Ah, the joys of raising children: The pitter-patter of little feet, the tiny plump hands slipped into yours, the first day of school...and the bitter arguments with your spouse over who gets to go to the gym after work tonight.
While children are wonderful, there's no question that their arrival can put strains on a marriage. Between the lack of sleep, fragmented attention, and, in some cases, strained finances, parents often find themselves losing the connection that brought them together in the first place -- if not fighting like cats and dogs over who does more housework, who pays more bills, and who knows best how to raise a child.
A recent study of 218 couples over the first eight years of marriage found a sudden negative aspect to measures such as relationship satisfaction once couples became parents, compared to those who didn't. And while the researchers found that childless marriages also lose some luster over time, having babies takes the shine off faster than when couples remain child-free.
The Importance of the Marital Bond
"The writer Nora Ephron once said, 'Having a baby is like throwing a hand grenade into a marriage,'" says Charles Schmitz, PhD. "I've always thought that was pretty apt." Schmitz, who is dean emeritus of counseling and family therapy at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and his wife, Elizabeth Schmitz, EdD, president of Successful Marriage Reflections, LLC, have studied thousands of couples in 45 countries in their search for the secrets to a happy marriage. And one of the key ones, they say, is figuring out what your priorities are and should be.
"The relationship between husband and wife should trump everything else," Charles says. "You have to keep it strong, keep the romantic energy. Everything else comes from that. Children are beautiful, but they're not the sole purpose of marriage."
That's why, they say, when married-with-children couples start to bicker or grow apart, it's time to change the patterns they have fallen into. "We believe that sometimes you have to jolt your marriage from negative to positive," Elizabeth says.
"If your husband comes home and you immediately start arguing about housework, you have to change the conversation. Don't start with complaints. Start with an expression of appreciation."
Tips for Keeping Your Marriage Strong
Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz traveled the world to study thousands of successful couples. Their book, Building a Love That Lasts: The Seven Surprising Secrets of Successful Marriage, details what they learned, including these findings:
Time in -- Whether it's a date night, a walk in the park, or going for a bike ride, "you have to spend time together to keep the flame alive," Elizabeth says. "You have to allow time for each other."
Time out -- Conversely, alone time is also crucial. "In the best marriages, spouses allow each other time for solitude, so they can think private thoughts or just get things done," Elizabeth says.
Touchy, touchy -- Successful couples use the "Morse code of marriage," Charles says. "It's called touching. It's a substitute for talking about feelings. You are saying, 'I love you so much I have to touch you.'"