Dear Therapist: My Husband Doesn’t Want Another Kid, so I’m Considering Divorce

Bianca Bagnarelli

Editor’s Note: Every Monday, Lori Gottlieb answers questions from readers about their problems, big and small. Have a question? Email her at dear.therapist@theatlantic.com.

Dear Therapist,

My husband and I have been together for nearly four years and are struggling to decide whether to have another baby. When we met, he had a 3-year-old son, and after a messy custody battle, he got primary custody of his son, my stepson.

I found out I was pregnant shortly after we started dating. When we decided to live together, I made sure to have a talk with him in which I was completely open about my wishes to eventually have another baby. I did this in large part because he is 14 years older than me. I have always wanted three children, and despite my early unexpected pregnancy, I was not willing to enter into a deeper relationship where having more children was not an option. Not only did he enthusiastically agree at the time, but he jokingly said he wouldn't mind having another 10 children.

But now he’s decided he doesn’t want any more kids, because he thinks he’s too old. I should mention that I am the primary caregiver to both my stepson and our son, and I am fully aware that I will retain the majority of the late-night/early-morning/diaper-changing/child-chauffeuring duties that he claims to be dreading due to his age. The last fight about this has put us on the brink of divorce. I truly love him, and there are obviously many other reasons we are married, but in my mind those reasons would never have developed without the initial agreement to have another baby.

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I have told him that if he really decides to not have any more children, I think it would be in both of our best interests if I leave, because I don’t know that I would ever be able to forgive him for taking this away from me. He’s told me that if he were in my position, he would get over it, and he thinks I’m being ridiculous.

If he thinks that I could just “get over it,” then this decision means more to me than it does him, and I don’t understand why he’s so adamant to both stay in a relationship with me and get his way to not have another baby. I don’t want to get divorced, but I also can’t accept his decision. Am I irrational for considering divorce over this?

Anonymous


Dear Anonymous,

The biggest challenge here isn’t the decision itself—though it’s clearly a hard one—but the way you’ve set up the situation. In your mind, there are only two possibilities: If you have the third child, you’ll be happy and your husband will be resentful. If you don’t have the third child, your husband will be happy and you’ll be resentful. But there’s a catch: Because you believe that having this child means more to you than not having this child means to your husband—and because he had originally agreed to three kids—your suffering trumps his.

A marriage, however, isn’t the Pain Olympics. As you’ve seen, this line of thinking keeps you stuck. Pain is not a contest, and suffering shouldn’t be ranked. Spouses often forget this, upping the ante on their suffering—I had the kids all day. My job is more demanding than yours. I’m lonelier than you are. Whose pain wins? In this kind of setup, both people inevitably lose. If your husband gives you a child and it destroys your marriage, is he really giving you a gift? If you give up on having a baby but resent your husband for life, did he really get what he wants?

What will help you move forward is to think of yourselves as teammates rather than opponents. This means that instead of trying to get your partner to agree with your perspective, you should work together to understand yourselves and each other better. Only then can you make a thoughtful decision about the path forward.

Let’s take your view first, and see if we can broaden it a bit. You say that you love your husband and that there are many reasons you enjoy being married to him. You also say that when you got pregnant soon after meeting, you would have ended the relationship had he not agreed to having a third child. I want you to imagine your life had he said no to a third child at that point. Perhaps you would have ended the relationship, but there would have been no guarantee that you would have found someone you loved as much who also wanted three children during the window in which you were able to have them. Maybe you would have shared custody with the child’s father, who, instead of becoming your husband, might have met someone else and been happily married to her instead of you. You would have seen less of what would have been your first and perhaps only child than you do now—again, with no guarantee of your having more children later on with a different partner.

Take a moment to contemplate that scenario. Would you really prefer that to what you have now? You say that had your husband not agreed to the three kids back then, you never would have fallen in love with him—but the fact is, you did fall in love with him, and what you’re missing is that he’s the same person now that he was back then. People can change their minds without changing who they are.

This is a distinction you’ll need to make in order to open yourself up to your husband’s experience. It makes sense that your husband feels differently now—as the remarried, aging father of two young children—than he did while going through a messy custody battle with his son’s mother and falling in love with a pregnant new girlfriend who may have represented hope for the future when he needed it most. I have a feeling that when he tries to tell you how he feels now, you shut him down with logistics: I’ll take care of the kids. You’re not too old. Nothing will change for you. And he feels so shut down that all he can say to you is You need to get over this. But what if instead you got curious about how he feels so that he, in turn, can be more open to how you feel?

If you do, you might learn that he’s worried about any number of things. Maybe he’s feeling trapped financially—that he will have to work harder or retire later if you have another child. Or maybe he’s concerned that he’ll have less (or no) time to travel, to pursue hobbies, to see friends, to read a book or take a nap on weekends—all of which may be important at this stage of his life. Perhaps he’s worried that he won’t have the bandwidth to be the kind of father he wants to be to the two children he has already, or the energy and patience required to be a good father to a third. Maybe he feels that he'll miss out on spending more time with you just as the kids are becoming more independent. He could also be afraid that the pregnancy will go badly, or that because he’s older, the child is at risk for complications or long-term health issues he doesn’t feel he could handle. And then there’s the possibility that he believes having another child with you might make your stepson feel left out or outnumbered in a way that he doesn’t with just the one half-sibling.

As you discover more about your husband’s fears and desires, you can also examine yours more closely. Why have you always wanted three children? Is there something from your childhood—a sense of loneliness, of not having a tribe—that informs the intensity of your feelings? As a full-time mom, do you worry on some level that as the two older children grow up, you won’t know what your purpose is, or what to do with your time?

Once you tease out what’s underneath your respective positions, here are two exercises you can try. First, switch sides with each other and argue the other person’s perspective out loud, really getting into that frame of mind. Doing so will create a deeper level of understanding and compassion for what the other person is experiencing and add much more nuance to the conversation. Second, instead of imagining a dismal future without (or, in your husband’s case, with) a third child, I’d like each of you to write a full page in which you imagine your happiest day as a family with two kids (for you) or three kids (for him). Make sure you both include the joy of the day in great detail. This experience will move you past the false binary of your preferred situation as being all good and the other situation as being all bad and help you both consider each scenario with more emotional flexibility.

You may also want to remember that you don’t know how you’ll feel in a situation until you’re actually in it. For instance, some people say they “just know” that they would rather die than go through something that sounds devastating to them—become severely disabled, undergo another round of chemo, never find a partner—and then they feel differently as they actually experience it. Neither of you will know what it would have been like if the other path were taken. Whatever you imagine would be just that—imaginary.      

You can’t live both lives, so inevitably there will be grief and perhaps an ache that lives on in each of you for the road not taken. Either path can make both of you happy—if you let it. Either path can also make both of you miserable—if you let it. The point is, whichever path you take, your happiness will depend far more on how you make this decision together than what the ultimate outcome is.


Dear Therapist is for informational purposes only, does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. By submitting a letter, you are agreeing to let The Atlantic use it—in part or in full—and we may edit it for length and/or clarity.