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How couples manage parenting forecasts later marital quality, study finds

March 11, 2004

COLUMBUS, Ohio - Just because a married couple has a good relationship when a child is born is no guarantee the marriage will stay that way as their child grows older, a new study suggests.

Researchers found that how a couple manages their parenting responsibilities when their child is 6 months old is related to the quality of their marriage when their child is 3.

Couples who had a good relationship with each other when their child was an infant - but had conflicts regarding parenting - were more likely to have a poorer couple relationship when their child was 3.

"It may seem that a good marriage relationship would protect a couple, but parenting can change a lot in a how husbands and wives relate to each other," said Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, co-author of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University.

"The issues you confront in parenting aren't typically the kind of issues you've confronted before you had children. That can make a big difference in your relationship."

Schoppe-Sullivan conducted the study with Sarah Mangelsdorf of the University of Illinois, Cynthia Frosch of the University of Arizona and Jean McHale. Their results appear in the March 2004 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.

The study involved 46 families from Illinois. Each of the families was studied when the couples had a child who was 6 months old and then again when the same child was 3 years old.

At 6 months, the researchers conducted an at-home observation in which the parents were observed playing with their child together, and observed as a couple while completing a questionnaire together about how they divided household responsibilities. Parents also completed questionnaires about how they viewed their marital relationship.

When the researchers observed the parents playing with the child, they looked for evidence of supportive coparenting - when the parents clearly enjoyed watching each other interact with the infant, and complimented each other's parenting. They also looked for undermining coparenting - when the parents expressed disapproval or dislike of each other's parenting strategies, interfered with each other's parenting efforts, or competed for the infant's attention.

A similar at-home observation occurred when the same children were 3 years old.

The results showed that, at 6 months, there was no close relationship between a couple's marital relationship and coparenting relationship, Schoppe-Sullivan said. In other words, couples may have had a good relationship with each other, but still demonstrated problems in their coparenting relationship.

"The coparenting relationship does not appear to develop completely out of the couple's pre-existing relationship with each other, like a lot of people would probably assume," she said.

A key finding, though, was that the coparenting relationship at 6 months had a strong impact on the quality of the marital relationship at 3 years. At the same time, the quality of the marital relationship at 6 months was not associated with the quality of the coparenting relationship at 3 years.

"This suggests that the quality of the early coparenting relationship is particularly important for the quality of the marriage," Schoppe-Sullivan said. "How parents negotiate their parenting roles when their child is an infant may have a significant influence on their happiness with each other later."

She said that early coparenting behavior "may provide a window into the abilities of partners to manage the many complex conflicts that future family life will bring."

While this study looked only at couples with young children, Schoppe-Sullivan said she believes the impact of coparenting on marriage quality may wax and wane throughout the course of a family's life. Coparenting may play a more critical role when parenting roles are particularly demanding - such as when children are toddlers, and when they are entering adolescence.

The results suggest that programs for parents-to-be should devote attention to how they will coparent together, Schoppe-Sullivan said.

"Parents need to be sure they are consistent in their parenting values, beliefs and attitudes, and expectations about how they will divide responsibilities," she said.

"They also need to be aware of the subtle ways in which they can undermine each other's parenting, and how their relationship as parents can affect their relationship as a couple."
Contact: Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, (614) 614-688-3437;

Written by Jeff Grabmeier, (614) 292-8457;

Ohio State University

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