By: Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC
Long before becoming a Relationship Coach, I watched way too many couples have children only to grow distant and disconnected. Once my wife and I had our daughter, I better understood that kids can stress a marriage -even a strong one -and I became committed to helping parents (myself included) find ways to ensure that the relationship thrived after the babies arrived.
Research tells us that, in the first three years after having (or adopting) children, most couples report (1) a big drop in relationship satisfaction, (2) an increase in conflicts, and (3) a rise in persistent issues (arguments repeated without resolution).
When I recently conveyed this portrait of parenthood to a straight client who was detailing the marriage stress she and her husband had been experiencing since their son was born, she said something that really resonated for me:
So what you’re saying is that we’re just like everyone else? But we’ve always prided ourselves on being great communicators. We were sure we’d avoid what we saw happening to other couples after they had kids!
I related to her disappointment. I suspect I’m not alone among gay and lesbian parents who, when embarking on our parenting adventures, were convinced that we, too, would avoid the relationship strain so many other couples seem to endure.
Heck, if one study says our kids do better than children raised by straight parents –at least when it comes to self-esteem, confidence, academics, and behavioral issues –why wouldn’t we also excel at relationship happiness?
Interestingly, a growing body of research indicates that gay and lesbian couples manage conflict better than heterosexuals. On average, we bully less, use fewer verbal barbs, and try harder –and are quicker –to resolve confrontations.
One study found that when lesbians co-parent, they are more equitable and, if disagreements arise over childcare, it’s often that one mom feels left out or wants more time with the kids. This is in contrast to straight families, in which the mother (still) performs anywhere from three to five times as many childcare duties as the father. (Unfortunately, gay male parenting remains under-studied. That having been said, researchers at San Francisco State University are currently conducting a study of gay dads in the Bay Area.)
Yet even if the research is accurate and our relationships are, in some ways, healthier than those of our heterosexual counterparts, gay and lesbian parents are far from immune to the toll children take on our bond with our partners. We, too, struggle to find time, energy, and the wherewithal for private conversations –never mind date-nights. We fight more than in pre-parenting days, grapple with persistent relationship issues (about money, in-laws, etc.), and experience changes in our sex lives (not for the better).
I don’t have the data to back this up, but I have a sneaking suspicion that some of us might actually put our relationship issues on the backburner more than straight parents do. Why? Because of the effort it takes for us to create our families. After spending so much time, energy, and money navigating inseminations, IVFs, surrogacy, donors, adoptions and/or fostering, how dare we complain about the impact of kids on our relationships with our spouses? We asked for it—I mean, we really asked for it—so shouldn’t we get over it?
Whenever I first start coaching an expectant couple, or parents with young children, I remark that they’re on a steep learning curve for two major life roles: that of relationship-partner and parent –neither of which we’re taught, other than by example (and, I’d wager, for many of us, by poor example).
For gay and lesbian parents, let’s add that most of our relationship role models were straight; meaning, when we were growing up, we didn’t have gay and lesbian relationships to imitate or rebel against.
But in some ways, we’ve been handed a clean slate. Ours is the promise and possibility of crafting committed relationships and co-parenting strategies in innovative, trailblazing ways. I’m all for that!
Which is why I want to encourage gay and lesbian parents to take the lead when it comes to nurturing our relationships and fanning the flames of our connection with our spouses –not in spite of the demands of parenting, but because we recognize that being great partners is, in and of itself, key to being great parents.
There’s solid research to support the link between babies’ developmental health and parents’ relationship satisfaction. With that mind, let’s be the relationship role models for our kids that most of us never had; let’s nurture our children by also nurturing our happiness and connection with each other.
Rhona Berens, PhD, CPCC is a Relationship Coach and Founder of Parent Alliance® (www.parentalliance.com), a relationship resource for expecting couples and parents of young children who want their relationships to stay joyful and connected after they have kids.
Selected Articles on Gay & Lesbian Couples and Gay & Lesbian Parents:
Abstract for study on gay and lesbian couples that supports the claim that we navigate conflict differently than heterosexual couples:Click here
Abstract for study on gay and lesbian couples that found that we’re more equitable than straight couples when it comes to household duties: click here
Great New York Times article by Lisa Belkin on equitable parenting; skip to page 8 for her summary of research on gay and lesbian couples/parents: click here
Photo Credit: [Flickr member Phillipe Leyroer]