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Most couples start having children in the third year and after the fourth year of marriage the quality of marriage starts to decline.

Originally published February 21, 2020 on thriveglobal.com

It’s no secret sustaining marriage can be extremely hard. In fact, 40 – 50% of all marriages in the US end in divorce and 40% of first marriages end in divorce as well. Sometimes early in a marriage the natural enjoyment of being together, shared goals, activities and feelings of security and permanency outweigh any minor bumps. Then you decide to have a baby (or a few of them) and fantasize about how having a little piece of you and a little piece of your partner will be the tie that binds.

Unfortunately, the sad part of it is that the adorable babies we fall head over heels in love with can be quite the marriage buzz kill, unless we are very diligent. The average couple begins having children around year three and there is evidence that children can increase relationship stability and decrease divorce risk. But don’t overestimate the security that a baby brings to a marriage. A separate study of 522 couples found that marriage quality first begins to decline after four years.

In an in-depth study about the effect of 218 married couples having their first child (“The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: A 8-year prospective study,” Journal of Personal Personality and Social Psychology, 2009 cited on www.apapsy.net) conducted by Brian Doss, Galena Rhoades, Scott Stanley and Howard Markman, they revealed there was a sudden and continued deterioration in a couple’s relationship functioning compared to couples without children.

Some couples start behaving more like professionals running a business, discussing logistics and speaking to each other in an impersonal tone. Identity shifts occur; wife to mother, husband to father: lovers to parents. Flirty notes get replaced by lists of errands and a surprise hug becomes a gentle press to move faster or get the other to move away from the sink or refrigerator.

Still, most parents would rate having a child as their greatest joy despite the toll it often has on their marriage. I’ve found there are four (4) “hot” issues and triggers when baby makes three that can become very divisive to couples. If you’re impacted by any of them here are some tips you can try to prevent them from getting in your way:

1. Division of Labor Disagreements:

Often one or both partners feel the division of labor is unfair and feel the labor they’ve invested is being underappreciated. I recommend two strategies. The first is to make sure to recognize the role your partner plays in the functioning of the household. For example, show appreciation for how effective whomever is at taking care of baby chores/home chores or balancing both. Secondly, show appreciation for whomever is off working. Or show appreciation for how you’re both handling the challenging task of working and parenting at the same time.

In an environment of appreciation, acknowledge that if you have a problem about how the division of labor is being handled, offer a suggestion mindfully without being accusatory and be open to negotiation.

2. Parenting Style:

Since no two people are the same it’s unrealistic to expect they’ll have the same parenting style. Couples often get into trouble when one partner is seen as the heavy and the other is too permissive. Try to talk mindfully to each other about your upbringings, what you felt worked (or didn’t work) in your formative years. Then try to choose new parenting ideas or styles that might benefit your family. Concentrate on developing a singular parenting style that is different from your origins

3. Feeling ignored or rejected:

Carve out some quality time as a couple to nurture your relationship. It’s difficult to tear yourself away from your child because of guilt about time or money, but sacrificing your relationship is too high a price to pay for managing your guilt. You don’t have to be out long, try once every other week so you and your spouse can reconnect. Ask a family member, friend or babysitter to help you out.

When you’re out, focus on talking about something other than your babies and chores.

Reminisce about when you were first together, ideas you have in common, playing a card game, doing a crossword puzzle together, anything that allows you to escape and reconnect personally. 

4. Maintaining Closeness and Affection:

Every relationship needs to sustain a comfortable level of closeness and affection to stay healthy. Maintaining a comfortable level of affection important. After a baby comes keeping a rhythm going is hard, but critical. Show appreciation and invest quality time to be together. Cuddle and hold hands whenever you have a free hand. Spend time reconnecting and getting to know each other again as people, not just partners.

If you’re not making any progress and none of these tips are working for you, don’t be afraid or intimidated by seeking professional guidance from a counselor who specializes in making transition from marriage to parenthood. You could be taking a positive step towards keeping your marriage and family on the right track.