Lots of siblings = low divorce rate?

Interesting little tidbit on CatholicCulture.org:

Sociologists from Ohio State University have found that children from large families have markedly lower divorce rates.

The equation that emerged after a 40-year study, involving a sample of 57,000 American adults, was simple: The more siblings you had as a child, the less likely you were to be divorced as an adult. The researchers don’t offer an explanation for this phenomenon—in fact they seem to be stumped—but they know it’s not because the children from large families don’t marry. On the contrary, they’re more likely to marry, and more likely to stay married, than their small-family counterparts.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from listening to smart people argue, it’s that no study ever actually tells you anything definitively — or at least, by the time the headlines trickle down to laymen, there’s no way of telling what actually happened or what it means.

But as someone with seven siblings, married to a man with seven siblings, whose children each have eight siblings, this study caught my eye.  CatholicCulture.org makes a blithe conclusion about the causation:

We already know that among married couples who don’t use contraceptives, the rate of divorce approaches zero. Obviously these couples are more likely to have multiple children. So by eschewing contraceptives, a married couple is taking a huge step to guard against divorce—not only for themselves, but for their children as well.

I think it’s got to be more complicated than that.  It’s not as someone’s Essure doohickey backfires on day and then BAM, their worldview is transformed.  There has to be some steps in between (a) not using contraception and (b) having a good marriage.

I have long held that the non-contraceptive marriage is long-lasting because the non-contraceptive marriage is likely to be founded on religious faith, and that that is what holds the family together.

And it’s not pretty to think, but there must also be some couples who don’t contracept, who are religious, and who stay together despite abuse and serious disfunction, just because their community of religious friends and family would shun them if they divorced (yes, even with a legitimate annulment.  I’ve seen it happen).

On a more positive note, here are a few other things which must contribute to the longevity (and, it is to be hoped, the strength and happiness) of marriages between people with lots of siblings, religious or not:

There’s the example of other married couples.  If no one you know is married, what are you gonna do when you’re not getting along with your spouse?  Freak out, assume the marriage was a horrible mistake, and split up.  But if you’ve seen other people — people who are sort of like you, because they’re family — get past bad stuff, and if you can get their advice, then that’s invaluable.

There’s babysitters and other kinds of help.  Of course this assumes that your siblings are willing and able to help; but if there are lots of them, chances are someone will pitch in if you need something — a babysitter, a short loan, some baby clothes, an extra set of hands painting the house, or whatever.  Marriages always do better when there is help available.

And there’s the example of the long view of what marriage is for.  Very often, I hear married people with a very young family talking as if raising a family is some kind of 18-year project, where you spend X amount of dollars to achieve a satisfactory outcome.  That they’re doing something important but temporary when they have a child, and that they will be able to get back to their real lives once the kid leaves home.

It’s a lot harder to fall for this crap if you go to a huge family reunion where there is a big, unwieldy mess of cousins, aunts, and uncles; maybe your mother is pregnant at the same time as one of your sisters; maybe your niece is pregnant at the same time as her mother.  Maybe one family is staying with another family.  Some people are doing well, some not so great; some are following their plans, and others have blown so far off course, they can’t even recognize their former lives.  But they’re okay.  You see the family spread out in what my father used to refer to, in tones of mock horror, as “the rich tapestry of life.”

Once you see that, it’s a lot easier to remember that you’re in this for the long haul.  Not for your personal satisiaction, not to produce a successful offspring like a science project that you can fold up and put away at the end of the day . . . but because having a family is what people do, overall.

Well, what do you think? What have I missed?  I know I have an especially close and supportive family.  If you’re from a large family, what effect do you think it’s had on your marriage, for good or bad?

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  • SalomeEllen

    You also should include the effects of just LIVING in that big family. You know that you can be livid with a person one day, and back to feeling loving the next, because you’ve been doing it since you were three.

    • Damien and Simcha Fisher

      Oh yeah! And I suppose big families are probably more likely to go through material struggles, too. It’s very handy to know, as an adult, that you can live in a house that’s not big enough, and not buy all the neat things that all your peers are buying, and maybe live on hot dogs and spaghetti for a while, and it won’t kill you.

  • Kelly

    I am the youngest of 8. 6 of my siblings are divorced. Some, more than once. One of my siblings passed away at the age of 46. I do not think he would have ever divorced his wife though, if still alive.

    We suffered a lot of poverty. My dad was an alcoholic. My mom started working when I was 4. She was barely around. How does that affect my siblings and their marriage history’s? I have no idea. I know that some of them got married young and quickly just so they could leave what was such a dysfunctional home. My parents never divorced. They seemed pretty happy in their later years. Sadly, my mom passed away at 65. My father spent another 7 miserable years missing her terribly.

    Since I was the youngest I saw a lot of crazy things. I had a couple long “committed” relationships before meeting my husband at 29. I love my life, my husband and my children. We have been together 15 years. I think about what my siblings have been through often. I thank my lucky stars, and my sweet Lord, that I have not suffered as they have.

    • http://fuller-life.blogspot.com/ Thomas Fuller

      My mom’s story reminds me of Kelly’s. Youngest of nine (born in 10.5 years!), seven of whom married (1 had SIDS, another is mentally impairied). Very poor family, a good bit of alcoholism, most dropped-out of high-school and married and had kids very young. Three of the 7 married and are still, but have had a rocky road. 2 married and divorced twice, and are now single. One divorced and remarried. One divorced and is single.
      So over half divorced, two of them twice.
      Poverty, poor education, and alcohol/drug problems seems to negate the positive big family effect. Not surprising though.

  • Christy

    I’m one of eight and mom of nine. My immediate reactions to the study were that children with lots of siblings probably have a married set of parents who, through necessity, spend a lot of their energy & resources on the family. They get a lot of family-centered rearing, so their marriages might also be family-centered, and they won’t be shocked to spend most of their resources (all kinds) on their own family of 2 or 12. Also, being one of many ruins your chances of being the Queen of the World (darn it). You have to work as one within a system. Often, you have to be flexible to accept the will of others and to live in a state of acceptable compromise for the common good. That’s the kind of system that could also make a lasting marriage.

  • Amelia Bentrup

    I would think a lot of it is simply because having a lot of siblings teaches one about compromise and getting along. After all, most kids from large families had to share a room and learned how to fight and then make up. Plus, I think having a large family kinda prevents most kids from “getting everything they want”

  • CatherineB.

    I agree with SalomeEllen, coming from a family of 9 and not having an over developed sense of personal space has helped a lot. I shared a room my whole childhood, went to college…shared one there too…and then got married. Knowing how to get along with someone with different habits than mine has been an asset. I’m one of two girls in my family so being comfortable with men has also helped.

  • Deacon Jason Schalow

    Here’s what I’ve observed:

    I come from a family with only two kids, while my wife comes from a family of six. God blessed my wife and I with four children (not a huge family by Catholic standards, but still considered insane by most Americans!)

    I was able to go through most of my life without having to really interact much with my little sister. We didn’t have to share much and there was always time and resources on my parents part to give ‘equal treatment’ and avoid giving me much in the way of ‘big brother’ responsibilities for my sister.

    I never had to form or maintain a relationship.

    But in a house filled with kids, you have to learn to do your part and get along with your siblings. There’s no way to avoid each other! Plus, Mom and Dad rely on the older ones to help with the little ones. All of that allows deep and lasting relationships to form.

    I think that those sibling relationships are the ‘school’ where kids learn how to interact with peers BEFORE they face the inevitable and confusing difficulties of school cliques and young romance. It gives them the training required to form the kinds of relationships that they will need to survive the ups and downs of married life.

    “What is the best gift you can give your children? I say to you: Give them brothers and sisters.” Blessed PP John Paul II

    • http://www.CatholicAllYear.com/ Kendra Tierney

      This is my experience as well. I was able to be a very self-center kid, because I only had one sister. We had our own rooms and our own stuff and own own friends and our own lives. Fortunately, my parents still set a good example of married life and my husband and I are expecting number seven now. OUR kids have to know how to work with others and share and subjugate their own wishes for the greater good (sleeping babies are ALWAYS the greater good). I think those skills are bound to make married live a little easier.

      • silicasandra

        Not to ridiculously overshare, but my husband was an only child, while I was one of four. Your comment led me to some really great insights regarding why, exactly, he may do some of the things that he does that annoy me so much…and not have any idea why I find them annoying. So thanks for that! :) I’ll have to be a bit more patient from now on…

  • Christine Stephens

    I tend to believe that the example of mom and dad has the most to do with it. Seeing parents in a loving, committed and even HAPPY relationship just sets the standard of what marital life should look like. If you come from a big or small family, where mom and dad had a crappy marriage, or where mom or dad weren’t even around, then that is probably going to lead to some issues that have to be addressed before you even know who are supposed to be in a relationship. My sister and I are 5 years apart, but two peas in a pod. We are very close. But I do think we would have done better with more siblings.

  • Michelle

    I am #2 of seven (and #6-7 were from my dad’s 2nd marriage). As
    alluded to in the parenthesis, my parents divorced even after having 5
    of us. I read somewhere once that usually children from divorced parents
    will marry other children from divorced parents and this contributes to
    the continuing cycle of divorce in society.

    What I find amazing in my family is that every single one of the five of us are
    1) married and 2) married to spouses from intact families. That’s some
    huge-ass Grace from God right there. (oops, am I allowed to say that on
    your blog?)

  • Martha O’Keeffe

    I wonder if it’s as simple as, you come from a big family (and God help us, nowadays four children is considered ‘big’), so you learn to share, you learn to get along, you learn that arguments and fights don’t mean the end of the world, you know that you can muddle through somehow.
    Whereas someone from a two or one child family thinks “I’m not blissfully happy all the time/oh no, we had a fight about which breakfast cereal to buy – this is it, it’s over!” because they haven’t had to lump it if they don’t like it.

    • Guest

      That’s a rather sweeping generalization. My every wish was not granted because I was the only child. I wore clothes handed over when other families were done with them and we went without plenty of times. Any good family learns to get along, to fight, to love. I don’t believe this is unique to “large” families.

      I think this study and article should instead relate the role of religion in firm marriages, which I wholeheartedly agree with. Having a common base for a marriage means things don’t fall apart when there’s a hiccup.

      • Beadgirl

        I think that’s it. How many kids to have, how to raise them, how to handle conflict in relationships, how seriously to consider the “out” of divorce — that all comes down to the values of the couple in question. I suspect the more they share those values (certain values in particular), the less likely they are to divorce. It’s not that big families prevent divorce or small ones cause it, it is that both factors correlate with certain values, religiously-derived or otherwise.

        I spelled “correlate” correctly, Spell Check, why are you giving me grief?

  • Rebecca Fuentes

    My husband is one of 12 and only 3 of his sibling are NOT divorced (and I’m his second marriage, though his only sacramental one), so there’s definitely more to it than numbers. I think you and the readers below have touched on the reasons for the statistic: large families in general learn to give of self, to go without, to help out, and have a strong faith.

  • elenaafelskie

    My husband comes from two kids and I from three. We have six kids at the moment. The only parent of ours who comes from a large family is my father-in-law. Out of fifteen marriages (our parents, aunts and uncles), there is only one divorce and all the other marriages are around the forty year mark. This is a tremendous blessing to us and the only common factor is religious faith and real connectedness to extended family.
    In regards to the study, my first thoughts are:
    1. Children in a large family have many more opportunities to practice being in relationships – difficult and easy. Flexibility and selflessness are learned naturally.
    2. Children from large families usually witness the sacrifice that is married life. It is a lot easier to live the ‘good life’ with only a few kids and, perhaps, two incomes. Thus, maybe, it is easier for them to suck it up when the bad parts of marriage come around.
    On a side note, I once read an article by a vocations director who said that kids from large families find it easier to choose religious vocation because the obvious sacrifice of celibacy is not weighed against a model of marriage that didn’t look very sacrificial. In other words, they could clearly see that both lives required great sacrifice. Make sense?

  • Kristy Knable Ziegler

    “If no one you know is married, what are you gonna do when you’re not getting along with your spouse? Freak out, assume the marriage was a horrible mistake, and split up. But if you’ve seen other people — people who are sort of like you, because they’re family — get past bad stuff, and if you can get their advice, then that’s invaluable.” –Brilliantly said! I come from a mom with 5 siblings and a dad with 4 siblings and only one sibling from each side stayed married. Everyone else is divorced, including my parents. So when the going got REALLY tough in my marriage, I FREAKED OUT and ran. Thank God his grace intervened. We worked things out and are expecting our 6th baby. It’s amazing how much clarity we have now on the big picture of life. Thank you for your insights! I love your blog!

    • Sheila Connolly

      I sure would like some of that marriage support too. My husband and I are each the second oldest (me of six, him of ten) and the only ones who are married. We were also the first of our friends to get married, and for awhile there I felt like we were freaks! Having some married friends has been really, really helpful in realizing that no, I’m not crazy, being married is difficult and the very fight we’re having, every married couple in the history of ever has had before. I guess I’m going to be awfully handy for my siblings and in-laws when they all get married too.

      But I really think the number one reason for the trend is that people with siblings are used to living with people already. So it’s unlikely they’ll make a huge deal out of squeezing the toothpaste tube in the middle. There’s just no expectation that everything will go one’s own way in one’s own house. You’re always sharing it.

  • MLP

    Those of us who are fortunate enough to have lots of siblings had to learn many valuable lessons. These things were all a part of us before we were old enough to even contemplate marriage;
    1. How to share. When there are 11 of you living in one house, you share your space, your bedroom, your clothes and your toys, whether you want to or not.
    2. How to wait your turn. My husband grew up with seven siblings in a house with one bathroom; an invaluable experience!!
    3. How to help out. Getting dinner on the table for a dozen people a night is not a one person project.
    4. How to roll with it. Turns out disasters are rarely permanent.
    5. How to empathize. Even when you thought you hated your sister, when her heart gets broken and she cries, you feel it.
    6. The importance of forgivness, both giving and recieving it. This may be the most important thing of all.
    7. You learn just how monumentally important family is, and when you are old enough to think about marriage, even though you’re not consciously doing it, you are weighing your prospect against the whole family; do they fit in? If my brothers don’t like him, is he good enough for me? If my father doesn’t like him, can it possibly work? My whole family adores him; he must be worth the risk and the trouble.

  • janetperry

    There’s something that’s true of every big family, no matter any other aspects. In a big family you have to get along with many other people. With so many folks around all the time, you can’t have the luxury of being selfish.

    In small families, especially ones with one child, even the best people can be selfish. if the parents are child-oriented, that child is YOU. It would be hard to see it otherwise.

    But where there are many kids, there must be compromise. Each child must learn to get along, to some extent, with his siblings.

    This carries over into marriage. You will be more tolerant of your spouse’s habits, if you had to get along with the habits of your four or more siblings.

    The lesson of getting along, even if it seems imperfectly learned is a great preparation for married and family life.

    Keep Stitching,

    • Guest

      My husband is one of 10, and I am one of 2, and I have to say I agree with this- to a point. As all the siblings have grown older, there’s been some discord as the younger ones notice that the older ones tend to “rule the roost” when they come home. A 2 hour dinner discussion will literally leave 7 of the 10 completely out, and the oldest few will talk loudly and talk over anyone else until they’re quiet. I see a lot of awesome habits among kids from large families- and I hope that my husband and I are able to have many children as well. However, the “whoever talks the loudest gets heard” is one habit from large families that makes marriages harder. It’s hurtful when someone just starts talking over you once they’ve decided that whatever you have to say is unimportant or uninteresting. Other than that, I’d agree that children from large families are generally better at going with the flow and sublimating their own needs for the sake of others.

  • Willow Anderson

    I think if you have that many siblings you have to negotiate and deal with other people A LOT every day of your life. When you get older, you don’t expect that life is going to be a cake walk- just because you want it. So children with lots of siblings have the ability to get along well (and negotiate) as well as not be quite so self focused. (I have 4 siblings and my husband has 7)

  • LisaTwaronite

    I wonder — could much of it be that religious couples are more committed to avoiding divorce, and these are the same folks who happen to have bigger families? Also, I wonder if the study counted half-siblings as well as siblings? I would think that if you had five siblings, all with different fathers, you might look at this model and be less inclined to take marriage seriously yourself — or perhaps you might become more committed to it, to avoid repeating your own chaotic childhood?
    (In the interest of full disclosure: I only have one sibling, and take measures to ensure my partner and I have no more than three kids — and even that number seems a bit excessive to me, in our tiny apartment.)

  • Claire

    I suspect that the parent’s marriage modeled in the home is one of the biggest factors in preventing divorce. But it doesn’t surprise me that having a big family helps, too. I came from a small family, and was used to my own space. Consequently, marriage was a huge adjustment for me. Of course, part of that could be my introverted temperament. But I still think that if I had grown up in a large family, I would have gotten used to less space, more compromising, etc.

  • Mary

    I’m from a family of 3 kids, and a friend of mine in college used to call us “the smallest big family I know.” Many of my friends came from big families, and my parents would have loved to have more children (and always assumed they would). So my mom made a point from the very beginning of raising us as if we were one of many–we had to share rooms, toys, etc, didn’t have our needs catered to all the time, even in things that weren’t unreasonable, and the like. So I think that you can raise a small family with some of these big family values too! (though my 4th baby in 6yrs of marriage is due in December, so its likely we won’t have to fabricate some of this ourselves…)

  • Micaela

    I’m one of 11, also in a remarkably close family. We are crazy, loud, argumentative, intellectual, immature, and just generally like to have fun. My husband, God bless him, is one of 2 and was completely overwhelmed when he first met my siblings!

    My theory? Or theories? 1) when you have a lot of siblings you learn sacrifice at a young age. Not a mother’s love or father’s attention, as some people suggest, but more practical stuff. Sharing clothes, a bathroom, not always getting to choose which TV show to watch, etc. I think that helps prepare you for the realities of marriage.

    2) My parents have taken, as you say, the long view on parenting. When my hubby and I got engaged, they strongly encouraged us to attend a retreat on Catholic sexuality within marriage. It forever altered our relationship. They’ve encouraged us all to discern our vocations carefully. They’re not overbearing (Fine. Not TOO overbearing) and they respect us and enjoy us as adults, but their job didn’t end when we moved out.

  • Bobby Ricigliano

    Two things.

    1) Functional marriages are more likely
    to last longer, and therefore have more opportunity to have kids. Kids
    from functional families will likely grow up well adjusted and better
    able to achieve goals, recognize happiness/stability, and find a
    compatible partner they won’t end up divorcing.

    People who don’t use contraception or have lots of kids due to religious
    reasons, will also most likely not divorce for religious reasons.
    Regardless of pressure from church/family, they simply won’t divorce
    someone even when they are abused/miserable, because their religion
    forbids it.

  • Lindsay Amery Stehno

    My mother is the 5th of 8 from a Catholic family. Every. Single. One. of these children has been married, divorced and remarried (except the youngest who has serious commitment issues. Can you blame him?}. Her father was verbally abusive, and her mother was emotionally absent. They had NONE of the things listed above to help them. Most of their children have left the faith because they had no example to follow other than, “Well, we go to church every Sunday because that’s what you’re supposed to do”. It’s true that in a large family you are more likely to learn how to share and compromise in a healthy way, but not without the guidance and good example of your parents.