In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers evaluated relationship satisfaction (RS) of first- and second-time fathers from the Dresden Study of Parenting, Work, and Mental Health (DREAM) cohort using the Partnership Questionnaire and multiple regression modeling. Their results elucidate that first-time fathers showed more drastic reductions in RS and longer durations to ‘bounce back’ to normal relationships during the transition to parenthood than their second-time counterparts. Given that this trend matches previous research on first-time mothers, this research suggests that couples expecting their first child should brace themselves to face expected relationship challenges.
Study: Changes in relationship satisfaction in the transition to parenthood among fathers. Image Credit: Ground Picture
Parenthood and its impacts on relationships
Alongside discovering real meaning in life, satisfying relationships have been identified as an essential individual life goal. Positive relationship satisfaction (RS), characterized by the high affective involvement of partners in each other’s lives and the proportion of shared life experiences, has been shown to be negatively affected by the transition to parenthood (both first- and second-time parents).
Research has revealed that the quality of partners’ relationships can have a striking impact on their mental health, thereby increasing depression symptoms in both fathers and mothers. Relationship discord also adversely affects mental health treatment, with a corresponding increase in substance abuse. Hypotheses for these observations include reductions in intimacy or intercourse, reorganization of the family structure, new family roles and the associated adjustment stress, lack of sleep due to the newborn, and the additional financial burdens the child brings. These are assumed to reduce inter-partner attention and cause a decline in RS.
Decline RS has been associated with a host of demerits, including reduced commitment to parenting, weaker parent-offspring bonding, and parent mental health declines. Some of these demerits may extend to the baby, with research identifying a higher mental health risk in children raised in an inter-parent conflict environment. In contrast, improved RS has been associated with improved personal-social development in children.
Previous RS research has focused on first-time mothers, with fathers being largely ignored. Furthermore, these studies have failed to distinguish between first- and second-time parents, preventing comparisons between these cases. Study sample sizes have also hitherto been limited, with most research limited to cohorts from the United States (US). Given that evidence suggests that subsequent pregnancies following the first have reduced impacts on mothers’ stress, potential due to acclimatization and preparation, studies exploring the RS impacts of first- and second-time parenting are essential.
About the study
“…the current study directs the focus on fathers and their experiences in the family system with the following research questions: (I) How do first- and second-time fathers’ trajectories of RS develop across the transition to parenthood? (II) Do age, education, income, duration of relationship, marital status, child’s biological sex, or child temperament predict RS during the transition to parenthood?”
A subset of data from the Dresden Study of Parenting, Work, and Mental Health (DREAM) cohort, an ongoing, prospective, longitudinal dataset, was used for this study. DREAM comprises a large (n = 3,860) number of future mothers (n = 2,243) and fathers (n = 1,617) aimed at understanding associations between parental role distribution, stress, work participation, and family outcomes (perinatal and long-term mental and somatic health). The inclusion and exclusion criteria for the present study were derived from the Journal Article Reporting Standards (JARS) guidelines.
Male participants were selected in and around Dresden, Germany, between June 2017 and December 2020. Data was collected at four time points, T1-T4. T1 was prepartum, collected two months before infant birth, while T2-T4 were postpartum, collected eight weeks, 14 months, and 24 months after delivery, respectively. Given the ongoing study design on the DREAM dataset, fathers who did not complete T1-T4 before 31st January 2022 were excluded, resulting in a final sample of 606 participants (500 first-time fathers and 106 second-time fathers).
Collected data included RS, assessed using a modified version of the Partnership Questionnaire (PFB-K), a well-established RS measurement tool in Germany. Recorded measurements were in accordance with the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS), an international version of PFB-K, and included assessments of cohesion, satisfaction, and consensus between partners. The questionnaire comprised nine questions, each with a three-point score, resulting in an overall score range of 0 (lowest) to 27 (maximum). Additionally, number of children, age, education, relationship duration, income, marital status, child’s temperament, and biological sex were recorded as predictors.
“Of all eight predictors, five (number of children, age, education, income, and marital status) were measured at T1. Child’s biological sex and child temperament were assessed at T2. The duration of the relationship (measured with the month and year of the beginning of the relationship) was assessed at T3 and is therefore retrospectively calculated for T1.”
The latent growth curve (LGCM), a multiple regression model, was used for analyses. Linear and quadratic latent growth was used to capture growth over time. Model fitting was carried out using the chi-squared test (χ2), the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), the Tucker-Lewis index (TLI), and the comparative fit index (CFI).
Fathers were aged, on average, 32.4 years (range 20-49), most of which had over 10 years of education (75%). Less than 50% of fathers were married to their partners, but the average relationship duration at T1 was 7.3 years, with almost all (98.5%) of individuals living with their partners.
“There were significant differences between first-time and second-time fathers in age (t(604) = −6.039; p <. 000), the duration of relationship (t(604) = −3.580; p < .000), and marital status (χ2 = 6.611; p = .010)”
Descriptive analysis of RS showed that the proportion of participants with PFB-K scores of 13 or less (unsatisfied) increased substantially between T1 and T3 (T1: 5.9%; T2: 8.3%; T3: 15.7%). PFB-K scores were then observed to rise at T4 (9.9%), indicating that RS was reduced after childbirth but increased (or bounced back) after the infant reached age two. Intercorrelation analyses revealed that multicollinearity, while present, was insignificant with respect to the linear regression model used for first- and second-time father comparisons.
“The LGCM with linear and quadratic growth factor fit the data best. First-time fathers showed higher initial RS (Diffpregnancy = 2.88, SE = 0.46, p < .001) but experienced a steeper decline in the transition to parenthood than second-time fathers.”
Notably, first- and second-time fathers showed significant differences in the T3-T4 time period – the former group continued the RS decline trend, while the latter cohort showed improvements in RS scores, indicating a reversal in the adverse effects of parenthood.
In the present study, researchers used a large cohort (n = 606) of fathers to evaluate the impact of parenthood on RS and elucidate the differences between participants who were fathers for the first- or second-time, respectively. Their results indicate that RS across participants reduced following childbirth, with the number of children being the strongest predictor of the magnitude of RS decline. First-time fathers were found to show the steepest decline, with the decline continuing for the longest duration, up to two years following childbirth. In contrast, second-time fathers depicted lower magnitude and duration reductions, with an observed increase in RS scores between T3 and T4.
“Apart from this, the duration of relationship showed a significant association with the initial values of RS. Fathers in longer-lasting relationships exhibited lower RS before birth. In this study, age, education, income, marital status, the child’s biological sex, and temperament did not predict the RS in the transition to parenthood.”
These results suggest that parenting experience and increased offspring independence play a vital role in determining RS in fathers. Given that first-time fathers ‘have it worst,’ results that mirror previous research in mothers, couples expecting their firstborn should expect their relationship to (temporarily) hit a rocky patch and prepare accordingly.
- Mack, J. T., Brunke, L., Staudt, A., Kopp, M., Weise, V., & Garthus-Niegel, S. (2023). Changes in relationship satisfaction in the transition to parenthood among fathers. PLOS ONE, 18(8), e0289049, https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0289049, https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0289049