Do children affect the health of a marriage?
Why should children affect a couple’s marriage either negatively or positively? Surely the success of a marriage depends on the relationship between the couple? And whether a couple’s marriage is affected by the presence or the absence of kids would also depend on the couple’s individual preference (for children)…and this would vary not just with individuals but also different societies and cultures.
In any case the factors that go into making a marriage successful are so complex that I cannot imagine linking it to having children. But various surveys have done exactly this and that is why I wanted to explore the connection between the two. I am certainly no expert but I have had the experience of a long and happy married life and have also seen marriages of different kinds around me.
Inability to have children could affect a marriage
Couples who want kids badly could feel incomplete as a family/couple without them, and this feeling of inadequacy could well drive a wedge between them particularly if one blames the other…but another couple who doesn’t want kids and chooses not to have them could have some other stressful event tearing them apart. So its not children per se which is affecting the marriage, but stress and the blame game. I think that if a marriage is strong, it should be able to survive.
Happiness isn’t of one type
There is a recent survey (carried out in America and Europe) which says that married couples are happy (the word they used was “blissfully” happy) once their children have fled the nest.
But surely the kind of happiness that a couple feels after the children have left is different from the happiness a couple feels when the kids are around? I cannot believe that the couples who were interviewed don’t know that the joy they shared when they saw their child take his first step is equal to or as fulfilling as a romantic candlelight dinner or a week-end in Hawai. One kind of joy is not superior to the other, but the survey seems to be saying it is. I doubt that the survey asked whether the couples would have preferred being childless.
There are other older studies conducted in the USA (from 1950s to 2000) which say that there is a “drop in marital happiness” when couples have children…and the wealthier you are, the more this applies. They have explained that this is due to the fact that wealthy couples have the money to travel, go for adventure sports, and do a host of things which they would feel guilty doing if they had to leave kids behind…but I wonder if the word ‘happiness’ is the right one. The survey does not say whether the couples would actually prefer not having children. If they were truly unhappy they would regret having the kids wouldn’t they? So if they don’t regret having children it means they are quite happy the way they are. They are giving up on some “fun” in exchange for some long term fulfillment and sure they feel pangs of longing but that’s human. It shouldn’t mean that they are unhappy.
In any case I don’t think “having fun” all the time and having the freedom to do whatever one wants at any given moment necessarily means being “happy.”
If a couple doesn’t want children in the first place then its a different matter. If someone doesn’t want kids but still has them due to the pressure from their partner or society, then obviously the kids are going to be a cause for resentment and may substract from marital happiness.
Can kids “help” save a poor marriage?
If the couple has a poor relationship and wants to keep the marriage going then kids could well be a binding factor…but every person needs emotional and physical intimacy so how long can such a marriage last? At times a couple might go along with a sham marriage, sticking together for the “sake of the kids” and this does happen in India. But it can lead to unfaithfulness and bitterness. And the marriage could well break apart if the kids leave. In fact a random survey of about 2,000 cases filed in the last one year before the Bandra family court (one of two in Mumbai) last year revealed that more than 10 percent of divorce cases were from the 40-50 age group. So what I am trying to say is that children cannot really help save a marraige…
Wanting to get married and wanting to have children can be two separate issues
A couple may want to get married and not have children and they can be very happy, and on the other hand there are cases of single people wanting to have children…because its motherhood or fatherhood that they crave for, not marriage. A person looking to be married or looking to be in a committed relationship is looking for love and companionship and is ready to give it as well.
Let me show you a graph which gives the relative importance of different factors in a marriage (American). Interestingly, fewer Americans today say that children are “very important” to a successful marriage as compared to a 1990 survey. Financial considerations and sharing of household duties has assumed greater importance.
In my view faithfulness is a major criteria but I do think of it as a result of a happy marriage, rather than a cause. Other factors like good sex and sharing of chores are surely the result of a happy marriage and a good relationship. So is there anything at all that helps a marriage to be successful?
In my opinion two rational people who are in love and do things together because they have some shared interests and a shared value system which tells them that marriage (or cohabitation) is not to be taken lightly can be happy. They will work out any issues they have. A report explains my point of view. It says more than an economic analysis of a marraige it is…
…companionship which is important. The enjoyment of joint activities or the absence of loneliness and the emotional support that fosters self-esteem and mastery are all important non-instrumental aspects contributing to the individual well-being of married people…
In India, because of the vast network of social connections, the support of relatives and close family ties, marriages can at times survive without the emotional intimacy that marriage should provide. I have known some cases where the wife is closer to her sister than her husband and the husband closer to his father than his wife…at times the wife closer to her son than her husband…but the marriage carries on.
However, with greater urbanisation and the break-up of the joint family this trend is changing. Husbands and wives are depending on each other for companionship and this could well bind them together forever or break up a weak relationship. That is one factor that people haven’t considered when we look at the increasing divorce rate in India. When a couple is by themselves, they find out much earlier if they are compatible or not. So surveys which say that couples are happy when their children leave the nest are only right if the marriage is strong in the first place.
(Photograph is taken by me and the graph is from Pew Research)
Related Reading: What kills a marriage? An emotional affair or a physical one?
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Divorce rates of the world
Teens and dating in India
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