You’re in love. Maybe it’s a fresh relationship and you’re still getting to know each other. Maybe it’s been a while but your partner still gives you butterflies. And then one day, you’re chatting and it hits you: You and your partner totally don’t agree on having kids.
How did this happen? It could be a lot of things, Toni Coleman, a psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker in McLean, Virginia, tells SheKnows. Perhaps you were making assumptions about your partner’s desires for children. Perhaps your partner was being indirect and saying things like, “Maybe someday,” when they meant “Probably never.”
Before long, the discussion can build to a full-blown argument, leaving both parties unsure of what to do or how to talk to each other. This is what happened to Kathy, an editor and blogger at My Dishwasher’s Possessed, and her husband. “My husband wasn’t sure he wanted children,” Kathy tells SheKnows. She knew this going into their marriage. “He wasn’t definite, but he just didn’t know if he could give himself completely over to parenthood.”
Having kids — or not having them — is no small topic, Coleman says. It brings up all kinds of painful and real issues. “It’s kind of like each person’s idea of what their future would look like… where they come from and the families they grew up in or the things they were exposed to, what they thought their life would always be like,” Coleman says. “It speaks to lifestyle a lot but also deep values and just a lot of deep feelings.”
Not being sure or being certain you don’t want kids isn’t rare in younger people, and Coleman says it seems to be coming up particularly in millennials. “They’re saying, ‘I want to be freer,’” she says. “‘I’ve seen what my parents went through and how expensive it is to live and how much it costs to have a house, and I just don’t see myself ever wanting to take on that level of responsibility.’”
Kathy knew she wanted children, but she also loved her husband and decided to try to live in the limbo of not knowing whether or not they would try for children while he figured it out. It didn’t go so well. “As it turned out, I’m really bad living in limbo,” she says.
As she approached 30, Kathy found herself needing an answer. They were arguing a lot, and in one argument, her husband told her flat out: “I don’t want kids.”
“Once he said no kids, then we really had to deal with the issues in the marriage.”
But really, facing these issues head-on is the only way through them. The goal isn’t to change your partner’s mind, but to listen to what matters to them and try to understand. That can be hard to do. It’s when couples are stuck trying to have these real conversations that they often show up in therapy, Coleman says. “Once they really fully get where the other one is coming from and how important it is to them, then they can look for compromise,” she says.
If they really hear their partner, they can start to understand whether their disagreement is a timing issue — does their partner just not want children now — or if it’s a long-term issue and whether, ultimately, there’s any room for compromise.
Compromise can look like a lot of things, Coleman says, like realizing your partner is OK with one child but not the three you’d hoped for or deciding you’d rather have the life with your partner than a life with a child.
But use caution, Coleman says, when coming to a compromise if you’re not totally sure your partner is authentically on board. A partner who has a child when they didn’t really want one can cause a lot of resentment, and a partner who agrees not to have children can end up feeling an incredible amount of emptiness. “It can really erode the good stuff in the relationships,” Coleman says.
As for Kathy and her husband, they put a moratorium on talking about a baby for six months, and Kathy went to therapy as they worked on their communication and relationship. They agreed to start with a cat, loved it, and her husband started being able to see himself as a father. After several miscarriages and fertility treatments, they eventually started their family. “Once we had our son Joe, [my husband] just fell in love with him and parenting. He couldn’t wait to have more,” Kathy says. They now have three teenagers and are celebrating their 25th anniversary this March. “I think the issues we had in the beginning really helped us build a strong relationship.”