CPC: Ninety-two percent of those in our first study described a gradual increase in conflict after having their baby. By the time their babies were 18 months old, almost one of four couples indicated that their marriage was in distress. And this does not include the 13% who already had announced separations and divorces.
PC: One stage is not harder on relationships than another. There is a cumulative erosion of satisfaction over time. Parents of school-age children experience less depression and personal stress than they did when their kids were babies, but marital satisfaction continues its steady decline for most couples.
Q: Yet some parents remain happily married. What is their secret?
PC: The key to marital satisfaction lies in how couples manage the decision-making process. It's not whether the couples have problems, because every couple does. But when babies come along, there are a lot more issues and differences of opinion to negotiate, and a couple's ability to do so with cooperation and respect can make or break the marriage.
It's also important for partners to hear each other's outbursts without immediately firing back or engaging in blame. And the one who's said or done something thoughtless needs to make amends later. Saying, "I made that comment out of anger. I really didn't mean it," goes a long way toward repairing a relationship.
Q: You also put some expectant couples in groups with trained leaders and found years later that their satisfaction did not decline. Can you explain?
PC: Many people take Lamaze classes, learning how to breathe during childbirth, but few give much thought to what the next 20 years are going to be like. Couples in our first study joined the groups when the wives were seven months pregnant and met weekly until the babies were 3 months old.
The group helped them start thinking concretely about what life with the baby would be like and enabled them to talk about their ideas, worries, and confusion before and after the birth. Six years later, the couples who remained married and had been in these groups were far more satisfied with their relationships.