Marital Happiness for Parents and Parents-To-Be
DECEMBER 16, 2019
For most engaged couples and newlyweds, the word marriage brings thoughts of wedding bells, love, friendship, and harmonious bliss. Quickly, they find that marriage is work. Instead of merely an arrangement of pleasure, it starts to feel more like an investment in which we must give much to ultimately reap large dividends of joy. Couples may look forward wistfully to the delights of having children, and some believe that having children will help “fix” the lack of happiness in a marriage. However, research has repeatedly proven that there is a general decline on average in marital satisfaction for couples after they have their first child and a slight decline with each additional child.6
Mothers are likely to experience a greater decrease in marital satisfaction than the fathers. This may be due to the tendency for mothers to take on more of the child-rearing responsibilities, and the accompanying confusion about roles in the home and feelings of reduced freedom.
Couples of high socioeconomic status (SES) tend to experience a more drastic decline than middle and low SES. Perhaps those of higher-paying jobs who are used to a freer lifestyle have more difficulty adjusting to the restrictions of parenthood.
An expansive study by Twenge, Campbell, and Foster in 2003
6, found the parent’s generation affected the impact of children on marital satisfaction. In other words, parents of today are more likely to have a greater decrease in marriage satisfaction after becoming parents than were parents of two decades ago. And parents of two decades ago had a greater decrease than parents of 5 decades ago. Clearly, the cultural perceptions about marriage and children and the lifestyle of young adults today influences how we experience marriage after childbirth.
This same study found that only 38% of women with infants have an above-average level of marital satisfaction, while 62% of childless women have an above-average level.
So, it is safe to assume that having children will not make the average marriage relationship easier, but rather make it even harder. But children are supposed to be a “blessing” and a “joy” right?! How many parents have we heard gush over how fulfilled their lives are because of their little ones being added to it? The information might be disheartening to prospective parents. If children are supposed to make a spousal relationship more difficult, how do young couples even decide when they are ready to have children…or prepare to have a strong marriage throughout?
There are a lot of different factors to consider about the research and how it affects themselves. It is essential for young couples and those who are anticipating marriage to be aware of the coming stressors of having children and to wisely examine the implications. Let’s look at some research and analyze what might make those 38% percent of mothers who are above average in marital happiness different from the rest.
Differences between the expectation of what parenthood will be like and the actual experience may be a main cause for the statistical decrease in marital bliss. A 1985 study of married couples in the transition to parenthood (1) found that the majority of parents had a much more positive reported prediction of marital bliss than their reported experience after childbirth. The greater the difference between their predictions and actuality, the more marital dissatisfaction they experienced.
For future parents, this is significant information. Parents who are aware of the stressors and struggles ahead may find greater harmony in their marriages after children are born.
Marital characteristics of realism and experience with stress may have a positive influence on marriage after childbirth. One study
2found that mothers who had a planned pregnancy were significantly more likely than those with an unplanned pregnancy to experience a higher decline in marital satisfaction. This may be due to the expectations of stress and difficulty that would already accompany someone with a surprise pregnancy. This study also found that the higher a couple was rated in romantic quality before childbirth the lower their marital satisfaction afterward. It seems that the relationships that were more “down-to-earth” in quality fared better with the shock of a crying newborn.
When mothers and especially fathers are more involved in co-parenting, marital satisfaction is higher.
5This means that when a mother feels that the father is more involved in the care of the children, marital happiness is higher for both spouses. Even mothers who experience a high amount of stress are likely to feel more marital satisfaction when they have involved husbands.
Patterns of empathy and forgiveness strengthen attachment quality between spouses, which in turn improves the marriage quality after a child is born.
With all the data on marriage satisfaction and how it is affected, it is important to remember that the decreases after childbirth are often more minor, rather than extreme. Decisions regarding parenting style, tasks involved in child-care, financial obligations, fatigue and lack of sleep are among the things that team together to make the parenting years challenging and overwhelming. Husbands and wives often find individual satisfaction from being a parent that makes up for the difficulty that comes with learning to parent together. Parents who weather the stress of incoming children together, will likely reap the dividends of increased strength and joy in their relationship as the years grow.
1. Belsky, J. (1985). Exploring Individual Differences in Marital Change across the Transition to Parenthood: The Role of Violated Expectations. Journal of Marriage and Family, 47(4), 1037-1044. doi:10.2307/352348
2. Belsky, J., & Rovine, M. (1990). Patterns of Marital Change across the Transition to Parenthood: Pregnancy to Three Years Postpartum. Journal of Marriage and Family, 52(1), 5-19. doi:10.2307/352833
3. Castellano, R., Velotti, P., Crowell, J., & Zavattini, G. (2014). The Role of Parents’ Attachment Configurations at Childbirth on Marital Satisfaction and Conflict Strategies. Journal Of Child & Family Studies, 23(6), 1011-1026.
4. Chung, M. (2014). Pathways between attachment and marital satisfaction: The mediating roles of rumination, empathy, and forgiveness. Personality And Individual Differences, 70246-251. doi:10.1016/j.paid.2014.06.032
5. Durtschi, J. A., Soloski, K. L., & Kimmes, J. (2017). The Dyadic Effects of Supportive Coparenting and Parental Stress on Relationship Quality Across the Transition to Parenthood. Journal Of Marital & Family Therapy, 43(2), 308-321.
6. Twenge, J., Campbell, W., & Foster, C. (2003). Parenthood and Marital Satisfaction: A Meta-Analytic Review. Journal of Marriage and Family, 65(3), 574-583. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org.byui.idm.oclc.org/stable/3600024