A while back I read a post where someone was wondering how kids change your marriage. The guy who wrote it was fairly recently married. He and his wife were thinking about starting a family and he was worried about how it would impact their marriage.
It was a thoughtful question.
What do kids do to your marriage?
Do they make it better, or worse?
Do they alter the bond between husband and wife?
I’m going to go out on a limb here and guess that most people don’t even consider this. They just think hey, we know we want to have kids one day (though they probably can’t say why they want them).
And so they do.
And then they find themselves woefully unprepared for what comes next.
At first, it would seem as though children should make the bond between a couple stronger; after all, children are a product of your love for each other, right? Fine, they may also be the product of one night of bad decisions; but let’s assume for the moment that they are wanted by the couple who decided to have them.
In that case, do they strengthen the bond?
Well, it seems the reality is a bit complicated.
In fact most studies state that relationship satisfaction decreases after kids are born. According to The Wall Street Journal:
About two-thirds of couples see the quality of their relationship drop within three years of the birth of a child, according to data from the Relationship Research Institute in Seattle, a nonprofit organization focused on strengthening families. Conflict increases and, with little time for adult conversation and sex, emotional distance can develop.
In theory a baby can help strengthen the bond between a couple. But for some reason when I think of “strengthening the bond”, emotional distance is not one of the things I think of.
So why does this happen? What changes?
When you go from being single to being part of a couple your life changes. But for the most part, you are still you. Yeah some people lose themselves too much in the relationship, but their identity is still as a person (who is fitting someone else into their life). When you need some “me” time, it’s usually not that difficult to do.
When you become a parent however, your life changes irrevocably. You are now a parent fulltime, 24-7, every day of the year.
And for the next however many years, the needs of the child will always trump your own.
It’s not better, or worse (though I suppose it could be argued that some aspects are definitely better while others are worse). Looking at it on the whole though, the best way to describe it is that it’s simply different.
And in addition to your life, it also fundamentally changes the nature of your relationship.
The needs of the baby/toddler/child don’t just trump the needs of the individual – they trump the needs of the couples as well.
So as a couple one of the biggest and most noticeable changes is that you no longer have nearly as much time for each other as you used to.
This seems obvious, and something people should know going in. I mean, it’s simple math. People only have so much time and energy, and kids take time and energy. So adding them to a relationship will reduce the amount of time the couple has to focus on each other.
But I don’t think most people really realize exactly how much it changes their “couple time”, or how much of a toll it can take.
A while back I posted on stress, and on the impacts stress can have on relationships.
Basically, stress is corrosive to relationships.
When stressed, we tend to become inwardly focused. We see how the stress is affecting us and tend to forget that it is also affecting our partner as well. We are also more likely become more sensitive to and notice smaller things and allow them to become blown out of proportion. There are other issues, but basically high levels of stress can kind of make us selfish jerks.
Well, kids can be rewarding but they can also be a great source of stress.
First, they are a responsibility that doesn’t go away. In the early years they basically need us 24-7, and the weight of this responsibility can take a toll. We want the best for our kids, and we want THEM to be the best they can be. This leads to immense pressure on our ability to be a parent. When we are struggling, it can make us feel like we are failing our kids and this can make us feel like failures as parents.
Add in things like kids getting sick, fighting, trying to figure things out on their own and just being kids? Well, it can be at once stressful and exhausting.
All of which can make us less patient with our partners.
And this is even before you start looking at the breakdown of who is taking on the lion’s share of parenting duties (hint – it’s usually the woman).
Which brings me to the next fun part – parenting conflicts, which tend to come in a few different ways.
The first of these is the approach to parenting. It would be great if parents agreed on “how” they wanted to parent in advance, but chances are they haven’t even thought of it. Instead we often just go with what was modeled to us growing up without even thinking about it.
When we do this there are bound to be differences, and these conflicting parenting styles can cause serious conflict.
It’s usually pretty easy to accept that your partner is different from you and has different outlooks on the world. When those differences impact your children however, it’s easy to become possessive and defensive (mama/papa bear will ALWAYS protect their cub). Approaches to discipline is often a prime example of this
When we can’t agree on an approach to parenting, often each side is convinced that their way is right while their partner is wrong. This attitude is terrible for a couple, as instead of being a “we” it becomes a case of you vs. me.
Perhaps the biggest change that happens when a couple becomes parents is a change in roles. Before they were both individuals and a couple – probably in fairly equal parts. This is not only a life change but also a role change, as the role of parent becomes the primary one.
As a couple you likely started as friends and lovers, but now you are primarily parents and this change can result in a sense of loss and cause conflict in couples.
Marriage counselors talk about how one of the biggest complaints couples have is that they don’t feel their partners make enough time for them anymore. While they understand that the kids are the priority, they don’t feel like they are a priority anymore.
Maintaining being a couple even after kids is extremely important, and many counselors talk about the value of ensuring there is still time for the couple by carving out time in the schedule for things like date night.
Although most couples seem to understand why that’s important it is still something that often goes ignored. It’s one thing to understand why it’s important, but actually making time is not always easy when there seem to be a million other things that need to be done.
Diminished Sex Life
Going hand in hand with the changing roles comes a diminished sex life. This is an unfortunate yet understandable side effect of having kids – especially in the early years. It’s hard to feel sexy when you are always exhausted or worried about the kids. Stress has huge negative impacts on sex drive, and as discussed earlier kids are a source of stress.
Many couples say that after the first few years of kids they see their sex lives bounce back somewhat. Likely not to the levels they were at before kids, but generally to a level both partners can accept.
In some cases however, the sex drive doesn’t come back at all.
This is usually (though not exclusively) an issue faced by women. Last I checked I’m not a woman, so I won’t pretend to understand all the reasons. But from what I know it can be a combination of things, from body and hormonal changes, to feeling solely like a mom instead of feeling like a woman, to sheer exhaustion and resentment from the unequal burden that is normally faced by women when it comes to child rearing.
Sexual problems are often associated with feelings of guilt and shame, so this is an issue that often goes ignored. Some couples convince themselves that it’s not that important, or that it’s just a natural part of getting older. Or things will just come back on their own if they give it time.
It’s only true that it’s not important if both people in the relationship agree with that, and a lost sex drive is not simply a natural part of getting older. If this loss of sex drive occurs it shouldn’t be ignored as it is often a significant factor in the breakdown of relationships.
In a relationship it’s always important to have time for “me”, and making time for yourself is even more important once kids are in the picture as it allows people to retain a bit of their own identity and not get completely lost in the role of parent.
It’s still very important to balance this with time as a couple (without kids) though.
A challenge here is that many couples don’t have a strong support system that allows them to get time as a couple. So each partner ends up taking turns, going out as individuals while the other partner watches the kids.
This time is valuable, and important. The danger is that without sufficient couple time as well, each persons only real break or “fun” time comes as an individual. And when you start to associate fun, and a freedom from the stress and responsibilities of kids as also being time away from your partner it can start to create doubt about the relationship.
Family time is not couple time. And couple time is not me time. Finding a working balance between all three is needed to keep the relationship alive and well.
Another challenge presented by kids is financial. Adding kids to a family adds a new expense center. Food, clothes, activities; all these things cost a fair bit. And maybe it’s just my job, but I don’t think people get pay increases to offset these costs. So the end result is couples have less money to do things.
They also have less freedom, as things like holidays soon are limited to times that they kids aren’t in school.
It’s not that you can’t do the things you did before. It’s just that it takes a lot more planning, and you probably can’t do them as frequently.
Adding It All Up
Reading over this it probably seems as though I have a negative view on having kids, and that’s not the case at all. I’m a father, and I love my kids and wouldn’t change a thing. In fact I believe my children have enriched my life considerably.
Kids do introduce all of these things though, and they all require adjustments and take a considerable toll. In fact, indirectly I’ll go so far as to say that the additional stresses caused by kids are probably one of the leading causes of divorce. Which is ironic, as they are a product of the love a couple shares.
Kids put additional stresses on relationships, but I want to be clear that I don’t think this has anything to do with the kids themselves. They aren’t to blame, ever. What IS to blame is that people generally don’t talk about these things, so couples aren’t prepared.
They run into these challenges, and they start to believe that something is wrong. And since people rarely walk away from their kids the relationship is often blamed, when what they are going through is actually fairly normal.
Being a parent is a fantastic experience, and it can be very rewarding. But it can also be very hard, and many couples can’t handle the strain it puts on their relationship.
Making it Work
I’ve heard a lot of couples who have “made it” confirm the challenges of being a parent. And often I will hear them say things like “stick it out, and things will get better”.
Sometimes couples that are having troubles stay together “for the kids”. 90% of me is completely against that. You need to stay together because you love each other, and want a life together. If you no longer love each other for whatever reason, then it does the kids no good to have a loveless relationship modeled to them as they grow up.
The remaining 10% of me thinks that if kids give you another reason to stay together and stick it out through tough times, then that can be as good a reason as any. But that’s only if you then use this time the kids have bought you to actively work on and improve your marriage. I’ve heard of some couples who stayed together “for the kids” who then learned to love each other again and rebuild, and were happy they had done so. I think that’s great.
Ultimately you need to be with each other because you still love each other, and still want to share your lives. Not just because of kids.
More often though I think couples who split up do still love each other. And it’s really just the stress that comes with being parents that has put emotional distance between them. I think often they do still want to love each other, and have just lost sight of how. In being parents and not making time to be friends and lovers, they have lost each other.