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Many couples expect the birth of a first child to be a time of great excitement and unwavering joy.
But few realize that the ''magic moment'' of birth can lead to increased strain and unhappiness in the marriage and can play a large role in why some couples split up after only a few years.
''The public doesn't realize at all that the birth of the first baby is the biggest challenge of marriage,'' says Diane Sollee, director of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education, a group of therapists, researchers, educators and others who aim to prevent family breakups. ''They think it's an affair or the seven-year itch.''
Researchers who have been studying why marital breakdowns occur and developing ways to prevent them will discuss their findings at a conference opening today in Dallas.
Among them is John Gottman, who says many new mothers -- and fathers -- experience postpartum depression, increased irritability, fighting and a lack of intimacy, which can lead to infidelity.
''It's a very child-centered period where the relationship gets neglected,'' says Gottman, professor emeritus of psychology at the University of Washington. He will discuss research on 82 newlywed couples tracked for four to six years, before and after the birth of a baby. Two-thirds of the 43 who became parents in that time cited marital dissatisfaction within three years of their baby's birth, says Gottman, who developed a marriage-skills program based on his research. The research is financed by the National Institute of Mental Health.
Researchers attribute the increase in marital discord to a range of factors: a breakdown in communication, inability to resolve conflicts, difficulty negotiating responsibilities and philosophical differences.
When couples are engaged and newly married, they focus on their similarities, says Bob Tures, a conference presenter who runs Strong Families Flagstaff in Arizona. ''When they're expecting their first child, differences begin to appear.''
When her friends and colleagues started experiencing these relationship rifts 20 years ago, Pamela Jordan decided to study this transition. Jordan, who will discuss her ''Becoming Parents'' program, says everyone emphasizes the birth itself, not how to deal with the change and stress.
''Parenting is the toughest job anyone can have, and people tend to look at it through rose-colored glasses until they're there,'' she says.
Not all relationships suffer from the birth of the child, however. Gottman says couples who demonstrate fondness for each other tend to feel less hostility and contempt for their partners, which can surface after a baby is born.
Wade Horn, assistant secretary for children and families in the Department of Health and Human Services, will speak at the conference about the Bush administration's marriage initiatives, which he says include access to couples education. Horn, a psychologist, notes that parenting classes have been widely available in this country, but ''what we haven't done as much is focus on the marriage.''
Currently, programs such as Jordan's ''Becoming Parents'' and Gottman's ''Baby Makes Three'' are not widely available.
And their success requires buy-in from a society that tends to wait until a marriage is in trouble to address questions such as how to maintain a strong relationship after the birth of a child.
The coalition has a directory of local, regional and national marriage education programs at www.smartmarriages.com.
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