If you want to stay happy in your relationship with your romantic partner, don't have a baby. Or at least, that's the prevailing wisdom.

Why is this the case? Well, just picture your life as a new parent. You've got a crying baby. You've got tons of additional chores and housework. You can't get any work done, because you have to deal with a million new-baby-related tasks. And you've got dirty diapers flying everywhere. So, it's no wonder that research demonstrates that first-time parent couples tend to experience declines in their relationship well-being, such as decreases in their relationship satisfaction, and disruptions in their ability to provide social support to each other.

Yet, if the above paragraph sounds a bit hyperbolic, that's because it is. If you read the research on the transition to parenthood, it sometimes seems as if it is all bad. It can sound like new parenthood is almost entirely about managing stress, coping with difficulty, and adjusting to challenges.

But Is It Really All Bad?

As a researcher who has been studying first-time parenthood for the past 10 years, that was my question. Most of what I was reading was about the stress and challenge of this time, and yet, all around me I kept seeing parents voluntarily (and, indeed, enthusiastically) having children. And, what I saw was—despite the challenges that new parents do indeed face during this period—a lot of positive emotions. Even amongst the stress and change of the transition to parenthood, I saw new parents experiencing things like gratitude for the birth of their child, joy for the formation of their family, and hope for the future. So, despite those sleepless nights and the diapers piling up, I saw many parents experiencing positive emotions.

Little prior research had taken into consideration this new parental positivity, as almost all of the prior work examining why new parents experience changes in their relationships had examined the negative stuff—how much stress or conflict new parents experienced—to the exclusion of new parental positive experiences. So, in a recent study, my collaborators and I asked the following question: What if new parental positive experiences were actually pivotal to helping them maintain healthy relationships during the transition to parenthood? We suspected that if new parents experienced more positive emotions like gratitude, joy, and hope, it would help prevent relationship damage from those dirty diapers, sleepless nights, and crying babies.

We based this hypothesis on a theory called the Broaden-and-Build Model of Positive Emotions (developed by one of my collaborators on this work, Dr. Barbara Fredrickson), which suggests that positive emotions help us consider a broader range of thoughts and behaviors, and therefore build better relationships across the course of time. Importantly, Broaden-and-Build Theory suggests that the benefits of positive emotions are independent of the detrimental impacts of negative emotions, meaning that new parental positive emotions should uniquely influence their relationship, above and beyond their challenges with the diapers and sleepless nights.

We drew on two studies of couples undergoing the transition to parenthood, one of which was one year long, and one of which was two years long. In both studies, couples reported their positive emotions, negative emotions, relationship satisfaction, and social support during pregnancy, and then continued providing reports on their emotions and relational experiences at approximately 3- or 4-month intervals. In one of the studies, the couples also completed a social support task, where their behavior was observed and measured. This allowed us to gain a lens into the functioning of their relationship.

Positive Emotions = Good

Indeed, positive emotion definitely predicted better relationships during the transition to parenthood: when new parents experienced greater positive emotions, they had better relationship satisfaction and interaction patterns across the course of time, and this was true above and beyond their negative emotions. So, even when new parents are losing sleep and diapers are flying everywhere, positive emotions like joy, gratitude, and hope play an important role in protecting relationships.

Even though our studies were large and long-term, we can't be certain that positive emotions caused better relationships. But for now, at least, we have some solid hints that if new parents are able to find moments for joy, gratitude, and hope, it is not only beneficial for those individual moments, but it is also likely to help protect their relationship across the course of time too.

For Further Reading

Don, B. P., & Mickelson, K. D. (2014). Relationship satisfaction trajectories across the transition to parenthood among low‐risk parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76, 677-692. https://doi.org/10.1111/jomf.12111

Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1-53). Academic Press. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-407236-7.00001-2

Nelson, S. K., Kushlev, K., & Lyubomirsky, S. (2014). The pains and pleasures of parenting: When, why, and how is parenthood associated with more or less well-being? Psychological Bulletin, 140, 846-895. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0035444

Brian P. Don is a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences at the University of California San Francisco, soon to be a Lecturer (Assistant Professor) in the School of Psychology at the University of Auckland. His research focuses on motivation, affect, and mindfulness in intimate relationships, including in the context of families.