When Statistics Sweden released 2012 numbers showing that one in three couples with small children gets separated, researchers at the University of Gothenburg, also in Sweden, began to investigate the biggest causes of these breakups. They came up with seven factors: strains from parenthood, stressful conditions, lack of intimacy, insufficient communication, differing personalities and interests, no commitment (in the relationship), and negative effects of addiction.
These categories were based on 452 parents’ answers to a scientific questionnaire measuring relationship quality. Parents responded at three points in time — when their first child was 6 months old, 4 years old, and 8 years old. After four years, 23 of the couples had separated and another 16 were no longer together after eight years. Researchers used the questionnaires to measure the broken couples’ relationship qualities before they separated and compared the data with that of the parents who stayed together.
Strains from parenthood
New parents deal with lots of first-time challenges, and they want to know they’re not alone. The importance of sharing the responsibilities for home and children is huge, according to Hansson. “Studies show that the relationship lasts longer and the couple is in better harmony when both partners take an active share of responsibility,” she says. Give each parent separate areas to handle, especially in the early days, so that no one person feels overly burdened.
Having young children creates “the most stressful time in the home,” says Walsh. Parents are especially in need of acknowledgment and appreciation — almost constantly, according to Hansson. “Show kindness, understanding, love, consideration, and respect for your partner,” she says. Even just saying, regularly, “I appreciate that you’re changing her diaper” can go a long way toward stress relief.
Lack of intimacy
Among all couples included in the research, sensuality and sexuality were at their lowest levels when their child was around age 4 — and the average age of the first child at the time of the separation or divorce was 4 years and 8 months. So how to turn up the heat? “The key is sensuality in everyday life, a lot of hugs, kisses, and physical contact,” Hansson says. “Sensuality leads to intimacy, which in turn leads to a sense of belonging and trust.”
“It’s very normal to have a temporary downturn in relationships when the kids are young,” says Walsh, adding that it will pass if the couple talks about ways to compensate. “Commenting on it and being aware of it is key. You can say, ‘Hey, we’re too tired for sex, but we miss it. Can we hug for 20 seconds in the morning to get some endorphins flowing?’ These small conversations save marriages.” If the downturn gets ignored, Walsh notes, that’s when trouble starts. Hansson recommends talking openly, clearly, and with straight “I-messages” when expressing a need. For example, instead of saying, “You never help me!” say, “I’d appreciate it if we cleared the table together before we sit down in front of the TV.”
Differing personalities and interests
Before kids, there was a lot of time for both people in the couple to pursue their own passions — and differing views on how to spend time after having kids can cause problems. “If you were to generalize, you could say that the separated fathers wanted to have more time for themselves, while the mothers wanted more time together with both their partner and with their children,” Hansson says. The solution? Honor both needs. Create some family time and some alone time for each parent. Even just 20 minutes at a cafe with a newspaper — or reading a book or practicing guitar — can help de-stress Mom or Dad.
Lack of commitment
When there are issues between couples, it’s easy to ignore them instead of stirring up a fight. But the longer couples go without talking, the less engaged in the relationship they become. “Many of the separated couples reported that they waited too long to seek help when there were problems,” Hansson says. “Once they sought help, the issues had already gone so far that they could not find their way back to each other.” Seek counseling or some form of outside support early, before resentment builds.
This is another area in which getting help early can keep a couple together. While Hansson acknowledges that “it is not always bad that parents separate,” she stresses that there are “unnecessary divorces” that are a result of a temporary downturn in the relationship, which could be avoided with more support — especially when substance abuse is involved.