Research Roundup: Transitioning to parenthood

This issue focuses on recent research related to romantic relationship satisfaction for couples transitioning to parenthood.

Parenthood can be an exciting yet challenging transition for couples. First-time parents must learn how to meet their infant’s needs without ignoring their own, both individually and as a couple. Research shows that during the first years of parenthood, the quality of a couple’s relationship tends to plummet. Marital stress and conflict can affect each partner’s wellbeing and negatively impact the child’s development.

The subsequent research summaries attempt to understand this decline in romantic relationships following parenthood by examining previously unexplored moderators and mediators. Specifically, romantic attachment orientation, relationship adjustment following a child’s birth, and the impact of work and household labor hours on the couples’ relationship were analyzed.

In addition to reviewing the following research summaries, psychologists are encouraged to explore the literature more completely to determine what may be useful to them in practice. 

Kohn, J. L., Rholes, S. W., Simpson, J. A, Martin, A. M., Tran, S., & Wilson, C. L. (2012). Changes in marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: The role of adult attachment orientations. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin, 38(11), 1506–22. doi:10.1177/0146167212454548

Summary

The authors sought to determine the effects of romantic attachment anxiety and avoidance on marital satisfaction in a sample of 192 partners expecting a child for the first time. The study utilized a longitudinal design with five assessment waves that initiated six weeks prior to birth and every six months postpartum. Participants completed questionnaires on relationship satisfaction, attachment avoidance and anxiety, perceived social support from partner, perceived negative exchanges with partner, and family demand and work-family conflict. 

Marital satisfaction during the first two years of parenthood was examined through dyadic growth curve models. Results revealed that both anxiously and avoidantly attached individuals had lower marital satisfaction than securely-attached participants. Perceived social support from and negative exchanges with an individual’s partner moderated attachment anxiety and marital satisfaction, particularly for women. A sharper decrease in marital satisfaction was observed in men compared to women if the men reported high levels of attachment anxiety as well as work-family conflict. 

Decrease in marital satisfaction was also evident in highly avoidant individuals, especially as their perceptions of family demands and work-family conflicts increased. Importantly, these findings are dyadic. Participants whose partners were anxiously or avoidantly attached also reported less marital satisfaction regardless of their own attachment orientation.  

Practical Implications

While romantic attachment and marital satisfaction are related through the duration of a marriage, the findings from this study suggest that for first-time parents, romantic attachment predicts marital satisfaction during the first two years of parenting. Since new parents who are either anxiously or avoidantly attached may be particularly vulnerable to problems in their marital relationship, psychologists may want to focus on individuals in these types of relationships and provide added support (for example, anticipating change, improving communication and reducing perceived negative interactions).  

First-time mothers who are prone to anxiety seem to be particularly vulnerable to perceived partner’s behavior. It is important to identify these women and address anxiety as well as increase positive experiences with their partner. 

It is also important to identify and target anxious first-time fathers, particularly if they perceive that work interferes with their family life, as this could hinder marital satisfaction. Improving problem-solving skills and other interventions may reduce some of the challenges inherent with this transition.

Bouchard, G. (2014). The quality of the parenting alliance during the transition to parenthood. Journal of Behavioral Science, 46(1), 20-28. doi: 10.1037/a0031259.

Summary

Bouchard tested whether relationship adjustment and changes in this adjustment following a child’s birth, mediated prebirth insecure romantic attachment and postbirth parenting alliance. The study employed a longitudinal design with 151 partners transitioning into parenthood for the first time. During the third trimester of pregnancy and six months postpartum, participants completed self-report measures on romantic attachment, relationship adjustment and postnatal parenting alliance (the degree to which individuals believe he/she has a good working relationship with the other parent).

Paired-sample t tests revealed a significant decline for women but not men in postbirth marital adjustment. However, the level of insecure attachment for men was related to a steeper decline in quality of romantic relationship after a first child’s birth.  

Regression analyses suggested that insecure romantic attachment prebirth for both males and females was associated with a negative postnatal parenting alliance, partially explained by the quality of marital union after a child’s birth. Relationship adjustment postbirth was a mediator between prebirth insecure romantic attachment and postbirth parenting alliance — in both males and females. 

Changes in relationship adjustment did not significantly affect this association in males, although insecurely attached men experienced difficulties in their marital relationship and adjustment to parenthood as well.

Practical Implications

The findings from this study, consistent with previous findings, suggest that the quality of a romantic relationship predicts parenting alliance, thus indicating parenting is not independent of the quality of marital relationship. 

Couples experiencing poor quality in their romantic relationship may benefit from intervention prior to their child’s birth. Improving the romantic relationship may also improve parenting alliance, which could positively impact the child’s development. The author suggests that a psycho-educational component on changes in marital relationships and adjustments into parenthood could be introduced to existing programs delivered to expecting parents.

While pregnant women are often the focus of interventions, fathers-to-be could similarly benefit from targeted programming since they also experience adjustment difficulties. Psychologists may wish to be attentive to marital relationships among clients expecting a child and provide prebirth support and education in an effort to strengthen existing relationships and prevent future difficulties.

Keizer, R., & Schenk, N. (2012). Becoming a parent and relationship satisfaction: A longitudinal dyadic perspective. Journal of Marriage and Family, 74(4), 759-773. doi: 10.1111/j.1741-3737.2012.00991.x

Summary

Through a British national household survey, Keizer and Schenk selected 689 couples to examine relationship satisfaction during transition to parenthood and the impact of work and household labor hours on the relationship. The study, which collected data from 1996 to 2009 in 12 waves, employed a longitudinal design examining hours spent at work, household labor and relationship satisfaction. A two-level model multivariate analysis revealed that both mothers and fathers reported a decrease in relationship satisfaction after a child’s birth. 

However, this trend in relationship satisfaction was quadratic. Relationship satisfaction started to increase approximately seven years after the child’s birth. Researchers hypothesized this increase was due to children needing less assistance and mothers being able to spend less time engaging in household labor.

For both fathers and mothers, relationship satisfaction was not affected by changes in work hours. However, when men increased their time in household labor, women reported greater relationship satisfaction while men reported less. When women increased their household labor, men again experienced decreased relationship satisfaction. Overall, these findings were more common in parents than in childless couples, indicating that the effect of a child’s birth on relationship satisfaction extends beyond changes in work hours and household labor.

Practical Implications

Psychologists working with couples transitioning to parenthood should be aware of possible changes in relationship satisfaction. Potential decreases in relationship satisfaction could be normalized for couples in order to identify possible strategies to strengthen the relationship. It is important to identify risk and protective factors, and to implement specific strategies that can prevent a steep decline in relationship satisfaction during the first years of a child’s life.

Relationship dissatisfaction in fathers associated with spouses’ household labor needs to be targeted, as men seem more vulnerable in comparison to women. For example, explicitly negotiating household labor so that both partners feel the expectations and divisions are reasonable may be necessary. 

According to the researchers, it could be possible that when a female increases time spent on household labor, it reduces the amount of time that the woman can spend with her partner. This perception of less quality time with their partner could explain why fathers report a decrease in marital satisfaction. If couples can re-negotiate roles and responsibilities, opportunities to increase shared quality time could become more available.