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Happy Couples Make Happy Parents, Study Says

Couple holding and kissing their baby.

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Key Takeaways

  • Having a baby doesn't typically ruin the parents' relationship as past research and society's narrative suggested.
  • A new study reveals 81% of couples who were already happy with their relationship are still happy at the 1-year postpartum mark.
  • Having a strong foundation impacts the outcome of happiness as new parents.


You’ve heard it before: "If you're having a child, you can kiss your relationship goodbye." But that belief just might be wrong. In fact, a new study contradicts the narrative that the sleepless nights, millions of diapers, and the increased workload lead to a decreased connection among couples and marital dissatisfaction.

The study, published in the Journal of Marriage and Family in June, followed 203 couples who were having their first child and observed both the pregnancy and postpartum period. The results showed that it's possible to have a baby and still be happily married.

About the Study

During the study, couples were categorized into four groups at the end of that first postpartum year. What they discovered was that 46% of them retained high satisfaction and commitment, and 35% reported “moderately high” satisfaction and high commitment. Together, these numbers account for 81% of couples still feeling positive about their marriage and their partner, in spite of the trials of the first year of parenting.

But there’s a twist—the couples who reported high satisfaction during the pregnancy were mostly the same ones to report high satisfaction after the first year. This discovery means that the relationship you and your partner have before your baby’s grand entrance into the world correlates to your satisfaction on their first birthday. But what makes a “satisfied” couple during pregnancy?

According to Renee Solomon, PsyD, a psychologist and marriage/family therapist, couples who have a strong foundation from the start tend to fare better after having a baby. In most relationships with issues, the problem is not with the child, she says, but just reveals the lack of a strong foundation in the marriage.

“The fear that having a child will ruin your relationship comes from people incorrectly assuming that about other relationships or comes from seeing this in a dysfunctional relationship where they choose to have children,” she says.

Components of a Strong Relationship

The study reported three clear areas in which couples were happy before pregnancy, predicting their happiness after their parenting journey began. Those included lower attachment avoidance, higher relational self-expansion, and higher perceived partner commitment.

If you believe you are working with a committed and loving partner during the pregnancy, you are more likely to still be satisfied with them after the first year. The couples who were still happy had the following traits:

  • A more realistic outlook on parenthood
  • A belief that their partner helps them grow as a person
  • A lack of avoidance when it comes to connection
  • A feeling of security in their partner's commitment level

These findings held true across age and additional stressors. However, the study didn’t include a high level of diversity, but the researchers hope that can happen in the future.

“If a couple knows how to work together and can handle stress together, they will be able to handle parenting and it will improve their relationship. This requires good communication and honesty in the relationship,” Dr. Solomon says.

Parenthood Can Still Cause Separation

The encouraging results from this study do not mean that some couples won’t struggle in the postpartum months and years. This time in their lives can be incredibly trying and can bring to light issues that couples didn’t even realize existed before the baby.

In fact, Peter Douglas, LCSW, chief executive officer and founder at Humantold, says that previous research reveals around one in five couples break up post-baby.

Peter Douglas, LCSW

If prior to the birth there existed a trend toward viewing your partner more critically than affirmatively, you are likely due for a painful and despairing ride.

— Peter Douglas, LCSW

“Amongst my clientele, a consistent predictor of whether the relationship will survive a baby is if the relationship is already struggling. If there are already problems in the relationship, it may not survive a baby,” he says. "If prior to the birth there existed a trend toward viewing your partner more critically than affirmatively, you are likely due for a painful and despairing ride."

Tips for Surviving Parenthood

The good news is regardless of your stage—contemplating parenthood, expecting a baby, holding your newborn, or looking back on the postpartum whirlwind—experts have tips for improving your relationship. Here's what you need to know about navigating this challenging time.

Regard the “No-Fly Zone”

The period of time between 2 a.m. and 5 a.m. where you may be awake, holding your baby, and struggling with exhaustion, is the no-fly zone, according to Dr. Solomon. During this time, things can be said that no one really means. It's best to leave those middle-of-night snarky comments where they belong—in the past.

“It’s important for couples not to hold grudges about what happens in the middle of the night...I call this the 'No-Fly Zone' where anything can be said and no one gets upset about it in the morning," she says. "Biologically we are different people during this time."

Renee Solomon, PsyD

It’s important for couples not to hold grudges about what happens in the middle of the night.

— Renee Solomon, PsyD

Reinstate Weekly Date Nights

Scheduling a date night takes commitment especially when you feel like you don’t have time or worry that your baby will miss you. But if you want your relationship to survive, making time for each other is critical.

“[Date night] is a night where parents go out of the house, someone stays with the baby, and they do not discuss the baby. This helps the couple feel like a couple and not just parents. It is really important to help a relationship post-baby,” Dr. Solomon says. 

Lose the All or Nothing Approach

Somewhere along the way, some couples decide that the marriage is either all rainbows and butterflies or it’s divorce and doom. But the reality is that marriage is somewhere in the middle at times.

“Holding an ideal of an either/or of happiness as a function of success is a problem in and of itself," explains Douglas. "Conceiving, birthing, and parenting are messy, trying, and beautiful endeavors.” 

All relationships go through the stages of harmony, disillusion, and repair. Sometimes it happens all in one day and sometimes it happens over years. Douglas emphasizes that each stage is normal and that couples shouldn’t “expect to be in a love bubble” all the time.

“Resilience and satisfaction emerge by making room for all feelings and experiences to have a place, and to be held by the partners,” he says. “Doing so will help the couple navigate all the incredible demands, feelings, fears, accomplishments, and setbacks of parenting.”

Use “I” Statements

Creating an atmosphere of understanding and empathy, rather than blame, starts with “I” statements, Douglas says.

“If the person discusses how they’re feeling, their partner no longer becomes 'bad' or 'wrong,' and instead they’re able to share what’s happening for them internally,” he says. "Try starting with 'I feel' or 'I think' to counter a critical environment."

Prepare to Be Extra Supportive

With postpartum depression and anxiety on the rise, Douglas recommends partners prepare to be incredibly supportive in both the early months after the birth but also later. 

“Postpartum care is crucial, particularly in a relationship where one of the partners gave birth," he says. "Support, support, support...partners who didn't give birth need to show up and then some. Be involved and use your resources.”

To fully support the birthing person, he says partners need to know when help is needed and “get it, fast.” This can mean a psychologist, a babysitter, a lactation consultant, a doctor, a friend, or something else. 

Take Their Temperature

When clients work with Douglas on these issues, he recommends they use Virginia Satir’s “Temperature Reading” exercise periodically throughout the day or week to reconnect. This practice involves a special and safe meeting where couples can address issues above and below the surface. Try discussing:

  • Appreciations
  • Complaints with recommendations, worries, concerns, and irritations
  • Puzzles, confusions, questions, rumors, or gossip
  • New information
  • Hopes and wishes

Spend Time With Parent Friends

You need a tribe to commiserate with after having a baby. Dr. Solomon recommends planning some time with other friends who also have kids and who get it.

“It feels more like a community," she explains. "Parents can help commiserate with each other and have a social opportunity for both themselves and their child.”

While it’s fun to keep in touch with your childless friends, especially for those nights with a babysitter, your village may come through other fellow parents.

Seek Therapy

Individual and couples' therapy can be key for the postpartum stage. Therapy also helps you to reconnect to the idea of teamwork, which Dr. Solomon says strengthens the marriage and helps parenting become more satisfying. 

“[Therapy] allows a couple to focus on themselves and work out issues related to both the marriage and parenting," she says.

Douglas calls these moments “the fire through which a true bond and mature love can be fortified.” That means your marriage might be more than you ever hoped for on the other side of new parenthood.

What This Means For You

This study reveals that couples shouldn't assume that having a baby will harm their relationship. In fact, most couples felt as satisfied as they did before the baby at the 1-year mark in the postpartum period. Once the baby is here, there are steps you can take to improve your relationship and make it better than ever. Be sure to give your marriage the time and focus it needs so that you can become stronger than ever.

 

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  1. Leonhardt ND, Rosen NO, Dawson SJ, Kim JJ, Johnson MD, Impett EA. Relationship satisfaction and commitment in the transition to parenthood: a couple‐centered approachJ Marriage Fam. Published online June 26, 2021. doi:10.1111/jomf.12785