Expectant Parents, Relationship Conflicts and Stress

Jerry Kennard Health Pro
  • The discovery that a new baby is on its way may stir up a whole range of emotions, particularly for first time parents. The timing of the pregnancy and whether it was expected is certainly one factor, but as the realization of potential loss of earnings, financial outlay and childcare costs begin to take hold, levels of stress may start to rise. Maternal stress has been linked to potential health problems for mother and child, but relationship conflicts may also influence the future wellbeing of the couple.


    Chronic arguing seems to be a feature of some relationships but its effects differ in men and women for a variety of reasons. Researchers at Penn State have studied recovery from conflict in couples expecting their first baby. They found that the level of hostility expressed during conflict influences both stress reaction and recovery time differently in men and women, but that other factors, such as individual difficulties, anxiety and chronic relationship conflict also have a bearing.

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    One hundred and thirty eight newly expectant parents were recruited to the study and were invited to complete questionnaires regarding their relationship, their personal qualities, wellbeing and attitudes. Interviews were then videotaped in their own homes, first on topics other than their relationship, then on three topics perceived as problems within the relationship (e.g. money, chores). Saliva samples were collected both during and after the conflict discussion in order to measure levels of the stress hormone cortisol.


    The results of the study revealed that the more hostility expressed within a discussion the more levels of cortisol increased in men. Levels in pregnant women however were not linked to amounts of hostility. Recovery from conflict, as measured by assessing cortisol 20 minutes after the discussion, showed no differences between men and women with low levels of anxiety. In cases where men and women had higher levels of anxiety, men showed slower recovery than women. A similar pattern was seen in couples that showed high levels of chronic, unresolved conflict.


    A possible confounding issue with these results, noted by the research team, is that cortisol levels in pregnant women are naturally higher. Even so, the results do point to a situation where all men, regardless of anxiety levels, find hostility stressful. Higher levels of anxiety are associated with more persistent and elevated stress levels, yet generally anxious women experienced more prolonged stress when there were lower levels of negativity and hostility expressed during discussions. The team speculate that such women may, “find the airing of differences, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring that the couple is engaging with each other.” Research findings appear in the October edition of the British Journal of Psychology.



    Penn State (2012, October 17). Men, women have different stress reactions to relationship conflict. ScienceDaily. Retrieved October 26, 2012, from http://www. Sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/10/12101718355.htm.

Published On: October 27, 2012