Sudden and Gradual Changes after Birth
The primary aim of the present study was to determine the effect of the birth of the first child on marital functioning by using an ITS design. This approach addressed several of the most pressing concerns about the previous literature and was able to: 1) provide an estimate of change in relationship functioning attributable to birth by separating change after birth from change that was occurring in the couple before birth; 2) determine whether couples generally recover from the effects of birth or if instead these effects are stable or even worsen with time; 3) examine gender differences in the effect of the transition to parenthood; and 4) compare parents and non-parents in appropriate ways.
Across positive and negative aspects of the relationship and across both self-report and observed variables, the birth of the first child has a small to medium negative effect on both fathers’ and mothers’ relationship functioning. The magnitude of this deterioration was smaller than many previous studies of the transition to parenthood (e.g., Cowan & Cowan, 1995
; Gottman et al., 2002
) but consistent with others (e.g., Kurdek, 1995; Simpson et al., 2003
). The smaller effects of birth revealed in the present study support criticisms of previous studies of the transition to parenthood. Specifically, as noted by Houston and Holmes (2004), previous studies may have inadvertently captured a “honeymoon” period for the couples during pregnancy and confounded typical relationship deterioration occurring even before birth with problems attributable to the transition to parenthood.
The present study also answered previous calls (e.g., Huston & Vangelisti, 1995
) to investigate the stability of the effect of the transition to parenthood. Results indicated that the negative effects on relationship functioning tended to persist through at least the first four years after birth. Indeed, there was not a single variable that showed evidence of even non-significant recovery after birth; parenthood tended to be experienced as sudden changes that persisted over time. In contrast to the general pattern of sudden and persistent change, fathers’ relationship confidence and problem intensity continued to deteriorate in the years following birth.
Generally, mothers and fathers evidenced statistically similar patterns in post-birth relationship functioning, though there were two areas in which mothers reported significantly larger sudden declines than fathers. Consistent with previous research (e.g., Belsky & Hsieh, 1998
; Grote & Clark, 2001
), mothers reported significantly larger sudden increases in poor conflict management and problem intensity than fathers, indicating that they may be more sensitive to the impact of having a first baby on these negative aspects of relationship functioning than their husbands are. In other areas of relationship functioning, however, the patterns tended to be similar.
Finally, the statistical approach in the present study also provided novel information about the similarities and differences between parents and non-parents in changes in relationship functioning over the first eight years of marriage. Had we instead fit only linear and quadratic slopes over time (omitting the possibility of sudden or gradual changes occurring at birth) and compared the amount of change between parents and non-parents, we would have concluded, along with previous studies (e.g., MacDermid et al., 1990
; McHale & Huston, 1985
), that parents and non-parents showed similar types of change over the course of the first few years of marriage. Instead, the results of the present study suggest that parents and non-parents generally show similar amounts
of decline in overall relationship functioning over the first eight years of marriage, but that these changes tend to occur suddenly following the birth of the baby for parents and more gradually over time for non-parents. Additionally, parents showed clear increases in negativity, conflict, and problem intensity following the birth of a child whereas non-parents did not show such changes at the same point in time nor did they show such declines over time more generally. Given the sudden nature of the negative relationship changes following birth for parents, the most likely explanation is that they are caused by stressors encountered during the transition to parenthood that are not handled well.
Variability and Prediction of Change after Birth
In addition to examining change over the transition to parenthood for the average couple, we were interested in exploring variability in couples’ adjustment to birth. In the present study, although the average individual’s relationship functioning deteriorated, some individuals reported improvements over the transition to parenthood, consistent with previous studies (e.g., Belsky & Hsieh, 1998
; Belsky & Rovine, 1990
). The variability in individuals’ reactions and adjustments to childbirth is important because it suggests avenues for future research on risk and resiliency during this typically stressful time. To understand why some couples deteriorate while others improve after birth, Karney and Bradbury’s (1995)
VSA model is especially useful. Consistent with that model, the present study focused on three constructs that are understood to impact changes in relationship satisfaction over time: 1) enduring vulnerabilities; 2) the nature of the stressful event (birth), and 3) the couples’ quality of adaptive processes.
First, several types of enduring vulnerabilities predicted relationship deterioration after birth. For mothers, a history of parental divorce or conflict was predictive of larger decreases in relationship satisfaction after birth. In previous studies, relationship functioning in the family of origin, particularly in that of the female partner, has been found to impact couples’ current relationship functioning (e.g., D’Onofrio et al., 2007
; Sanders, Halford, & Behrens, 1999
; Story et al., 2004
). Additionally, in the present study, both fathers and mothers who cohabited premaritally had more difficulty over the transition to parenthood than couples who had not cohabited before marriage. This difference is perhaps due to a combination of prior risk factors and the nature of the way their relationships initially formed (Stanley, Rhoades, & Markman, 2006
). The increased risk of cohabiting couples is consistent with previous research suggesting that those who cohabit before marriage (e.g., Kamp Dush, Cohan, & Amato, 2003
; Stanley et al., 2004
) are more at risk for marital problems and divorce.
Second, several characteristics of the stressful event (birth) predicted changes in couples’ relationship functioning after birth. Specifically, fathers who had a child more quickly following marriage evidenced more declines in relationship satisfaction after birth than parents who waited longer after getting married. This finding is consistent with some (e.g., Belsky & Rovine, 1990
) but not all (O’Brien & Peyton, 2002
) research. It may be that couples that have been married longer have more time to develop a shared understanding of relationship responsibilities and goals that help to buffer them from the stressors of increased childcare and general disorganization after birth. Interestingly, whether the baby was planned was generally unrelated to post-birth functioning in this sample. In interpreting this finding, it should be noted that it was not possible in the present study to differentiate couples who did not plan to get pregnant but were happy about it from couples who had an unplanned and undesired pregnancy. In previous research, the post-birth relationship outcomes for these two types of couples have been shown to be very different (Cowan & Cowan, 2000
); therefore, combining these groups in the present study may cause the overall prediction to be non-significant.
Additionally, the gender of the baby affected parents’ relationship functioning after birth, with female children leading to larger decreases in mothers’ relationship satisfaction and larger increases in fathers’ reports of problem intensity. These findings are consistent with previous studies that have shown male children are associated with lower rates of divorce and higher marital satisfaction (see Raley & Bianchi, 2006
), possibly because fathers of girls are less active in childcare than fathers of boys. Pregnant couples may need specific help in understanding and communicating their expectations about the gender of their babies and childcare so that they can stop declines in relationship functioning from occurring. Finally, consistent with previous research (e.g., Belsky & Rovine, 1990
), lower individual incomes (but not more financial stress) tended to predict more deterioration in fathers’ relationship functioning after birth. Therefore, it appears that the additional resources, supports, and alternative sources of self-esteem afforded by a higher income, rather than reduced financial stress, serves to buffer the relationship from declines in relationship quality. In future studies, it will be important to identify these protective resources and supports.
Third, several aspects of couples’ adaptive processes before birth predicted declines in relationship functioning after birth. Consistent with previous research (e.g., Cox et al., 1999; Crohan, 1996; Kluwer & Johnson, 2007), individuals who reported more problems with poor conflict management and problem intensity before birth showed significantly larger increases in these problems after birth. Additionally, more observed negative communication in mothers before birth predicted their reports of increases in post-birth poor conflict management, also consistent with previous research (e.g., Shapiro et al., 2000
). Thus, as in previous studies, high levels of negative communication before birth placed individuals at risk for greater post-birth increases in problematic communication.
Interestingly, the present results also suggest that individuals with high pre-birth levels of positive relationship functioning were at risk for more post-birth deterioration in the positive aspects of their relationships. Specifically, the sudden declines in fathers’ and mothers’ relationship satisfaction as well as mothers’ dedication were larger when individuals showed higher levels of these constructs before birth; these findings are consistent with some (Belsky & Rovine, 1990
) but not all (O’Brien & Peyton, 2002
) previous literature. This pattern could indicate that couples who have the highest romantic connections find the transition to the tasks of parenting the most challenging, at least to the positive aspects of their relationships.
Additionally, reporting more relationship confidence before birth was associated with greater increases in negative relationship constructs (problem intensity and poor conflict management) after birth. Relationship confidence has not been previously examined over the transition to parenthood, but the risks of having unrealistically high relationship expectations have been demonstrated in newlywed couples, especially those with poor communication (McNulty & Karney, 2004). Taken together, these results suggest that the impact of the transition to parenthood may be especially potent when couples are at the extremes of both positive and negative relationship constructs. However, it should be noted that regression to the mean could also explain the associations of the positive (but not negative) relationship behaviors with changes after birth. Therefore, these results should be interpreted with caution until they are replicated in future research.
Despite the predictive ability of these variables, we should note that many other variables were not predictive of change in relationship functioning after birth. Given that the present study defines the “effect” of birth differently than previous studies, we wanted to include many of the predictors that have been used in previous studies. Many to most of these predictors had received equivocal support in previous research; the results in the present study were similar. There are likely several reasons for the difficulty in differentiating couples who will and will not have relationship difficulties after the transition to parenthood; we focus on three here. First, predicting change after birth requires predicting the development of some important aspects of the relationship that simply do not exist before birth. For example, the most commonly reported conflict after birth is division of childcare (e.g., Cowan & Cowan, 2000
), something that couples have not previously dealt with. A second reason for the difficulty in predicting change after birth is that factors that cannot be known before birth may be some of the strongest determinants of change in relationship functioning over the transition to parenthood (e.g., child temperament; Kochanska, Friesenborg, Lange, & Martel, 2004
). Third, in the present study, we purposely tested a restrictive definition of a predictor. Consistent with our desire to separate change in the relationship attributable to changes before birth from changes attributable solely to the transition to parenthood, we tested whether variables would be able to predict changes following birth after controlling for the couples’ functioning at the time of birth. In other words, the only predictors identified in the present study were those that had an additional effect on relationship functioning following birth above and beyond the effect they had already had on relationship functioning up to that point. Future research may wish to expand the list of predictors.
Limitations and Future Directions
The results of the present study should be considered in the context of its limitations. Most importantly, generalizability may be somewhat limited to due to several factors. While the sample is reasonably representative of the metro area from which it was drawn, and much effort was expended not to obtain a convenience sample (Stanley et al., 2001
), participants were mainly well educated and Caucasian. Additionally, all couples received some form of premarital education and were married within a religious organization. The potential impact of these factors on generalizability is tempered for three reasons. First, analyses demonstrated that the type of education received did not systematically affect the shape of change in the relationship variables; furthermore, type of intervention did not significantly predict the amount of change following the birth of the baby. Second, because of the way participants were recruited, the selection effects are expected to be minimal. Each participating couple was required to receive premarital education through the religious organization that would perform their wedding (as a condition of being married there); therefore, this was not a sample that purposely sought out premarital education. Furthermore, over 75% (Johnson et al., 2002
; Stanley, Amato, Johnson, & Markman, 2006
; Sullivan & Bradbury, 1997
) of couples that receive premarital education do so through a religious organization. Third, although all couples in the present study were married by an official associated with a religious organization, this is true for most couples in the United States (Stanley et al., 2006
). Additionally, the average couple described themselves as only “somewhat religious” and only 27 percent of couples attend church once a week or more. Nevertheless, it could be that the findings here most specifically generalize to those couples who seek to marry in a religious organization.
A second limitation of the present study was that we were unable to separate the impact of the first child on changes in relationship functioning from the impact of later children. Assuming that later children have a negative impact on relationship functioning, this impact may be reflected in the gradual changes (and, to a lesser extent, sudden changes) seen after the birth of the first child. Future studies with more frequent assessments could address the issue of multiple children more directly.
We should also note that the larger study was originally designed to track changes in relationship functioning over time, rather than the impact of the transition to parenthood. While these types of designs have some advantages over studies that specifically target future parents (for a review of these advantages, see Huston & Holmes, 2004
), it meant that the timing of the assessment before birth varied between couples. For some couples, the final pre-birth assessment (from which the values of the time-varying predictors were obtained) occurred before the couple was pregnant while it occurred in the third trimester for other couples. As a result, additional variability was added to the predictor, reducing power to find an effect of those predictors. In future studies, it would be useful to combine an ITS design with measures that are more specific to changes and challenges faced by couples over the transition to parenthood. For example, it may be that that relationship constructs other than those measured in the present study (e.g., prenatal expectations; Lawrence, Nylen, & Cobb, 2007
) may be more predictive of relationship change after the birth of the baby. Additionally, to expand our understanding of the transition to parenthood, examination of the role the couple relationship plays in the developing coparenting relationship is critical. The data set used here contains an unusually broad assessment of relationship constructs, allowing for tests of various relationship effects over time. However, since child variables such as temperament are likely to have important impacts on relationship functioning after birth (Kochanska et al., 2004
), our ability to understand this process would be enhanced by inclusion of these variables in future studies. Finally, the internal reliability of some of our measures (e.g., dedication) was low at some of the initial assessment points, likely due to a restriction of range in newlywed couples.
In sum, using an extensive database of 218 couples spanning the first eight years of marriage, the present study answers a long-standing and central question in the field; this investigation demonstrated that the transition to parenthood has a significant impact on marital functioning. For the average couple, these effects were negative, small to medium in magnitude, and consistent across a number of relationship domains. Moreover, these effects tended to be sudden and persist over time. Additionally, results revealed significant variability in changes after birth. This variability was systematically related to a number of factors associated with the individual, the marriage, and characteristics of the birth itself.