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To Keep Marriage Healthy When Baby Comes, Share Housework

As many couples can attest — and lots of research backs this up — marital happiness plummets with the arrival of a baby. Sleepless nights, seemingly endless diaper changes and the avalanche of new chores that come with a newborn leave little time for the intimacies of marriage. It's a situation ripe for mental stress and marital discord.

In fact, the strain is so well documented that, as the Wall Street Journal reported earlier this year, a growing number of mental-health professionals now advise pre-emptive relationship counseling for expectant parents.

But in a survey of 2,870 married couples, the National Marriage Project of the University of Virginia found that more than a third of them buck the trend, managing to stay happy through the emotional, physical and financial strains of new parenthood. So, how do they do it?

Not surprisingly, the report finds sexual satisfaction and a sense of commitment top the list of traits that lead husbands and wives to say they are "very happy" in marriage. No. 3 is "generosity," defined as:

"the virtue of giving good things to [one's spouse] freely and abundantly," and encompasses small acts of service (e.g., making coffee for one's spouse in the morning), the expression of affection, displays of respect, and a willingness to "forgive him/her for mistakes and failings."

Further down the list: shared housework. That's right, both mothers and fathers are more likely to report they are "very happy" when housework is "shared equally." So presumably, asking your husband to do the laundry (or your wife to change the light bulb) can be good for your marriage. Though harking back to generosity, perhaps it's better if each volunteers to take on the task.

The survey is a joint project of the National Marriage Project and the Institute for American Values, conservative groups that promote marriage. Their report also finds — as many surveys have shown — that more devoutly religious people often rank themselves happier. Another recent study attributes this effect to the social networks that religion can foster.

Strikingly, the National Marriage Project finds a big jump in marital happiness among couples with four or more children (which, as the researchers note, is likely a pretty self-selecting group.)

Or, there's a simpler strategy: patience. Contrary to popular perception, evidence suggests marital bliss rebounds with the empty nest.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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