When Kids Happen to a Marriage

I would have loved to have seen any of the Disney princess movies take us into the world of what happens after “happily ever after.” In The Little Mermaid, what happens to Ariel when she leaves her Mermaid family and enters into her new human existence? Do they decide to eventually have children? Does Ariel ever regret her decision of saying goodbye to a big part of her identity? My guess is that it probably isn’t age appropriate to delve deeper into these storylines, but it’s also too complicated of a story to tell. Ending with the newly married couple kissing under the clear blue sky while the birds are merrily chirping and the orchestra is blaring its triumphant harmony in the background seems more fitting of the fantasy genre.

However, being married with children is not a fantasy.

I am not here to sugarcoat the realities of what can happen in a marriage when children come into the picture. There is no veneer or fairy godmother that can elevate the joys while covering up the challenges married couples face when they become parents. Both the ups and downs co-exist because life, marriage, and children are complicated—nothing is black and white. I am interested in “pressing play” on after “happily ever after” because these experiences are grounded in the beauty of reality.

 

Both the ups and downs co-exist because life, marriage, and children are complicated—nothing is black and white.

 

There are countless articles written about the key ingredients that make a marriage successful. Researchers have also conducted study after study about the effects of children on a marriage. In the United States, recent studies, such as the one conducted by sociologist Jennifer Glass, show a decline in happiness among parents based on current parenthood conditions. Glass explains, “the emotional rewards of having children are overshadowed by the stress associated with contemporary parenthood in countries that do not provide resources, especially subsidized childcare and paid time off, to adults raising the next generation.” The United States is one of those countries.

 

In the United States, recent studies… show a decline in happiness among parents based on current parenthood conditions.

 

Knowing these truths, how can we maintain a healthy marriage as parents?

I am not the expert on this topic. I do not have the perfect marriage (does anyone?) nor can I stand on my pedestal and tell you we live a fairy tale life like Cinderella and Prince Charming. Therefore, I reached out to Heidi McBain, Marriage and Family Therapist, and Jennifer Silvershein Teplin, Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Owner and Clinical Director of Manhattan Wellness. 

Meet the expert
Heidi McBain
Marriage and Family Therapist
Meet the expert
Jennifer Silvershein Templin
Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Owner and Clinical Director of Manhattan Wellness

I posed four questions to them on what effects children can have on a marriage and how we can maintain a healthy relationship knowing these truths. My hope is to give us all, with the expertise of Heidi and Jennifer, the tools we need to be the best partners in our marriage, which will directly benefit the lives of our children.

 

married with children

Source: William Fortunato | Pexels

 

1. Based on your expertise, what effects can children have on a marriage? Is any of this dependent on the age of the children or the number of children in a family?

Jennifer stressed that any relationship “takes constant work and attention.” The challenge is that time is elusive when you are a parent because raising children takes up a lot of your attention, energy, and time. Jennifer shared that a common mistake made by couples is that they think time spent taking care of children is considered quality time as a couple. She warns this behavior can cause “resentment, disconnection, and a feeling of isolation” in a marriage if we allow the caretaking to overtake quality time between only the parents.

Jennifer believes the age of a child and the number of children in a family directly affect time dedicated to a marriage. In fact, Heidi said research conducted by the Gottman Institute showed that “During postpartum, the first year after the birth of a new baby, marital satisfaction decreases in 67% of couples.”

 

During postpartum, the first year after the birth of a new baby, marital satisfaction decreases in 67% of couples.

 

These statistics and warnings are not meant to be scare tactics. They are merely used to validate the experiences of many couples who struggle in their marriage in those early years as parents. You are not alone. I remember very vividly being seven months pregnant and walking into a cafe when, all of a sudden, a couple with a young child approached  us and started a conversation. The mother then pulled me aside and whispered, “You might feel like you want to divorce your husband the first year of being a mother. This is normal. This will pass.” She was right, and I wish I could thank her for sharing such a taboo side of parenting. Thanks to her candor, I wasn’t blindsided when it happened.

 

2.  Can you share any patterns or warning signs couples should be aware of that indicate their marriage may be heading in an “unhealthy” direction?

I remember having endless time to spend with my husband prior to us becoming parents. We had so much time on our hands and we didn’t even realize it. We also hardly argued in those days and had plenty of opportunities to have our own independent time throughout any given day. Now, as parents, all those things have practically disappeared due to the demands of being two working parents.

Most days, we are like two passing ships that “high-five” each other to take care of the kids and to get them to bed on time. Once they finally are asleep, we catch up with work, finish cleaning up the house, and get ready for the next day to do this cycle all over again. Time spent with each other might involve some Netflix, a quick conversation, and two exhausted parents slumped on the couch in silence. This is hardly like the steamy romance between married couples that we see in our favorite romantic movies.

 

Warning sign: lack of emotional connection

Heidi confessed, “One of the first signs [of a couple heading in an unhealthy direction] is often lack of emotional connection between the couple. This may show up as lack of empathy, physically distancing themselves from their partner by working extra hours at work, or other activities that keep them away from home. [It could be] distracting or numbing behaviors when they are in the same space together.” These behaviors, which may at first feel innocuous, can have lasting effects on a relationship over time.

 

Warning sign: feeling like an outsider in your own family and resentment toward children

Some other warning signs to be aware of that Jennifer shared include “resentment toward children, feeling like an outsider in your own relationship, feeling as though you cannot speak up about your needs and preferences, and feeling as though you have no control in your relationship.”

 

What can you do to help?

These feelings may not be ones you share openly with others and, therefore, can cause you further isolation during these heavy-lifting times. There is also shame associated with admitting that things aren’t peachy, so many would rather keep silent to maintain the “happily ever after” facade. Admitting there are problems in a marriage takes strength and courage.

 

couple arguing

Source: Alex Green | Pexels

 

3. What are some common mistakes couples with kids make in a marriage? How can they be prevented?

I remember when my first baby was born, I felt so wretched because I had postpartum depression and chronic sleep deprivation. The combination of the two did not provide a stable foundation for a healthy marriage. In that first year, months passed before I realized we hadn’t been on any date or even held hands. We were utterly consumed by parenthood. And according to Heidi, we were committing one of the typical mistakes most new parents make.

 

Putting kids before the relationship

Some of the common mistakes parents make include “putting their kids before their marriage, not scheduling time for self-care/activities that you enjoy and that fill you up individually, not scheduling date nights or time together one-on-one with just your partner, etc.”

You may feel like you don’t have the capacity to invest in your marriage due to your current circumstances. I empathize with that completely. But neglecting your marriage by putting your relationship on pause is never the solution. It doesn’t even become stagnant—it just withers away over time. Jennifer said this is a mistake couples make: when they assume that issues will sort themselves out “without conscious effort.” This is a fantasy.

 

De-prioritizing intimacy

Another common mistake Jennifer shared is when couples de-prioritize intimacy due to being parents of young children. This is yet another taboo topic associated with the unspoken realities of parenthood. When you are covered in spit up, your breasts are engorged, and your body does not feel like your own, it’s common that the last thing you want to do is be intimate with anyone.

Even when your child is no longer in the infant stage, you still may be struggling to balance all the demands of parenthood and, as a result, intimacy may not be the favorite thing on the menu on any given day. I have yet to say “It’s so much easier now” even though my boys are long past babyhood.

 

How can they be prevented?

Being aware of this consuming state you are in and how it affects your relationship is a critical sign that you need to make time to invest in your marriage. Jennifer wants others to know these mistakes can be solved by “asking for help outside of your partner when needed and, most importantly, speaking up so your needs are heard and met.” If you find your marriage to be at a crossroads, there are tangible ways you can nurture your relationship, including seeking couples therapy.

 

happy family

Source: Jonathan Borba | Pexels

 

4. What advice can you give to couples whose marriages feel distant or unstable, but they want to reconnect?

I believe in the power of therapy—therapy for yourself and as a couple. There are no easy fixes in therapy, but you have the opportunity to evaluate yourself objectively to understand how your actions have contributed to the disconnect in your marriage. Every time my husband and I have met with our therapist, we are reminded of the love we have for each other and feel empowered to make positive changes in our relationship.

Heidi also recommended couples therapy because it can be “a great place to learn about your current relational patterns with one another and how you fell into these unhealthy patterns.” Your therapist can then help you find healthier coping mechanisms so you can rekindle that connection you once had with each other.

Jennifer urged couples to re-prioritize their relationship—it deserves to be at the top of your list. Through therapy, you can have those direct conversations with your partner that allow you to voice your concerns and hopes about the next stage of your relationship. Jennifer reminded us that “while life gets very full raising children, we can always prioritize our partner and make the time for them rather than wait to find the time for them.” She’s also a big fan of introducing humor and fun back into the relationship. Laugher can humanize us and spark a much-needed reminder that the two of you have made magic together.

Remember the reasons you fell in love with your partner? Look at old pictures to take you back to who you have been as a couple. Your journey to initially find each other was no small feat. The next challenge is re-establishing your connection by being communicative with each other’s needs. Maybe when the kids go to bed, you put your phones away, not answer those emails, let the dishes stay in the sink a little longer, and instead talk about your day while you each actively listen and ask questions. Never underestimate the power of being present with each other. And date nights are an absolute must! Stepping away from the kids is a healthy way to reinvest in your relationship.


Although you may feel like, at times, your marriage is the antithesis of a fairy tale, it’s real, raw, authentic, and always has so many opportunities for hope and growth. Let’s normalize the many stages of a marriage that can occur after “happily ever after”—the hardships, the “I’m sorrys,” the “I miss yous,” and the “I still love yous.” A marriage with children can be the messiest yet greatest blessing. The end.

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