For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive: the relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along.
Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples. The irony is that even as the marital satisfaction of new parents declines, the likelihood of them divorcing also declines. So, having children may make you miserable, but you’ll be miserable together. Worse still, this decrease in marital satisfaction likely leads to a change in general happiness, because the biggest predictor of overall life satisfaction is one’s satisfaction with their spouse.
While the negative marital impact of becoming parents is familiar to fathers and mothers, it is especially insidious because so many young couples think that having children will bring them closer together – at least, will not lead to marital distress. Yet, this belief that having children will improve one’s marriage is a persistent myth among those who are young and in love.
It seems obvious that adding a baby to a household is going to change its dynamics. And indeed, the arrival of children changes how couples interact. Parents often become more distant and businesslike with each other as they attend to the details of parenting. Mundane basics like keeping kids fed, bathed and clothed take energy, time and resolve. In the effort to keep the family running smoothly, parents discuss carpool pickups and grocery runs instead of sharing the latest gossip or their thoughts on presidential elections. Questions about one’s day are replaced with questions about whether this diaper looks full.
These changes can be profound. Fundamental identities may shift – from wife to mother, or, at a more intimate level, from lovers to parents. Even in same-sex couples, the arrival of children predicts less relationship satisfaction and sex. Beyond sexual intimacy, new parents tend to stop saying and doing the little things that please their spouses. Flirty texts are replaced with messages that read like a grocery receipt.
Despite the dismal picture of motherhood painted by researchers, most mothers (and fathers) rate parenting as their greatest joy. Much like childbirth – where nearly all mothers believe the pain and suffering was worth it – most mothers believe the rewards of watching their children grow up is worth the cost to their romantic relationships.
So, what’s a parent to do?
Here are 7 suggestions on what to do to maintain a high level of relationship satisfaction while raising children:
- Have a date night every week. It’s vital to the health of your marriage to spend time together as a couple. It doesn’t have to be a full on fancy night out. You just need to carve out some time for just the two of you to catch up. (And by the way, turn off your phones!)
- Don’t pass up on sex. If necessary, schedule sex into your calendar. At a minimum, make time for cuddling.
- Share housework. New parents often fight about the division of labor and who does what. Be proactive. Discuss this with each other and come up with a fair plan.
- Take a parenting class together. Many couples are just not on the same page when it comes to parenting. There are more decisions and usually more differences of opinion to negotiate than ever before.
- Take a relationship skills education class together. A strong marriage is much more likely to weather the stress of this transition.
- Take a Prepare and Enrich parenting assessment. This parenting assessment is designed to guide couples through the emotions of parenting by empowering them with insight into their parenting style and family dynamics.
- Focus on the positive. With the stress of parenting, we often focus on the needs of the situation, often leading to criticism shame and blame. It’s easy to focus on what your partner is doing wrong. Instead, catch them doing something right as it relates to their parenting.