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Recent Study Finds Large Family Siblings Less Likely To Divorce



Recent Study Finds Large Family Siblings Less Likely To Divorce

Divorce study’s surprising findings

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

A recent study has found a surprising relationship between growing up with lots of siblings and succeeding as an adult in marriage.  Why should family size impact how children will fare in their adult married life and reduce the likelihood of divorce?  At the same time, is the correlation between number of siblings and marriage success in adulthood really an inidication of causation, or is there a third causal factor that accounts for the association between growing up in a bigger family and being less likely as an adult to divorce?

A study on how a small or big family impacts the children in their adult lives.

This study conducted by co-authors 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.  The results were presented at a recent 108th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association.

Doug Downey explains that the differences in frequency of divorce in adulthood are minimal between adults who grew up with none, one or two siblings. Only children were least likely to marry and most likely to divorce if they did marry. While there were subtle divorce-prevention gains with family size of up to three siblings, it’s in the larger families of four to seven siblings that decreased divorce rates in adulthood become 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 full gains of big family for training for adulthood seems to have been reached.

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. Like the older classic of big family life, Cheaper By the Dozen, Greene’s book counters the current conventional wisdom of Stop at Two.

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

The question remains of what might account for the decreased divorce rates of adults who grew up amidst a relatively large sibling group?

Practice 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 and 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 accomplish a goal, whether it’s learning to throw a ball or succeeding at a school athletic event, many voices chime in to augment their joy.

In one family, for instance, when one of the sisters did something that created controversy at her high school, her older siblings fielded the hostile phone calls to their home. In another, when one toddler seemed slow to begin to babble consonants, older sibs took turns sitting her on their lap to play imitating-sounds games.

As adults, siblings tend to continue to support each other.

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

In one family, within hours after losing his job one young man received a call from a brother. “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.

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 familymanagement skills. And they are likely to place the needs of their family as a top priority in their lives.

Loving parents raise loving kids.

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 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 divorcing 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. How much fighting is there in the family? The more the parents fight with each other, the more likely it is that the siblings will imitate their parents. Studies of post-divorce adjustment pretty consistently say that kids do better growing up in a home that is free of parental fighting. In addition, fighting parents inadvertently teach their kids that fighting is what married folks do.

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.

Other aspects of religious affiliation may also foster the development of the secure childhood attachment patterns that provide a template for secure adult love relationships. 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.


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 though, 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.

Photo:Family Get Together at New Year Day – Download FREE Widescreen HD Family Get Together at New Year Day from

Author’s Books

Susan Heitler, Ph.D., is a Denver clinical psychologist who specializes in treatment of anxiety, depression, anger, narcissism, parenting challenges, and marital difficulties. An author of multiple books, articles, audio cd’s and videos, Dr. Heitler is best known in the therapy community for having brought understandings of conflict resolution from the legal and business mediation world to the professional literature on psychotherapy. David Decides About Thumbsucking, Dr. Heitler’s first book, has been recommended for over twenty years by children’s dentists to help young children end detrimental sucking habits. From Conflict to Resolution, an innovative conflict-resolution theory of psychopathology and treatment, has strongly influenced the work of many therapists. The Power of Two and The Power of Two Workbook, and also Dr. Heitler’s  website for couples called, teach the skills for marriage success. In addition to her clinical work, Dr. Heitler coaches boards of directors in skills for collaboarative decision-making and, in the world of professional sports, Dr. Heitler serves as mental coach for a men’s doubles tennis team. Education Dr. Heitler graduated from Harvard  University in 1967, and earned her Ph.D. in clinical psychology from NYU in 1975. Awards and Accomplishments The editors of the master therapist video series Assessment and Treatment of Psychological Disorders selected Dr. Heitler from all the marriage and family therapists in the US to demonstrate the theory and techniques of couple treatment.  Her video from this series, The Angry Couple: Conflict Focused Treatment has become a staple in psychologist and marriage counseling training programs. The editors of the Psychologist Desk Reference, a compendium of therapeutic interventions, selected Dr. Heitler to write the chapter onTreating High Conflict Couples. Other editors of books on counseling theory and techniques have similarly invited her to contribute chapters on her conflict resolution treatment methods. Dr. Heitler’s 1997 book The Power of Two (New Harbinger), which clarifies the communication and conflict resolution skills that sustain healthy marriages, has been translated for publication in six foreign language editions–in China, Taiwan, Israel, Turkey, Brazil and Poland. Dr. Heitler has been invited to present workshops on her conflict resolution methods for mediators and lawyers, psychologists, and marriage and family therapists throughout the country.  She has been a popular presenter at national professional conferences including AAMFT, APA, SmartMarriages, and SEPI and has lectured internationally in Austria, Australia, Canada, China, Israel, Lebanon, Spain, and the United Arab Emirates. Dr. Heitler is frequently interviewed in magazines such as FitnessMen’s HealthWomen’s World, and Parenting.  Her cases have appeared often in the Ladies Home Journal column “Can This Marriage Be Saved?”  She is often interviewed by Denver TV newscasters for her perspectives on psychological aspects of current events. In May, 2004 Dr. Heitler appeared on the CBS Early Show where anchor Harry Smith introduced her as “the most influential person in my life—my therapist.”  He encouraged his viewers similarly to seek therapy when they are emotionally distressed and pre-marital counseling when they are contemplating marriage. Most recently, Dr. Heitler, three of her adult children and one of their friends were awarded a U.S. government Healthy Marriages Initiative grant to produce interactive games for teaching marriage communication and conflict resolution skills over the internet.  See to experience their fun, low-cost, high-impact methods of teaching the skills for a strong and loving marriage. Personal Dr.  Heitler and her husband of almost 40 years are proud parents of four happily married adult children and are grandparents, thus far, of a a baker’s dozen grandchildren.

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