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Do Kids Screw Up Marriages?

By Rebeldad Brian Reid

Now that the warm fuzzies of Valentine's Day are behind us, it's time to look at a bigger question: Do kids screw up marriages? The New York Times tackled this earlier this month, flip-flopping a bit. First, the op-ed pointed out that "more than 25 separate studies have established that marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood," but then backs away, looking at separate research that came at the data from a different perspective: "the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it."

So there you have it. Kids make husband and wife miserable. Maybe.

The circumstantial evidence leveraged in the Times piece is compelling. We're spending more time at work. We're spending more time with the kids. Something has to give. The Times piece waffles on whether all of this is decremental to marriages, but let me be clear: Time is a zero sum game. Every hour at work, every minute at the soccer game (and -- let's be honest -- every round of golf or other "adult time") is a minute that isn't being spent with a spouse. These might be perfectly good choices to make for the family or the job or for overall happiness, but let's not kid ourselves. All of this has a ramifications for marriages.

Sure, there are ways to cheat around the edges. Quality family time probably makes for tighter marriages, but it's no substitute for one-on-one time. And shaving a bit here or there (or skipping that round of golf), can help the damage. So does having a long list of babysitters. But it's an uphill battle -- the Times is right on the money when they mention the importance to putting your sweetie first.

But that's a tricky process. How do you do it? Or have you accepted that the kid years will be lean years for the marriage?

Brian Reid writes about parenting and work-family balance. You can read his blog at

By Brian Reid |  February 19, 2009; 7:00 AM ET  | Category:  Relationships
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Give me a break.

Posted by: CentreOfNowhere1 | February 19, 2009 7:33 AM | Report abuse

Any stress factor has the potential to make people report less marital satisfaction. But looking at kids' impact in a vacuum is not useful, and I question how easy it is to segregate the child-generated stressors from all others in a marriage. I think that the increasing intrusion of work into our daily lives (e.g., death of the 9-to-5 work day, Crackberries, the expectation that you will check voice- and e-mail on vacation) is a much bigger source of stress than children are. But the elimination of any stress source will improve your ability to handle all the others.

Posted by: JMANY | February 19, 2009 7:56 AM | Report abuse

I am no longer married and have no children...But I have to tell you, after reading articles like this or skimming through "mommyblogs" I can see why people are afraid to have children - I swear all I hear are complaints about lack of sleep, not getting enough help from your spouse, complaints of not being able to change clothes or shower (gross!) when you first bring the baby home, the crying,colic, etc., etc. It seems like 90% of any child related article is negative!

Posted by: Catwhowalked | February 19, 2009 8:01 AM | Report abuse

Its all about expectations. If you expect that it will be just like it was when you were dating AFTER you have children, then I suppose you will be disappointed. I think we have set the "happy" bar so high that there is no way we can be as happy as we think we are supposed to be. Life has a lot of jouful moments, but it is also a lot of work and sometimes you have to do a lot of work to have/afford those joyful moments. If people focused more on living their lives and finding the joy as it comes as opposed to thinking of happy as a destination, we'd all be a lot happier.

Posted by: moxiemom1 | February 19, 2009 8:03 AM | Report abuse

Well said, Moxie.

Posted by: WorkingMomX | February 19, 2009 8:41 AM | Report abuse

I agree with moxiemom.

If you spend all your energies, focus, and money giving to your kids, there's little left to share with a spouse. I think the relationship between parents is the most important in a family - but I have several friends who totally disagree and while I understand their point that a spouse can leave but your children are a permanent relationship, I think it undermines their marriage. I can't imagine not having a close relationship with my spouse to get me through the daily grind. He can be a complete butt, but that's true for everyone.

Posted by: mlc2 | February 19, 2009 8:45 AM | Report abuse

Um, I suppose to balance that out I should also say he can be pretty awesome too.

Posted by: mlc2 | February 19, 2009 8:46 AM | Report abuse

I had an aunt who told me when I was pregnant: "You modern women don't like what I am about to say, but part of your job as a mom to your daughter will be to show her how to act as a wife, part of your husbands job will be to show her what to expect from a husband." I agreed with the sentiment, that part of raising our healthy and happy child is to give her a secure & stable home, & to show her that while there may be the occasional, that we put what is best for the family as a whole first. Not what is best for me, not what is best for my spouse, not what is best for my daughter, but the compromise of what is best for the family.

Posted by: buggal | February 19, 2009 8:57 AM | Report abuse

Moxie: I totally agree. I know a few people who thought that getting married would make them 'happy.' Then they thought having kids would make them happy. And they're still not happy - and they wonder what is wrong with them. One has to be happy (content) with who one is and what one is doing, etc, in order to be 'happy.' No outside source can really do this.
My kids give me joy daily - but also drive me crazy. They are wonderful - and I think whoever was talking about how all the stuff on these blogs about kids being negative, well, it's probably true. Even though we joke a lot about it, we rarely sit and talk about how wonderful the kids really are. And how much joy they bring into our lives. Just the small thing of being in the grocery store with my kids and having him help me pick out the flowers...well it made it fun and special. And my kid getting to the next belt in kung fu. Etc. We just don't 'discuss' these things - we discuss challenges and, it seems, try to one up each other in our misery.

Buggal: That is a very true sentiment. The reality is whatever the kids see, well, that's most of the time what they think is what is right and that's what they imitate. Hopefully when they see something dysfunctional, they learn it's not right and they break out of that mold, but that's entirely too rare.

Posted by: atlmom1234 | February 19, 2009 9:55 AM | Report abuse

When we fight, the kids volunteer themselves as referees.

Posted by: WhackyWeasel | February 19, 2009 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Did the study comment on the couples' sex life after kids? Because as a guy, that's what comes to mind first -- things change. It doesn't mean that things necessarily get worse in bed after kids, but it's not unusual for sex drives to wane after childbirth, especially for women, right?

This seems like such an obvious point that I'm sure it must have been accounted for. Still, since no one else has brought it up, I thought I would.

Posted by: Discman | February 19, 2009 10:33 AM | Report abuse

Our kids enrich our lives, give us countless hours of laughter, amazement, joy, frustration and at times sheer terror. But they've made us stronger together. The stress came with family members outside our immediate circle. In-laws who refused to accept boundaries, then took it out on our kids because they were angry with us; relatives who used our kids as whipping boys for their own. We both knew we came from dysfunctional families (who doesn't?), we were just taken aback at how nasty they became to us and how dangerous they became to our kids.
I did appreciate the comment that we're in this for the good of the entire family, not just individual members -- well put!

Posted by: StrollerMomma | February 19, 2009 10:36 AM | Report abuse

Obviously the more time you spend on your kids, the less time you have to do other things. This includes be with your spouse. But this time period does not last forever. Even the 18 years of raising a kid goes pretty quickly compared to the life span of the average person.

The problem is that people today want every thing they want NOW. They can't delay a single desire. That is why the bail on relationships so quickly (not just with kids).

I actually think my kids have made my marriage stronger. I love to look at them and see a part of me and a part of my husband in each of them.

My parents focused on their marriage almost exclusively. End result was the kids are not that tight with them. Now that my father is dead, my mother says the biggest joy she gets in life is from her children and her grand children. Unfortunately for her, her kids learned to live with out her as a real presence in their life.

It is all about balance, being patient and focusing on the good (like moxiemom said).

Posted by: foamgnome | February 19, 2009 10:37 AM | Report abuse

There are no guarantees in life.

Posted by: jezebel3 | February 19, 2009 10:44 AM | Report abuse

My children have changed my marriage in many ways. Of course there are stressors to raising children. The work is relentless. We have had to negotiate on many things including chores and our respective approaches to child-rearing. But in many ways, we are closer than we ever were before, because both of us see our kids and our families as something bigger than the sum of our parts. So just because the going is sometimes a little rough is no excuse to give up. It is not just about us anymore. There are two additional precious lives for which we hold ourselves responsible, and that added responsibility is a glue that holds us together, in good times and bad. It makes the joy feel so much sweeter, and the work that goes along with it is worth it. In a word, our kids have given our lives a new meaning, as corny as that sounds.

Posted by: emily8 | February 19, 2009 11:43 AM | Report abuse

Gonna have to hop the bandwagon and agree w/moxiemom as well. I will say, though, that our time spent w/the kids is usually time spent w/the 4 1/2 of us. We rarely do things separately now that we've downsized to one car. And I agree w/the person that said it's all about balance, but I'll add communication is key as well. Check your expectations -- your partner's kinda needs to match yours for this whole marriage thing to work. And then the kid aspect -- things'll get a tad "off" if you're ditching the pills and hubby doesn't have kids in what he considered "your" five year plan. Just talk. And then go back and talk some more. Be on the same page and all that negativity surrounding change, lack of sleep, lack of sex, I can't get him to help around the house, I'm tired of her nagging me...if you'd talked about these things it's kinda hard to now start screaming the kids messed it up for you. You can't get the time you spend away from the family back, so make it a priority to make the time you do have count.

And Brian, not to be "too" anal, but...were you trying to say detrimental? Decremental doesn't really fit here unless you reword the sentence. Lack of time is detrimental to one's marriage while a decremental aspect of one's marriage could be considered time.

Posted by: 1herndon | February 19, 2009 11:47 AM | Report abuse

The only time kids screw up a marriage is when they're allowed to ( or when it's kids GETTING married)!

Posted by: lunasatic | February 19, 2009 5:50 PM | Report abuse

Glad to finally see discussion of the taboo subject, though clearly most are in denial.

There is no question that children strain marriages. I know many that have fallen apart after kids were born (though causation is always hard to prove). Inevitable sleep deprivation + additional financial strain + less time with spouse is a recipe for disaster.

Another factor is the (age) delay in marriage which means that people have less time to enjoy marital bliss (in our case 2 months) before they get pregnant. Not to mention the disruption to people who are more set in their ways.

When you have two intelligent rational people there is chance you can work through these difficulties and emerge to enjoy the many positive things that children bring. But it's hard to believe anyone who denies the issues exist.

P.S. I love my son and my wife, but single life was definitely less stressful.

Posted by: Boraxo1 | February 23, 2009 4:53 PM | Report abuse

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