Monday, August 6, 2012

Are Children Part of the Pattern?

In my previous post on marriage, I outlined a few behavior patterns that may be associated with a stable, successful marriage. From the evolutionary psychology perspective, a natural question follows: is having children one of the patterns that would support, and hence predict, marital stability?

In the late 1960s in the United States, when divorce was first beginning to become common, there was a clear answer: children had a strong, statistically significant stabilizing effect on marriage, at least for the first few children and at least while the children were young. In a 1977 paper reporting on data current as of the late 1960s, Becker et al. found that the presence of a child under the age of 6 by the fifteenth month of marriage reduced the probability of divorce in the first five years of marriage by about 25% (removing about one percentage point of an approximately four percent risk of divorce), and had an even greater effect in the second five years of marriage. (A second child, however, reduced the risk of divorce less than the first - and a fifth child seemed to actually increase the risk of divorce. In addition, the risk of divorce was increased if the wife was pregnant prior to the marriage.)

That children should be stabilizing to a marriage makes perfect evolutionary sense and hardly needs explanation. Marriage is a union for the (evolutionary) purpose of supporting common genetic interests; children are exactly the "marital capital" that would be expected to make both parents more willing to invest in the partnership. The presence of children also makes divorce less attractive to the members of the couple, as each would have a harder time finding a new mate given the financial, social, and physical toll children take on one's subsequent mate value. 

That NOT having children should destabilize a union would make excellent evolutionary sense to the extent that sterile unions were a serious risk under the environments of evolutionary adaptedness. To the extent that sterility was a risk for couples in EEAs, whether through genetic incompatibility, infectious disease, or other reasons, there would be major fertility benefits to exiting a union if it failed to produce children (at least for the fertile partner). If sterility were rare in the EEAs, a behavioral adaptation facilitating the abandonment of a childless union might not be adaptive.

So in the 1960s, when legal marriage was still somewhat synonymous with lifetime partnership, having one or two young children did, in fact, contribute to marital success. However, this has not been the case with cohabitation relationships; having children actually strongly destabilizes a cohabitation relationship

I have argued that because humans evolved to rely on cultural patterns and coercion to enforce marital partnerships, marriage no longer really exists; all that is left to us is cohabitation relationships under the false name of marriage. If this is true, we would expect the presence of children to begin destabilizing (what is now legally recognized as) marriage, rather than stabilizing marriage, in proportion with the reduction of coercion and other cultural patterns that support marriage. Sadly, in a 2001 study from the UK by Chan & Halpin, this is exactly what was found to have occurred. The study examined multiple sources of data from the 1950s through the 1990s and found that while the presence of a small child had a stabilizing effect on marriage in the 1950s, the effect began to change sign in the 1980s and was large and negative by the 1990s:

For those who got married in the 1950s, each additional child was associated with a 16% reduction in divorce risk. In contrast, for the 1990s marriage cohort, each additional child is associated with a 37% increase in divorce risk. [Emphasis mine.]

Even young children - those most stabilizing in the Becker paper - were found to be destabilizing by the 1990s. Chan & Halpin found no effect for the gender of children, but note that some authors have found that sons are less destabilizing than daughters. The cause the authors found most likely for the shift was income inequality, as income inequality increased drastically in the UK during the 1980s and 1990s and the destabilizing effect was most prominent for low-income families. 

In modern life, the birth of a child is associated with a sudden decrease in marital satisfaction that generally persists throughout the relationship. Similarly situated couples who do not have children experience a more gradual decline in marital satisfaction. How might this observation be explained in terms of the effect of children on marital success?

One hypothesis is that children have always caused marital satisfaction to plummet, but that patterns and coercion were strong enough to cause a troubled couple to remain together. A second hypothesis might be that the sudden drop in marital satisfaction with the birth of a child is new, and reflects the loss of happiness-maintaining patterns that would, in EEA or even pre-1980s conditions, prevent the drop in marital satisfaction that is now observed shortly after the birth of a first child. Those investigating children and happiness in the 1970s and 1980s found a decrease in happiness with children (see Baumeister's Meanings of Life, Appendix B: The Parenthood Paradox), including a decrease in marital satisfaction, but it is not clear if this change predates the modern loss of marriage patterns.

Whatever the explanation, marriage as it currently exists is not providing the kind of stable, reliable union of genetic interests that can survive the stress of the birth of a child - and poor children are those most harmed. 


  1. I think th rise of the companionate marriage, as people in my field call it, is the key. It's not just that people stay together merely because they want to, as opposed to having to, but the reasons they choose to stay together represent a reorienting of priorities. Older economic, political, and certain social bonds have been mitigated or cast out altogether in favor of cultural ideals, particularly emotional support and sexual fulfillment.

    If you're in a relationship primarily because you want a friend and a lover, then having kids does not help (it also hurts economically, but I'm not gonna get into that). However, if you marry with an eye towards having a family, if a spouse is just one, albeit vitally important piece of building a nuclear family or extending an already extended family, then it should promote a marital union, or at least be neutral when all is taken into account.

  2. Sister Y,

    I wonder if there's an element of nuclearization of the family behind this -- I do find it surprising that children increase the likelihood of divorce in the US these days.

    Earlier, parents and siblings either lived together with or frequently visited couples with small children. Having small children around becomes easier and even fun this way, but having to attend to them 24x7 single (double) handed becomes a burden, and could cause frustration and unhappiness.

    Also, the parents (and siblings) of the couple I think had a greater involvement, and could cement the couple's relationship to some extent too. And they were fonder of the children than the couple itself, and had the children's best interests at heart.

    1. Absolutely. Social coercion is not just about laws - it's about the expectations of people around you.

  3. That's a great point. The fracturing of extended families into nuclear components creates additional hardship in raising children. Of course there are many reasons why extendeds have become nuclear over the last 100-150 years, and those same factors continue to driving wedges in families, as seen in the proliferation of sub-nuclear (ie "broken") families in the modern period.

  4. I think there's also been a shift of values from thinking of children as a gift to the future to thinking of children as another fashion accessory... and then they start shitting.

  5. Reading this is like watching a train wreck in slow motion...

  6. Jesus Christ. Every line is tweetable.

    I kinda think the only thing keeping us basically in line for thousands of years was social coercion. Which is unfair and bad, but I wonder how much worse it is than that shit.

    1. Why the indignation? Isn't that kind of what you're doing (drugs and fornication)?

    2. Exactly. It may be a bad thing to bring people into this world, but it's even worse to subsequently treat those small people as though the burden they represent for you is THEIR fault. It's like these people are rebelling against their kids, which is pretty damn bass-ackwards. Childless people who are using drugs are rebelling against their own involuntary existences, not the ones they created.

  7. I think social coercion is still in effect, it's just pushing people in different directions. Like, toward the Gucci bags.


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