By Grace Schwenck

This blog is a summary of our published article: Tutelman, P. R., Dawson, S. J., Schwenck, G. C., & Rosen, N. O. (2021). A Longitudinal Examination of Common Dyadic Coping and Sexual Distress in New Parent Couples during the Transition to Parenthood. Family Process. https://doi: 10.1111/famp.12661

New parents face many adjustments, and often experience challenges with their sexual relationships, such as declines in sexual desire and frequency, compared to pre-pregnancy [1]. As such, it does not come as a surprise that in the postpartum period, new parents report heightened sexual distress or negative feelings related to their sexuality [2]. Little is known about how new parents’ sexual distress changes over the transition to parenthood, or how their ways of coping may impact their distress over time.

 

One method of coping, called common dyadic coping, happens when partners work together to handle a common stressor [3]. Engaging in common dyadic coping may be linked with lower levels of sexual distress across the transition to parenthood by promoting intimacy, trust, and closeness, in the face of a common stressor: a new baby! [4]

What did we want to know?

To learn more about how new parents may be able to cope with sexual challenges, we examined the links between common dyadic coping and sexual distress in first-time parent couples during the postpartum period. 

What did we do?

Ninety-nine first-time mothers* and their partners completed a measure of common dyadic coping at 3-months postpartum and measures of sexual distress at 3-, 6-, and 12-months postpartum in online surveys.

*For the purpose of clarity, in this blog post we refer to the women who gave birth in this study as “mothers”, and non-birth-giving partners as “partners”, although some partners in our study may also identify as mothers.

What did we find?

  • Mothers initially reported clinically elevated sexual distress which was higher than their partners’ at 3-months postpartum.
  • Mothers’ sexual distress declined significantly over time, whereas partners’ sexual distress remained low and stable over time.
  • A parent’s higher common dyadic coping was significantly associated with their own (but not their partner’s) lower sexual distress at 3-months postpartum.
  • There were no significant associations between common dyadic coping and changes in sexual distress over time.

What does this all mean?

These results suggest that, when new parents feel they are working together to manage stress, this helps alleviate distress related to novel sexual concerns they face. This may be especially important early on in the postpartum period, when most new parents are resuming sexual activity [5]. As such, common dyadic coping may be a helpful therapeutic target or coping strategy for new parents to try, when navigating changes to their sexual relationship.

The higher levels of sexual distress experienced by mothers compared to partners may be explained by the myriad of distinct changes they experience (e.g., hormonal fluctuations, changes to body image, breastfeeding, vaginal trauma) [1]. These clinically elevated levels of sexual distress experienced by mothers suggest that this may be an important topic to address in postpartum care and supports the screening of new mothers for sexual distress [6].

mother and baby laying in bed

References

[1]McBride, H. L., & Kwee, J. L. (2017). Sex after baby: Women’s sexual function in the postpartum period. Current Sexual Health Reports, 9(3), 142-149. https://doi.org/10.1007/s11930-017-0116-3

[2] Schwenck, G. C., Dawson, S.J., Muise, A., & Rosen, N.O. (2020). A comparison of the sexual well-being of new parents with community couples. The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 17(11), 2156-2167. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jsxm.2020.08.011

[3] Martos T, Szabó E, Koren R, Sallay V. (2019). Dyadic coping in personal projects of romantic partners: Assessment and associations with relationship satisfaction. Current Psychology, 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12144-019-00222-z

[4] Bodenmann, G. (2005). Dyadic coping and its significance for marital functioning. In T. A. Revenson, K. Kayser, & G. Bodenmann (Eds.), Couples coping with stress: Emerging perspectives on dyadic coping (pp. 33-50). American Psychological Association.

[5] McDonald, E., Woolhouse, H., & Brown, S. J. (2017). Sexual pleasure and emotional satisfaction in the first 18 months after childbirth. Midwifery55, 60-66. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.midw.2017.09.002

[6] Carpenter, J. S., Reed, S. D., Guthrie, K. A., Larson, J. C., Newton, K. M., Lau, R. J., … & Shifren, J. L. (2015). Using an FSDS‐R Item to Screen for Sexually Related Distress: A MsFLASH Analysis. The Journal of Sexual Medicine3(1), 7-13. https://doi.org/10.1002/sm2.53

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