By Kaitlyn Adare
This post is a summary of our paper: Vannier S. A., Adare K., & Rosen N. (2018). Is it me or you? First-time mothers’ attributions for postpartum sexual concerns are associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction in the transition to parenthood. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 35, 577-599.
Having a baby can pose challenges to new mothers regarding their sexual and relationship wellbeing. Not only is a lack of desire or time for sex common (1), many new moms describe feeling less satisfied with their relationship with their partner (2). This can have a negative impact on both the romantic relationship (3) and the mother-child relationship (4).
We know a lot about physical risk factors for postpartum sexual problems, such as tearing during vaginal delivery, breastfeeding, and postpartum depression (1), but what about psychological risk factors? We wanted to examine a psychological model called attributions theory to see if it could help us identify women who are more likely to be dissatisfied with their sex life and romantic relationship after having a baby.
So what is attributions theory? It is a model that describes the way an individual perceives the cause of an event. This model says that people can perceive causality in four ways. First, internal vs. external: the individual feels the problem stems from herself (internal) or the situation (external). Second, stable vs. unstable: the cause of the problem will be present in the future (stable) or is unlikely to recur (unstable). Third, global vs. specific: the problem extends to all areas of her life (global) or relates only to the given situation (specific) (5). Fourth, partner responsibility: the partner is or is not cause of the problem. Prior research has shown that internal, global, stable and partner responsibility attributions have more negative outcomes such as depression or relationship dissatisfaction (6, 7).
In this study, we examined whether new mothers’ attributions for postpartum sexual concerns were associated with sexual and relationship satisfaction. Our hypothesis was that internal, global, stable and partner responsibility attributions would be linked with lower sexual and relationship satisfaction.
What did we do?
We asked 120 first-time moms to fill out surveys that measured their attributions for postpartum sexual changes, and sexual and relationship satisfaction. We also gathered information about other things that might influence sexual and relationship wellbeing such as demographics, labour and delivery characteristics, breastfeeding, depression, fatigue, and frequency of sexual activity; we wanted to make sure that these things weren’t actually driving our results!
What did we find?
- New moms who made stable and partner responsibility attributions had lower sexual satisfaction.
- New moms who made partner responsibility attributions had lower relationship satisfaction.
- These associations did not change when we controlled for the other factors we listed above (e.g. depression, frequency of sexual activity), assuring us that our results were not being driven by those factors. Internal and global attributions were not associated with levels of sexual or relationship satisfaction.
What does this mean?
Women who felt their partner was responsible for their postpartum sexual changes were less happy with their sex life and romantic relationship. It is possible that thinking your partner is responsible for changes in your sexuality affects the way your act toward them or perceive their behaviour.
Women who made stable attributions (i.e. the problem will persist in the future) also had less sexual satisfaction. Many new mothers describe a shift in their identity after their child is born and for some women it can be difficult to reconcile their maternal role with their identity as a sexual person and a partner (8). It follows that stable attributions for postpartum sexual changes, such as “Now that I am a mother I am too tired for sexual activity,” may have negative repercussions for women’s sexual satisfaction. It is also possible that mothers with more stable attributions for their sexual concerns may feel more negatively about their sexual relationship, be less attuned to their own physiological responses during sex, be less sensitive to their partner’s intimate or sexual cues, or be less likely to initiate intimate behavior, resulting in lower sexual satisfaction.
Contrary to our hypothesis, internal and global attributions were not associated with sexual or relationship wellbeing. This was the first study (to our knowledge) to look at attributions specifically in the postpartum period. Perhaps believing that the problem is stemming from herself (i.e. internal attribution) and extends to other areas of her life (i.e. global attribution) is normal in the postpartum period because there aresignificant physical and emotional changes that occur at that time in new moms and babies doimpact many aspects of a new mother’s life.
While the transition to parenthood is an exciting time, it can present challenges for sexual and relationship wellbeing. This study suggests that in women who have sexual concerns postpartum, a potentially modifiable risk factor is blaming one’s partner and believing that the problem will persist in the future. Future studies should look further at women’s attributions to determine if these directly cause sexual and relationship dissatisfaction; these attributions may be valuable predictors to target with therapies designed to improve couples’ relationships.
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 Khajehei M, Doherty M, Tilley PJ, Sauer K. Prevalence and risk factors of sexual dysfunction in postpartum Australian women. J Sex Med 2015 Jun;12(6):1415-1426.
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 Sims, K. E., & Meana, M. (2010). Why did passion wane? A qualitative study of married women’s attributions for declines in sexual desire. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy, 36, 360–380. doi: 10.1080/0092623X.2010.498727