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A Big Family: Does Number of Sibs Impact Divorce Risk?

How family size in childhood may affect marriage success as an adult.

big family

A recent study has found a surprising relationship between growing up with lots of siblings and relative immunity to divorce. Why should family size impact how children will fare in their adult married life? What is it about having lots of siblings that lowers someone's grown-up likelihood of divorce? Is the correlation between number of siblings and marriage success in adulthood really due to a third causal factor?

A study on how growing up in a small or big family impacts the children's adult divorce risk.

The study: Douglas Downey of Ohio State University and Donna Bobbitt-Zeher of the National Opinion Research Study at University of Chicago interviewed 57,000 adults from all across the US. They presented their results were presented at a recent meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Researcher Doug Downey observed adults who grew up as an only child were least likely to marry. Those who did marry were the most at risk for divorce than adults who grew up with at least one sibling.

Adults who grew up with one or two siblings, that is in a family offour or five total, had pretty much similar divorce rates.

While there were only minimal divorce-prevention gains with family size of up to three siblings, in families with four to seven siblings lower divorce rates in adulthood were pronounced. “When you compare children from large families to those with only one child, there is a meaningful gap in the probability of divorce.”

Downey and his fellow researchers estimated that the likelihood of divorce is reduced by 2% for each additional sibling that a person has grown up with.

This increased divorce protection levels off after seven sibs. At this point the gains of big family for training for adulthood seems to have been reached. 'Stop at seven' may be a good new slogan if the goal is to raise children within a family of optimal divorce-prevention size.

What's it like to grow up in a big family?

A young woman who grew up in a family with 12 children recently explained to me, "We had so much fun! There was always someone to play with. When birthdays came around, we didn't bother inviting friends. Just our sisters and brothers plus a birthday cake made for a full party."

Author Melissa Fay Greene chronicals the experience of mothering a brood of nine in her totally delightful book No Biking in the House Without A Helmet. Click the book title to see a photo of the nine kids in this big family and you immediately will feel the love and joy these siblings share. I recently had an occasion to meet this family. Such a happy, loving, self-confident and totally delightful crew! Like the older classic of big family life, Cheaper By the Dozen, Greene's book definitely counters the conventional wisdom of Stop at Two.

At the same time, not all big families succeed in learning how to live in loving harmony. Nor do all parents in big families master the art of giving each of the children the individual attention all kids need.

What might account for the decreased divorce rates of adults who grew up amidst a relatively large sibling group? Is it a case of pactice makes perfect?

Study co-author Donna Bobbitt-Zeher speculates that children who grow up with multiple siblings have more opportunities to learn how to negotiate differences. They've had to learn how to live harmoniously with others .

“Having more siblings means more experience dealing with others—and that seems to provide additional hekp in dealing with a marriage relationship as an adult,” says Bobbitt-Zeher in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Kids benefit from multiple the multiple attachment relationships in a big family.

In large families younger children receive loving attention from not just two parents but many older siblings as well. If they fall down, many hands reach down to help them up. If they aim to accomplish a goal, whether it’s learning to throw a ball or succeeding at a school athletic event, many sibs are there to coach and assist them, and many voices then chime in to celebrate their victories.

In one large family, for instance, one of the sisters did something that created controversy at her high school. One of her older siblings fielded the hostile phone calls to their home while the others entertained her with comic renditions of her troubles until her fears gave way to laugher. In another big family, when one toddler was slow to babble consonants, older sibs took turns playing games to get her to make "b" and "t" and "ssss" sounds.

As adults, siblings tend to continue to support each other; less stress means less divorce risk.

When illness strikes, there’s an unexpected job loss, or grief besets adults, adult siblings can come to the rescue. Their help can lower the stress on the sibling with the problem and his her spouse.

In one family, within hours after losing his job a young man received a call from one of his older brothers. “Hey, I just called my old boss. He’d be glad to hire you. Can you show up for work tomorrow at 7:00 a.m.?”

Emotional and financial stresses can wreak havoc on marriages. When siblings help out, the marriage stress goes down.

Competent parents raise competent kids. And loving parents raise kids who become self-confident adults.

In these days of modern contraceptive practices, large families are a choice. In order to decide to have this many children, parents generally have to be quite strong individuals who feel that they can handle the managerial, emotional and financial stresses of a large family group. They are likely to take parenting seriously and therefore talk with friends and seek out reading materials that strengthen their parenting and family management skills. And they are likely to place the needs of their family as a top priority in their lives.

Parents who choose to have more than three children, that is, a big family, also are likely to be individuals who really enjoy kids.

That’s not to say that all parents of large families love every moment of the challenging project they have taken on, or that all such parents choose large families because they love kids. Some do at times feel overwhelmed by their brood, and some do choose to raise a large flock for non-loving reasons such as for the prestige big families offer in their particular community.

For the most part however, children in large families receive the blessing of being raised by parents who genuinely enjoy their offspring and the process of raising kids.

Other Factors To Consider Besides Your Kids' Divorce Rates In Deciding to Raise a Big Family

As appealing as this study may sound with regard to raising children who will have lower odds of divorce as adults, the following list suggests multiple addition factors that parents typically consider in deciding on family size.

1. Having kids costs a lot of money per child, first for clothing and food and then especially for colleges and weddings.

2. Kids take time, especially if parents want to be able to connect with and enjoy each child every day.

3. When both parents work, which is true for most households, there’s little time left in the evenings to subdivide into time for each child.

4. A family generally feels complete when it’s the size the parents grew up with, especially if their growing up experience felt predominantly positive.

5. Managing a larger family group requires strong management, couple partnering, and parenting skills lest chaos takes over.

6. Parental arguments are bad for everyone in a family. The more the parents fight with each other, the more likely it is that the siblings will imitate their parents. If too many children will put extra stress on parents, and therefore invite more fighting into the home, that's a real problem.

Religious Aspects Of Choosing to Raise a Big Family.

In today’s America, the vast majority of couples who chose to raise a larger family do so because their religious beliefs and religious communities support the Biblical principle of “Be fruitful and multiply.” Catholic, Orthodox Jewish, and Mormon couples frequently raise family of 4 or more children; few secular families choose that option.

It could be that it's not so much the extra siblings but the religious activity of the family that fosters development of children who will have lower divorce rates as adults.

Enjoyment of religious rituals in the home, beliefs in the importance of marriage and family, support from the religious group's community and the lower divorce rates of religious families all enhance children's feelings of being loved and being able to love others, feelings that can easily translate in adulthood into marriage-readiness and marital success.


Over-population in the world is a very real problem. Concerns about this phenomenon gave rise in the late 1960's to the "stop at two" movement. The findings of the study described above offer an alternative perspective. A big family maybe does have advantages.

While this study has produced thought-provoking findings with regard to numbers of siblings and likelihood of divorce in adulthood, explanations for the phenomenon are speculative.

Most importantly, a correlation between large families and lower later divorce rates does not mean that the one caused the other. To the contrary, a third factor such as religious beliefs/affiliation may be the actual cause of both larger family size and lower divorce rates.


Denver psychologist Susan Heitler, Ph.D specializes in helping couples to build strong marriages. Her book The Power of Two and online program called teach the skills couples need for marriage success.