Even the strongest relationship can be tested by bringing babies into the mix. After all, everything changes. Psychology professor Matthew D Johnson, author of Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex, and Marriage, has spent over 30 years researching relationships.
He says: “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 decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples.”
One such study, “Parenthood and Happiness”, published in Social Indicators Research, reviewed the attitudes towards parenthood and childlessness. The study found that “people tend to believe that parenthood is central to a meaningful and fulfilling life, and that the lives of childless people are emptier, less rewarding, and lonelier, than the lives of parents.” However, the research also found that people are “better off” without having children, due to the various costs of parenting: be it emotional or physical. The study reveals that parents “confer rewards in terms of meaning, rather than happiness.”
Another study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, looked at the effect of the birth of the first child, on the relationship over the course of the first eight years of marriage. The study found that “compared with pre-birth levels and trajectories, parents showed sudden deterioration following birth on observed and self-reported measures of positive and negative aspects of relationship functioning.” These variables were small to medium in size, and tended to then persist throughout the study period. Both mothers and fathers showed similar amounts of change.
The first year of parenting is believed to be the most challenging and stressful on a relationship, as new parents need to deal with everything from raising a baby, to the sharing of duties and work schedules to disrupted sex and sleep.
As Johnson shares: “It seems obvious that adding a baby to a household is going to change its dynamics. 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.”
Dr Gary Chapman, author of The 5 Love Languages, adds that couples frequently struggle with the new dynamic of their relationship once they become parents. “There is no question that having a baby greatly changes the dynamics between husband and wife.”
He explains that raising children is a joint venture that requires communication, understanding, love and a willingness to compromise. He is also quick to warn, “couples who have not developed these attitudes and skills before the baby arrives will not find them automatically emerging upon the arrival of their child.” He adds: “Don’t expect a baby to create a good marriage – that is not the responsibility of a child. Children do not create problems in a marriage; they only reveal them.”
However, even those in stable, happy relationships may battle in the beginning. “They spend so much time being ‘good parents’ that they let their relationship grow stale. This staleness does not happen overnight and often is not a result of open conflict. Rather, the slow erosion of intimacy caused by a lack of quality time, expressions of love and heartfelt communication.”
Play together; stay together
Andrew G Marshall, renowned marital therapist, and author of I Love You But You Always Put Me Last: How to Childproof Your Marriage, suggests that “Although bringing up the next generation is possibly the most fulfilling and life-affirming thing anyone can do, babies and small children do seem to have a mission to destroy everything they come into contact with, from your clothes and furniture, to your nerves, sex life and sometimes even your marriage.” He cautions that it is easy to get caught up in being the best parents you can be, that you tend to drop down in each other’s list of priorities.
Three ways to child-proof your marriage:
- Put your relationship first. Andrew shares that if you always put your children first, you will not have any time or energy for your partner, and may take your relationship for granted. This could result in you both feeling resentment. “A happy marriage means happy children. Chapman concurs. “Recognise that a loving marriage is one of the greatest gifts you can give your children – and yourself. So, why not begin by deciding to put your marriage on the front burner?”
- Be a “good-enough” parent. Marshall explains that perfectionism in parenting can be destructive as we are driven by guilt to provide that perfect childhood. Real life isn’t perfect, its messy. And it’s important that we give our children the opportunity and skills to cope with life in the real world.
- Don’t be afraid to say that you have needs, too. Identify these needs, communicate them, seek to understand each other’s point of view and respect each other. Chapman suggests that you make a list of five things that you think will improve your marriage. “Evaluate these five options by placing the words ‘realistic’, ‘unrealistic’ and ‘maybe’ beside each word on your list. Talk about your lists with each other, and then see if you can agree on at least one thing from each list that you will attempt to do this week.”
Hug it out
New research shows that those who hug (or are hugged) are less likely to experience a bad mood after a disagreement, compared to those who don’t hug. The study, published in PLOS ONE, found that when people had experienced conflict, they experienced a small increase in their overall positive emotions and a smaller decrease in their negative feelings, when they had received one or more hugs that day. And even better, both men and women experienced a similar result. Next time you are grumpy with your partner – hug it out!
Kim Bell is a wife, mother of two teenagers and a lover of research and the way words flow and meld together. She has been in the media industry for over 20 years, and yet still learns more about life from her children everyday.