Therapy on the Cutting Edge

From Partners to Parents: The Research on Interventions to Support Couples' Relationships After the Birth of the First Child and to Foster Fathers' Positive Involvement in the Family

Episode Summary

In this episode, I interview Carolyn and Phil about their decades of research on couples and the changes they experience after the birth of the first child. They discussed how Carolyn had been an elementary school teacher and was pregnant with their second child when they moved to Berkeley where Phil was starting his new job at the University of California, Berkeley. They discussed how their own life experiences led them to be interested in the effect of having children on the couple’s relationship, and created a study where couples joined a group during their third trimester of a first pregnancy, and worked together until their child was four months old. In comparison to the control group, who were not offered the couples group intervention, the couples in the groups maintained their relationship satisfaction, while the couples in the control couples with no intervention experienced a significant decrease in satisfaction, which was also reflected in studies by others that followed. The Cowans then worked with another group of couples from when their first child was making the transition to school, and followed them until the children entered high school at 14-15 years old. They discussed the exercises they used during these inventions, and how it was so significant for these couples to talk with their partners in a safe setting about the key issues in their lives and to hear others’ experiences and discover that they were not alone during these difficult times. The first two studies were with nonclinical couples in the community. Later, they received a grant to work with low-income couples who had few resources for support, which was designed to increase fathers' engagement with the mothers and their children. Once again, they found positive results in terms of the quality of the couples' relationships as partners and parents, of parenting that was less harsh, of the children having fewer troubling behaviors, and in many cases, increases in income. Phil and Carolyn explained that the majority of current grant funding is siloed, with separate funding for children, for mothers, and for fathers, and and almost no programs taking a family systems view. They feel that the lack of a systemic perspective misses opportunities to take a broader perspective on family development and to work with parents, non parental caregivers, children, and fathers, which can lead to improved outcomes for parents and children, and be more efficient and cost effective. They referenced a study they are overseeing now that has also included employment support, since this is so integral in family functioning for low-income families. Their intervention work has been replicated in the U.K., Germany, Malta, and most recently in Israel. Philip A. Cowan, Ph.D. and Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D. are clinical psychologists and professors Emeriti at University of California, Berkeley who have conducted three significant longitudinal research studies on couples relationships after the birth of the first child. They have received grants from the National Institute of Mental Health and the California Office of Child Abuse Prevention. Their three projects, the Becoming a Family Project, the Schoolchildren and Families Project, and the Supporting Father Involvement Project, which is an ongoing collaboration with Marsha Kline Pruett, Ph.D., M.S.L. ABPP at Smith College and Yale University, have studied the effects of interventions on the couples relationship, father involvement, child wellbeing and a number of other factors. Their group model for couples is being conducted throughout California, in Connecticut, Alberta Canada, England, and Malta. Carolyn and Phil Cowan received the the Distinguished Contribution to Family Systems Research award from the American Family Therapy Academy (AFTA) and the Best Research Article award, along with Marsha and Kyle Pruett, Ph.D., M.S.L. ABPP and Jessie Wong, Ph.D., from the Men in Families Focus Group of the National Council on Family Relations (NCFR). They are the authors of When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples, and there are “training the trainer” trainings in their Supporting Father Involvement program through Brazelton Touchpoints Center, which is part of the Division of Developmental Medicine at Boston Children's Hospital, a teaching hospital of Harvard Medical School.