-Written by Katie Little ’18
The transition to parenthood is often experienced as stressful due to personal, familial, and social demands for new parents. Many partners who experience this shift find less time to spend with each other, leading to declines in marital satisfaction. Additionally, they are faced with the task of bonding with their new babies.
One factor that has been consistently linked to bonds in both relationships between romantic partners and relationships between parents and offspring is attachment classification. Different attachment styles are associated with different beliefs about and experiences in close relationships (For more information, see: http://davidsonmaplab.com/blog/mary-ainsworth-and-the-strange-situation-procedure/ and http://davidsonmaplab.com/blog/what-does-attachment-theory-tell-us-about-romantic-love/). Generally, individuals with secure attachment are comfortable forming close relationships and trusting others. On the other hand, individuals with insecure attachment styles often show discomfort with forming close relationships (relationship discomfort) or demonstrate anxiety over whether their partners or caregivers will adequately care for them (relationship anxiety).
Attachment styles might become particularly salient in determining behaviors during the transition to parenthood because of the strain parenthood puts on the marital relationship and the additional pressure to bond with a new baby. For this reason, Alexander, Feeney, Hohaus, and Noller (2001) decided to conduct a study to determine how attachment styles could impact the coping strategies used by parents during this period.
Coping strategies are defined as patterns of thoughts or behaviors intended to manage stress. The two primary types of coping strategies are emotion-focused and problem-focused. Problem-focused coping strategies entail taking action to solve the issue at hand, and emotion-focused coping strategies entail changing one’s beliefs about a situation. Problem-focused coping is generally the more adaptive coping method because individuals who use this method see problems as within their control and fixable. Support-seeking, or asking others for advice, help, or comfort, is a combination of problem-focused and emotion-focused coping.
The researchers proposed that individuals with secure attachment would be more comfortable seeking support from others during this period and engage in more problem-focused coping strategies. On the other hand, individuals with insecure attachment might focus on emotion-focused coping because they may see the situation as out of their control and their support networks as unreliable. The researchers also proposed that parents might be influenced by their partners’ attachment styles. For example, parents who have partners relationship discomfort may have to rely more heavily on external support networks.
To test this hypothesis, the researchers recruited a group of 92 married couples who were expecting their first babies. The couples answered questions both during pregnancy and 6 months after their babies were born. Before the babies were born, the researchers asked questions to determine attachment style. After the babies were born, the researchers asked questions about coping strategies.
From the parents’ responses, the researchers found that mothers with relationship discomfort were less likely to seek out support from others. Fathers with relationship anxiety were less likely to use problem-focused coping strategies. Mothers with relationship anxiety were more likely to use emotion-focused coping strategies.
The attachment security of the parents’ partners also influenced their coping strategies. For example, fathers who had partners with relationship anxiety were less likely to seek support from others. On the other hand, fathers who had partners with relationship discomfort getting close to others were more likely to seek support from others. Fathers’ attachment styles did not affect mothers’ behaviors as much; this finding is consistent with previous research that suggests that fathers’ moods and behaviors during the transition to parenthood are heavily impacted by characteristics of their partners. Mothers’ moods and behaviors are more related to their own individual characteristics rather than their partners’ characteristics.
Overall, this study supports the idea that attachment security is a core factor in how couples cope with the transition to parenthood. The findings of this study suggest that clinicians may be able to screen expecting parents for attachment styles and help those at risk of using less adaptive coping behaviors improve their strategies. For example, individuals with insecure attachment might benefit from assistance strengthening social support networks and learning to address problems directly rather than focusing only on emotion regulation. Improving these coping skills has broad implications for the wellbeing of both parent and child.
Alexander, R., Feeney, J., Hohaus, L., & Noller, P. (2001). Attachment style and coping resources as predictors of coping strategies in the transition to parenthood. Personal Relationships, 8, 137–152.