First-Time Dads Often Experience Dip in Relationship Satisfaction
Most fathers experience a decline in relationship satisfaction that can last for years after the baby is born, new research shows.
“A good couple relationship during the transition to parenthood is important for parents' mental health, involvement in parenting and bonding, as well as child development,” said lead author Judith Mack, a research associate at the Technical University of Dresden in Germany.
"In the last decades, however, fathers have been neglected in research, even though they oftentimes play an equally important role in the family system as mothers. It is therefore crucial to shed light on their experiences," she said.
For the study, published on Aug. 30 in PLOS ONE, the European researchers reviewed responses from German parents to a survey that began in 2017. It included 500 first-time fathers and 106 who were expecting their second child. They were asked about relationship satisfaction with their partners two months before the birth, and then at eight weeks, 14 months and two years after delivery.
No matter whether a child was Dad's first or second, fathers were less satisfied with their relationship after the birth, the study found.
First-timers were, however, more satisfied with their relationship before their baby's birth compared to second-time dads. At eight weeks after birth, they still reported higher satisfaction than second-time dads.
But first-time dads' had a steeper decline in relationship satisfaction after arrival of the baby and up to 14 months after the birth.
By 14 months, second-time fathers generally reported an increase in relationship satisfaction and it continued through the two-year check-in.
Factors like age and education had no significant link to relationship satisfaction, but duration of the couple's relationship did. Those who were together longer before having children generally reported an initial dip in relationship satisfaction after having a baby.
Sheehan Fisher, a psychologist and associate professor at Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, said the lower level of satisfaction might be due to societal expectations.
“Partially because of some of the gender divide and norms … that we're working against but still exist, fathers are not always prepared for realization of how much their life will change and adjust, and also how to sustain some of the things of value in their relationship with their partner," he said.
That, Fisher added, requires "more equity and taking on personal responsibility in the home, in order to make sure that there's space for retaining, for example, their marital or inter-parental relationship."
Dr. Scott Krakower, a child psychiatrist at Northwell Health, said financial stress could also play a part in the satisfaction decline.
“I think that in a lot of ways a lot of men worry a lot about supporting the family, finances of the family, anxieties related to having the children,” he said.
Krakower said he hoped the findings would lead to more medical check-ins for new fathers.
“I'm biased because I'm a dad, but I do think that men often get overlooked," Krakower said. "Even pediatricians, we should look more into how the men are interacting with their children, their overall well-being and support, and maybe in the future … there will be more screening towards fathers for mental illness and coping with the kid."
Becoming a parent is, he said, "a big, life-changing event for both the woman and the man."
As for what couples can do to prepare for potentially rocky times ahead, Mack said awareness and intentionality in the relationship are key -- especially remembering that the difficult times likely won't last forever.
“There may be a drop in relationship satisfaction after the birth, but also a possible rebound in the long run," she noted.
The couple relationship needs to be nurtured and not taken for granted, Mack said.
"Try to invest some of the scarce time you have left in your partnership," she advised. “Constructive communication and accepting help from outside the relationship can be supportive.
"However, it is important to remember that relationship satisfaction alone does not determine a person's overall life satisfaction -- after all, this is only one aspect of it," Mack noted. "It is therefore possible that although relationship satisfaction decreases during the transition to parenthood, the sense of having found meaning in life increases through the birth and care of one's own child.”
Mack, Fisher and Krakower also pointed to the need for more government and corporate resources such as paternity leave, and called on science to take a closer look at the role fathers play in children's lives.
The National Fatherhood Initiative has more on fatherhood.
SOURCES: Sheehan Fisher, PhD, associate professor, psychiatry and behavioral sciences Northwestern Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago; Scott Krakower, DO, attending pediatric psychiatrist, Northwell Health, Glen Oaks, N.Y.; Judith Mack, MSc, research associate, faculty of medicine, Technical University of Dresden, Germany; PLOS ONE, Aug. 30, 2023