Relationship communication suffers in families with infants

New research shows that courses in relationship communication for parents-to-be do not have an effect on relationship satisfaction. After the arrival of the baby, couples do not have the energy to use the tools learned in daily life.

2012.06.07 | Ingrid Marie Fossum

The period in which couples become parents is a phase of life where pleasure and companionship are accompanied by conflicts and a lower relationship satisfaction level.  At worst, they end up getting divorced. It is assumed that no less than one-third of children born in Denmark will experience that their parents split up during their childhood. New research shows that the so-called PREP courses which can otherwise prevent marriages from breaking up do not necessarily help couples who have recently become parents.

In connection with her PhD thesis, Relationship Satisfaction During the Transition to Parenthood: Preventing and Predicting Distress, Tea Trillingsgaard from Aarhus University, Business and Social Sciences, Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences, has studied the effect of different offers, e.g. PREP, on relationship satisfaction. She has followed 250 parental couples from pregnancy and for the next four years. The surprising finding was that the couples' satisfaction saw a downward trend over time (two years), irrespective of which prevention programme they participated in.

Serious consequences for both parents and children
When couples experience problems after childbirth, both parents and the child suffer serious consequences. This may result in parents having less energy and a weak bond between parents and children.

To parents, relationship problems are also associated with reduced physical and mental health as well as lower productivity at work, while the children, in the long term, have an increased risk of developing psychological, behavioural, social and learning problems.

Even though we are already doing a lot of early preventive work for first-time mothers in Denmark, Tea Trillingsgaard's research shows that these efforts could not prevent relationship problems. Nor could PREP, which has otherwise proved effective for couples without children, prevent the couples from feeling less relationship satisfaction after the arrival of their first child.

Children pose a challenge to relationship satisfaction
An explanation for the lack of effect could be that the newborn baby takes all your attention and energy in the first time after childbirth. The couples therefore do not have the time and energy to use the knowledge acquired at the course when they need to do so. They lack the energy to sit down, make eye contact and talk.

- In recent years, researchers worldwide have recommended practitioners to offer relationship courses during the first pregnancy. Parents-to-be have plenty of time, are motivated to prepare for parenthood, and we know that the relationship will be challenged a few months later. This survey is the first to measure the effect of the proven PREP course when offered to precisely first-time parents. The result is surprisingly poor. It was simply not the window of opportunity in the relationship which we had expected.

To Tea Trillingsgaard, it is therefore necessary to test the effect of a preventive initiative which covers a longer period of the child's life. Parents should perhaps still be introduced to knowledge about the coming relationship challenges during the pregnancy period, but should not dedicate themselves to the communication aspect before they are facing the situation and have the energy required to do so – which they hopefully get when the child is 1-2 years old.

Constructive communication protects the relationship
At the end of the day, talking to each other is still the best way to prevent conflicts and break-ups. What really matters is whether the couple starts talking about disagreements, whether they can stick to a subject despite their disagreement and whether they can end the discussion in such a way that both parties feel they have been heard. According to Tea Trillingsgaard, this is the type of constructive communication which best protects relationship satisfaction:

- The quality of the communication between the parents is one of two factors which best predicts how the relationship develops during the first three years of the new family. The other factor is anxiety and depression symptoms during pregnancy.

If we want to prevent conflicts and break-ups in families with children, these findings show that the only solution is early intervention in relation to relationship communication. If you could also solve anxiety and depression in both parents during the pregnancy, you have also dealt with the other key relationship risk factor. Finally, we now know that, even though relationship satisfaction starts decreasing already in late pregnancy, it is probably better to offer relationship courses at a later stage, maybe 18 months after childbirth where the decrease in relationship satisfaction seems to stop.

Further information

Tea Trillingsgaard
MPsych(clin), PhD student
Department of Psychology and Behavioural Sciences
Aarhus University
Business and Social Sciences
Bartholins Allé 16
DK-8000 Aarhus C
Tel.: +45 8716 5843