It is a well-researched fact that having a baby usually has a negative impact on your marital satisfaction. Let’s look at the whole early parenting thing and draw out some important lessons for married couples who are parents or about to become parents.

As you transition into parenthood, you’ll want to have some pretty specific parenting and marriages strategies to make sure that mom, babe, and dad are all taken care of because babies make for busy lives! They take a lot of time.

But there is some good news here. Studies show that as demands on our time have increased over the past 40 years, generally speaking, most couples have decreased their involvement in paid employment so that they can keep up with time spent with their spouse and children.[i]

We think this is great! That shows good values are at work. It also speaks to those of you considering having children that this is something you’ll be challenged with as well so be prepared for that. Most couples are adding time into their weekdays by reducing the number of hours they work.

Weekends are a little different story. Most couples end up paying a social and personal cost for maintaining their levels of spousal time. If you’re married with kids you’re probably spending less time with friends and extended family on weekends. Again, this is reasonable.

It is so great to see that in contemporary marriages spousal companionship is important and people are prioritizing it. However, we would urge you not to become too isolated from your social networks. There needs to be a balance.

So, that’s parenting and marriage in terms of time management. Some ideas there for you if you need a change.

Now in terms of your marriage itself and how you’re relating to each other – you need to stay connected as a couple. As we’ve already established in other episodes, having kids does put a dent in your marital satisfaction, so this is something we all need to work at.

A study by some major marriage researchers looked at couples’ marital friendship at the start of their marriage versus the decline over the transition to parenthood.[ii] They followed these newlywed couples for 6 years and compared the new parents to a control group who remained childless over that time.

Here is what helped mothers to have stable or increasing marital satisfaction:

  1. The husband’s expression of fondness toward her. The more warmth he puts in, the more satisfied she feels.
  2. The husband’s high awareness for her and their relationship. This really ties to the first one. If he is more aware of the stress she is experiencing and responds with more fondness: this is a huge help. It goes the other way too – if she is aware of his efforts to be supportive and loving, she is way more satisfied in her marriage.
  3. Her awareness for her husband and their relationship. Not only can husbands help by being aware and acting out of that in a generous way but she also needs to be alert enough to acknowledge, receive and even reciprocate this.

What about the other side? What predicts a decline in marital satisfaction of mothers?

  1. The husband’s negativity towards her wife. Corrosive.
  2. The husband’s disappointment in the marriage. Also corrosive.
  3. The husband or wife describing their lives as chaotic. Chaos as a feeling comes from the sense that there are changes in their lives that are out of control. This adds a lot of stress to a major life transition.

So, how does this transition work then? In 2006, some researchers looked at the quality of the intimate relationship six months after delivery.[iii] They uncovered four factors that were influential.

The first relates to this whole subject of transition to parenting. It’s the most mentioned category in the study. The factors here that were most frequently mentioned were the “loyal sharing of responsibility” and “mutual respect and regard”.

What is happening in these marriages that are transitioning successfully is that the dad and mom are putting aside their own needs in favour of their spouse and the baby. However, it’s tempered by not letting everything centre around the baby and also by keeping an adult relationship with the parent. When our entitlement or selfishness kicks in and we start feeling resentful or disappointed…then we have a decline in marital satisfaction.

The key to resolving this is managing our expectations. We all know that having a baby in the home is hard work! If both parents are committed to unselfish giving of themselves to each other in support of this new challenge, and intentional about keeping their own connection as alive as they are about keeping this new little bundle of love alive, then good is going to come out of that.

But that leads to the second factor that influences the intimate relationship when transitioning from “couple” to “family”, which is sexuality.

If you deliver a baby naturally your doctor will tell you no sexual intercourse for six weeks and then after that you still have the exhaustion to deal with. Most new parents are having sex one or two times a month where they were probably averaging 2-3 times a week before that. This is a big adjustment!

Again it comes to expectations. This change in sexual frequency is part of this transition to parenthood. Hopefully it won’t (and barring complications, it shouldn’t) be a permanent reduction. But in these moments — talking to Dad’s first — is where you can start to wallow in your self-pity and feel disappointment and feel resentment. It is OK to miss what you used to have – we get that.

Look at this time as an opportunity for extra love and affection where you can build intimacy at other levels than just sexuality. Couples often find that bringing other bits of good and joy into their lives is so helpful to strengthen their togetherness; small surprises like coffee in bed, a weekend getaway, little touches here and there. Love can blossom between you without resulting in some hot sex.

Most couples during this time experience their sexuality move towards a focus on quality rather than quantity. And that’s a good thing!

Another point to consider is that even though sexuality may be reduced, sensuality does not have to be. You can still have those lingering kisses, long hugs, or caressing, which can be emphasized in place of a lot of sexuality to continue to strengthen the relationship. Again, it’s about expectations – don’t add a lot of expectations to these activities about getting sex out of them.

What we can see here is that you need to be intentional about being loving towards each other without having all of that love and affection pointed at the baby. Yes, the baby needs a lot of holding and care and attention, but you were a wife before you were a mother. And you were a husband before you were a dad.

Cosleeping

Apparently cosleeping is a bit of a hot topic out there. To be honest, we’re not fans out it, but there are a whole of people who are. In fact, when looking at the research, you can find more articles in favour of cosleeping than not!

It’s only been with the invention of the crib and the creation of personal wealth in the last 150 years that cosleeping has become a minority activity in Western culture.

We understand why it might be a great thing and how it can help with attachment and bonding. Some people even find that the baby can grab a breast and feed without waking you up is all good…unless he grabs his dad…

A scary statistic though, is that over 150 babies die in Texas every year in cosleeping arrangments. That is just shocking! But, to be fair, other studies indicate that cosleeping reduces SIDS.

So we’ll just leave you on this point with some info from a recent article by Messner and Miller.[iv]

They found that if both parents endorse the idea of cosleeping it seems that this arrangement has no negative impact on their marriage or their sleep. However, if the parents only do reactive cosleeping, which means they’re really not into it but they put up with it on occasion, their marital satisfaction declines as time spent bed-sharing increases.

It really boils down to your preference. If you can keep the sensuality and love and warmth alive, you’re both committed to cosleeping, and you know how to do it safely, then why not? Go for it – but, if you’re both not into it, it’s probably going to impact your marriage negatively.

In that case you might want to look at negotiating a compromise where maybe the baby is in the same room but in its own bassinet. Or, if you’re like us and want your baby in another room, take those SIDS precautions, then be sure to have good bonding and attachment time with baby at other times.

BUT… be sure to have that time with each other, in an adult way. Whether it be time to yourselves in the evening or on Saturday mornings, or whatever works for you, it is necessary to foster your marriage relationship.

What you don’t want to do is get so focused on being parents that when you get to the stage when your youngest is 7 or 8 and doesn’t need as much hands-on care and monitoring that you don’t have a marriage any more. You just have a parenting relationship. That’s not going to end well…


 

[i] Jeffrey Dew, “Has the Marital Time Cost of Parenting Changed Over Time?,” Social Forces 88, no. 2 (December 2009): 519–41.

[ii] Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, John M. Gottman, and Sybil Carrere, “The Baby and the Marriage: Identifying Factors That Buffer against Decline in Marital Satisfaction after the First Baby Arrives,” Journal of Family Psychology 14, no. 1 (March 2000): 59–70.

[iii] Tone Ahlborg and Margaretha Strandmark, “Factors Influencing the Quality of Intimate Relationships Six Months after Delivery-First-Time Parents’ Own Views and Coping Strategies,” Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics and Gynecology 27, no. 3 (September 2006): 163–72.

[iv] Rosemary Messmer, Lynn D. Miller, and Christine M. Yu, “The Relationship Between Parent-Infant Bed Sharing and Marital Satisfaction for Mothers of Infants,” Family Relations 61, no. 5 (December 2012): 798–810.

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