I recently read an article in The Atlantic, titled, “How People Decide Whether to Have Children.” There was one sentence I kept coming back to.
Some background before I share that particular sentence: Atlantic writer Olga Khazan spoke to a sociologist who told her that both parents and people who don’t have kids generally seek to strengthen relationships — either their bond with their kids or their romantic partnership.
The sociologist told Khazan that for people without kids — and here’s the sentence that struck me — “one of the very common reasons they cite is they value their relationship with their partner, and having a child will shift that relationship.”
Khazan, who asked readers to write in explaining why they chose to have kids or not, said one childfree woman wrote: “My husband and I are happily married almost 10 years now.” She went on: “I know for a fact that the happiness and huge love are due to the fact that we have the time, energy and desire to put each other first. To throw that away for a kid would be nuts.”
I don’t yet have kids, so I don’t have first-hand, anecdotal evidence to support the idea that a relationship between parents changes drastically — or doesn’t — after a kid enters the picture. So I started doing some research to see what scientists had found.
As it turns out, a 2000 paper authored by Alyson Fearnley Shapiro, John M. Gottman, and Sybil Carrere, then at the University of Washington, pinpointed three key predictors of declines in marital satisfaction after couples had a baby.
The researchers explain that the wife’s dissatisfaction is often a key predictor of the husband’s dissatisfaction, and of eventual divorce. As Shapiro described in a release, wives’ marital dissatisfaction after parenthood comes down to:
- “a husband’s expression of negativity toward his wife,” like if a husband wasn’t able to tell the researchers what attracted him to his wife
- “a husband’s disappointment in the marriage,” like if the husband was depressed when talking about his marriage
- “a description by either partner of their lives as being chaotic,” like if the couple believed that unexpected problems had weakened their relationship
These conclusions are based on a study of 82 married couples over the course of about six years. (The study began in the late 1980s, when the couples were newly married. All couples were heterosexual.) Roughly half the couples had kids at some point during the study; the other half didn’t.
At the study’s outset, researchers conducted interviews with the couples, asking them questions about their relationship’s history and their philosophy on marriage. Each year after that, and on some other occasions, the researchers got in touch with the couples to ask follow-up questions.
Interestingly, of the couples who didn’t have kids, 17 divorced; no divorces took place among couples who had kids.
But when it came to marital satisfaction, that declined for 67% of the wives who became parents, compared to 49% of the wives who didn’t become parents. What’s more, among wives who became parents, 33% said their marital satisfaction stayed stable or increased, while 51% of the wives who didn’t become parents said the same.
So what helped that 33% of parents maintain intimacy?
Shapiro said there are certain “buffers” against marital disaster after the birth of a childhood:
- “Building fondness and affection for your partner”
- “Being aware of what is going on in your spouse’s life and being responsive to it”
- “Approaching problems as something you and your partner can control and solve together as a couple”
She called this combination the “glue” that holds a marriage together.
More recent research, by Brian D. Doss at the University of Miami and Galena K. Rhoades at the University of Denver, highlighted other factors that help determine what the transition to parenthood will be like.
For example, people who are high in “anxious attachment” — like people who are always afraid their partner will leave them — may experience relationship dissatisfaction when they think their partners aren’t being supportive.
And people who are high in “avoidant attachment” — like people who avoid getting close to their partner and fear commitment — may get frustrated when they struggle with balancing work and family demands.
According to the research by Doss and Rhoades, having a kid earlier in a relationship generally predicts worse relationship outcomes — though, interestingly, unplanned pregnancies aren’t linked to unhappier relationships than planned pregnancies are.
The key thing to remember here is that — as cliche as it sounds — every relationship is different. Only you know (or can make an educated guess as to) whether having a kid will bring you joy and fulfillment.
But if you’re really on the fence about whether your relationship can withstand the stress of another person’s needs, it’s worth taking some of these factors into account as you work toward some kind of decision.
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