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When a couple become collaborators
Psychologists Philip and Carolyn Pape Cowan on their 30-plus years of partnership

| 27 April 2005


Family-systems psychologists Carolyn Pape Cowan and Philip Cowan observe, "If you're making it as a family" in this society, "you're going upstream against a whole lot of odds." (Wendy Edelstein photo)
In the mid-1970s, says Philip Cowan, "many families that we knew were falling apart." Cowan, a Berkeley professor of psychology, and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, an adjunct professor in the same department, were also "feeling a lot of strain as a couple" in that era of social ferment.

"It felt like an epidemic - we were beginning to see separations and divorces everywhere," notes Pape Cowan (hereafter Carolyn). The numbers of troubled relationships provided validation, she says, that she and her husband "weren't the only ones trying to create nurturing families and stay a couple."

From their own experience as a family - their children at the time were 12, 10, and 8 - and from other parents' accounts, the Cowans began to think that marriages grow quite vulnerable around the time couples become parents. They listened to "story after story" that confirmed what they were experiencing themselves. "It wasn't so much the parenting part but trying to keep the relationship alive that was taking a toll," explains Carolyn.

During that same time, prepared childbirth, in the form of Lamaze training, emerged as a way for soon-to-be parents to participate together in the birthing process. "It was eight weeks of instruction in preparation for one day," observes Cowan (hereafter Phil). "What support do parents have for the rigors of the next 20 years?"

Carolyn got the idea that new parents could use another kind of training, one that took into account the toll that creating a family can wreak on a couple. So she and Phil scoured the literature in psychology, psychiatry, and sociology to see if other researchers had mined this area of inquiry but found no studies of couples who had been followed from before their child was born to some meaningful time after. They wanted to test a theory that "preventive intervention" - working on normal difficulties before they turn into serious relationship problems - might reduce the chances that new parents and their children would experience intractable distress later on.

Thus, in 1974 the Cowans launched a pilot study in which they worked with couples (some more intensively than others) whom they followed until their babies were 18 months old. Some in the study maintained their satisfaction as couples - those who had participated in a weekly group with mental-health-professional co-leaders (from the final trimester through the third month after childbirth) to explore impasses in their relationship. Those couples who received no special help experienced a drop in their levels of satisfaction.

Based on these findings, the National Institute of Mental Health agreed to fund a larger, longer study. Beginning in 1979, the "Becoming a Family Project" tracked and evaluated 72 expectant couples and 21 partners who had not decided whether to become parents. The Cowans followed the couples at intervals until their children reached the age of five-and-a-half, testing their prevention theory with a random third of the parents. The theory was that if partners becoming parents were able to discuss the ups and downs of their transition with other couples facing the same challenges (with the help of mental-health professionals), the parents would feel better about themselves and their relationships, and the benefits would be felt by their children.

The groups the Cowans provided for parents were not, says Phil, tantamount to "10 years of intensive therapy or couples counseling. As a parent, you need a safe place to explore some differences and disagreements that most couples know they need to discuss but might not feel safe doing so. Sometimes they're afraid if they do look at these issues, all hell is going to break loose. If you have other couples along for the ride, it becomes less private, but they can help talk about these things in a way that isn't quite so upsetting."

The Cowans wrote about the experiences of the "Becoming a Family Project" participants in their book When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples, first published in 1992, then reprinted in 2000.

In 1990 they followed that first study with the "Schoolchildren and Their Families Project," in which they tracked how family relationships affect the ease and success of a first child's transition to elementary school. As in the earlier study, the Cowans asked some of 100 couples to join groups where they could discuss marital and parenting problems. Those in a comparison group could choose to consult privately once a year with a professional (though most of them didn't actually do so). That study found again that the couples groups maintained the parents' marital quality. It also showed that when couples improved in their ability to manage conflict, they were able to engage more positively with their children, and the children had higher achievement-test scores and lower levels of behavior problems in kindergarten, grade 1, and grade 4.

Getting the message out

The Cowans, who are both retiring in June, will present a detailed discussion of their studies on Wednesday, May 4, in a lecture that is also a celebration of the couple's careers. Phil has been a professor in the psychology department since 1963, while Carolyn worked as a research psychologist in that department and the Institute of Human Development from 1980 until 1999, when she was appointed an adjunct faculty member.

For three decades the Cowans have been collaborating - gathering and analyzing data from the aforementioned studies, as well as teaching and working with undergraduate and graduate students and "getting the message out," as they put it, about their findings.

Finally, after 30 long years, Carolyn says, their message about the importance of the parents' marital quality for the parent-child relationships and the children's adjustment is getting through to researchers and clinicians in other American cities and even in foreign countries, including Germany, England, Israel, and Canada. The Cowans now get invitations to speak about their work to other family researchers and clinicians and to state and federal government agencies interested in adapting their methods.

For the last seven years, the couple has been involved in the Council on Contemporary Families, a nationwide group of family researchers, mental- health and social-work practitioners, and clinicians who act as a countervailing force against what the nonprofit organization regards as oversimplified discussions of "family values." While the council eschews political stances, its goal, says Phil, is "to let journalists know there are clinicians and researchers who think about key family issues differently, so that when a story comes out, the media have more people on their Rolodex who can offer an alternative perspective on these problems."

In addition to its annual educational conference, the council frequently addresses misinformation about research. For example, offers Phil, the federal government's current enthusiasm for promoting marriage is based in part on the idea that because single-parent families struggle more financially and the children in two-parent households tend to have fewer problems, the solution is to encourage single parents to get married. This logic presupposes, he says, that "correlation means causation. It's fine to say that if you compare these families, there are differences, but you can't make a causal statement from that evidence."

Phil is willing, however, to go on record about the couple's experience working together. "It was a little bit like having a baby - there were some initial problems, but it has provided us with a lot of really good experiences together." Working side by side also enabled them "to deal with some of the issues that were plaguing us, too, as a couple and as parents."

'We vowed we'd never say that'

While the hurdles they faced as collaborators involved different work styles, their struggles as parents often could be traced back, says Carolyn, to "three-generational issues: relationship patterns we grew up with that find their way into the families we're making now. We're determined to do things differently, but we sometimes find ourselves saying things that sound awfully familiar, and that we vowed we would never say."

Though the Cowans are approaching their 47th wedding anniversary, they will not be going quietly into the post-retirement night. Instead they look forward to analyzing the data they have collected from the "Schoolchildren and Their Families Project" without other distractions. They'll also continue working on a project, sponsored by the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention, on ways to encourage the involvement of low-income fathers with their children.

"Our message is that family-making is really challenging and people have not appreciated how complex it is," says Carolyn. "It's about the next generation and making good relationships that will be models for our kids as they grow up and create relationships of their own."

Philip Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan will present their career-celebration lecture, "Reflections on Our Research and Clinical Work With Families Making Life Transitions," on Wednesday, May 4, from 4 to 5:30 p.m. in 2040 Valley Life Sciences Building. A reception will be held in 2063 VLSB afterward.