There is a strong belief among many people that having children makes you happier. Indeed, most young adults have plans to have children when they get older, and believe that having kids will one day make them feel more satisfied with their lives (Hansen, 2012). On top of feeling that having children makes you a happier person, there is also a common belief among adults that having kids makes a marriage stronger. But although there is some evidence that couples with kids are less likely to divorce than couples without (e.g., White & Booth, 1985), it turns out that having children might not make your marriage as happy as you might expect.
In fact, although most couples express less satisfaction overall with their marriage over time, researchers who studied 218 couples over the course of their first 8 years of marriage reported that couples who had children experienced a sharper decrease in their relationship satisfaction than couples who didn’t have kids (Doss, Rhoades, Stanley, & Markman, 2009). This decrease tended to happen right after having their first child and lasted for several years, so it isn’t just the initial transition to parenting itself that affects marriage—it’s having children in general.
A very big reason that marriage satisfaction decreases after having children is likely stress. Once a happily married couple decides to have a baby for the first time, there is suddenly an extra strain on their time, their finances, and their nerves. So what can we do to reduce stress? Although there are many stress-reducing strategies we can use to lighten the burden on our relationships, one recent study provides a simple suggestion. In a large-scale survey that spanned the United States, Canada, Denmark, and the Netherlands, researchers reported that stress was associated with decreased life satisfaction. Importantly, they also found that people who tend to spend money on services that preserve their time—cleaning services, someone to mow the lawn, or even going out to eat once in awhile—are less stressed overall, and in fact, happier (Whillans, Dunn, Smeets, Bekkers, & Norton, 2017).
These researchers went on to do an experiment that looked at whether spending money on services that save time can act to reduce stress and make people happier. They gave a group of adults money to spend ($40) on themselves for two consecutive weekends. On the first weekend, the adults were told to spend the money on something that would save them time. On the second weekend, they were told to spend the money on something for themselves, a material purchase. After each weekend, the experimenters called the adults and asked them how happy they were, and how stressed they felt. Consistent with their survey results, adults reported feeling significantly less stressed and happier after spending money on something that saved them time than on a material purchase. On top of that, there was a direct link between how stressed adults said they felt and how happy they reported to be, suggesting that the reduction in stress itself is what made these people feel happier (Whillans, Dunn, Smeets, Bekkers, & Norton, 2017).
So if you’re married or partnered with children and tend to find yourself (and your sweetheart) scrambling to find time to get things done, perhaps the perfect Valentine’s Day gift this year isn’t flowers or chocolate, it’s time. If you’re saving up for a gift, maybe spend that money on some kind of service that will free up time that you can spend together. Or if you don’t have the extra cash lying around for something like that, maybe doing something around the house that your partner usually does (e.g., cleaning, mowing the lawn, taking the kids for the day) may make your loved one less stressed and happier than whatever material thing you thought might be the perfect gift. If you’re parenting alone, perhaps give yourself the permission to relax a bit and spend time on yourself. Whatever the situation, we could all use a little bit of extra time off from our responsibilities, so whether it’s you or your partner that is feeling a little overwhelmed, perhaps the gift of some extra free time is just the valentine you need.
Doss, B. D., Rhoades, G. K., Stanley, S. M., & Markman, H. J. (2009). The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: An eight year prospective study. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 96, 601-619.
Hansen, T. (2012). Parenthood and happiness: A review of folk theories versus empirical evidence. Social Indicators Research, 108, 29-64.
Whillans, A. V., Dunn, E. D., Smeets., P., Bekkers, R., & Norton, M. I. (2017). Buying time promotes happiness. Proceedings from the National Academy of Science, 114, 8534-8527.
White, L. K., & Booth, A. (1985). The transition to parenthood and marital quality. Journal of Family Issues, 6, 435-449.