Are sexual and relationship well-being tied to one another for couples in the transition to parenthood?

By Malia Artibello & Inês Tavares

This blog is a summary of our published article: Tavares I. M., Rosen, N. O., Heiman, J. R., & Nobre, P. J. (2023). Longitudinal associations between relational and sexual well-being in couples transitioning to parenthood. Family Process, 00, 1–18. famp.12859

The transition to parenthood—the period from pregnancy until 1 year postpartum—is associated with several new challenges for couples [1], which can take a toll on their relationship and their sex lives. Sexual and relational well-being are important aspects of a couple’s relationship because positive interactions between partners can help them cope with the stress and changes that arise with a new baby [2]. Relationship quality refers to one’s feelings of happiness and positive views of their relationship. Sexual well-being involves two important dimensions: a person’s sexual satisfaction (positive aspects of the sexual experience such as pleasure, arousal, and desire; [3]) and their sexual distress (negative emotions relating to sex, such as worry, frustration, or shame; [4]). In our study, we wanted to understand how new parents’ relationship quality and sexual well-being influence each other in the transition from pregnancy to postpartum.

What did we do?

We looked at 257 couples who were in a long-term relationship and were pregnant with their first child. In this study, all couples were members of a heterosexual relationship, and identified as cisgender. At different points in time between 20-weeks of pregnancy to 6 months postpartum, we asked both the mother and father to fill out self-report questionnaires about their relationship quality, sexual satisfaction, and sexual distress.

What did we find?

We found that during pregnancy, the mothers and fathers who reported better relationship quality also reported greater sexual satisfaction and lower sexual distress. Across the transition to parenthood couples experienced, on average, a decrease in relationship quality and sexual satisfaction, and an increase in sexual distress. We found that when new parents’ relationship quality was declining, so was their own and their partners’ sexual satisfaction, and this was also occurring together with increases in their own (but not their partners’ sexual distress).

These findings show an association between relationship quality and sexual distress for the individual, and an association between relationship quality and sexual satisfaction for both the individual and their partner. In other words, we generally found that if a couple experienced a decrease in relationship quality, it was associated with a decrease in sexual well-being, and vice versa. Interestingly, when mothers experienced high sexual distress during pregnancy, partners’ perceptions of their relationship quality decreased more quickly across the postpartum.

What does this mean?

The change from pregnancy to postpartum can be a difficult time for couples and can have a negative impact on their relationship and their sex lives. Since relationship quality and sexual well-being have been shown to influence each other, promoting either sexual or relational well-being in couples transitioning to parenthood will have a positive effect on both elements. The association between relationship quality and sexual well-being can be beneficial to individuals and their partners because when an individual’s relational or sexual satisfaction increases, so does their partners. Fostering a couple’s relationship quality and sexual satisfaction will help them navigate the changes that occur through pregnancy and postpartum. If couples are aware of the sexual challenges they may face during pregnancy and postpartum, these issues could be normalized, and couples could be better prepared to face these challenges when they occur.


[1] Klewer, E. (2010). From partnership to parenthood: A review of marital change across the transition to parenthood. Journal of Family Theory and Review, 2(2), 105–125.

[2] Karney, B. R., Bradbury, T. N. (1995). The longitudinal course of martial quality and stability: A review of theory, methods, and research. Psychological Bulletin, 118(1), 3-34.

[3] Pascoal, P. M., Narciso, I.deS., Pereira, N. M. (2014). What is sexual satisfaction? Thematic analysis of lay people’s definitions. Journal of sex research51(1), 22–30.

[4] DeRogatis, L., Clayton, A., Lewis-D’Agostino, D., Wunderlich, G., Fu, Y. (2008). Validation of the female sexual distress scale-revised for assessing distress in women with hypoactive sexual desire disorder. Journal of Sexual Medicine, 5, 357–364.