Supporting couples across the transition
Robyn Parker and Cathryn Hunter
Amid all the adjustments new parents need to make, the couple relationship can often
become vulnerable as partners struggle to maintain their pre-parenthood focus on each other.
Practitioners can help new parents through the transition via programs that focus on the
couple relationship alongside the challenges of parenting. Drawing on a selection of recent
research, this paper is aimed at informing practitioners working with individuals and couples
about the major factors impacting on relationship satisfaction for new parents and the optimal
characteristics and content of programs to support both the couple and their parenting through
the transition to parenthood.
NO. 20 2011
AustrAliAn fAmily rElAtiOnsHiPs ClEAringHOusE
Marital satisfaction1 often declines over time, but may be particularly notable following the birth of a
child (Halford & Petch, 2010; also see Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009; Twenge, Campbell,
& Foster, 2003, for brief discussions) when the decline tends to be steeper and more rapid (Lawrence,
Rothman, Cobb, Rothman, & Bradbury, 2008), probably in response to the stresses of looking after
a newborn (Halford & Petch, 2010). While becoming a parent can be a time of great joy, there are
also many challenges, which, if particularly difﬁcult, may have implications for child development
(Doss et al., 2009). Therefore understanding the factors associated with the decline in satisfaction, and
the interactions among them, can arm practitioners with information to help clients prepare for, and
perhaps counteract, the ways in which becoming a parent impacts negatively on couple relationships
(Twenge et al., 2003). This may be especially important if the birth occurs in the ﬁrst 5 years of
marriage, when relationships appear to be vulnerable to separation and divorce (Doss et al., 2009).
Research indicates associations between a number of factors that impact on marital satisfaction during
the transition to parenthood, although the ﬁndings can be contradictory. Practitioners may need to
1 Much of the research in this ﬁeld is conducted in the USA and participants are usually married rather than cohabiting couples, hence the use of the
term “marital” rather than “relationship” satisfaction. In this paper we will use the terms “marital” and “relationship” satisfaction interchangeably
unless referring to research in which the two groups are speciﬁcally compared or analysed separately.
2 | Australian Institute of Family Studies
Editor: Elly Robinson, Manager, Australian Family Relationships
Edited by: Lauren Di Salvia
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Key factors affecting relationship satisfaction across
the transition to parenthood 2
Gender and gender roles 2
Division of labour and perceptions of fairness 2
Socioeconomic status 3
Parental expectations 3
Sleep disturbances 3
Relationship factors 4
Child factors 4
Transition to parenthood—what’s important? 5
Transition to parenthood—what works? 6
Final comments 8
canvass both broad and speciﬁc issues with their
clients in order to provide the most effective
information and/or intervention.
Key factors affecting relationship
satisfaction across the transition to
Below are key ﬁndings from a selection of
research studies examining factors that affect
couple relationships when partners become
parents, and that are particularly relevant to
Gender and gender roles
While women tend to experience the decline
in relationship satisfaction during the transition
to parenting more signiﬁcantly than men (for
a meta-analysis see Twenge et al., 2003), the
ﬁndings for men have been inconsistent (see
for example, Van Egeren, 2004). Interestingly,
compared to the early studies of satisfaction
for new parents, recent research tends to ﬁnd
declines in satisfaction to be steeper (Twenge
et al., 2003). A suggested explanation for this
comes from research into changes in gender
roles following the birth of a child. A longitudinal
study of ﬁrst-time and “experienced” (already
had one child) parents and their gender-role
attitudes (Katz-Wise, Priess, & Hyde, 2010)
found that both groups of parents became more
traditional in their gender-roles from pregnancy
to 12 months post-partum. With increases in
workforce participation by women over recent
decades (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2008),
ﬁrst-time mothers may experience this gender-
role discrepancy more intensely now than
mothers from previous generations.
Division of labour and perceptions of
Women may be particularly vulnerable to the
impacts of new parenthood, as their workload—
through primary child care and housework
Robyn Parker is a Senior Research Ofﬁcer and Cathryn
Hunter is a Research Ofﬁcer with the Australian Family
The authors are grateful to Lyn Fletcher for her very helpful and
insightful comments and suggestions on the paper.
AFRC Brieﬁng 20 2011 | 3
duties—tends to increase signiﬁcantly in the early post-partum period. For example, one study
found that women’s total workloads (paid employment, child care and housework) after the
birth of their child increased signiﬁcantly more (by 64%) than men’s (37%) (Gjerdingen & Center,
2004). Perceptions of fairness in how domestic tasks are distributed may also affect women’s
relationship satisfaction (Gjerdingen & Center, 2004). Furthermore, if expectations that child
care will be shared between partners are not met, co-parenting experiences (how couples feel
they work together as parents) tend to be poor, more so for women as they generally do more
child care than they expected (Van Egeren, 2004). These feelings may abate as the child grows
and child care and household labour becomes more evenly distributed. However, the impact
of domestic workload—alone and in concert with other factors affecting life as a new parent,
such as sleep disturbances—should be explored by practitioners seeking to help parents adjust
Findings regarding socioeconomic status (SES) and declines in marital satisfaction across the
transition to parenthood have yielded some interesting ﬁndings. Some studies suggest that
younger, less educated individuals tend to struggle more with the transition (e.g., Howard &
Brooks-Gunn, 2009) while other research has found the transition more disruptive for those
from high SES backgrounds, particularly women who may have left high-status and well-paid
jobs to become mothers (Twenge et al., 2003). These ﬁndings suggest that in different types
of families, for different reasons, the impact of the transition to parenthood may be greater for
families where there is a higher degree of disruption to their pre-parenthood lifestyle.
Pre-birth expectations of parenthood have been found to be related to psychological wellbeing
of mothers. If their parenting experiences were contrary to their expectations before giving
birth, their relationship quality tended to decline; however, post-birth experiences that were
more positive than expected were related to improved relationship quality (Harwood, McLean,
& Durkin, 2007). These particular ﬁndings underline the importance of preparing couples for,
and supporting them through, the myriad of changes parenthood brings.
Although many parents report disturbed sleep in the post-partum period and it is known to
have implications for a range of individual functions, including parental competence (Gay, Lee,
& Lee, 2004), there is limited research into how sleep affects new parents’ adaptation to their
role. Further, Medina, Lederhos, and Lillis (2009) pointed out that although much is known
about how sleep disturbance affects mood and cognition, almost no studies have examined
the role of those disturbances in changes in relationship satisfaction. Their review led them
to suggest a process by which sleep disturbances (e.g., interruption or deprivation) negatively
affect the cognitive and emotional resources needed to cope with the multiple demands of new
parenthood and exacerbate the stresses new parents face. If conﬂict then increases and positive
feelings begin to decline, relationship satisfaction may also suffer. From a practice point of view
therefore, it would seem useful to also explore with clients how a lack of or interrupted sleep
might affect the couple relationship.
4 | Australian Institute of Family Studies
In studies of married couples, marital satisfaction and health (i.e., marital friendship, thinking
about how the partner feels, fondness and affection, prenatal conﬂict, and withdrawal) prior to
parenthood (Shapiro, Gottman, & Carrere, 2000) and the length of the marriage prior to the birth
of the ﬁrst child (Doss et al., 2009) tend to buffer against the stressors related to the transition.
This suggests that exploration of the couple relationship prior to the pregnancy and birth would
be a useful part of any program or service supporting couples in the transition to parenthood.
Being in a marital or cohabiting relationship has been linked to postnatal supportiveness for low
SES couples—compared to non-cohabiting dating couples or couples who were not romantically
involved—however satisfaction has been found to decline more sharply for cohabiting than
married couples (particularly mothers) (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009). Declines in satisfaction
have also been found to occur more suddenly for ﬁrst-time fathers who cohabit before marriage,
and ﬁrst-time parents who cohabit before marriage tend to express higher levels of observed
negative communication with their partner after the birth of their ﬁrst child (Doss et al., 2009).
The impacts of prenatal relationship quality on the transition to parenthood may be particularly
salient for men. In one study, fathers’ prenatal marital withdrawal (i.e., avoiding eye contact,
increasing/maintaining physical distance, giving up on the discussion, and being unresponsive)
was related to less positive whole family interactions at 24 months post-partum (Paley et
al., 2005). Furthermore, another study found fathers’ feelings about the relationship before
parenthood to be an indicator of their postnatal feelings, and also of their wives’ perceptions of
their co-parenting (Van Egeren, 2004).
Some child factors have been found to impact parental wellbeing in the transition to parenthood.
Child temperament, particularly having a fussy or difﬁcult child, has been linked to difﬁculty
Some methodological considerations
Methodological differences contribute to the seemingly contradictory ﬁndings from studies of the transition
to parenthood (Doss et al., 2009). Research into the transition to parenthood has been criticised for several
common methodological issues, including:
the use of small samples of generally homogeneous, middle-class, married, educated, heterosexual
Caucasian couples in the USA;
the use of cross-sectional designs, which have limited capacity to isolate the effect of having children on
the transition to parenthood; and
the collection of information during pregnancy when relationship satisfaction may be artiﬁcially inﬂated
by the heightened togetherness of being pregnant (although these ﬁndings are inconsistent, refer
Lawrence et al., 2008).
These design issues limit the generalisability of ﬁndings to broader populations. However, ﬁndings of
signiﬁcant relationships between the transition to parenthood and a wide range of factors highlight the
need for practitioners to help couples examine several areas of their relationship that might be affected by
the arrival of their child.
AFRC Brieﬁng 20 2011 | 5
or stress by parents, particularly fathers (Baxter & Smart, 2010; Perren, von Wyl, Burgin,
Simoni, & von Klitzing, 2005; Spielman & Taubman, 2009; Van Egeren, 2004). Having a low
birth weight child was found to impact fathers’ reports of declines in the mother’s relationship
supportiveness in one study (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009), perhaps a function of the added
burden experienced by mothers of caring for a more fragile infant. Lastly, child gender has been
found to differentially impact relationship quality in some studies (e.g., Doss et al., 2009: greater
drops in satisfaction reported for mothers giving birth to daughters rather than sons) but not
others (Howard & Brooks-Gunn, 2009: child gender was unrelated to either parent’s perception
of partner’s emotional supportiveness).
Since a large number of factors have been shown to impact on how well couples make the
transition to parenthood, it can be difﬁcult to decide where to start when helping new or soon-
to-be parents prepare for and navigate their new and changed circumstances. In some cases,
speciﬁc issues may be identiﬁed that affect, or have the potential to affect, the safety of the child
or a parent, in which case prompt assistance from relevant professionals should be sought. The
following section brieﬂy outlines a framework that provides a systematic way for practitioners to
identify possible information and intervention needs of new or soon-to-be parents.
Transition to parenthood—what’s important?
Drawing on research into risk factors for couples adjusting to parenthood, Halford and Petch
(2010) suggested that, to promote couple/parental coping, satisfaction, involvement, and parent–
infant interaction, interventions should address the following content areas:
Factors speciﬁc to parenthood:
—Skills training in basic infant care—managing infant sleeping and feeding, crying and
—Expectations of parenting—roles, support, affection, equity, conﬂict, relationship
—Parenting competence/efﬁcacy—understanding infant behaviour, interpreting and
responding to infant cues.
Factors related to context:
—Seeking and obtaining support from family and friends—identifying actual and possible
support needs and possible solutions.
Couple process factors:
—Effective communication and conﬂict management skills.
—Mutual practical, emotional support—articulate support needed and currently received,
identify and apply new or additional methods of support.
—Affection and intimacy: caring behaviours and sexual satisfaction—articulate caring
received and given, identify ways to increase caring behaviours; acknowledge common
sexual difﬁculties for new parents and help ﬁnd ways to address these if necessary.
It is generally accepted that interactions between the couple and between parents and their
children are interrelated. Being in a high quality relationship is associated with sensitive and
responsive parenting (Erel & Burna, 1995; Krishnakumar & Buehler, 2000) whereas poorer
quality relationships can lead to “an escalating cycle of negativity and upset between the parents,
and between the parents and the infant” (Halford & Petch, 2010, p. 167). Australian data showed
6 | Australian Institute of Family Studies
that low parenting warmth was consistently linked to lower relationship satisfaction and lower
perceived support for both primary (typically mothers) and secondary (typically fathers) carers
(Zubrick, Smith, Nicholson, Sanson, & Jackiewicz, 2008).
Given the robustness of this association it could be expected that programs addressing factors
that affect both the couple relationship and the parents’ capability to provide optimal parenting
would have measurable impacts on the adjustment to parenthood. The following section
summarises some of the evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of programs that aim to
support couples through the transition to parenthood.
Transition to parenthood—what works?
Generally, programs for new or soon-to-be parents aim to promote relationship skills and
support, and realistic expectations of parenthood. In a meta-analysis2 of 142 studies, programs
that addressed both couple relationship and parenting issues were shown to have positive
impacts on couple, parenting and child development variables (Pinquart & Teubert, 2010). The
interventions started either during pregnancy or following the birth of the child, and addressed
a wide range of individual, couple, and child factors. Around two-thirds of the interventions
were attended by at-risk families,3 however the majority of participants were mothers.4 Improved
outcomes were noted for:
actual or potential for child abuse/neglect;
parental stress and psychological health;
couple adjustment; and
aspects of child development.
In combining the ﬁndings of the studies examined, Pinquart and Teubert (2010) identiﬁed the
following optimal program characteristics:
Interventions of 3 to 6 months duration appeared to be effective for promoting parenting
quality and for child social development.
Selective, targeted programs run by professionals were associated with positive/increased
child mental health.
Child cognitive development was positively impacted if parents attended an intervention with
at least some postnatal sessions.
Individual/couple programs were effective with respect to complex issues such as parent–
Group programs impacted health-promoting behaviours (for example, immunisation).
2 A meta-analysis is a way of reviewing groups of studies. A statistic that quantiﬁes the amount of change in particular variables is
calculated and used to indicate whether the effect of a type of program (e.g., parenting competence, adolescent resilience) is small,
medium or large. The larger the combined effect, the more effective the program.
3 “At risk” in the analyses reported here is indicated by the labelling of an intervention as universal or selective prevention of negative
parenting behaviours. No further information regarding speciﬁc risk factors is provided.
4 This limits the generalisability of the ﬁndings. Directing programs at couples (rather than individuals) makes sense since this enables partners
to create shared understandings and expectations of the issues facing them as a couple. They will also be exposed to the same information
and [presumably] achieve similar levels of competence with respect to the challenges of becoming/being a parent (Halford & Petch, 2010).
AFRC Brieﬁng 20 2011 | 7
Overall the research suggests that programs that focus on both parenting skills and the couple
relationship will provide the most optimal outcomes.
Findings across the range of factors examined in the meta-analysis were somewhat variable
(but not contradictory). Some moderate to large effect sizes5 were found, but overall the effect
sizes—while statistically signiﬁcant—tended to be small to very small. However, as Pinquart and
Teubert (2010) noted, small improvements such as those found for parenting quality, parental
stress, and child cognitive and social development and mental health, can reﬂect meaningful
improvements for participants. Even very small effects (such as those found for potential for
child abuse/neglect) can have important implications for the lives of parents and their children.
Findings from these kinds of combined analyses of programs, however, highlight the inherent
tension for service providers trying to allocate resources across interventions with different
proposed outcomes. For example, an organisation may wish to provide an intensive service for
a small number of families considered to be at risk of child maltreatment (selective or targeted
interventions). Alternatively, resources may be allocated to providing more general, information-
based services to all families (universal interventions). These decisions are often inﬂuenced by
funding agreements and associated outcome measurements.
One approach to resolving (or at least addressing) these tensions is suggested by the stepped
approach outlined by Halford and Petch (2010) (and also implemented in the ﬁeld of parenting
education by the Triple P Parenting Program6). Halford and Petch (2010) noted that at present
our ability to anticipate who might beneﬁt most from support in becoming parents is limited.
They suggested a graduated approach in which varying levels of information, support and
skills training is offered, allowing providers to reach potentially large numbers of people and
participants to choose the level of intervention that best suits their needs. The minimum level
5 Refer Footnote 1.
6 More information about the Triple P program can be found at the Triple P website <www.triplep.net>
Transition to parenting programs in Australia
There is a limited number of programs/interventions that deal with both couple relationship and parenting
practices across the transition to parenthood that are available in Australia for new or soon-to-be parents.
Three of these have been evaluated and are outlined below.
Couple CARE for Parents program—the program includes 6 units over 7 months, both pre- and postnatal,
and includes baby care and parenting information as well as skills training in key relationship areas
related to relationship quality. <www.psychology.sunysb.edu/ftrlab-/projects/ccp.php>
Bringing Baby Home—a 2-day workshop that focuses on what to expect over the transition to
parenthood, optimal child development and positive co-parenting, and strengthening couple friendship,
intimacy and conﬂict regulation. <www.bbhonline.org>
What Were We Thinking! Psycho-Educational Program for Parents (PEPP)—an early intervention program
offered to parents soon after the birth of their ﬁrst child to extend their knowledge and skills in managing
infant needs and negotiating the new unpaid workload fairly, and improve the quality of the couple
relationship by addressing adjustment to changes in the intimate relationship between partners after the
birth of a baby. <www.whatwerewethinking.org.au>
8 | Australian Institute of Family Studies
of intervention, perhaps comprising assessment of parenting strengths and challenges and
providing information about adapting to being a parent, could be available to all couples.
Progressively more intensive or involved interventions (for example, 2-hour seminars or 2-day
group programs) focusing on speciﬁc issues and skills could be offered to couples who want
further support, or who are identiﬁed as being at high risk of difﬁculties in becoming parents.
Approaches such as this may help service providers think through the most efﬁcient and effective
way of distributing resources while achieving positive outcomes across a range of clients.
There are many factors impacting on parenting, child development and the couple relationship
and any single program is unlikely to be able to address all of them in any depth. This, along
with the often limited reach of interventions into disadvantaged groups, the relatively short
time frame for follow up, and the variability of ﬁndings across the studies included in the meta-
analysis suggest the need for further investigation of programs aimed at promoting both the
wellbeing of couples as they adapt to being a parent and the subsequent development of their
child. However, the meta-analysis identifying program characteristics, and the content suggested
by research on risk factors for new parents, provide a guide for service providers working with
or considering designing and delivering programs for new or soon-to-be parents.
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