May 7, 2016

"For around 30 years, researchers have studied how having children affects a marriage, and the results are conclusive..."

"The relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along," writes psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson in The Washington Post (just in time for Mother's Day).
Comparing couples with and without children, researchers found that the rate of the decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples....

Fundamental identities may shift — from wife to mother, or, at a more intimate level, from lovers to parents. Even in same-sex couples, the arrival of children predicts less relationship satisfaction and sex. Beyond sexual intimacy, new parents tend to stop saying and doing the little things that please their spouses. Flirty texts are replaced with messages that read like a grocery receipt....
ADDED: I wonder what other things we depend on people to do could be shown not to produce personal happiness. 1. Caring about the thoughts and feelings of others. 2. Taking on a significant job and working hard at it. 3. Following the law. 4. ...

47 comments:

Terry said...

No one should have kids, then! Social science says so. It's been peer-reviewed to ensure truthiness!

Michael P said...

Why is it notable that this happens "even in same-sex couples"? Despite right-wing concerns, I don't think parenthood is substantially different (with respect to demands on time, attention, etc.) for same-sex couples as opposed to opposite-sex couples. The factors that cause this shift in satisfaction seem to me like they would be the same.

Daniel Richwine said...

If your objective is total self satisfaction, it seems having no kids is the way to go. I seem to recall not too long ago the host of this blog stating the decision to have kids is totally a selfish one. A selfish decision to make yourself less happy.
What an interesting world.

Ann Althouse said...

"Why is it notable that this happens "even in same-sex couples"?"

Because some of the analysis — it's right there in the article — has to do with disparate burdens, with women taking on or feeling that they've taken on the larger share of the child-care work.

Terry said...

This is why social science is crap. Doubtful methods used to provide questionable findings. In real science, you might measure the speed of a falling object. That is real. Repeat the experiment a million times, all across time and space, and if G is the same, the object is accelerated the same.
Here we have what are maybe dozens of studies done across years, with different groups, and the knowledge you get is either simply demonstrating the obvious or perniciously biased to achieve a predetermined result. Do the experiment with different groups at different times, you could get different results.
Humbug!

SJ said...

How does the relationship change once the children are over the age of 10?

Or the age of 15?

Other things being equal, children are a stress on a relationship.

But there must be some reason that couples have raised children for many thousands of years...

David Begley said...

What Terry said and AA's addendum.

tim in vermont said...

It never was for the selfish. They will be largely gone from the gene pool, if not soon enough.

tim in vermont said...

It's our genes that are selfish, not a new idea.

CStanley said...

ADDED: I wonder what other things we depend on people to do could be shown not to produce personal happiness. 1. Caring about the thoughts and feelings of others. 2. Taking on a significant job and working hard at it. 3. Following the law. 4. ...

Yes....I'll bet childhood is generally a happier time of life when compared to the stress of adulthood, therefore no one should grow up.

Unknown said...

I wonder if the study was able to determine where the culprit lies. In my life women typically control the bedroom and dole out sex as they like. A lack of sex in the bedroom always seems to lead to a lack of intimacy and sensitivity to each other. So yea verily children lead to less intimacy because they provide such huge new outlets for women to love. Leaving hubby to be seen as a useful tool versus the sex object he might have been.

Michael P said...

"Because some of the analysis — it's right there in the article — has to do with disparate burdens, with women taking on or feeling that they've taken on the larger share of the child-care work."

Couples specialize their labor. One cooks (because of different practice, talent or preference), one washes the dishes. One mows the lawn, one does laundry. In an extreme case, one stays home to care for kids while the other works. Couples that stay together tend to work out a balance for those things, either in labor or some other compensation. As I said in my earlier comment, I don't think the opposite-sex-couple dynamics are nearly as substantial as the dynamics inherent to parenthood. We should only expect to see a difference for opposite-sex couples in proportion to (real or perceived) sexism, or at least in proportion to how much sexism exceeds real preferences about parenting roles.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

I've been studying up on how to train a puppy and this "all-positive" school of dog training seems to my casual observation to be nearly cult-like and way disproportionately female.

Which, of course, makes me wonder how well these women have trained their husbands.

I mean, when he puts down the lid on the toilet, does he get a click and a treat?

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

An Old Joke: Why did God give men orgasms? So women would know when sex is over.

Eric the Fruit Bat said...

Just by chance I caught the latest episode of the new "The Odd Couple." Oscar is played by that Chandler Bing guy from "Friends" and he's dating Terri Hatcher who fears sex because he might be repulsed by her more-saggy-than-it-used-to-be body.

And to think . . . they used to be real, and spectacular.

CStanley said...

Unknown said:
I wonder if the study was able to determine where the culprit lies. In my life women typically control the bedroom and dole out sex as they like. A lack of sex in the bedroom always seems to lead to a lack of intimacy and sensitivity to each other. So yea verily children lead to less intimacy because they provide such huge new outlets for women to love. Leaving hubby to be seen as a useful tool versus the sex object he might have been.


Just an observation, but in my view physical and emotional intimacy are like a feedback loop, and men seem to always view it from the direction that Unknown states while women tend to see the opposite, for men, the lynchpin is the withholding of physical affection which leads to them feeling less emotional connection, while for women the withholding of physical affection comes as a result of feeling less emotional connection from her male partner.

That seems to me to be a fundamental difference between the sexes, and one that ought to be internalized by all who want successful relationships

damikesc said...

Shocking: A sketchy "science" decides to continue attacking the bedrock of human civilization for millennia. I guess all of those people for thousands upon thousands of years got it wrong but, darn it, WE know how shit really works.

I am also curious as to the odds of this being repeatable.

Jim Gust said...

That is either bunk, or every married couple I know (including me) is an outlier.

Bill Peschel said...

Eric, the "clicker-training the mate" joke was used to great effect in the TV show "Pushing Daisies" a few years back (I finally got into the DVD set and understand why it's a gem).

Anyway, speaking as a married (22 years) man with three children, I can attest to those findings. So what? Working for a living brings down personal happiness as well, so we're supposed to not work?

My wife mentioned that there were times when the younguns were around that she had zero interest in sex. She was exhausted. I understand; I was home during the day, going off to work second shift and sometimes I wouldn't be home until 1 a.m.

Now, we have one kid out, one still at home and one in high school. I lost my second-shift job (journalism) and I'm home writing books. Our personal happiness is greater than before. Every freakin day, despite our low income, despite the fact I'm working more than before publishing books through Peschel Press, we're thrilled to be with each other (except when she bugs me, or I bug her).

And I have kids. While my wife is not nearly so drippy about them, I'm over the moon to have such interesting spawn of my loins. I'm comforted that I worked my *** off to support them and to support the household.

Happiness should not be measured point-by-point and maintained constantly at a certain level. Sometimes, you sacrifice happiness for the family's greater good. If you do it right, you cast your happiness on the waves, and it comes back in spades.

That's fuckin' life.

Terry said...

Since most sociologists want the state to replace the family, where are the studies that show the details of the individual's relationship with the state?
I believe it would resemble two psychopaths locked in a terrible, mutually exploitive, hateful conflict. And never any love or affection felt by either. And it would be the same for everyone, men, women, conservatives, liberals.
Carry on, brave social scientists! There is a brave new world out there, waiting to be born!

Bruce Hayden said...

Used to be, we really didn't have a choice. If you wanted sex, you got kids. And, in most cultures, that usually meant having to raise them. Now it is optional. So, if you are selfish, then you can skip that, spend all of your money and time on yourselves, and, sure, things are great. But, I look at my 94 year old father, with his sons around him, and think of what he would be like if he had gone that route. We know couples almost as old without kids, and it is quite different - very lonely, with the only family around you being there mostly for the inheritance. Good family has a warmth about it that cannot be replaced by really anything else. Spent a couple nights with one of my partner's kids last week, and their kids, and it was something I wouldn't have wanted to miss. I think of it as deferred or delayed gratification. You know it is going to be hard, but you do it because in the long run, it is much better. Not really that different from finishing graduate school before settling down, as contrasted to doing so right out of high school - by waiting, and working hard, you end up in much better shape. And, yes, part of the hard part of waiting for that gratification is that marriage and raising those kids is going to be hard, esp. if you want to do it right (and, most here, I suspect, who had kids, are in that category).

tim in vermont said...

What happens to happiness when we are all old and nobody is around to at least help us die with some comfort?

tim in vermont said...

Evolution mercilessly rewards the long run.

cyrus83 said...

I think the bigger takeaway from this study is that being a narcissist or a highly selfish person means that having kids will not improve one's happiness. Happiness according to this study declines among both the childless and those with children, which suggests there is a more general problem dealing with the give and take a relationship requires, a problem children would only exacerbate.

Narcissists aren't happy when they have to set aside number one for someone else, and taking care of kids of whatever number requires a heck of a lot of sacrifices. Of course, relationships do too, and the high divorce/breakup rate is reflective of the fact that people aren't willing to make them as often as those from prior generations (either that or Western people have become far more stupid than their forebears at the matchmaking game).

Virgil Hilts said...

I didn't see this stat in the article but I have read it before and find it amazing. Perhaps the most common year of divorce (commencement) is the first year after the first child is born and the frequency of this occurrence is highest if that birth takes place in the first 5 years of the marriage. I used to think this had to be wrong, but in my own narrow world I have seen numerous examples. Maybe by the time that first child hits two the father (now used to being second fiddle) becomes so completely smitten by the child that he is much less likely to allow (or help) the marriage to fail.

jimbino said...

decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childless couples....

The proper way to say this is "decline in relationship satisfaction is nearly twice as steep for couples who have children than for childfree couples..., especially in the context of this post.

exhelodrvr1 said...

Check the happiness level when the children have become responsible adults, with their own spouses and children, and you see the positive results of the years of effort and sacrifice. With grandchildren as a reward. (And great-grandchildren, in my parents' case.)

Michael K said...

I think it is called "growing up."

Martha said...


"The relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along," writes psychology professor Matthew D. Johnson in The Washington Post.

Yes! Absolutely. Having and raising kids well is the most arduous task I have ever undertaken — and I went to med school and subsequent internship, residency, fellowship etc. etc. But like all difficult endeavors, it is also the most rewarding.....eventually.

My husband and I used to say through gritted teeth that we got married to have kids and we were staying married because we had kids. Now we just say we have three great sons and a long successful marriage.

Michael said...

Martha

Great post. Thanks.

n.n said...

It depends on how you define the meaning of life. Mother Nature wants men and women to be fruitful and multiply. Humans adapt Nature's fitness function adding layers of morality, emotion, and ego.

Gahrie said...

Because some of the analysis — it's right there in the article — has to do with disparate burdens, with women taking on or feeling that they've taken on the larger share of the child-care work.

If only some group of people would evolve with the biological purpose of raising children. Perhaps this group of people could have biological and emotional advantages in the raising of children.

Naw......everyone is exactly the same...remember?

n.n said...

Martha:

You can have your cake and eat it, too. In moderation. In time.

Congratulations, you win!

damikesc said...

But, I look at my 94 year old father, with his sons around him, and think of what he would be like if he had gone that route. We know couples almost as old without kids, and it is quite different - very lonely, with the only family around you being there mostly for the inheritance.

That's a biggie. I'm terrified of the idea of dying alone and totally anonymous. I want somebody to give a shit. Hoe many people in nursing homes ALREADY have kids who ignore them. These selfish pricks will have to deal with that. And when they're no longer young and fabulous, they will live miserable lives. Then wonder why they aren't happy.

Gahrie said...

I'm terrified of the idea of dying alone and totally anonymous. I want somebody to give a shit

I'm trying to get everyone who attended my high school (a small one overseas on a military base) to agree on the same retirement community so we can all retire together and bug each each like we used to.

jeff said...

Then there are the couples that have a child to advance their political career which makes them happy.

Ambrose said...

Whenever I see the words "results are conclusive" I know that they are likely not. Unless they studied the same couples with and without children - which of course they could not, there is a flaw in their control group. They can use a statistical approach to assume around that - but it cannot be eliminated, particularly with something so subjective. It's not like testing a new vaccine where one group gets it and another gets a placebo.

n.n said...

The relationship between spouses suffers once kids come along

It's called compromise. It begins with relationships (e.g. time, space, resource sharing), continues with marriage, and does not end with Posterity. Even without children, there is no one with a universe unto themselves.

boycat said...

This is why, historically, people did not marry for love. Love does not last and will often lead you astray.

mockturtle said...

Personal satisfaction has now become the standard. Anything involving self-sacrifice is destructive of that ideal.

GridWizard said...

As the father of three daughters, I think this is right. But now that all are adults and living on their own, my wife and I have found that our relationship has really improved. Richer and more satisfying.

Joe said...

The only reason I stayed married was the kids; it was the only thing we had in common. Getting divorced and having the kids become adults have lowered my stress levels considerably. (I love being a grandpa, but if my granddaughter is over for more than a day, I start going batty.)

RigelDog said...

Ann you expressed it perfectly---what other worthwhile, meaningful, even essential things in life decrease some sort of feeling of "happiness." Also, what are the long-term effects on child-free vs. partners-with-children? Are the ones without children more likely to divorce? If you go back to these couples in 20+years, when parenting is no longer a life-consuming event, which couples express more satisfaction with their lives and their relationship? It would be important to compare those who are childless by choice with those who would have liked to have had children but it didn't happen for them.

kentuckyliz said...

I'm NM/NK but if I had got married in my youth, I would have wanted it to progress forward and bear fruit...children. Without the forward movement of developing a family life together, marriage just seems stale, fruitless, permamemt dating made legal. What's the point?

CatherineM said...

Nice post Martha. I always tell those who say, "it's so hard," that time passes so quickly.

I think so much unhappiness depends on expectations and being honest about them before marriage. I know so many people who avoided problems or did not discuss expectations before marriage because they were afraid it would prevent the marriage from happening. Then those issues are unavoidable when the kids arrive and priorities change.

The ones who weren't truthful with themselves or who were oblivious that their expectations for marriage didn't match their spouses stayed married when they got a mediator before the resentment built to a level of no return for one or both. Also, there are bad people who just bail and good people who decide not to fight the differences anymore because they would lose things more valuable.

CatherineM said...

Nursing homes are filled with people who are parents and the children never visit.

Pugsley the Pug said...

My wife and I have been married for 22 years and have 2 sons - one an adult and the other a year and a half from that milestone. Our marriage is successful because we each don't put ourselves first in the family dynamic relationship, we both share the duties around the house and offer to help each other, we do all that we can do to help our sons succeed in life, we do everything together as a couple (and when the kids were younger, as a family), and we carve time out for each other every day for at least a half hour (yes, every day, even when one of us is out of town on business). We not only love each other, but we respect each other and listen to each other. Our intimate time not only didn't stagnate after the kids came along but got better (see my previous 2 sentences as to why). I don't know of too many couples who are still married in their mid-50's who are telling me that their marriage is in that shape, if they are not already divorced.