New parenthood can be stressful. Many young couples want to know how to rekindle a marriage after a baby arrives.
Decades of research have shown that marital satisfaction, particularly the new mother’s marital satisfaction fades as the young couple crosses the developmental threshold into parenthood.
However, Gottman Couple therapy research has indicated that a healthy marital friendship, continuously sustained, is the best protection against the stress and strain of a new baby.
Researcher Alyson Shapiro helped compile this research when she was a doctoral student working alongside Dr. John Gottman.
“We found that couples that appeared to have a strong marital friendship were the most resilient to decline in marital satisfaction when they became parents…Thus, it makes sense that working with couples to strengthen their marital friendship would help couples to weather their transition to parenthood.” Alyson Shapiro
The now-famous 2015 study, “The baby and the marriage: Identifying factors that buffer against decline in marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives,” was first published in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 14, No. 1).
One of the essential findings was that if you could educate young couples as to the critical importance of a strong friendship, it would have a strong protective influence on the marriage and help innoculate the new parents from an excess of relational stress.
Specifically, they identified a three-part prescription for strengthening the marital bond:
The Gottman research study was longitudinal. They selected 82 young couples in their first year of marriage and followed them through time from anywhere from 4 to 6 years. During the study, 43 couples became parents, and 39 did not.
The researchers paid particular attention to the quality of marital friendship, paying specific attention to interactional styles, which fostered resiliency and relational strength. The researchers noted that the key to rekindling a marriage after a baby is never to let the marital spark go out in the first place.
The study clearly showed that the more attentive and affectionate the young husband was toward his wife, the higher the degree of marital satisfaction for her. It also showed that the more disengaged or negative the husband, the more distressed and unsatisfied his wife became.
These couples were tracked over time using annual surveys and marital satisfaction questionnaires at crucial inflection points in the process. Attitudinal shifts for both partners were carefully reported over time.
The problem of how to rekindle a marriage after a baby intrigued researchers because after a baby arrives, 67% of mothers report a drop in marital satisfaction, while only 33% stable or improved satisfaction.
The couples in the study who did not get pregnant had utterly different results over the same interval.
The difference in marital satisfaction was startling; 49 % reported a decline in marital satisfaction, while 51% of the childless women reported an increased or stable level of marital satisfaction.
The Gottman research indicated that the act of becoming parents was not a singular inducement to happiness.
Instead, it was a stressor that tended to uncover and display relational weakness. Happy couples with a robust Friendship System became happy young parents with a strong Friendship System.
The secret to how to rekindle a marriage after a baby is already to have a good friendship in the first place, and if you don’t have one, to get the psycho-education and couples therapy required to do so.
The robustness of a couple’s Friendship System is highly correlated with marital satisfaction for all couples in the study.
The Gottman team observed that the childless couples were not happier because they were spared the stress of new parenthood. The researchers noted that “those people who stayed married and remained childless were higher in marital satisfaction than those people who stayed childless and divorced.”
The researchers noticed a predictable pattern when marital dissatisfaction finally emerged.
Almost half of the new mothers in the study who reported lower marital satisfaction after their child’s first birthday. This suggests that the joy and novelty of bringing a child into the world temporarily subordinate issues of marital dissatisfaction
Marital dissatisfaction emerges when the abrupt reality of parenthood shapes the daily routine. Gottman calls the months following childbirth, “a period of great joy as well as potential problems.” But these potential problems are initially hidden behind the delightful novelty of a new baby.
But after a year of parenthood… “new ways of interacting between the husband and wife–or not interacting as the case may be–have had a chance to become patterns, the joy of having a new baby has subsided, and the wives are reappraising their marriage in new less satisfying ways.” Alyson Shapiro.
The Gottman team in 2015 also found that the new dad’s marital satisfaction decreased after the baby came but to a lesser degree. While 67% of new moms reported a drop in marital satisfaction, only 56% of new dads said the same.
The Gottman research team noticed that new dads were acutely sensitive to the degree of their wife’s marital satisfaction.
Gottman observed, “The effect is delayed in husbands, but very real,”
The Gottman team emphasized a new dad’s ability to adjust his attitude is essential to maintain marital satisfaction. A happy marriage, Gottman explained was achieved by “husbands who make the philosophical transition that moms tend to make when they become dads… are closer to their wives.”
Ideally, the husband will adjust to considering the whole family before himself. “What we see over the transition to parenthood is if the husband is aware of his wife and attentive, it helps them make it through this stressful time,” noted Shapiro. “Similarly, when the wife is aware of her husband and his contribution, she is more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt when she may be preoccupied with the baby.” This is how to avoid Negative Sentiment Override from seeping into the relationship.
The degree of marital satisfaction enjoyed by a young couple flows from the quality of their marital communication.
And marital communication is a teachable skill.
Essentially, the old chestnut of “happy wife, happy life” has been confirmed. Gottman succinctly noted that “happy marriages make for happy parents.” Gottman also went on to observe that “generally it is the happier couples who move on to become parents.”
And the emotional connection established by mom and dad shapes how children develop over time. Your Marital Friendship, (or lack thereof), will echo through time and shape how your children respond to you and others as they grow.
“Much of today’s popular advice to parents ignores emotion,” says Dr. Gottman. “Instead, it relies on child-rearing theories that address children’s misbehavior but disregards the feelings that underlie that misbehavior. The ultimate goal of raising children should not be simply to have an obedient and compliant child. Most parents hope for much more for their children.”
The most significant takeaway from this research is that when a young couple nurtures and develops their Friendship System, they are already well on their way to minimizing the exposure of their unborn children to destructive marital conflict.
The answer to how to rekindle a marriage after a baby is to work on your Marital Friendship. And that friendship serves and shapes your family’s future as well.
This is why Gottman developed the hugely effective psycho-educational program “Bringing Baby Home” Some couples, however, may benefit from a more personal and direct intervention, such as a couples retreat.
Daniel is a Marriage and Family Therapist. He is the Blog Editor. He currently works online seeing couples from Massachusetts at Couples Therapy Inc. He uses EFT, Gottman Method, Solution-focused and the Developmental Model in his approaches.
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