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Opting Out of Parenthood: How Couples Navigate the Decision to Not Have Children

You likely heard this song at some point in your childhood (though likely with different names, depending on who was being teased that day): “John and Jane sitting in a tree, K-I-S-S-I-N-G, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes a baby in the baby carriage.” These types of songs reflect the social pressure couples experience as their relationships develop. Even if society doesn’t assume that babies naturally come after marriage, a couple’s family members may drop some not-so-subtle hints about their desire for a new baby in the family. For many, getting married, starting a family, and having children isn’t a choice, but rather the default option, or more simply put, “just what people do”1 But what about couples who make the conscious decision to not have children? Given the various pressures and expectations that conspire to encourage procreation, opting out of parenthood is a big decision for relationship partners to make.  

 How They Did It

To more fully explore the process by which heterosexual couples decide to remain childless, researchers interviewed 20 childless couples.2 Each couple had been married at least 5 years, was childless by choice (vs. due to medical complications or fertility problems), had no children from previous relationships, and had a household income of over $65,000 annually. Interviews were 40–90 minutes in length and sought to gather in-depth information in order to provide a full understanding of couples’ experiences, from each couple’s own perspective.

Prior to the interview couples provided a personal history by indicating whether certain events had occurred (e.g., “the first time they had talked about having or not having children” and “finally made the decision not to have children together”), and when each event occurred. The interviewer used the couple’s personal history as a guide for asking a series of open-ended questions during the interview conversation. To analyze the interviews, researchers used a “grounded theory approach,” which involves examining all of the raw data from the interview transcriptions, identifying patterns, and building or constructing a theory that is “grounded” in the original data.3  

What They Found

Researchers identified three notable phases in couples’ decision-making process to remain childfree:

  1. Agreement – The way that couples reach the decision to be voluntarily childless.
  2. Acceptance – A sense of feeling at ease or peace with the decision.
  3. Closing of the Door – The time period when having a child is no longer feasible.

Two main influences emerged as the determining factors for the decisions: the relationship’s relative importance to the couple (e.g., do they want to stay a couple, and will they continue to strive to have a good relationship)?, and conviction strength (i.e., how strongly each spouse felt about not having children). Importantly, these factors indicate that the decision results as the couple develops and is not the result of one partner forcing the decision. In fact, three couple types emerged:

  1. Mutual Early Articulator Couples – These couples had spouses who shared strong feelings about remaining childless before entering the relationship and made the decision early in the relationship to not have children.
  2. Mutual Postponer Couples – Spouses are both unsure about having children. Partners may think they will have children at some point, but don’t have much conviction in the decision and never get around to it. Couples can agree easily to not have children because neither person feels strongly.
  3. Nonmutual Couples – These couples are mismatched where one person doesn’t want children and the other does. Typically, the person with no interest in having children brought up the topic and the other partner had to determine how to respond. As such, the decision for these couples is more drawn out, where the person who considered having children has to reconcile the fact that staying in the relationship means forgoing parenthood. But like the other couple types, these couples ultimately mutually agree to not have children. 

What the Results Mean For You

A couple’s decision to remain childless is clearly one that spouses do not take lightly. Rather, the decision is a deliberative process that unfolds over time. Though many couples quickly reach the decision through mutual agreement to not have children, for other couples the decision is much more complicated and necessitates reconciliation by one partner. Perhaps most importantly, outsiders should view couples who remain voluntarily childless as a partnership that has a strong conviction about remaining childless, largely due to how the partners deeply value their relationship. 

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1Letherby, G. (2002). Childless and bereft?: Stereotypes and realities in relation to ‘‘voluntary’’ and‘‘involuntary’’ childlessness and womanhood. Sociological Inquiry, 72, 7–20.

2Lee, K., & Zvonkovie, A. M. (2014). Journeys to remain childless: A grounded theory examination of decision-making processes among voluntarily childless couples. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 31, 535-553. doi: 10.1177/0265407514522891

3Charmaz, K. (2006). Constructing grounded theory: A practical guide through qualitative analysis.Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. 

Dr. Gary Lewandowski - Science of Relationships articles | Website
Dr. Lewandowski's research explores the self’s role in romantic relationships focusing on attraction, relationship initiation, love, infidelity, relationship maintenance, and break-up. Recognized as one of the Princeton Review’s Top 300 Professors, he has also authored dozens of publications for both academic and non-academic audiences.

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