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Do children affect the health of a marriage?

May 12, 2008

family mumbaiWhy 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.

Pew Marriage

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?
Advantages of being a DINK couple
It is possible to arrange love
Indian teens want dating to lead to marriage
Why is the divorce rate increasing?
Divorce rates of the world
Teens and dating in India
Internet marriage bureaus doing well in India

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28 Comments leave one →
  1. coolzen permalink
    May 12, 2008 9:38 am

    Raising a children (quality education, high standard of living) leads to more financial constraint it leads to more problem. I think this is the main reason why the average age of getting marriage increases it leads to another problem say if a women married at 25 she has a higher probability to conceive than at the age of 35.

  2. May 12, 2008 10:50 am

    I think its companionship and sharing of small small things which make a marriage work. Having kids makes the bond more stronger as you have more to share now.
    Although I am not an expert ;) but this is what I think.

  3. May 12, 2008 11:09 am

    in families where both husband and wife are working, birth of kids leads to a drastic change in the domestic env.
    as one of my friend summarized, we went from a fight every 3 months to 3 fights every day.

    often birth of kids is coupled with the women taking a year of 2 off from job, but that leads to more fight because she is not used to spend the all day confined at home.

  4. May 12, 2008 2:01 pm

    Well researched article with plenty of personalised touches! But I am not fond of those opinion polls/surveys that claim to have measured the happiness of people :-)

    // . . . the couples who were interviewed don’t know that the joy they shared when they saw their child take his first step . . . //

    Should it not be his/her first step, Nita? ;-) :-D

    You forget Raj, I am not a feminist! :) The word ‘he’ or ‘his’ is liberally used to denote humans and frankly I am not about to change terminology now! :) These things don’t matter much to me, although at times I do try to use both words.

  5. vivek mittal permalink
    May 12, 2008 2:03 pm

    A couple’s relationship will definiely be affected badly in the absence of a family…….they cant spend a lifetime seeing faces of each other
    I’m not this much experienced but can comment on the topic by my observations

    Also getting children is a natural culmination of a relationship, without which a relationship is not complete……..but in today’s scenerio a proper planning is required in this aspect of life, a couple should know exactly when are they ready to parent a child and woman’s decision should be governing on this aspect, to do good to their relationship.

  6. May 12, 2008 3:14 pm

    Nita, very well done article!

    Having or not having children is an issue in the West (guess it is still less in India), I believe we discussed it already in your other post.

    What I can see here in the West that mostly people associate childeren with “problems”, less with happiness and joy :((
    I doubt if children can help to save a poor marriage – somehow or rather the couple`s disharmony will come up and children will be shocked (I know several cases like this when parents tried to hide their problems with each other, and when it finally came to divorce, the children were badly damaged by the disillusion).

    Basically it would be perfect if a couple only can have children when it can guarantee a save happy future for them. But who can ever guarantee?..

    My conclusion: children will make a happy marriage even more happier, and give to a problematic one more problems. There can be exeptions, but it is what I can observe from my surroundings.

  7. May 12, 2008 4:53 pm

    The health of a marriage is decided only by the husband and wife. If compatibility is 100% between them, nothing else matters. I don’t think children have any role in this.

  8. May 12, 2008 5:10 pm

    coolzen, seeing children as a financial burden is the attitude of many couples today and as far as I see it, I think its sad.

    Amit, thanks. You are right. Kids do add happiness to a marraige, but couples who don’t want kids would feel differently..

    Ankur, sad to hear that about the couple. To my mind they have relationship problems. Everyone gets along as long as there is no stress isn’t it so obviously their marriage hadn’t been tested. Also in India people have kids at times due to society’s pressure but don’t really want them and find it difficult to admit that they don’t want kids.

    Raj,
    such surveys have their own use, as its better than simply asking people one knows what they think of a particular issue, which may not even be practical. However one needs to taken them with a pinch of salt and scrutinize them carefully.

    Vivek M, your view is what many Indians would think, that children are a natural culmination of a marriage. However things are changing now and the very concept of family is changing. Its a global world today. Some people might be perfectly happy without a child…but I agree that both partners need to be prepared for a baby or it can lead to disaster.

    Axinia, thanks for your perspective. You have put it very well in a nutshell:

    children will make a happy marriage even more happier, and give to a problematic one more problems

    .

  9. Joss permalink
    May 12, 2008 5:24 pm

    Nita, I can completely agree with the findings of the survey … because I am going through a difficult time with my son. His constant moods and bad behaviour are definitely affecting my relationship with my partner (who is not my son’s father). Having a harmonious relationship in a disharmonious home is very challenging. Added to that is the factor that with no extended family there is no one to share the burden. Also, I agree with what you said that when there are close family ties a marriage can survive without emotional intimacy. From where I stand big Indian families look the answer to everything. Maybe that is why I enoy Hindi movies so much. They are all about family, and community. So much lacking here.

  10. May 12, 2008 5:40 pm

    Old Sailor, I tend to agree with you here. But I guess that 100 percent compatibility is what most couples don’t have…

    Joss, your problem is indeed very different as the child is not your partner’s biological child. But I think its possible to get to the bottom of your son’s moods. If he is a teenager, then it seems normal for his age isn’t it and if there are other problems both you and your partner can tackle them together. The main thing is to see the problem together, but then I guess its easy to give advice and your situation is probably far more complex than I realise. As for Indian joint families, they have their advantages and disadvantages. I have lived for several years in a huge joint family set-up with cousins and I enjoyed it thoroughly. Its great environment for kids and works out well for adults if the head of the family is benevolent and fair.

  11. rohit mittal permalink
    May 12, 2008 5:41 pm

    To me, concept of a two people family is horrible(literally), and even concept of husband,wife & children family (nuclear family) is not comfortable……..i’m grown up in a joint family , and am habitual of being surrounded with relatives, cousins and friends (A sooraj Barjatya film type)…..

  12. vivek mittal permalink
    May 12, 2008 5:57 pm

    Nita

    It’s me only …that’s my pen name, but id is mittal_rohit82 (at) yahoo.com (Not co.in)

  13. May 13, 2008 7:23 pm

    There is something (still) sacrosanct about marriage which people continue to believe in. As long as that does not die, the marriage wont!

  14. jacob permalink
    May 13, 2008 8:34 pm

    Does it matter if a marriage works or not? after all we are all selfish individuals who eventually think only in terms of whats good for oneself unless you are brought up to be a door matt.

  15. May 13, 2008 8:52 pm

    Are yaar, how long does one stay happy and carefree? Happiness, if eternal can turn so boring! Getting married can help you lead an eventful life, more eventful if you have children. This, just to break away from boredom, if not for anything else – I would surely advocate. Just imagine an isolated life…….

    Destination Infinity

  16. May 17, 2008 8:03 am

    interesting thoughts. :) what makes marriage successful … hmm, for me, his ability to make me laugh … and how i only want to smile when i see him. :)) like rite now … ;p i shall go and kiss him now. ;D

  17. May 17, 2008 5:13 pm

    Nita,nice post. Children do play an important role in marriage. A friend of mine had lots of complications during pregnancy. I asked her why is it so important to have kids. She said- kids give a purpose to your life. I can understand what she means. I have observed one thing common among most Indian parents. They can’t stop talking about their children even after their kids grow up and start living on their own.If not children it is their grandchildren they are talking about.The life of Indian parents revolve around their kids. From the moment they are born, parents start planning about their future and dreaming about their achievements and that gives them something to look forward in life.
    Children do effect the health of a marriage. Parents act in a much more mature way after the birth of their kids because they are role models for their children especially when they are young. As far as finances are concerned parents know that financial planning is required before planning a family. The tolerance levels of the couple also increase after the birth of a child. Sometimes couples put up with each other because they know that their actions would hurt the kids. However the children can sometimes add to the tension of an already strained marriage . The parents start blaming each other if the children are not doing well in life.

    Thanks Prerna. yes I agree that children are very important to Indian parents. At times at the cost of their own relationships…like you said at times they tolerate each other for the sake of their kids, or at times they are more absorbed with their kids’s wellbeing than their own relationship. I have seen Indian parents least bothered about being alone together and doing things together, but will do everything they can to attend school functions, and take their kids to a picnic and the zoo. Actually I agree with this as once you have a child, he/she is more important than anything else. The important thing is to start letting go as the kids grow older, after they turn 17/18 but Indian parents can’t always do that and this harms the growing adult. – Nita

  18. Padmini permalink
    May 18, 2008 1:19 am

    I have seen cases where children do affect the health of a marriage. Take the case of my cousin who had a love marriage and two kids (just like a fairy tale).However, the problems started showing up as their son started doing drugs, going against what the family as a whole stood for etc. In this case, the dad did not want to have anything to do with his son, believing that a dose of reality would help him. The mom stood by her son and tried to do what she felt was right. This caused an insurmountable drift between the two which ultimately led to a divorce. I don’t think this may have been the only cause but it surely was a major one. It gets hard to maintain a good relationship with all the situations you encounter as children grow up in today’s world.

    That is indeed a sad story Padmini. The crisis of the child was the immediate factor which led to divorce but as you said, the couple must have had other problems too. I agree that in the modern world the stresses are a lot and it takes a lot to keep a marriage happy. – Nita

  19. zeynepankara permalink
    May 18, 2008 10:54 pm

    I am new here. Just wanted to say hello. So hello!! Zeynep xx

    Hi there zeynepankara! welcome. :) – Nita.

  20. May 19, 2008 2:04 pm

    got here via a link on amrutha’s blog. enjoyed the post and agree with pretty much everything you say. also agreed with your comment abt enjoying being a young parent…

  21. July 3, 2008 5:06 am

    Nita,
    Jumping in a little late in the discussion, but was reminded of this post when I read a recent Newsweek article on this issue.

    Thought I’d share it with you:
    http://www.newsweek.com/id/143792

    You have, as usual, discussed most of the issues, with the help of some useful comments here :) Just a few observations:

    a) As you mentioned, having children to save a marriage is the most selfish act ever. A bad marriage will affect the child adversely. In earlier days, divorce was unthinkable, so I can imagine some couples resorting to this. I hope this “trick” dies out soon.

    b) As the article points out, until recently, men and women married early, so they didn’t know any better. Having children was a given and the only source of “joy” for so many couples. But now both men and women marry later, so they are exposed to what single lives backed by financial freedom and opportunities can offer. Maybe some couples miss that.

    I know of friends who have decided not to have children simply because they have realized they don’t have to time or the patience to raise kids. I have other friends who tell me these people don’t know what they are missing. But I’d err on the side of caution. If you don’t particularly like or want kids, best to avoid. That will save you and the poor kid a lot of heart burn in future.

    c) The problem is the middle-path people. What if you are open to the idea of having children but are not crazy about it and are scared it may put too much pressure on your marriage and career? What if your family won’t kill you if you don’t have kids, but you know they expect you to have children and you don’t want to disappoint them? How do you make a decision?

    SS

  22. vinod permalink
    July 25, 2008 9:25 am

    Very insightgul posts and comments. Thanks

  23. October 16, 2008 4:15 pm

    Omigosh, now I feel a little foolish. Just wrote something very similar about relationships in general, though not talking about children.
    Check here

  24. October 23, 2009 12:28 pm

    got here from IHM’s blog..
    you make some excellent arguments… was just looking through different posts of yours…
    will be blogrolling you soon (cant do it from office.. so have to wait till i get home!!)

    • October 23, 2009 12:52 pm

      Thanks Ashwathy. Look forward to seeing you here again. :)

  25. Maria permalink
    March 1, 2010 2:07 am

    I think children definitely have an affect on a marriage but what about the question, How does your marriage and your relationship with your husband/wife affect your children? I think this is even more important. I just took part in a great teleseminar on Parenting Powers called How Your Marriage is Affecting your Parenting and learned so much information. Susan Epstein is a life coach and Licensed Social Worker and has tremendous insights to parenting and as a member I have access to Susan and all of the articles, teleseminars, and a whole lot more. Something to definitely check out – http://www.parentingpowers.com/member

  26. tulip permalink
    June 12, 2012 9:09 am

    Nice article. I think one should not have kid for sake of society. In our over-populated country, one can afford to remain childless, only if the couple is strong enough to withstand the societal ridicule and familial pressures. However, its no easy task to fight the society.

  27. May 19, 2013 2:42 pm

    i guess in as much as we see children as a burden, we should also consider and view the positive impact they bring…..a couple can decide to have one child and to me that is enough

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