Having Children Adds Stress to Marriage

But the kids aren't solely to blame. Here are 3 ways for parents to keep their marriage on track.

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Having a baby is not the ticket to marital bliss. Indeed, 90 percent of couples say the quality of their relationship declined after their first child was born. That should come as no surprise to all of us who have been through the first-baby blues, what with sleep deprivation, the anxiety of getting the parent thing right, and being home alone all day with someone whose favorite activity is chewing on Pat the Bunny.

"One of the things that is important to realize is that couples who have children are not worse off than couples who don't," says Galena Rhoades, a psychologist and senior researcher at the University of Denver who is a coauthor, along with Brian Doss of Texas A&M University, of a report in the current Journal of Personality and Social Psychology that details just how great a toll children take on marriage. She and her colleagues followed 218 couples over eight years and found that the vast majority were less happy with their marriage after becoming parents. About 15 percent of fathers and 7 percent of mothers ended up more satisfied with their marriage after the birth of a child. "Marital satisfaction decreases over time. It just decreases faster around the time a baby is born." OK, so it's not all Junior's fault. But clearly, many of us—make that most of us—struggle with the demands of parenthood. And marriage suffers as a result. Here are 3 ways to avoid the new-baby blues:

  • Remember you are a couple. Work on improving your relationship and spending time together, even when there's a new baby in the house. "It would be a great rule to maintain having a date once a week together," Rhoades says. "Even if it's a small thing you can do: Once a day, while baby's asleep, you have 10 minutes together when you just talk as friends. Or maybe every couple of days, you get to go for a walk together. It doesn't have to be an extravagant date night. It's just time when you get to connect as a couple."
    • Be clear about who's going to do which tasks, whether it's child care or chores. This is especially important for families in which both parents have jobs. Sometimes expectations need to change to make the family work.
      • Call on friends and extended family for backup in caring for the baby so you can devote more time to your partner.
      • The study didn't look into how things changed when second and third children entered the family, but Rhoades isn't particularly optimistic. "Some of those things will be a little easier, the roles might be clearer, but your house is more chaotic and there are more stressors."

        But the good news is that even if marriage isn't as blissful as it was in the honeymoon phase, new joys arrive—the bliss of a baby's first steps, the satisfaction of creating a stable, loving home, and the contentment of being together as a family. That's one form of happiness, the researchers say, that is powerful and positive but that has yet to be studied.

        Given the tough times, it's hard enough to take care of the kids, let alone yourself. But sometimes learning to deal with disappointment can be the best lesson of all for children; here's advice on how to help kids handle tough times. My colleague Deborah Kotz recently wrote about learning to relax by paying attention. The federal National Healthy Marriage Resource Center has good information on preparing for a baby and rekindling romance after children. And its Two of Us website addresses parenting, job loss, and challenges that can crumple couples.