Love Lost?

Returning to Romance

Medically Reviewed by Craig H. Kliger, MD
6 min read

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.

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.

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:

  • Building fondness and affection for your partner.
  • Being aware of what is going on in your partner's life and responding to it.
  • Approaching problems as something you and your partner can control and solve as a couple.

In addition, the researchers found that if the couple believed their lives to be chaotic, they were more likely to experience decreased satisfaction with the marriage, Shapiro tells WebMD. While avoiding chaos with a newborn in the house seems impossible, Shapiro further explains the finding: "When couples in our study described their lives as chaotic, they were really telling us they were going through a lot of change in their lives that they felt they had no control over." It wasn't the chaos that was the problem, it was the feeling of helplessness about the change, says Shapiro.

The solution? View the changes and the resulting chaos as things they can resolve together. While parents can't control whether their baby will sleep through the night, for instance, they can offer each other emotional support and work out a plan so each gets at least some sleep.

Many new parents think they should tend to the baby first and the marriage later, says Mark Goulston, MD, a Los Angeles psychiatrist and author of a new book, The 6 Secrets of a Lasting Relationship.

Instead, he suggests new parents try to understand what's behind the marital dissatisfaction. Often, a woman's anxiety level increases, he finds, with the responsibility of new motherhood. She worries that she's not doing everything correctly. And the man tends to concentrate on being a good provider, no matter how untraditional the marriage, often avoiding the daily tasks of parenthood. "A woman often feels like her husband is not as active as she would like," Goulston says. And from the husband, he hears: "I would participate more, but I always have to do things her way." If a husband diapers differently than his wife, he is likely to hear about it.

Talk through these feelings before it's too late, Goulston tells new parents. Once fears are verbalized, couples can begin to work together to overcome the pressure, Goulston says, and strengthen the marriage.

The McGills weren't part of the University of Washington study, but they instinctively used some of the successful strategies identified by the researchers and Goulston. Once the initial shock of having another human being to care for wore off, they decided they needed couple time. It helps, Heather says, that her mom volunteers often to baby-sit, allowing them to go out together frequently.

Bob and Jill Engel (not their real names) are working on becoming a couple again. They were older -- 45 and 46 -- when they had their child, who's now 2. But the wisdom of middle age didn't make the transition any easier, says Jill, a therapist in Southern California. After her son was born, her satisfaction with the marriage definitely declined, she found. Before the baby, they had sex often in their efforts to conceive. After the baby was born, she was less interested in sex, partly because of discomfort during intercourse that she developed after having a cesarean section.

Eventually, they talked about how to become a couple again. "Once my husband got over the shock that someone was screaming in the next room and wasn't going away, he decided to join the party," she says.

The marriage is better -- although different -- now. "We have a shared focal point, a new dimension." It's not perfect. "We never go out as a couple," Jill says. "He thinks we should." She agrees, but has not yet been so motivated.

After the McGills had their second baby, now age 1, they found life got back to normal more quickly. They used the same strategies to preserve their satisfaction with the marriage. Yet a recent study done by Rebecca Upton, PhD, an adjunct professor of anthropology at the University of Michigan, suggests that having two children is not the cakewalk many parents imagine.

Upton followed 40 couples after the birth of their second children and presented her findings at an American Anthropological Association meeting in November. She found that "women's full-time participation in the labor market drops off dramatically with the second child. While most paid professional women return to the office full-time after the birth of their first child, over 50% change to part-time work or take a leave of absence after the birth of the second."

The implication is that such changes may have significant negative impact on the couple's ability to comfortably support their lifestyle under such circumstances, and therefore their level of stress. But Upton also found an upside: Men feel more like fathers after the arrival of a second child and tend to get more involved in childcare.

Remaining childless is no guarantee of marital satisfaction, either. In the University of Washington study, childless wives reported less of a decline in marital satisfaction than those who became mothers, but they also had less satisfaction as newlyweds than did the women who eventually became mothers. And, during the course of the study, 20% of the childless couples divorced. But none of those who became parents did.

Kathleen Doheny writes columns on medical and health issues for the Los Angeles Times and Shape magazine. Her articles have appeared in Self, Glamour, Working Woman, and other magazines.