“The interpersonal is political”: Understanding the sociological ambivalence created in parent and adult offspring cohabiting relationships

Sherree Dawn Halliwell*, George Karl Ackers

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


    Objective: This article considers the ambivalence generated in familial cohabitation where adult offspring have never left or have returned to live with their parents. 

    Background: Ambivalence is commonly used in psychology to describe contradictory emotions at the interpersonal level. 

    Method: A thematically analyzed ethnographic study of eight cohabitating families living in North Wales, in the United Kingdom, explored both generations' perspectives on cohabitation. 

    Results: Although our study found evidence of ambivalence at the interpersonal level, we suggest that this was drawn from a structural contradiction, namely, that although cohabitation was the result of structural issues, such as graduate underemployment and the affordable housing crisis, societal values labeled it the personal consequence of a failed adulthood. This caused these families feelings of shame and guilt that created a barrier blocking the interpersonal negotiations needed to develop more positive living arrangements and family roles. The generational contradictions in values of self, family, and society produced irreconcilable personal and political tensions. 

    Conclusion: This study concludes that two changes are needed to better negotiate ambivalence in family cohabitation. First, the social narrative that responsibilizes young adults for their failure to attain financial and residential independence needs to be challenged. Second, to address current structural contradictions, the social contract on the provision for family social care needs political renegotiation. 

    Implications: Building on the concept of sociological ambivalence, this article suggests that studies of ambivalence need to take a critical perspective that questions the structural forces that produce and constrain interpersonal familial relationships.

    Original languageEnglish
    JournalFamily Relations
    Early online date22 Nov 2021
    Publication statusEarly online - 22 Nov 2021


    • cohabitation
    • emerging adulthood
    • ethnography
    • family
    • intergenerational ambivalence


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