Can You Babyproof Your Relationship?

How the transition to parenthood challenges couples

Posted Feb 04, 2016

Matt Molinari,, Creative Commons license
Source: Matt Molinari,, Creative Commons license

Before we had a baby, I loved my husband’s spontaneity and ability to go with the flow. Post-baby, my appreciation for his carefree personality morphed into irritation every time he forgot to pick up diaper rash cream at the drugstore. I didn’t care anymore that he was a fun dinner date – I cared about whether he was going to pick up the Cheerios encrusted in our living room rug. Almost overnight, we went from being leisure-time pals to co-owners of a demanding small business with one very cranky little customer.

If you had crashed our wedding and asked the two of us to predict how a new baby would affect our relationship, our answer would have sounded as rosy as our newlywed glow. A new child, a chubby-cheeked mix of our best facial features and most endearing personality quirks, would deepen our bond. We imagined gazing lovingly down at our adorable sleeping infant, lit in soft focus as a lullaby warbled in the background. A few years later came the reality check: that sweet snoozing baby was actually awake and screaming, up for the seventh time since midnight, spitting up milk all over our PJs. And we were tired, cranky, and bickering about whose turn it was to get up next.  

This turn of events struck me as ironic, given that I study families for a living. As a graduate student, I worked on UCLA’s Center for the Everyday Lives of Families (CELF), a big observational study of dual-earner couples with kids. CELF recorded hundreds of hours of video of families rushing through their morning routine, scrambling to get dinner on the table, and wrestling over kids’ homework in the evenings. A few years later, I joined the University of Southern California’s Family Studies Project as a postdoctoral fellow. We brought families into the lab and asked them to argue on camera. So by the time I had kids of my own, I knew exactly how tough family life could be. I had seen the bags under parents’ eyes and charted their rising stress hormones. And yet I was still blindsided by how much my husband and I struggled with our adjustment to parenthood.

Our experience was far from unique. A study of 2,016 German parents who reported annually on their subjective well-being found that becoming a parent led to an average 1.4 unit drop in happiness, a larger decline than found for life events like divorce, unemployment, and the death of a partner. Even in the 1950s, at the height of the Leave it to Beaver era, sociologist E.E. LeMasters proclaimed that having a baby was a “crisis” for a marriage.

Research supports this gloomy forecast. Across dozens of longitudinal studies, becoming a parent has been linked with a decline in relationship satisfaction that occurs in the first years of parenthood. Couples who do not become parents also show generally declining satisfaction over time, but without the sharp inflection point seen in those couples transitioning to parenthood.

Women tend to report more of a post-baby drop in relationship satisfaction than men do, and their satisfaction plummets closer to birth, whereas men’s relationship satisfaction seems to drop later on in that first postpartum year. Couples who are unmarried and whose pregnancies are unplanned struggle more. Postpartum mood disorders and a contentious family of origin also make the transition harder. In other words, unsurprisingly, couples who are already at risk will be most challenged by the transition to parenthood.

Given that couples find new parenthood so daunting, here’s the million dollar question: Can we intervene to help prevent relationship decline among new parents? Or, to phrase the question another way, is it good public policy for us to invest in interventions that shore up couples’ relationship quality during this pivotal time?

During the Bush Administration and continuing into the Obama Administration, the $500 million Healthy Marriage Initiative funded many grants to implement relationship interventions, especially with high-risk couples and couples with young children. These interventions have yielded mixed results and become a source of controversy among social scientists. I’ll get back to that issue in a minute. But the field of relationship intervention has been around long before this initiative. Many of the key intervention studies were done, fittingly, by a married couple with children – Carolyn and Philip Cowan, psychology professors at UC Berkeley and authors of several books on the transition to parenthood.

In one study, the Cowans tested six months of couples counseling, offered over the last three months of pregnancy and first three months of parenthood. Couples met weekly with a therapist to hash out marital issues and discuss their hopes and dreams for parenthood. Eighteen months later, couples in the intervention group reported better relationship satisfaction than a sample of couples who became parents around the same time but did not participate in the intervention. Among those “control” couples, 12.5% had separated by 18 months, but all of the couples in the intervention group had stayed together.

This baby wonders: will her parents make it?
Source: Darby Saxbe

According to the Cowans, the interventions that work best are intensive, like this one: They feature frequent points of contact (11 face-to-face sessions or more) and well-trained professionals. This can present a barrier to entry for many couples, who need to carve out time for multiple sessions. However, a brief intervention tested by Brian Doss and his colleagues at the University of Miami also appeared to successfully buffer couples against declines in their satisfaction. This study recruited 90 couples at risk for post-baby trouble, focusing on couples who were either unmarried, unsure about having a baby, had been married before, or include at least one partner with depression or a history of family programs. Thirty couples were placed in an information-only control group and given general information about child development but no specific relationship or coparenting intervention. Another thirty participated in a relationship intervention, focused on identifying relationship strengths and difficulties and working on both problem solving and acceptance. (If you’re interested in sampling a version of this intervention yourself, it is currently offered for free as part of a federally-funded research study.) Finally, thirty couples participated in a coparenting intervention, in which they discussed their plans for the division of housework and childcare, and for resolving differences of opinion on child rearing. Both the relationship and the coparenting interventions comprised four sessions, two before birth and two after birth, lasting six hours in total.

Compared to couples in the information-only group, couples in both the relationship and the coparenting intervention showed smaller post-birth declines in relationship satisfaction, a stronger parenting alliance, and fewer increases in stress. The two interventions showed comparable effects, suggesting that treatments that focus on relationship quality and treatments that focus on parenting can both help couples. This is good to know, because many couples take parenting classes with little focus on their marriage, while other couples participate in marriage counseling without much attention to parenthood. Indeed, the effects of these interventions crossed domains: couples in the relationship condition also reported a stronger parenting alliance, and couples in the coparenting condition also reported better relationship satisfaction. Remember that couples were only getting about six hours of therapy in total, suggesting that a well-targeted intervention can make a real difference.

So intervening with couples about to become parents is a no-brainer, right? Not exactly. Circling back to the Healthy Marriage Initiative, many of the programs supported by this ambitious program have turned in disappointing results. For example, the eight-site Building Strong Families (BSF) effort, which enrolled over 5,000 couples at an average cost of about $10,000 per couple, reported mixed or weak improvements in couples’ relationship satisfaction. Indeed, at some sites (like Baltimore) couples enrolled in the BSF intervention actually had worse outcomes than control group couples. These inconclusive results have sparked controversy in the field. Many researchers have argued that, rather than funding relationship interventions for low-income couples, government agencies should focus on improving couples’ economic security. After all, stress and poverty are known to have corrosive effects on relationship quality, especially in the wake of a major life event like parenthood. Another problem is that the Healthy Marriage Initiative has targeted low-income, ethnic minority couples, many unmarried. However, many relationship intervention programs have been tested on middle-class whites and may not translate to more diverse populations.

Despite the underwhelming results of many Healthy Marriage Initiative programs, the Cowans and others have appealed to policymakers to improve, rather than discard, such programs. Better research is needed, particularly with low-income and minority samples. And the programs that have been offered could benefit from more empirical rigor, such as collecting data to track outcomes. These data may even yield some happy surprises – for example, the Cowans point to evidence that even when relationship programs appear to show little impact on couples’ satisfaction, they can boost the well-being of their children.

Although the jury remains out on grand-scale relationship intervention, there is still some encouraging news in the relationship research world. For one thing, studies on the transition to parenthood have uncovered plenty of resilience. Although close to half of couples report a significant decrease in relationship satisfaction after baby, some couples maintain their relationship quality and others actually report improvements. For example, parents report a stronger sense of social integration and a broader self-concept. A Gallup poll of 1.8 million Americans found that, yes, parenting was associated with more frequent emotional lows (like feelings of worry, stress, and anger) but also with more frequent positive emotions. The balance of costs and benefits might depend on the age of the child and marital status of the parent, among other factors. Interestingly, parents of young children appear to have lower levels of affective well-being and satisfaction than non-parents; however, parents of adult children report higher levels of well-being, satisfaction, and meaning. In other words, children might confer the greatest benefits on parents’ health and well-being after they have grown up and left home.

As for my own marriage, our kids are 4 and 6 now, and our marriage has definitely undergone a major shift from our newlywed days. We’re older, saggier, and more sleep-deprived. We haven’t had a dinner or a movie out in months, let alone a relaxing vacation. At the same time, I have a new respect and appreciation for my husband, because I’ve seen him do the hard work of fathering. We share our two favorite little people in the world. We’re bonded for life in a way that feels profound and irrefutable. We haven’t gotten as many of those blissed-out staring-at-the-sleeping-baby moments as I expected, but we’ve ended up with something more interesting: the chance to watch two curious, energetic, and surprising kids discover the world.


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