Having a child can bring a wave of emotions. As many parents can attest, some of these emotions might not be “positive” ones, however. Although estimates vary, around 1 in 5 fathers[i] and mothers[ii] in the United States may experience postpartum depression. In addition to the mental effect of women’s post-birth hormonal rollercoaster, mental health challenges might also result from seeking to balance work with new family responsibilities—all with a potentially varying sleep schedule.
For some unmarried couples, an added difficulty of life with a new child is financially supporting this new family. Not earning enough income to make ends meet can exacerbate mental health issues that might already accompany parents’ new life.[iii] Financial stress and mental health challenges might also impact the couple’s relationship and how they parent their new child.
With this context in mind, Dr. Melissa Curran and her colleagues recently examined what low-income, unmarried couples expecting their first child can do to strengthen their relationship and their future parenting.[iv] Curran and colleagues asked 4,424 low-income, unmarried couples who were expecting their first child about their financial difficulties, mental health, relationship conflict, and co-parenting (their ability to parent together as a team). About two years later, these researchers also followed up with these couples and asked similar questions about these aspects of their life.
The first pattern of results was that fathers’ depressive symptoms were associated with more destructive conflict in the relationship over time. In other words, as fathers reported worse mental health, it led to both partners being more physically and verbally aggressive with each other during conflict. Among these low-income couples, at least from the father’s perspective, destructive conflict might start with mental health challenges.
The second pattern of results was that destructive conflict was associated with lower quality co-parenting over time. That is, as couples were more physically and verbally aggressive toward each other in their conflict, they reported worse parenting of their child together. Essentially, it matters how low-income, unmarried parents approach their conflict when it comes to parenting their new child.
1. Prioritize both fathers’ and mothers’ mental health.
This research suggests that mental health challenges of low-income, unmarried couples with a new child—and particularly the mental health challenges of the fathers—can impact how these couples deal with conflict. Those who are acquainted with mental health challenges know very well that coping with these challenges can be extremely difficult and very nuanced. With this caveat in mind, I offer two general suggestions to help both fathers and mothers with a new child cope with mental health challenges to avoid destructive conflict.
Having mental health challenges might not be the only important factor to consider. What we do to cope with these challenges likely also matters. Partners should be open with each other about their mental health and find productive ways for both partners to enhance their mental health. For example, making time for both partners to do things that energize them (e.g., exercising, watching a sunset, talking with a friend or family member, etc.) is vital. The specific coping strategies may vary, but the principle is to find ways to enhance both partners’ mental health—and consistently implement these coping strategies.
Another invaluable way to cope with mental health challenges is to meet with a licensed mental health professional. When we have physical challenges, we often visit a doctor. Mental health challenges might also benefit from a ‘doctor’ who is trained to help with these challenges. In addition to licensed professionals in your area, affordable virtual therapy is available through companies like Betterhelp. Although it might be difficult at first to start, any efforts to improve our mental health through therapy can be exponentially worth it.
2. How we engage in conflict with our partner matters.
The presence of conflict by itself is not necessarily a bad thing for your relationship. Indeed, therapists often mention that if there is ‘no conflict’ in your relationship, partners might not be expressing their perspectives openly. How we approach conflict in our relationship—whether by avoiding it or by intentionally overcoming it—matters.
In Curran and colleagues’ study, parents who handled conflict by being physically and verbally aggressive with each other typically were not on the same page with each other in parenting their child. This is to say that physically and verbally aggressive actions might lead to deep hurt in the relationship such that partners’ co-parenting is hindered. Parents who were not physically and verbally aggressive in their conflict, however, tended to be on the same page with their parenting.
The topics of relationship conflict can vary, but here are few general principles for approaching conflict in constructive ways. Couples can discuss beforehand what strategies they will use in a disagreement to not exacerbate conflict in negative ways. Some strategies include empathizing with each other, refraining from yelling, using a respectful tone, avoiding name calling, avoiding derogatory words, or even taking a break from the conversation and revisiting the topic later if the conversation get heated.
No relationship is perfect in how partners handle conflict. That is, partners might need to forgive each other for instances of destructive conflict.[v] However, as low-income, unmarried couples with a new child prioritize their mental health and seek to deal with conflict in productive ways, they are more likely to have healthier relationships and work together as a team in parenting their child.
[i]Kim, P., & Swain, J. E. (2007). Sad dads: paternal postpartum depression. Psychiatry, 4(2), 35–47. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2922346/
[ii]Halbreich, U., & Karkun, S. (2006). Cross-cultural and social diversity of prevalence of postpartum depression and depressive symptoms. Journal of Affective Disorders, 91(2-3), 97–111. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jad.2005.12.051
[iii]Newland, R. P., Crnic, K. A., Cox, M. J., & Mills-Koonce, W. R., & the Family Life Project Key Investigators. (2013). The family model stress and maternal psychological symptoms: Mediated pathways from economic hardship to parenting. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(1), 96–105. https://doi.org/10.1037/a0031112
[iv]Curran, 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, 35(4), 489–499. https://doi.org/10.1037/fam0000821
[v]Saxey, M. T., LeBaron-Black, A. B., Yorgason, J. B., & Dew, J. P. (2022). Two good forgivers? Forgiveness as a moderator of the association between similarity of financial values and relationship flourishing. The American Journal of Family Therapy. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/01926187.2022.2087788