Bakadesuyo points to a study I’d heard about a while back that fell into the “no duh” category:
In all three data sets people in self-assessed poor marriages are fairly miserable, and much less happy than unmarried people, and people in self-assessed good marriages are even more happy than the literature reports. We also find that the results differ importantly between women and men, with members of the former sex showing a greater range of responses to marriage quality than do men. A final set of results is that, when marriage quality is controlled for, the apparent marriage effects on other outcome variables, such as self reported health and trust, change significantly.
This is a great argument to those who say “Better to be in a miserable marriage than single!”
Except that I don’t really hear people saying that. The closest I hear is along the lines of The Case for Settling. Whether that qualifies as the same argument is dependent largely on what that statement means. It can mean anything from “Find someone! Anyone!” to “Don’t expect a partner to be absolutely perfect or meet every criteria.”
It’s worth pointing out a couple of things, though. The first is that this is sort of at odds with some studies I’ve read about the effects of divorce on happiness. Namely, those in unhappy marriages that get divorced are unlikely to be any happier than those in unhappy marriages that stick it out. I say it’s “at odds” but it’s a contradiction that can be explained. First, the reason that the divorce studies say what they do is that when it comes to divorce to have loved and lost is not better than to have loved at all. Divorce disrupts one’s life far more than never having married (whose life is, by definition, un-disrupted). Compounding this is that there are often kids involved and dealing with kids between two parents is stressful. The other factor is that marriages that are unhappy in one stage become happier later on. In this vein, it’s quite possible that some of the unhappy people in poor marriages will be happier people in better marriages down the line. Or not in many other cases.
Another factor is self-selection of single people and people in unhappy marriages. The general studies that find that married people are generally happier than unmarried people can be at least partially accounted for that married people are, in general, more likely to be more functional on the whole than unmarried people. People that are highly disfunctional are unlikely to get married. So that’s going to skew the data somewhat. But this also applies to people in poor marriages. They are, generally speaking, more likely to suffer from depression and be generally dysfinctional than people in happier marriages. You would think that they would be a better group than those that were never able to marry at all, but a lot of people these days choose not to marry for reasons other than not being able to find a mate. Really, though, even if you account for that there is simply no denying that being in an unhappy marriage is a very, very stressful thing.
It’s important to note, though, that the original points made by the general studies of marriage and happiness (that do not differentiate between happy and unhappy marriages) stand insofar as enough people fall outside of the “poor marriage” category that one is, statistically speaking, probably more likely to be happy in a marriage than not. If they end up in a poor marriage, they are likely to be unhappy, but this is a subset that few enough people fall into that it doesn’t affect the overall data.
The thing about marriage is that it is a personal and highly variable thing. One marriage is not like the other. Nor is one individual like others. Someone that is generally unhappy is unlikely to be made happy by marriage as they are more likely to end up in the “poor marriage” category. Similarly, someone temperamentally unsuited for marriage should not get married just cause because they too are more likely to end up in the “poor marriage category.”
I think the same general thing is true when it comes to parenthood. A lot of people cite studies that parents tend to be happier than non-parents and that, in the aggregate, having children decreases happiness. Unless there is some flaw with the methodology of which I am unaware, you go with the information you have. However, some people look at this the same way they might look at marriage data and assume that all parents are created equal, that a happy parent would be even happier without children and an unhappy childless person would be even unhappier with children.
This could be true, but we don’t know it to be. Tell a couple that tries and fails to conceive for years that they are really happier for it is not only a crummy thing to do but probably wrong. If you look at the subset of parents that really, really want children and have them, they are likely a happier lot than those that want them equally much and don’t have them. And then of course you have those with children that never particularly wanted them. Those are likely to be a pretty unhappy lot as well.
You could, in fact, look at the data and suggest that a number of people that have kids do so to fill a void in their life and the children do not do so. Really, though, I think this is something of a cop-out.
I do, however, think that the data is skewed by people that did not realize until it was too late that having children was not a bad idea for them. If you’re married and do not have them, you get badgered about it. There also comes a point where the social scene around you changes and suddenly you’re somewhat socially penalized for not being a part of the parenthood club. If, despite this, you are still adament about not wanting children, there is a really good chance that you are making the right decision. They made a more conscious choice. They have a better idea of what they want.
The thing about having children is that it is the social default. People that don’t have a firm idea of whether or not they really want to be parents are more than otherwise going to go with that default decision. People who don’t have strong ideas are particularly susceptible to social pressure. And when a husband and wife have different desires on whether or not to have children, it’s the partner that wants to do what everyone else is doing that is likely to wind. They have society on their side. That’s why, I think, more people make the mistake of becoming parents when they shouldn’t than make the mistake of not having children when they really should. And I think it’s people in the former category, across all sorts of social and economic lines, that drag the averages for parents down on the happiness scale.
So what does that mean? It means those that want to have children should not look at the statistics and think that their urges and desires are wrong and/or the path to unhappiness. But as importantly or more importantly, it means that when a couple talks about how they do not want children, their desires should be respected. The tendency of people to tell them that they are wrong or that they will change their minds are more likely to be wrong than right and are basically inviting people to drag down the happiness statistics on parents. And it means that the man or woman that really wants kids, when confronted with a partner that doesn’t, probably ought to be the ones to give in or move on.
It partially pains me to say all of this because my wife and I have a bunch of siblings that do not want children but who we are sure could make good parents. In the case of my brother Mitch, he does want children but married a woman that does not. Of course, we want her to change her mind. But when she says that she would not be happy being a parent, she’s probably right.