Feature

Diapers? Check. Bassinet? Check. A relationship that can withstand the challenges of taking care of a newborn? Perhaps not.

After having a baby, 67 percent of couples see their marital satisfaction plummet, according to research presented at APA's 2011 Annual Convention by John Gottman, PhD, and published in the Journal of Family Psychology (Vol. 14, No. 1).

Post-baby discontent is so common, said Gottman, many people think it's inevitable and acceptable. But what they probably don't realize is the negative impact squabbling couples can have on their children. Two decades of research show that marital conflict is bad for babies, increasing their chances of later developing depression, poor social skills and conduct disorder, he said.

"When there is a precipitous decline in relationship satisfaction and an increase in hostility, it transfers to the baby and affects the baby," he said.

To find ways to address that problem, John Gottman and his wife, Julie Gottman, PhD, have been studying examples of the 33 percent of couples who stay happy after having a baby. Based on what they've learned from that research, they've developed a program that effectively fortifies expecting couples' communication skills.

"We reversed this trend with a two-day workshop," Gottman said.

According to a randomized trial published in the Journal of Family Communications (Vol. 5, No. 1), participants in the Gottmans' workshop before the birth of their babies were, following their babies' birth, more likely to remain satisfied with their relationships and less likely to experience postpartum depression than participants in a waitlist control group. And, at a three-month follow-up, workshop fathers were more engaged with their babies than fathers in the control group.

The Gottmans' workshop is based on their "Sound Relationship House" theory, which posits that there are three key domains of marital satisfaction: friendship and intimacy, constructive conflict and shared meaning. During the workshop, trained facilitators share study findings about these components of healthy relationships, then lead activities that allow couples to practice skills that fortify these areas.

In the friendship domain, for example, they put into use past research by John Gottman, which shows happy couples engage in lifelong learning about one another. Even as they celebrate their silver anniversaries, these couples ask one another open-ended questions, such as, "What life goals are you still hoping to accomplish?" To get young couples in habit of querying one another, the Gottmans provide them with a series of fun, silly and serious questions to ask, like, "What's your favorite band?" and "Who are your main enemies and allies at work?"

The questions help couples deepen their understanding and appreciation of one another, John Gottman said.

"Most couples, when they think about making their relationship more positive, they think of going on a vacation to a really nice place. But how often have you seen couples in a canoe screaming at each other, 'That's not how you do a J-stroke! We're going around in circles! What the hell is wrong with you?'" he said.

Happily married couples, in contrast, use several conflict management techniques, the Gottmans have found. For instance, when starting a difficult conversation, relationship masters tend to open gently, keeping the focus on their own feelings rather than attacking one another. So, rather than saying, "I'm mad you didn't take out the garbage" or, "You're such a slob, you disgust me," they say, "I'm upset the garbage hasn't been taken out," said Julie Gottman.

To teach expectant parents this skill, another workshop exercise asks participants to translate 14 accusatory statements into more positive formats—turning, for example, the statement "You think you're so cute! Stop flirting with other people" into "I'm feeling insecure about the party tonight. Would you stay with me through most of it?"

Despite couples' best efforts, of course, conflicts will sometimes get heated. So the Gottmans also teach expectant couples that when their pulse zooms and their blood pressure spikes, they're no longer capable of discussing issues rationally or empathizing with their partners. When you become flooded with emotion, it's time to turn inward and try to soothe yourself, said John Gottman.

"We teach a little relaxation imagery and we help people learn to take breaks where they are apart from each other at least 20 to 30 minutes ... and not spend that time thinking of a great comeback statement," he said.

To strengthen the third component of happy relationships, shared meaning, the Gottmans encourage couples to develop connection rituals—such as eating dinner together and family play time. These activities help couples develop a sense of mutual purpose on a daily basis, said John Gottman. Workshop participants also learn to ask one another about their larger life goals, and brainstorm ways to help one another realize them.

"In strong relationships, partners support each other and honor their partner's goals and values and dreams," he said.

These techniques, however, may not be limited to helping expectant parents. Research described in additional in-press papers suggests that they can improve marriages in crisis, decrease incidence of domestic violence and improve relationships among members of the armed services and their spouses, John Gottman said.

"We haven't solved all relationship problems, but we have several studies showing this [therapy] is effective," he said.