What to do to keep that marital spark alive and well…
Most people believe that after marriage, the next natural step in a couple’s life is parenthood, but after I got married, the thought of becoming a parent terrified me. Not because I didn’t want kids or because I didn’t think I’d be a good mom, but because I was afraid of what having children would do to my marriage. Based on what I had heard and read it seemed that the transition to parenthood was marked by an inevitable decline in marital satisfaction. This scared me because I had a strong loving relationship with my husband; one we had worked hard to build together; one that I wasn’t willing to sacrifice to become a mom. So before taking the plunge of parenthood, I set out to learn what I could about the transition to parenthood so that I could more effectively childproof my marriage against my future children.
Decline in Martial Satisfaction
My first question was: Is a decline in marital satisfaction inevitable in parenthood? What I discovered was that not all couples experience a decline in marital satisfaction with the birth of a child (Lauer). A study of 250 new parents during their first “postbaby year” found that:
- 13% of the couples marital satisfaction declined severely
- 38% experienced a moderate decline
- 30% reported no change in their marital satisfaction
- 19% experienced an improvement
Notice that based on these statistics, nearly 50% reported either no change or an improvement in their marital satisfaction, which goes to show that decline is not inevitable.
However, the results of this study didn’t satisfy me until I realized that a decline in marital satisfaction doesn’t mean dissatisfaction, it just means less satisfaction (Lauer). And whether we want to admit it or not, satisfaction tends to decline whether or not you have children. Think about it, when a couple first gets married they are typically at the peak of satisfaction in their marital relationship which is why it is referred to as the “Honeymoon Phase”. Therefore, if the relationship changes at all, it is likely to go down. Studies have shown that the sharpest decline in satisfying marital functioning typically occurs just after the birth of a child (Lauer). But the average decline in satisfaction is modest and does not go down to the point of dissatisfaction for most couples.
Factors that Contribute to Dissatisfaction
Next I wanted to know: What is the difference between the couples who experienced little to no change in their marital satisfaction and those whose satisfaction declined severely? And how do I make sure that my marriage is the former and not the latter?
One factor that I found contributed to dissatisfaction in parenthood was the quality of the relationship before pregnancy and parenthood. Some couples who experienced a decline in satisfaction were already having serious problems before the baby came and believed that having a child would fix their rocky relationship (Lauer). The truth, however, is quite the opposite. Because parenthood requires both parents working together, parenthood has the ability to make a good marriage better or worse, but it rarely makes a bad marriage better.
Another factor among those whose satisfaction dropped was gender differences (Kluwer). It seems that the ‘postbaby’ decline in marital satisfaction is greater among women than men. This discrepancy has been thought to be due to mothers’ perceptions of a lack of support both from the father and social network, creating feelings of stress and isolation for the mother (Ahlborg).
The final major factor was lack of leisure time together. As with any relationship, a lack in couple togetherness, impairs the intimate relationship and makes the individuals feel disconnected as a couple. This lack of time and energy also contributes to a loss of sensual and sexual affection (Ahlborg).
How Can I Minimize the Negative Effects of the Transition to Parenthood?
- Preparation- Maintaining marital satisfaction in parenthood begins during pregnancy. Use the time before baby comes to strengthen your marital relationship and learn key parenting skills. The more competent both parents feel about their parenting abilities and satisfied they are with their marriage during pregnancy, the more satisfied they will feel about their role as parents and their marital relationship postnantally (Wallace).
- Father Inclusion- It is typical the mother and baby to build a close bond even before birth. However this bond can sometimes make fathers feel left out of the picture. “Both marital and parental satisfaction are likely to be higher when the father is more involved with the baby” (Lauer). Thus, it is important to find ways to include the father both before and after the birth of the child.
- Coping Mechanisms in Parenthood- Maintain a sense of continuity by continuing to do some of the activities you and your spouse did together before the birth of the child (Miller).Take time away from the baby (Miller). Make a conscious effort to express appreciation for each other, express concerns, and listen to one another’s feelings (Miller). Rely on friends and family for help, emotional support, and advice (Miller).
Ahlborg, Tone, and Margareth Strandmarka. “Factors Influencing The Quality Of Intimate Relationships Six Months After Delivery” First-Time Parents’ Own Views And Coping Strategies.” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology 27.3 (2006): 163-172. Informa UK Ltd. Web. 7 July 2012.
Kluwer, Esther S.. “From Partnership to Parenthood: A Review of Marital Change Across the Transition to Parenthood.” Journal of Family Theory & Review 2.2 (2010): 105-125. Print.
Lauer, Robert H., and Jeanette C. Lauer. “Becoming a Parent.” Marriage & family: the quest for intimacy. 8th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 257-281. Print.
Miller, Brent C. , and Donna L. Sollie. “Normal Stresses during the Transition to Parenthood.” Family Relations 29.4 (1980): 459-465. JSTOR. Web. 29 June 2012.
Wallace, Pamela M, and Ian H. Gotlib. “Marital Adjustment during the Transition to Parenthood: Stability and Predictors of Change .” Journal of Marriage and Family 52.1 (1990): 21-29.