Research shows that having children drastically affects a marriage — often for the worse. Understanding why is essential to recalibrating your relationship.
The first year after Lilah was born was a bumpy one for Ben and Taylor. They had to learn how to navigate the new landscape of parenting. More daunting, they had to figure out their marriage, and how to transition from being a couple to being a family.
“Having a newborn changes everything in your life, including your relationship,” says Taylor, a public relations director in San Francisco. “You and your partner are in straight-up survival mode, operating on no sleep and thinking about nurturing your relationship doesn’t even come into it because you are literally fantasizing about sleep the way people fantasize about intimacy.”
As any parent knows, stress and sleeplessness can extend beyond the newborn phase and put strain on a marriage. Dave and his wife, Julie, struggled with sleep deprivation when their son, Gabe, stopped sleeping through the night when he was between six- and eight-months-old. After sleep training helped resolve that problem, the couple says they essentially “lost a whole year” dealing with a “threenager” when Gabe turned three. Those difficult stretches, Dave says, don’t make marriage any easier.
It does, however, get better: “The more independent Gabe becomes, the more we can focus on each other and maintain a close connection,” Dave says of Gabe, who’s now nine. “Overall I would say we are closer because now we share two bonds: love for each other and joint love of our son.”
The Lows And Highs Of Marriage After Kids
Dave and Taylor both say that having a child ultimately strengthened rather than hurt their marriages. This, however, puts them in the minority. Research concerning what happens to a marriage after having kids has been discouraging to say the least, beginning with E.E. LeMasters’ well-known 1957 study. It found that for 83 percent of couples, the arrival of their first child constitutes a marital “crisis.”
Despite decades of research concluding more or less the same, the issue of whether children help or hurt a marriage is still a matter of debate.
A few studies have attempted to contradict LeMasters’ downer of a conclusion, including one in 1975 in which the authors seemed alarmed that the footloose, child-free lifestyle gaining in popularity might have an extreme impact on fertility rates in the U.S.
University of California, Los Angeles, researcher Judith Blake noted that the women in the study who said they expected to remain childless throughout their lives rose from .04 percent in 1967 to four by 1976. She wrote that although children were no longer economically necessary to a family, they were nevertheless “socially instrumental.” (The alarm seems unwarranted, considering that today’s figures are not much higher: Among women 15 to 44 in the U.S., 7.4 were childless by choice 2011 to 2015, according to the Centers for Disease Control.)
Married people who have kids, in fact, are happier than unmarried people raising children, and their happiness quotient appears to increase with each subsequent child, according to a study published more recently, in 2009.
But, in terms of how kids affect marriage, the negative studies outnumber the positive. The adjustment to parenthood can be even more difficult for black couples, a 1977 study concluded. In general, however, people are less romantic with each other after becoming parents, another study found, and researchers noted in a 2011 paper that despite persistent perceptions that childlessness leads to lonely, meaningless, and unfulfilled lives, most studies suggest child-free people are happier.
In their longitudinal study of first-time parents, University of California, Berkeley, researchers Philip A. Cowan and Carolyn Pape Cowan summarize three broad conclusions that decades of research has suggested for how children negatively impact a marriage: Childbearing and childrearing years are times during which marital satisfaction tends to decline, mothers and fathers are more likely than the childless to experience depression and “…with very few exceptions…studies have shown that couples who have had a first child are less satisfied with their marriages during the first postpartum year than they were in late pregnancy.”
A Difficult Transition
The Cowans’ research suggests that the transition to parenthood is a period of heightened distress for both mothers and fathers. It’s not difficult to imagine how this might strain a marriage.
“Very often, the person who’s the primary caretaker for children gets really involved in the child’s life, and the other person feels jealous,” says Lisa Schuman a licensed clinical social worker in New York City. “As time goes on, that gets harder. The caretaker’s emotional resources are stretched, and if they don’t commit to their partners, the relationship can dissipate.”
Another common explanation for postpartum strife, as the authors of a 1985 study published in the Journal of Marriage and Family found, are “violated expectations” about parenthood. Researchers had parents fill out questionnaires about their expectations about parenthood and then followed up with the same questions three and six months postpartum. Parents who reported the largest gap between their pre-baby expectations and the realities about parenthood were the least happy. Well-educated parents tended to be less surprised about life after baby and didn’t report the same plunge in life satisfaction after having children.
Mismatched expectations are a plausible contributor to why having children statistically tends to lead to marital dissatisfaction. “However, I don’t think expectations are all of it,” says Brian D. Doss, Ph.D., marriage and family researcher, associate professor of psychology at the University of Miami and author of Reconcilable Differences. “Couples are sleep-deprived, stressed, and putting their relationship on the back burner to care for their infant. They also have to navigate new challenges, decisions, and stressors.”
Doss followed couples who were married for eight-to-10 years to study the changes in their relationships after they became parents, and the results weren’t pretty: About 90 percent of couples said they felt less happy in their relationships after having a child. Sixty percent said they were less confident they could work through their problems, and many reported lower levels of dedication to their relationships long term. Couples said they also experienced more negative communication and more problems in the relationship after having children.
Relationship researcher Matthew D. Johnson, Ph.D., chair and professor of psychology at Binghamton University in New York has seen similar trends among new parents in his own work.
“I don’t want to be a buzzkill or discourage people from having children, but we need to go into this with our eyes open,” Johnson says. “It’s taxing and vexing — children at any age use lot of resources and leave your depleted.”
What’s more, becoming a parent is a big, sudden shift in identity, as both an individual and part of a couple.
“It’s not so much about being tired, it’s more about identity,” Johnson says. “There is more to do and coordinate and less room for couple-oriented activities.”
The strain on a relationship can increase along with the learning curve for new parents. An incredible amount of focus is required to parent, Johnson says, particularly when parenthood is a completely new experience. As an example, he describes a dad he counseled who thought it was okay to take a nap with his 3-year-old running around the house unsupervised. When the toddler was found nearly dangling out a window, the man’s wife was understandably appalled.
Per Doss, research supports the idea that more parenting education could help a lot of couple’s weather storms and their children. “There is good evidence that interventions focused on improving couples post-birth co-parenting can buffer couples from declines in relationship satisfaction,” he says. “There is also a separate body of work showing that interventions focused on the relationship can also buffer couples from post-birth declines.”
What Helps Couples Stay True
Dave says he “didn’t know what the hell he was doing” when he first became a father but also says he’s skeptical about whether education before Gabe’s birth could have really prepared him for what was to come. Feeling like Julie was the right partner for him, however, was crucial in his decision to even become a parent, he says.
“My guess is that couples who really get closer after the birth of the first baby do a lot of shared co-parenting and have a lot of their identity involved in being a parent, rather than work or other sources of identity,” Doss says when asked why we all know many couples who seem deliriously happy after having a kid despite the dire statistics about becoming parents. “It’s definitely possible, it’s just not the norm.”
In fact, once you get to a certain point in a marriage, kids are more likely to keep couples together, notes Brittany Carswell, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in Tampa, Florida.
“But couples who get divorced within those first seven years, those are the ones who are falling into the statistics you’re talking about. They just give up,” Carswell says. “Based on [the research of acclaimed relationship expert John Gottman], many of those first-seven-years breakups were due to the adjustments of parenting. I guess that’s because couples are not as committed yet.”
Gottman researchers have also noted philosophical shifts in people’s identity, roles, and values after having children, Carswell says. There are major changes in how couples need to divide their time and deal with conflict as parents. Lovemaking, intimacy, and even conversation tend to decline. And another tendency is for fathers to withdraw.
“All of this psychological and physical adjustment can make people react very differently,” she says. “But another thing we’ve found is that the foundation of a couple’s relationship is very predictive of how they’re going to adjust to the transition. Having a strong friendship and a healthy emotional connection are hugely important in the ability to regulate conflict.”
Taylor’s friendship with Ben is partly why their relationship has been better since the birth of Lilah, now seven. “It’s really fun for both of us to share our interests with her; that’s been a bonding thing for all of us and good for our marriage,” she says. “Whatever our occasional problems, she’s proof we’re doing something right together.”
The marital dissatisfaction numbers are so high simply because parenting is stressful, per Schuman. “But if we think about it in the context of other things that we do because we have a goal, it’s probably not that different,” she says.
Ask someone in medical school if they’re happy, and chances are they’ll say no, she says. But that doesn’t mean they don’t want to be doctors.
“You’re picking your poison: if you really want a family, you’re going to have to go through the highs and lows,” Schuman says. “But I think the highs are really high. It’s going to be stressful but the goal is worthwhile.”
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