All too often, studies find, out in the cold. "I think couples underestimate how hard the adjustment to parenthood in their own relationship is," says Marc Schulz, PhD, director of the Clinical Developmental Psychology Program, Bryn Mawr College, PA. Dr. Schulz studies marriage after childbirth. What he and others find is that the post-child marriage isn't all cozy cooing over a smiling newborn. Instead, becoming parents is one of a couple's most difficult adjustments and plays a major role in the high rate of divorce that occurs during the first seven years of marriage.
Basically, studies find that marital satisfaction plummets during the first year after parenthood in 45 percent of men and 58 percent of women, increasing in just 18 percent of couples. How that drop affects the relationship in the long term, however, depends on the strength of the marriage pre-baby. "Couples that were having difficulties before the birth are at the greatest risk for divorce and for real significant problems," Dr. Schulz says, even though couples who were quite happy pre-baby still experience a steep drop in satisfaction during the child's first year.
However, Dr. Schulz and others also find that it might be possible to "inoculate" new parents against marital problems. In one study, Dr. Schulz and his colleagues assigned a group of expectant couples to meet with a trained counselor two hours a week for three months before and after their babies were due and compared the results with a control group that didn't meet with a counselor.
The parents that met with the counselor focused on issues that typically cause problems in the postpartum period: gender roles ("Will he ever change a diaper?"); sense of identity ("I used to be a high-powered lawyer. Now all I do is breastfeed!") and on changing work roles ("Here's your allowance, dear."). They talked about how the family's social life might change and how the families in which couples grew up would shape their own experiences as parents.
Nearly six years after the couples had their babies, those who received the intervention have had no drop in marital satisfaction; the control group showed the typical decline beginning after the birth.
Even if you can't find a similar group—or can't afford counseling —there are things you can do to protect your marriage. Dr. Schulz recommends finding other pregnant couples and forming a couples support group to share experiences. While women often do this on their own, he said, the fathers should be involved, too.
"One reason we think this group worked so well in terms of preserving marital satisfaction was that the couples were together," he said. "They were talking and listening about things that might be hard to hear if they were alone."