Let Parenthood Strengthen Your Marriage

How to keep your marriage strong through the baby years.

By Sarì Harrar and Rita DeMaria | Ph.D. from The 7 Stages of Marriage

Understand the new definition of a good marriage. When Ohio State University researchers tested the co-parenting skills and marital happiness of 46 couples, they found a revealing connection: Partners who admired, supported, and agreed with each other’s parenting styles when their children were babies had happier marriages 2 1/2 years later. Couples who criticized or even undermined each other’s attempts to parent their young child were less happy with each other later on.

“It may seem that a good marriage relationship would protect a couple, but parenting can change a lot in a how husbands and wives relate to each other,” says Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, Ph.D., coauthor of the study and assistant professor of human development and family science at Ohio State University. “The issues you confront in parenting aren’t typically the kind of issues you confronted before you had children. That can make a big difference in your relationship.”

Dr. Schoppe-Sullivan says her study suggests that having a good marriage before a baby arrives isn’t enough to ensure that your relationship will thrive afterward. New rules seem to settle in as partners judge each other’s parenting abilities.

The fix? Admire everything you can about your partner’s parenting. And discuss areas where you disagree, such as discipline, rewards versus punishment, bedtime, meals, and TV time.

Weave a support network. Comparing notes with other parents of children of the same age as your own can provide emotional support and a reassuring sense that no matter how busy or how crazy things are, it’s probably just normal. You’ll be far less likely to blame your marriage and much more likely to find solutions — and feel good about what you’re doing together.

But finding support for dads as well as moms can be tricky: New moms have easier access to other women with babies or small children via mothers’ groups and simply through meetings at the playground, in the pediatrician’s office, or in activity groups for children. Dads typically have less access to other fathers. Look for couples’ groups for new parents at your religious institution or make an effort to cultivate friendships with other couples, experts say. In one California study of new parents, those who met as a group with a psychologist to discuss child-rearing issues had no divorces, versus a 15 percent divorce rate over three years for parents who didn’t meet with a support group.

Of course, you need more than emotional support. Gathering family, friends, or neighbors willing to help with meals, cleaning, errands, and child care is a lifesaver — and a marriage-saver, especially if your own families aren’t available to help out. Experts say it’s smart to put together a network before your baby is born, but it can help at any time. Say yes if someone offers to cook a meal you can pop into the freezer, do your grocery shopping, or watch the baby for an hour. List people who may be willing to help out in small or large ways. Don’t be afraid to ask. Include one or two people whom you can count on as emergency contacts, day or night, to care for your baby in your home in case you reach a moment of desperation (it can happen to anyone!). Another option: Hire help as needed. A weekly housecleaner, a teenage mother’s helper, a supermarket that will put together your grocery order for you can all take the pressure off you — and your marriage.

Expect the unexpected. No book, video, class, or tip from a friend can fully prepare the two of you for the enormous changes parenthood brings. Plan to give yourself some slack, to be surprised and even shocked. This too is normal. “I don’t think you can ever say you’re completely ready for it,” says Kimberly Jordan, a Spartanburg, South Carolina, mother of two young boys. “We planned so much out, but you’re still surprised in so many ways.”

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