Why Marriage is Hard at First When You Have Little Ones


Out of the corner of my eye I catch the evening sun refracting a delightful pattern off the equally-delightful-tasting bottle of rosé, one soon-to-be happily an empty bottle, mindfully consumed by my friend and me—a beautiful scene on a dreamy summer evening on the back patio surrounded by the lush gardens of her and her spouse’s design-magazine-worthy new home. A light breeze, chilled wine, a chorus of birds serenade us with an evening love song: Pure. Life. Heaven! Until it wasn’t, and the dreaded howl we parents know all too well charges into our awareness: the “I’m not going to sleep yet” wail of her sweet, chubby, precious 13-month-old baby very much letting us know he’s very much there on the other end of the baby monitor (one propped up on that well-deserved bottle of rosé for that new momma).

Ironically (or not), our conversation—the one that sweet, delicious chubby baby just interrupted—was about the mostly-slight (although significant) disruptions she is noticing in her marriage since the arrival of their sweet, chubby, much-sought-after baby boy. Like the increased conflict. And the decrease in marriage happiness. The uptick in tension about the little stuff (a tidy kitchen). And the big stuff (in-laws). And the downtick in affection—physical, verbal, and otherwise.

And let’s be clear: this couple? They’re an intensely-happy, highly-functioning duo with a marriage I’d put in the 99th percentile of positivity, respect, rituals of connection—all the communication behaviors that, according to the research, predict they will most likely be the elderly couple who holds hands during the walk from car to grocery store front door. (“Awwwww. Relationship goals!”)

Surprisingly (or not), our conversation that stunningly beautiful summer evening about what marriage looks and feels like in this 13th month after the arrival of child #1 was not at all surprising to me—a marriage social scientist—in any way, shape, timing, or substance. Because it’s the same conversation and nearly-identical angsts most couples experience during what we marriage scientists call “the transition to parenthood.” Oh, and as a mother of two myself who survived the grenade that was our children exploding on our own scene back in our late-twenties/early thirties and during the first decade of our wedded bliss, I could fully empathize.

Huh? Doesn’t arrival of baby make your marriage even better than before, an event to be celebrated—a life milestone meant to bring couples emotionally ever-closer together as they expand their two-ness into three (or more)-ness, co-creating their beautiful, expanding family? It can, yes.

But/also, because most couples expect that baby will bring only pure joy; pure bliss; pure delicious, chubby, cuddly, oooey-gooey goodness into their lives, it comes as a powerful (read: negative, shocking, worrisome) surprise when this bundle of chubby-cuddly-preciousness produces quite the contrary. When, whether immediately or within months after cherub’s arrival, you and/or your partner are feeling a bit like you’re tempted to pluck the wings off your little angel and fly off to a distant land where sleep is abundant, poop-filled diapers are non-existent, reading a book not about how babies sleep is normative, and the only thing on which anyone is allowed to suck on is a local IPA (or perhaps that rosé which keeps making its way into this post).

Yes, yes. I know. Even admitting you have thought about an escape route—even if it’s just for a sound night of sleep—sounds a bit cruel. And unnatural. And unloving.

But/also, here’s what no one tells you before you add baby to your family—and what most couples don’t talk about even when they’re experiencing it, a reality exacerbated by the misperception that we’re the only ones feeling this way! No one tells you that daily married life with small children can be simultaneously one of the most joyous/brightest and hardest/darkest chapters of married life. Oh, they tell you about the cooing and the ga-ga-gooing. But they often skip the “I’m so tired it’s unsafe to be driving a vehicle” part. And the “Don’t touch me! I’ve had hands and lips and little tiny fingers latched onto me all dang day” part.

Luckily, we have longitudinal research to both help explain and ease the pain of these often-tumultuous years of adding children to even the strongest of marriages—research done by some of scholars and therapists at the leading relationship institute in the world.* The quick summary of this “transition to parenthood” thing is (very quickly, because I know, I know: you’ve got diapers and latching and laundry and you desperately need a nap): Approximately 2/3 of couples experience a precipitous drop in marriage happiness in the three years after babies were born; among those 2/3 of couples, increases in hostility and conflict are the norm, as are feelings that your best ally (spouse) is now your enemy (yikes); and, for most couples in that 2/3 group, they feel more than a bit neglected, lonely, and unappreciated by their spouse even though they feel like they’re doing more and giving more and sacrificing more than ever in the history of humankind.

Most people—especially unmarried people or people without children—are a bit surprised to learn that when we look at the big picture of how happiness fluctuates over the lifespan of a marriage, the research tells us time and again (and then again, with little variation) that the happiness curve for couples looks a whole lot like a “U” if we were to graph it—meaning it starts high in early marriage, starts to drop in the first few years and while kids are young, and (thankfully) swings up again.

It’s no surprise that early in our relationships (think: dating-engagement- wedding-honeymoon-years), happiness is crazy-high (#LotsOfSex #DateNights #BuildingOurFoundation)! But—oh, man oh man—when the happiness-numbers take a nose-dive, it can knock the wind out of even the strongest couples. For some, the dip is lower and steeper. And while there is, of course, a whole host of things going on in those early years of marriage after the honeymoon is—literally and figuratively—over, you can guess what’s having a pretty dramatic impact on the bottom part of that “U”: Babies and toddlers. Kids demanding attention. Our beautiful, chubby offspring stealing (demanding) so much of our attention (and sleep. And money. And, for women, our breasts). So many of our precious resources are now re-directed from our first love (spouse) and to our new little love:

Look, his first smile!!! Grab my phone; it’s her first step! Can you pick up some more diapers? Will you make dinner while I do another load of burp cloths? I think might actually cry if I don’t get at least one hour of sleep tonight. Why are you always complaining? I always have to re-do what you do because you’re not doing it right. You never want to have sex. I can’t have anyone else touching me; this baby is touching me all day!

According to the research on this “transition to parenthood” thing, it’s the time when most separations occur. The studies also reveal that for women, the dip in happiness trends closer to the 4-6 month mark after baby enters the scene. For men, the drop is typically a bit later—closer to the 9-month mark after baby’s arrival.

And, here’s more: The increasing conflict, decreasing tender interactions, and more common tense exchanges? They’re not only a drain on your relationship and nerve endings, they’re actually being noticed—felt and processed (yikes!)—by your baby. Yes, research shows that even a days-old infant’s blood pressure rises when they hear or observe their parents fighting. And, infants born to unhappy parents are more likely than those of happy parents to not develop the necessary brain networks needed for success in school, life, and future relationships. As if that’s not enough to grab a tired parent’s attention (sorry), the research now reveals that even slight signs of untreated depression in a parent can have lasting negative effects on their babies.**

It’s confusing—right? How we get to this point—from the joy of shiny new strollers and friends showering us with gifts to arguing about who has time to even take a shower (damn it!)? Especially since by all measures and according to the magazines and cultural messages, this should be the most jubilant time of our lives—right?! We have a healthy baby. Hearty volumes of healthy food on the table. A warm place we call home. And, don’t forget about that bottle of rosé we can afford to enjoy now and again.

My friend takes a sip, glances at the baby monitor gently but with more than the veiled sigh of a tired new mom. “Maybe I should go check on them?”—meaning her spouse whose job it is, this evening, to navigate the bedtime rituals of cute chubby little guy. As if on cue, the wailing ceases. And our conversation resumes. “Sometimes … well. I mean of course, we’re doing okay. But we just aren’t connecting like we used to. I’m so tired at night. And when I suggested we see a therapist … nope. But he said he’s fine if I want to see one alone.”

“Did you know that what you’re experiencing is absolutely and totally normal?”, I assure her, a conversation that perhaps extends across three more hours, a second bottle (did someone say Costco has a sale on rosé?), and only a few more sighs before her pointer finger makes its way to the down-volume on the baby monitor. And it’s a conversation, she tells days later, she really needed—one coming at just the right time. “Because at times,” she admits, eyes filling “I’ve thought we just weren’t meant to be together.”

Oh, sista, if anyone who’s been married for more than a few decades tells you that they didn’t also think the same thing at least a half-dozen times during the bottom of the “U” in their marriage curve, they’re lying. Or, perhaps they’re just remembering their early days through rosé (ha)-colored glasses—which isn’t the worst thing in the world (the positive-remembering thing. But that’s a topic for a future post!).

Here’s the good news: Marriage and happiness is NOT an “L”-shaped curve. When you both can put in the little-by-little, day-by-day work that a great marriage requires, your “U” completes making itself with an eventual up-swing! And, here’s a fun fact: the right tail of the “U” is actually higher than on the left—meaning couples in later years (who have put in the work over time) experience a happiness even greater than those lovey-dovey newlyweds!

Until then, and if you’re in the throes of this “transition to parenthood” thing/thang, here’s my advice: 1) Talk to others in the same situation; you’ll feel better knowing you’re “normal.” 2) Secure a great therapist—and talk your spouse into going too. Therapy is education! You learn cool new skills. And, 3) grab yourself a copy of one of my favorite research-based books on this topic, replete with practical tips and hands-on strategies for getting back on track with your first love. Gently ask your partner if they’d be willing to read even just 2-pages a week with you, committing to even a 20-minute-per-week happy-couple book club—maybe a new ritual, one that involves your favorite rosé?

Because at the end of the day, here’s an indisputable fact: Having a strong marriage is the single most important thing you give your new baby. And that, my friends, is one true story that you and your spouse are writing. Be sure you make the ending a happy one.

*Gottman Relationship Institute, University of Washington. www.Gottman.com

**John Gottman and Julie Gottman’s book: And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives.


Carol Bruess, a professor emeritus at the University of St. Thomas in Minnesota, studies and writes about relationships, is highly fluent in emoji, loves parentheticals, and is preparing her best happy-dance for empty-nest-time next year (but shhhh—don’t tell her kids because they think she’s going to be all weepy). Check out her research, books and sewing/design shenanigans over at carolbruess.com.

 

 

  • Why don’t you just tell readers what the 1/3 of couples whose happiness doesn’t decrease much, do? 1/3 is a significant fraction who are clearly doing the right things, so the other 2/3 can just learn from them 🙂

  • Actually a lot of us couples without children and singles are fully aware of this, and that’s often one of the reasons we’ve chosen not to have children. It’s not hard to figure out if you have any friends with kids. It’s also something to really consider before having them. A lot of marriages don’t recover from kids. For me, I was not willing to sacrifice a really blissful life with my husband for kids.

  • Mom of an 19 month old here and – wow – does this hit home. Kudos for this post and it’s great recommendations (Gottmans are THE experts in the field for couples). The more we write about this topic and normalize it, the easier it is to talk about and tackle. Yes, 1/3 is a good number of healthy couples, but for the rest of us it’s good to know and have the resources to build healthier and stronger skills and relationships if/when we chose to have children. If you have a really blissful life then I completely support you in keeping it! But if you’ve always wanted a family, there should be support for that, too. And maybe even bliss.