The Fair Fight

Many arguments are pointless; they start out over something small then escalate beyond proportion. Here’s how to keep conflict from damaging all.

Overcoming an Impasse in Childbearing Decisions

Divided we stand.

Like deciding how you will handle finances, you want to come to some agreement about how many children you both want before you settle in as partners or husband and wife. You can always change your mind. But in the interest of harmony, resolving the family size question upfront eliminates likely disputes and discontent.

Most men and women feel strongly about this issue, although sometimes one partner is more fervent than the other. When I was conducting research for The Case for the Only Child, it became clear that children-not to have or to have and how many-should be resolved as early as possible. Maureen, for example, feels that children are essential to happiness. The man she was seeing didn't agree. Early on in their dating life, he said he didn't want children. Maureen told me, "Being childless was not an option for me, but he wanted to continue the relationship. The subject of children became a negotiation and fun conversation. Then I fell madly in love with him. We settled on one child and I am content."

According to a Pew Research Center survey on American motherhood, 94 percent of prospective parents view the wishes of a spouse or partner regarding having children as somewhat or very important. When parents were asked why they stopped having children, the response "to honor a spouse's or partner's wishes" dropped to fourth on the reason list to a mere 27 percent. Parents felt spending more time with the child or the children they had, containing the cost of raising children, and avoiding the additional stress of raising them were more important. It is obvious that pleasing a partner is more significant when starting a family than when adding to it.

Having or not having children and how many can make or break your relationship. When your concept of the dream family runs counter to your partner's, the marriage can suffer. Kelly had been married for six years when her husband declared he didn't want children. That was a deal-breaker for Kelly who divorced him when she was thirty, remarried after making sure her husband-to-be wanted children, and had a child a few years later.

Like Kelly in her first marriage, a direct discussion about children never came up when Jonathan, an only child, was dating his now wife. Shortly after they married it became evident that she wanted many children. Unable to have their own biological children, they adopted their first child and go back and forth about adopting another child.

In second marriages, partners often don't see eye to eye about having children especially if one or both of them have children from a first marriage. When those with children remarry, they may agree to have one child together, but are hesitant to have more. One or the other partner may be older and may not be overjoyed at the prospect of changing diapers or facing sleepless nights or dealing with the many of the stressors more children bring including the financial obligations of supporting all their offspring. 

If you and your mate disagree on the subject of family size, be ready for the topic to come up regularly. The sparring may continue to be "he wants, she doesn't or she wants, he doesn't." Money could be central to one or the other's concern, but the source of the division-and procrastination-might well be the fact that one of you doesn't want children at all (or more children) or over a child's gender.

Was-or is-deciding how many children to have a stumbling block in your relationship? How did you-or do you plan-resolve it?


Newman, Susan. The Case for the Only Child: Your Essential Guide (Health Communications, 2011).

Livingston, Gretchen and Cohn, D'Vera. "The New Demography of American Motherhood," Pew Research Center, May 6, 2010 (Revised August 19, 2010).

Copyright 2011 by Susan Newman


The Fair Fight