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Do Babies Spell Doom for Marriages?

September 15, 2009
by Anne Pinckard
a black and white photograph of a couple on their front lawn with a child

Two Berkeley psychologists plot a course for “happily ever after.”

If you believe a recent study that’s been all over the news, children are wrecking your marriage.

According to the study, many couples complain of marital discord within a year after the arrival of the first baby. Another study out of Berkeley that was covered by The New York Times concluded that couples who hold on until the children leave home find a return to nuptial bliss.

It’s not that simple, Philip and Carolyn Cowan wrote in an article for the Council on Contemporary Families. And they should know—the two Berkeley clinical psychology professors emeriti have been studying marriage since the 1970s.

“Babies don’t come along and disrupt totally well-functioning relationships in dramatic ways,” said Philip. Finding nuptial happiness isn’t just about coping with the challenges of parenthood. In fact, the Cowans have documented rising dissatisfaction in marriages whether or not there are children. Every relationship has “fault lines,” Philip explained, and children can be like an earthquake—but often the marriage is already unsound. The solution: Work on the partnership first.

If their conclusion seems obvious, it’s because, well, it is. “We wind up saying things that everyone sort of looks at you and says, duh,” Philip said. Still, when it comes to a successful marriage, “most people don’t know how to pull it all off,” Carolyn said. “We didn’t either—and that’s how we started work on this in the first place.”

As a young married couple, the Cowans found their relationship buckling under the stress of juggling careers and raising three children. Alarmed by the number of broken marriages they witnessed, they began a lifelong collaboration to investigate what was happening. If 50 years together are any testament, they’re doing something right. Both are soft spoken and look to the other before speaking. One gets the feeling they never argue, only discuss.

What the Cowans discovered through a series of clinician-led group sessions is that when the question of having children comes up, the way a couple negotiates that answer is a good predictor of how successful their relationship will be. The process serves as a template for how they approach big, life-changing decisions such as getting married or buying a house. Partners who considered each other’s concerns tended to stay together. By contrast, in the Cowan’s first study of 96 couples, the 7 women who pushed their husbands into parenthood all ended up divorced by the time the child was 6. “It was a small number, but it was so dramatic,” Carolyn said.

Many couples in the studies ventured into parenthood with a plan and still ended up dissatisfied. Some had the best intentions of equally dividing parental duties—and then reality kicked in. With the increased work and stress of caring for a baby, many couples returned to traditional gender roles, since the father more often earned the most money and it was easier for the mother to stay home while she was breastfeeding. Many women became frustrated because they’d trained for a career they could no longer have. Both partners became disappointed that they couldn’t act out their vision of equality.

The Cowans advocate that couples build strong relationships before children ever come into the picture. More government-funded services and popular resources are geared to support parents, even though studies show that efforts spent on improving parents’ relationships do more for marital and familial harmony. The Cowans suggest partners experiment with different ways of speaking to and working with each other, and figuring out not just whether something is fair, but whether it feels fair—which might not necessarily mean a 50-50 split in household chores.

And when it comes to having children, the Cowans encourage couples to initiate conversations rather than make decisions. “It won’t necessarily end up with her convincing him or him being convinced. That’s not what we need,” Carolyn said. “[People must] tolerate listening to their partners and not just jump to, ‘Oh, this is going to mean that I have to either say no or yes, we either have to do it now or we’re never going to do it.'”

“And what looks like an impasse might not really be one,” said Philip. “If you could actually read inside people’s heads you’d see they get swayed, so the next time you come back at it there’s actually been some change. The discussion you’re having might seem like the end, but we’re saying it’s just a step along the way.”

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