Originally posted October 26, 2009. Updated June 15, 2020.
Does parenting affect couple happiness? Well, take a look at this email I recently received:
After five years of marriage, my husband and I had a baby boy one year ago. Our first five years were wonderful, but this past year has been a disaster. We used to be in love, but now we argue constantly–mostly about divorce.
I often hear versions of this from clients. Parenting negatively effects couple happiness. Research bears this out. A 2004 meta‐analysis found that parents report lower marital satisfaction compared with non-parents . At the other end of the spectrum, a New York Times article reported on studies that show increased marital satisfaction for empty nesters. My husband and I (we’re empty nesters) understand!
Parents love their children. I can’t count the number of times I’ve seen clients’ faces tight with anger soften when talk turns to children. But those same children drain us. Between diapers and science projects, spilled milk and tired end-of-the-day tears, we pour an extraordinary amount of energy into nurturing our children. As the demands of children are laid upon those of jobs and housework, family and friends, lovers stop leaning on each other and start lighting into each other.
A huge obstacle to honest talk about what those beautiful kids are doing to your increasingly difficult relationship is shame. Great vulnerability is required to admit you feel your partner is paying more attention to the children than to you. Great humility is required by you to acknowledge that you have been too demanding with your expectations of your partner in the transition from the two of you to family life.
Make room for venting and expressing mixed feelings about the kids’ demands. Don’t get defensive about what your spouse is saying–listen, empathize, and touch tenderly. What is shareable is bearable.
All easier said than done. But I’ve never failed to be amazed at just how much relief partners feel when, in the safety of my office, they share in just this way.
And then? That kind of deep and honest vulnerability leads to a reinvigorated relationship!
There is no shortage of parenting books. There aren’t as many books about how to maintain the couple bond despite the challenges of parenting. Here’s one though: And Baby Makes Three by John and Julie Gottman.