Monday, June 26, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – The Effect of Kids On Marriage and Divorce

From Ash:

Continuing on with our discussion of factors that contribute to marital stability, or instability as it may be, today, I'm going to look at different aspects of the role children play in their parents' marriage and divorce. I'm going to tackle pre-marital births compared to marital births; raising children; and how even gender of children plays a role in divorce.

(And, to be clear, what I'm not going to address is the role of the parents' marriage and/or divorce on the children – that's too worthy and important topic to be thrown into this post. Po will cover this tomorrow.)

Premarital Births / Marital Births

Put down the shotgun. Sociologists have well-determined that a couple with a child born before their marriage are much more likely to divorce than a couple waits to have a child until they are married.

In fact, the presense of a premarital birth is such a strong predictor of divorce, it seems to be the second thing the sociologists consider, after considering the couple's age (meaning asking if they are a young couple).

Which should come as now surprise when you consider that couples who are likely to have a birth outside of marriage are, among other things, marrying at substantially younger ages; are less educated; and are much less well-off financially.

Since the same demographic risk factors present in most marriages following a premarital birth are also those that increase a couple's divorce-risk, I wondered then, if the premarital birth factor will change as more couples cohabit for longer periods of time, prior to marriage, or even in lieu of marriage. (Particularly when that seems to already being going on more in Europe.)

I also thought that reports like the Fragile Families Study might support that idea. That study determined that a great many unmarried fathers were emotionally involved with the mother of their children (depending on other demographics, as high as 90%), and at the time of the child's birth, most already planned to get married within the year. And a follow-up showed that a lot of them did, in fact, get married.

But then I thought about this in comparison to cohabiting before marriage. As Po explained in his post on cohabiting's influence on marital stability, recent scholarship there seems to indicate that a couple's intention to get married prior to moving in together is what really seems to make the difference.

For a couple who decides to marry after cohabiting, that doesn't help their odds. I think the same is the case here for premarital births. Even if the couple has already decided to marry, prior to the baby's birth, they are still doing so out of a reaction. They are doing it because circumstances push them in that direction.

Therefore, it may be that a planned pre-marital pregnancy might not hurt a couple's chances as much, but my guess is that such a pregnancy would also mean that there's also consideration that the couple will marry and / or they have other factors (education, age, etc.) that also work to diminish their risk of divorce. But I'm really not sure about that.

The Affect of Raising Children on Marital Happiness and Marital Stability

Pre-eminent sociologist Andrew Cherlin (whose work I am a big fan of) did an early groundbreaking study of the effects of children on divorce. In that report, Cherlin and his colleagues determined that the presence of children in a household do, in fact, decrease the couple's likelihood of getting a divorce.

However, Cherlin found that that wasn't related to an increase in the couple's marital happiness. Instead, it was more related to the resources demanded by childrearing – the financial, emotional, and temporal demands involved in parenting. As such, a couple is less likely to divorce when there is a child in the house, but that only remains true when the child is very young – a preschooler. Once the child has grown older, the divorce rate seems to go up. Subsequent studies have found results supporting Cherlin's findings.

Now, why that is exactly, I don't know. It may that as the resource demands of time, etc., to raise an older child lessen as they become more sufficient, that bond is no longer there. It might be that there is more stress in the marriage because it's more expensive and emotionally difficult to raise an older child. It may also be that parents wanted to divorce earlier, but they waited until the child is older before leaving.

Thus, essentially, the presence of children does lower the rate of divorce amongst couples, but only for a finite period of time, and it seems to be because of the new ties to the children. The decrease in divorce does not seem to be borne out of a new emotional bond that strengths the marriage.

Further supporting these reports, study after study shows that a couple's happiness with their marriage decreases once they have children. For years, sociologists had agreed that this was true, but they'd seen a happy-ending that occurred when children would leave the house: then, they thought that the couple's marital happiness would increase. But more recent research has disproven that theory, arguing that a couple's marital happiness takes an initial decline after the honeymoon period, and once they have kids. After that, their happiness in their marriage continues a slow decline, or, at best, stays essentially the same.

And I don't want anyone to think that I'm saying if you want a happy marriage, don't have kids. Because I don't believe that.

Certainly, couples get some new happiness and fulfillment from having children. Of course, they do. (I think my favorite description of parenthood lately was from David Letterman, who described it as something like "unending joy.")

But, on the average, as between the couple themselves, they are less happy with each other, once there are kids in the house. So they're happy about being a parent, and maybe even more fulfilled with their life, but when asked to "rate how happy are you in your marriage," the scores go down.

So I worry about couples who already have problems in their marriage and think that having children is the answer. I'm sorry to say that I haven't seen any support for that idea. Instead, the evidence would seem to point in the opposite direction.

But in case you think it's all bad news, consider that when men share the burden of childrearing and housework, they increase their wives' happiness in the marriage. So the couple can work on preventing that slide. It isn't inevitable.

How Children's Gender Plays A Role In Marital Dissolution

Okay, even if you haven't been perturbed by this post yet, I almost guarantee this next part may cause you to come unglued.

Studies have found that couples with all-female children are slightly more likely to divorce than those with all boys, or a mix of boys and girls. The newest numbers I've seen are that families with all-girls are 2 to 7% more likely to divorce than those with boys.

In the mid-1990s, a team of sociologists determined that a couple with one girl child was 9% more likely to divorce than a couple with a boy: a couple with two-girls was 18% more likely to divorce than a couple with two-boys. A significant journal said it was the most important finding of the decade.

As you can imagine, it's been pretty controversial ever since – although you'd also be how surprised how much people have accepted that data, which shows you how thorough the findings must have been. But it's still a troubling enough an idea that others have tried to find the same results across different nations, and caused the first sociologists to re-run the study seven years later.

Even more recent studies have reconfirmed the divorce-disparity, although at the newer, lower rates.

There are a lot of theories as to why this might be the case. At the time of the original study, the authors suggested that fathers are less involved with raising their girl children than they are with the boys. Therefore, they are less willing to leave the boys. Basically, the fathers' traditional belief in the importance of a male role model, etcera, has actually meant that men were less willing to divorce.

Others have theorized that divorce rate for girl-children families may be because it might be more stressful because they cost more to raise. Still others have proffered that men just prefer the boys' company over the girls. (And that study actually concluded, regretfully, that that seemed to be the reason.)

The original authors' explanation seems to be the best one, but I was still having trouble excepting the premise. Then I found two studies on related themes which pretty much removed my remaining doubt. First, a study of court custody proceedings found that divorced single women are raising more girls than boys, and, if a father desired custody of his children, he was overwhelmingly seeking custody of boy-children. Then, a study of premarital births found that a pregnant woman who finds out in pre-natal screening that she is going to have a baby boy is more likely to be married by the time she has the child, than those women who learned they were pregnant with girls.

Men really do seem to think that a boy needs his father, and that, a girl, well, doesn't. At least, not as much.

The best news here is that when the first sociologists re-ran their early study, while they confirmed that their original findings were correct, but they added that the effects seem to be diminishing over time as fathers become involved in all childrearing activities.

The more fathers are involved in childrearing, the less they seem to see their role simply as teaching their sons how to become men, and they're becoming as attached to the girls as they are to the boys.

And tying this back to other factors, as I said earlier, when men help out more with childrearing, their wives are usually happier in their marriage, so let Mom pitch the baseball to Timmy: you need to take your little girl to ballet class, pronto! You could be saving your marriage!


Blogger InvisibleContract said...

On the finding "couples with all-female children are slightly more likely to divorce than those with all boys, or a mix of boys and girls." I would ask you and your readers to consider that the woman may be more inclined to leave the marriage if the children are all female. Women tend to have an advantage when seeking to be custodians of the children when the children are all female. The accompanying child support makes post-marrigae economics seem to "work" for the woman and reduces that barrier for disolving the marriage. Consider that assertion in the context of your other blogs where you confirm that women are more likely to be the the filers for divorce and the agents of disolving the marriage. Therefore any reduction in the barriers to divorce for a woman intent on divorce would result in an accompanying increase in divorces.

10:29 AM  
Blogger TipsyToad said...

I realize this is a old post, but I was having a discussion about this article, statistical correlation between happiness and children in a marriage.

A different interpretation of happiness statistics center around the idea that couples who have children are less likely to get divorced, hence the decrease in happiness in a relationships with children can be attributed to unhappily married people staying in their relationship for the sake of their children.

As the quote goes, "There are lies, damned lies, and statistics"

11:31 AM  
Blogger Lara said...

Re the comment by InvisibleContract: Many people talk about the child support/alimony system according to the laws that are actually on the books.

This ignores the well-documented fact that the system is broken. Less than a third of women get the child support and alimony ordered by the court -- even though in the overwhelming majority of cases, the total amount ordered for a woman and her children together is far less than the ex-husband has for himself alone, and is in no sense supporting the household. Women have to go to work after a divorce and there is a solid reason for that.

"The accompanying child support makes post-marriage economics seem to 'work' for the woman and reduces that barrier for dissolving the marriage" was the statement.

This is absolutely true by the books, and absolutely false in reality. Believe me, women do not look at financial divorce stats and say, "Hey, that's not so bad. I'm going to get a divorce because it's not nearly as bad as I thought. No problem." Women don't feel free to divorce because they know they'll have support. They divorce and go back to work because they know that regardless of services rendered in the past (you know, worthless services such as homemaking and child-rearing), they will not get any credit and aren't likely to get much money to support their households.

Women know that once they divorce, they now have their backs against the wall, because traditional women's work is valued at $0 while their ex-spouses' work is valued much more highly. His ability to make the wage came from her, but the whole wage is still his.

This is not a motivator to divorce. It's a reason why many women who want to divorce, don't do so. It's a reason why many divorces are actually delayed long past the point where the woman or both spouses wanted to get out.

12:07 PM  

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