Childfree Couples or Parent Couples: Whose Happier?

Laura Carroll, Childfree Choice

I saw a great show on public television called “This Emotional Life.”  It is part of a three part series.  Last night’s part was called “Family, Friends and Lovers” and looks at the importance of relationships and why they are central to emotional well-being.

When talking about family and marriage, the show stated some interesting information on marriages with no children vs marriages with children, and who is happier.  It indicated that while marriages with no children tended to be happier, those with children tended to stay in the marriage longer. In other words, if the marriage was having problems the ones with kids were more likely to try and hang in there.

The show did not go into detail about childfree couples. For example–does this mean that when faced with marital challenges childfree couples are more likely to choose divorce sooner than married parents?  On the surface this might make some sense, as the couple does not have to deal with all the issues that come with children and divorce.  But this does not mean that childfree couples are more likely to jump ship without first staying in there and give it all they have to  make it work.

Does it mean that childfree couples are more likely in general to divorce more than couples with children? I have not seen research on this, but would hypothesize the answer is no. Childfree couples don’t have the distraction of children that can get in the way of dealing with issues or just in tending to the relationship. I would like to see research on “if there is divorce “when”  is it more likely to occur in marriages with and without children.

There is research out there on marital satisfaction for married couples with kids and without.  Marriages without children tend to experience a gradual increase in satisfaction over time.  For marriages with children, there is a dip in satisfaction when kids come on the scene, and as the kids get older the levels of satisfaction begin to rise again.  So one is not more likely to be happier than the other, it’s just that the cycles of satisfaction tend to look differently.

What do you see out there? If you know of research that speaks to these topics and questions, please share!

27 thoughts on “Childfree Couples or Parent Couples: Whose Happier?

  1. Statistics show that on average couples without children (or to a lesser extent with only one child) are more likely to divorce than those with two or more children. (an example of a study showing this: http://kurt.schmidheiny.name/research/genderand… a “one-child-by-choicer,” I see these statistics in two lights. On one hand, the fact is that marriages with two or more children tend to be more stable. On the other hand, perhaps childfree and one-child couples are freer to leave unsatisfactory or even abusive relationships. I also think having a child (or another child) to try to save a failing marriage is a bad idea. So I guess you can interpret these statistics according to your own beliefs.

  2. Emilia, That is an interesting stat. What do you know about the differences in the timing of divorces between those with kids and without?
    Do divorces of those who have kids come later in the marriage, for example? Thanks, Laura

  3. I've read somewhere that divorces involving children tend to occur later in the marriage than those without, but I can't give you a reference for it.

  4. It's sometimes hard to disentangle the causes and effects of the higher incidence of divorce among couples with no children or only one child. It might be that those who feel their marriage might end are (understandably) reluctant to bring a child, or another child, into the picture. It also may be that childless/one-child couples are less traditional in general than those with two or more children and thus might be more open to divorce. Finally, it's far easier to get out of a bad marriage if there are no children or only one child in it.

  5. Agreed that there are likely a number of reasons why there are more divorces with couples who have one or no children. I wonder if another reason has to do with not being childess by choice. When I began researching Families of Two I talked with couples childless by choice and not. Many of them went through tough times dealing with and accepting the fact they could not have kids of their own. Some may not make it through that rough patch and come to a place of being childless by choice…L

  6. Yes, usually the above-mentioned studies don't say whether the couple was childless (or only had one child) by choice or by circumstance (infertility, health problems that could make pregnancy risky, etcetera). And perhaps some couples who originally started out wanting children and found they couldn't then decided to accept their situation and not pursue options like medical technology or adoption. But for others the stress on their marriage may just have been too much.

    I've also heard of marriages breaking up when one partner wants a child (or less frequently, another child) and the other doesn't. For instance, the brother of a friend of mine divorced because he wanted his children but his wife didn't. I think they should have discussed the matter before they married – but on the other hand it's better they split up before a child was born who would have been unwanted and maybe even resented by one parent, or before one partner reluctantly “agreed” to go without children but secretly resented being put in the position of having to choose between a spouse and a child.

  7. You'd be amazed how many couples don't talk about having kids in a serious way until after they are married..in interviewing couples for Fam of 2 I was surprised how true this was for many couples. Risky business!

  8. Of course people can always change their minds after they get married, but I think discussing this beforehand can prevent a lot of problems afterwards.

  9. “For example, does this mean that when faced with marital challenges childfree couples are more likely to choose divorce sooner than married parents? “

    Perhaps the reason that fewer childfree couples remain in unhappy marriages is that fewer childfree couples are IN unhappy marriages to begin with? It depends on how the study was one, how the questions were phrased and so on, but that could be an explanation…

  10. Of course people can always change their minds after they get married, but I think discussing this beforehand can prevent a lot of problems afterwards.

  11. “For example, does this mean that when faced with marital challenges childfree couples are more likely to choose divorce sooner than married parents? “

    Perhaps the reason that fewer childfree couples remain in unhappy marriages is that fewer childfree couples are IN unhappy marriages to begin with? It depends on how the study was one, how the questions were phrased and so on, but that could be an explanation…

  12. I like your thinking re maybe fewer childfree couples are in unhappy marriages to begin with! The studies that I have seen so far anyway do not speficially define “childless.” Childless by choice and Not by choice are two very different matters. We need to see more studies on divorce rates that take both definitions into account. Then we will know much more about what stats re childless and divorce really mean…

  13. I think both sides tend to paint an unrealistic of the effect of children on marriage. On one side couples that are having problems are advised to have a child to “save” their marriage, advice that not only creates more problems but ends up hurting everybody involved – most of the child him/herself. On the other hand, sometimes some childfree site like to perpetuate the discredited belief that childless couples are less likely to divorce. One poster on such a site eventually admitted that “you're less likely to divorce if you have kids.” She had just separated from her husband (he had left her for another woman), and she said, “Kids protect couples from the manic ups and downs of marriage.” I would add that maybe some couples stay together “for the kids” (as a one-child-by-choicer I always note that it's never “stay together for the KID”) when it would be better for everyone if the marriage broke up. Well, I guess marriage is what you make of it.

  14. I saw this 3 part series on PBS and loved it. Your blog I posted on my FB page and got such “Flack” about it. Even though i was just stating the facts according to this program I definitely agreed with it. My sentiments are this” Just like we cannot choose our family, we cannot choose who are children will be, if we will like them etc. but you have to try to like these little beings that you brought into the world because you are forced to, now friends, your spouse or partner more than likely you have a happier state of mind with these people because we CHOOSE to be with them” I think when you use that type of logic it makes sense but to some parents it would be Taboo to ever dare admit such a fact. However I was happy to see you wrote about it because it stood out to me when I saw the program. thanks for sharing

    1. Thanks for writing and for putting that post on your FB page! I am curious–can you give details on the nature of the “flack” you got? I am still trying to find out the source of what the program said about marriages with no children tended to be happier, and those with children tended to stay in the marriage longer…when I learn more I will write about it~L

  15. Laura, I’m not sure of the flack Kim got, but can tell you about some of what my husband and I get when we tell anyone we don’t want kids. We’re told we’re selfish, bad people, and some people even go so far as to say we shouldn’t have even bothered getting married in the first place.

    On another subject, we’re now in the process of trying to get a vasectomy for my husband. We’re fairly young (early to mid twenties), and no doctor is willing to perform the procedure without kids. They say that it’s too permanent a decision, that they don’t want us to change our minds and be upset. But I guarantee I could go into any doctor and get help conceiving–how is choosing to have a child any less permanent than choosing not to have children? It’s simply that noone is willing to admit that having children could possibly be regretted, but apparently the decision not to procreate could ruin your life. (On a side note, he does have an appointment now for the vasectomy; after calling roughly twenty urologists, he finally just lied to one and said we already had two kids.)

    1. Thanks for writing–unfortunately your story about vasectomy is not uncommon…lots of docs somehow think they can make this decision “for” us.
      I talked to a doc once and he candidly said that they often refuse to perfrom because of a fear of being sued down the line if a person changes his mind. Not that the law would support this (doubt it) but when it comes to medical stuff, people do sue for crazy reasons…At age 30 my male gyn did this–he first said I had to write him an essay on why I didn’t want children, then he would think about it..what was he, trying to be my father atage 30?! I was offended (and never went to a male byn again). My husband and I decided to go the easier route and he got a vasectomy and because he was 10 years older me it was easy at that time to find a doc who would do it.
      On another note, I recently read that the folks at http://www.happilychildfree.com/ are going to be putting out a list of docs who are willing to do vasec’s and tubals…if you havent already, bookmark that site–lots of good resources! ~L

  16. Thanks, I’ll take a look at that! I was wondering, have you written any posts about being childfree and religion? As a Catholic, being on the outs with the Church (and not being able to be married within it) is the only regret I have about my decision not to have children. It would be interesting to hear from others in the same situation, and any advice they may have gotten from their priests or religious leaders.

    1. Good idea! Stay tuned–I am planning a post about this very soon and to have it as an On the Ground question too. Question for you–how is it you feel on the outs with the church–because you are childfree in general or has your churhc treated you in a negative way because of this choice? ~L

  17. On the contrary, the few people church members I’ve mentioned it to (leaders of a group I was involved in) were very understanding, and took the time to ask for reasons behind the decision; obviously they said that they hoped I came to a point in my life where I would be open to children, but they didn’t try to guilt or push me into it. I simply feel “on the outs” because, in the Catholic Church, not being “open to life” is a fairly big sin. I can’t go to confession (or rather, it wouldn’t count) unless I felt resolved to stop committing the sin, which means I can’t take Communion. It also means that if I were to die suddenly, I’d die in a state of mortal sin. It’s not a good place to be, and, as I said, is the one thing I really regret with my decision. One of the reasons my husband and I want a vasectomy so early in life is that it would mean I could reenter the Church. (Vasectomies are also a sin, but since, unlike other forms of birth control, it’s a one-time action, it’s something that can be confessed and gotten past.)

    1. Now I am an ex-Catholic, so my memory may very well be off, but I do not recall that if you did not have kids you would die in a state of mortal sin–wow! That is a heavy trip to put on someone. Is this true for a couple who want kids but can’t have them? I ran across an interesting article by a professor of Christian Ethics who looks at procreation as a “command” from the bible or a “blessing” and basically tells infertile couples they will not go to “hell” if they can’t biologically have kids. In analyzing what the bible actuallysays, the same should apply to those who volunarily have kids and who contribute to kids in so many other ways than parenthood. The link to the article: http://www.sbts.edu/media/publications/sbjt/sbjt_2000spring4.pdf

      The rational about your husband having a vasectomy, then having confession get him out of a state of mortal sin seems very unfair for you hey! unless you get your tubes tied–same logic would result You then would not die in a state of mortal sin because you had confessed to that sin? While I totally respect your choice in religious belief I would question the “open to life” stuff and learn more about how the bible can be interpreted. Question the traditional procreation tenets and you will find that there is more thinking out there than making you feel like your decision is going to make you die in a state of mortal sin, and go to hell! You do not deserve that head trip!

  18. The vasectomy also gets me out of mortal sin–it means that I no longer have to continue practicing birth control, so I can go to confession. I could go to confession now, but I would continue using birth control, so one of the necessaries for confession–the promise to sincerely try not to commit the sin in the future–would be absent, so it wouldn’t really count.

    It is not considered a sin to be infertile, though it is to try artificial means of conception, like IVF, etc. Infertile couples are encouraged to consider adoption; however, if they feel that adoption isn’t right for them, there’s no harm in them not going that route.

    The whole concept of not using birth control revolves around being open to God’s will. That if God wants you to have a child, it’s a sin to try to prevent that wish. (The problem with artificial conception deals more with a child’s right to dignity, but I imagine there’s also some “thwarting God’s will” in there.) As you probably know, the Catholic church does accept NFP (Natural Family Planning) as a method of “birth control”, but it’s still a sin to use that indiscriminately. It’s supposed to be used only to wait for a time when the child can have a comfortable home, or to help space out births and limit family size, not to never have kids. Even abstinence as a form of birth control is off limits.

    When we first got married (about a year and a half ago), I disagreed with the Church on this particular doctrine. Since then, with more research, I have come to agree with it more and more. However, I also believe that having a child that would be initially unwanted and always at least a little resented by its parents isn’t something the Church wants either–obviously that would also be taking away a child’s right to dignity. It is something I’ve been struggling with for about a year now. I know a vasectomy isn’t the perfect answer, but in our situation, it’s difficult to find other options.

    1. All the rules of the Catholic church do make my head hurt ;)! You make me think of as far back as after I was born and then four years later my brother, my mother went to the priest (she was and remains Catholic) and had a heart to heart of sorts about not wantin gto have any more children, and she wanted to go on birth control. The priest gave her his blessing and she has said that is all she needed…have you heard of this in the Catholic church?

      Indeed to have a child that is not wanted is not good and sure ends up doing a number on the child. I hate to think of how many people who have and do because they think they will commit a sin if they don’t. Seems in the end they are thinking of themselves and based ontheir beliefs, having a child for their own religious protection…

  19. There are, as in every religion, different factions–some are very, very outspoken against any form of birth control, and some argue just as strongly to allow it. Your mom’s priest may have been one of those with moderate feelings on the subject. There’s also the possibility that, as it probably occurred during Vatican II, when the Church was going through so many reforms and struggling to retain members, that your mom’s priest felt it was for everyone’s benefit to just let the issue slide. But the official stance of the Church has always been (as far as I know) that artificial means of birth control are sinful. This may very well change in the future, but I doubt that, even if it does, the Church will condone the decision to be childfree by choice anytime soon.

    1. The church’s rules do seem to indirectly “allow” or at least allow for people to get around it when one can have a vasecotomy as a form of birth control, and be freed from the sin part by going to confession…in any case, I feel it is beyond unfair to tell church members that if they use birth control, and don’t have as many children as that may bring them (and deal with the life realities of that) they will die in a state of mortal sin, especially when it is clear there are other ways to interpret book of genesis and all the fruitful business! But liek I said I chose to become an ex-Catholic a long time ago….thanks always for your thoughts. See the latest post — may be of interest to you!

  20. I agree with earlier posts: there needs to be a study on the happiness of marriages where both parties come into the marriage knowing for certain they don’t want kids and have discussed it prior to getting married. That is much different than couples who didn’t discuss it, changed their minda after marriage, or those who wanted them and couldn’t concieve. There should be a separate study on each group, and of course, the effect of having children on marriages.
    I would love to participate in the study, because my husband and I have both known all our lives we didn’t want children, and we discussed it before marriage. We both have tried to get surgical sterilization, and were unable to because of our ages. We are going to try again now that he is 35 and I am 32, but not sure how it’s going to play out. We also catch alot of flack for not wanting children. Most people we talk to just can’t wrap their minds around someone not wanting children. We are happy with just having each other and our dogs. We don’t have to have “date night” to get away from the kids because every night is date night without them.

    1. Hi Amanda, In talking to lots of childfree couples, you’d be amazed how many do Not talk about it before they get married unless one or the both of them were certain about now wanting kids. Most seem to evolve into the decision. These days it seems more common that because couple wait longer to start thinking about it, that by the time they do they realize their concerns about becoming parents outweigh their level of desir. In any case, it’s a risky thing not to talk about it before getting married! ~L

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