Supporting couples across the transition to parenthood

Supporting couples across the transition to parenthood

Robyn Parker and Cathryn Hunter

AFRC Briefing No. 20 — June 2011

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.

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 canvass both broad and specific issues with their clients in order to provide the most effective information and/or intervention.


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.

Authors and Acknowledgements

Robyn Parker is a Senior Research Officer and Cathryn Hunter is a Research Officer with the Australian Family Relationships Clearinghouse.

The authors are grateful to Lyn Fletcher for her very helpful and insightful comments and suggestions on the paper.

Publication details

AFRC Briefing
No. 20
Published by the Australian Institute of Family Studies, June 2011.
9 pp.

Publication meta

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