Two leading researchers on marriage explain how couples can keep their relationship -- and kids -- happy and strong.

By Pamela Kruger
October 05, 2005
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What happens to a couple's relationship after they have a baby? Philip Cowan, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D., adjunct professor of psychology at Berkeley, have been studying this question since 1975, when they saw their own marriage begin to falter after having children. That's the year they decided to start the Becoming a Family Project, tracking couples from pregnancy to when their children started kindergarten. In 1990 they began the Schoolchildren and Their Families Project, following the first of several groups of parents whose kids were entering kindergarten. The Cowans will complete their research in 2005, when the last group of kids finishes high school.

That's the year they decided to start the Becoming a Family Project, tracking couples from pregnancy to when their children started kindergarten. In 1990 they began the Schoolchildren and Their Families Project, following the first of several groups of parents whose kids were entering kindergarten. The Cowans will complete their research in 2005, when the last group of kids finishes high school.

Child checked in with the Cowans to peek into the early findings suggested by their studies. So far, the results have been clear: After having a child, couples' marital satisfaction declines, negatively affecting kids emotionally and academically. But this downward slide is not inevitable. Some couples' marriages remain strong and happy, as do their children.

What are these couples doing right? And why do so many relationships seem to suffer after children? With the U.S. divorce rate still high and the Bush administration considering increasing federal resources to promote marriage, the Cowans' work seems more relevant than ever. In an interview, the Cowans -- married for 45 years, with three grown children and seven grandchildren -- shared what they believe are the ingredients to a happy family.

Q: You say most couples become less satisfied with their marriages after having kids. How unhappy are they? Are certain childrearing stages harder on relationships?

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.

Q: So when couples fight, what is it that they're usually fighting about?

CPC: New parents say it's the division of labor, the who-does-what in the family.

PC: When children become school-age, the issues of money and spending time together become more important.

Q: Don't couples' sex lives play a big role in their marital satisfaction?

CPC: Sex is a reflection of how the rest of the relationship is going. If you feel hurt or misunderstood, or you and your husband are struggling over but not resolving issues, that affects how attracted, nurturing, and ready to have sex you'll be.

The frequency of lovemaking declines during the early months of parenthood when mothers especially are exhausted, but we find that most couples' sex lives rebound within two years. During that time, though, some partners may not initiate even snuggling or touching for fear that it will give the message that they're ready to have sex when they aren't. We advise couples to be perfectly clear: "I'm not sure how much energy I have tonight, but I'd love to hold you for a few minutes." That enables them to have more intimate time together and show caring for each other.

Many new mothers talk about feeling unattractive postpartum. But while a few men find it hard to see their wives as sexual after having children, most husbands are supportive about their wives' appearance.

Q: What role does the relationship spouses had with their parents have in a marriage?

CPC: It helps if partners understand how each other's family history is being played out in the marriage, which is another reason why couples' groups are so effective. For instance, a common struggle among new parents is whether to let their baby cry it out at night. If you pick up a baby all the time, she'll come to expect that, the father might say. But, the mother argues, a baby needs to be held to feel secure and know we are here for her.

In the group, the couple would explore why they feel so emotional about their view. Maybe the mom is compensating for what she didn't get as a child from her own parents. Once she and her husband realize why this particular issue is so touchy, it's easier for them to be sympathetic and find a solution they're both comfortable with.

Q: What can couples do on their own if they want to improve their marriages?

PC: Work on issues with your partner when you're calm -- not at 2 a.m., when the baby won't sleep. Often after couples have had a fight, they're reluctant to bring up the issue again. But if you don't, it can linger and resentment can build.

If you argue in front of your kids, tell them later that you worked out your disagreement or show them that you did by calming yourselves down in front of them.

Make time for the relationship. You may not be able to afford a sitter or be ready to leave your baby, but you can check in with each other for at least 10 minutes every day. That can be done after you put the kids to bed or even on the phone while you're both at work, as long as you're sharing what happened to you that day and how it's affecting you emotionally. The pace of life today is so frenetic that few couples do this. But marriages are capable of change, and small changes can make big differences.

Q: In your research, you've found that being in couples groups with trained leaders also helps children. Why do you think that is?

CPC: We enrolled 66 of the couples in our second study in couples groups for four months. One half were in groups that focused more on the parent-child relationship, while the other were in groups that stressed the marital relationship.

We conducted interviews with parents, observed the family interacting, asked teachers to fill out questionnaires about the couples' children, and gave the students achievement tests. Those whose parents had been in groups of either type were doing better academically and having fewer behavioral and emotional difficulties than the children whose parents received no support. This was true even six years later.

PC: Interestingly, couples in both kinds of couples groups had become more responsive parents -- warmer and more skilled at setting realistic limits for their kids. But only the parents who were in the marriage-focused groups had developed more satisfying marriages. That tells us that if parents improve their relationship, they will not only improve the marriage but also become more effective parents.

Q: Do kids really know when their parents aren't happy with their marriages?

CPC: Absolutely. We've found that kids sense when their parents are upset or in conflict even if their parents are not openly fighting. And from academic achievement tests and teacher reports, we know that the kids who feel responsible for their parents' conflicts don't do as well in school.

Q: Despite all your research that reveals the toll kids take on relationships, you are optimistic about marriage and parenthood. Why?

PC: Our children have always been a great source of joy, and virtually all the couples in our studies said that about their children. Becoming parents can reveal fault lines in a marriage -- it did with us. But if you work on the marriage and make it better, as we did, it can be wonderful for everyone. Partners can feel better about themselves, they're more productive and able to meet challenges, and the children thrive.

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