Having children adds many dimensions and challenges to any parents’ relationship. According to Statistics Sweden, 30 percent of all parents of young children separate — something researchers at the University of Gothenburg wanted to investigate.

Delving into statistics from 2012, the researchers saw that the average age of the first child at the time of separation or divorce is 4 years, 8 months. They then conducted a study at the Sahlgrenska Academy of the University of Gothenburg in which 452 parents answered a questionnaire measuring five relationship qualities: consensus, cohesion, satisfaction, sensuality, and sexuality. Parents filled out the survey three different times — when their firstborn was 6 months old, 4 years old, and when they were 8 years old.

After the first four years, 23 couples had separated, followed by 16 more after eight years. The researchers looked at the relationship quality of the separated couples before they split, and compared it with those who stayed together. Some similarities existed among both sets of couples.

“When the child was 4 years old, both sexuality and sensuality were at constant low levels both among the couples who separated and those who had not,” said Malin Hansson, a doctoral student at the Sahlgrenska Academy, in a press release.

It was the differences in satisfaction, consensus and cohesion, however, that had the biggest impact on couples separating. When their child was 6 months old, the separated couples were less satisfied with the relationship, disagreed on more topics, and felt less quality togetherness in their sexual lives compared to couples who stayed together.

The study examined both co-habitating partners and married spouses, and found that the risk of separating for the former was twice as high as the latter. Risk factors also included a low level of education and one of the partners being unemployed. Going off the parents’ answers on the questionnaire, the researchers were able to come up with seven primary factors that contribute to separation: strains from parenthood, stressful conditions, lack of intimacy, insufficient communication, differing personalities and interests, no commitment, and negative effects of addiction.

“It is not always bad that parents separate,” Hansson noted. “But there are 'unnecessary divorces' that are a result of communication problems or a temporary downturn in the relationship, which could be avoided with more support.”

Hansson also pointed to the health care system as having some responsibility in the matter. The staff comes into contact with most new and prospective parents, she said, and they should take on a support role by emphasizing the importance of things like maintaining a sex life and sharing responsibility for children.

Overall, the researchers say clear communication, sensuality in everyday life, time together, and affirmation are the top ways to keep relationships healthy. Being generous with hugs and kisses, and giving frequent appreciation and love were cited as great ways to help relationships — both between parents and as a family — prosper.

Source: Hansson M, Ahlborg T. Factors contributing to separation/divorce in parents of small children in Sweden. Nordic psychology. 2016