May 6, 2008
UI psychologist investigates newlyweds' tribulations
Beyond the bliss of a wedding day lies a load of tribulations for newlyweds. In their rookie year as parents, many will face a significant drop in marital satisfaction. And nearly one-third of newlyweds are physically aggressive.
That's according to two studies led by Erika Lawrence, assistant professor of psychology in the University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.
In one study, she found that while the birth of a child may be one of life's greatest delights, couples experience a notable drop in marital satisfaction in that first year of parenthood. The decline in satisfaction is much more severe in couples with a new baby than in newlyweds without kids, according to the study, published in the February issue of the Journal of Family Psychology.
"It's a stressor people have to adjust to," Lawrence said. "When couples add an infant to the equation, everything changes. As thrilled as they probably are about the addition to their family, they're getting less sleep, and they have less time alone together and more expenses. It's going to impact any couple, no matter how wonderful their marriage is."
The study also showed that highly satisfied newlyweds are more likely to plan a pregnancy, but pregnancy planning does not protect couples from declines in marital satisfaction. And people who are happiest as newlyweds experience the greatest drop in marital satisfaction after the bundle of joy arrives.
Using marriage license records, researchers recruited 156 newlyweds (104 who became parents; 52 who remained childless). All were in their first marriage and were childless when the study began. Parent couples took marital satisfaction surveys at 6 months of marriage, a month before the baby's birth, and six and 12 months postpartum. Childless couples were surveyed at comparable times.
Couples completed the Quality of Marriage Index to measure marital satisfaction, generating scores from 6 (least satisfied) to 45 (most satisfied). Surveys were taken, on average, across a three-year time span. In that time, satisfaction scores for both moms and dads dropped 5.07 points on average, compared to only 2.73 points for husbands without kids and 2.34 points for wives without kids.
The good news, Lawrence said, is that research by her and others in the field indicates that marital satisfaction levels rebound by the time the baby is 18 months old -- especially in couples who had a strong relationship to begin with.
"The initial adjustment of parenthood shakes the foundation of the marriage for a year or so. But, as couples go through it, it's helpful to know that it's temporary," Lawrence said. "Expectant parents don't always realize how hard that first year is going to be. If we can teach people what to expect so their expectations are closer to reality, they'll navigate the transition better."
In the second study, Lawrence discovered that 29 percent of newlywed couples are physically aggressive. More wives than husbands are aggressive -- 24 percent vs. 16 percent. Pushing, grabbing and shoving are the most common tactics.
Physical aggression is often thought to worsen over time, but this study suggests otherwise. Newlyweds who aren't aggressive stay that way, and those who are moderately aggressive (throwing things, pushing, grabbing, shoving or slapping) usually maintain a stable level of aggression. Surprisingly, severely aggressive couples (kicking, biting, hitting with a fist or object) seem to develop more restraint, reaching the same level as nonaggressive couples by three years of marriage.
"One potential explanation is that severe aggression is easier for couples to recognize as a problem than moderate aggression. Once they identify the pattern of behavior as problematic, they may be more motivated to change it," Lawrence said. "It's also possible that severe aggression causes couples to withdraw from each other, leading to less interaction and opportunity for conflict."
The study included 164 couples who completed annual questionnaires during their first three years of marriage. Lawrence noted that the study focused on couples who were verbally and physically aggressive during regular arguments, but not on battered women who feared for their safety or required medical treatment for their injuries, which is a different level of physical aggression.
Other interesting findings included:
--Aggressive husbands are typically married to aggressive wives, while nonaggressive husbands tend to pair up with nonaggressive wives.
--Husbands' aggression has a more negative impact on marital satisfaction, but couples in which the wives are aggressive are more likely to divorce.
--Aggression doesn't necessarily grow out of a distressed marriage. These couples were aggressive when they got married -- when they were happy in their marriages. So the aggression came before the distress.
The aggression study was published in the June 2007 issue of the Journal of Family Psychology. Support for Lawrence's newlywed research was provided by the National Institute of Mental Health, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Institute for Child and Human Development and the UI.
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