Babies aren’t bad for marriage, but starting a family won’t save a couple

mother_and_baby_cartoon.gifHaving a baby won’t save a bad marriage.

In fact, some couples report reduced satisfaction in the relationship with their partner after starting a family.

That may sound depressing, even fatalistic, but the truth is that parents who plan a family and collaborate with parenting are much less likely to experience this dip. It’s even likely to lead to a happier marriage and better-adjusted children.

Thinking about it for a moment it may seem obvious, but I’m sure there are still plenty of couples teetering along their precarious relationship path that believe that having a child together will improve their marriage.

Very unlikely.

A New York Times article by Tara Parker-Pope quotes from the most recent studies that point to the time bind facing new parents and the burden on women resulting from increased household work as factors in reducing marital bliss. She holds out hope to her readers by reporting the finding from a 50-year longitudinal study of Mills College women that couples are likely to reconnect once their children leave home.

For parents of young children, that’s a very long time to wait. And it’s not good news for the children either, because children are more likely to have social, emotional, and academic problems when their parents’ marriage is in distress.

Many of these findings on marital distress in the early childrearing years are based on the uncritical use of averages. More in-depth examination reveals that the averages hide considerable variation. Detailed interviews with 96 couples, followed for 6 years after their first babies were born, revealed four different pathways that couples take in deciding to become pregnant and carry the pregnancy to term:

  • First are couples who agree about when to begin trying to become pregnant (about half of the sample).
  • Then there are the couples who “find themselves pregnant” and decide to “accept fate” and go ahead (about 15%).
  • Another set of couples (about 20% of the sample) are still ambivalent when they reach the 7th month of pregnancy.
  • Finally, for some couples who are at serious loggerheads about the decision, one spouse agrees to become a parent only because the other threatens to go it alone (about 10%).

The average decline in marital satisfaction was almost completely accounted for by couples who

  1. slid into having a baby without planning
  2. were still ambivalent about becoming parents in late pregnancy, or
  3. disagreed about having a baby but went ahead and conceived without resolving their difference.

About half the planners showed increased marital satisfaction or maintenance of their initially positive level in measurements taken when their babies were about 18 months old. All the couples where one partner had given in (usually the man) were either separated or divorced by the time their first child entered kindergarten.

The study concludes that it’s very unwise to rush into parenthood before both partners are ready. Partners need to start by having a discussion or a series of discussions – by making a decision. If both partners can express both sides of their feelings, it is less likely that one partner will carry all the ambivalence for the couple.

When both partners feel they are part of this major family decision, they are more likely to be able to meet the challenges of balancing the needs of both partners in terms of work and family. All this bodes well for their developing relationship with each other and with their child – and ultimately for their child’s sense of security and well-being.