Coping With the Stress Children Add to a Marriage

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Sometimes the addition of kids can lead to marriage problems you may not have expected. It's a common experience: You had a wonderfully romantic relationship—then you add kids to the mix and everything's a little more stressful, less romantic, and less satisfying.

Some of the problems that couples face after having children include:

  • Conflicts over parenting
  • Difficulty spending time with one another
  • Fatigue and lack of sleep
  • Financial challenges
  • Intimacy issues
  • Lack of support
  • No alone time
  • Stress caused by trying to juggle kids, work, relationships, and other obligations

Adding children to the mix will bring a couple closer together, but not always in the ways you might expect. While marriage problems can be common after kids are born, there are steps you can take to protect your relationship.

Challenges of Marriage With Children

The hard truth is that a large proportion of people find that children create a significant amount of stress in their relationship, particularly when the kids are young.

According to researcher Matthew Johnson of Binghamton University in his book, Great Myths of Intimate Relationships: Dating, Sex, and Marriage, research shows that this is commonplace. There is also a decrease in relationship satisfaction following the birth of the first child.

This dip in happiness doesn't go away until after children leave the nest, and by that time, many couples have divorced or drifted apart.

Here are some more specifics:

  • Children add stress to a marriage and marital satisfaction decreases sharply when kids become part of the relationship. Interestingly, this also happens to unmarried couples, so marriage itself is not the culprit in relationships that go stale.
  • Children create stress for parents as individuals, as well as the couple as a unit. Perhaps not surprisingly, mothers take on the lion's share of childcare in most relationships. Also not surprisingly, this stress hits mothers in particular pretty hard. Most women's other relationships deteriorate to a degree as their bond with their children grows stronger.
  • The stress of children is universal. It's not isolated to certain social classes or even to specific countries or regions of the world.

Top Relationship Stressors for Parents

There are many factors that go into this dip in satisfaction, and they are not the same for everyone. However, certain stressors are particularly taxing on a relationship and an individual. The following stressors are particularly challenging.

Less Time Together

Because of the intensive caretaking required and the fact that any alone time that occurs during the baby's waking hours requires the use of a sitter, couples naturally find themselves with less time to spend together. They usually have less energy to devote to one another when they do find the time as well.

When couples have a child, they are often surprised by the amount of work it takes to raise a baby, and the toddler years are labor-intensive as well.

This can obviously take a toll on the connection they feel as they're less free to spontaneously have fun, or enjoy leisurely days together, even on the weekends.

Less Time Solo

Having kids often means that parents have less time to spend on themselves. This can mean less time for things like travel and hobbies, but also for basic self-care including fitness and relaxation.

When parents have too little sleep and too little time to take care of their own needs (as often happens with a new baby or a high-needs toddler), they can become more stressed and difficult to be around.

When one or both partners are not functioning at their best, particularly if this lasts for a prolonged amount of time, it can take a toll on the relationship.

More Demands on the Partnership

When a child enters the relationship, couples need to divide up responsibilities in caretaking, even if both agree that the bulk of the work should fall on the shoulders of one parent while the other focuses more on earning money.

This can lead to a feeling that the couple is more of a functional partnership than a romantic partnership as couples begin to feel a little more like roommates than soulmates. Because of these additional demands and the negotiation that's needed, there's a greater chance of conflict.

Additionally, when partners have different responsibilities, it's possible for one or the other to feel resentful if they feel they're working harder.

Without a frame of reference for what the other partner is dealing with, it's easier for new parents to feel that they should be handling things differently and feel frustrated as a result.

Special Circumstances

Not everyone experiences the following challenges, but they can put a particular strain on a family. These are special circumstances that create significant additional stress:

  • A child with a high-needs temperament
  • A family member with health challenges, including physical and mental health issues
  • Extreme financial strain
  • A lack of practical support from friends, family, or neighbors who can offer assistance

What Children Add to a Marriage

The good news is that, although some studies show that marital satisfaction doesn't rise significantly until children leave the nest, having children is worth the effort in other ways.

Children Enhance Our Altruism

Other research shows that giving to others and expressing altruism is beneficial for our overall well-being, and having children certainly provides opportunities to give of ourselves.

Children Reduce the Likelihood of Divorce

While new parents may feel less happy, they are also less likely to divorce following children. This may be because they are more motivated to keep their partnership together for the sake of their children.

Regardless of the reasons, this increased commitment can help them weather the challenges they face and maintain their connection until happier times return.

Parents Themselves Say It's Worth It

While these challenges can be difficult for a couple to face, virtually all parents say the sacrifices they make are worth it and they couldn't (or wouldn't want to) imagine their lives without their kids.

They say their children bring their life meaning. This can bring significant benefits as research shows that those who have meaning in their lives tend to be happier.

Coping With Post-Kids Marriage Problems

If you're feeling stressed or that there is some strain on your relationship, you're not alone and you're not necessarily doing something wrong. There are many things you can and should do to safeguard your own happiness and your connection to your partner.

Managing the stress you face as parents can help you to preserve the happiness you've had, and to build more positive feelings and experiences from here on.

While these things may be difficult to do, especially when you feel burdened with responsibility, they are worth it. After all, marriage problems in themselves are a burden so taking these steps may help alleviate them.

Find Social Support

Your partner isn't the only one who can help you to increase your relationship bliss. Family members, friends, and even people you hire can help you to stress less and enjoy your time together more. Here are some ideas to keep things happier.

  • Spend time with your partner and do things together without your children.
  • Get support from people like friends, parents, family members, or neighbors.
  • Create an emotional support system where you can talk about difficult aspects of parenting and marriage.
  • Find ways to minimize social stress, such as competitive parents, unsolicited advice, or your own tendency for social comparison.

Practice Self Care

It is important for you to take care of yourself and your own needs, and not just those of your children. It's important to keep your body in good health so you have the physical and emotional stamina to do what needs to be done.

  • Make sure you're getting enough sleep, even if it means asking someone to watch your kids so you can take a nap.
  • Eat balanced, nutritious meals.
  • Find some time for yourself whenever possible. Set aside time to do nothing if you can, but even running errands alone can help.
  • Spend time pursuing hobbies or interests that you love, even if it's only for a few minutes each day.

Work on Maintaining Balance

There is a lot of talk about "balance," but that is because it is so important for stress management. That means maintaining a balance in all areas: balancing work with play, balancing meeting your needs with your kids' needs and your partner's needs, balancing time spent away from home and time spent with family, and other balances.

Here are some important forms of balance to focus on.

  • Create a balance of kids’ activities, your activities, downtime, and sleep time.
  • Do enough fun things to create memories, but not so many that you feel overwhelmed—be honest with yourself about where you stand.
  • Eliminate tolerations when possible, find help when possible, and be present when possible.

Focus on Your Frame of Mind

The way you look at things can greatly affect your relationship and your overall happiness. In this case, there are many ways that you can focus on maintaining the right frame of mind. Any of the following can raise your level of relationship satisfaction.

  • Remember that difficult moments are temporary and will eventually pass.
  • Savor the positive experiences.
  • Focus on gratitude.
  • Focus on what you are learning from your kids and all the ways in which they enrich your life.
  • Know that a decrease in marital satisfaction is normal—and not your or your mate’s fault—but that there are many things you can do to increase satisfaction as well.
  • Maintain a regular date night.
  • Find the humor in the challenges.
  • Be patient with yourself, your partner, and your kids.
  • Have fun as a family.
  • Maintain friendships with other families and stay close with your family (if these relationships are healthy).

It is also important to get help if you need it. This help may take the form of a marriage counselor, an individual therapist, or even just a babysitter who can help take some of the pressure off and allow you to be your old selves again.

A Word From Verywell

Remind yourself that there may be sacrifices, but it's worth the effort. Savoring your good times with your partner and children is the best way to be sure the challenges and stresses don't weigh down your relationship. In the end, your relationship and your life are what you make of them.

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Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Elizabeth Scott, PhD
Elizabeth Scott, PhD is an author, workshop leader, educator, and award-winning blogger on stress management, positive psychology, relationships, and emotional wellbeing.