As UCLA marital researcher Dr. Tom Bradbury once remarked (tongue firmly in cheek), "A good marriage is a risk factor for having children." After reading the research literature on the effect of children on marital satisfaction, one might begin to wonder whether the transition to parenthood marks the end of the happiest chapter in a marriage.
Do kids really kill a good marriage?
To begin, let's take a critical look at how most of the existing "parental transition" research has been done. Multiple studies point to a consistent association between having children and a significant decline in marital satisfaction, particularly for wives.* The design of many of these studies is to take cross-sectional snapshots of marital satisfaction at "critical" time periods during the transition to parenthood, typically during the final weeks or months of pregnancy and/or in the first few months following birth.
To lay aside all of the fancy analyses in favor of common sense, imagine that you are an expectant parent. You and your partner are planning for the arrival of your child, and your emotions run high with some mix of excitement and anxiety. As you plan together, you conspire happily about your future and dream about what your baby will be like, and how you will create and enjoy an expanded sense of family that includes your child. If a researcher were to ask you how close you feel to your spouse within this context, how would you be likely to respond?
Now imagine that you are a new parent. Your life has been thrown into a blender. You are suddenly knocked down to the very bottom of Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs,** to the basic survival levels of functioning. Because human babies are altricial—that is, born completely helpless and defenseless—your daily life refocuses entirely on the most basic needs vital to physiological survival and safety (yours and your child's).
Any previous routine you may have had is gone, and day blends into night. You are bleary-eyed and chronically exhausted, a slave to the feeding and sleeping schedule of your baby. Your focus and energy (and those of your spouse) are intensely centered on your new child, and you are both expending massive amounts of energy to attend to the constant (and often unclear) needs of your baby.
You are highly attuned to your newborn, completely focused, hyper-vigilant about any signs that something might be "off" or any early indication of potentially life-threatening health problems. In this context, if a researcher asked you how satisfied you are feeling with your marriage, or how close you feel to your spouse, how would you be likely to respond?
Few researchers would argue that the transition to parenthood does not impact marital satisfaction in most cases. Perhaps, however, the change in satisfaction immediately following childbirth is a temporary dip that should be expected, given an added load of new stressors combined with parental sleep deprivation. Longitudinal research has suggested that this temporary dip may be followed by a regression to the mean (a return to pre-pregnancy levels of marital satisfaction).
Two of the most respected researchers in this area, Drs. Philip and Carolyn Cowan,*** married parents themselves, have extensively studied the transition to parenthood and concluded, "We believe that children are getting an unfair share of the blame for their parents' distress.… We are convinced that the seeds of new parents' individual and marital problems are sown long before their first baby arrives."
If this is true, then a strong marriage will remain a strong marriage after children arrive. Although a strong marriage is likely to weather the stress of this transition,**** having a family may be especially hard for those in a marriage of equals.
The next series of blogs will continue to examine the transition to parenthood, both the challenges and peak experiences inherent in family expansion, particularly for those seeking to create a marriage of equals.
*Belsky, J., and Rovine, M. (1990). "Patterns of marital change across the transition to parenthood: Pregnancy to three years postpartum." Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 5-19.
Lawrence, E., Rothman, A.D., Cobb, R.J., Rothman, M.T., and Bradbury, T.N. (2008). "Marital Satisfaction Across the Transition to Parenthood." Journal of Family Psychology, 22, 41-50.
Waldron, H., and Routh, D.K. (1981). "The Effect of the First Child on the Marital Relationship." Journal of Marriage and the Family, 43, 785-788.
** <http://www.abraham-maslow.com/m_motivation/Hierarchy_of_Needs.asp> (Accessed 11-8-11).
***Cowan, C. P. & Cowan, P. A. (1992). When Partners Become Parents: The Big Life Change for Couples. New York, NY: Basic Books (a division of Harper Collins Publishers), p. x.
****Wallace, P.M., and Gotlib, I.H. (1990). "Marital Adjustment During the Transition to Parenthood: Stability and Predictors of Change." Journal of Marriage and the Family, 52, 21-29.
Wright, P. J., Henggeler, S. W., and Craig, L. (1986). "Problems in Paradise? A Longitudinal Examination of the Transition to Parenthood." Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 7, 277-291.