More married couples are choosing not to have children. Some couples have thoughtfully concluded they are called to a different life. However, a good number of couples are struck with fear, looking back at childhoods from divorced or dysfunctional families. They conclude that if they avoid marriage or avoid having children, they can retain the happiness and freedoms they currently enjoy.
Current research tells us cohabiting without marriage leads couples to break up about 80 percent of the time. Next comes the question, does the stress of having children lead married couples to break up?
The New York Times did an op-ed this week on Feb. 5 discussing how the birth of children affects a marriage, either positively or negatively. A generation ago, it was assumed that having children solidified a marriage. That has been followed by multiple studies that have shown marital quality drops when spouses become parents, and rises again when children leave home.
Writer Stephanie Coontz goes on to explain the flaw with those studies is that they did not “consider the very different routes that couples travel toward parenthood.” As you might expect the outcomes differ widely for parents who agreed on wanting to conceive, those who were ambivalent and those who were not expecting to become pregnant.
Researchers from the University of California at Berkely, Philip and Carolyn Cowan, found that “the average drop in marital satisfaction was almost entirely accounted for by the couples who slid into becoming parents, disagreed over it or were ambivalent about it. Couples who planned or equally welcomed the conception were likely to maintain or even increase their marital satisfaction after the child was born.”
In other words, couples who were happy to become parents were blessed with an even happier marriage. This has been true in my own life.
Coontz provides some important caveats and trends. One reminder is that couples need to make time to cultivate their marriage even when child-rearing demands are high. Otherwise, they may not be able to “recover the relationship that made them want to have children in the first place.”
For those who feel guilty about not spending enough time with their children, realize you are giving your children a gift by maintaining a strong marriage. In addition, current research shows parents today spend 20 percent more time with their children than parents in 1965, even with the increase of mothers in the workplace. So, if you are like the average couple, you are probably not short changing your children, but you might be short changing your spouse.
Remember your goal is to help your children learn to be independent, while spouses should understand and communicate that they will always need one another.
How have children (or the lack of children) affected your marriage?