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No Kids, No Gray Divorce? Not Quite

Many long-married couples divorce at midlife, once they become empty-nesters. But what about childfree couples?

Across the globe, fewer women are having babies, sometimes by chance — whether the lack of a romantic partner or fertility issues — but often by choice. While childfree couples tend to divorce more, I wondered if childfree couples tend to split early in the marriage or later — the typical midlife crisis years or, for parents, the empty-nest years that often send many long-married couples to divorce court after the last child leaves home.

What’s similar

Childfree couples at midlife tend to split when:

  • life no longer feels challenging like it used to, a feeling of stagnation but not knowing what to do about it takes over
  • someone’s living a life that lacks meaning (however that person defines “meaning”)
  • the responsibility of meaning or fulfillment has been put on another person — and he or she has not delivered (“surprise, surprise”)
  • one partner is over-invested in a particular self-identity (sometimes professional) and that identity is challenged or taken away when circumstances change

What’s not

The big identity that’s missing, however, is motherhood. Many women have huge investments in being identified as a mother. This does not exist for childfree women, obviously. And even fathers, who are more hands-on than ever nowadays, are feeling adrift once their kids leave.

Whatever stuff is unresolved [and] not tended to hits a tipping point where there is no return, and this can be the time. It can be the issues that keep coming up over and over. If it has been put under the rug too long, the partnership may very well not survive. … This is not to say childfree couples don’t have distractions they can use to keep issue(s) in denial. For [the] childfree, it can be the last tipping point time of unresolved things between them, which, of course, points to things that have not been dealt with individually.

In which case, childfree couples don’t necessarily have an easier midlife than couples with kids. While kids often distract spouses from dealing with their issues and from connecting intimately, childfree couples are just as susceptible to distractions.

Fertility issues

Couples who want to have children but have fertility issues and don’t produce a baby after IVF treatments have an increased risk of splitting up for up to 12 years after contacting a doctor to be evaluated, according to a recent study. Even the researchers were surprised at the long-lasting effects of IVF. “We knew that fertility treatment is tough both physically and mentally. It’s very consuming and you think about it constantly. But we were surprised to see that the effect lasted this long — up to 12 years after treatment we could see an increased risk of divorce if the couple did not have a baby,” the study’s lead author said.

Written by

Award-winning journalist, coauthor of “The New I Do: Reshaping Marriage for Skeptics, Realists and Rebels,” mom, changing the narrative about older women

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