Are the ‘Childless’ Really More Likely to Divorce?

You may have seen more articles popping up lately on how “childless” couples are more likely to divorce.  How it’s treated as a “statistical reality”  needs to be challenged and clarified. Let’s start with some of the more “popular” data…

Journalist and novelist Po Bronson’s divorce factoid sheet,  which is often quoted. One startling “fact” based on divorce research that is often quoted is, “the <divorce> rate for “childless” couples was almost double the rate for families with children.”  The problem–the research is from 1950.

The often quoted sources out there also do not point to causation–the research is not saying that having kids “causes” divorce. Bronson’s  factoid sheet does source reasons people cite, however, but again it’s dated, and comes from studies in the early 80s.  They are still worth a look, as many capture the themes of more recent findings:

Top reasons why American women said they’d gotten divorced:

communication problems (69.7%)

unhappiness (59.9%)

incompatible with spouse (56.4%)

emotional abuse (55%)

financial problems (32.9%)

sexual problems (32.1%)

spouse’s alcohol abuse (30%)

spousal infidelity (25.2%)

physical abuse (21.7%)

Top reasons why American men said they’d gotten divorced

communication problems (59%)

incompatible with spouse (44.7%)

unhappiness (46.9%)

emotional abuse (24.7%)

financial problems (28.7%)

sexual problems (30.2%)

Do you see anything like “We don’t have kids” on these lists? You don’t see it in the list of top reasons on more recent lists either. What is? Try history of parental divorce, communication issues, lack of conflict management skills, and sex & intimacy issues.

We also see a lot from Anneli Rufus, an author and journalist, who has a longer list of 20 factors purportedly based on recent divorce data. Two of the 20 have to do with a “childless” marriage.  One is if the couple does not agree on having kids. Another is, “The absence of children leads to loneliness, and at least 66% of divorced couples in the U.S. are childless.”

Like other sources, this factor (which I have yet to find the research source for–let us know if you do), hugely lacks delineation between childfree and child “less,” and all that the latter can mean. Is the couple “lonely” because they want children and have not been able to have them? Is not being able to have them the big issue in the relationship? Or were they planning to have children but are technically child “less” because they had not had kids yet before they split? Or has one person changed his/her mind about kids? Or had they waited to bring the topic up seriously until they were married and found out they were in fact not on the same page? All of these factors could explain their unhappy child “less” marital state.

The childfree are not in this group, but the stats just lump us all together anyway.  Now, it can be true that if the couple wants the marriage to end, it can be even more complicated when there are children in the equation.  That does not mean it is always easier for those without children; divorce is never easy, kids or not.

My take-the likelihood of split up doesn’t boil down to whether you have kids or not–it’s all too often about how couples with or without children did not deal with their own relationship issues—they let them go too long to where they became unrecoverable. All marriages, with or without kids, are work and need tending, including dealing wth challenging issues.

Even many parents admit that the children can serve as a big distraction from dealing with problems in their marital relationship. With no kids, if you veer from dealing with the tough stuff, you can always find other kinds of distractions to go to e.g., work, serious hobbies, attending to other or aging family.

We see lots of couples with kids who may stay married longer but are not happy–they stay together for the kids, and when they become empty nesters, face that it’s too late to resolve issues that have not been dealt with for too long. With or without kids, it comes down to how long you go knowing there are issues and choose not to deal with them. And every couple, with or without kids, has their point of no return.

What do married childfree tell me? Many say they don’t let stuff fester. Relationship is #1. Others might let distractions allow them to avoid really dealing with things for awhile, but it reaches a point where things just have to be dealt with. For parents it can be harder, because the raising of children can be such a powerful distraction away from their relationship.

But there’s nothing like really good research. I say let’s stop drawing conclusions from old data, and data that is far from looking at the whole picture when it comes to couples who split and have no kids.  Until we see research comparing reasons for divorce with parents, couples who wanted children but ended up without them, couples who disagreed about having children, and those who were aligned about not wanting them, the answer to who is more likely to divorce is – “it’s unclear; more study required.”

12 thoughts on “Are the ‘Childless’ Really More Likely to Divorce?

  1. From what I can see the study is pretty flawed and seems to be cannon fodder for the “You must have kids” group.
    Here’s what I’ve been wondering, along the same lines of your points.

    I think that there’s a big difference between being childless (can’t have kids, just haven’t had them, haven’t thought of it yet, etc.) and childfree (Decidedly not having childeren)

    If you’re a couple early in your marriage and haven’t had kids “yet”, and you divorce, does that mean you are included in the childless statistic? Probably, making it likely not due to lack of kids but just meaning you’re divorcing (likely) for another reason, and, you just happen to have not had kids yet. I suspect the not having had kids is a coincidence rather then reason for divorce.

    I can see how some people would choose to divorce if they find their partner cannot have kids, or has decided to become “childfree”, and the other just can’t get past that, which I suspect is a small portion.

    I’m wondering, since the number of couples without children is growing if this is a response by the propoganda machine.

    At the same time I’m thinking, that people with kids are more likely to stay in a marriage they aren’t happy in due to needing the finances or assistance inparenting of the other partner.

    Also the question, “Are childfree people more likely to divorce if they are unhappy in a marriage?”, I’m betting the answer is “yes,” because its just plain easier, and I suspect more married-parent couples would divorce if they did not have childeren, because again, its just much easier.

    Great blog Laura.


    1. Chris, Great insights and questions. Asking the question with “childfree” and “if they are unhappy in a marriage” does make it a different question. What I have seen out there of late makes it sound more like the source of unhappiness is because we don’t have children, and I find that to be just not be the case for childfree couples. Would be interesting research ~L

  2. THANK YOU for writing this. I read another article the other day about how childless couples were more likely to divorce, yet just a few months back I’d read the opposite. I loved how you broke down the numbers and research and Here! Here! Let’s get some better measurements before conclusions about who will and won’t divorce are drawn when it comes to childless and childfree.

  3. I agree with Chris about the point that couples who have broken about before having kids also create a bias in the statistic. If a couple marries and divorces a year later due to incompatability, then they shouldn’t be counted as childless, they most likely are simply pre-children.

    Another point that may not sit well with conversative people is that some childfree reject the notion of lifelong monogamy and prefer serial monogomay (or no monogamy at all, but that is a different case and outside of the realm of these studies). Serial monogomy is not great for families with children, but there is really nothing preventing childfree from having several longtime relationships throughout their lives.

  4. I’m not even really convinced that people with children divorce less. If you look at how many couples are on their second or third marriage and have step-children, it seems like plenty of people with kids get divorced. When they look at these numbers, how are they differentiating between 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. marriages? Are they considering whether or not these children are biological children of both parties? If there’s a step-kid involved, there’s a pretty good chance that one of the parents was in a marriage with children and got divorced.

  5. I’m frankly more willing to believe that people divorce (in part) because they have kids. I know that parents are always quick to claim that it had nothing to do with them, but many of those reasons you listed seem to be magnified if the couple has kids, as mentioned above. Also, I know and have known of many couples who divorced after long struggles dealing with special needs kids or teens with drug problems or criminal histories or whatever. Obviously, I’m not claiming that a child with a disability is to blame for her parents’ divorce, but I can see how dealing with something like that would indeed mean that the marital relationship itself never got the attention and work that it needed.

  6. I’m happily married myself, but I wonder if the bigger social issue isn’t the way we look at marriage ad divorce. I don’t think every divorce is a horrible tragedy. I don’t think that people should stay married at all costs. It can be horrible for children to have parents who are only staying married because of the children.

    I’m willing to believe that couples without children divorce more often. Part of thinks, who cares? Another part of me thinks it’s sad that being parents keeps people in relationships that are harmful to them. Another part thinks maybe the problem with a high divorce rate is that people are getting married who never should have gotten married in the first place.

    If the stat is true, I tend to read it the other way around — having kids means you’re more likely to be stuck in a bad marriage!

    My impression is that having children is NOT a glue that holds a marriage together. It is more commonly a source of stress on the marriage.

    Also, I think there could be correlation without a cause. For example, people who decide to be childfree are more likely to put a high premium on autonomy, leading independent lives, pursuing self-discovery, etc., which may mean they are less likely to stay in marriages that are unfulfilling.

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  8. I read this article after looking at others of the same lines. One on marital therapy suggested a correlation that the chief reason couples went to a therapist was to work on their issues because they had kids. Those that enter therapy were more likely to have kids because they wanted to preserve the marriage for their kids and the fall out of divorce.

    I agree that there is a difference in childless by choice or force. if both talked about it and one decided later on that having a child was important which led to divorce then I would link that to choice because people’s attitudes evolve and having kids is something older people would more seriously consider than younger people. I would consider the loss of a pregnancy as not childless as some articles claim, because there was a child.

    It would be interesting to see this list divided up by child and childless. Especially first marriage child and childless.

    1. Thanks, Dillon. I too would like to see more studies with sample groups of childfree, childless and even couples who describe themselves as undecided or ambivalent.

  9. As it happens, studies from around the world – including many after 1950 – show that couples without children are more likely to divorce than those with them (with couples with only one child usually somewhere in between). Even one woman on a childfree board whose husband left her (and went on to have children with his new wife) was forced to admit this. I agree, though, that more research is needed – the most pressing question, in my view, being whether the childless marriages were by without offspring by choice or by chance.

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