Lesbian Couples' Relationship Quality across the Transition to Parenthood

By Goldberg, Abbie E.; Sayer, Aline | Journal of Marriage and Family, February 2006 | Go to article overview

Lesbian Couples' Relationship Quality across the Transition to Parenthood


Goldberg, Abbie E., Sayer, Aline, Journal of Marriage and Family


The transition to parenthood is a time of stress for many couples. Most research on the transition to parenthood has been conducted with middle-class, heterosexual couples. The current study uses multilevel modeling to examine predictors of change in relationship quality (love and conflict) during the transition to parenthood in 29 lesbian couples. Predictors included personality variables, work context variables, social context variables, and couple characteristics. Results suggest that personality and couple characteristics were important predictors of change in love, whereas personality and expected social support were salient predictors of change in conflict. The importance of research on this key life transition for lesbian couples is discussed.

Key Words: conflict, lesbian, longitudinal, love, relationship processes, transition to parenthood.

Change in relationship quality is one of the most frequently studied aspects of the transition to parenthood. Studies of heterosexual couples have consistently documented decreased feelings of love and increased conflict across the transition (e.g., Belsky & Rovine, 1990). These changes are typically attributed to the disruption of intimacy and communication that results from the addition of a child into the marital dyad. A limitation of the research on the transition to parenthood and relationship quality has been the tendency to study average rates of change in marital quality, as opposed to variation in the pattern and extent of change. Some research has moved beyond examining central tendencies to study the prediction of individual differences in relationship change across the transition (Cox, Paley, Burchinal, & Payne, 1999). Belsky and Rovine examined patterns of change among couples whose relationship quality declined, remained stable, or increased across the transition. They found that heterogeneity in patterns of change was associated with multiple factors and that different patterns of change were largely identifiable prior to the birth. Their findings underscore the importance of examining variability within and across couples when investigating change across the transition to parenthood.

Another limitation of the transition to parenthood literature is the focus on heterosexual, middle-class couples (Cowan & Cowan, 1992). Some researchers have recognized the importance of social class as a context and have studied this transition in working-class couples (Goldberg & Perry-Jenkins, 2004). The empirical literature on same-gender couples' transition to parenthood, however, is almost nonexistent. To date, the only prospective study of lesbian couples is the National Longitudinal Lesbian Family Study (Gartrell et al., 1996, 1999), which follows 70 lesbian couples that include a comother as well as a birth mother. Findings from this study have been largely descriptive and have not examined change in many of the basic constructs that are typically studied across the transition to parenthood, such as relationship quality and mental health.

Bronfenbrenner (1988) has emphasized the role of context in development and has advocated for an interactionist approach that integrates person and context variables in predicting outcomes such as relationship quality. According to his ecological framework, individual development occurs within multiple and interacting contexts, with influences ranging from distal, macrolevel settings (culture, class) to proximal settings (family, work). Guided by this perspective, we explored whether work and nonwork contexts, as indexed by perceived support from work and family, predicted lesbians' relationship quality across the transition to parenthood, controlling for the effects of individual characteristics such as personality or couple characteristics such as prebirth levels of relationship maintenance behaviors.

Individual Characteristics and Relationship Quality

Each individual's personality characteristics play a significant role in shaping relationships with others (Daley & Hammen, 2002). …

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