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%)
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%)
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.”