Coparenting: Navigating a Healthier Relationship

What is coparenting?

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After adding a small bundle of joy to your family, your relationships with your partner, family, and friends will change as your family of two and maybe a dog or cat, becomes three humans cohabiting together. While your baby takes up most of the energy from you and your partner, it may feel there is little or no time to further invest into your personal relationship you have nurtured before baby’s arrival. You may be thinking that there is no option, but to feel the stress of raising a new baby and allow your relationship with your partner to suffer. However, from new research developed by Anna Sheedy & Laura Eubanks Gambrel from LaSalle University (Pennsylvania) and Appalachian State University (North Carolina); concludes that, leaving your relationship to fend for itself while transitioning into parenthood may not be the only option.

The transition into parenthood starts at pregnancy and ends once your child is about one or two years old (Feinberg, 2002; Xuereb, Abela, & Spiteri, 2012). This new partnership that develops is a coparenting relationship where, “… individuals have shared and overlapping responsibilities for rearing a particular child, or children [while] managing the adjustment of parenthood,” (Feinberg, 2003). The stress and level of commitment that each partner in a heterosexual relationship experiences during this transition period differs as each individual journey for men and women during this time are unique as one is expected to carry, birth, and rear a child while the other is traditionally to be physical, emotional, and financial support for their female partner.

As both parents aim to give and do what is best for their child, the disconnect that each partner may feel as traditional roles are separated and not expected to overlap, cause the tension and stress during this transition that will ultimately affect the comfort and wellness of their child. “The quality and strength of the coparenting relationship is predictive of multiple important aspects of family and child functioning, such as higher marital satisfaction, children’s school readiness, and children’s socio-emotional adjustment,” (Bonds & Gondoli, 2007; Feinberg, 2003; Holland & McElwain, 2013; Morrill, Hines, Mahmood, S., & Cordova, J., 2010; Kolak & Volling, 2013; Schoppe-Sullivan & Mangelsdorf, 2013; Van Egeren,2004). Sheedy and Gambrel believe that, “Understanding these early dynamics could potentially help new parents adjust to parenthood and buffer children against psychological distress,” (2019).

What are the factors that help or harm your relationship?

After interviews with 8 heterosexual couples and 16 participants that all work full-time or are in school; Sheedy, Gambrel, and their team complied, decoded, and analyzed information from these interviews to find that there were two overarching categories developed; factors that create successful and harmonious coparenting and factors that hurt successful and harmonious coparenting.

Factors that helped create a successful and harmonious relationship…

Recognizing your partner’s point of view and needs.

This was something that both men and women experienced and reported. When their partner showed they were able to recognize the other’s point of view, the pair was able to keep things in perspective. Simon from the pool of participants shared, “You just sort of reason through and see the situation for what it’s worth ... and try to see it from the other side of things and see where [Barbara, his wife] is coming from in certain situations,” allowing a heated argument to stay in control (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Problem-solving through mutual and collaborative discussion.

Another factor that both partners reported to aid in a successful relationship was working as a team as opposed to working as individuals. Gary, another participant, talked about how he and his wife work alongside each other through collaboration, “We’ll go and read up and be like, oh hey, so I was thinking doing this and this and this, and, these are the reasons why. And then, if you don’t agree with it, you can tell me why not, but come up with another solution instead of just shooting it down right away.” Through researching and learning together, couples can be assertive and understanding of each other’s ideas regarding their opinions on raising their child (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Offering the preferred type of support to your partner.

While this was something that both men and women discussed, both men and women had different kinds of support that they preferred of another.

Women in the study relayed that they prefer verbal and emotional validation of their feelings from their male spouse. Amy found meaning in her husband’s actions where, “Every day he makes it a point at some point during the day to tell me that I’m doing a good job. He’ll tell me little things, like, ‘you did a really good job waking up in the middle of the night five times.’ And I’m like, ‘oh, you noticed!’ It’s really nice that he recognizes it,” (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Women also voiced that their partner giving breaks from the baby as well as encouraging self-care was helpful. Often the job of taking care of the child’s basic needs falls on the mother as she provides natural nutrients and fathers may be less engaged. Tammy’s husband showed initiative in taking on baby responsibilities. She shared that, “He was like, give him to me, you go upstairs, I don’t have work tomorrow, I’ve got this ... I was almost on the verge of tears I was so tired, I couldn’t get [the baby] to sleep, so that was a really nice thing that he just kind of rushed home to help me out,” (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Men reported that they feel less informed and have little experience about how to care for a child. For their female partners to provide more hands-on and tangible skills and support was what men found helpful in coparenting. Simon once again spoke to this and how his wife supported him where, “…all these things that are within arms’reach, there is always a pacifier, there is always a burp cloth or a blanket, or something for the baby. Even like, the diaper bag, she put all of that together ... I feel like it is easy for me, I’ve got everything I need to be a good father, and to be hands- on, you know, because she knew exactly what we needed.” By women sharing their knowledge of childcare, their partners felt more at ease with becoming for self-sufficient in caring for their child on his own (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Remaining consistently present with your partner despite the challenges.

Women voiced that the present and constant support received from their partners was heard and appreciated. Alexis shared that, “In some cases when [my husband and I] are trying the cry it out method, the other person will come down just to show support, like, yes we can get through this, yes it’s really hard, but we can get through this,” (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Deferring occasionally to your partner’s wishes.

As a way that some couples in this study coped with disagreements about raising a child, compromise or deferring was a way to combat the struggles. “[Male] Participants did not voice feeling resentful or disempowered by their choice to defer, and they did not express feeling cornered or bullied by their partners; they merely felt respect and compassion for their partners’ desires,”(Sheedy & Gambrel 2019). This was seen when Rich spoke about disagreements with his wife Molly regarding daily childcare, “So I never really formulated that opinion with [Molly] … challenged some things here and there, and I think that situation was resolved by us, you know, I just deferred to [Molly] when she felt strongly about it,” (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Sharing feelings, needs, and disagreements respectfully and openly with each other.  

Both men and women in their relationships felt that open and honest communication was an important factor in developing a successful and harmonious coparenting relationship. Amy discussed what conversations may look like by, “Saying, like, “oh hun, you know I found this works better, um, oh, she pees every time you go to change her diaper, now you are gonna waste another diaper, so I found when my mom was doing it this way and it really worked,” instead of just yelling, like calling him names. I think that works a lot better,” (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Facilitating teamwork through flexibility and fluidity with your partner.

The couples in this study reported that both partners felt that their roles as their infant’s caregiver could be interchanged easily between the pair. With the exception of breast-feeding, trust in knowing that their partner can successfully take care of their infant was hard, but helpful as Simon shared, “Going into it, knowing like, I will do whatever I need to do, [Barbara, his wife] is going to do whatever she needs to do. I mean, now, there are certain roles and tasks that we’ve maybe both gravitated towards, just makes sense for one of us to do. But going into it, I mean, there is nothing I was labeling as [Barbara’s] job, or my job.” Allowing and embracing this fluidity was found to be helpful for both men and women (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Developing a harmonious relationship dynamic before baby arrives.

Something that both partners in the study felt aided easier coparenting was understanding the values and expectations that each other desired when it came raising a family. Caring for a pet together prior to preparing to add a baby to the bunch seems to be a good way to practice and see how your partner’s values relate to other things in their life beside you. As Barbara explained, “We like, worked together very well, and we agree a lot. We have a lot of the same values, and because we were specifically working with children, we like, had talked so much about like, parenting and parenting decisions … before [their daughter] was even a twinkle in our eye.” Discussing potential situations with your partner before the arrival of your baby or even before making a commitment to each other, can only help you and your partner’s future coparenting relationship (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Factors that did NOT help create a successful and harmonious relationship…

Neglecting to respond to your partner’s needs and feelings.

This was a theme seen mostly in the women relaying their experiences as they reported often feeling neglected by their husbands as they seemed to fail to understand the needs or feelings of their wife. Annie felt, “… a struggle because he’d come home, and I’d be like, here, take her, and he’s like, I need to decompress from the day, and I would be like, I have been home all day, like, you have a 30 minute drive and you get to interact with adults, so there was a little bit of that tension. Where I was like, take her, and he was like, no, and I was like, are you kidding me?”(Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Avoiding conflict with your partner due to discomfort and lack of time.

Avoiding conflict was a theme that women reported as they often would rather let an argument, “… fester and come out it some weird way,” because, “… it just makes me uncomfortable, that’s probably not healthy, but yeah...it hasn’t been a big enough issue,” to where women would be the ones to initiate solving a conflict. By letting even small disagreements end without a resolution, you could be hurting your coparenting relationship (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Neglecting to involve your partner in critical parenting decisions.

Teamwork was something mentioned by participants as a factor that helped couples coparent successfully. However, when working as a team fails to work, “… participants talked about feeling displaced and uninvolved by their partner, which lent itself to negative feelings and reduced trust in their partner as coparents.” Alexis from the study talked about how her husband used her mother as a resource, but did not relay that information or decisions to her and can easily cause a riff in their relationship (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

Criticizing and controlling of partner’s parenting choices.

This was a factor that was a theme among the men of the study as their wives were the ones that typically doing the majority of childrearing, but criticized their partner for executing different tasks regarding their child. Men felt as though their preferences for taking care of the baby were seen as invalid like how Kyle described his wife relaying that, “… you are supposed to do this, get up, and I would want to sit because I was tired, she’s like, no, you gotta stand up, as soon as you stand up, she stops crying, and it’s like, but I just wanna sit....it made me feel like I didn’t like her at that point ... I guess she felt like I wasn’t trying my best.” Men felt as if they were never given the chance to try their methods or skills (Sheedy & Gambrel, 2019).

What can you and your partner do?

Now you may be asking how can we as expecting, new, or current parents prepare and work through these dynamics to not only promote positive psychological health of our child, but also aid on relieving stress and tension between us as coparents?

Sheedy and Gambrel summarized what couples can do to help improve their coparenting relationship, what specifically men and women can do according to the themes that came up as concerns from the opposite gender, and how therapists and professionals can help couples navigate the transition to parenthood.

What couples can do…

  • Prepare for the arrival of the baby by discussing values, and parenting decisions ahead of time.

  • Practice working together as a team before baby is born.

  • Discuss areas of conflict openly and with warmth instead of avoiding difficult topics.

  • Practice problem-solving before and during the baby’s early life.

  • Exchange roles in the household to ensure both partners can do each other’s jobs.

What men can do…

  • Give verbal praise to wives for the work they do.

  • Be an active and present companion to your partner and in parenting.

  • Encourage partner to prioritize self-care by offering to give breaks from infant care.

  • Attune to partner’s needs and feelings.

What women can do…

  • Provide scaffolding and support as a way to encourage husband’s engagement.

  • Allow space for partner to bond with baby, make mistakes, and figure out personal ways to care for baby.

  • Assert needs and feelings to partner.

What therapists can do…

  • Help couples who are expecting a child to discuss their coparenting strategies, such as how they will approach conflict and other communication skills.

  • Encourage active discussion of expectations and values around parenting and childrearing before the baby is born.

  • Encourage active discussion about how to best support each other during the transition to parenthood.

  • Bring in psychoeducation about the challenges and benefits of successful coparenting.

  • Discuss harms of triangulation with other family members and encourage partners to discuss parenting challenges with each other.

How can Doulas help?

Studies developed about Labor Doula services reported that families feel they receive positive and valuable support. The same support a Labor Doula provides to a family during the birth of their child easily relates to the work of a Postpartum Doula. At High Country Doulas we provide Postpartum services such as breast and bottle feeding help, providing new parenting skills and information, and receiving practical help right in your home. Take a look at postpartum testimonials and services from our website.

With a Postpartum Doula, the transition and stress to parenthood can be lessened through relieving some of the baby duties of feeding, changing, or providing a break to support one’s own self-care. Our team also understands the emotions of the postpartum time, are often a supportive listening ear & always offer confidential non-judgmental care.

At High Country Doulas, we want to help you and your family through all stages of parenthood whether you are a new parent, just added a new bundle of joy to the family, or wanting to navigate your second, third, or fourth addition!

For further and more in-depth information about this study check out Anna Sheedy & Laura Gambrel’s article in The American Journal of Family Therapy here.

References

Bonds, D. D., & Gondoli, D. M. (2007). Examining the process by which marital adjust- ment affects maternal warmth: The role of coparenting support as a mediator. Journal of Family Psychology, 21(2), 288–296. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.21.2.288

Feinberg, M. E. (2002). Coparenting and the transition to parenthood: A framework for prevention. Clinical Child and Family Psychology Review, 5(3), 173–195.

Feinberg, M. E. (2003). The internal structure and ecological context of coparenting: A framework for research and intervention. Parenting: Science and Practice, 3(2), 95–131. doi:10.1207/S15327922PAR0302_01

Holland, A. S., & McElwain, N. L. (2013). Maternal and paternal perceptions of coparent- ing as a link between marital quality and the parent-toddler relationship. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(1), 117–126. doi:10.1037/a0031427

Kolak, A. M., & Volling, B. L. (2013). Coparenting moderates the association between first- born children’s temperament and problem-behavior across the transition to siblinghood. Journal of Family Psychology, 27(3), 355–364. doi:10.1037/a0032864

Morrill, M. I., Hines, D. A., Mahmood, S., & Cordova, J. (2010). Pathways between mar- riage and parenting for wives and husbands: The role of coparenting. Family Process, 49(1), 59–73. doi:10.1111/j.1545-5300.2010.01308.x

Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., & Mangelsdorf, S. C. (2013). Parent characteristics and early copar- enting behavior at the transition to parenthood. Social Development, 22(2), 363–383. doi:10.1111/sode.12014

Sheedy, A. & Gambrel, L. (2019). Coparenting negotiation during the transition to parenthood: A qualitative study of couples’ experiences as new parents. The American Journal of Family Therapy. doi: 10.1080/01926187.2019.1586593

Van Egeren, L. A. (2004). The development of the coparenting relationship over the transi- tion to parenthood. Infant Mental Health Journal, 25(5), 453–477. doi:10.1002/ imhj.20019

Xuereb, R. B., Abela, A., & Spiteri, G. (2012). Early parenting; portraits from the lives of first-time parents. Journal of Reproductive and Infant Psychology, 30(5), 468–482. doi:10.1080/02646838.2012.744961

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