Last week, numerous headlines appeared in the news implying that couples should stay childless if they want a happy marriage. "Kids Marital Satisfaction Study: Remain Childless" said one headline and "Secret to Marital Bliss? Don't Have Kids" blared another. The headlines were based on a new study by scholars at the University of Denver that was published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. The title of the study was "The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: An eight-year prospective study," but the way news outlets covered it you would think the study was called, "Why Smart Research Types Don't Think You Should Have Kids." It turns out that those smart research types actually like children and intended to send a very different message than the one reporters trumpeted.
Candice and I have had the privilege of getting to know Dr. Scott Stanley, one of the co-authors of the study. As soon as I saw his name appear, I knew something was being misrepresented because of the reputation Scott has as a fair-handed family researcher. Shortly after the articles ran, Scott offered some clarifying comments to recipients of the SmartMarriages email update. Here's his take on the media coverage in his typical dry-wit:
Ah, the joys of the media. Surely, that's just what we meant and we merely came up with the wrong title in our journal article. Couples should not have children. Just don't do it. Just wait until my sons hear about this. Won't they feel like they owe Nancy and me forever?!
And then he addresses the details of the study:
On a more serious note, here are the important points as far as I'm concerned.
- The study focuses on the way declines in marital functioning happen over time for couples who have children and also for those who do not. Couples having children showed clear declines in marital quality that were concentrated around the time of childbirth. Yes, transition to parenthood changes couples, and the changes can be challenging.
- Led by Brian Doss's amazing work on this, part of what we found is that the decline is, on average, small to medium in size. The effect was not hugely negative as some studies before have found. On the other hand, the decline is real where some other studies have suggested that this may not be true.
Key take-a-way: Transition to parenthood is a particularly identifiable and challenging period for couples. (Many of you knew that.)
- Couples who didn't have children also declined over the eight years of the study, but they did so more gradually. While those not having children didn't show some of the declines in terms of communication and conflict management that those having children did, they declined in overall marital happiness, nevertheless.
He goes on to add:
- Studies like this help make the point that people don't need to just let stuff happen to them; they can make choices, including to preserve and protect the great stuff in their marriages. But they have to decide to do that and then work at it. As Howard Markman and Frank Floyd were saying 30 years ago, and we¹re all still saying: Key life transitions are important opportunities for helping couples strengthen their marriages.
- Do these findings argue that couples would be better off just saying "no" to children? Of course not. (Just think of the implications for your Social Security!) Sure, some couples would do better not to have children. More importantly, there are differences between couples who have children and those who do not (apart from mere fertility issues) that make such assertions and comparisons difficult for researchers to attempt. Brian Doss makes the point that we are wise only to look at the trajectories of the two groups but it would be less wise to directly compare them in making too many conclusions. There are too many bases for differences between couples who have children (and when) and those who do not.
Dr. Stanley wraps up his observations with a philosophical perspective:
I'm just speaking for myself in this point, not my colleagues. I believe that we have a narrow definition of marital happiness in America and that there is something harder to measure that is very important that has been called Family Happiness (by Tolstoy; David Brooks did a cool editorial on this a few years ago). This type of happiness is more deeply related to the meaning of building a family together, in life. Most people do not regret having children. Most people who had children are very glad that they did. ... We're too over-focused on romantic happiness in life and not on bigger types of contentment and meaning. Researchers have not really tried to measure this idea of family happiness but those raising a family can very often relate to this on many levels.
Don't worry, be happy (and content).
For more on this issue of marital satisfaction and having children, we encourage you to read the "Mission" chapter in our Start Your Family book.