First Mondays

By The Institute for Child Development and Family Relations, Cal State San Bernardino

Disagreement Over Becoming Parents

on October 3, 2016


The pathway to parenthood is different for everyone. Some people know early on that they want to become parents, others deliberate before deciding, and still others are ambivalent or even upset to learn that a baby is on the way. The purpose of this article is to outline factors that arise in the decision to become parents and provide research-based information about this important issue.

Ideally, partners have discussed their views on parenthood before committing to their relationship. Disagreement about whether to become parents has caused many breakups, some of which could have been avoided with prior discussion. For this reason, parenting views and values are thoroughly addressed in premarital counseling. However, advance discussion does not necessarily protect from disagreement down the line. People change their minds.


Drs. Carolyn and Philip Cowan, married parents and researchers, have extensively studied the transition to parenthood. They identified 4 pathways, each with varying levels of agreement about parenthood and differing levels of relationship satisfaction.

  • The planners discuss parenthood in advance and arrive at a firm decision about whether or not to have a child. This group tends to have the highest relationship satisfaction, even during the transition to parenthood. About 50% of people fall into this group.
  • The acceptance of fate couples are surprised to learn that they are expecting and with time, they calmly or enthusiastically accept it. Approximately 14% of people fall into this category. Initially, their relationship satisfaction could be adversely affected, but overall they fare as well as the planners.
  • The ambivalent couples tend to experience both positive and negative feelings about becoming parents. These mixed feelings could occur before and/or after conception. About 26% of couples fall into the ambivalent category and these partners tend to experience low satisfaction overall.
  • Yes-no couples also experience mixed emotions about becoming parents. In general, one person is enthusiastic while the other is apathetic. In heterosexual unions, it is usually (but not always) women who are interested in parenthood and men who are unenthusiastic. These partnerships are characterized by a general indecisiveness and ineffectiveness at everyday problem solving. Approximately 10% of couples fall into this category and as with the ambivalent couples, they experience low relationship satisfaction. These partners are at additional risk of breakup; many partners separate before the child turns 5 years old.

kelly-4Disagreeing about parenthood is big because it means that partners have different values and priorities. Therapy helps couple members identify and understand the underlying reasons for their feelings. Some people are fearful of becoming parents because they worry about repeating dysfunctional patterns from their families of origin. One important point is that those who can remember what it felt like to grow up in an abusive household are less likely to repeat the maladaptive behaviors. The connection to those feelings is key.

Some partners fear the loss of freedom that accompanies parenthood. Certainly many things are easier before children come along such as going out for dates, having time and energy for intimacy, traveling, and visiting with friends. But the presence of children does not mean that these activities stop. They might change, but partners who are invested in maintaining their connection can (and should) actively work to prioritize the relationship. Even couples that do not have children need to work on keeping their connection strong over time; so avoiding parenthood for this reason alone is not ideal.

Ultimately, happiness is predicted by having a choice in the outcome. Whether people become parents or not, they will feel more satisfied with their relationship and life if they make decisions that are thoughtful, deliberate, and aligned with their values.


About the Author




Dr. Kelly Campbell is an Associate Professor of Psychology and Human Development at California State University, San Bernardino (CSUSB). Her research interests focus on romantic relationships, friendships, health, and racism. Her research has been featured on NBC television, CBS radio, NPR, and in publications such as the Wall Street Journal and The Huffington Post.


kellylogo Dr. Campbell hosts an interactive, call-in radio show called “Let’s Talk Relationships” If you have a question about this article or any relationship question, consider calling in or submitting your question online through the show’s Facebook page: @JustRelationships. The show airs from 3-4pm on Fridays in the middle of each month including Oct. 14, Nov. 18, and Dec. 16. It can be accessed through the Coyote Radio app, iTunes Radio, or by visiting and selecting “Listen Now!” Archived episodes can be accessed on Sound Cloud.





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