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Trouble in Paradise: How a New Baby Tests a Marriage

I vividly remember how stressed my husband was when I was pregnant in 2001. As my belly expanded, so did his stress level, mainly concerning finances. He helped found a technology start-up two years earlier that rode the roller coaster ride of the boom and crash and my pregnancy came at the tail end—when he was forced to lay off lots of his friends and colleagues and eventually sell the business. It was a stressful time in general; many of our talented friends in California were suddenly faced with pink slips as companies and magazines were closing down everywhere we turned. It certainly was the closest I’ve experienced to a real depression. So, I chocked up all our stress that first year of my son’s life to the times we were facing—until I read something extraordinary. Sixty-seven percent of couples come close to divorce during the first three years of a new baby’s life.

In the first few months after baby’s arrival, between 40 to 70 percent of couples experience “stress, profound conflict, and drops in marital satisfaction,” according to a series of studies conducted over the past thirteen years by The Gottman Institute, a Seattle-based organization co-founded by best-selling authors and psychologists Drs. John and Julie Schwartz Gottman. The Gottman Institute provides couple workshops and individual therapy; they also train mental health professionals. It is most famous, however, for its research-based studies conducted in its “love lab” that came to fame in the Gottman’s best-selling book The Seven Principals for Making Marriage Work.

Their latest research effort is focused on couple dissatisfaction in the years immediately after having a baby and is outlined in their current book: And Baby Makes Three: The Six-Step Plan for Preserving Marital Intimacy and Rekindling Romance After Baby Arrives.

“Two-thirds of all parents are significantly dissatisfied in the first year of a new child’s life. How can you be in the other one-third?” asks Carolyn Pirak, director of The Bringing Baby Home project, affiliated with Gottman’s Relationship Institute.

Their research finds that most new moms are unhappy in the first four months of a baby’s life. Dads, however, are unhappy typically when a baby turns nine months old and “dads stay unhappy well into their child’s second year. By the time their child is three, half of the two-thirds [of couples found dissatisfied in the first year of parenthood] are miserable and well on their way to divorce,” Pirak explains.

Some reasons for this include sleep deprivation, irritability, and lack of intimacy and desire—women’s sex drives slow way down through the first three years of a child’s life.

When I think about it, as sad as this information may be, it’s not actually that shocking. I recall how I received the news that a family member was divorcing her husband when her first child was just one year old. I was so worried that she was too hormonal to be making a good, rational decision. But I’m learning that it’s likely to do with a lot more than hormones.

“Having children is a complete transformation. Roles change and a different paradigm is created. They also have to adapt to the 24/7 care of a demanding newborn. It can be a real shock—especially if one partner is expecting something different from the other,” says Pirak.

With this in mind, the Gottmans created a workshop for couples of infants to help prepare them for the years to come and give them strategies to deal with the stress, conflict, and lack of intimacy that follow having a child. For instance, couples learn before they are sleep-deprived and clinically depressed to be aware that they will be in this state after months of little sleep. They also learn to deal with conflict in more conducive ways by not getting contemptuous and not criticizing one another when arguing.

To test the effects of this two-day workshop, The Bringing Baby Home project embarked on a remarkable study following 159 couples with 168 children for six years after attending a Gottman workshop.

The study, conducted in Sweden between 1999 and 2005, found that if couples are given an opportunity to explore issues and prepare for how parenthood changes their relationships, they will have a much better chance of staying together.

“This was the only research-based and tested study of couples with children that I’m aware of and it was a huge success! Out of 159 couples (who attended the two-day workshop) only one couple got divorced six years later and all others reported higher levels of happiness. And, there was even a 22.5 percent drop in the (typical) incidence of post-partum depression that we usually see,” Pirak explains.

Due to the success of this first study, The Bringing Baby Home project now offers the same workshop expanded into a six- or eight-week series. The larger series teaches the same tenants such as how to avoid marital meltdown and deal with the stress after a newborn arrives—but also has six additional topics, including advice on how to rekindle intimacy and get dad more involved.

Refreshingly, some companies are now offering the Bringing Baby Home workshop to its employees, including Microsoft and Eddie Bauer—which makes sense says Pirak, as couples on the verge of divorce are less productive at work.

Pirak, who is a master trainer, has trained and certified educators to conduct these workshops and now says there are over 408 Bringing Baby Home workshops running in twelve countries.

If you’re too busy to attend—as most new parents seem to be—take heart. Just learning that you’re not alone in your current state of distress can help. Experts and moms who have been there say it’s important to take a deep breath, take a walk with friends, and talk about it. If you find that you are fighting more than ever with your spouse, even two years after the baby arrived, it may be time to seek counseling. Hire a sitter and think of it as a weekly date. Do you have any strategies that you’ve used to help keep the bond together with your partner? Please chime in!