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Love Lost?

Returning to Romance

WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD

Jan. 22, 2001 -- In the old days, Bill and Heather McGill, both 33, sometimes wouldn't go out until 11 p.m. on weekends. "Living in Chicago, there was always something to do," says Bill, a certified financial planner.

 

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So the McGills (not their real name) would catch a movie and dinner, often staying out until 3 a.m. Then, after 10 years of being a couple, and a year after they got married, their firstborn, a son, arrived.

 

"When you have a kid," says Bill, laughing, "you're in bed by 11."

 

"It was a total lifestyle change," Heather says. And not just for their social life. " Romance was ..." Heather's voice trails off. "God, I don't think there was much." Bill echoes the question. "Sex? It didn't happen. Our boy was a vampire. He would stay up until all hours."

 

Adjusting to a tiny new family member has never been easy. Over the years, researchers have found that when a baby enters the family, the marriage can suffer and even disintegrate. A third of all divorces occur within the first five years of a marriage, according to 1991 data from the National Center for Health Statistics. And for many couples, that slippery slope to divorce begins with a decline in the wife's marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives, numerous studies have shown, including one appearing in December 1998 in Marriage and Family Review.

 

More recently, however, a study by University of Washington researchers has found that marital satisfaction doesn't have to decline after the firstborn arrives. Some couples maintain the same level -- or even boost it -- despite a nonstop schedule of diapering, feeding, and working.

The Satisfaction Study

In work appearing in the Journal of Family Psychology in March 2000, Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, a doctoral student and the lead author, and her co-researchers (including University of Washington psychology professor John Gottman, well known for his research on the marital bond) followed 82 newlywed couples for four to six years. During the study, 43 couples became parents and 39 did not. Using interviews and questionnaires, their marital satisfaction was measured annually in several categories: fondness and affection; "we-ness" (the tendency to use terms that indicated unity in the marriage); "expansiveness" (the degree of expressiveness about the relationship); negativity; and disappointment/disillusionment. Declines in marital satisfaction were noted both among new fathers and new mothers, Shapiro says. Yet since the trend appeared to be significantly more pronounced in the women, the researchers elected to zero in on that group.

 

Among the new moms, 67% reported declines in satisfaction. But when the researchers looked at the 33% who maintained the same level of satisfaction or increased it, they identified specific strategies that seemed to help. These included:

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