The transition to parenthood can be challenging and potentially cause a strain on your marriage. Here's what you need to know so you can feel prepared.

Transition to parenthood and marital satisfaction

Transition to Parenthood is the first developmental task for a new couple. It took the field almost 50 years to get away from the cultural expectation that new parenthood was a hectically blissful time.

Early research in the 1950s and 1970s was doubted because it revealed comparatively high levels of marital dissatisfaction.

Esther Kluwer (2010) conducted some of the most recent research that showed that marital satisfaction does indeed dip, but the rates of discontent seem lower than previous generations, (Twenge et al. 2003).

The transition to parenthood is challenging

But this meta-research (think research overview) shows that new mothers are significantly impacted by the transition to parenthood, and may experience reduced satisfaction. Issues of “who does what” and other division of labor issues, along with new questions about “how leisure time will be spent?” and “how much time are we spending together?” tend to put mom in a funk.

From an EFT lens, there is research to suggest that the first signs of the couples’ future pursuer-distancer dynamic forms at this time (Kluwer 2010). My guess would be that attachment needs are activated at this vulnerable time. Mom wants to know “are you going to be there for me?….Can I count on you?…and ” will you put our needs as at least equal to your own?”

Transition to parenthood: What are the rates of satisfaction?

We now know that a decline in marital satisfaction is not baked in the cake. The transition to parenthood calls for new skills, teamwork, and empathetic engagement.

The meta-analysis of the new research shows that about half of expecting couples do experience a decline in marital satisfaction, and half do not (Kluwer, 2010).

The study showed interesting outliers; 13% experienced a serious and severe decline in satisfaction, while 19% actually experienced an increase in satisfaction.

What do we know about the 13% that have a nosedive in satisfaction? These couples were cohabitatorsWe also know from Kluwer (2010) that an Anxious Attachment style is correlated with lower marital satisfaction at the transition to parenthood.

Transition to parenthood other known stressors

Doss and his research team (2009) found other stressors which impact marital happiness at the transition to parenthood.

  • Husband Working Overtime
  • Either Parent Working on the Night Shift
  • Unhappiness with Work Situation or Career
  • Relative Fussiness of the Infant, and resulting sleep deprivation of the parents.
  • The gender of the baby is Correlated to Happiness. You guessed it. Daughters are less satisfying. But we think that this is related to other research which suggests that daddy will play more with junior that he will with his daughter.
  • Husbands Degree of Fondness Toward his Wife

Transition to parenthood as seen through a systemic lens

Gottman (2000) discovered that the more the young father engaged in turning toward his partner during the first year, the calmer and more satisfied the partner would be during the transition to parenthood. Gottman identified the relationship between calm and future satisfaction during the transition to parenthood.

Ten years later, researcher Esther Klumer asked the same question in a different way.

She compiled longitudinal data from about 300 Dutch couples. Her research objective was to examine the correlation between the frequency of conflict and the quality of the relationship across the transition to the parenthood event horizon.

The transition to parenthood is known as one of the most challenging development milestones in a marriage.

Kluwer confirmed Gottman. More frequent conflict during pregnancy was related to lower levels of relational quality across the transition to parenthood.

Another finding was that lower levels of relationship quality during pregnancy were also associated with more frequent conflict across the transition to new parenthood.

A comparison of two models showed that frequent conflict is more likely to be a determinant than a consequence of lower relationship quality. Conflict poorly managed erodes satisfaction.

In other words, the transition to parenthood aggravates underlying relational deficits, and these deficits inform the marital conflict.

Getting help early makes a big difference

If we can help couples to address relational deficits early, their relational satisfaction may be more robust.

The most important conclusion of this research is that new parenthood does not introduce new stressors as much as it exacerbates the underlying relational deficits which already exist. This is why science-based pre-marital counseling is the best gift for a young couple.

The results suggest a complicated but readily identifiable connection between conflict frequency and relationship quality that will inform the crafting of new couples therapy interventions which will help these young couples navigate the transition to parenthood (Kluwer, 2010).

Originally published November 14, 2017

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Daniel Dashnaw

Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist and the blog editor. He currently works with couples online and in person. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and Developmental Models in his approaches. Daniel specializes in working with neurodiverse couples, couples that are recovering from an affair, and couples struggling with conflict avoidant and passive aggressive behavior patterns.

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