by Zach Brittle
You know that statistic that 50% of all marriages end in divorce? It’s actually a myth. The good news is that the actual number isn’t quite that high. In fact, sociologists have been debating it for some time and most agree that the actual number is somewhere between 25% and 40%. I realize that’s a huge range and I’m sure researchers will continue to try and pin it down.
Here’s what we do know. About half of all divorces occur within a very specific range between years four and eight. It might not surprise you that this window is often right about the same time couples have their first baby. As it turns out, having a baby is really hard on a relationship. Many couples struggle to make the adjustment, and the power and pain of their struggle often (statistically) leads them to bail.
About twenty years ago, Dr. John Gottman turned his attention to the question of why couples were divorcing so early. He and his team had a breakthrough finding when they followed newlywed couples through the transition to parenthood and discovered the actual reasons that couples were breaking up after the birth of their first child. There are at least four:
Couples Reject a Profound Philosophical Shift
Becoming a parent necessarily changes your identity. You become “mother” in addition to being wife, sister, daughter, etc…. Men discover that they’re now fathers, which comes with its own set of loaded expectations. When couples haven’t done the work of differentiating from their own parents, this shift can be hard to navigate.
There is also a profound shift in the way parents view time. Not only is there “before the baby” and “after the baby”, there is also the reality that an hour is no longer an hour. If you get 15 minutes of peace, it’ll feel like 3 hours. Time simply becomes a resource in a way it never was before. I can remember my greatest grief of “after the baby” was that I couldn’t just go to a movie whenever I wanted.
Couples who plan to stay together need to anticipate and plan for these shifts in intentional ways. Therapy can help. PEPS can help. Minimally, you need to ensure that your transition to parenting doesn’t just happen to you. Make some declarations about what “mother” and “father” will mean for you. Protect your time. Go to a movie. You’ll be surprised how simple practical choices that you make on purpose will help you navigate a philosophical shift.
Couples Don’t Protect Their Relationship from the Baby
Your baby wants to destroy your relationship. If you said to your newborn, “Hey baby, would you like 100% of my time and attention and energy, even if I can’t give it to dad (or mom)?” Your baby would say “YES!”. You need to protect yourself from that baby’s selfishness. I’m not suggesting that you somehow neglect the baby. I’m only suggesting that you get clear about the fact that together you are doing that baby a favor by nurturing and protecting and limiting him/her.
I think one of the most tragic thing couples say when they have a child is, “we became a family”. You two are already a family. The baby actually decreases your sense of family. 67% of couples report a decrease in marital satisfaction after the baby comes. That’s not fair. It’s not fair that your conflict goes up, and that sex and intimacy goes down. Conversation becomes stressful. All because of that baby.
You need to protect yourself and your friendship from this baby. Prioritize your friendship, again in practical ways. Play cards. Go for walks. If sex is off the table for a minute, hold hands. Snuggle. Make sure you’re protecting your conversations…not just with time, but also with an awareness that you’re doing something really hard and that you can’t let your outside stresses (even the baby) come between you.
Couples Can’t Handle Physical and Psychological Changes
Did you know you can go longer without water than sleep? You have to find ways to get the rest that your body and your mind need. Sleep deprivation can make both partners depressed. That depression, however mild, can also open you up to other stress responses: irritability, inability to concentrate, maladaptive eating behaviors. Let’s not even talk about all the exercise you’re not going to be getting.
It takes time to recover from childbirth. For men and women both. But especially for women who have given birth. There is also the physical reality of breastfeeding, not to mention the fact that that she pushed a human out of her body, or else had major surgery. It is normal that sexual desire may decrease dramatically, maybe for as long as a year.
Changes in roles values and identity can cause both parents to experience a shocking (if not traumatic) psychological adjustment. For some it leads to emotional withdrawal. For others it leads to increased neediness.
Awareness is really critical here. Make sure that you are aware of your body. Your mind. It’s going to change. Period. For the sake of your relationship, make sure that you focus on emotional intimacy as soon as possible after the baby’s birth. It is the key to maintaining relationship satisfaction.
Some Fathers Withdraw
The last reason that couples struggle is really pretty one-sided. The simple truth is that most of the parenting culture we live in is geared toward women. There’s an entire culture of motherhood that simply doesn’t exist for men. And for many men, the impact of a new baby is not felt until after the baby arrives. When this catches fathers off guard, it can lead to withdrawal from mom, from family responsibilities, and from the baby. This is tragic because a father’s involvement is essential for the child’s positive development.
Often, in order to cope with the changes in responsibility and financial stress, dads feel like they need to spend more time working. This can lead to resentment for the dad and loneliness for the mom. Then, and this is the truly wicked part, dad becomes even more likely to withdraw if his relationship is mom is stressed…which it will be, because she feels alone.
Babies experience this stress too, and as a result, they are more likely to withdraw from dad. This is the classic chicken/egg conundrum. Who withdraws first? And how does each feel justified in that withdrawal.
But here’s the thing dad: you’re an adult. You have a moral, ethical, personal, communal, and hereditary responsibility to stay connected to your family, even if it’s hard. Feed, bathe, play, and live with your kid. They’re interested in you. More importantly your presence is essential to the overall health and happiness of your overall family.
SO…If don’t want to get divorced, and you want protect your relationship from the standard obstacles to health, make sure that you get out ahead of these four issues. If you don’t, you run the risk of becoming a statistic. Don’t be a statistic.
About the Author
Zach Brittle is a licensed mental health counselor and Certified Gottman Therapist based in Seattle, Wa. He is the founder of forBetter, which offers online courses for couples, and the best-selling author of The Relationship Alphabet. His writings and insights have also been featured in Verily Magazine, Psych Central, Happify, Men’s Health Magazine and the Washington Post. He has been happily married to Rebecca for 18 of 19 years – year #8 was pretty rough. Together, they have two daughters (9 & 13), a minivan, and most of the silverware we got as wedding presents.
Oh I love this so much! I wish I had read this before having my first daughter seven years ago. But then again, I would have thought it could never happen to me. I was absolutely broadsided by how hard parenthood was on our marriage– after each of our three children. I think it was probably hardest after the second, but each baby necessitated a big shift for each of us and our relationship and it was hard and sad.
But the crazy thing is, once you’ve made the shift, the beauty and romance really does come back. You free yourself from a certain image of what your relationship and life will look like and it seems so heartbreaking, but then you find so much joy in where you end up.
So in the end, I guess I think parenthood has been great for our marriage. It made us grow up, individually and as a couple. It made us learn to drop the things that don’t matter and to advocate for the things that really do. And it helped us realize how beautiful it is just to sit and sip tea and fold laundry together.
I’m interested if there’s a second blip in divorces once the kiddos go off to college. I feel like now that we’ve made these adjustments, we will likely go pretty strong until the next sea change. And I feel like empty nesting while likely require huge changes of both of us and our relationship.