Are childfree couples happier than parents?

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Sharon Ní Choncúir, freelance journalist with the Irish Examiner was interested by a large research piece done by Open University that suggests that childfree couples are happier than parents. We talk about why that might be. 

Why do you think child-free couples might be happier than those with children?

Firstly a qualifier: this study (which is lengthy but well worth a read!) has a good chunky sample size of 5000 respondents. This is far bigger than most surveys that get media coverage. So that’s good. Only 50 couples were actually interviewed during the process yielding the qualitative data. Much of the information was gleaned via online survey, and from what I can see 80% of the participants were women. It shows trends, that’s for sure, but as with all studies we need to be careful about making assumptions based on these results and pronouncing them as general truths.

That said, the results don’t surprise me in the least.

When a couple choose to not have children they are already kicking against the perceived norm. There is already a sense of ‘team’. I am not saying of course that it is abnormal NOT to have children,rather that it is considered “normal” to want children, to rear them in the context of a family. This is what we see, what we teach and even at a constitutional level is seen as the basis of our society. We are taught this from a very young age. We present little girls with baby dolls and socialise them to associate motherhood and childrearing with positive feelings like fun, reward.

Education, the introduction of contraception and the gender equality movement have made other options available to us. Sexuality’s fluidity is gradually becoming more normalised and so the traditional view of the structured nuclear family is changing. Choice brings with it responsibility, and what we are seeing now is more and more couples taking responsibility for their reproductive choices. It is no longer a given that one gets married and then has kids.

Couples who make the decision not to have children have most likely spent many frought hours agonising, arguing, discussing this issue. Because even though there are more choices available (on a micro level if you will), we have not yet caught up attitudinally, in the macro sense.

In particular women who choose not to have children are regarded with a mixture of suspicion, jealousy and disdain. A quick look at any tabloid or magazine will reveal how childfree women are judged for the choice they have made. Many women, in my experience, lie about their childfree status, telling people that they are unable to have children – not to gain sympathy, but to avoid judgement. Men are not subject to the same judgement, but as part of a heterosexual couple they won’t escape it fully.

So in negotiating and deciding whether or not to have children all of these issues will be probably be discussed by the couple. This, by it’s very nature, will enhance the relationship. These are intimate and personal issues. They require listening, honesty, they will expose vulnerabilities, fragilities and as a result the couple will most likely feel closer as a result of simply discussing these issues.

I have often heard clients say that they never considered not having children. They simply assumed that they would, because “that’s what people do”. It is what people do of course, a lot of them! Often though, there is little planning, little thought as to how the couple will negotiate the realities of parenting. The assumption that it is normal leads to an assumption that we don’t need to plan and we’ll be able to manage. Each person in the couple may have unspoken expectations of how this will work out, who will do what, and when they will do it. When the child is born it is often shocking to new parents, the amount of work involved unanticipated and the effect on each partner unanticipated. The changes come hard and fast, and relationships can and do suffer.

Some couples manage this very well, some don’t. The key to surviving a change this huge from my perspective as a therapist is clear and honest communication and mutual respect. Couples who have done the discussion piece have most likely already nailed communication and it is my belief that it is this, rather than the actual absence of children, is what leads to a higher perceived relationship satisfaction rating.

Another factor that may lead to increased happiness is the “why” people may choose to be childfree. Sometimes people choose to have children to fill a perceived gap in their lives or relationship. We all know couples who have a child or another child as a means of keeping a relationship together, and we all know couples for whom that has gone terribly wrong. When we use family to fill a gap in our own sense of self esteem or self love, then we are simply delaying unhappiness, and possibly adding to it. Children cannot, and should not, be responsible for our happiness, and when that realisation dawns it is extremely painful for all concerned and can lead to resentment and disappointment. People who don’t have that sense of “gap” to begin with will of course score higher on a happiness scale.

Division of labour between parents is another issue – and the survey alludes to this. Perhaps this is more a gender issue, but of course it’s all intertwined. Traditionally, women were the childrearers. That is changing. There are many men who are stay at home fathers now, by choice and by necessity. As a society as we struggle to change things in a fair manner, the minutiae of family life can become the focus of many an argument. Who changes the nappies? Who does the night feeds? Does one person give up work? What are the financial implications? How is discipline done? Who cooks? Does laundry? These are things that might seem small, but they become enormous where there is perceived inequality. Factor in sleep deprivation and we have a recipe for discontent.

These issues might seem obvious to you as a reader, but in my experience these are the things that don’t get discussed. It’s easy to see how relationships can deteriorate quickly when these issues are present, when things are unsaid and resentment builds. Parenting is extremely hard and undervalued work. It is tiring and challenging and if we don’t feel supported in a job, morale decreases and mood suffers.

Q: What are the pros of life without children for couples?

The pros include the closeness that is easier to maintain without distraction. Couples may have more time to spend with eachother. I say may, because while time is not being spent attending to the needs of children, very often childfree adults spend a lot of time attending to other peoples’ needs. There tends to be an assumption that childfree couples have a lot of time doing nothing which is not necessarily the case. But certainly it is far far easier for them to attend to eachothers’ needs – IF that is their choice. We all need to have fun and time with our partner, and time alone. It is just easier to do this, generally speaking, when there are no children around.  We all adjust how we speak when their are children present, which is appropriate, but can mean that our need to talk to friends, to share personal worries or joys is more difficult to meet and requires organisation and planning.

Sexual relationships are often comprimised when their are children present too. There will be many reasons for this, tiredness being the most common that I hear of. Another huge factor that will influence sex drive is the level of support each person feels from the other. Displays of care, respect and affection are usually reflected in the sexual relationship.

Financially, children can cost a lot. That is a reality, and so being childfree means not having to budget for children.

But again, all of these issues can be dealt with by planning and communicating. If, for example, a couple is inclined to poor financial planning when it comes to their children, then most likely the same issues would have arisen had they not had children.

I really want to emphasise that last point Sharon, children are often used as an excuse for failing relationships, but what I see is that they may be triggers to expose what was already an underlying problem.

Q:What are the challenges and issues such couples face?

Judgement is the main one. There are more personal fears like who will look after me when I’m old? Or to whom will I leave the house/car/jewlery? But once these are worked through and rationally considered (what if your kids emigrate, or hate you?!) then the immediate concerns are socially based. Judgement is our most common foe. We all deal with this at one time or another, and childfree couples get lots of it from all sides. In order to be happy we must give ourselves permission to live as we want to rather than as our parents/friends/sibliings live or tell us think we should. In this way we are entirely responsible for our own happiness.

Q: Are childfree couples more likely to be socially isolated in that the women don’t make new friends at the school gates or in mother and baby groups and there are fewer social situations such as christenings, children’s birthday parties, school events, etc to bring them together with others in the community?

Yes and no. Yes, if women and couples see this as the only way to socialise. No if they realise that of course there are other ways to meet people with whom they have things in common. Childfree people think about these things and when they do a consideration is “what do I want from my friendships?”. People who have children need to meet friends who are in similar places so that they can talk about parenting issues and socialise their children. They will also want to meet peers who may not have children so that they can get away from talking about children and rearing and so on.

When you don’t have children then the need to meet parents is not there. The need to meet adults is of course, and so it’s important to set that up and make it possible to have a social life with people who are available to you in this way. As social beings we tend to naturally gravitate towrds people with whom we have things is common.

Q: Are they likely to encounter criticism and judgement from their families, friends and the general public for their decision not to have children?

Yes. This can be very painful and women in particular often need external support to help them to realise that their decision is not selfish or evil or unnatural. These are the kinds of words that people use, often without realising the impact they may be having.

Q: Are childfree couples likely to be prone to doubts about their decision, fears of what will happen them when they get older and have nobody to look after them for example?

Yes, we are all inclined to doubt decisions that go against the perceived norm I think.

Q: Are there different pressures on men and women when it comes to this decision? Do people tend to judge child-free women more harshly than they do men?

Yes I’ve written about this before in another post. There was a huge interest in that one actually, which showed me just how much of an issue it is for the modern young woman (You’ll see I repeat myself a little in this topic…;)).

Q: Does a lot depend on whether their being child-free was the result of a real decision on their part or a reluctant acceptance of the fact that they could not have children?

Great question and yes. That feels like a whole other conversation though because the issues are so different for these couples. In the former, discussion, maybe comprimise, and ultimately resolution (assuming both agree equally) are features of the relationships and these can only enhance the intimacy between two individuals. Accepting the fact that it is not possible brings other issues into the relationhsip and how these are navigated varies hugely. Again, the key is communication. Accepting inability means grieving. Grieving as a couple, as individuals. One partner may be grieving while the other may be relieved. There may be issues of self blame, or blame of the other. Resentment, anger, sadness, all of these emotions are difficult and draining, and to survive this turmoil is a challenge for any couple. Ideally, they will access support from friends or family, or professionally to help them through this. They too will face some judgement, and assumptions may be made about them. And depending on their own biasses, and the value they place on themselves versus what others may or may not think of them, this will either be a trigger for stress or a thing of nothing.

Either way, whatever the reason, the important piece is to give yourself permission to feel whatever you are feeling. Be that joy and relief at not having to rear kids, or grief for not having the chance to do so. The sooner we allow eachother and ourselves to feel what we are feeling and to make choices that are right for us, the higher we will all score on satisfaction rating questionnaires.

The resulting newspaper article is here.

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