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Are Childless Couples Headed Toward Divorce?

Posted: 08/01/11 12:30 PM ET

As far as celebrity splits go, Olivia Wilde and Tao Ruspoli's seems pretty easy. At least the "Cowboys & Aliens" actress and the prince, married for eight years, don't have any kids.

But that might have been the problem; childfree couples divorce more often than couples who have at least one child, according to researchers, despite numerous studies that indicate marital happiness plummets in the first year or two after the birth of a child and sometimes never quite recoups.

Among the research author Po Bronson gathered for his various books, he notes the work done by sociologist Paul H. Jacobson as proof:

"For couples without children, the divorce rate in 1948 was 15.3 per 1,000. Where one child was present, the estimate rate was 11.6 per 1,000. The figure thus continues to decrease, and in families with four or more children, it was 4.6. Altogether, the rate for couples with children was 8.8 per 1,000. In other words, the rate for childless couples was almost double the rate for families with children."

OK, but Jacobson's study was published in 1950; is it still true today?

Yes, according to journalist Anneli Rufus, whose number crunching discovered that of the divorced couples in the United States, 66 percent are childless compared with 40 percent who have kids. Why? Evidently, the "absence of children leads to loneliness and weariness."

I don't know about that; I know of a lot of parents who are not only lonely in their marriage but extremely weary because of their kids.

"I've been tracking the childfree for over 10 years now, and see many, many happily married childfree couples out there," says Laura Carroll, author of "Families of Two: Interviews With Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice" who blogs at La Vie Childfree. Carroll is trying to revive the idea of Non-Parents Day, celebrated Aug. 1, so named in 1972 by the National Organization for Non-Parents, which then became the National Alliance for Optional Parenthood.

It's understandable that kidfree couples would be happy -- they have more time, energy and money to spend on their careers, friends, each other and themselves. And, according to recent surveys, one for No Kidding!, an international social group for people without children, and one by Laura S. Scott, author of "Two is Enough: A Couple's Guide to Living Childless by Choice," couples often decide not to have kids because they want to put their relationship first -- having kids can get in the way.

So if they're so happy, why do more kidfree couples end up splitting?

"People assume children are the glue that holds a marriage together, which really isn't true. Kids are huge stressors," says Scott, head of the Childless by Choice Project whose documentary on childfree couples was just released. "Despite that, there is a strong motive to stay together. The childfree don't have that motive so there's no reason to stay together if it's not working." That's why for Wilde, who says her relationship became too much work and "I don't think love should be work," it wasn't too hard to kiss her prince goodbye.

Says Lori Buckley, a certified sex therapist, "A lot of couples come into my office and the only reason they are working on the relationship is because of the children."

If you don't have kids, divorce is often easier, legally and financially if not necessarily emotionally. All you have to focus on is who gets what of the stuff and who gets how much of the assets; no custody issues, no family court, no Parental Alienation Syndrome. Some states even make it almost a breeze; in Tennessee, couples with kids have to meet higher standards to be able to divorce than those without kids. In Virginia, couples with children face a mandatory waiting period of about a year before they can get a divorce; kidfree couples often have to wait about six months.

But there's a difference between couples who are childfree by choice and those who are childless because they can't have kids, and the latter make up the bulk of the childfree. "Not all the childfree are intentionally childfree couples," Scott discovered in her research after talking to hundreds of couples. "A good chunk are postponers, those who delay parenthood."

Sometimes couples delay to the point that fertility problems arise. "Then the question of ''When should we have kids?' morphs into 'Should we have kids?" Scott says, forcing couples to explore other ways to have a baby, such as adoption, surrogates or in vitro fertilization (IVF). That, she says, can be extremely stressful and can lead to a fracture that a couple can't get past. In fact, many infertility specialists recommend marital counseling.

"If one partner desperately wants to try to have a child and one partner might not put as high a priority on it, that could be a deal breaker," she says. Often a couple hasn't discussed what point they stop trying -- how much money, how much time, how many procedures. Many women often feel like failures and feel less close to their partners; for many men, the fertility process can turn sex into anything other than pleasure. "I hear from men who say, 'This isn't fun anymore. I feel like I'm sperm on demand,'" Scott says.

If couples can't agree, they're more likely to split.

And there may be more childfree couples ahead; fewer people believe that kids are "very important" to a successful marriage, according to a 2007 survey by the Pew Research Center. About 65 percent of us believed they were back in 1990, but just 41 percent of us believe that now. About 7 percent of Millennials -- those born in or after 1982 -- say they don't want kids and 19 percent aren't sure. But if that 19 percent waits too long, they may be the next crop of infertile, and perhaps divorced, couples.

"A lot of people don't have the kid conversation before they get married. They just assume parenthood," Scott says.

So unless you want to celebrate Non-Parents Day because you truly don't want to be a parent, "have that conversation before you commit to someone." she advises.

 
 
 

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