Most observers believe that many marital failures have what is termed “masked breakdowns” where the couple keeps up a front “for the sake of the children.”
Some 27 percent of divorces involve no children, but only 9 percent of marriages are childless. Childless marriages always appear more prone to breakdown, especially if failure results from of a lack of desire for children. This may reflect the temperament of childless couples and the unwillingness of a responsible couple to have children when they feel their marriage buckling. Absent children, however, there less need to stay together.
Couples without children divorce more often than couples that have at least one child, according to researchers, despite numerous studies that marital happiness nosedives in the first year or two after the birth of a child and sometimes never quite recoups.
The terms childless and childfree carry affective – and in some cases, political – connotations. Childless refers to people who have no children due to biological problems or genetics, “waiting too long to have a child, a failed relationship, an illness preventing conception, unsuccessful fertility treatments, not finding a suitable partner, or not having the means to raise a child.” People often cannot have the children they may once planned. Some childless individuals move forward with no children in their lives; others struggle along a path they had not anticipated. For the childless, infertility can be a source of great sorrow. Childfree refers to “people who decided not to bear children. Their lives do not include procreation. Childhood influences, life satisfaction without kids, the lack of desire, enjoyment of one’s freedom, environmental concerns, financial concerns” – all motivate some people to take a pass on parenthood. The fact remains, whatever the reason, being childfree is a good option for many. For the childfree, the absence of offspring is cause for joy.
Years ago, sociologist Paul H. Jacobson documented that divorce is more frequent among marriages without children: “For couples without children, the divorce rate in 1948 was 15.3 per 1,000. Where one child was present, the estimate rate was 11.6 per 1,000. The figure thus continues to decrease, and in families with four or more children, it was 4.6. Altogether, the rate for couples with children was 8.8 per 1,000. In other words, the rate for childless couples was almost double the rate for families with children.”
More recently, according to journalist Anneli Rufus, whose number crunching discovered that of the divorced couples in the United States, 66 percent are childless compared with 40 percent who have kids. Evidently, the “absence of children leads to loneliness and weariness.”
On the other hand, others say that marriages without children may be more satisfying to the spouses. “I’ve been tracking the childfree for over 10 years now, and see many, many happily married childfree couples out there,” says Laura Carroll, who blogs at La Vie Childfree and is the author of Families of Two: Interviews with Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice.
Couples without kids have more time, energy and money to spend on their careers, friends, each other and themselves. According to recent surveys, one for No Kidding!, an international social group for people without children, and one by Laura S. Scott, author of Two is Enough: A Couple’s Guide to Living Childless by Choice, couples often decide not to have kids because they want to put their relationship first.
This raises the question why more couples without children end up splitting.
“People assume children are the glue that holds a marriage together, which really isn’t true. Kids are huge stressors,” says Scott. “Despite that, there is a strong motive to stay together. The childfree don’t have that motive so there’s no reason to stay together if it’s not working.”
Says Lori Buckley, a certified sex therapist, “A lot of couples come into my office and the only reason they are working on the relationship is because of the children.”
Absent children, divorce is often easier, legally and financially if not necessarily emotionally. The parties focus on the terms and conditions of property division; no custody issues, no family court, no Parental Alienation Syndrome. Some states even make it almost a breeze; in Tennessee, for example, couples with children meet higher standards to divorce than those without children. In Virginia, couples with children face a mandatory waiting period of about a year before they can get a divorce; those without children often have to wait about six months.
“Not all the childfree are intentionally childfree couples,” Scott discovered in her research after talking to hundreds of couples. Many are postponers who delay parenthood. “Sometimes couples delay to the point that fertility problems arise. “Then the question of ”When should we have kids?’ morphs into ‘Should we have kids?” Scott says, forcing couples to explore other ways to have a baby, such as adoption, surrogates or in vitro fertilization (IVF). That, she says, can be extremely stressful and can lead to a fracture that a couple can’t get past. In fact, many infertility specialists recommend marital counseling.
“If one partner desperately wants to try to have a child and one partner might not put as high a priority on it, that could be a deal breaker,” she says. Often a couple hasn’t discussed what point they stop trying — how much money, how much time, how many procedures. Many women often feel like failures and feel less close to their partners; for many men, the fertility process can turn sex into anything other than pleasure. “I hear from men who say, ‘This isn’t fun anymore. I feel like I’m sperm on demand,'” Scott says.
If couples can’t agree, they’re more likely to split.
Fewer people believe children are essential to a happy marriage, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center. About 65 percent of us believed they were back in 1990, but just 41 percent of us believe that now. About 7 percent of Millennials — those born in or after 1982 — say they don’t want kids and 19 percent aren’t sure. But if that 19 percent waits too long, they may be the next crop of infertile, and perhaps divorced, couples.
“A lot of people don’t have the kid conversation before they get married. They just assume parenthood,” Scott says.
It is difficult to say definitely whether children actually contribute to marital breakdown; however, it is possible to make a tentative generalization based on the comments of many married parents. Almost without exception parents believe that children enhanced a strong marriage but probably dealt the deathblow to a floundering marriage. Children may make a good marriage better, but they make a bad one worse, or as novelist Peter de Vries said, “The value of marriage is not that adults produce children but that children produce adults.”