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A Couple's Tricky Transition to Parenthood

Looking at the correlation between having kids and relationship satisfaction.

Key points

  • Becoming parents changes a couple's relationship dynamic.
  • Research finds a decline in relationship satisfaction after having kids.
  • There are preventative measures that can help keep a relationship strong.
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A new baby.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

Many believe that one of the greatest joys in life is becoming a parent. The bond with a child is like one you experience in no other relationship. Watching your child grow and develop is a rewarding experience. It can strengthen the bond with your partner as you create your own family. The experience of creating a legacy is one many people hope to achieve.

But the transition to becoming parents also creates a new dynamic in a relationship that partners must navigate together. We know it can be a stressful time as well as a precious and special part of life. If you are thinking about having kids, recently became parents, or have noticed some changes through the years as parents, it may be helpful to consider how becoming a parent changes a relationship.

John Gottman has studied the effect of becoming parents in relationships for years. He has found that 67 percent of couples experienced a decline in relationship satisfaction in the first 3 years of their child’s life. The Gottman research showed that a baby’s vagal tone, as well as how much the baby laughed and cried at 3 months, could be predicted from the way the couple discussed a conflict in their last trimester. Gottman's team found that with higher incidents of conflict, babies could have speech delays, higher distress, and less reaction to soothing.

Another study looked at relationship satisfaction for the first three years postpartum and found a decline, with the largest taking place during the first year. This research team compared parents to couples without kids and saw that being parents did create a significant difference in relationship satisfaction. There have also been several other studies showing this correlation, with the relationship decline affecting children’s development. This work shows that kids seem to have more behavioral issues when parents experience stress and conflict in their relationship.

What all of this research shows is that it’s important for parents to get intervention in their relationship as it’s a stressful time and their happiness affects their children. As much as birthing classes and prenatal care are recommended, it would be great to see wider adoption of “pre-parenting” counseling as well. The Gottman Institute has a workshop for new parents called “Bringing Baby Home,” which has been found to be helpful, but there are many other programs available as well, if perhaps less empirically grounded. Parents who do some preparation that focuses on their relationship and not just caring for the baby seem to have better outcomes in relationship satisfaction.

Things to remember

  • Being a parent is a tough job, especially the first time.
  • You will be sleep-deprived and stressed.
  • This added stress can decrease your ability to communicate effectively.
  • Having a baby creates more opportunities for conflict.
  • Parenting can be an emotional roller-coaster.
  • Intimacy and physical affection can change.

Things to focus on

  • Maintain open communication with your partner.
  • Share responsibilities so no one gets burnt out.
  • Seek support from friends, family, or professionals.
  • Prioritize self-care.
  • Celebrate your child’s milestones.
  • Remember that being a parent isn’t your only identity.

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Engermann, T., & Sheldon, K. M. (2009). Changes in marital quality over the first 3 years of parenthood: A meta-analysis. Journal of Marriage and Family, 71(1), 21-38.

Hawkins, A. J., & Booth, A. (2005). Marital quality, parenting, and child development: A decade review of research. Child Development Perspectives, 1(1), 81-94.

McLanahan, S. S., & Adamsons, J. (2013). Parental conflict and child well-being. Annual Review of Sociology, 39, 359-382.

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