Marital and family conflicts are unavoidable. Although you have committed to a partnership, you are still two individuals with different and sometimes incompatible needs, desires, and interests. Since you live together and are building a life and family together, these conflicts can be challenging to escape from, even temporarily.1 When it comes to major life decisions like the number of children or family size, a disagreement can feel agonizing if one partner wants a baby and the other doesn’t.
A common conflict in a marriage or life partnership is whether or not to have another child. Not only is it a huge decision, but there is also no obvious compromise. If one partner wants one child and the other wants three, you can compromise or meet in the middle with two. But if one wants two and the other wants three, you cannot have half a child! A new baby is an all-or-nothing commitment.
To Have a Baby or Not . . . That is the Question
More than eighty percent of couples agree on whether to have a child or another child. This means that between ten and twenty percent of couples disagree on having another child, making the number of children a common debate within marriages.2,3 Couples are pretty evenly split on whether the male or the female partner in a heterosexual relationship wants another child.3 Although a disagreement is rarely desirable, if handled positively, conflict can strengthen a marriage.1 This is true regardless of whether one partner or the other gets their way or the two come to a consensus.
Who gets to decide?
There are many theories regarding which partner has the decision-making power concerning childrearing. Some of these views on which partner often has more influence are outlined below. Remember that these are societal observations and not a commentary on who should get to decide.
1. Matriarchal View
Historically, traditional gender ideology classifies childbearing and childrearing as primarily the woman’s responsibility. One model of thinking, called the sphere of interest, deems that because traditionally, the woman bears more of the day-to-day work of raising children, the decision on whether to have another child lies within her domain. This relates to the matriarchal view of society, which states that women always have a more decisive say in family matters.
It is also similar to the joint utility model, which believes that whichever partner takes on most childrearing responsibilities will have more say in family size decisions. In couples deciding whether to have a second or subsequent child (but not first children), one study showed that women’s intentions are more predictive and decisive than men’s in a gender-equal society.2
2. Patriarchal View
An alternate view of fertility decision-making puts the choice in the hands of the one with the most socioeconomic resources. Historically this has meant the male partner has the most significant influence in decisions regarding children. This is similar to the patriarchal view, in which men always decide.2
3. Societal View
Every society has norms regarding childbearing and family size. In the United States, in 2020, women had an average of 1.6 total births. However, this number can vary between states and towns or cities.6 When couples disagree on the number of children to have, the partner on the side of a societal norm usually “wins.” Either partner has veto power when considering having more children than the average in their community. One study states, “conflict resolution tends to favor the less radical partner.”5 In other words, if it is rare or unusual in your society to have only one child, the partner who wants a second child often ends up getting their way.
Conversely, suppose you already have two children and are considering whether to have a third. In that case, you will likely end up without a third child if families in your society typically have only two children. In an Italian study, couples demonstrated compromise when deciding whether to have a first or second child. Still, couples usually stopped at two if there was disagreement over whether to have a third.5 This may be because the Italian birthrate is 1.2 births per woman, so having three children goes against the societal norm.6
4. Veto Rule
The veto rule favors the partner that does not want anything to change. Essentially both individuals in a partnership must agree before acting on the desire to have more children. This is similar to the “golden mean,” which asserts that if partners disagree, nothing happens; whoever does not want the situation to change decides the outcome. Studies have shown that “negative childbearing intentions are more predictive than positive ones” and that it is most common to have another child only when both partners agree to do so.2 Because welcoming new children into the family is a lifetime commitment for both parents, neither parent is willing to pursue more babies without their partner’s agreement.5
Ultimately the decision to have a child should not be a unilateral one. It should come from careful contemplation of a combination of factors: financial matters, childrearing responsibilities, family and societal considerations, and both partners’ individual wants and desires.
More important than which partner makes the decision or who “wins” is how you reach that conclusion and that you ultimately agree on the decision. Not only can productive conflict resolution strengthen marriage and prevent resentment, but it also produces healthier offspring. In one U.S. study, when a pregnancy was intended and desired by one parent but not the other, the infant was at an elevated risk of adverse health events. Unintended fertility was associated with delayed prenatal care and reduced breastfeeding compared to intended siblings from the same family.4
Tips for What to Do When One Partner Wants a Baby
So what does a couple do when one partner wants a baby, and the other doesn’t? Of course, there is no correct answer regarding whether you should have another baby. But there are steps you can take to resolve conflict, share how you are feeling, see your partner’s point of view, and hopefully come to a conclusion you both feel comfortable with.
1. Attack the problem together.
A disagreement over adding another child to your family is one in which you and your partner probably both feel strongly and passionately. You likely each have very valid reasons for your opinion. In the heat of the moment, it can be difficult not to take your partner’s differing opinions personally. But try to keep in mind that you are not rivals. Your partner is not trying to hurt or spite you by thinking differently than you, and they are probably equally distressed over this disagreement.
Direct your frustration at the situation in that you two disagree. Instead of arguing against your partner, try to unite with your partner in battling together against the issue and finding common ground. This can be difficult at first, but with practice, it can help not to see the partner as the enemy. If the two of you are having trouble achieving this mindset, a good couple’s counselor can help you feel like you are attacking the difference of opinion together.
2. Fight fair.
Remember that your partner is allowed to disagree with you, which does not make them bad. There are certain types of communication in a partnership that can negatively affect the quality of the relationship. Avoid belittling their confidence or encouraging feelings of anxiety and discomfort. Set aside selfishness, pursue only your interests, and foster teamwork and mutual positive regard. Although challenging, try to cooperate in addressing the interests of your partner. Recall all the reasons you love them, and find things to appreciate about their ways of thinking. Try to respect the emotional needs of the other; they need to feel love, care, attention, and understanding, even during an argument.1
3. Assess the situation.
Hopefully, with this shift in mindset, you and your partner can come together calmly and with level heads. If possible, find the root of the issue. Why does one partner need to add another baby to the family? Does the family feel incomplete? Have you always dreamed of a large family? Do you want siblings for your current children? And conversely, why doesn’t the other partner want a baby? Are there financial constraints at play? Societal pressures? Would you outgrow your house? Do you have the support system you need around you to help with the emotional and logistical burden of a new baby? And does that partner never want another baby, or just not right now? If they are just not ready right now, perhaps you come to some compromise on timing or when they might feel comfortable reassessing the situation or revisiting the conversation.
4. Consider your partner’s perspective.
Now that you have assessed the root of the disagreement try to appreciate where your partner is coming from. You both have each other’s best interest and your family’s best interest at heart. As your partner expresses their point of view, aim to listen to understand, not to respond. You do not have to counter them with your opposing viewpoint immediately. Allow your partner to explain how they feel so thoroughly that you can accurately repeat it. Likewise, when it is your turn, explain your side to help your partner understand where you are coming from. Try not to set out to convince them to change their mind, as this can fuel the rivalry. Instead, evaluate how you feel to share that with your partner accurately.
Once you have their perspective and they have yours, are you able to find common ground? Perhaps you can now empathize with their stress and pressure of financial implications or the household workload of another child, for instance. Maybe you both agree that you would love to give your current child a sibling, but one party is not ready for all else that entails. Identify where each of your desires to have or not have a baby are coming from, and try to relate or find mutual understanding, even if you disagree.
5. Give it time.
In most cases, this decision does not have to be made overnight. Adding a baby to your family is too big of a deal to coerce your partner into it or have them halfheartedly agree, only to resent you later. If you reach a point where you are talking in circles and making no progress, or the topic feels too raw, it may be time to take a break. Get comfortable living in the limbo of the unknown. It is okay not to know immediately whether your family is complete. In the meantime, do not make any permanent fertility decisions and remain open to reconsidering another baby. You can revisit the conversation in a few months when both of you have had time to process the other’s viewpoint and see your family’s progress in that time.
It can feel like an impossible obstacle when one partner wants a baby, and the other doesn’t. Although no one can decide your family size except for you and your partner, there are steps you can take to understand each other and hopefully reach an agreement. Find solace in the fact that this is a relatively common issue in marriages, and you will ultimately settle on a solution. Consider what is most important to each of you, communicate your desires and fears clearly, and give each other time to process. Continue loving one another and focusing on your partnership and family in the meantime, and hope that with the passing of time, the path forward will become clearer to both of you.