A wife's satisfaction wanes and marriages decline at the onset of parenthood--so goes the long-accepted assumption. A new study, however, shows that a strong foundation of friendship between spouses, nurtured consistently throughout the marriage, could increase marital satisfaction during the life-changing experience of having a child.

"We found that couples that appeared to have a strong marital friendship were the most resilient to decline in marital satisfaction when they became parents," says University of Washington doctoral student Alyson Shapiro, who conducted the study with renowned marital researcher John Gottman, PhD. "Thus, it makes sense that working with couples to strengthen their marital friendship would help couples to weather their transition to parenthood."

The study, "The baby and the marriage: identifying factors that buffer against decline in marital satisfaction after the first baby arrives" in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 14, No. 1), found that a strong bond that both partners work to build from the beginning can inoculate couples from stress.

Specifically, they identified a three-part prescription for strengthening the marital bond:

  • Building fondness and affection for your partner.

  • Being aware of what is going on in your spouse's life and being responsive to it.

  • Approaching problems as something you and your partner have control of and something you can solve together as a couple.

Successful couples, says Gottman, "deal with conflict in a very different way as well. There was a respectful approach to conflict, a gentler approach."

Study design and results

Gottman, Shapiro and research scientist Sybil Carrere selected 82 couples in their first year of marriage and observed them for four to six years. During that time 43 couples became parents and 39 remained childless. The researchers studied the newlyweds' relationships to pinpoint patterns in marital satisfaction and factors that kept a couple strong during the transition to parenthood.

As revealed in the initial questionnaires and oral interviews, predictors of a wife's marital satisfaction were her husband's affection and attentiveness. Conversely, a husband's negativity, disenchantment or a generally chaotic lifestyle foretold a wife's dissatisfaction. Annual surveys, including additional marital satisfaction questionnaires administered upon pregnancy and again when the baby was three months old, tracked any attitude changes.

The researchers found that women who became mothers initially were satisfied with their marriages; after having babies, 33 percent reported stable or improved marital satisfaction while 67 percent reported declines. Among childless couples, 51 percent of the wives reported stable or increased marital satisfaction and 49 percent reported a decline.

These results do not suggest that parenthood improves marital happiness but rather, the figures represent an overall trend as happy newlyweds are more likely to become the happily married parents. Remaining childless did not necessarily increase the satisfaction of couples who initially reported lower rates of marital happiness because "those people who stayed married and remained childless were higher in marital satisfaction than those people who stayed childless and divorced."

Gottman notes that "our first 16 divorces were from childless couples" and dubs this pattern "an attrition effect."

Another thought-provoking finding was that decreased marital satisfaction was rarely evident during the interview three months after the birth, as almost half the new mothers who reported declining satisfaction did not do so until their child's first birthday. This suggests that the joy of bringing a child into the world temporarily substitutes for marital satisfaction and dissatisfaction evolves when the life-changing reality of parenthood sets in. Gottman calls the months following childbirth "a period of great joy as well as potential problems."

A year later, "new ways of interacting between the husband and wife--or not interacting as the case may be--have had a chance to become patterns, the joy of having a new baby has subsided, and the wives are reappraising their marriage in new less satisfied ways," explains Shapiro.

How husbands feel

The study findings also revealed that husbands' satisfaction declined after the birth of a baby. However, the percentages were smaller, as only 56 percent of husbands with children reported dissatisfaction.

According to Gottman, a wife's marital satisfaction after the birth of a child directly influences the husband's reaction to the event.

"The effect is delayed in husbands, but very real," Gottman notes.

A husband's attitude is a crucial component to a happy marriage, he explains, as "husbands who make the philosophical transition that moms tend to make when they become dads are closer to their wives."

Ideally, the husband will adjust to considering the whole family before the self. "What we see over the transition to parenthood is if the husband is aware of his wife and attentive, it helps them make it through this stressful time," notes Shapiro. "Similarly, when the wife is aware of her husband and his contribution, she is more likely to give him the benefit of the doubt when she may be preoccupied with the baby."

It follows that the relationship between marital satisfaction and the arrival of a baby is intrinsically linked to the patterns that predict divorce itself, the researchers conclude. Essentially, happy marriages make for happy parents. Considering Gottman's observation that "generally it is the happier couples who move on to become parents," it is no wonder then that so many births are celebrated with great hope.