While some parents say children are their greatest joy, a recent Yale study found that in young couples, the quality of the relationship and the mental health of the individuals decline after the birth of the baby.
The Parent and Relationship Training and Risk Study (PARTNRS) interviewed young pregnant couples three times —once during pregnancy, once six months postpartum, and once 12 months postpartum — to evaluate how life and relationship satisfaction change during the transition to parenthood. A range of factors, including issues of attachment and fear of abandonment, predicted the health of relationships postpartum. In response to this research, the study investigators created a program that aims to strengthen relationship skills among young couples, said Trace Kershaw, lead author and professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health.
“Our study shows the importance of fostering positive relationships at the early stages of parenthood,” Kershaw said. “A better relationship with a partner has been shown to encourage a plethora of benefits such as better parenting, longer life spans and more stable mental health.”
In 61 percent of the 296 pregnant couples sampled, relationship quality and mental states of the partners declined from pregnancy to the postpartum period. Kershaw said financial and occupational issues often impede the happiness of new couples. In the study, average household income was $13,399 for women and $17,271 for men.
“External stressors of daily life will often get in the way,” he said. “They take emphasis off the relationships and individual health.”
According to the study, certain factors determined how the quality of the relationship changed on a couple-to-couple basis.
Partner violence is often a key risk factor for developing depression in adolescent pregnant couples, Kershaw said. The study suggests that often partner violence does not solely occur because of one domineering partner, but rather because the couples have trouble regulating and resolving arguments, he said.
Some young couples in the study exhibited a propensity for anxious attachment — fear of being abandoned — but others showed discomfort with closeness and dependency. Both conditions contribute to higher rates of depression and unhappiness for both men and women after birth of the child, Kershaw said.
The results of the study have informed a new 15-week course that takes young couples through a variety of relationship skills related to communication, identifying and managing emotions, empathy, conflict resolution and family planning, said Anna Divney, former project coordinator for PARTNRS.
“The results are also informing programs to strengthen relationships and support young families transitioning to parenthood,” she said.
Less than eight percent of teen mothers marry their baby’s father within one year of the birth, according to the National Campaign to Prevent Teen Pregnancy.