Study Shows Children Ruin Marriage (probably)

Today’s post is a little different from my usual fare, but I think it’s something others will find useful.

I spend all day at work examining clinical studies – really examining them.  The members of my department are responsible for deconstructing medical research in order to justify or negate regulatory claims.  This leaves no room for error, since the tiniest details of medical research can mean the difference between a multibillion-dollar product and a multibillion-dollar lawsuit.

As you can imagine, my job frequently leaves me disappointed with mass media’s portrayal of scientific research.  Many reporters – whether ignorant or malicious, it doesn’t really matter – misrepresent new research by reporting data incorrectly or leaving out key details. As links to these partially correct stories get spread across social media, the details of the research tend to get further and further obscured.

So whenever I get the chance, I like to read new research publications first-hand to see what researchers have REALLY discovered – and that’s what prompted today’s article.

Today’s paper comes from the March 2009 edition of the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.  The title of the article is “The effect of the transition to parenthood on relationship quality: An 8-year prospective study.”  Popular media has cherry-picked various aspects of this study, and depending on the source (right-wing or left) the implications are all over the map.

So I’m going to give you the actual findings of the study, and if you’d like to examine the paper yourself you can purchase it from this link ($12 USD as of 26 June 2012): http://psycnet.apa.org/index.cfm?fa=buy.optionToBuy&id=2009-02415-008.

First, the study parameters:

  • The research comes out of the University of Denver (with collaboration from Texas A&M)
  • The researchers examined 218 couples in Denver over 8 years.
  • Of those 218 couples, 134 – or 61% – had a child during the course of the study. The other 84 couples did not.

Most of the interesting data was compiled from yearly questionnaires submitted by the study participants. These questionnaires asked each participant to rate their marital satisfaction on a scale of 1 to 7.

Known limitations to the research include:

  • Most participants were well-educated
  • Most participants were white
  • Most participants were married in religious ceremonies
  • Almost all participants were from a metropolitan area

Also, the study only looked at the birth of first children.

Knowing that, here are the highlights.  Take from them what you will.

  • For 90 percent of couples, marital bliss dived in the year following the birth of a first child.  To quote a professor from Texas A&M, “the take-away message is probably that for the average couple, having a child is a strain on the relationship.”
  • While 90 percent seems like a lot, it’s not universal – in fact, 15 percent of fathers and 7 percent of mothers ended up more satisfied with their marriage after the birth of their first child.
  • Couples who were the most romantic before children experienced the sharpest decline in satisfaction after the birth of a first child.
  • Couples who had babies within a year (approximately) of getting married and couples with lower incomes experienced larger drops in marital satisfaction.
  • Couples who did not have children also showed diminished marital satisfaction over time. However, having a baby appeared to accelerate the deterioration.
  • The research also correlated steeper declines in happiness with the mother’s parents being divorced, the couple living together before marriage, and the first baby being a girl.  (As one story correctly reported, a reasonable theory about the girl factor is that couples tend to struggle more when they have a daughter because the father may be less involved in child care.)
  • If you read all that and still want to have a child with your spouse, are you crazy? Maybe. :) Actually, the study did show that among the few couples who reported increased satisfaction after the birth of their first child, the correlating factors were 1) higher incomes 2) being married longer before having the child. So if you want a happy marriage AND children, the takeaway message seems to be: get your finances in order, and don’t rush into child-rearing. As this study (and frankly, many others) indicates, waiting to have a child will NOT decrease your marital satisfaction – in fact, just the opposite appears to be true.

For what it’s worth, I personally found this study to be of high quality, especially when compared to other studies examining the effect of children on marital satisfaction.  Kudos to these researchers, and as always – carefully consider the details of this research, including all its caveats, before rethinking your plans for life.

P.S. If you find these results depressing, perhaps you’ll find comfort in this comment from Scott Stanley, one of the paper’s authors:

“There are different types of happiness in life and that while some luster may be off marital happiness for at least a time during this period of life, there is a whole dimension of family happiness and contentment based on the family that couples are building.  This type of happiness can be powerful and positive but it has not been the focus of research.”

Note: this article was edited on 26 June 2012. I added the price of the research paper per requests from readers, and I also reworded some statements to make them clearer. -Tanner

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