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Staying Lovers While Raising Kids

What happens to a couple’s relationship after they have a baby? Philip Cowan, Ph.D., professor of psychology and director of the Institute of Human Development at the University of California at Berkeley, and his wife, Carolyn Pape Cowan, Ph.D., adjunct professor of psychology at Berkeley, have been studying this question since 1975, when they saw their own marriage begin to falter after having children. That’s the year they decided to start the Becoming a Family Project, tracking couples from pregnancy to when their children started kindergarten. In 1990 they began the Schoolchildren and Their Families Project, following the first of several groups of parents whose kids were entering kindergarten. The Cowans will complete their research in 2005, when the last group of kids finishes high school.

Child checked in with the Cowans to peek into the early findings suggested by their studies. So far, the results have been clear: After having a child, couples’ marital satisfaction declines, negatively affecting kids emotionally and academically. But this downward slide is not inevitable. Some couples’ marriages remain strong and happy, as do their children.

What are these couples doing right? And why do so many relationships seem to suffer after children? With the U.S. divorce rate still high and the Bush administration considering increasing federal resources to promote marriage, the Cowans’ work seems more relevant than ever. In an interview, the Cowans — married for 45 years, with three grown children and seven grandchildren — shared what they believe are the ingredients to a happy family.

Q: You say most couples become less satisfied with their marriages after having kids. How unhappy are they? Are certain childrearing stages harder on relationships?

CPC: Ninety-two percent of those in our first study described a gradual increase in conflict after having their baby. By the time their babies were 18 months old, almost one of four couples indicated that their marriage was in distress. And this does not include the 13% who already had announced separations and divorces.

PC: One stage is not harder on relationships than another. There is a cumulative erosion of satisfaction over time. Parents of school-age children experience less depression and personal stress than they did when their kids were babies, but marital satisfaction continues its steady decline for most couples.

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