Why Are Couples With First-Born Daughters More Likely to Get Divorced?

Past research has shown that since the 1970s, couples whose first-born child was a girl are more likely to get divorced than couples whose first-born child was a boy. The conventional wisdom has been that in families that have a boy as their child, the fathers are more interested in family life. If the fathers are more engaged with child, they remain closer to their spouse, and are less likely to get divorced.

Jenna_NoblesJenna Nobles, a sociologist at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and Amar Hamoudi an economist at the Duke University Population Research Institute, offer a new explanation on why couples whose first child is a daughter are more likely to get a divorce. Their study examined data on the level of conflict in marriages and data on the gender of first-born children.

The authors found that female embryos are more likely than male embryos to survive to full-term in women that undergo a great deal of marital stress while pregnant. Biological systems related to stress can impact the fetus, according to the study. Therefore, Nobles and Hamoudi hypothesize that daughters are more likely to be born to couples who have an unhappy marriage even before their child is born because female embryos are better able than male embryos to survive the stress that their mothers’ experience. This factor explains up to one half the difference in higher divorce rates for couples with a first-born daughter, according to the authors’ calculations.

In short, the research suggests that it’s not the birth of a daughter that causes family disruption that leads to divorce, but rather unhappy couples, who are candidates for divorce even before they have children, actually are more likely to produce daughters.

Dr. Nobles is a summa cum laude graduate of Boston College. She holds a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Los Angeles. She has taught at the University of Wisconsin since 2009.

The article, “Do Daughters Really Cause Divorce? Stress, Pregnancy, and Family Composition,” was published in the journal, Demography. It may be accessed here.

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  1. KM says:

    Is it possible, women more inclined to stick things out are less so, if they perceive they are setting a negative example for their daughters about what a successful relationship should look like?

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