There is a bit of a paradox surrounding what happens to relationships when couples have children for the first time. Since the 1980s, researchers have highlighted the fact that having a child may not be the joyous occasion that many couples expect it to be. In fact, it can be one of the most challenging periods that couples ever face together. Study after study has shown that as many as two-thirds of couples who have a new baby experience a decline in the quality of their relationships.
Despite the fact that many couples' relationships may suffer once they have kids, couples with children are less likely than their childless counterparts to divorce. A study by Dr. John Gottman at the Relationship Research Institute (www.rrinstitute.org) showed that, when comparing couples with kids to those without kids, those without children were more likely to be divorced after a six-year period.
Even though scientists widely agree that going through the transition to parenthood and living with young children in the home can have damaging effects on couples' relationships, these couples are less likely to make a run for divorce court and seem to be sticking it out. The question I wonder is--Why? Why are these struggling couples more likely to stay together? This video of a couple from Dr. Gottman's "Love Lab" may be able to shed some light on this question...
The couple is arguing about how much time they spend together, as a couple, now that they have a baby. The husband believes that, now that they are parents, they need to spend more time with their baby girl and focus on her rather than themselves. He implies that his wife may be jealous of his relationship with his daughter and notes that the wife pouts about all the attention he gives to the baby. The wife disagrees and states that she is not jealous of their father-daughter relationship, but thinks that they need to focus on their relationship as a couple as well.
The wife shares that she thinks that couples who focus on their children and ignore their own relationships are more likely to end up divorcing. The husband makes the point that their daughter has actually brought the two of them closer together. They both agree that things have been better between them since she was born. Although this couple clearly faces challenges related to their role as new parents, having this new found shared focus--their daughter--has also seemingly given them something that may have bolstered their relationship to a degree; something that provides them with a shared sense of purpose and meaning.
According to research conducted at the Relationship Research Institute, this couple has been creating what we call "shared meaning"--a skill that enables couples to share their daily lives, as well as values, beliefs, life goals, and hopes and dreams for the family. Couples who make a point to create shared meaning in their lives have healthier, more satisfying, longer-lasting relationships.
In the clip shown above, the couple talks about how, ever since their daughter came into their lives, it has given them a "central focal point". The husband suggests that having daily rituals, things like feeding their child and giving her baths, actually provides them with a point from which they can build upon other aspects of their relationship. By seeing one another work toward a shared goal, for example, giving time and love to their daughter, they observe this common bond and gain more respect for one another. Seeing that they both want the same thing--to have a happy, healthy child--gives them something to strive for collectively.
Perhaps this can help explain why couples with children are less likely to divorce? If children give couples shared meaning, this may provide them with a connection that helps couples to stay together despite the many challenges that they face as new parents. Rather than allowing those new roles to form a wedge between them, parents can view them as opportunities to connect with children and each other. They can use that connection to strengthen their relationships, and establish daily rituals--like story time before putting the child to bed each day--that give them the opportunity to share values and beliefs--and create shared meaning!
To me, this means that there is still hope for couples going through the transition to parenthood, since creating shared meaning within families is a skill that can be learned! Expectant couples and new parents who would like to learn more about creating shared meaning as they experience the transition to parenthood can do so through the Bringing Baby Home Program (www.bbhonline.org). The Bringing Baby Home Program is a transition to parenthood program designed to strengthen both couple and parent-child relationships and help couples navigate this challenging period. Expectant couples and new parents who'd like to find a Bringing Baby Home Workshop in their area can do so at http://www.bbhonline.org/parenting/certified-gottman-educator.aspx. Sign up for a class today--your children and your partner will be thankful that you did!