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For Your Marriage

Do Children Really Make a Marriage Less Happy?

In Church teaching, children are called the “Crown” of marriage, but those same documents also call children the “Cross” of marriage. Experienced parents can testify that children brought happiness and satisfaction to their lives, but they know it is not easy to raise a family. Research confirms that marital happiness suffers when children arrive. Think about those early years, and you would know what they theologians and scientists are talking about.

New studies indicate that the “happiness gap” is relatively small. Bryan Caplan, professor of economics at George Mason University, believes that the pros outweigh the cons. He cites the National Opinion Research Center’s General Social Survey, which says that, while every additional child makes parents just 1.3 percentage points less likely to be “very happy,” the estimated happiness boost of marriage is about 18 percentage points.

“A closer look at the General Social Survey also reveals that child No. 1 does almost all the damage. Otherwise identical people with one child instead of none are 5.6 percentage points less likely to be very happy. Beyond that, additional children are almost a happiness free lunch. Each child after the first reduces your probability of being very happy by a mere 0.6 percentage points,” Caplain says. He cites decades’ worth of twin and adoption research to point out that children are shaped by more factors than how attentive their parents are.

Since he is an economist, Caplan expresses himself in how much capital parents expend in childrearing: “If you think that your kids’ future rests in your hands, you’ll probably make many painful ‘investments’ –and feel guilty that you didn’t do more. Once you realize that your kids’ future largely rests in their own hands, you can give yourself a guilt-free break.” Caplain will publish a book in 2011, Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids.

In the parenting years, spouses will find that patience and time together are rare commodities. Although the additional demands of parenting can draw a couple closer together in their joint project, this seldom happens automatically. In their book Marrying Well, Catholic marriage experts James and Evelyn Whitehead suggest ways to moderate the strain of parenting: “We can talk things out more often, we can reexamine the way we use our time and money and energy, we can try to be clearer about our real priorities as a family, we can change some of the patterns that do not work very well.”

Parenting is hard work, but spouses are not destined to decline into unsatisfying relationships when children are in the picture. They can choose how they will respond to the challenge. In the process, each person can gain maturity and each can grow in appreciation of the other’s developing abilities. As James and Evelyn Whitehead, say “Being parents together can call out in each of us qualities of generosity and inventiveness that make us even more loveable to one another. I learn there is a playfulness in you that I have not seen so well before; you come to cherish the breadth of my care. Our commitment to each other is strengthened as our lives are woven together in patterns of concern and joy and responsibility for our children.”

Take heart! In time, your “crown” will rest easier on your brow. It helps to recognize that parenting years are one season in the life of a marriage. Children eventually grow up and leave home. Studies also show that the “empty nest” is associated with significant improvement in marital happiness for all parents. God is merciful!

Reprinted with permission. ACT Newsletter, Christian Family Movement-USA, 2010.