Child-Free Couples: Thriving Without Kids

Relationship experts and couples who chose not to have kids reveal the secrets of a successful child-free marriage.

Medically Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on January 25, 2008
8 min read

Kaye Walters of Santa Barbara, Calif., knew she didn't want children, but convincing other people she wanted to remain child-free was trickier.

"I like kids," the magazine editor and writer tells WebMD, "but I can get my 'kid fix' from my nieces and nephews."

As a response to societal pressures to procreate, she launched the web site Kid Free & Lovin' It in August 2007. She's also writing a book on the subject.

"My motivation to start the site was the same for starting my book: I got tired of everyone assuming I would have kids or constantly asking me when I was going to have them," says Walters, now 46. "Knowing that I may never have kids, I didn't quite know how to answer them without disappointing them or making them defensive. So I googled the subject matter, and found there were many groups of child-free people in my same boat, dealing with a myriad of child-free issues."

In her book The Childless Revolution, author Madelyn Cain echoes Walters' sentiments. She writes that those who are childless by choice don't see themselves as lacking anything. She notes that their preference is to be referred to as 'child-free,' which reflects a considered lifestyle choice.

Whether more people are adopting this lifestyle choice is harder to quantify -- there just isn't that much data on the subject -- but Americans' views on the importance of children to a relationship do appear to be changing. A 2007 Pew Research Center survey showed that attitudes on whether children are integral to a relationship are changing. Just 41% of Americans said children are "very important" to a successful marriage. That's down from 65% in 1990.

Today, resources for the voluntarily child-free abound. Support sources include social networking groups, like Childfree Meetup; web sites, such as; and books, including Families of Two: Interviews With Happily Married Couples Without Children by Choice.

Laura Scott of Roanoke, Va., was motivated to create the Childless by Choice project to test commonly held assumptions about the child-free. Her self-described "research project" has ballooned into a book and documentary based on a survey of North American child-free couples, historians, and social scientists.

"One of my interviewees called parenthood a 'checklist' item," Scott tells WebMD. "You graduate high school: check. Go to college: check. Marry: check. Buy a house: check. Have a kid: check. Most people, like myself, who decided early not to have kids, acknowledged an absence of desire. Speaking for myself, parenthood seemed too important or daunting an endeavor to go into without enthusiasm or desire."

The reasons child-free couples give for not having children are as varied as the couples themselves.

For many, the biological clock never ticked and they lack a strong urge to parent. Numerous couples cite the financial restrictions, the childcare challenges, and the time constraints of parenting. Some opt out of child rearing due to environmental, political, and overpopulation concerns. Others endured abusive childhoods and are too bruised to parent. Some reject the career limitations that parenting imposes. Some admit to disliking children or lacking the patience to parent. Still others are caretakers to aging parents and feel children would further deplete their energy. Some are dismayed with the direction parenting has taken today.

Many voluntarily child-free couples are loathe to sacrifice a rewarding, creative, and often spontaneous lifestyle that includes travel, entertainment, sports, and hobbies. In short, they cherish their unfettered freedom. Couples also mention the peace, quiet, and order of a child-free home. Minimizing stress is yet another common factor many child-free couples consider when making their choice.

Walters and her husband, Brian Edwards, a commercial real estate broker, worry that children would undermine their relationship. Research done by the web site No Kidding bears this out: 62% of surveyed couples had concerns.

"We've seen relationships deteriorate after couples have kids," says Walters. "The husband is suddenly a 'distant second' to the kids or they disagree on how to raise them. Often there is little or no romantic energy left for each other. Brian and I enjoy being each other's No. 1."

Elaine Gibson, an Atlanta-based marriage and family therapist and professional counselor, says that many outsiders still make negative assumptions about a couple's child-free status. "Couples who are clear that they don't want to have children don't find there is as much social stigma," she says. "When couples are forthright and have a lot of interesting things going on in their life, people experience that positive energy from them."

Cynthia McKay is the CEO of her own gourmet gift basket business; her husband, Paul Gomez, is the assistant attorney general for Colorado. They've been married for 18 years. They are up-front about their decision to remain child-free.

"Most people say that we are the type of people who would be the best kind of parents," McKay tells WebMD. "They feel we could financially and emotionally offer an excellent environment for a child. Our friends see how we cared for our dog for 15 years and felt that we had all the nurturing skills we would need to be good parents. We disagree."

"I tell people that we are very comfortable with our decision not to have kids and have no regrets," Gomez adds. "Not everyone's priority is to be a parent. We direct our energies elsewhere, such as animal-rights causes and politics."

Barbara Fisher, a licensed professional counselor in Atlanta, says that for some, the choice not to have children is spiritual. "For many people, being child-free has to do with their destiny. They may not be here to parent."

Scott says her research has shown that couples, more so than singles, suffer the greatest pressure to have kids and the greatest social stigma.

Vincent Ciaccio, a spokesman for No Kidding, believes that women more than men bear the brunt of the stigma. "I am aware of [some women] who just don't mention they are child-free in mixed company."

In an ideal world, both partners would be in agreement on the issue of having -- or not having -- children. Some couples, like McKay and Gomez, discussed the possibility at length early in their relationship and agreed not to delve into parenthood.

"We discussed the pros and cons of having kids and came to the conclusion that there are too many reasons not to have them, and not enough good reasons to have them," Walters adds.

But sometimes the issue must be negotiated.

Atlantans Duane and Robin Marcus married young -- at age 20 -- and have been married for 34 years. Duane says he never felt "capable of being a father." His position was resolute.

But 12 years into their marriage Robin's biological clock started ticking. "I was never a strong believer in having kids -- I was about 75% sure I didn't want them," she tells WebMD. "It was more a body urge."

Still, she wrestled for three years with conflicted feelings, trying to decide if motherhood or marriage was more pressing. Both admit it was a tough time. Robin expressed anger and frustration with Duane's unwavering position. But, she says, "We worked through it; we kept discussing it. I think we grew together and made the right decision."

"Having a child is an extremely challenging commitment," Duane adds. "You can't talk somebody into doing it."

Lori Buckley, PsyD, a certified sex therapist in Pasadena, Calif., agrees that bullying a partner is a bad strategy. "It would be great if couples sat down and had important discussions about what they want from their relationship and made conscious choices. But most don't," she tells WebMD. "What determines the staying power of a relationship is not about whether or not to have a child. It's about other components like being supportive of one another, being loving and kind, being good companions."

Buckley says it's important for each partner to share their views on having children. It's also helpful to assuage a partner's fears. "People will come up with their own reasons for [the desire to remain childless] -- like 'he doesn't love me,' or 'she doesn't want the baby to have my nose,' or 'he's planning to leave me.' Most are baseless."

"We rarely make such big choices in life without some ambiguity," she adds. "To have a really serious, emotionally charged, solution-oriented conversation, a lot of couples would benefit from a third party."

Buckley says once you've given your reasons, you don't need to defend your position or give a rebuttal. If couples aren't on the same page and can't resolve the issue, heart-wrenching breakups can occur. But that's better than bringing an unwanted child into the relationship.

"I think statistics show a slightly higher rate of couples with kids staying together," she says. "But a lot of couples come into my office and the only reason they are working on the relationship is because of the children."

When couples have decided to forgo childbearing, birth control is of paramount importance. Many couples opt for male or female sterilization because of the near-100% success rate, though experts recommend exploring all the available options.

Robin took the birth control pill for years. When the issue of whether to have children was resolved, Duane opted for a vasectomy. Duane candidly admits that, "If for some reason Robin came up pregnant, I would have bolted."

Authors and self-help gurus Debora and Mick Quinn say the kid conversation was concluded in the "first five minutes of our meeting." Debora says she happily sought a sterilization to "close the door."

None of the couples interviewed by WebMD expressed regrets about their choice to remain child-free.

Buckley says the couples she sees don't really have regrets either. "They might have curiosity, wondering 'what if.' But once you've made a conscious decision and you have clarity about your choices, then chances of regret go way down," she says.

Mick says that when he first emigrated from Ireland, he asked an 85-year-old woman if she regretted not having kids. "She paused the longest time and then said 'no.' She just missed company and camaraderie. The connection Debora and I have is phenomenally stronger than having kids."

Can couples remain child-free and have a lasting, satisfying relationship?

Absolutely, says Gibson.

"When couples have kids they sometimes forget about being a couple," Gibson says. "[Child-free couples] often have something they share instead of children, such as a cause, animal, a dream, fabulous annual vacations."

It's also a myth, say experts and the couples themselves, that people who chose to remain child-free lack nurturing skills.

The Marcuses, for instance, have taken a young man in their 30s under their wing and poured their energy into building a successful gardening business. "A psychology student friend of ours says that the 50s are the 'generative phase,' a time to give back to the younger generation," Duane says. "Our participation in the community as elders is very nurturing."

The Quinns agree. They've written a book in English and Spanish and teach classes together.

"I always give the same answer," says Mick, when asked if he and wife are happy with their child-free relationship. "Separately and together, the work we do is way more important in our opinion than putting the time, effort, and focus into raising one or two children -- especially when there are billions of spare ones around."