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Falling pregnant: Our problems seem amplified

By Alec Martin, 19 December 2014 Pregnancy

Several decades of research have established that the transition to parenthood is a time of increased distress and lower relationship quality for many (if not most) parents.1 The long-term adjustments to a relationship which are necessary for becoming parents begin before birth – often from the first point that parenthood is considered.2

Relationship trouble during pregnancy is an important topic because this phase sets the template for future co-parenting once the child is born – affecting the environment they will grow up in and the relationship role models they will have.3 On a biological level, research has also found that the mother’s emotional distress during pregnancy can lead to more stressful emotional and cognitive predispositions in an unborn child.4

On the surface, the topics of conflict themselves may not seem directly connected to the pregnancy, but the fact that the relationship itself is fundamentally shifting can cause previously mundane issues to become far more significant.5 Several interrelated factors underlie why pregnancy is the time when the pressure of these adjustments begin to show in a couple’s relationship.

Daunting prospect

Becoming a parent has many exciting aspects. But having a child is also a definitive, life-long commitment, with new responsibilities and huge demands for time, money and sacrifice. As pregnancy progresses the realities of this often become more apparent – and may lead greater to reflection, anxiety and worry for the individuals involved. This inner disharmony may easily be projected onto the couple’s interaction.

Additionally, it’s harder to dismiss bothersome habits when facing the prospect of dealing with them for the next few decades. A child binds parents to each other for the long term, and this prospect can lead parents who are coming to terms with this to become more demanding of their partners, and less forgiving of character differences, than they would have been when the relationship was less ‘intense’.6

Women may feel like their autonomy and identity is being disproportionately undermined, while men may feel like their input into the parenting sphere is increasingly dismissed

New roles

A new child requires parents to form a new identity for themselves – one which is much less based on their own wants and needs. These roles are both explicitly and implicitly negotiated between the parents, and troubles can arise when parents aren’t happy with how these new roles are developing – whether their own or those of their partners.7

An especially common example is that, for a variety of reasons, the transition to parenthood pushes heterosexual couples into more radical and ‘traditional looking’ gender roles.8 Women may feel like their autonomy and identity is being disproportionately undermined, while men may feel like their input into the parenting sphere is increasingly dismissed.

Mother’s changing body

During pregnancy the mother’s body undergoes many physical changes which can be stressful and overwhelming, and the strain can contribute to mothers having a shorter emotional capacity to deal positively with relationship situations. Mothers often also report that physical changes leave them feeling vulnerable and/or unhappy with their physical appearance9. During this time mothers report the importance of having a sensitive and comforting partner.10

New interactions

Becoming pregnant can change the dynamics of relationships that couples have with others too, for example their own and each other’s family, and with health and care practitioners. These new interactions may be positive and provide help and support, but in some cases may also lead to additional stressors for a couple.11

These are common stressors that are specific to the time of pregnancy and may explain why general conflict can increase. Some other things may mediate the extent to which these things have an effect

Degree of ‘Plannedness’

More complex than simply if pregnancy was ‘intended’ or ‘unintended’, the level of plannedness can be thought of as a continuum with several factors.12 These include the timeliness of the pregnancy in their life plans, level of partner agreement on wanting to be parents, and is often evident in the proactivity in falling pregnant (or at least not avoiding it). It is actually fairly rare and difficult to completely ‘plan’ for a child – but evidence suggests that comparatively less initial ‘planning’ (intention, couple agreement etc.) can influence the amount of conflict experienced later.13,14

Parents-to-be can expect the best experience if they work on talking openly and positively about their fears and expectations


If parents know and anticipate the kind of difficulties they will face they are more likely to have realistic expectations, and be able to appraise and deal more smoothly with troubling situations as they arise.15 For this reason parents-to-be can expect the best experience if they work on talking openly and positively about their fears and expectations, and make use of the array of support and information services available.16

It’s also important to remember that while you are both adjusting to your new roles, you have not completely lost who you were before. Taking time for yourself to keep in touch with friends and maintain hobbies can help you feel like more than just a gender stereotype. Equally, spending quality time with your partner is an important reminder that you are still a couple as well as expectant parents.



  1. Shapiro, A. F. & Gottman, J. M. Effects on Marriage of a Psycho-Communicative-Educational Intervention With Couples Undergoing the Transition to Parenthood, Evaluation at 1-Year Post Intervention. J. Fam. Commun. 5, 1–24 (2005).
  2. Polomeno, V. The Polomeno family intervention framework for perinatal education: Preparing couples for the transition to parenthood. J. Perinat. Educ. 9, 31 (2000).
  3. Mangelsdorf, S. C., Laxman, D. J. & Jessee, A. in Coparenting: A conceptual and clinical examination of family systems (eds. McHale, J. P. & Lindahl, K. M.) 39–59 (American Psychological Association, 2011).
  4. Talge, N. M., Neal, C., Glover, V. & Early Stress, Translational Research and Prevention Science Network: Fetal and Neonatal Experience on Child and Adolescent Mental Health. Antenatal maternal stress and long-term effects on child neurodevelopment: how and why? J. Child Psychol. Psychiatry 48, 245–261 (2007).
  5. Claxton, A. & Perry-Jenkins, M. No Fun Anymore: Leisure and Marital Quality Across the Transition to Parenthood. J. Marriage Fam. 70, 28–43 (2008).
  6. Van Lange, P. A. et al. Willingness to sacrifice in close relationships. J. Pers. Soc. Psychol. 72, 1373 (1997).
  7. Holmes, J. G. & Levinger, G. in Entitlement and the affectional bond 149–173 (Springer, 1994).
  8. Katz-Wise, S. L., Priess, H. A. & Hyde, J. S. Gender-role attitudes and behavior across the transition to parenthood. Dev. Psychol. 46, 18–28 (2010).
  9. Von Sydow, K. Sexuality during pregnancy and after childbirth: A metacontent analysis of 59 studies. J. Psychosom. Res. 47, 27–49 (1999).
  10. Rini, C., Schetter, C. D., Hobel, C. J., Glynn, L. M. & Sandman, C. A. Effective social support: Antecedents and consequences of partner support during pregnancy. Pers. Relatsh. 13, 207–229 (2006).
  11. Rafaeli, E. & Gleason, M. E. Skilled support within intimate relationships. J. Fam. Theory Rev. 1, 20–37 (2009).
  12. Barrett, G., Smith, S. C. & Wellings, K. Conceptualisation, development, and evaluation of a measure of unplanned pregnancy. J. Epidemiol. Community Health 58, 426–433 (2004).
  13. Lawrence, E., Rothman, A., Cobb, R., Rothman, M. & Bradbury, T. Marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood. J. Fam. Psychol. 22, 41–50 (2008).
  14. Schwerdtfeger, K. L., Todd, J., Oliver, M. & Hubler, D. Trying Versus Not Trying: A Qualitative Exploration of Pregnancy Intentions, the Transition to Parenthood, and the Couple Relationship. J. Couple Amp Relatsh. Ther. 12, 113–134 (2013).
  15. Pancer, S. M., Pratt, M., Hunsberger, B. & Gallant, M. Thinking ahead: Complexity of expectations and the transition to parenthood. J. Pers. 68, 253–279 (2000).
  16. Stamp, G. H. The appropriation of the parental role through communication during the transition to parenthood. Commun. Monogr. 61, 89–112 (1994).

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