Research on the psychology of Sex: How does having children affect marital satisfaction

Mark wiens


For many couples, the initial period of cohabitation marked by passionate partnership is very brief. No sooner had they adapted to some of the changes brought about by this process than they encountered another.

Based on demographics, the average time from marriage to the birth of a first child is a year to a year and a half. For many Americans, the early days of their marriage are a matter of months, not years.

According to a 1971 Census Office study, about 20 percent of white women and 58 percent of black women were pregnant with their first child before marriage. Many young couples encounter the supplementary challenge of parenthood before they may manage to resolve many of their early interpersonal difficulties.

After the birth of the first child, marital and sexual difficulties are most common among the following couples:

(1) the previous marital satisfaction is low;

(2) Experience unplanned pregnancy.

When birth control is lacking or contraception is problematic, first children are often conceived unintentionally. Fear of unwanted pregnancy often inhibits the wife's desire for sexual activity and causes sexual dissatisfaction.

Contrary to conventional wisdom, the birth of a child does not turn an unhappy marriage into a satisfying one. The satisfaction of having children can only keep unhappy couples married.

When it comes to parenting, wives experience more difficulty and stress than husbands. Wives may worry that this will change their physical attractiveness. The overwork of caring for the baby has left many wives tired and irritable, and many complain that their husbands are indifferent to them because of the sudden decline in their partners' activities. Both husbands and wives experience increased financial anxiety.

In the past, new parents lived close to their own parents and relatives and might get help from them to ease their hard work. Nowadays, couples often live alone away from relatives. Work may keep one of them away from home while the other stays home with the preschool child. The situation leaves many young parents, especially mothers, feeling tired, depressed and disappointed with a lack of emotional support.

Young parents with one child report less marital satisfaction than those without, according to a 10-year study. The main factor that reduces couples' marital satisfaction is the rapid decline of partnership.

One type of partnership that is diminished by fatigue and the distractions of child-rearing is the sexual activity of marriage. Among couples with an infant, the husband is more likely to report sexual dissatisfaction and the wife is more likely to report worrying about her relationship than the childless couple.

Of course, there are many satisfying aspects to being a parent. These include: pleasure in seeing the baby grow and play, a new sense of pride in playing the role of parent, and a new center of conversation.

Most married people have only minor difficulties in transitioning to parental roles. But most family lifestyle studies show that this difficulty and stress grows over time and with more children.

There is a large body of research on the influence of parents on children's behavior. Curiously, there has actually been little research on the effect of children on their parents' behaviour. We know very little about how children influence their parents' sexual relationships. But the fragmented data on the subject offer some insight.

Many studies of marital satisfaction have found that, on average, it decreases with the number of children present. This fact is astonishing from the popular view that a happy marriage is associated with children. A survey of 2,480 couples aged 20 to 65 and older found that at all ages, childless couples reported higher marital satisfaction than those who were having children.

The sample included young couples who had not yet had children, elderly childless couples, elderly former parents and couples who were having children. Among childless couples, 45 percent both agreed that their marriage was happy, but only 24 percent of parents with children reported the same.

Certain factors may help explain the general decline in marital satisfaction that accompanies the birth of a child. Entertaining partnerships are a major source of middle-class marital satisfaction. The number of such activities decreases with the presence of children, as the cost of childcare increases and time is tight when children are present.

The presence of children reduces intimate self-disclosure between husband and wife. The center of communication shifts to the child's life. The rise of children has led to more debate about parenting. A survey of a large number of married people found that training children was the most common cause of arguments after sex.

The decrease in marital sexual activity begins during the first pregnancy. Even before a child is born, the continuity of the parents' sexual relationship is interrupted by pregnancy. Couples abstain from sexual activity during the last Mondays of pregnancy until the first few weeks of labor. This means that a young couple may experience abstinence for two to three months during the transition to parenthood. Later, when an infant is at home, many couples find that their sexual activity is diminished by night fatigue and the child crying at night.

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