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Happily Married...With Children

The telling moment for me didn't come with Baby Number One. My husband and I actually made it through the first two years of parenthood relatively unscathed. Maybe it was that we had moved onto a great block, one where a new baby arrives every six months or so, and we only had to look out the back door to find another young couple to commiserate with. Or maybe it was because Pat and I were lucky enough to have an "easy" baby who was a great sleeper. At the time, though, I preferred to think we were able to overcome life's adversities through the sheer strength of our union.

Yeah, right. Then came the sunny spring morning  -- when our second child was about 3 months old and the first barely 2 1/2  -- that I flung a baby bottle at Pat because of an argument over who got less sleep. It ricocheted off the kitchen window, leaving behind a sticky trail of formula. I stared at that telltale splash of milk for about a month (who had time to clean it?), and blamed my raging, aging hormones. But almost two years and many more blowouts later, I wonder if this sort of strife goes on up and down our fertile street. Or are we the only ones?

Apparently not, says marriage guru John Gottman, Ph.D., author of Why Marriages Succeed or Fail: "After they have their first child, couples normally experience eight times as much conflict as before. And two-thirds of them undergo a precipitous drop in marital satisfaction."

But don't call the divorce lawyer just yet: This marriage can be saved! Here's how you and your partner can overcome the hard times.

Balancing Act

Juggling schedules so that the childcare load is equal (or more equal) is a constant challenge for one Palo Alto couple, Nancy Schreyer, an information-technology program manager, and Jim Jen, a senior product manager, the parents of 18-month-old David. "Our day-to-day life is quite stressful because we're both balancing challenging jobs with things like daycare pickups and home chores," says Jen. "On any given day we can get frustrated with each other and argue over trivial stuff, like doing the dishes or buying diapers." So they experiment with ways to lighten their day-to-day responsibilities and to find time for each other. "We've tried sending out the laundry, and getting someone to work on the yard or to clean the windows. But the problem with this approach is that we'll argue about the expense," says Schreyer. Their latest solution, which is working so far: having a sitter come over on the weekends to play with their son while they both do household chores.

The Power of Love

Coming up with an equitable strategy isn't easy. Even if she works outside of the home, the wife is usually the primary caretaker and homemaker, and apt to be more overwhelmed, and resentful. "Spouses who are away from home a lot need to make a special effort to stay connected  -- checking in with phone calls, spending Saturdays with the kids, sharing the decision-making," says Peterson.

Having a deep appreciation for each other also goes a long way toward helping new parents overcome hardships. Gottman says, "Happy couples tend to have some important characteristics: Sure, they argue, but they have a fondness and admiration for each other that wins out during bad times. They make a conscious effort to know everything about each other  -- their fears, aspirations, which relatives annoy them most. And they'll tell you first and foremost that their partner is fair to them."

When Arguments Happen

Sleepless nights, overturned dinner plates, shopping-mall tantrums  -- sometimes parenthood can feel like month after month of nothing but stress and upheaval. Since you can't take it out on the kids, you're at each other's throats.

"I've definitely said things I regret," says Chris Caci, of Pequannock, New Jersey, the mother of Nicole, 4 1/2, and Douglas, 2 1/2, "usually in the heat of anger  -- like when my husband is late getting home from work."

"There are times when you do have to let it out," says Leslie Parrott, coauthor, with her husband, Les Parrott, Ph.D., of Relationships: An Open & Honest Guide to Making Bad Relationships Better and Good Relationships Great, and the mother of John, 2. "Apologizing after you snap goes a long way toward getting past the fight. But everyone has to accept their partner's foibles and understand that sometimes each of you is going to lose it."

When you need to complain  -- and everyone does  -- it's best to go about it with what Gottman calls "a softened start-up." Instead of accusing ("You're so unavailable  -- everyone else comes first!"), frame your complaint gently ("I've been lonesome. I really miss getting to spend time with you.").

Sometimes the problem isn't what we say, but what we don't say. "So many things happen during the course of a day that parents don't get a chance to express all of their emotions," says Parrott. "The negative feelings tend to win out, which is why you end up fighting."

To avoid this, Parrott and her husband recommend  -- and practice  -- a strategy they call "sharing withholds." They take time when they're alone together to share two positive thoughts, followed by a negative one. After the negative thought is expressed, the partner on the receiving end has to wait about 30 minutes before reacting. The delayed response works well because each has time to think about the complaint, which makes a defensive response less likely. The exercise also makes them realize how many positive things they have to say to each other.

An example: Parrott was recently upset with her husband because he'd agree to mind their son, but then would wander off to do something else. When the baby would need attention, she'd have to stop what she was doing. "After a few instances, I was getting resentful," Parrott says, "so I told him. It had never crossed his mind that he was, in effect, breaking a promise to me. Now he's more attentive about watching John."

Let It Go

When the Parrotts still can't resolve an issue, each rates it from 1 (inconsequential) to 10 (vital) to take a step back and look at things from the other's perspective. Sometimes, the previously burning issue no longer seems so important.

And that, ultimately, is what a successful marriage is all about. "Negotiating trade-offs is everything," says Geraldine Piorkowski, Ph.D., author of Too Close for Comfort: Exploring the Risks of Intimacy. "If you can say, 'Which is more important: X, Y, or Z?' you're going to work out the conflict instead of allowing it to escalate."

Being clear about the bottom line, adds Parrott, is what will get you through the trying stages: "Partners have quantum leaps in anxiety at each relationship transition. But if you learn to adapt your expectations to fit the current situation, you'll be better able to handle the stress."

It takes work, patience, and a willingness to meet your partner halfway, but in the end, you can nurture your children and your marriage at the same time.