Baby's on the Way — Are You Ready?

Conflict between expectant parents affects men and women differently

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) The impending arrival of a baby in a household can often increase the tensions as much as it might increase excitement. Knowing how conflict affects mom and dad is valuable.

A recent study found that men and women expecting a child together actually respond differently to conflicts.

Their stress levels do not increase or decrease at the same rates. Yes, men and women are different.

"Communicate with your partner."

The study, led by Mark Feinberg, PhD, of the Prevention Research Center at Pennsylvania State University, aimed to find out whether men and women responded differently during interpersonal conflict.

One of the reasons Dr. Feinberg said he did the study was to learn insights regarding possible stressors for expectant moms since stress during pregnancy has been linked to health problems for mom and child both.

The researchers recruited 138 heterosexual couples for the study, conducted in each couple's home.

All the couples were expecting their first child, and 82 percent were married.

First the couples completely separate questionnaires about their relationships, personal qualities, well-being and general attitudes.

Then the couple were videotaped while they discussed something unrelated to their relationship for 6 minutes and then discussed three problems in their relationship for 6 minutes.

The couples provided three saliva samples during the study for researchers to test their levels of the hormone cortisol, which is released when a person is under stress.

Their cortisol levels were measured before the videotaped discussions, after the discussion about relationship problems and then 20 minutes after the discussion.

Typically, cortisol levels will return to normal levels after some time after a brief conflict has passed. The researchers found that the return of normal cortisol levels occurred differently for men than women in this study.

First, the women's cortisol levels did not rise as much, proportionally, as the men's did.

The researchers hypothesized that this might have occurred because a woman's cortisol levels are already higher when she's pregnant.

The women recovered their normal levels — going back to what it had been before the videotaped discussions — more completely than men did.

Basically, the stress of the interaction lasted longer for the men than it did for the women.

However, the findings for the women were a bit more complex depending on the type of tension that was expressed during the discussions.

"Generally anxious women experienced relatively more prolonged stress when there were lower levels of negativity and hostility expressed during the discussion," Dr. Feinberg said.

"We speculate that these anxious women, as well as women in relationships of chronic arguing, find the airing of differences, even when the tone turns negative, to be reassuring that the couple is engaged with each other," he said.

"This may be particular important for women during the vulnerable period of first pregnancy."

The study was published October 12 in the British Journal of Psychology. Information regarding funding and disclosures was not available.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
October 10, 2012
Last Updated:
October 13, 2012