by Nancy Van Pelt
Most of us grew up playing house and indulging in fantasies about marriage to a near perfect person. Advertising told us that all we needed to do was use a certain brand of deodorant. Voila! This perfect person would magically appear and passionate love would result. We would marry and have perfect adorable babies. Our perfect babies would be fed brand Eat-um-up baby food, fortified with all good things, and never get sick, cranky, or disobedient. Few even suggested that life would get more complicated than this.
But soon after the dream begins, a nightmare brews on the horizon. Something isn’t working as it should. By the time Baby Number One arrives, the perfect couple find their marriage in trouble. Life began with high hopes and a tender song. So why is this young couple finding less and less happiness with each passing day?
Let’s check out the facts. There is a decrease in marital satisfaction that coincides with children in the family. Marital satisfaction is consistently lower in couples with one or more children then childless couples. A childless couple appears more isolated from friends and neighbors, but it appears more energy is
directed toward marital support and satisfaction. Notice in the accompanying diagram that the level of marital satisfaction dips to the halfway point by the time children enter the home.
STAGE 1 — THE HONEYMOON IS OVER
Why the sudden drop in marital satisfaction immediately after marriage? Most couples are ill-prepared for the adjustments married life requires. Often romantic dreams have blinded them to the many realities that newlyweds must face. Within a few days after the honeymoon, the return to reality hits swift and deep. They are elated over the excitement of settling into their first home, but disillusionment also follows — a letdown from the bliss, glamour, and all-absorbing interest they have had in each other. Thus originates the expression, “The honeymoon is over.”
Probably the groom suffers from more symptoms of disillusionment than does the bride. Since resentment builds over his loss of freedom, household obligations, and financial worries. But brides feel let down as their new husbands begin to take them for granted. The masks that each have worn prior to marriage soon drop away. The put-ons gradually disappear, and the real self of moods and temper appears.
The first year is usually the rockiest in most marriages!
During the first twelve months, a couple faces the most problems with the least experience. In truth, the future of the marriage depends on the adjustment that takes place during the critical first year. And the most teachable time of marriage is during the first six weeks following the wedding. Gradually they learn necessary adjustments — that they cannot have 100 percent of a partner’s interest, affection, time, or attention. Employers, parents, friends, and relatives also must have their share.
During this disillusionment phase, the young bride may be shocked to find that her usually well-groomed husband wakes up with a scratchy beard and bad breath. He may find her habits of blanket-robbing and teeth-grinding real turnoffs. Other newlyweds are shocked to find out how much time, effort, and money it takes to maintain a liveable apartment. Whereas most couples are realistic enough to understand that maintaining a house takes time, they fail to recognize HOW MUCH TIME AND EFFORT it takes to shop, cook, do the weekly wash, put clothes away, make beds, vacuum, dust, keep up with yard and car repairs, mop floors, take out garbage, clear clogged toilets, scour bathtubs, scrub off caked-on grease, a nd clear away clutter.
The fact that 26.5 percent of all divorces are granted to couples married two years of less and that 51.3 percent of divorces occur before five years of marriage proves hthat disillusionment sets in early, hard, and fast. Since most couples live separately for a number of months prior to the filing and hearing of a pending divorce, it is reasonable to assume that many couples hit major trouble during the early stages of marriage and that the pattern of disharmony persists.
Each year a couple spends together however increases their chances for remaining married. And by the time a couple reaches their fifth anniversary, the possibility of divorce decreases year by year.
STAGE 2 — AND BABY MAKES THREE
For the most part, the average couple is completely unprepared for the demands of parenthood. This lack of training creates worry and stress that most young couples are not prepared to handle. The nine months of pregnancy are spent purchasing darling baby clothes and furniture necessary to welcome the little one into the world. If any child training is received, it comes from a Lamaze class for natural childbirth, which only instructs parents on how to bring a child into the world. It does not train parents how to nurture and train a baby once it joins the family.
The suddenness with which parental responsibilities are thrust upon a young couple accentuated their lack of preparation. During the honeymoon a young couple can gradually learn about each other. When an infant arrives on the scene, there is no opportunity for gradual acquaintance.
The childless couple’s life continues much the same as it did when they were courting. Usually both continue to pursue active careers. When tensions arise and problems surface, they escape them by going different directions in the workday world. Evenings, weekends, and vacations are free to enjoy as they see fit. However, children drastically change the scene. Suddenly bride and groom assume the role of parents. Family patterns are disrupted. Life is no longer what the young couple has been used to.
Married life is irrevocably changed. The demanding infant’s insistent cries interrupt Mom and Dad’s sleep and relentlessly change their days as well as their nights. They realize, perhaps for the first time, that, as parents, they are totally responsible for this helpless person and cannot rid themselves of their responsibility. At first a real sense of stability and pride elates the parents as they settle down with their baby. Their infant is a visible sign to all that the couple have begun their life together in earnest. They may not have received much attention from friends and family since the wedding, but now all gather around to welcome the new baby and voice concern for the welfare of the new parents and their future together.
At the same time, the new parents find themselves shrouded in fears and frustrations. Sleepless nights leave both husband and wife utterly exhausted. Owing to the confinement caused by their new ever-present responsibility they feel very lonely. no longer do they enjoy social and job contacts outside the home, and depression darkens their lives. The volume of household duties that one small infant produces leaves them overworked. The house that stayed immaculately neat as husband and wife picked up after themselves now becomes Pig Pen Palace. Financial responsibilities increase. And every time they turn around, they face additional decisions — about doctors, day care, formulas, discipline, and spiritual training.
The truth is the idea of having babies has been over romanticized and reinforced by doting grandparents and other relatives and friends who respond to the news of pregnancy with the same enthusiasm as to that of a wedding. Elaborate baby showers, cutesy announcements, and fun gifts follow, but after the birth of the child, most couples find themselves completely unprepared to cope with the demands of parenthood. And the younger the couple, them ore unprepared they find themselves. In one study 83 percent of the couples reported “extensive” or “severe” crisis in adjusting to the changes that occur with the arrival of the first child.
A crisis situation now dominates the marriage scene. The husband-wife relationship now competes with the parent-child relationship for time, affection, and caring. The couple gropes about in aimless attempts to reorganize their relationship with each other.
So drastically is the relationship affected that having a child during the first years of marriage doubles the chance for divorce. Since divorce rates already claim one-half of all marriages, this means that only one in four couples could make it, all other factors are equal.
STAGE 3 — THE ROUTINE YEARS
“Routine” marks the middle years. The couple now has one, two or more children and off to school they go. The romance of having begun a new family has faded. Note on the graph that the happiness level drops again, as this stage enters, but not as sharply. The major shock to the family system has already impacted on their lives. They now adjust their lives to the less fascinating tasks of attending parent-teacher conferences, chauffeuring children to and from games, meetings, and friend’s homes, supervising music lessons, and settling fights over who gets to sit where.
These are busy years. A mother of three children ages 6, 9, and 11 complained of utter exhaustion. Her 11 year old was active in sports and on two teams simultaneously. Chauffeuring this child to practices during the week and to games on the weekend was taking its toll on her time and strength let alone pocket book. Uniforms cost money. All three attended a private school which required car pooling. In order to accomplish this she had to pick up two other children and drive them to school five days a week and still get to her place of employment before 8:30. The nine year old showed a great deal of musical talent and had a weekly after school music lesson. And Thursday night there was parent-teacher conferences for three children! “I need to hire someone just to chauffeur these kids around to their lessons, games, and meetings,” she said with a deep sigh.
The daily hassles and minor stresses of parenting the young child become significantly greater and more upsetting as the child gets older. There is less time for the two to nurture their relationship, loss of privacy, less time for communication and an accumulation of responsibility – role strain.
And studies confirm coping with a child’s difficult temperament further strains the marital relationship, with husbands and wives taking their frustrations on each other. The temperamentally difficult child places an added stress on parents, above and beyond normal stresses. This added stress shows up in depression and marital dissatisfaction.
STAGE 4 — THE MID-LIFE CRUNCH
As you can see by the graph marriage faces the greatest danger during the middle years. Initially, women achieve immense personal satisfaction from marriage. They have finally reached the goal for which they have been aiming since they first understood the difference between boys and girls. But a woman’s personal satisfaction dwindles by half when the first child appears and continues to decline through the middle years.
Most women are extremely sensitive to the changes that enter the marital relationship, whereas many men are totally unaware of their wife’s feelings. As long as he has clean clothes to wear, meals on time, sexual privileges on demand — what else can a man want or expect? Yet, she may be “climbing the walls” from the lack of emotional support that she feels she must have from him. Men are more likely to settle for a business arrangement of sorts. Romance is an added benefit for a man and not the necessity it is for his wife.
on the other hand, during those early years while the wife’s personal satisfaction is high, the husband’s sense of satisfaction is low. Why? When they married, he was studying or working toward job success, or accepted a low status job just to support his family. Gradually over the years he worked his way up. Now, as he enters his 40′s, he has a position of status and greater financial security than ever before. While his satisfaction escalates, hers takes a nosedive. She grapples with exasperation over how to communicate her emptiness of body, soul, and spirit. Another crisis in the making.
Add to this personal crisis the challenge of raising teenagers and launching them into a healthy, happy lifestyle. Until the teen years, a youngster more or less accepts parental guidance, with a little persuasion. During the teen years, however, he suddenly wants every sentence verified. The child who once seemed content now seems troubled, restless, and easily upset. Previous methods of discipline become ineffective. Self-esteem takes a nose dive. Responsibility becomes a thing of the past. Family closeness seems unattainable. He never wants to stay at home with the family anymore and acts like it is a crime to be seen in the presence of parents. Emotional highs and lows, bursts of temper, and periods of sluggishness escalate.
Tension between husband and wife is bound to increase as tension with older children increases. Major decisions must be faced regarding dating, schooling, activities, peer groups, sexual conduct, and career goals. Any dissimilarity in the couple’s background, methods of discipline, or future expectations for the children now come into sharp contrast.
Parenting teenagers becomes more stressful if there is a refusal to abide by reasonable household rules; ignores curfews; habitually experiments with alcohol, drugs, and/or sex; has repeated brushes with the law; or appears in bizarre fashions; or in short, totally refuses to cooperate in family or social responsibilities.
In order to live harmoniously at this time of life, the ideals of family living must be blended into one goal. In some families this transition occurs smoothly and easily, but in other families the aims of Father, Mother, and Teenager clash hotly.
Both husband and wife must work together in order to achieve their objectives, and during this time, the mid-life crunch, marital satisfaction reaches its lowest point.
STAGE 5 — THE EMPTY NEST
Children not only affect marriage when they come into it but also when they leave. Studies show that as children grow up and move away from the homebase, into the job market, or off to college, that there is an increase in marital happiness. And as the children marry off, establish their own homes and get entirely out of the parent’s hair, there is a sharp rise in satisfaction.
As the child leaves, husband and wife once again must adjust their marital roles. The departure of grown children demands a major adjustment in the marriage relationship. Husband and wife are thrown together within time and space in ways they have not dealt with since early marriage. There is no one else to talk to except each other. There is no one else to do anything with but each other.
Mothers who have devoted themselves full time to the rearing of children must face certain realities. When the last child leaves home, she literally joins the ranks of the unemployed. Loneliness, purposelessness, and emptiness can set in with devastating swiftness. The silent house speaks of many crowded, busy memories. If her identity has been wrapped up in mothering, she may now begin to question her worth. She may grieve over the loss of her children. She may question her unique individuality as a mother. The launched children will survive, but what about Mother?
The empty nest is a problem for mothers, but Dad frequently suffers the most when the last teenager cleans out his closet and says goodbye. A child who may have been mommy’s boy at four has become dad’s pride and joy. His departure spells trauma of major proportion for dad. Generally speaking his adjustment will not be as radical since he has not been as involved in the day-to-day care of the children as his wife. He may also inwardly breathe a sigh of relief as the financial pressures that built up while the teenager was demanding more clothes in the latest fashion, bigger allowances, a car, money for college, actually lessens. Dads usually recuperate rapidly as their job and other outside interests occupy their time and attention.
Some couples have no idea who they are or what they are supposed to be doing now that they have no children. Their identity has been so wrapped up in parenting that they wander in a wilderness of confusion. They grieve over the loss of their children as well as a loss of their own personal identity.
The empty nest demands that husband and wife face each other, their marriage, and their future in a new way. When the adjustment is made quickly and satisfactorily the bond is strengthened. When this task is avoided the distance between them widens.
However, the empty nest once again promotes togetherness for husband and wife without interruption. For the couple who has nurtured their relationship all through the years, this time of life can be one of the best and most satisfying. Without children they have more time for each other, probably more money and resources than ever before. It can be a time for travel, recreation, and enjoyment of their children and grandchildren — from a distance. The empty nest couple can move in one of two directions depending on how they have prepared.
STAGE 7 — THE AGING COUPLE
When I ask in my seminars at which stage participants think couples are the happiest, the most frequent response is “aging families.” This is true only if the couple was well-matched in the beginning. If they were unhappy during the early years of marriage and while raising children, it is highly unlikely that they will be happy during their twilight years, particularly if there is a drastic change in income after retirement, physical incapacities or restriction in daily activities. Note also that the elderly have the highest suicide rate. The rate among white males from 65 to 69 is four times higher than the national average. This rate is likely reflected in “retirement shock” and the loss of identity he has assumed through his life work.
The happiness level falls off just slightly during the final stage but still remains fairly high. The aging couple, if their resources and health permit, can enjoy many more good years together.
The average couple will spend more than half of their married years without children, with an empty nest. When couples prepare for this time, it can be a highly satisfying period of life. The key is careful planning.
Couples who are marrying for the second time and blending children and families are dramatically affected by beginning their marriage with children. The day after their wedding, they could wake up at Stage 2, 3 or 4 depending on the age of the children! The couple themselves may be well-matched and mature, but it is the