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Kids Can Make a Beautiful Marriage Ugly

Study: Marital Satisfaction Takes a Dive When Baby Arrives

By Bill Hendrick
WebMD Health News

Reviewed By Louise Chang, MD

April 14, 2009 -- The birth of children has an immediate negative impact on even blissfully happy couples, raising stress and reducing satisfaction levels of husbands and wives, new research says.

Reasons for the negative toll kids take on marriage vary between men and women, but researchers say satisfaction levels start dropping as soon as children are born.

The findings of the study, by Brian Doss, PhD, of Texas A&M University, and University of Denver psychologists Galena Rhoades, PhD, Scott Stanley, PhD, and Howard Markman, PhD, are published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

They studied 218 young couples (about 26 years old), 132 of which had their first child in the first eight years of marriage and 86 who had no children. Marital satisfaction declined in both groups, but more suddenly among those who had children.

There was a significant decrease in marital satisfaction for both men and women after the birth of a child. Sudden increases in problem intensity and poor conflict management, and decreases in relationship confidence, were seen in mothers after birth; a sudden decrease in relationship dedication was seen in fathers.

In the couples without children, declines in marital satisfaction occurred gradually over time. Men had decreased relationship dedication, as well, over time.

Mothers with daughters had greater decreases in marital satisfaction compared to mothers who had boys. The authors write that their findings are "consistent with previous studies that have shown that male children are associated with lower rates of divorce and higher marital satisfaction, possibly because fathers of girls are less active in childcare than fathers of boys."

"Part of that might be, it's a little easier for dads to connect to boys," Rhoades tells WebMD.

Rhoades, the senior researcher, says the psychologists didn't specifically ask if the impact of babies on sexual relations was a reason for less overall satisfaction. But she adds that a new baby's impact on a couple's love life is undoubtedly reflected in happiness measures.

"In about one third of the relationship domains that we looked at, women are reporting significantly greater relationship problems caused by the birth," Doss tells WebMD. "This may be because, typically, women take up the lion's share of the child care and, if they were working before the birth, have many more employment-related adjustments to work through.

"From an even broader perspective, women often have a better sense of the pulse of the relationship because they tend to be cognitively more relationship oriented," he says. "Certainly one of the difficulties that couples face after birth is that their together time without the baby is dramatically reduced. So there is less opportunity to enjoy the things they enjoy about their partner."

Stanley says women "showed more immediate, good-sized changes in their report of poor conflict management" than men.

"I think it's easy to imagine the woman being worn down more," he says, "and just getting worn down and stressed, and then getting, perceiving, or feeling things to be more negative."

Women, for instance, often breastfeed their babies and are "more likely to be the first one up at night" when infants awake, Stanley says.

"The results of the present study suggest that parents and nonparents generally show similar amounts of decline in overall relationship functioning over the first eight years of marriage, but that these changes tend to occur suddenly following the birth of a baby for parents, and more gradually over time for nonparents," the researchers write.

"We have found that couples who have a child show a quicker decrease in marital happiness than couples who don't have a child," Markman says in a podcast on the University of Denver web site.

In a news release, Stanley points out that although children may erode "some luster" from marital satisfaction, tots also add "a whole dimension of family happiness and contentment."

SOURCES: News release, University of Denver. Doss, B. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 2009; vol 96: pp 601-619. Galena Rhoades, PhD, Texas A&M University. Scott Stanley, PhD, University of Denver. Brian Doss, PhD, University of Denver. Howard Markman, PhD, podcast interview on University of Denver web site.

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