It’s a common experience, but not one that everyone talks about: you had a wonderfully romantic relationship before getting married and you have a wonderfully romantic relationship after getting married. Then you add kids to the mix and everything’s a little more stressful, less romantic, and less satisfying in your marriage.
This experience is so common that it’s practically universal, yet it’s not commonly discussed when people talk about having children. In fact, many couples expect that adding children to the mix will bring them closer together, and that may happen in some ways, but often not in the ways that a couple may expect. Here’s what the research has found.
The Stress of Children
While we don’t want this to be true, a large proportion of people find that children create a significant amount of stress to their relationship, particularly when the kids are young. According to researcher Matthew Johnson of Binghamton University in his book, “Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex, and Marriage,” research shows that this is commonplace and that there is also a decrease in relationship satisfaction following the birth of the first child. This dip in happiness doesn’t go away until after children leave the nest, and by that time, many couples have divorced or drifted apart. Here are some more specifics:
* Children add stress to a marriage and that marital satisfaction decreases sharply when kids become part of the relationship. Interestingly, this also happens to unmarried couples, so marriage itself is not the culprit in relationships that go stale.
* Children create stress for parents as individuals, as well as the couple as a unit. Perhaps not surprisingly, mothers take on the lion’s share of childcare in most relationships. Also not surprisingly, this stress hits mothers in particular pretty hard. Most women’s other relationships deteriorate to a degree as their bond with their children grows stronger.
* The stress of children is universal. It’s not isolated to certain social classes or even to specific countries or regions of the world.
Factors That Create Stress
There are many factors that go into this dip in satisfaction, and they are not the same for everyone. However, certain stressors hit many parents are particularly taxing on a relationship and an individual. The following stressors are particularly challenging.
Less time together: When couples have a child, they are often surprised by the amount of work it takes to raise a baby, and the toddler years are labor-intensive as well. Because of the intensive caretaking required and the fact that any alone time that occurs during the baby’s waking hours requires the use of a sitter, couples naturally find themselves with less time to spend together, and usually less energy to devote to one another when they do find the time. This can obviously take a toll on the connection they feel as they’re less free to spontaneously have fun, or enjoy leisurely days together, even on the weekends.
Less time for oneself: When parents have too little sleep and too little time to take care of their own needs (as often happens with a new baby or a high-needs toddler), they can become more stressed and difficult to be around. When one or both partners are not functioning at their best, particularly if this lasts for q prolonged amount of time, it can take a toll on the relationship.
Greater demands placed on the partnership: When a child enters the relationship, couples need to divide up responsibilities in caretaking, even if both agree that the bulk of the work should fall on the shoulders of one parent while the other focuses more on earning money. This can lead to a feeling that the couple is more of a functional partnership than a romantic partnership as couples begin to feel a little more like roommates than soulmates. Because of these additional demands and the negotiation that’s needed, there’s a greater chance of conflict.
Different responsibilities and different expectations: Additionally, when partners have different responsibilities, it’s possible for one or the other to feel resentful if they feel they’re working harder; without a frame of reference for what the other partner is dealing with, it’s easier for new parents to feel that they should be handling things differently and feel frustrated as a result.
Not everyone experiences the following challenges, but they can put a particular strain on a family. These are special circumstances that create significant additional stress:
* A high-needs temperament
* Health challenges, including physical and mental health issues
* Extreme financial strain
* A lack of practical support
The Good News
The good news is that, although some studies show that marital satisfaction doesn’t rise significantly until children leave the nest, having children is worth the effort in other ways.
Children enhance our altruism: Other research shows that giving to others and expressing altruism is beneficial for our overall wellbeing, and having children certainly provides opportunities to give of ourselves.
Children reduce the likelihood of divorce: While new parents may feel less happy, they are also less likely to divorce following children. This may be because they are more motivated to keep their partnership together for the sake of their children, but the increased commitment can help them weather the challenges they face and maintain their connection until happier times return.
Parents themselves say it’s worth it: While these challenges can be difficult for a couple to face, virtually all parents say the sacrifices they make are worth it and they couldn’t (or wouldn’t want to) imagine their lives without their kids. They say their children bring their life meaning. This can bring significant benefits as research shows that those who have meaning in their lives tend to be happier.
What You Can Do to Manage the Stress
If you’re feeling stressed or that there is some strain on your relationship, you’re not alone and you’re not necessarily doing something wrong. There are many things you can and should do to safeguard your own happiness and your connection to your partner. Managing the stress you face as parents can help you to preserve the happiness you’ve had, and to build more positive feelings and experiences from here on. You don’t need to wait until your children leave home in order to raise your feelings of marital happiness; the following suggestions can help significantly.
Find Social Support
Your partner isn’t the only one who can help you to increase your relationship bliss. Family members, friends, and even people you hire can help you to stress less and enjoy your time together more. Here are some ideas to keep things happier.
* Nurture your relationship with your partner
* Create a supportive circle of people who can help you, if possible
* Create an emotional support system
* Find ways to minimize social stress: competitive moms, unsolicited advice, your own tendency for social comparison
* Eliminate toxic situations whenever possible
Practice Extreme Self Care
It is important for you to take care of yourself and your own needs, and not just those of your children. What may feel like “extreme” self-care might simply be considered a normal amount of self-care to someone without children depending on them for care as well. Whatever you call it, it’s important to keep your body in good shape so you have the physical and emotional stamina to do what needs to be done.
* Get enough sleep
* Eat balanced meals
* Find some time for yourself whenever possible—set aside time to do nothing if you can, but even running errands alone can help
It is also important to get help if you need it. This help may take the form of a marriage counselor, an individual therapist, or even just a babysitter who can help take some of the pressure off and allow you to be your old selves again.
Be sure to enjoy all of the things you were looking forward to when you were looking forward to children, and remind yourself that there may be sacrifices, but it’s worth the effort. Savoring your good times with your partner and children is the best way to be sure the challenges and stresses don’t weigh down your relationship. In the end, your relationship and your life are what you make of them.
By Elizabeth Scott, MS