New Research: Transition to Parenthood

By Scott Stanley

I thought I¹d make a few comments about this study that was picked up by
many media outlets last week. The study was headed up by our colleague Brian
Doss at Texas A & M.  Galena Rhoades, I, and Howard Markman are co-authors.
The data set is a long-term sample of couples who got married in the mid to
later 1990s that we have been following at The University of Denver.  The
official citation for the study is:

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

This is a prestigious journal with very strong methodology require for
Onto the heart of the matter.  This study was picked up in an amazing number
of media outlets (and more to come).  Some headlines were remarkably
accurate as to the point, for example:  ³DU study: Children strain marriage²
Some were not on target, and were quite misleading as to what we found:
³Kids Marital Satisfaction Study: Remain Childless²

Ah, the joys of the media.  Surely, that¹s just what we meant and we merely
came up with the wrong title in our journal article. Couples should not have
children. Just don¹t do it.  Just wait until my sons hear about this. Won¹t
they feel like they owe Nancy and me forever?!

On a more serious note, here are the important points as far as I¹m

– The study focuses on the way declines in marital functioning happen over
time for couples who have children and also for those who do not.  Couples
having children showed clear declines in marital quality that were
concentrated around the time of childbirth.  Yes, transition to parenthood
changes couples, and the changes can be challenging.

– Led by Brian Doss¹s amazing work on this, part of what we found is that
the decline is, on average, small to medium in size.  The effect was not
hugely negative as some studies before have found.  On the other hand, the
decline is real where some other studies have suggested that this may not be

Key take-a-way: Transition to parenthood is a particularly identifiable and
challenging period for couples.  (Many of you knew that.)

– Couples who didn¹t have children also declined over the eight years of the
study, but they did so more gradually.  While those not having children
didn¹t show some of the declines in terms of communication and conflict
management that those having children did, they declined in overall marital
happiness, nevertheless.

– Added nuggets to chew on:  (1) Couples are somewhat more at risk if their
first born is a girl.  (Other studies have shown this as well.  The theory
is that fathers get more involved‹or, as some would suggest, are more
allowed to be involved in‹raising boys.)  (2) Having a baby very early in a
marriage is riskier than waiting a couple of years.

– Studies like this help make point that people don’t need to just let stuff
happen to them; they can make choices, including to preserve and protect the
great stuff in their marriages.  But they have to decide to do that and then
work at it.  As Howard Markman and Frank Floyd were saying 30 years ago, and
we¹re all still saying: Key life transitions are important opportunities for
helping couples strengthen their marriages.

– Do these findings argue that couples would be better off just saying ³no²
to children? Of course not. (Just think of the implications for your Social
Security!)  Sure, some couples would do better not to have children.  More
importantly, there are differences between couples who have children and
those who do not (apart from mere fertility issues) that make such
assertions and comparisons difficult for researchers to attempt.  Brian Doss
makes the point that we are wise only to look at the trajectories of the two
groups but it would be less wise to directly compare them in making too many
conclusions. There are too many bases for differences between couples who
have children (and when) and those who do not.

– My (Scott¹s) favorite point to make of all this is a philosophical matter.
I¹m just speaking for myself in this point, not my colleagues. I believe
that we have a narrow definition of marital happiness in America and that
there is something harder to measure that is very important that has been
called Family Happiness (by Tolstoy; David Brooks did a cool editorial on
this a few years ago). This type of happiness is more deeply related to the
meaning of building a family together, in life. Most people do not regret
having children.  Most people who had children are very glad that they did.
(However, in other research, almost humorously, people are most happy being
parents on days they spend the least amount of time with their children.
Smile.  If you are a parent, you likely get that.)  Anyway, a cultural
point: We’re too over-focused on romantic happiness in life and not on
bigger types of contentment and meaning.  Researchers have not really tried
to measure this idea of family happiness but those raising a family can very
often relate to this on many levels.

Don¹t worry, be happy (and content).

Scott Stanley
Research Professor
University of Denver
( )
Copyright Smart Marriages®

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