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The Five Secrets of Happily Married Parents

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Do kids make marriage unbearable? Marital satisfaction surveys seem to suggest so, as do anecdotally rich cover stories of popular magazines.

So, should we not get married? Or not have kids? Or just be miserable? These are the questions addressed by the latest in what is becoming the annual report for Marriage, Inc.: The State of Our Unions: Marriage in America. The most recent update is called “When Baby Makes Three” [PDF].

The report, which came out in early December, compiles data from two big well-known surveys, the General Social Survey and the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth, and another smaller survey including 1,630 married couples called The Survey of Marital Generosity, funded by the University of Notre Dame.

The authors found that yes, compared with childless married couples, those with kids have lower “marital satisfaction,” a measure sociologists use to determine couples’ happiness. But it also found that some unusual parents are happy in their marriages after having a child — despite the fact that they have just exponentially increased their workload, never get to talk to each other anymore and have to negotiate who’s going to deal with another human being’s bodily waste — and discovered out how they do it.

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They authors came up with five qualities that happily married parents share. Moms were more likely to be happy in marriage if they had, in order:

  1. Sexual satisfaction
  2. Commitment
  3. Generosity to husband, including small acts of service like making coffee for him in the morning, expressing affection, and being willing to forgive
  4. Good attitude toward raising kids (i.e., she wanted them)
  5. Social support from family and friends

The top five predictors for happily wed dads were the same, except for No. 5, which was a shared “marital spirituality”; e.g., the couple says God is at the center of their marriage. Other characteristics of a content couple included having a similar faith and sharing the chores. (My personal favorite sentence in the report: “[W]omen are more likely to report that they are sexually satisfied when they report that they share housework with their husbands.”)

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The authors also found that unmarried people who had kids were less happy than those who were married, and that, counterintuitively, couples who had four kids were as happy as couples with no kids. (They attribute this to selection criteria: those survey respondents with four kids who were still together probably made it one of their aims as a couple to have four kids.) Also surprising — forgive me if I’m harping here — both mothers and fathers were happier and less divorce-prone when they shared housework equally.

But most of the findings of the report, which was written by Bradford Wilcox of the National Marriage Project (NMP) and Elizabeth Marquardt of The Center for Marriage and Families (CMF), were more or less what you’d expect: if you’re good to your spouse, your marriage will be happier, even with kids.

That doesn’t mean, however, that the report didn’t stir up controversy. Philip Cohen, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, took issue with the amount of media the report generated, noting that it had not been subjected to the peer review that most studies published in academic journals have to undergo. Some of the data, which was oddly uniform for a random study, seemed a little off to him. But mostly, he’s skeptical about the objectivity of any study released by the NMP and the CMF, which both exist to promote marriage. “Marriage can be beneficial, but that does not necessarily mean that taking unmarried people and persuading them to get married will bring them all those benefits,” says Cohen, who thinks getting people educated and employed would do more to create happy families.

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For his part, Wilcox is confident in his numbers and points to several other prominent sociologists whose response to the report was more positive. “This is not about public policy,” Wilcox said in an email. “This is about giving a hopeful and helpful message to the general public.”

Belinda Luscombe is an editor-at-large at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @youseless. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.

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