The Revolving Door and Cyclical Poverty


I spent the last three years providing in-home therapy to low-income families through an agency funded partially by state-run health insurance. In-home therapy had its challenges, though the benefits of visualizing and experiencing live family interactions generally trumped my frustrating with the process of doing family therapy with relatively unmotivated individuals. I worked consistently with about 35 different families, but noticed a common theme amongst their family structures, what I dubbed “the revolving door”.

In-home therapy requires flexibility and spontaneity, because the therapist seldom knows what he/she will discover upon entering the home. Generally (though sadly, not always), one parent, usually the mother, sat overwhelmed by the perpetual motion of overstimulated child. The absent parent, usually male, appeared periodically, though often the resident parent attempted to set physical boundaries on the involvement of the absent parent. In some families, the father moved in and out of the home, sometimes leaving for months at a time before finally being asked back. In other families, the mother cycled through a rotation of significant others, all promising hope of stability, and all eventually succumbing to the pattern of the revolving door, exiting following a big argument or the unrealized expectations.

Dr. Julien Teitler and Dr. Lenna Nepomnyaschy of Rutgers coined the process of repeatedly breaking up and getting back together “cyclical cohabitation” in their article “Cyclical Cohabitation Among Unmarried Parents in Fragile Families”, which was published in October’s Journal of Marriage and Family. Teitler and Nepomnyaschy explain that cyclical cohabiters generally reconnect around parenting, especially when children are shared.

Economic theories would suggest that cohabitation (cyclical or otherwise) supports children, as two parents provide more financial and social resources, including parental involvement and time. Of course, this presumes that the cohabiting parent contributes more than he/she consumes. The Rutgers study shows that material and social benefits increase if the custodial parent is the biological father because of the higher likelihood of allocating his resources to children living at home; the cohabiting, nonbiological father may have other children or dependents in other households. However, single fathers seldom have sole custody of their children following a dissolution of relationship.

Picture from

Picture from

Teitler and Nepomnyaschy focus primarily on the effects of children living in cyclically cohabiting families. Although they conclude that living with cyclically cohabiting fathers affected families financially positively nor negatively, they also observe these children have higher likelihoods of repeating a grade and lower likelihoods of being physically healthy. As one supervisor at my agency stated, “Imagine a child getting off the bus, entering into their house, and having no idea what or whom they may find ion the other side of the front door. I think you’d have behavior problems as well.”

However, their observations about parents most likely to cyclically cohabit influence our discussion on the importance of healthy adult relationships. They note that cyclical cohabiting mothers are more likely to have had children at earlier ages, African-American, and on government assistance (i.e. Medicaid-paid births). Cohabiting fathers had lower levels of education, higher unemployment rates, higher likelihood of incarceration in their history, and a higher likelihood of having children with other women.

Although they estimate that cyclical cohabiters consist of around 10% of cohabiters in the United States, the Rutgers authors seem to be linking cyclical cohabitation and the damaging effects on both relationship members and children with poverty. However, Teitler and Nepomnyaschy conducted their studies around couples that cohabit, regardless of their socioeconomic levels. I’d be curious to learn more about the percentages of cyclical cohabitation if the research participants were strictly low-income. I’m encouraged by the increasing number of social programs designed to assist children in low-income families. I’m also curious how futile the emotional and interactional skills children learn in these programs may be, especially if their family structure involves cyclical cohabiting.

Concurrently, couples therapy is mostly a middle-class/upper-class construct. Most agencies in Massachusetts who work with low-income families provide therapy focused on interactions between child and parent. I’m curious what would happen if the primary relational focus we took as counselors, social programmers, and legislators was between parents. I observe that we do that decently with middle and upper-class families, but that we fail to provide lower-income couples with positive communication and intimacy skills. Perhaps cyclical cohabitation continues with an increased focus on providing couples support to lower-income families—the Rutgers professors note that repartnering often centers around financial support. However, I’m curious if children have the resilience to overcome a lack of financial resources if they have the emotional confidence that whenever they walk through the front door after school, both parents will be present, engaging positively with one another.