, nor was there a significant interaction between level of conflict and family structure. Scheffe post hoc comparisons tested at the .05 alpha level revealed that the mean GSI score of individuals from low-conflict families (M = .71, SD = .58) was significantly lower than that of individuals from middle-conflict families (M = .98, SD = .67). Although persons from low- and middle-conflict families scored lower than did those from high-conflict families (M = 1.05, SD = .53), due to the small number of persons in the high-conflict group, these differences were not statistically significant.

There was no statistically significant correlation between the above dependent variables, identity achievement score and GSI score (Pearson's r = -.04), suggesting that these measures tap qualitatively different aspects of adjustment.


The results of this study lend support to the psychological-wholeness theory proposed by Dancy and Handal (1984), as well as to the earlier work of Landis (1960, 1962) and Raschke and Raschke (1979), who hypothesized that perceived family happiness was a crucial determinant of child adjustment. As predicted, there was a statistically significant relationship between young adult adjustment, as assessed by measures of ego identity status and psychological distress, and perceived family conflict. Also as predicted, there was no statistically significant association between adjustment and the structural intactness of the family. In each instance, individuals from low-conflict families demonstrated a higher level of adjustment than did those from middle-conflict families, and individuals from middle-conflict families demonstrated a higher level of adjustment than did those from high-conflict families. Although differences between the three groups were not always statistically significant, there appeared to be a linear, inverse relationship between adjustment and perceived level of family conflict. The small number of persons in the high-conflict subgroup (n = 17) may account for the fact that statistical significance was not achieved despite the fact that a definite linear trend was apparent.

In considering the results of this study, it is important to be cognizant of gender as a potential study bias. Because 73% of the participants were female, it is possible that gender differences may have influenced the results. However, Moos and Moos (1986) compared males' and females' perceptions of their families on the FES and concluded that there were "few, if any, overall gender differences in perceptions of family social environments". The data on gender differences with the EOMEIS-2 are more equivocal. Adams, Bennion, and Huh (1989) summarized the results of studies that evaluated gender differences in OMEIS performance: four studies found that females tended to score higher on the achievement subscales than did males, two studies reported that females tended to score higher on the moratorium and diffusion subscales than did males, and eight studies reported no gender differences. With respect to gender differences on the BSI, Derogatis and Spencer (1982) comment in the BSI manual

that "females in our culture report significantly greater numbers of psychological symptoms than do males, and tend to do so with increased levels of intensity," but fail to provide documentation for this statement. Because BSI raw scores, rather than standard scores, were analyzed, it is possible that psychological symptoms may have been somewhat overreported.

An important consideration is the relatively small sample size, which may have limited the statistical power of the study. However, despite the fact that there were only 17 individuals in the high-conflict group, statistically significant differences were found with respect to current psychiatric symptom status and identity achievement on the basis of level of perceived family conflict. These findings appear to be both internally consistent and face valid.

With respect to the assessment instruments used in this project, several observations are offered. A major limitation of the BSI is that it lacks a college-age normative sample. For the BSI to be clinically and theoretically useful in a college population, norms should be established. The existing non-patient adult and adolescent norms do not appear to be appropriate for a young adult college population. The sizable differences in the GSI raw score means and standard deviations for the nonpatient adult sample (M = .30, SD = .31) and the nonpatient adolescent sample (M = .83, SD = .59) suggest that they are in fact different populations. Conversely, the EOMEIS-2 seems particularly well-suited for use in a middle-class, college student population. However, its applicability to other adolescent/young adult populations, such as inner-city high school dropouts, is questionable. For adolescents/young adults from disorganized or nontraditional family environments, the questions on the EOMEIS-2 may not be personally meaningful. For example, the following statement from the EOMEIS-2 would probably have little meaning for an inner-city adolescent raised by a single grandmother: "I've been thinking about the roles that husbands and wives play a lot these days, and I'm trying to make a final decision...." Similarly, the following statement from the EOMEIS-2 would probably have little bearing on the life of a 20-year-old single mother: "While I don't have one recreational activity I'm really committed to, I'm experiencing numerous leisure outlets to identify one I can truly enjoy."

What, then, are the clinical implications of these findings? For years, psychologists and others in the mental health field have focused on the structural intactness of the family as the key variable in understanding child and adolescent adjustment. The literature on divorce and child adjustment of the past decade (e.g., Dancy & Handal, 1984; Emery, 1982; Enos & Handal, 1986; Slater & Haber, 1984), as well as the present study, implicates conflict, rather than structure, as the crucial variable in adjustment. It is thus suggested that in addition to focusing on such "structural" issues as age at the time of divorce, age at the time of parent remarriage, and gender of the custodial parent, it may be appropriate and clinically meaningful to assess the child's or adolescent's perception of family conflict. Moreover, assessment of perceived family conflict should not necessarily be restricted to persons who are from nonintact families, since structurally intact families may experience high levels of conflict as well. Perhaps the salient assessment question should be "does the child come from a home disrupted by conflict?" rather than "does the child come from a home disrupted by divorce, separation, or death?"

As it becomes increasingly apparent that conflict plays a major role in adjustment, so it becomes necessary to more precisely define conflict as a construct. What exactly constitutes conflict and at what point does conflict become unhealthy? Do we fully understand the dimensions of conflict? For example, does living in a home where high conflict is expressed through physical violence have a different long-term effect than living in a home where high conflict is expressed through other means (e.g., silence, verbal abuse, neglect)? Once conflict as a construct is better understood, researchers can begin to operationalize it and develop instruments to better assess it.

What should the next steps be in examining the relationship between family structure, family conflict, and psychological adjustment? Since conflict appears to be the variable most consistently related to adjustment, it seems reasonable to focus on developing better measures of conflict and adjustment in order to examine how the various dimensions of conflict are related to different aspects of adjustment and psychological health. Conflict and adjustment need to be treated as multidimensional constructs rather than simple, two-dimensional factors. For example, adjustment has traditionally been assessed by the absence of specific pathology, rather than by the presence of certain positive attributes. Future research might be well served by examining both the positive and negative features of adjustment, since the absence of ill health does not necessarily imply the presence of health. In a similar vein, the existence of intrapersonal or interpersonal conflict is often presumed to be destructive. Perhaps we need to distinguish "good" conflict (i.e., conflict that promotes healthy personality development) from "bad" conflict (i.e., conflict that promotes physical or emotional damage) in order to more fully understand the relationship between conflict and adjustment.

Wendy Nelson, M.S., Saint Louis University.

Paul Handal, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University.

Barry Katz, Ph.D., Professor, Department of Research Methodology, Saint Louis University.

H. Russell Searight, Ph.D., Adjunct Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, and Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

Reprint requests to Honore M. Hughes, Ph.D., Associate Professor, Department of Psychology, Saint Louis University, 221 North Grand Boulevard, St. Louis, Missouri 63103.


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Author:Nelson, Wendy L.; Hughes, Honore M.; Handal, Paul; Katz, Barry; Searight, H. Russell
Date:Mar 22, 1993
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