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  • Do daughters cause divorce?
  • By Caroline Overington
  • The Age
  • 13/11/2003 Make a Comment
  • Contributed by: admin ( 75 articles in 2003 )
The more daughters you have, the worse the effect on your marriage, according to new research from the United States.
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New research shows the secret of a successful partnership could be in the sex of your children. Caroline Overington reports.

If you want to prevent your own divorce, don't have daughters, have sons. As startling as it may seem, a new study from the United States has shown that parents of girls are 5 per cent more likely to divorce than parents of boys.

Not only that, in the US at least, the more daughters you have, the worse the effect on your marriage: a couple with two girls is 8 per cent more likely to divorce than a couple with two boys. A couple with three daughters is 13 per cent more likely to divorce than a couple with three sons.

"It certainly surprised me," says one of the researchers, Gordon Dahl, who is an associate professor of economics at the University of Rochester in New York. "You wouldn't think that having girls made a difference to whether or not you get a divorce, but it very clearly does."

Dahl and his colleague, fellow economist Enrico Moretti from University of California, Los Angeles, based their study on data from 6 million mothers, which was extracted from the past 60 years of the US census.

"There is no room for statistical error," says Dahl. "In a sample that size, you have smoothed out any differences you might get from looking at a group with too many white mothers, or too many black mothers, or too many people with financial problems. All of life's circumstances are balanced across a group this size.

"But, even when we controlled for race, for age, for the education of the mother, the figures stayed the same. There is no doubt about it: the gender of your children makes a difference, when it comes to whether or not you divorce."

Ever since the study was published - first on the website, Slate.com, and then in The New York Times, debate has raged over what it means. Do daughters cause divorce? Or is it that sons prevent divorce?

"We don't know," says Dahl. "All we can say is that couples with girls get divorced more often than couples with boys. We also know that couples who have all boys have the lowest rate of divorce, and that couples with all girls have the highest rate of divorce. And we know that couples who have girls, and then go on to have a boy, have a lower rate of divorce than couples who have only girls. We have some ideas why this might be, but we can't know for sure."

Key findings:
- A couple with one daughter is 5 per cent more likely to divorce than a couple with one son.

- The more daughters, the greater the effect: a couple with three daughters is 13 per cent more likely to divorce than a couple with three sons.

- Couples with all boys have the lowest divorce rate of any family type.

- Couples with all girls have the highest divorce rate of
any family type.

- The arrival of a boy offers some protection from divorce, since mixed-gender families divorce less often than families with only girls.

- A couple with two daughters is more likely to have a third child than a couple with two sons.

- Single mothers who give birth to a boy are 42 per cent more likely to marry the father than those with girls.
Dahl posits that some men have a preference for a male heir, who will carry on the family name. If that sounds old-fashioned, here's another idea: maybe sons make marriages stronger.

"Dads tend to do more with their sons than they do with their daughters, like go out in the back yard and play ball," said Dahl. "And in my opinion, families who do things together are much stronger than families who don't do things together. Maybe dads feel they have a special role to play if they have sons."

There are other possibilities: maybe women stay married when they have sons because they want their boys to have a male role model. Or maybe they leave a bad marriage if they have daughters, because they don't want their girls exposed to a bad male role model.

Adding to the intrigue is Shelly Lundberg, a professor of economics at the University of Washington, who last year conducted a study that found that single mothers who give birth to sons were 42 per cent more likely to marry the child's father than single mothers who give birth to girls. "In part, it was because women were more interested in getting married if they had boys," Lundberg says.

"Maybe that was because they thought baby boys needed a man around, to be a role model. But the men were also more interested in getting married when the baby was a boy."

Lundberg says she had some "very bizarre" reactions from colleagues when she presented her findings at various seminars. "We had very heated discussions, which is quite unusual for economists," she chuckled.

"I had quite a few colleagues take me aside to assure me they loved their daughters just as much as they loved their sons. But of course, we never said they didn't."

Lundberg's theory - that men prefer sons - is backed by Dahl's study, which also showed that a couple with two daughters is more likely to have a third child than a couple with two sons.

"In families with girls, the parents are more likely to say: let's try one more time," says Dahl. "But in families with boys, they say, no, we're OK with what we have."

Now, that could be because two boys make quite enough noise. Or maybe couples with daughters find the experience so pleasant, they are happy to add to their brood. But it could also be that couples without sons keep trying because a family feels incomplete without a boy.

"Variety is very important to people," says Dahl. "In fact, although the data about girls has got the most attention, one of the main things our study showed is that parents seem to prefer one child of each gender." To explain: if a couple has two children, and they are of different genders, the parents are not as likely to have a third child, as they would be if their first two children were of the same gender.

For his part, Dahl has three children, all of them daughters, which surely makes him either nervous about his marriage, or else desirous of a fourth child? "I'll say upfront, I'm a Mormon," he says with a laugh. "I am one of five and my wife is one of five, and we like a big family. I have three daughters, all are perfect, and I wouldn't want it any other way."

And yes, they might try for another, and won't mind if it's a girl, or a boy.


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