This study presents initial psychometric data on a new measure of coparenting, based on prior research and theory in this growing area of investigation. Coparenting has been demonstrated to be an important factor linked to parent adjustment, parenting quality, and child outcomes (Abidin & Brunner, 1995
; Belsky, Putnam et al., 1996
; Dorsey et al., 2007
; Floyd & Zmich, 1991
; Jones et al., 2002
; Karreman et al., 2008
; Stright & Neitzel, 2003
). In some studies, these links have been demonstrated (1) in longitudinal designs, (2) controlling for parent characteristics and parenting, and/or (3) as stronger compared to overall couple relationship quality. To facilitate more precise investigations of the predictors and consequences of coparenting, we developed the Coparenting Relationship Scale, comprised of several subscales suggested by prior quantitative and qualitative research and theory.
The current study indicates that an overall multi-dimensional index of coparenting quality can be reliably assessed and is fairly stable during the early stages of family formation in a sample of families who entered family formation as 2-parent families. The dimensions of coparenting suggested by a conceptual framework (Feinberg, 2003
) and prior formative research with new parents (Feinberg, 2002
) are also supported by 7 internally consistent subscales that are moderately associated with one another and largely strongly correlated with the overall score. These findings allow for more precise measurement of coparenting dimensions and further research efforts to understand whether there are specific linkages between these dimensions and parent, child, and family functioning.
The brief 14-item version of this measure --retaining 2 items from each of the conceptually and empirically distinct constituent subscales-- is an excellent representation of the overall subscale scores. This suggests that coparenting quality can be adequately assessed in clinical or other settings where time is limited. Given the strong associations between coparenting and other dimensions of family life and child outcomes described above, it is noteworthy that the brief measure can be incorporated into future studies of child and family issues without sacrificing other measures or data quality.
We found moderate agreement between mothers and fathers on overall coparenting quality, measured by the total score or brief scale. In fact, this level of agreement is towards the higher end of what is typically demonstrated for intra-family agreement on salient features of family relationships (De Los Reyes & Kazdin, 2005
; Feinberg, Howe, Reiss, & Hetherington, 2000
; Margolin, Hattem, John, & Yost, 1985
; O'Leary, 2006
). Nonetheless, the correlations between parents on the subscale scores were smaller, suggesting that mothers and fathers may perceive their coparenting relationship somewhat differently. It will be important for future research to investigate discrepancies between mothers’ and fathers’ assessments of their coparenting relationship. It is possible that such discrepancies are associated with aspects of prenatal expectations and/or postnatal coparenting quality, relationship closeness, or couple communication.
In addition, we note that the subscale assessing endorsement of partner’s parenting is less internally consistent for fathers than for mothers, and the division of labor score is less strongly linked to the overall score for fathers. It is possible that these dimensions are less cohesive or salient in the minds of fathers, and may warrant additional development work. Furthermore, the division of labor subscale is only comprised of 2 items; we recommend that those desiring a greater focus on this dimension explore measures specific to this construct (Atkinson & Huston, 1984
; Barnett & Baruch, 1987
). We note, too, that parents’ scores correlate on this measure at about the same level as most other scales, which one would not expect if the reliability of the subscale were problematic. Moreover, correlations between mothers’ reports on the Division of Labor subscale and other subscales are generally stronger that those for fathers. This pattern is consistent with research indicating that mother’s experience of dissatisfaction with the division of labor is particularly troublesome.
Finally, the overall coparenting score is moderately to strongly associated with a range of dyadic relationship variables in expected directions, ranging from love and sex/romance to conflict and ineffective arguing. These findings contribute to the criterion validity of the measure and accord with prior research linking coparenting to the general quality of the couple relationship (McHale, 1995
; Schoppe-Sullivan, Mangelsdorf, Frosch, & McHale, 2004
). That the associations with divorce proneness and sex/romance appear stronger for mothers than for fathers stands in contrast to research on links between parenting and couple relationships, which have been shown to be stronger for fathers (Belsky, Youngblade, Rovine, & Volling, 1991
). It is possible that fathers view the coparenting relationship as a less salient element contributing to the likelihood of relationship dissolution, whereas mothers view coparenting as more central to relationship stability. Fathers may also be able to compartmentalize the issue of sex and romance from coordination of parenting more than mothers can, especially early in the child’s life when the burden of childcare responsibilities may limit—especially for mothers, who may be staying home and/or breastfeeding—interest in and opportunities for sex and romance. Such differences between parents require further investigation and demonstrate the importance of collecting information about coparenting from both parents to capture a complete picture of family functioning.
In most cases, the relations of CRS scores and other variables were not significantly different across intervention and control groups. Significant differences between groups were found in 3 cases, with the relation being stronger for the intervention group for all 3—however, two of these instances involved only small differences between groups. One possibility for these results is that the focus on aspects of coparenting in the program enhances the salience of coparenting among parents, and thus improves the accuracy of their self-reports regarding coparenting relations.
We acknowledge that our self-report measure of coparenting is inherently subjective and may be limited in capturing some dimensions of coparenting dynamics. For instance, observational coding schemes have been developed to assess the ways in which parents balance interactions when they are together with their child (McHale et al., 2001
). However, it would be difficult to observe parents’ satisfaction with the division of childcare responsibilities or their perceptions that their partner supports their parenting. It seems that self-report and observational measures can complement one another in assessing coparenting and should be used in concert when possible. Further understanding of the relations and meaning of observational and self-report measures is a major task for the field of family studies and development in general.
This study was limited by its eligibility criteria for participation (i.e., cohabiting heterosexual couples) and by its use of a largely European American and married sample (although there was a wide range of income, and the sample was generally representative of the semi-rural region). Furthermore, although study attrition was modest and could not be predicted at waves 2 and 3, it was predicted by educational attainment at wave 4.
We also focused on coparenting when it first emerged at the transition to parenthood, but the salience of coparenting dimensions may change as children grow older and additional children are added to the family. For instance, triangulation of children in coparenting conflict may become more likely as children grow older, whereas balancing interactions during triadic play may become less salient. Moreover, the level of parent agreement about childrearing issues may change during development as different issues become salient and parents make new types of decisions and rules for their children.
One may wonder what the added value is of one more couple-relationship construct, especially given that coparenting is relatively strongly linked to other existing measures of the dyadic couple relationship. The strongest association, between love and coparenting, ranges from correlations of .60 to .76. Although strong by the standards of most social science research, these associations account for between about a third and half of the variance in either measure—leaving considerable distinct variance. Moreover, as described above, prior research has shown coparenting quality to be linked to parenting and child adjustment over and above such dyadic couple factors. Assessing coparenting as distinct from the couple relationship may also yield insights into how and when couples are able to coparent effectively even when the couple relationship is troubled. Equally important, coparenting is amenable to measurement in a wide array of family contexts in which assessing dyadic love, for example, is not relevant—including contexts in which mothers and fathers are no longer in romantic relationships, or in which a mother and grandmother or other kin coparent together (Dorsey et al., 2007
; Jones, Shaffer, Forehand, Brody, & Armistead, 2003