First-time dads face bigger relationship hurdles than second-time dads, study finds

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First-time dads face bigger relationship hurdles than second-time dads, study finds

In a recent study published in the journal PLOS One, researchers assessed relationship satisfaction (RS) of first- and second-time fathers from the Dresden Study of Parenting, Work and Mental Health (DREAM) cohort using the Partnership Questionnaire and multiple regression modeling. Their results made it clear that first-time fathers showed more drastic reductions in RS and more drastic durations to “return” to normal relationships during the transition to parenthood than their second-time counterparts. Given that this trend coincides with previous research on first-time mothers, this research suggests that couples expecting their first child should prepare to meet anticipated relationship challenges.

survey: Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood among fathers. Image credit: Ground Photo

Parenting and its impact on relationships

Along with finding true meaning in life, satisfying relationships have been identified as the primary purpose of individual life. Positive relationship satisfaction (RS), characterized by partners’ high affective involvement in each other’s lives and share of shared life experiences, has been shown to be negatively influenced by the transition to parenthood (both first and second time).

Research has revealed that the quality of a partner’s relationship can have a devastating impact on their mental health, thereby increasing symptoms of depression in both fathers and mothers. Relationship discord also adversely affects mental health treatment, with a corresponding increase in substance abuse. Hypotheses for these observations include a reduction in intimacy or intercourse, reorganization of the family structure, new family roles and associated adjustment stress, sleep deprivation due to the newborn, and the additional financial burdens the child carries. They are hypothesized to reduce attention between partners and cause a decline in RS.

RS decline is associated with multiple disadvantages, including reduced commitment to parenting, weaker parent-offspring bonding, and deterioration in parental mental health. Some of these disadvantages can extend to the baby, with research identifying a higher risk for mental health in children raised in an environment of parental conflict. Conversely, improved RS is associated with improved personal-social development in children.

Previous research on RS has focused on first-time mothers, with fathers largely ignored. Furthermore, these studies were unable to distinguish between first- and second-time parents, preventing comparisons between these cases. Study sample sizes have also thus far been limited, with most studies limited to cohorts from the United States (US). Given that evidence suggests that subsequent pregnancies after the first have a reduced impact on maternal stress, potentially due to acclimation and preparation, studies examining the impact of RS in first and second parenthood are essential.

About the research

“…the present study directs the focus on fathers and their family system experiences with the following research questions: (I) How do first-time and second-time fathers’ RS trajectories develop across the transition to parenthood? (II) Do age, education, income, relationship duration, marital status, child biological sex, or child temperament predict RS during the transition to parenthood?’

A subset of data from the Dresden Study of Parenting, Work and Mental Health (DREAM), an ongoing prospective data set, was used for this study. DREAM included a large (n = 3860) number of expectant mothers (n = 2243) and fathers (n = 1617) aimed at understanding the relationships between parenting role allocation, stress, work involvement, and family outcomes (perinatal and long-term mental and somatic health). Inclusion and exclusion criteria for the present study were derived from the Journal Article Reporting Standards (JARS) guidelines.

Male participants were recruited in and around Dresden, Germany, between June 2017 and December 2020. Data were collected at four time points, T1-T4. T1 was prenatal, collected two months before the baby was born, while T2–T4 were postpartum, collected eight weeks, 14 months, and 24 months postpartum, respectively. Given the current study of the DREAM dataset, fathers who did not complete T1-T4 before 31St January 2022 were excluded, resulting in a final sample of 606 participants (500 first-time fathers and 106 second-time fathers).

Data collected included RS assessed using a modified version of the Partnership Questionnaire (PFB-K), a validated instrument for measuring RS in Germany. Recorded measures were in accordance with the Dyadic Adjustment Scale (DAS), an international version of the PFB-K, and included ratings of cohesion, satisfaction, and partner consensus. The questionnaire consisted of nine questions, each scored out of three points, resulting in a total score ranging from 0 (lowest) to 27 (highest). In addition, number of children, age, education, length of relationship, income, marital status, child temperament, and biological sex were recorded as predictors.

“Of all eight predictors, five (number of children, age, education, income, and marital status) were measured at T1. Child’s biological sex and child’s temperament were assessed at T2. Relationship duration (measured by month and year of relationship initiation) was assessed at T3 and therefore calculated retrospectively for T1.

Latent growth curve fitting (LGCM), a multiple regression model, was used for analyses. Linear and quadratic latent growth were used to capture growth over time. Model fitting was performed using the chi-square test (χ2), the root mean square error of approximation (RMSEA), the Tucker-Lewis index (TLI) and the comparative fit index (CFI).

Survey results

Fathers had a mean age of 32.4 years (range 20-49), most of whom had more than 10 years of education (75%). Fewer than 50% of fathers were married to their partners, but the mean relationship duration at T1 was 7.3 years, with almost all (98.5%) of individuals living with their partners.

“There were significant differences between first-time and second-time fathers in age (t(604) = −6.039; p < .000), length of relationship (t(604) = −3.580; p < .000), and marital status ( χ2 = 6.611; p = .010)”

Descriptive analysis of RS showed that the proportion of participants with PFB-K scores of 13 or less (dissatisfied) increased significantly between T1 and T3 (T1: 5.9%; T2: 8.3%; T3: 15 .7%). Then there was an increase in PFB-K scores at T4 (9.9%), indicating that RS is reduced after birth but increases (or reverses) after the infant reaches two years of age. Intercorrelation analyzes revealed that multicollinearity, although present, was nonsignificant in the linear regression model used for first- and second-time father comparisons.

“LGCM with linear and quadratic growth factor fit the data best. First-time fathers show higher initial RS (Diffpregnancy = 2.88, SE = 0.46, p < 0.001), but experienced a steeper decline in the transition to parenthood compared to second-time fathers.'

It should be noted that first- and second-time fathers showed significant differences in the T3-T4 time period – the first group continued the trend of decreasing RS, while the second group showed improvements in RS scores, indicating a reversal of the adverse effects of parenting.


In the present study, researchers used a large group (n = 606) of fathers to assess the impact of parenthood on RS and to clarify differences between participants who were first-time or second-time fathers, respectively. Their results showed that RS among participants decreased after childbirth, with the number of children being the strongest predictor of the rate of RS reduction. First-time fathers were found to show the steepest decline, with the decline lasting the longest, up to two years after birth. In contrast, second-time fathers depicted lower magnitude and duration decreases, with an observed increase in RS scores between T3 and T4.

“Furthermore, relationship duration showed a significant relationship with initial RS values. Fathers in longer-term relationships showed lower RS ​​before birth. In this study, age, education, income, marital status, child biological sex, and temperament did not predict RS at the transition to parenthood.

These results suggest that parental experience and increased offspring independence play a vital role in determining RS in fathers. Given that first-time fathers “do the worst,” results that mirror previous research on mothers, couples expecting their first child should expect their relationship to (temporarily) hit a rocky patch and to prepare accordingly.

Journal reference:

  • Mack, JT, Brunke, L., Staudt, A., Kopp, M., Weise, V., & Garthus-Niegel, S. (2023). Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood among fathers. PLUS ONE, 18(8), e0289049,,

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