Couples who retain their bond see the benefits.
“You miss me?!”
“Looking back, things really changed after the kids came,” says Roger. “We got caught up in their lives. It was all good. But you know, now that I think about it, after we had kids Emma never looked at me the way she used to.” Roger’s face is pained. He looks down and away.
Roger and Emma – not their real names – are attending their second couple’s counseling session with me. After a moment, Roger looks up at his wife. She has to strain to hear him. “I didn’t know it then, but you know what? I think that’s when I started missing you.” He looks down again, embarrassed.
Emma is stunned. She looks at Roger as if he’s a stranger. “I never knew that. Are you for real?” she asks incredulously. “You are such a good dad. I know you want more sex. I would never have guessed that you missed me.”
How did that happen?
Most couples love their children. Roger and Emma do too. When they were expecting their first, they bought cribs and car seats, toys and blankets. Later they attended parent-teacher conferences and went family camping. They shared laundry chores and worked hard to buy a bigger house. And in the process they lost each other.
The first study on the effect of children on parents, by E.E. LeMasters in 1957, found that 83% of new parents had trouble adjusting. This study was initially dismissed; no one believed such high numbers. In the 1980s, additional studies reported similar findings. And in the 1990s, Dr. John Gottman found that 67% of couples reported a significant drop in marital satisfaction after the arrival of children. The facts are in and consistent. Parenting can be hazardous to your relationship.
What is going on? Well, before children, couples focus on each other. After children, couples shift their focus from each other to the children. There is less time for romance, passion, and sex. Long conversations about everything and nothing dwindle to short conversations about baby’s developmental milestones and how to divide the chores. Fatigue makes partners irritable with each other. There is more conflict and less time for repair.
What do we do now?
So what are Roger and Emma to do? Can a relationship be inoculated against the inevitable toll of parenting? Dr. Gottman says, “Yes.” After studying more than 3,000 couples over his 35-year career, he found that couples who maintained their bond after children were just as tired, just as busy, and just as devoted to their families as were couples with relationship trouble. He also found that couples who stayed focused on each other after kids dealt with connection and conflict differently. They:
- Maintained intimacy. The “marriage masters” as Gottman affectionately refers to satisfied-even-with-children couples, stayed close friends and made physical affection and sex a priority. The dissatisfied couples behaved as if friendship and affection weren’t important at all.
So, for example, Gottman noticed satisfied couples spent about 20 minutes every day just catching up with each other. The women stayed interested in their husband’s lives even when childcare usurped their energy. Satisfied men listened attentively to their female partner’s point of view on everything from childcare to politics.
The hormones that feed sexual desire decrease for many women for months, even years, after childbirth. But that didn’t stop marriage masters from continuing to touch and hug frequently. Satisfied couples stopped counting on spontaneous sex and started planning for it.
- Managed conflict. Parents have many opportunities to disagree: about the division of labour, about financial priorities, about who sacrifices more, about child management. Gottman noticed that couples who stay connected still argued. But they argued differently. They introduced issues to each other in gentler, less harsh ways. They talked about problems and how they each felt rather than about their partner’s personality defects, as in “you always . . .” or “you never . . .” or “you idiot.”
Dr. Gottman’s marriage masters also took time to repair from arguments. They apologized. They compromised. They agreed to disagree. They took turns doing it one way or another. They complimented each other. There wasn’t one better way than another when it came to repair, but Gottman noticed, repairs were accepted as well as made. One partner said, “I’m sorry,” and the other said, “Thanks.” One partner said, “I was nasty there,” and the other said, “Yes, and I wasn’t a saint either.”
Good for kids too
The best gift couples can give their children is a robust and happy relationship between the two of them. The secret to such relationships is taking back the priority to care for each other and the relationship!