Table of Contents:

I. Introduction

II. Demographic Data on Expectant Couples

III. Research on the Adjustment to Parenthood: Changing Responsibilities and Relationship Quality

IV. Programs for Expectant Couples – Tips for Practitioners, Research, and Reviews

V.  Resources for Practitioners and Expectant Couples to Sustain a Healthy Relationship During the Transition to Parenthood

I.  Introduction

Expectant CouplesCouples who are anticipating the birth of a child are faced with dramatic life changes. The emotional, physical, and financial responsibilities involved with caring for a new life can be daunting. Expectant couples are especially vulnerable to relationship strains given these new challenges. They grapple with understanding what their new roles will be as parents and how these changes will affect their couple relationship. A myriad of factors come into play in making a healthy and successful transition to parenthood that can help to ensure a satisfying couple relationship. The quality of the relationship before children, parental role expectations, differing knowledge about infant care and child development, parents’ own childhood and family experiences, and expectations about the division of labor in raising children are chief among them.

Materials assembled in this Collection by Topic address issues facing a range of expectant couples, regardless of marital status, living situation, race/ethnicity, and socio-economic status. The goal of this collection is to provide an array of research for marriage/relationship education (M/RE) practitioners on a host of issues concerning a couple’s transition to parenthood.  In addition, it provides resources for practitioners and expectant couples on what to expect in the transition to parenthood and how best to sustain a healthy relationship while preparing for a baby. The collection is not comprehensive. It is an annotated collection of selected peer-reviewed studies, books, websites, and other resources assembled in one place from disparate sources. It is also important to note that although much of the research on this topic has focused on middle class Caucasian couples, there are some reports that focus on low-income couples of various races/ethnicities. Whenever possible we have selected resources that can be viewed online. Additional resources will be posted periodically as they come to our attention.

The NHMRC would like to thank Pam Jordan, PhD, RN, an expert in the transition to parenthood for couples, for her review of this collection and Cara Kundrat, Jordan Kahn, Jane Koppelman, and Courtney Harrison of the Resource Center for their contributions in developing this Collection. This is a product of the NHMRC, led by co-directors Mary Myrick, APR, and Jeanette Hercik, PhD, and project manager Rich Batten, ThM, Med, CFLE.

II. Demographic Data on Expectant Couples

Couple With ChildDemographic information on both married and unmarried expectant couples, including their fertility patterns, living arrangements, and education and income levels, is featured throughout this section. While most births in the United States are to married couples, there has been a steady and significant increase in nonmarital childbearing over the past half-century. In 2008, approximately 40% of all births were nonmarital, up from 6% in 1960. Many unmarried expectant couples are cohabiting and believe that marriage would be better for both their children and their relationship. However, less than one-fifth of couples cohabiting at the time of birth were married one year later. Approximately one-third of couples that were romantically involved at the time of the child’s birth were no longer romantically involved one year later. A disproportionate share of unmarried expectant parents are African American or Hispanic, and about one-third of these Hispanic parents are immigrants.[1],[2] Compared with non-Hispanic white men and Hispanic men, non-Hispanic black men were less likely to be married at the time of the birth of their first child.[3]

Below are statistical resources that provide more in-depth information on demographic data related to married and unmarried expectant couples.

Carlson, M., McLanahan, S., England, P., & Devaney, B. (2005). What we know about unmarried parents: Implications for Building Strong Families programs. Building Strong Families In Brief #3. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

Information from the Fragile Families and Child Wellbeing Study about the characteristics and relationships of unwed parents. The sample of unwed parents in urban areas is surveyed to determine demographic characteristics, expectations of marriage, and relationship quality.

Martinez, G.M., Chandra, A., Abma, J.C., Jones, J., Mosher, W.D. (2006). Fertility, contraception, and fatherhood: Data on men and women from Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(26).

National estimates of fertility, family formation, contraceptive use, and father involvement indicators among men (ages 15–44) in the United States. Data are also shown for women for purposes of comparison. Topics include first sexual intercourse and its timing in relation to marriage; contraceptive use; wantedness of births in the past five years; marital and cohabiting status at first birth; living arrangement of fathers with their children; fathers’ activities with children they live with and those they do not live with; HIV-risk-related behaviors; and infertility services.

III. Research on the Adjustment to Parenthood: Changing Responsibilities and Relationship Quality

ResearchPeer-reviewed research is highlighted, exploring a range of factors that affect the transition to parenthood as well as the quality of the post-birth couple relationship. The smoothness of a couple’s transition to parenthood is influenced by the couple’s preparedness for child birth, beliefs about parental roles, quality of the couple relationship before children, degree of spousal support in the early period of parenthood, and expectations—both of self and of spouse—for assuming parental responsibilities and of couple relationship satisfaction. As is cited in the research below, when partners’ expectations for how life will be after a child is born are not met with reality, relationship satisfaction is often affected.

Belsky, J. (1985). Exploring individual differences in marital change across the transition to parenthood: The role of violated expectations. Journal of Marriage and the Family, (November 1985), 1037-1044.

Topic: In this seminal article, the association between prenatal expectations, postnatal experiences, and marital relationship among 61 middle class Caucasian families is examined. Parents with postnatal experiences that were more negative than expected report a greater decrease in their marital relationship than couples with matching expectations and experiences.

Belsky, J., & Kelly, J. (1994). The transition to parenthood: How a first child changes a marriage. New York, NY: Delacourt.

Over a seven-year period, Dr. Jay Belsky, a professor of human development at Penn State University, conducted a study of 250 couples entering the transition to parenthood. By examining the experiences of three representative couples, The Transition to Parenthood defines the qualities and capacities couples need to navigate the transition successfully.

Claxton, A., & Perry-Jenkins, M. (2008) No fun anymore: Leisure and marital quality across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 70(February), 28-43.

Employed, working-class, expectant couples from Massachusetts are studied to observe changes in leisure time and marital quality across the transition to parenthood. Both husbands and wives experience declines in shared and independent leisure after childbirth. Couples with high shared leisure before the birth of children are more likely to have high marital love after childbirth despite declines in shared leisure after childbirth.

Coffman, S., Levitt, M. J., & Brown, L. (1994). Effects of clarification of support expectations in prenatal couples. Nursing Research, 43(2), 111-116.

A prenatal intervention is given to a group of mostly Caucasian, middle-class expectant couples to examine the relationship between support and the marital relationship. For mothers, relationship satisfaction is related to expectations of partner support aligning with actual support. For fathers, relationship satisfaction is related to the level of partner support, and not with expectations for support.

Cowan, C. P., & Cowan, P. A. (1992 [republished in 2000]). When partners become parents: The big life change for couples. New York, NY: Basic.

The Cowans, both psychologists and both associated with the Psychology Clinic of the University of California, Berkeley, chart the changes that accompany the arrival of a first child. Drawing on the stories of a wide variety of men and women, they reveal common pitfalls and offer counsel about navigating the challenges of early parenthood.

Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., Heming, G., Garrett, E., Coysh, W. S., Curtis-Boles, H., & Boles, A. J. (1985). Transitions to parenthood: His, hers, and theirs. Journal of Family Issues, 6(4), 451-481.

Variables between expectant and non-expectant couples were studied. Couples having children experience more negative changes in sense of self, marital satisfaction, and relationships with their families of origin.

Cox, M. J., Paley, B., Burchinal, M., & Payne, C. C. (1999). Marital perceptions and interactions across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 61(August), 611-625.

136 rural, mostly Caucasian couples are studied to determine how the birth of a child affects the marital relationship. Patterns of change in the marital relationship are related to whether the pregnancy was planned, depressive symptoms of spouses, the couple’s problem-solving behavior, and the gender of the child.

Dew, J., & Wilcox, W. B. (2011). If Momma ain’t happy: Explaining declines in marital satisfaction among new mothers. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 73(February), 1-12.

Using data from the first and second waves of the National Survey of Families and Households (N = 569), married women are examined to identify the reasons mothers experience a decline in marital satisfaction after childbirth. A reduction in spousal time and an increase in perceived unfairness in housework are shown to be explanations of declining marital satisfaction.

Hackel, L. S., & Ruble, D. N. (1992). Changes in the marital relationship after the first baby is born: Predicting the impact of expectancy disconfirmation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 62(6), 944-957.

A longitudinal study of 50 couples during the transition to first parenthood examines how failure to confirm expectations regarding the sharing of child-care and housekeeping responsibilities influences postpartum reports of marital satisfaction.

Helms-Erikson, H. (2001). Marital quality ten years after the transition to parenthood: Implications of the timing of parenthood and the division of housework. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 63(November), 1099-1110.

Middle class married couples are studied 10 years after the birth of their child to determine the effects of birth timing and division of labor in the home on marital satisfaction. Couples who became parents at age 24 or younger and have a less traditional division of labor are more likely to experience marital dissatisfaction. Later-birthing parents with a non-traditional division of labor have a positive marital relationship.

Kluwer, E. S. (2010). From partnership to parenthood: A review of marital change across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2(June), 105-125.

Topic: This review of research summarizes the factors that affect couples in the transition to parenthood. Changes in time pressure, noise, and fatigue can reduce parents’ regulation of impulses, which can lead to destructive conflict behavior. Depression, division of labor preferences, and insecure attachment can lead to a decline in marital satisfaction. Couples with less prenatal conflict are less susceptible to a decline in postnatal marital quality.

LaRossa, R., & LaRossa, M. M. (1981). Transition to parenthood: How infants change families. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

A sociological study of how the birth of first and second children affects parents. It uses in-depth interviews with 20 couples taken during the third, sixth, and ninth month after the birth of a child, to monitor changes in the marriage, sex roles, and attitudes of the parents, and to explore the social context in which they occur.

Lindahl, K. M., Clements, M., & Markman, H. (1997). Predicting marital and parent functioning in dyads and triads: A longitudinal investigation of marital processes. Journal of Family Psychology, 11(2), 139-151.

25 middle-class Caucasian couples are assessed over five years to determine how prenatal marital quality predicts postnatal marital problem solving and parent-child relationships. Prenatal escalation of conflict is associated with greater marital conflict after the child is born and predicts parents’ involvement with the child during marital conflict. Current marital relationship is related to the quality of the parent-child relationship, but there is no evidence that prenatal marital relationship predicts the quality of the future parent-child relationship.

McHale, S. M., & Huston, T. L. (1985). The effect of the transition to parenthood on the marriage relationship: A longitudinal study. Journal of Family Issues, 6(4), 409-433.

Couples who became parents in the first year of marriage are compared to couples who remained childless through the first year. There are no differences between parents and nonparents in marital satisfaction and love, as both groups experienced similar declines after one year.

Mercer, R. T., Ferketich, S. L., & DeJoseph, J. F. (1993). Predictors of partner relationships during pregnancy and infancy. Research in Nursing and Health, 16(1), 45-56.

This study of mostly Caucasian women with both high and low risk pregnancies examines couple relationships during the transition to parenthood. Fathers in a relationship with a high-risk mother report lower relationship scores than fathers in a relationship with low-risk mothers. Men’s readiness for the pregnancy is also related to the level of satisfaction with the relationship during pregnancy.

Shapiro, A. F., Gottman, J. M., & Carrere, S. (2000). The baby and the marriage: Identifying factors that buffer against decline in marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 59-70.

Newlywed couples from the state of Washington are followed for six years to examine parenthood and marital satisfaction. Wives who became mothers experience a greater decline in marital satisfaction than wives who remained childless. Expressed unity by either the husband or wife leads to an increase in satisfaction for wives. Among parents, the husband’s fondness and admiration of his wife is a factor in maintaining marital satisfaction.

Squire, S. (1993). For better, for worse: A candid chronicle of five couples adjusting to parenthood. New York, NY: Doubleday.

The author follows five couples from the first weeks of pregnancy through the end of the postpartum year. The couples range in age from their mid-twenties to their mid-forties. Although their backgrounds are diverse, their struggles and triumphs illustrate the trials common to many middle-class parents.

Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta-analytic review. Journal of Marriage and the Family 65(August), 574-583.

An analysis of studies examines the relationship between parenthood and marital satisfaction. Compared with nonparents, parents experience lower levels of marital satisfaction; also, an increasing number of children is related to a decrease in marital satisfaction. In mothers, dissatisfaction largely occurs during the child’s infancy.

Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta Analytic Review. Authors: Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A.  Presented by: Chris Farnum

IV. Programs for Expectant Couples – Tips for Practitioners, Research, and Reviews

Large Group - Expectant CouplesDuring the past two decades, there has been growing government, public, and private sector interest in sponsoring programs to help expectant couples successfully make the transition to parenthood. Government efforts have typically focused on low-income couples—both married and unmarried. A body of literature has formed that provides insights into the effectiveness of such programs and strategies that are more successful than others. This section provides research that reviews various theories behind developing an intervention model supporting parents and their relationships, provides a conceptual framework for interventions targeted to unwed expectant parents, and offers research findings and guidelines for developing optimal interventions for couples planning to parent.

Bringing Baby Home Project

Topic: Video clips for practitioners feature researchers and families discussing the couples’ transition to parenthood with the Bringing Baby Home project. Topics include changes in the couples’ relationship, nurturing the child’s emotions, and experiences from a family who participated in the project.

Diemer, G. A. (1997). Expectant fathers: Influence of perinatal education on stress, coping and spousal relations. Research in Nursing & Health,20(4), 281-293.

This study examines the differences in a father-focused prenatal intervention and a traditional childbirth class for a group of mostly Caucasian, middle-class fathers. Fathers in the father-focused intervention have greater improvement in spousal relations when compared with the traditional class fathers. There are increases in housework activity and use of reason during conflict.

Feinberg, M. E. (2002). Coparenting and the transition to parenthood: A framework for prevention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 5(3), 173-195.

This article examines how improved co-parenting for expectant couples leads to improved parent adjustment during the transition to parenthood, the marital relationship, parenting outcomes, and child outcomes. The author suggests that co-parenting interventions are more effective around the time of the birth of the first child.

Harrison, C. (2008). Recruiting expectant couples. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.

Practical tips and suggestions for relationship educators who wish to recruit expectant couples into a marriage and relationship education program.

Harrison, C. (2009) Relationship education for unwed, expectant couples: Guidelines for Practitioners. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.

Background on the opportunities and challenges related to serving unmarried couples who are expecting a baby. The Tip Sheet includes 10 tips for marriage educators to engage these couples.

Jordan, P. (2011). Supporting married couples becoming parents: Tips for marriage relationship education practitioners. National Healthy Marriage Resource Center.

This Tip Sheet is for marriage and relationship educators working with married couples who are expecting a baby. It offers tips that will help practitioners facilitate practical ways to enhance the couple relationship as the couple becomes parents.

Office of Family Assistance (OFA). (2011). The impact of healthy marriage programs on low-income couples and families: Program perspectives from across the United States. Department of Health and Human Services. Administration for Children and Families.

Examines the unique challenges of unmarried couples who are expecting a baby or co-parenting a newborn and the effectiveness of healthy marriage programs for fragile families. This monograph highlights lessons learned and accomplishments from 21 OFA Priority Areas 6 and 7 Healthy Marriage Grantees serving low-income expectant couples. Program designs, service delivery strategies, and outcomes from these various programs are explored.

Pinquart, M. & Teubert, D. (2010). A meta-analytic study of couple interventions during the transition to parenthood. Family Relations: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Applied Family Studies, 59(3), 221-231.

21 interventions for expectant couples and new parents. Results show that sustained interventions and a combination of pre- and postnatal interventions enhance couples’ communication. Interventions using professionals instead of paraprofessionals or volunteers as interventionists produces better results for couples.

The listings below come from the Building Strong Families (BSF) Project, a federally funded study that began in 2001 to assess the effectiveness of interventions for adult, unwed committed parents interested in marriage. The interventions aim to strengthen relationships, encourage marriage if couples are interested, and improve child and family well-being.

Devany, B., & Dion, R. (2010). 15-month impacts of Oklahoma’s Family Expectations Program. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

Family Expectations, a relationship-strengthening program that is part of the Building Strong Families research project. After 15 months, couples in Family Expectations have significant improvements in relationship happiness, support and affection, constructive conflict behaviors, co-parenting, and father involvement. Impacts on relationship status, relationship quality, co-parenting, and father involvement are stronger for African American couples when compared with other couples.

Dion, M. R., Avellar, S.A., & Clary, E. (2010). The Building Strong Families Project: Implementation of eight programs to strengthen unmarried parent families. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

The design and implementation of Building Strong Families programs and the characteristics of couples. The eight programs have differences, but they all have curricula focusing on building relationship skills as well as family coordinators to support parents’ participation in the program. In the program, couples learn how to improve effective communication, manage conflict, increase responsibility, and develop a social network of couples.

Dion, M. R., & Devaney, B. (2003). Strengthening relationships and supporting healthy marriage among unwed parents. Building Strong Families In Brief #1. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.

The first in a series of issue briefs that focus on the program design for interventions targeting unmarried parents. The goal of the interventions is to help them strengthen their relationships and, if they so choose, form and sustain healthy marriages.

Dion, M. R., Devaney, B., McConnell, S., Ford, M., Hill, H., & Winston, P. (2003). Helping unwed parents build strong and healthy marriages: A conceptual framework for interventions. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc., Washington, D.C.

A conceptual framework for designing, implementing, and testing interventions for unmarried parents who are expecting a child together, and who are typically low-income and undereducated. Given that these families are especially vulnerable to family instability and adverse economic and social outcomes, they are considered “fragile families.” Fragile family interventions build on research showing that the period around a child’s birth is a critical moment for strengthening couple bonds and is aimed at couples interested in strengthening their relationship and possibly forming and sustaining a healthy marriage.

Hershey, A. M., Devaney, B., Dion, M. R., & McConnell, S. (2004). Building Strong Families: Guidelines for developing programs. Mathematica Policy Research, Inc.

Guidelines to help interested sponsors design and deliver program services on which the Building Strong Families project focuses. They detail the three program components of the BSF interventions: skills instruction associated with healthy marriage, family support services, and family coordinators.

Wood, R.G., McConnell, S., Moore, Q., Clarkwest, A., & Hsueh, J. (2010). Strengthening unmarried parents’ relationships: The early impacts of Building Strong Families. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research.


Program impacts of the BSF Project 15 months after baseline. When combining data from all eight BSF program, there is no impact on marriage, separation, or relationship quality. Among couples in which both members are African American, there is an increase in support, affection, conflict management, and fidelity.

V.  Resources for Practitioners and Expectant Couples to Sustain a Healthy Relationship During the Transition to Parenthood

Learning from the experiences of other couples who made the transition to parenthood often is extremely helpful to those preparing for this change. This section describes books and other resources that, in plain language, illustrate common challenges and promising strategies for making a successful transition. The resources are beneficial for practitioners working with expectant couples, as well as the couples themselves.

Expectant couples are often hungry for practical advice on what to expect as new parents and how best to deal with a range of issues including infant health and development, relationship satisfaction, sleep deprivation, and a host of other practical topics. This section describes written materials, programs, videos, and other resources designed for expectant couples. Practitioners may find these resources useful for their clients.

Becoming Parents Program

A couple-focused program for expectant parents using concepts from the Prevention and Relationship Education Program (PREP®), the Stop Anger and Violence Escalation (SAVE), and the Domestic Conflict Containment Programs (DCCP), that values fathers and empowers couples to manage common challenges.

Crawford, Mark E. (2007) When two become three: Nurturing your marriage after baby arrives (2007). Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Publishing Group.

Topic: This book helps couples recognize the inevitable challenges to their relationship that occur during the childrearing years. It provides practical advice designed to help couples nurture their marital relationship in order to ensure it remains strong during this phase of life and beyond. Mark E. Crawford (Author)

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Jordan, P.L., Stanley, S.M., & Markman, H.J. (1999). Becoming parents: How to strengthen your marriage as your family grows. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

How couples can protect and preserve their marriage while taking care of themselves as they become parents.

The Gottman Relationship Institute. Bringing Baby Home Program.

Topic: Combining scientific research with public education, the Bringing Baby Home project aims to improve the quality of life for babies and children by strengthening their families.

Love’s Cradle: Building Strong Families Through Relationship Enhancement

This program teaches core relationship skills and discusses the topics of the adjustment to parenthood, trust, marriage, money, and complex family relationships.

Petersen, Andrea. (2011, April 28) So cute, so hard on a marriage, after baby, men and women are unhappy in different ways; pushing pre-emptive steps. Wall Street Journal.

Research and common challenges through couples’ stories and how one program has helped couples manage the transition to parenthood.

Vecere, E. We’re having a baby! How will it change our marriage? National Fatherhood Initiative.

In this video, Erik Vecere addresses the impact of a new baby on a marriage and how spouses can keep their marriage strong during the transition.



[1] Martin, J.A., Hamilton, B.E., Sutton, P.D., Ventura, S.J., Mathews, T.J., Osterman, M.J.K. Births: Final data for 2008. National Center for Health Statistics. Volume 59 (1). 2010.

[2] Carlson, M., McLanahan, S., England, P., & Devaney, B. (2005). What we know about unmarried parents: Implications for Building Strong Families programs. Building Strong Families In Brief #3. Princeton, NJ: Mathematica Policy Research. Retrieved January 18, 2011, from http://www.mathematica-mpr.com/publications/PDFs/bsfisbr3.pdf

[3] Martinez, G.M., Chandra, A., Abma, J.C., Jones, J., Mosher, W.D. (2006). Fertility, contraception, and fatherhood: Data on men and women from Cycle 6 (2002) of the National Survey of Family Growth. National Center for Health Statistics. Vital Health Stat 23(26).  Retrieved February 15, 2011, from http://www.cdc.gov/nchs/data/series/sr_23/sr23_026.pdf .