Liminal Men: Incarceration and Relationship Dissolution

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Incarceration, now a rite of passage for many economically disadvantaged minority men entailing an involuntary removal from families, places these marginal men in a liminal state where they are simultaneously members of families and isolated from families. Despite a burgeoning literature documenting the collateral consequences of incarceration for family life, as well as evidence that the deleterious consequences of incarceration for maternal and child well-being stem from resultant relationship dissolution, much less is known about the direct link between incarceration and relationship dissolution. I consider this association with data from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study, a longitudinal survey uniquely positioned to understand the consequences of incarceration for family life. Results show that paternal incarceration is associated with relatively immediate relationship dissolution among parents, the association is concentrated among parents living together prior to incarceration, and is explained by both incarceration duration and changes in relationship quality. And, for couples that survive this initial period, incarceration is inconsequential for relationship dissolution. Taken together, these findings link the literature on the collateral consequences of mass incarceration with the literature on demographic changes in family life, and, given the well-known deleterious consequences of parental relationship dissolution for children, have important implications for intergenerational inequality.

Turney, Kristin. 2015. “Liminal Men: Incarceration and Relationship Dissolution.” Social Problems 62:499–528.