Greater Good contributor Stephanie Coontz has a nice op-ed in today's New York Times on how having kids can affect your level of satisfaction with your marriage. Contradicting decades of cultural assumptions, explains Coontz, research over the last 20 years has found that "marital quality drops, often quite steeply, after the transition to parenthood."

But that's only half the story. Coontz goes on to show that what really matters is not whether partners choose to become parents but how they make the decision–if it's a decision at all.

Citing research conducted by Phil and Carolyn Pape Cowan, UC Berkeley psychologists who helped found the Greater Good Science Center, Coontz explains that some partners make a very deliberate, mutual decision about when to have kids, and how to conduct their relationship after those kids are born; other partners disagree about whether or when to have kids, or how their relationship should change afterwards. And sometimes both partners stumble into parenthood without being too sure they want kids at all.

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In their research, reports Coontz,

The Cowans found that the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into being parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.

So having kids can put a lot of strain on those partners not entirely prepared to become parents. Combined with resentment over the new division of labor in their growing household, this strain can wreak havoc on the parents' relationship.

Fortunately, the Cowans have designed programs to help couples get through their differences and possible resentments, and they've found that couples who go through these programs have fewer conflicts, more satisfying marriages, and kids who do better socially and academically.

Coontz's piece resonates with a few essays we've published in Greater Good, including her essay on the changing American family, Greater Good Senior Editor Jeremy Adam Smith's piece on the particular social and emotional challenges facing new parents today, and an essay by the Cowans on the importance of empathy and honest communication in marriages. Also worth checking out is this article by Jess Alberts and Angela Tretheway about how relationships benefit when each partner expresses gratitude for the work the other one contributes to their household.

For more on these issues, check out the video of the panel discussion Greater Good hosted in 2007 featuring Coontz, Smith, and the Cowans.

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