The headline you’ll never see.
The news for couples with kids is generally pretty bleak. We’re inundated by messages that children can be the death of a good relationship. That’s bad enough. But what’s even more troubling is that the reasons cited often ring true.
Kids invade your bedroom. They rule your schedule. They dictate where you go and how you spend your time. They spark squabbles over matters as trivial as where to put all the stuffed animals or which living-room arrangement will lead to the fewest head injuries (the correct answer, by the way, is to remove all the furniture and sit on bean bags). Despite all this, I have one simple message to share: Kids don’t kill marriages; adults do.
I say this knowing full well that tomorrow, yet another study will probably be published suggesting that that kids decrease marital satisfaction.
I’ve read all the research. I know it looks grim, but to my mind, we’re all far too ready to accept this conclusion. Some of these early studies were riddled with problems, including small absolute changes in satisfaction (say, 2 points out of 50), vagaries in the measurement of “satisfaction,” and finally, over-sized graphs that seemed designed to exaggerate the point. Sadly, all those flaws didn’t stop the press—or the public—from eagerly embracing the conclusion that having kids ranks right up there with STD’s when it comes to maintaining a happy marriage.
In reality, each of these studies also suffers from the fatal flaw of all field research: correlation is not the same as causation.
Simply put, marital satisfaction may well drop as much as 50-90% after having kids, but even that stark, downward trend can never be conclusively linked to having kids, alone. It’s always possible that having children is correlated with some third (or fourth or fifth) variable that deals that fatal blow to a marriage. No amount of statistical wizardry can ever eliminate this problem; it’s the inevitable down-side of field research.
Marriage vs Kids: Round Two
Admittedly, recent studies have far fewer flaws, but there’s one that the authors still haven’t managed to eliminate: some couples become happier once they have children, and, to date, they haven’t received nearly enough attention. Maybe it’s time we studied them.
Given the much cited 50% divorce rate, and the strong correlation between a couple’s adjustment and satisfaction before and after kids, we could just as easily look at the data and reach a different conclusion altogether: Many couples aren’t very good at building and maintaining a relationship, and maybe kids just speed an already doomed couple towards marital demise. The stresses of every day life place an enormous strain on even the best equipped couples’ capacity to cope. Adding childcare to the list of duties is bound to strain them even further. In my own practice, those who weather the kid-storm tend to differ from those who are swept away in one important respect: the couples who seem happiest after children have worked hard to improve themselves.
What Melvin Udall Teaches us about Kids
So here’s my whole new spin on the bad rep kids have in marital satisfaction studies. In the movie As Good as it Gets, Jack Nicholson, as the caustic Melvin Udall, complements his love interest with the following proclamation: “You make me want to be a better man.” Allow me to paraphrase Mr. Udall: Kids can make us want to be better people.
Many of my clients have embraced parenthood as an opportunity to grow. Determined to avoid the mistakes of their own parents, they examine themselves with renewed vigor: how can I learn to handle anger better before my child is born? Maybe I should look more closely at my anxiety now. Can you recommend any good parenting books?
Not surprisingly, in my own practice, these are precisely the people whose marriage seems to improve after kids. Everyone—especially our partner—is bound to benefit from our quest to be a better person. Sadly, most troubled couples never get to explore this kind of thinking. Their head is too crowded with messages that their marriage pitched off a cliff as soon as they left the delivery room.
One reason I think we’re so quick to accept the gloomy outlook in the research is that we already believe kids kill marriage. (Strangely, this idea seems to comfortably coexist with the myth that having kids can bring a couple closer. I’ll have more to say about that later.) Before having kids, we live with the terror of lost freedom—by which we usually mean the freedom to stay up late watching movies or escape for a weekend without having to give any notice. Never mind the fact that very few couples actually have time to exercise these freedoms before having kids. Somehow children get blamed for the lack of spontaneity that wasn’t even there to begin with. As parents, we’re all too quick to project our dissatisfaction onto the experience of raising kids. We start asking little of life (often well before kids come along), and then feel deeply disappointed that life hasn’t got as much to offer. The few couples who get it right end up as the exceptions to the rule—glossed over by science, and regarded by the rest of us with the same mixture of suspicion and fear we feel when we spot the neighbor who always seems to have a smile plastered across her face.
Come back next Thursday. In next week's post, I’ll be offering tips for how you can not only manage the stresses of raising children, but actively work on improving your relationship. Rather than resigning yourself to the dissatisfaction predicted in the longitudinal studies, you could, like some I’ve people seen over the years, decide to embrace children as an opportunity for self-growth. You could use building a family as a chance to feel closer.
Imagine that. The headline you never thought you’d never see.
P.S. In the mean time, if you'd like to read more, along with some tips for keeping your marriage alive after kids, check out When Baby Makes 3 and Sex After Baby: How to Get Your Groove Back. Both articles have some great perspectives and tips.
If you like my posts, let me know! Let's connect on facebook and twitter. I frequently respond to comments and questions there. And feel free to check out www.drcraigmalkin.com for more tips and advice, as well as information on my book in progress.