The Baby Effect: Are You Ready?

A baby adds way more than cuteness to a relationship – can yours handle it?

Posted May 19, 2016

The dream of a baby is a rosy and cute one: little socks, little hands, tiny giggles, and adorable sweetness that you can’t wait to love. First time mothers and/or fathers-to-be often await the arrival of their little bundle with anxious anticipation, looking forward to the pleasures of a growing family. With hopes high and preparations made, many couples are as ready as they possibly could be for the introduction of a newborn.

Then the little one arrives, in what is hopefully a healthy, uneventful, and smooth introduction to the world. For the first time, couples find themselves in charge of a tiny vulnerable being, and despite all their preparation, often feel utterly ill-equipped. Their eyes, ears, and minds become trained to the baby’s needs. Couples learn what a 24-hour cycle of care, attention, and worry feels like, and soon establish a daily rhythm that now involves a squirmy, ever-changing, sleep-resisting (hopefully not!) baby.

With so much focus on the baby, what happens to the couple?

The transition to parenthood changes couples. Culturally, joy and excitement are tied to the introduction of a baby, but often the experience is equally characterized by stress; a baby can be toxic to a romantic relationship.  

In fact, the collective research isn’t encouraging: most couples experience marked declines in relationship functioning after a baby’s born (Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009). Sudden decreases in relationship satisfaction, increases in negative communication, increases in poor conflict management, higher problem intensity, and lower relationship confidence all seem to occur when a first-baby is born. Researchers suspect this decline in relationship functioning lasts at least four years (Doss et al., 2009). Same-sex couples and heterosexual couples experience similar declines in relationship functioning with the introduction of a first child (Lavner, Waterman, & Peplau, 2014).

Despite the grim overview of how most couples experience having a first baby, some couples appear resistant to declines in relationship well-being (Doss et al., 2009). In fact, about 7% of mothers and twice as many fathers actually experience abrupt increases in satisfaction when they introduce a baby.

So what helps?

A recent review of research on transition to parenthood (Doss & Rhoades, 2017) suggests the following suggestions may help protect couples from serious declines in relationship well-being:

  1. Build a secure and trusting view of your partner. A secure attachment style, characterized by feelings of safety and interpersonal trust, may help safeguard couples from the potential relationship-damaging effects of having a baby. Individuals with anxious attachment styles tend to experience the full force of relationship quality declines, particularly when they perceive their partners as unsupportive.
     
  2. Manage your mental health. The more depression and anxiety experienced during pregnancy, the more individuals tend to report lower relationship quality in the early years of parenthood.
     
  3. Find financial stability. Couples who enjoy higher incomes tend to be slightly buffered from drops in relationship satisfaction and increases in problem intensity.
     
  4. Have a strong relationship before introducing a baby. Couples who experience high levels of conflict or poor communication before the baby’s birth often have deeper declines in relationship satisfaction after the baby’s born. At the same time super happy couples, with the highest intimacy, often experience sharp declines in positivity also (though no unusual increases in negativity). In general, a stronger relationship weathers the challenges of a new baby more resiliently than a less healthy relationship.
     
  5. Have an easy baby. Just put your order in, right? Unfortunately, some forces that act on a relationship are out of the couple’s control, including a baby’s style and temperament. The parents of reactive babies or babies with highly disrupted sleep tend to have worse relationship functioning than those who are gifted with easy-going babies.

These ideals may make the transition easier, but not all are necessary nor are they certain fixes to the challenges that a baby brings to a relationship. Other factors not listed above (such as having nearby support from trusted friends or family, having a work arrangement that allows for family leave (maternal and paternal), or having realistic expectations) might also make a difference. There is ample room for more research into the experiences of parents as they transition into a family.

Reference

Doss, B. D., & Rhoades, G. K. (2017). The transition to parenthood: impact on couples’ romantic relationships. Current Opinion in Psychology, 13, 25-28.

Doss, B. D., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: an 8-year prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 601-619.

Lavner, J. A., Waterman, J., & Peplau, L. A. (2014). Parent adjustment over time in gay, lesbian, and heterosexual parent families adopting from foster care. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry, 84, 46-53.