Tue, Dec 28, 2004 - Page 16 News List

Kids can submerge marriages

One of the aims of marriage is children, but they cost a lot in terms of financial and emotional investment and your relationship can suffer

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , New York

Seven-month-old Merel Adriaanse is propelled into the arms of her mother, Frederieke Adriaanse. Children bring joy and troubles to couples.

PHOTO: AP

It's Sunday morning. Stretching out in bed, your toes touch your partner's leg. In that warm languid moment between dreaming and waking, you reach over for a kiss. But you never make it. A little voice at the end of the bed shrieks: "Get up, mummy! Get up!"

However much you've longed for children by the man or woman of your dreams, their arrival disrupts romance and can destroy intimacy.

Even if they don't wreck a relationship, they do make it harder to stay on track. In the heady days of early courtship not only do you find each other interesting and adorable most of the time but when you do fall out you have a whole weekend to row about it. Try having any two-sentence discussion in the presence of a toddler.

It has been said that a baby is a hand grenade thrown into the heart of a marriage. Steve Biddulph, father of two (15 and 8), psychologist, counsellor of children and parents, and childcare guru (he wrote the bestsellers Raising Boys and The Secret of Happy Children), agrees that the arrival of a child is potentially explosive. But in his latest book, How Love Works, he claims that couples can stop the bomb from going off.

The first step is patience. Biddulph believes that most of us are in love with a fantasy when we get together. "Learning to love another human being takes 10 years," he says. "People are often just beginning that process when they have kids."

"Our work as counsellors has made us believe that two thirds of divorces are preventable. Life is tough. You don't get a relationship that's life-enriching just fall into your lap; it's a long-term project."

And central to this project are the arguments that many couples -- particularly those with children -- try so hard to avoid. You have to fight your way to closeness, Biddulph insists.

Many couples go through a period of disengagement after having children. Broken nights, the social isolation of being at home with a child or the dual demands of working and childcare can make couples lose touch with each other. "It happens by accident," says Biddulph. "Often the couple used to argue but they become afraid to fight in front of the kids. You can achieve things by rowing, people are often willing to change their behavior when they understand a person's view."

Often the changes may be practical: a man may want to have more responsibility for the child without being supervised, a woman may feel that her partner works too hard. The golden rule of rowing is to focus on the specific and don't be abusive. "Research shows that couples who fight quite a bit are happier five years later, as long as they are not fighting abusively," says Biddulph. "If you call each other names, that's death to a relationship. You have to fight clean in front of kids but you can be upfront about your feelings.

"When Shaaron [his co-author, partner of 25 years and wife for the past 16 of those] and I started rowing we had to have ground rules. Her family had been violent, so she needed us to agree that no one would hurt anyone and my need was to agree that neither of us would walk out. We had our first row 20 years ago and it was so intense that at one stage I lifted a door off its hinges. I can't remember what it was about. I'd say it's OK to throw crockery -- just not at each other."

Some of the difficulty in maintaining a relationship when couples have children is the lack of time they have to discuss how they feel about things. Partners may have different ideas about what mothers' and fathers' roles should be -- often inherited from their own childhoods. "You accumulate misunderstandings," says Biddulph.

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