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The more siblings you have, the less your chance of divorce

Teresa Tanoos's picture
The more siblings you have, the less likely you are to divorce as adults

The more siblings you grow up with, the more protected you are from divorce as an adult, according to a new nationwide study, which reveals that each additional sibling a person has (up to about seven) reduces your chance of divorce by 2 percent.

Doug Downey, co-author of the study and professor of sociology at The Ohio State University, says that the practical difference between having no siblings and having one or two isn't that much in terms of divorce.

"But when you compare children from large families to those with only one child, there is a meaningful gap in the probability of divorce," he said.

In a surprising finding of the study, it wasn't the difference between being an only child and having siblings that was significant.

"We expected that if you had any siblings at all, that would give you the experience with personal relationships that would help you in marriage," said Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State's Marion campus.

"But we found that the real story appears to be how family dynamics change incrementally with the addition of each sibling. More siblings means more experience dealing with others, and that seems to provide additional help in dealing with a marriage relationship as an adult."

The results of the study, conducted by Downey and Bobbitt-Zeher with Joseph Merry, a graduate student at Ohio State, were presented Tuesday at the 108th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City.

Using data from the General Social Survey, which involved interviews with about 57,000 adults from across the United States at 28 points between 1972 and 2012, Downy said the study found that each additional sibling – up to about seven – provided additional protection from divorce.

More siblings than seven did not provide additional protection, but it did not hurt either.

The positive benefits of having siblings was seen among Americans in all generations studied.

"Siblings help protect against divorce among adults now just as much as they did 50 years ago," Bobbitt-Zeher said.

The researchers also considered and accounted for a variety of other factors that might have affected the results.

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"One argument might be that it isn't siblings that matter, but some other difference between large families and small families," Downey explained. "It could have been that small families are more likely to have a single parent, or have some other issue that may hurt children in their future marriage relationship."

The researchers therefore analyzed a variety of factors for both the respondents they surveyed and their parents that could have played a role in future divorces, including education, socioeconomic status, family structure, race, age at marriage, whether the respondents had children, gender role attitudes and religious affiliation, among others.

"When we added in all of these controls, nothing took away the relationship we saw between siblings and later divorce," Bobbitt-Zeher said. "None of these other factors explained it away."

Although the study cannot explain why having siblings helps protect against divorce, Downey said that the findings offer some good reasons.

"Growing up in a family with siblings, you develop a set of skills for negotiating both negative and positive interactions. You have to consider other people's points of view, learn how to talk through problems. The more siblings you have, the more opportunities you have to practice those skills," he said. "That can be a good foundation for adult relationships, including marriage."

Bobbitt-Zeher and Downey have both been involved in prior research regarding the influence of growing up with or without siblings.

For example, Downey led a 2004 study, which found that kindergarten teachers rated students who had siblings as having better social skills than only children. Yet, in another study this year, Downey and Bobbitt-Zeher found that teenagers without siblings didn't appear to have any disadvantage regarding social skills.

Downey points out that this newest study is an attempt to examine the effect of siblings later in life, as well how siblings impact other major life events.

"Evaluations of social skills and grades aren't trivial, but divorce is a more concrete, consequential event in a person's life. This is the first study to look at how siblings affect such a consequential event in adulthood," he said.

Downey also mentioned that the results of this latest study point to a disturbing consequence of lower fertility and smaller family sizes in the United States and elsewhere. Although much of the work about this demographic shift to smaller families reveals the positive side of having fewer children, it also reveals there’s a negative side to consider as well.

Nevertheless, the researchers say these findings shouldn't make parents of only children feel overly concerned.

"There are so many factors that are related to divorce, and the number of siblings you have is just one of them," Bobbitt-Zeher said. "There is a relationship between the number of siblings and divorce, but it is not something that is going to doom your marriage if you don't have a brother or sister."

SOURCE: Ohio State University, “More Siblings Means Less Chance of Divorce as Adult” (August 13, 2013).