Skip to main content

The Roles of Fathers’ Involvement and Coparenting in Relationship Quality among Cohabiting and Married Parents


Relationship quality often declines following the birth of child, likely reflecting in part the shift towards role traditionalization that occurs through gender specialization. The current study used longitudinal data from the Fragile Families and Child Well-Being Study, an urban birth cohort in 2000 consisting of structured interviews of mothers and fathers who were followed over 5 years (n = 1275), to examine whether low levels of fathers’ involvement and coparenting, two indicators of role traditionalization, were linked to negative trajectories of mothers’ and fathers’ relationship quality for couples whose first child was born in marriage or cohabitation. We carefully consider union transitions in the 5 years postpartum by including between-subjects variables indicating that the parents were continually married, continually cohabiting, were cohabiting at the child’s birth and got married after, or were cohabiting or married at the child’s birth but subsequently separated. As anticipated, both fathers’ involvement and coparenting were positively associated with parents’ reports of relationship quality, more so for mothers than for fathers and especially for cohabiting mothers, buffering the decline in mothers’ and fathers’ relationship quality that typically accompanies the birth of a child. These findings underscore the importance of the father role, not only for the well-being of the child (as we know from other research) but also for the relationship of the parents. Fathers should be encouraged and supported to take an active role in parenting through educational programs and public policy (e.g., paid paternity leave).

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.


  • Baxter, J., Hewitt, B., & Haynes, M. (2008). Life course transitions and housework: Marriage, parenthood, and time on housework. Journal of Marriage and Family, 70(2), 259–272. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2008.00479.x.

  • Bonney, J. F., Kelley, M. L., & Levant, R. F. (1999). A model of fathers’ behavioral involvement in child care in dual-earner families. Journal of Family Psychology, 13(3), 401–415. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.13.3.401.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Bratter, J. L., & King, R. B. (2008). But will it last?”: Marital instability among interracial and same‐race couples. Family Relations, 57(2), 160–171.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brines, J., & Joyner, K. (1999). The ties that bind: Principles of cohesion in cohabitation and marriage. American Sociological Review, 64, 333–355.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, S. L. (2000). Union transitions among cohabitors: The significance of relationship assessments and expectations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 62(3), 833–846. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2000.00833.x.

  • Brown, S. L. (2003). Relationship quality dynamics of cohabiting unions. Journal of Family Issues, 24(5), 583–601. doi:10.1177/0192513X03252671.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, S. L. (2005). How cohabitation is reshaping American families. Contexts, 4(3), 33–37. doi:10.1525/ctx.2005.4.3.33.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Brown, S. L., & Booth, A. (1996). Cohabitation versus marriage: A comparison of relationship quality. Journal of Marriage and Family, 58(3), 668–678. doi:10.2307/353727.

  • Carlson, M. J., & Högnäs, R. S. (2011). Coparenting in fragile families: Understanding how parents work together after a nonmarital birth. In J. P. McHale & K. M. Lindahl (Eds.), Coparenting: A conceptual and clinical examination of family systems (pp. 81–103). Washington: American Psychological Association.

    Chapter  Google Scholar 

  • Carlson, M. J., & VanOrman, A. G. (2013). Trajectories of couple relationship quality after childbirth: Does marriage matter? Fragile Families Working Paper WP13-14-FF. Retrieved from

  • Cherlin, A. J. (2010). Demographic trends in the United States: A review of research in the 2000s. Journal of Marriage and Family, 72(3), 403–419. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00710.x.

  • Cherlin, A. J., Chase-Lansdale, P. L., & McRae, C. (1998). Effects of parental divorce on mental health throughout the life course. American Sociological Review, 63(2), 239–249.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Cowan, C. R., & Cowan, E. A. (1995). Interventions to ease the transition to parenthood: Why they are needed and what they can do. Family Relations, 44, 412–423. doi:10.2307/584997.

  • Cowan, C. P., Cowan, P. A., Heming, G., Garrett, E., Coysh, W. S., Curtis-Boles, H., & Boles, A. J., III. (1985). Transitions to parenthood: His, hers, theirs. Journal of Family Issues, 6(4), 451–481. doi:10.1177/019251385006004004.

  • Crouter, A. C., Perry-Jenkins, M., Huston, T. L., & McHale, S. M. (1987). Processes underlying fathers’ involvement in dual-earner and single-earner families. Developmental Psychology, 23(3), 431–440. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.23.3.431.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Datar, A., Kilburn, M. R., & Loughran, D. S. (2010). Endowments and parental investments in infancy and early childhood. Demography, 47(1), 145–162.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • DeMaris, A., Mahoney, A., & Pargament, K. I. (2013). Fathers’ contributions to housework and childcare and parental aggravation among first-time parents. Fathering, 11(2), 179–198. doi:10.1353/dem.0.0092.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Dew, J., & Wilcox, W. B. (2011). If momma ain’t happy: Explaining declines in marital satisfaction among new mothers. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(1), 1–12. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00782.x.

  • Don, B. P., & Mickelson, K. D. (2014). Relationship satisfaction trajectories across the transition to parenthood among low‐risk parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 76(3), 677–692. doi:10.1111/jomf.12111.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Don, B. P., Biehle, S. N., & Mickelson, K. D. (2013). Feeling like part of a team: Perceived parenting agreement among first-time parents. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 30(8), 1121–1137. doi:10.1177/0265407513483105.

  • Don, B. P., Chong, A., Biehle, S. N., Gordon, A., & Mickelson, K. D. (2014). Anxiety across the transition to parenthood: Change trajectories among low-risk parents. Anxiety, Stress, and Coping, 27(6), 633–649. doi:10.1080/10615806.2014.903473.

  • Ellerbe, C. Z., Jones, J. B., & Carlson, M. J. (2014). Nonresident fathers’ involvement after a nonmarital birth: Exploring differences by race/ethnicity. Fragile Families Working Paper #WP14-07-FF. Retrieved from

  • Enders, C. K. (2010). Applied missing data analysis. New York: The Guilford Press.

    Google Scholar 

  • Feinberg, M. E. (2003). The internal structure and ecological context of coparenting: A framework for research and intervention. Parenting: Science and Practice, 3(2), 95–131. doi:10.1207/S15327922PAR0302_01.

  • Goth-Owens, T. L., Stollack, G. E., Messe, L. A., Peshkess, I., & Watts, P. (1982). Marital satisfaction, parenting satisfaction, and parenting behavior in early infancy. Infant Mental Health Journal, 3(3), 187–198. doi:10.1002/1097-0355(198223)3.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Guzzo, K. B., & Furstenberg, F. F. (2007). Multipartnered fertility among American men. Demography, 44(3), 583–601. doi:10.1353/dem.2007.0027.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Hofferth, S. L. (2003). Race/ethnic differences in fathers’ involvement in two-parent families culture, context, or economy? Journal of Family Issues, 24(2), 185–216. doi:10.1177/0192513x02250087.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Hohmann‐Marriott, B. (2011). Coparenting and fathers’ involvement in married and unmarried coresident couples. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(1), 296–309. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00805.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Howard, K. S., & Brooks-Gunn, J. (2009). Relationship supportiveness during the transition to parenting among married and unmarried parents. Parenting, 9(1–2), 123–142. doi:10.1080/15295190802656828.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • Kalmijn, M. (1999). Fathers’ involvement in childrearing and the perceived stability of marriage. Journal of Marriage and Family, 61, 409–421. doi:10.2307/353758.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Katz-Wise, S. L., Priess, H. A., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). Gender-role attitudes and behavior across the transition to parenthood. Developmental Psychology, 46, 18–28. doi:10.1037/a0017820.

    Article  PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  • King, V. (2003). The influence of religion on fathers’ relationships with their children. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 382–395. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00382.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lamb, M. E., Pleck, J. H., Charnov, E. L., & Levine, J. A. (1987). A biosocial perspective on paternal behavior and involvement. In J. B. Lancaster, J. Altmann, A. S. Rossie, & L. R. Sharrod (Eds.), Parenting across the lifespan: Biosocial dimensions (pp. 111–142). Hawthorne: Aldine.

    Google Scholar 

  • Levy-Shiff, R. (1994). Individual and contextual correlates of marital change across the transition to parenthood. Developmental Psychology, 30(4), 591–601. doi:10.1037/0012-1649.30.4.591.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Lloyd, J. E. V., Obradović, J., Carpiano, R. M., & Motti-Stefanidi, F. (2013). “JMASM 32: Multiple imputation of missing multilevel, longitudinal data: A case when practical considerations trump best practices?” Journal of Modern Applied Statistical Methods, 12(1), Article 29.

  • Lundberg, S. (2005). Sons, daughters, and parental behaviour. Oxford Review of Economic Policy, 21(3), 340–356. doi:10.1093/oxrep/gri020.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Maccoby, E. E., Depner, C. E., & Mnookin, R. H. (1990). Coparenting in the second year after divorce. Journal of Marriage and Family, 52(1), 141–155. doi:10.2307/352846.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Manning, W. D., & Brown, S. (2006). Children’s economic well‐being in married and cohabiting parent families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 68(2), 345–362. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2006.00257.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Manning, W. D., Brown, S. L., & Stykes, B. (2015). Trends in births to single and cohabiting mothers, 1980–2013. National Center for Family & Marriage Research Family Profiles, FP-15-03. Retrieved from:

  • Maurer, T. W., Pleck, J. H., & Rane, T. R. (2001). Parental identity and reflected‐appraisals: Measurement and gender dynamics. Journal of Marriage and Family, 63(2), 309–321. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2001.00309.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McBride, B. A., & Mills, G. (1993). A comparison of mother and fathers’ involvement with their preschool age children. Early Childhood Research Quarterly, 8(4), 457–477. doi:10.1016/S0885-2006(05)80080-8.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McClain, L. R. (2011). Better parents, more stable partners: Union transitions among cohabiting parents. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(5), 889–901. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2011.00859.x.

  • McClain, L. R., & DeMaris, A. (2013). A better deal for cohabiting fathers? Union status differences in fathers’ involvement. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice about Men as Fathers, 11(2), 199–220. doi:10.3149/fth.1102.199.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • McHale, J. P., Lauretti, A., Kuersten-Hogan, R., & Rasmussen, J. L. (2000). Parental reports of coparenting and observed coparenting behavior during the toddler period. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(2), 220–236. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.14.2.220.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Mitnick, D. M., Heyman, R. E., & Smith Slep, A. M. (2009). Changes in relationship satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: A meta-analysis. Journal of Family Psychology, 23(6), 848–852. doi:10.1037/a0017004.

  • Nangle, S. M., Kelley, M. L., Fals-Stewart, W., & Levant, R. F. (2003). Work and family variables as related to paternal engagement, responsibility, and accessibility in dual-earner couples with young children. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research, and Practice about Men as Fathers, 1(1), 71–90.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nock, S. L. (1995). A comparison of marriages and cohabiting relationships. Journal of Family Issues, 16(1), 53–76. doi:10.1177/019251395016001004.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Nomaguchi, K. M., & Milkie, M. A. (2003). Costs and rewards of children: The effects of becoming a parent on adults’ lives. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(2), 356–374. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00356.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Osborne, C., Manning, W. D., & Smock, P. J. (2007). Married and cohabiting parents’ relationship stability: A focus on race and ethnicity. Journal of Marriage and Family, 69(5), 1345–1366. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2007.00451.x.

  • Reichman, N. E., Teitler, J. O., Garfinkel, I., & McLanahan, S. S. (2001). Fragile families: Sample and design. Children and Youth Services Review, 23(4/5), 303–326. doi:10.1016/S0190-7409(01)00141-4.

  • Reichman, N. E., Corman, H., & Noonan, K. (2004). Effects of child health on parents’ relationship status. Demography, 41(3), 569–584. doi:10.1353/dem.2004.0026.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Romito, P., & Saurel-Cubizolles, M. (1999). What makes new mothers unhappy: Psychological distress one year after birth in Italy and France. Social Science & Medicine, 49(12), 1651–1661. doi:10.1016/S0277-9536(99)00238-5.

  • Schmeer, K. K. (2011). The child health disadvantage of parental cohabitation. Journal of Marriage and Family, 73(1), 181–193. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2010.00797.x.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Schoppe-Sullivan, S. J., Brown, G. L., Cannon, E. A., Mangelsdorf, S. C., & Sokolowski, M. S. (2008). Maternal gatekeeping, coparenting quality, and fathering behavior in families with infants. Journal of Family Psychology, 22(3), 389–398. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.22.3.389.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Shapiro, A. F., Gottman, J. M., & Carrère, S. (2000). The baby and the marriage: Identifying factors that buffer against decline in marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives. Journal of Family Psychology, 14(1), 59–70. doi:10.1037/0893-3200.14.1.59.

  • Twenge, J. M., Campbell, W. K., & Foster, C. A. (2003). Parenthood and marital satisfaction: A meta‐analytic review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 574–583. doi:10.1111/j.1741-3737.2003.00574.x.

  • Umberson, D., Chen, M. D., House, J. S., Hopkins, K., & Slaten, E. (1996). The effect of social relationships on psychological well-being: Are men and women really so different? American Sociological Review, 61, 837–857.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Volling, B. L., & Belsky, J. (1991). Multiple determinants of fathers’ involvement during infancy in dual-earner and single-earner and single-earner families. Journal of Marriage and Family, 53(2), 461–474. doi:10.2307/352912.

    Article  Google Scholar 

  • Waller, M. R. (2012). Cooperation, conflict, or disengagement? Coparenting styles and fathers’ involvement in fragile families. Family Process, 51(3), 325–342.

    Article  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  • Woodworth, S., Belsky, J., & Crnic, K. (1996). The determinants of fathering during the child’s second and third years of life: A developmental analysis. Journal of Marriage and the Family, 58(3), 679–692. doi:10.2307/353728.

Download references


An earlier version of this paper was presented at the annual meetings of the America Sociological Association in 2010 by the first author. The authors sincerely thank Alfred DeMaris for statistical consulting as well as Douglas Smith, Laura Sanchez, Kara Joyner, and Deborah Wooldridge for their helpful comments on an earlier version of the manuscript.

This research was supported in part by the National Center for Family & Marriage Research, which was funded by a cooperative agreement between the Office of the Assistant Secretary for Planning and Evaluation, DHHS (5U01AE000001) and Bowling Green State University (BGSU). Additional support was provided by the Center for Family and Demographic Research at BGSU, which has core funding from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (R24HD050959).

Author information

Authors and Affiliations


Corresponding author

Correspondence to Lauren McClain.

Ethics declarations

This research uses secondary data without identifiers. It was reviewed by the Human Subjects Review Board at BGSU and given Exempt status as it is not considered research with human subjects.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

McClain, L., Brown, S.L. The Roles of Fathers’ Involvement and Coparenting in Relationship Quality among Cohabiting and Married Parents. Sex Roles 76, 334–345 (2017).

Download citation

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:


  • Coparenting
  • Father involvement
  • Fragile families
  • Parenting
  • Relationship quality
  • Union transitions