The XX Factor

Your Siblings Are Saving Your Marriage

Octomom Nadya Suleman’s kids lead a Marriage 101 seminar.

Photo by Toby Canham/Getty Images

On Tuesday morning, three sociology professors from Ohio State University presented an intriguing result at the 108th annual meeting of the American Sociological Association: Having more siblings reduces your chances of getting divorced as an adult. In fact, each additional sibling you have (up to about seven) decreases the likelihood of a marital split by 2 percent. While the difference between being an only child and one kid out of two or three is not enormous, says study co-author Doug Downey, “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 colleagues, Donna Bobbitt-Zeher and Joseph Merry, collected data from a trove of interviews with about 57,000 adults from all over the country who were surveyed 28 times between 1972 and 2012. (The digest is succinctly known as the General Social Survey.) They expected that having any siblings at all would confer “the experience with personal relationships that would help you in marriage,” Bobbitt-Zeher said. Instead, they found that “the real story appears to be how family dynamics change incrementally with the addition of each sibling.”

Because adolescing/adulting with a twin in tow has given me crystal-clear insight into the minds of others, this is where I presciently head off your questions about variables like education, socioeconomic status, family structure, race, age at marriage, whether the respondents had children, gender role attitudes, and religious affiliation. The researchers controlled for each of those factors and obtained the same results. For instance, they were able to determine that single children weren’t relatively more prone to divorce simply because they were more likely to have grown up with single parents. And they ruled out the possibility that kids with brothers or sisters split up less because they were less likely to get married, having been irreparably damaged by years of jockeying and strife (my initial interpretation of the findings—sorry Emmy). 

“Growing up in a family with siblings, you develop a set of skills for negotiating both negative and positive interactions,” Downey suggests. “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.” On the other hand, only children are famously more intelligent and more achievement-oriented than their siblinged counterparts. According to researcher Judith Blake, the intellectual tenor of a home with a large brood veers toward the immature; plus, kids with many brothers and/or sisters suffer from a dilution of parental resources. Does the choice, more frequently exercised, to opt out of a dysfunctional marriage speak to singletons’ higher IQs? Their sturdier focus on individual accomplishment? Their perfectionism? Their incorrigible narcissism? Are marriages joining two single children doomed from the start?

I’m just kidding. If you’re an only, don’t despair! Settle down with someone who has seven siblings (but not eight) and try to contain your baleful, marriage-busting influence. Meanwhile, siblings, maybe you should consider marrying other siblings (not your own), unless you feel extra confident in your people skills. And everyone, if you care about the sanctity of marriage, raise lots of kids.

And thus concludes my transition to conservative pundit.