Being part of a couple relationship can be sweet...and sometimes sour. Sweet flavors caramelize when we comfort, support, and show love for our partner. Sour flavors ferment when we struggle to solve challenges together, succumb to stress, and feel defeated by depressive mental health symptoms. Making sure one ingredient does not overpower the others is a challenge every couple must face, especially after having a first child. To develop the family relationships that we want to savor, we must not let one ingredient spoil the others. This begs the question, “what spoils our family relationships?” Dr. Curran and colleagues investigated this in a recent study. They asked which of the common challenges (ingredients) that couples/parents face lead to an overwhelming relationship as a whole (spoiled).
To answer their question, Curran and colleagues first turned to previous research. They needed to determine what is known about the struggles couples and first-time parents face. Previous studies had found that financial stress can negatively impact our relationships with our partner and with our child; they can also disrupt our own mental health and that of our children.1,2,3 This same financial stress can lead to depressive symptoms in parents, such as psychological and emotional distress, which then increases the risk of couples’ destructive conflict, such as arguing and hostility.2
Financial stress may not be the only cause of compounding problems though; destructive conflict itself has been related to less productive parenting behavior4 and is a risk factor for new parents.2 Similarly, poor parenting teamwork has been linked to increased depressive symptoms in parents5 and negatively impacts children’s well-being.6 Identifying the root cause of these challenges and how they all affect each other could tell us more about what changes an individual or family should make to prevent dry and unsavory relationships.2,3
To determine the root cause of overwhelmed relationships, Curran and colleagues decided to focus on financial distress, destructive conflict, depressive symptoms, and parenting teamwork as common challenges that couples and parents face. To determine which of these factors causes them all to become overwhelming, the team needed data that asked about these challenges from couples and first-time parents. Previous data from this demographic was already obtained by the Building Strong Families (BSF) project in the form of surveys.7 Curran and colleagues gained permission to use these BSF surveys and responses for their study. The first survey was obtained while recruiting participants, the second was obtained while the couple’s child was about 15 months old, and the third was obtained while the couple’s child was about 36 months old.
The research team found that depressive symptoms were the root cause of the common challenges becoming overwhelming. On average, those experiencing higher depressive symptoms during the second survey faced greater financial distress and greater destructive conflict during the third survey. Also, destructive conflict during the second survey decreased the amount of parenting teamwork. With depressive symptoms now seen as an instigator for increased destructive conflict, we can say that depressive symptoms indirectly decrease the amount of parenting teamwork.8
With the findings from this study, you can take steps to improve your own relationship and parenting. Here are some strategies to help you apply what you have learned:
- Prioritize your mental health. Since depressive symptoms are likely to be the common challenge that brings all other common challenges to an overwhelming boil, it is helpful to know the depressive symptoms that you experience most often, how to manage them, and when those symptoms have gone beyond a typical limit. To be clear, depressive symptoms here include, but are not limited to: feelings of anxiety, loss of interest, or hopelessness; increased irritability, social isolation, or excessive crying; lack of productive sleep, lack of concentration, and lack of consistent weight. To determine what symptoms you commonly experience and how to manage them, we recommend following the mental health guidance found here. If you recognize that your symptoms have gone beyond a typical limit, we recommend using the personalized, individual mental health counseling found here.
- Develop your financial fitness. After ensuring that your depressive symptoms are in check, it is time to focus on one of the remaining three common challenges. If you will benefit most from getting your finances in line, then start focusing on creating healthy financial habits. As you dedicate time to learn, develop, and maintain good financial practices, the distress that you once felt will simmer down to a sense of control and direction. In this way, your finances will begin to bring you peace, knowing that you have the money to provide for your needs and your family’s needs. Whether you are a new learner or seasoned professional in the realm of finances, there’s always more to be learned and better habits to be formed. You can find a starting guide here.
- Work on the romantic relationship with your partner. Once you have depressive symptoms under control, you may decide that overcoming destructive conflict is the next most important challenge to conquer. To do this, you should focus on developing a better relationship as a couple. We recommend spending designated time each day to speak with your spouse and show them that you care. Also, taking at least a few hours each week for an engaging activity just between the two of you will help inspire those romantic feelings that developed while dating. When persistent problems within the relationship arise, especially those involving blaming, criticism, or other forms of destructive conflict, we recommend visiting with a couple relationships counselor found here. Transforming your destructive conflict into constructive conflict will help with other parts of the family dish; as revealed in the study, those parents who were still romantically involved during the second and third surveys had better parenting teamwork than those who had separated.
- Parent your children as a team. The last step in cooking these common challenges to perfection is learning to manage children as a parenting team. Managing children is difficult, but it is even more difficult when it has to be done alone. Many positive outcomes in children arise from parents who support each other in their efforts to raise their child. To align, strengthen, and support your co-parenting efforts, we recommend regularly sitting down together and discussing what principles and characteristics you want to exemplify for and teach to your child. Once you’ve settled on a few key ideas, you should discuss how each parent can support the other and how you will work as a team. For example, you may decide that you want to teach your child healthy money habits; to support each other in your efforts, one parent might take an opportunity to teach the principle of saving money, and the other parent might take the child to purchase a piggy bank or open a savings account. As you come to understand what your partner wants for your child and why they want this, it will likely become easier to back their efforts. If parenting as a team becomes a sticky mess instead of a sweet learning experience, we recommend finding personalized parental therapy here.
1Conger, R. D., Conger, K. J., & Martin, M. J. (2010). Socioeconomic status, family processes, and individual development. Journal of marriage and family, 72(3), 685-70
2Masarik, A. S., & Conger, R. D. (2017). Stress and child development: A review of the Family Stress Model. Current opinion in psychology, 13, 85-90.
3Shelleby, E. C. (2018). Economic stress in fragile families: pathways to parent and child maladjustment. Journal of Child and Family Studies, 27(12), 3877-3886.
4Carlson, M. J., Pilkauskas, N. V., McLanahan, S. S., & Brooks‐Gunn, J. (2011). Couples as partners and parents over children's early years. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(2), 317-334.
5Choi, J. K., & Becher, E. H. (2019). Supportive coparenting, parenting stress, harsh parenting, and child behavior problems in nonmarital families. Family process, 58(2), 404-417.
6Schoppe‐Sullivan, S. J., & Fagan, J. (2020). The evolution of fathering research in the 21st century: Persistent challenges, new directions. Journal of Marriage and Family, 82(1), 175-197.
7Hershey, A. (2011). Building Strong Families (BSF) Project Data Collection, 2005-2008, United States.
8Curran, M. A., Li, X., Barnett, M., Kopystynska, O., Chandler, A. B., & LeBaron, A. B. (2021). Finances, depressive symptoms, destructive conflict, and coparenting among lower-income, unmarried couples: A two-wave, cross-lagged analysis. Journal of Family Psychology.