I recently saw an article from the Washington Post entitled, "Why having children is bad for your marriage"
which was authored by psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson. Curiously, I read through the author's viewpoints, and I couldn't help but feel sorry for his findings. As a counselor that helps couples successfully navigate marital ups and downs, I wanted to add my two cents about the joys of parenting within a marriage. If couples successfully use the right tools, a marriage needn't suffer because other little bodies live in the same home. In fact, I would argue that it's not the children that damage the relationship; the real culprits are the unhealthy patterns the couple already portrays that may be intensified in a family dynamic.
Having children can be good for your marriage! Parenting offers more soul-touching ways to serve your spouse, show kindness, and form bonds beyond yourselves. There's nothing so loving as a Dad who take the kids outside so Mom can relax after a rough day. There's nothing like seeing your wife fall asleep on the sofa with a sick baby, so you can get some more rest before work. Oft expressed gratitude throughout parenting adventures brings couples closer, and parenting truly can enhance a strong relationship. However, a struggling relationship might feel squeezed, and I worry that Mr. Johnson's article faults children for the couple's existing unhealthy habits.
I'll attempt to deconstruct Mr. Johnson's points below:
". . . as a mother’s bond with a child grows, it’s likely that her other relationships are deteriorating."
Okay. Initially, much of a mother's time is sucked up by her newborn. Sleep deprivation and adjustments to a feeding schedule cause some negotiating. But a mother is not doomed to let her relationships deteriorate; they simply evolve. Single friends come visit during nap time or after bedtime. Friends with kids come over to play during the daytime so hopefully all the kids take good naps! I'll admit that my friendships have changed since having children, but I also know that I have been a slacker at reaching out to all my friends. Sometimes, I am just too busy to take a shower, and I'm not going out in pajamas and greasy hair. . . . but that's my choice. I could choose to go to bed early (rather than remodel the house) and have more energy for a shower in the morning. The point I'm making is that my habits and choices affect the outcome of my friendships. A marital relationship is similar. Couples need to balance bonding with the children and bonding in the marriage.
"Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples."
Remember my point that the real culprits behind marital dissatisfaction are the unhealthy patterns a couple already displays? Take this quote as validation. He's explaining that marital satisfaction normally declines within the first few years of marriage anyways, so children seem to speed up the decline. But I think he's failing to address the larger issue - the couple's existing negative patterns
. If a husband and wife are already reducing their conversations to work life and scheduling, it shouldn't be surprising that "flirty texts are replaced with messages that read like a grocery receipt." I often see couples in session that only know how to talk about work life with each other. They've forgotten how to discuss hopes and dreams
and vacations and soul-touching moments. Luckily, a couple can always re-learn those skills.
Having children only drifts a couple apart if the couple refuses to stabilize their marriage with bonding conversations. Pillow talk, regular date night, evening walks, and/or chats in the car on the way to your kid's soccer practice are important. If you feel distant from your spouse, stop watching Netflix together and start talking. Take up a hobby together. Cook dinner together. Form the vital, strengthening habits that enhance marital satisfaction.
Cue the need for more communication. The most common complaint I hear from couples in counseling is a lack of appreciation for their work. Unhappy spouses are slow to compliment, express gratitude, and validate each other. In session, I teach spouses how to speak kindly again. While I was finishing the required state hours for full counseling licensure, Johnny cooked dinner and put the kids to bed more than I ever did. Granted, I was lucky to be home with them most days, but I was ever grateful that my husband was willing to care for them at nights while I worked. I frequently expressed my appreciation to him. I heard him express gratitude for me in his prayers. We knew we had a plan together, and we boosted each other through those tough years.
Wives, express appreciation to your husbands for their work. Thank them often for their sacrifices for family. Share your concerns with them, and let them help you with your responsibilities. (Just because he does something differently than you doesn't mean it's the wrong way: bedtime routines, meal prep, housecleaning, etc) Talk to him when you feel stressed. Talk to him when you need a girl's night or a date night. Let him know how he can help you or compliment you or support you.
Husbands, supporting a family is more than money. It's the giving of your time, your attention, and your kindness. Listen when your wife tells you about the kid's barfing all over the carpet, and thank her for maintaining the home. Listen to your kids talk about dinosaurs and rocket ships and basketballs because your wife probably needs a break from hearing about them. Talk to your wife about your job too. Tell her about your stress, and involve her in plans for the family's well-being. Talk to her when you need some guy time or sports time. Let her know how she can help you or compliment you or support you.
"Some marriages do improve once the children leave the nest. In other cases, the successful launch of the children leads spouses to discover they have few shared interests and there’s nothing keeping them together."
Again, couples need to keep the flame alive by keeping bonding habits strong throughout their lives. If a couple focuses only on their kids' schedules, treating each other as mere roommates, then there may be trouble once the kids are gone. This is not the kids' fault though! Again, spouses are pulled apart by their own unhealthy patterns (have I emphasized that enough yet?). It is the couple's responsibility to keep their marriage a priority. To reference Dr. Chapman's research
, couples must continually speak kindly to each other, spend quality time together, offer sincere gifts, serve each other, and cuddle together. All the things that made dating fun should still exist in a marriage. Will you evolve together? Yes! Will a fun night out look differently? Yes! But the idea of "dating your spouse" will help you two remember and enrich the sparks that started your entire relationship. The Dating Divas
have some excellent ideas for keeping the flame burning.
I hope I've made my point. Parenting needn't be a drag on a marriage relationship. A couple with a strong foundation can only grow deeper over time through parenting lessons learned together. I love my husband so much more because of his fatherly role. I love watching him teach the kids how to use tools in the garage, how to ride bikes, and how to be kind. In some ways, he is more patient than I am, which inspires me to be a better person. I see all his good qualities intensified as a Dad.
Beyond the brag, we see each other more deeply because we see each other as parents and spouses. It is that bond that argues against Mr. Johnson's viewpoint that having children is bad for relationships. The relationship may be different, but it's up to the couple whether they choose to grow closer or further apart. Children will enhance, not hurt, a relationship if the couple chooses a healthy path.
Labels: Marriage, Parenting