There’s no doubt that having a baby changes new parents’ lives—and their relationship to one another. But does it really change everything for the worse, as a steady stream of articles and blog posts might lead you to believe? If spouses are happy together before having kids, are they putting their marriage at risk when they decide to have one?

Scholarly research on the nature and extent of parenthood’s effect on relationships has yielded mixed results, but according to a recently published longitudinal studyi of expecting parents in Finland, most couples’ relationships are not drastically changed by parenthood.

Jallu Lindblom and his coauthors analyzed changes in couple and parenting dynamics through the lens of family systems theory, which considers the family to “consist of hierarchically ordered parts, from basic dyadic relations to marital and parental subsystems.” Drawing on previous research, they categorize different types of family functioning by two characteristics: autonomy (“individuality and a sense of agency in relations with others, reflecting family boundaries”) and intimacy (“sharing or withholding emotions”).

These measures produce four main types of families. Cohesive families exhibit high levels of both autonomy and intimacy and experience little conflict, whereas disengaged families have low levels of both characteristics, which leads to negative interactions, “poor overall interpersonal functioning, withdrawal between spouses, and low parental acceptance of the child.” Enmeshed families exhibit little autonomy but normal or high levels of intimacy, which results in “boundary disturbances and dependency.” Parents in these families are hostile to one another and may be controlling of their kids. Authoritarian families, finally, show a high level of autonomy but little emotional intimacy.

Major life changes—like, say, having a baby—can change family relationships and functioning as each family member adjusts to the new situation and navigates changing responsibilities. But examining respondents’ levels of autonomy and intimacy during pregnancy and then two and twelve months after the birth of a baby showed that most families’ basic functioning remained relatively stable across that transition. (About half the couples in the study already had at least one child, but this factor did not straightforwardly affect how they fared as their family grew.)

In a new study, most families’ basic functioning remained relatively stable across the transition to parenthood.

Statistical modeling showed that most families fell into one of seven trajectories across the time of the study. By far the most common type was cohesive: 35% of couples scored highly on both autonomy and intimacy throughout the study, with little change (besides a small increase in autonomy) in the months following the birth of the child. Second, 16% of couples were “discrepant,” with mothers reporting higher levels of autonomy and intimacy than fathers, though both reported a decline. Their varying perceptions may be attributable, the authors note, to mothers’ more positive experience of new parenthood and the way fathers’ parenting is more affected by the couple relationship. Third, 14% of couples were authoritarian, reporting low (and slightly declining) levels of intimacy but a relatively high degree of autonomy throughout the study.

The other four trajectories were less common, accounting for just 4 to 6% of couples each. Disengaged (low autonomy, low intimacy) couples had the lowest levels of autonomy and intimacy throughout the study, and showed declines in each across time. There were two types of enmeshed (low autonomy, medium- to high-intimacy) families: “enmeshed declining” ones, whose intimacy declined across the study, and “enmeshed quadratic” ones, who showed first an increase and then a decline in intimacy. The last of the seven types, “escalating crisis,” showed average levels of autonomy and intimacy during pregnancy and two months after the child’s birth, but then showed a sharp decline on both measures by the time the child turned one (perhaps, the researchers speculate, because of postpartum depression or a child’s illness).

The researchers’ main conclusion from these findings: “All identified family types except Escalating Crisis demonstrated strong longitudinal stability during the transition to parenthood. This extends the results of Favez et al. (2012) by showing stability not only in the overall quality of family interactions but also in the qualitative types of families. Apparently, even as family systems reorganize during the transition, they maintain homeostasis and adhere to the rules of the respective family type.”

In English: As they become new parents or add another child to their families, most couples maintain pretty stable relationships. Functional ones tend to remain functional; dysfunctional ones tend to remain dysfunctional.

Of course, this is just one study, and the usual caveats about limited sample sizes and generalizability apply. But a couple common-sense conclusions suggest themselves here. Struggling couples should not expect a child to transform their relationship for the better. Rather, given the risk for such couples of experiencing further declines after the arrival of a child, they should try to work out their relationship before having kids. Couples who are emotionally close and functioning well in their relationships, on the other hand, should consciously strive to maintain their bond—but they need not fear that having a child will inevitably ruin their happy relationship.

 


i. Lindblom, J., Flykt, M., Tolvanen, A., Vänskä, M., Tiitinen, A., Tulppala, M. and Punamäki, R.-L. (2014), Dynamic Family System Trajectories From Pregnancy to Child’s First Year. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76: 796–807 (http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1111/jomf.12128/abstract). doi: 10.1111/jomf.12128