A significant adjustment period for many couples is when they begin having or adopting children, known as the transition-to-parenthood. Children can compromise the dyad relationship by putting more strain on the family system, diverting time and energy away from developing the couple, and introducing conflict into previously established roles and routines. Although it may seem at first glance that parenthood is the cyanide capsule for a happy marriage, there is hope. Many couples are able to navigate this transition with a minimum negative impact on their couplehood. How do they do it? What is their secret? This article will explore the ways couples are able to navigate this transition-to-parenthood with their marriage intact.
Research* has identified several protective factors that can be broken into two different categories: static and dynamic. The static factors are ones that are harder to change post-birth, such as education level, financial strain, baby’s gender and number of offspring per pregnancy. For example, married couples in which both partners have college degrees and a minimum level of financial stress who have singleton, male children are more likely to remain married and even report higher levels of marital satisfaction than their counterparts (i.e., unmarried, cohabitating, high school graduates with high levels of financial stress who have female children, including multiples, such as twins or triplets).
Although these are interesting social findings and one can speculate as to the true impact of each of these factors on marital success, they are not the most helpful for new parents seeking out ways to improve their relationship. Fortunately, there are other dynamic, protective factors that can be used as guideposts for marital success.
1. Realistic Expectations
One of the big risk factors for divorce is violated expectations, and it plays a profound role in the transition-to-parenthood. Violations include the couple’s perception on how the baby would impact their marriage and how competent they felt in their new parent roles. Successful couples have realistic expectations of their relationship and parenthood. In other words, they recognize that life isn’t a series of Hallmark images (i.e., a well-groomed mother sitting in a beam of sunlight softly humming a lullaby while gently rocking her newborn to sleep in a pristine, pastel colored nursery) but more often resembles a True Crime documentary (i.e., a homeless-looking woman with a manic expression sobbing “why won’t you go to sleep?!?” to a newborn she is frantically rocking back and forth in what appears to be a hoarder’s abode filled with unidentifiable objects and debris). As a result, couples set themselves up for success by not striving for the (unattainable) “perfect” way to parent and the “ideal” partnership. Life is messy. Children are messy. Relationships are messy. By adjusting their expectations and creating room for growing pains and mistakes, couples are able to anticipate and better manage the “messiness” of reality.
2. Shared Housework & Childcare
How a couple divides up the household and childcare labor can be a significant area of contention. If either partner feels like that partner is doing the lion’s share of the work, then this breeds resentment. Successful couples have an equitable division of household chores and child-related activities. Equitable doesn’t mean 50-50 (i.e., “Honey, come home from work now. It’s your turn to change the baby.”). Instead, it means that the couple identifies what is reasonable and fair within the logistical parameters of their relationship (i.e., “Since I’m breastfeeding, I will manage all the feedings, including getting up all night long to nurse, but you are responsible for diaper changes, dinner prep, grocery shopping and the laundry.”). Some of these roles may even change depending on the support system. Is there a nanny? Is there a housekeeper? The important thing to remember is to be flexible. Not only as parents do we get better at some tasks, but as the baby grows or additional children are added, the division of labor will need to be reassessed and redistributed to meet the new responsibilities and demands.
3. Constructive Conflict Resolution and Problem-Solving
In general, couples that had established constructive, conflict resolution and problem-solving skills prior to the arrival of their first child tend to fare better in the long run than those with maladaptive communication styles. Parents have less time to communicate, more potential conflict and less resources devoted to resolving problems. As a result, it is imperative that couples resolve issues in a mutually satisfying way as quickly as possible.
For example, a successful interaction might look like this: [kid wailing in the background that he wants to watch Daniel Tiger while his sister runs around naked screaming “I’m a butterfly. I’m a butterfly. I’m a butterfly.”] “Honey, it really frustrated me this morning when you didn’t pick up the dry cleaning like you said you would. Now, I don’t have the outfit I wanted to wear for my big meeting tomorrow.” [kid climbing bookshelf to get to remote to turn the channel to PBS while naked girl is trying to shove a screeching cat into a doll stroller] “I’m so sorry. You are right. I ran into traffic and didn’t have time. But I completely understand how frustrated you must feel, especially considering how important tomorrow’s meeting is. I should have told you about the change so you could make alternative arrangements. Again, I’m sorry. Is there anything I can do to support you now?” [Goth-teenager enters and sighs dramatically, then loudly inquiring “Why is no one is managing these delinquent children? I can’t believe I’m related to you people!”] “Thank you. I appreciate your understand. It’s not that big of a deal; I think I’m just nervous about tomorrow.” [Naked girl and big brother start throwing cat food at each other, while the disgruntled cat pees on a throw pillow]. “Honey, you are going to do great. How about we talk more about this after the kids go to bed.”
4. Marital Generosity
Marital generosity is the concept of each partner making a habit of being generous, in spirit and body, to the other partner. This includes giving affection frequently and freely; respecting the other; valuing the other’s needs and making some effort to support the other on a daily basis; and being willing to forgive the other. Examples of generous efforts include: bringing your wife a cup of coffee in the morning; providing an unsolicited back massage; taking the kids to the park so your husband can sleep in; telling your spouse how attractive you find them; or taking turns watching the kids so you can each have a “guys-” or “girls-night-out” with friends. In other words, it is the daily practice of showing appreciation and affection for your partner. Successful couples exhibit higher levels of marital generosity. These small moments of intimacy help foster mutual gratitude and can help maintain the couple-bond during this tumultuous period.
5. Strong Social Supports
It is not surprising that successful couples have developed a strong network of social supports. The protective benefits of having supportive friends and family are endless. For example, the new parent roles can be explored and validated within peer groups and families. Finding your own parenting style (“Are you an attachment parent?” “Helicopter parent?” “Child led-er” “Free ranger?”) can be overwhelming, especially considering the stakes involved. Having trusted individuals that you can use as role models or sounding boards can help diminish some of the stress associated with parenting.
Additionally, social supports can decrease marital tension by absorbing some of the strife associated with merging different parental approaches. A lot of people consider their partner their best friend to whom they confess their disappointments; however, for some folks it may compromise the relationship to constantly express their frustrations about their partner to their partner. If the couple has agreed that it is ok to vent to their friends about minor relationship conflicts, then it can help the individuals to express their displeasures (“Can you believe he dumped out 2 ounces of breast milk, again?!?” “Why does she have to micromanage how I pack the diaper bag; is it really the end of the world if the wipes aren’t on top?!?!?”) and get validation and a sense of belonging from their peers (“Same story over here, sister!” “Ugh. What is wrong with them?!?”). On the flip side, hearing about similar struggles from your friends can help normalize your relationship challenges and foster a sense of hope (“This is just what normal couples do and there is light at the end of the tunnel.”). Finally, a strong social support can be utilized to help give the parents a break and rekindle their romantic relationship. Which leads us to the final protective factor: sexual satisfaction.
6. Sexual Satisfaction
Due to the increased strain and changes in the dyad relationship, it is not surprising that couples often report a decrease in emotional and sexual intimacy. Flirting texts are replaced with “honey-do” lists and daily conversations move from world events to whose turn it is to change a dirty diaper. However, sexual satisfaction is a significant protective factor for marriages. Not only does sexual activity increase those “love” hormones (i.e., serotonin, prolactin and oxytocin), which helps relieve stress levels, but it also helps foster a sense of “we-ness” or “couplehood.” The feeling of solidarity is powerful for partners who can often feel outnumbered, outflanked, and outmaneuvered by their children (“Whatever you do, don’t look them in the eye. They can sense your fear and will attack.”). Successful couples make sexual intimacy a priority. This doesn’t mean that they are having sex every morning (“Who has the energy for that?!?!”). It means they have planned, quality intimate time together, which during the first year of a newborn’s life may only happen once or twice a month. Regardless of the frequency, the important thing is that the couple is carving out time for them to connect emotionally and physically. This means they are finding ways throughout the day to flirt, emotionally connect and engage in other forms of mental foreplay.
When partners transition to parents they will understandably experience a change in how they relate to one another. Often times, this change can create marital distress and tension; however, research has helped identify how successful couples protect their relationship and survive this transition. With these protective factors in mind, we can identify effective strategies couples can use to enhance their romantic relationship, while managing the demands of parenthood.
If you are struggling with the transition-to-parenthood or other phase of life adjustments, you can make an appointment with one of our highly trained therapists in Philadelphia.
Lawrence, E., Rothman, A., Cobb, R., & Bradbury, T. (2010). Marital satisfaction across the transition to parenthood: Three eras of research. In M. S. Schulz, M. J. Pruett, P. K. Kerig, R. D. Parke (Eds.), Strengthening couple relationships for optimal child development: Lessons from research and intervention (pp. 97-114). Washington, DC, US: American Psychological Association.
National Marriage Project & Institute for American Values. Center for Marriage and Families (2011). The state of our unions 2011. When baby makes three: How parenthood makes life meaningful and how marriage makes parenthood bearable. Charlottesville, VA: National Marriage Project, University of Virginia.