New Parents: How empathy for your partner can be beneficial for your relationship post-baby

Posted on Nov 18, 2016

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This is a summary of our recently published paper: Rosen, Mooney,  & Muise, (2016). Dyadic Empathy Predicts Sexual and Relationship Well-Being in Couples Transitioning to Parenthood. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2016.1208698

By Kayla Mooney

Having a baby is often an exciting time for a couple; however, the transition to parenthood can also bring new emotions and stressors that a couple has never faced before. New parents are transitioning from being just partners, to now being partners and parents. You may notice that you start to view each other differently. Your stress levels are higher, you’re sleep-deprived, and there’s less time to spend together as a couple. Some prior research has shown that this transition may also lead to:

  • Increased conflict within your relationship and lower overall satisfaction with your relationship.
  • Decreased sexual desire, frequency of sexual activity, and lower sexual satisfaction.

We don’t want to alarm you, though: not all couples experience these declines. In fact, approximately 1/3 to 1/2 of couples don’t see a decline in their relationship satisfaction, and some couples even report increases in their relationship satisfaction when becoming parents! But, if you do notice some of these changes, rest assured that you are not alone. New research has shown that aspects of new parents’ personality may help protect against some of these changes, and may even help improve the adjustment to new parenthood!

Recent research by Dr. Natalie Rosen and colleagues suggests that one important key to protecting your romantic and sexual relationship post-baby is to express empathy towards your romantic partner. In this context, empathy refers to your ability to understand your partner’s point of view, and feel compassion as a result of your partner’s experiences. In Dr. Rosen’s study, the researchers found that greater empathy can be beneficial for both you and your partner during the transition to parenthood.

Here’s a brief summary of what the study found:

  • When women and men reported higher empathy, they were also more satisfied with their sexual and romantic relationships.
  • Reporting higher empathy was not only beneficial for the self, but also for one’s partner: women and men who reported higher empathy also had partners who were more satisfied with their sexual and romantic relationships.
  • When women demonstrated higher empathy, they also tended to experience higher sexual desire.
  • One surprising, seemingly contradictory finding, was that women with more empathic partners reported lower sexual desire. It’s possible that this is because women who experience lower desire actually elicit more empathy from their partners (in other words, it’s not that empathy leads to lower desire, but the other way around).

Showing more concern for your partner, and trying to view things from their point of view, may help you talk about your sexual relationship more openly, which can help improve your own and your partner’s satisfaction with both your sex life and relationship. Similarly, when partners are more empathic it can help you both feel that you’re facing parenthood together as a unit – this not only helps you cope with the novel stressors that we talked about earlier (like sleep deprivation), but can help improve your satisfaction with your relationship!

Even though partner empathy was linked to lower sexual desire in mothers, this doesn’t mean you should be less empathic as a partner. It is also possible that when new mothers experience lower sexual desire their partners are more likely to respond with empathy. Because the researchers did not follow couples over time it is not possible to determine whether empathy leads to lower desire or if lower desire elicits greater empathy. And, as the study showed, empathy can be very beneficial for your relationship and sex life, so this one finding should be interpreted with caution until more research is done on the topic.

To read more about this study take a look at some recent media coverage by the CBC.

Image credit: Flickr user PedroCancion