The birth of a first child is usually an exciting and eagerly anticipated milestone in any committed relationship, yet research suggests it can also be the beginning of the end for many couples.
According to clinical psychologist Dr Jemima Petch, about half of all couples report a significant decline in satisfaction with their relationship during the transition to parenthood.
Conflict between the couple, psychological distress, negative relationships with their children and poorer child outcomes can be the result.
"I’ve realised there is an urgent need to support parents as couples because support for mothers alone in not enough. This is my way of helping children," Dr Petch said.
As part of the research for her PhD, Dr Petch has been evaluating the effectiveness of an early intervention program for couples expecting their first child.
The program, Couple CARE for Parents, included face-to-face group sessions as well as phone support after the birth. It covered issues such as expectations of parenthood, communication skills and conflict management skills.
"In couples who received our program rather than the usual antenatal and postnatal care, the typical decline in satisfaction with their relationship was largely prevented. They invested the effort and had the skills to enhance their relationship and stay happy."
She said only 13% of women in the Couple CARE program reported a decline in relationship satisfaction after the birth of their child compared to 42% of women receiving usual care. Couple communication also improved significantly after the program.
"Couples are receptive to this type of support and education at this stage in their relationship and hopefully we can change the all too common trajectory of letting their relationship slide once children arrive."
The Couple CARE for Parents program was developed by Dr Petch with her supervisors Professor Kim Halford, director of the Griffith Psychological Health Research Centre, and Griffith’s Dean of Health Professor Debra Creedy.
Since her PhD research, the program has been expanded with funding from the National Health and Medical Research Council.
Dr Petch is now working with a team of 10 midwives delivering the program to 255 couples recruited from antenatal clinics in Brisbane, Redlands, Ipswich, Logan and the Gold Coast. They will be followed until their babies are four months old and reviewed again 12 months and two years on.
The Couple CARE for Parents program has also attracted international interest. A United States government grant of $3.5 million will fund the team to work with US researchers in delivering Couple CARE for Parents to 1000 US couples at high risk of relationship breakdown.
Dr Petch will receive her PhD at a Griffith University graduation ceremony this Friday, December 15 at 3pm at the Brisbane Convention and Exhibition Centre.
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