It’s a crossroads that countless couples have encountered: Their marriage has become unhappy and unsatisfying. But they fear hurting their children by divorcing.
Should you stay in your marriage for the kids, or end it? Both choices are painful. Which one is better?
Each couple has to ultimately decide what’s right for them and their family. But I do believe there’s a wise way couples can approach this life-altering decision.
A caveat before I go on: This advice is for people in unhappy marriages, not relationships that are marked by abuse and aggression. If you’re in a situation like this, please seek professional help.
Have You Given Your Marriage a Real Chance?
For most unhappy couples, the decision about ending a marriage when kids are involved isn’t so clear-cut. You may long for an escape from your marriage, but you also know the stakes are high for both you and your children. A divorce can complicate all your lives for years. And no matter what you decide, you and your husband will still have to co-parent.
Because divorce is a serious decision, it’s not one that you should rush into. Especially since some studies have shown that a good percentage of people who divorce end up regretting their decision.
That’s why my advice to most couples on the brink is to make sure that they’ve done everything they can to save their marriage before calling it quits.
Using the Research on Marriage to Help You
If you’re intent on working on your marriage, there’s very good news. Research has given us clear insight about what makes marriages succeed or fail. If you are determined to give your relationship a chance, you can be smart and focused in your approach. If you’re both willing to put in the work — reading books, getting therapy, going to marriage workshops — you have a better chance than ever of salvaging your relationship.
Have you educated yourself about what makes a marriage work? Do you know about the four horsemen and the best predictor of divorce? If you don’t know what I’m talking about, then you have some work to do.
As a parent, if you do divorce, you want to be able to honestly tell your kids that you did everything you could to try to make the marriage work.
Sadly, not every marriage can be rescued. If that’s the case for you and your husband, you’ll at least have the peace of knowing you were thoughtful in making the decision to divorce, and that it is really the better option for you. You’ll move forward with fewer “what ifs” and regrets. And the efforts you put in should help the two of you with your post-divorce relationship as co-parents to your kids.
If you are looking for ways to work on your marriage, I want to point you toward my book Strong Women, Strong Love. I wrote it to help busy couples nurture their marriage amid their stressed and demanding lives. If you’re ready to seek couples therapy, seek recommendations from people you trust, consult your insurer’s director of providers or browse Psychology Today‘s listing of therapists in your area.
You may have read articles before stating that parents are not as happy as people who don’t have children. Of course, that’s not everyone’s experience with parenthood. But it’s a finding that we tend to explain away with conventional wisdom like “Well, having kids is hard. That’s just what parenting is.”
But that not may be the case.
First, the bad news. According to the latest research on the topic, the happiness gap between parents and nonparents is larger in the U.S. than it is in other developed countries. But here’s the new wrinkle on this topic: Researchers say that it’s possible to close the happiness gap through new policies on work leave and childcare.
It’s rare that social scientists can explain a phenomenon so completely, the lead researcher, Jennifer Glass, PhD of The University of Texas, said in an article for Quartz. But in countries with most family-friendly policies, parents were just as happy as nonparents.
So what does this mean for us parents here in the U.S.?
First, consider something that Glass says about U.S. parents in the Quartz article:
They often find parenting fulfilling, and wouldn’t have it any other way. But their stress levels tend to be high, which can overshadow any happiness to be gained from shepherding another human being through life.
Parenting in our culture is stressful. You aren’t doing something “wrong” if you are having a hard time meeting the demands of parenthood! Because stress comes with the territory of parenting, try these strategies:
Get support. Be proactive in seeking out support, both emotional and practical. In other words, you need both friends you can confide in about the challenges of parenting and friends who can take your kids to soccer when you can’t.
Strengthen your marriage. Also, look for ways you can continue to nurture your marriage so that you and your husband can support each other. You need a strong connection with your spouse to weather the stresses of parenting.
Ask for help. Much of the work of parenting, such as managing the logistics of your kids’ lives, still falls disproportionately on women. If there’s an imbalance of parenting duties in your relationship, ask your husband directly to take on more responsibilities. It’s better to ask for help than to simmer with resentment!
Advocate. Finally, you can advocate at your company and beyond for policy changes that help parents. Glass’ study found that paid sick and vacation leave were especially powerful ways to increase happiness.
Have you noticed the kind of pressure new parents face these days? Magazines, advertising, blogs and even friends’ social media pages abound with images of blissful couples and their infants in picture-perfect nurseries. Both parents look enraptured with their new baby and each other, making it all seem so easy.
That sets up some unrealistic expectations about the transition to parenthood. Now don’t get me wrong: Adding a child to your family is a time of great joy and can deepen the bond you have with your partner. But it can also be a time of great stress, messiness and strain on your marriage. We know from the research that marital satisfaction often takes the biggest nosedive after the addition of the first child.
Becoming parents means changes in practically every area of your life. And for most people, change equals stress. You may go on leave from your familiar world at your job. You can’t just dash out for an errand or meetup with friends so easily anymore. Going for a quick walk or even getting a hair cut can be hard to do when you’re responsible for a little one 24/7. All that can leave you feeling isolated and trapped.
The stress doesn’t stop there. Kids can also strain our wallets (hospital or adoption bills, daycare and on and on …) and our schedules. There’s simply less time for everything else, from work to self-care (especially sleep!) to couple time to housework.
And speaking of housework: Not only do you have less time to do it, you have more to do when you add a child to the family. Keeping up with it can seem overwhelming. And if your husband doesn’t have the same threshold for noticing that things need to be done, you could find yourself in a pattern where you complain and accuse and he gets defensive.
If the upcoming Mother’s Day is your first as a mom or expectant mom, I want to give you some down-to-earth advice that will help you navigate the transition to parenthood while also caring for your marriage.
Tips for New (or Soon-to-be) Parents
If you don’t have kids yet, build up goodwill. Use this time to practice being the best partner you can be. Be especially thoughtful, appreciative, and kind. Have fun together, and build up good memories. Perhaps go off on a spontaneous trip, or try something new together. Take advantage of the time you have to hang out with dear friends and loved ones. Strengthening your bond now will pay off in those intense early days of parenthood.
Get the stress level down! If you have the financial or family resources, get some outside help, such as housekeeping, meal delivery, or child care. Children are very physically dependent for the first few years and need constant supervision. This can be absolutely exhausting! Hand the baby off to your spouse or someone else for a while, and take a break. Otherwise, you’ll be likely to get upset with your husband just because you’re stressed.
Prioritize sleep and rest. Try to go to bed early, shift your schedule, or nap when the baby does to minimize fatigue. Taking turns being the one responsible for the baby at night can give each of you the unbroken sleep you need to refuel. Some people benefit from having a relative help out or hiring a night nanny for a while.
Work together. If your goal is to fully share in parenthood with your husband, be very intentional about giving him time and space to also bond and take care of the baby. Believe that both you can be equally competent as parents, and don’t make the mistake of micromanaging your spouse. Each one of you will have you own unique way of caring for baby. So, play to each of your strengths and divide responsibilities in a way that lifts the stress off both of you.
Be polite and respectful. Remember the basic gestures that show respect and acknowledge each other’s humanity, like greeting each other warmly or saying “please” and “thank you.” Little things like this go a long way toward maintaining respect in your marriage, and, as I’ve written before, mutual respect can sustain your relationship until you have time to rekindle romance and passion.
Love your baby, but keep your bond alive too. The parent-child bond can be very intense, and that’s a good thing. But it’s important to remember that you need to spend time together as a couple, not just as parents. Don’t lose yourself to motherhood. When you have a newborn, time may be limited to a short conversation with your husband or cuddling together while you’re exhausted. Brief moments of connection can be good enough during the very busy first few weeks of parenthood, but make sure you work toward reengaging each other more deeply and regularly over the long run.
And check out this wonderful, down-to-earth advice from seasoned parents:
If you’re about to begin, or just beginning, the journey of parenthood, realize that change and stress are inevitable, but that a weakening of your marriage is not. You’ll find more advice about keeping a thriving relationship even as you balance family, work and other demands in my book Strong Women, Strong Love.
We know from the research that marital satisfaction takes the biggest nosedive after the birth of the first child. What we don’t often hear from anyone is how children can also allow you to forge a much deeper bond with your spouse. The person you parent with is often the one person who understands and shares the fierce, protective, generous love you have for your children. As stressful as parenting can be, I think it can also allow a couple to grow closer in some pretty amazing ways.
The next time you see a father out shopping with his kids, you might need to check your assumptions.
“I’ll get the, ‘Oh, look, it’s a dad! That’s so sweet!’ “says Jonathan Heisey-Grove, a stay-at-home father of two young boys in Alexandria, Va., who is pretty sure the other person assumes he’s just giving Mom a break for the day. In fact, he’s part of a growing number of fathers who are minding the kids full time while their wives support the family and who say societal expectations are not keeping up with their reality.
According to research, the biggest drop in marital satisfaction occurs after the birth of the first child. Anyone who has cared for a newborn understands the all-consuming nature of caring for a very young baby. The challenge for couples is to integrate a little one into their lives, while retaining a sense of themselves as a couple.
Although it is certainly nice to be able to go out on a formal date, carving out the time to do so can be unrealistic for many new parents who may also be very nervous about leaving their newborn. Maintaining a connection with your spouse can be less complicated and less time-intensive than you may realize. Try these simple strategies for staying close:
1. Get physical. Eye contact, smiles, warm embraces, holding hands, sitting close to one another, or giving a quick neck massage are easy ways to maintain a physical connection without it taking much time. Resuming your sexual relationship is also important whenever you are both ready.
2. Express words of appreciation and support. Words are tremendously powerful in fostering connection. If you were a new parent, how do you imagine you would respond to your spouse saying the following things to you?
“I’m so glad to see you.”
“Thanks so much for letting me get a little sleep. I really appreciate it.”
“This is hard work, but I’m so lucky you are in here with me.”
“I miss you.”
“You are amazing with the baby.”
Kind words do not take much time to utter, but can have long-lasting positive effects on the bond with your spouse.
3. Establish yourselves as a team. Parenting is much easier when you are truly working together. Much too often, what actually happens is that Mom becomes the parent, while Dad moves into the position of being her helper. Even our language reflects this arrangement: “Is your husband helping you with the baby?” The first few weeks of parenthood are a vital time to negotiate your partnership as parents. It is important you support one another as you both muddle through the challenges of caring for a new baby. Don’t be too quick to swoop in and take the baby if Dad is struggling. If you are breastfeeding, consider pumping occasionally so Dad can bond with the baby and you can get a little rest.
If you are able to move toward one another and work your way through the challenges you face after a baby enters your lives, your relationship will definitely emerge strengthened.