If you want kids and your partner doesn’t, it can feel like an insurmountable problem ending only in mutually assured relationship destruction. But while the issue at hand is serious, it doesn’t mean you’re without options.
By digging into both you and your partner’s motivations, trying to understand each other’s perspective, and keeping an open mind, you can have a more productive conversation around this stalemate that might be eye-opening for both of you.
Here, several experts share their tools and strategies to navigate a disagreement about whether or not you should have kids.
1. Forgive Yourself For Not Addressing it “Sooner”
Sure, it’s probably wise to discuss whether or not you want children before a relationship gets serious. But, according to Jenna Riemersma, licensed professional counselor, there are a lot of reasons why this is a particularly difficult topic to bring up. For example, if there’s a real or perceived power dynamic in the relationship, be it emotionally, financially, or professionally, the partner with less power may be reluctant to raise the issue. Plus, timing can be tricky too. “If you bring it up too early, it may frighten people away. And if you bring it up too late, it may feel like a ‘Gotcha!’,” she explains.
“At the end of the day, difficult conversations and conflict resolution are a very important and normal part of any long term relationship. There's nothing unique about having a difference of opinion around the issue of children. I think it's very normal, and the couple has done wrong or made a mistake [by waiting],” she adds.
Blaming yourself for waiting too long won’t resolve the situation. Instead, proceeding with a little bit of empathy and absolving yourself of wrongdoing may be a way to move forward with a clearer head.
2. Get Professional Help
So, you’ve realized this is an issue, and you might not be able to handle it on your own. Therapy could be a great next step, but how do you broach the topic? If your partner is reluctant, Riemersma explains, you may want to suggest it without using the word “therapy,” since people often bring unfair stigma to their associations of it. You might start by saying something like, “Hey, I think we need some support around conflict resolution,” she suggests.
Try and bring it up in a moment of calm, as opposed to in the heat of an argument. “Because once we are in a conflicted discussion, the rational part of our brain, the prefrontal cortex tends to shut down, and the limbic part of our brain takes over. And that's not typically a time when we are open to new possibilities,” Riemersma explains.
Once you’re actually in counseling, your experience will vary a lot by which type of therapy you choose. Cognitive behavioral therapy, for example, focuses on shifting thinking and behavior patterns. Psychotherapy deals more with how past experiences and traumas shape your outlook. “Every clinician will, will offer something very different to the couple, just like going to see a medical professional. If you see a cardiologist, that person is going to bring one set of skills. If you see a dentist, that person will bring a different set of skills,” Reimersma says. Asking questions of your therapy provider about how they work is a simple way to see if they might be a good fit for you.
3. Explore All Roads to Parenthood
“Compromise” might not be quite the right word here, because as Riemersma explains, our modern understanding of the term sometimes boils down to “we each have to do something we don’t want and we both lose a little.” But if we can be open and curious about our partner’s perspective, according to Riemserma, “We get a lot more information to work with and it makes possibilities for mutually desirable compromise.”
Becoming foster parents might be one route to parenthood that both partners agree on, or perhaps adopting a slightly older child. You may even find that volunteering at an after school youth program fulfills a need to nurture in ways you hadn’t expected.
Then, there might be compromises to be made about having biological children. “If one person's concern is the amount of demand on their time, then a compromise could be, ‘We'll have one child, not two or three, and we will hire a nanny, and have regular date nights and quarterly getaways,’” she explains.
These alternate scenarios might not be a fit for every couple, but you won’t know until you discuss them.
4. Try and Parse Out Whether ‘Not Now’ Really Means ‘Never’
When it comes to having children, timing is a critical component. Someone may be staunchly against wanting children right now but could see parenthood as a possibility in the future. “Do not assume ‘not now’ or ‘as of now, no’ means ‘never,’” psychotherapist Michele Paiva tells Bustle."
If this is potentially what’s at play in your situation, Riemserma recommends putting together a broad timeline with your partner. Both partners have to come to an agreement: one has to decide when they’ll feel ready to re-visit the kids conversations, and the other has to decide how long they’re willing to live in limbo. That may be six months, a year, or whatever works for both parties. “That way,” Riemserma explains, “It also avoids the situation of the topic continuing to be brought up and aggravating the person who's saying ‘not now.’” By taking it off the table momentarily, you can defuse a stressful situation, and the party who does want kids — be it boyfriend, partner, girlfriend, or husband — knows there’s a set time where they’ll get to check in again.
If, however, the time to talk again comes and goes and one party wants to keep kicking the can down the road indefinitely, it might be a sign that they’re “not now” is drifting more toward “never.” If someone seems that ambivalent about having kids, she says, it’s time to talk boundaries. “You can't force someone to have that conversation or make that definitive statement. But you also don't have to stay in relationship with that person if they're not willing to follow through on their agreement to meet back with you about it,” she says.
Paiva agrees it’s important to respect your boundaries. "If your partner does not want kids, while you should honor it, I would also say that if your evolutionary clock is ticking, you would be sacrificing yourself if you negate your own desires to procreate," she says.
5. Consider Your Own Motivations
If you’ve always wanted kids, or never wanted kids, but haven’t ever sat down to parse out the reasons why you feel that way, it’s crucial to do so. "There are so many assumptions about having children," Janet Zinn, a New York City–based couples therapist, tells Bustle. "More often than not couples assume they will have children after marriage or, if not married, they believe it’s a way of solidifying the relationship. Sometimes we don’t know what we really want because we just do what we think is next on life's checklist,” she says. So, ask yourself, why do I want kids? Why don’t I want kids?
And, Riemserma cautions, avoid the temptation to label your motivations as “good” or “bad.” Maybe, she explains, someone thinks they want children because they want someone to take care of them in their old age. That might give you pause to hear. However, if you probe a bit deeper, you might find out they just watched an elderly neighbor die in hospice with no one to visit them, and found that deeply traumatic. If you were to push away or disregard that feeling, Riemserma says, that can create shame, but it doesn’t address the valid feelings around the issue.
This isn’t about assessing which motivations are “good enough” to have children, but about truly understanding ourselves so that we have all the information we need to make a decision. Without this self-interrogation, “The person doesn't have the opportunity to come face to face with their real motivations. And so they are less able to step into that decision with eyes wide open fully acknowledging why they're making that choice,” she says.
6. Understand Your Partner’s Motivations
Similarly, if you’ve only heard your partner’s stance and none of the rationale behind it, you likely don’t have enough information to navigate the conflict.
"Surprisingly enough, the difference between fighting and working it out usually is to understand the details of what your partner feels about the issue," Tina B. Tessina, PhD, LMFT, tells Bustle. This could be based in various issues — it could be a financial problem, a timing problem, a fear problem, a disruption problem, a scarcity problem, a family problem. For example, if it’s a scarcity issue, your partner might think to themselves, “I’m afraid that, when we have children, you'll give all your time and attention to them, and have none for me,” Tessina says. Or if it’s a family issue, they might be thinking, “As long as we have to live so far from my family, I don’t think I have enough support to be a parent,” or, "My own childhood was so difficult, I’m doubtful that I can give my children the support they need. I’m afraid I'll be inadequate as a parent."
"Each of these problems has solutions — as long as you clearly understand what’s in the way,” Tessina says. “The key to working out agreements about having children is to understand each other. Instead of reacting to each other, seek to understand your partner’s point of view, and to express your own feelings and thoughts.” Of course, their concerns might not be as easily addressed as these, but any conversation goes smoother when the other party feels heard.
7. Put Yourself in The Other’s Place — Literally
If you need a little help jumpstarting your ability to understand the issue from your partner’s perspective, Riemserma has an exercise that may do the trick. Sit in chairs across from each other and explain your point of view, including reasons why you do or don’t want to have children. Then, get up and physically switch seats. From here, you’ll have the same conversation, but arguing for the perspective of the person whose chair you just took.
There are a couple benefits to an exercise like this one. For one, she explains, “When you physically move your body, it helps to to reorient how you see things and the perspective that you were taking.” Think of it as hitting the refresh button in the conversation. Secondly, explaining, or even arguing for, someone else’s stance instead of your own can help create empathy for your partner and increase understanding. Finally, she explains, it can increase insight into the situation and open up more possibilities.
For example, with the fresh eyes this type of problem solving creates, you might start thinking about what your life would look like in the alternate scenario. Maybe you’d never thought about how, without kids, you could jet off on vacation whenever you feel like it. Or how moving closer to your brother might allow you to take on a bigger role in your niece’s and nephew’s lives. These types of revelations could potentially tip the scales for one of you.
Martinez agrees you may ultimately realize the situation isn’t what you first thought. “If the couple realizes it is societal pressure [causing the desire for children], and that they can have a great life together of travel, activities, love and fun without children, a different kind of relationship might actually suit them just fine,” she explains.
8. Explore The Issue With An Agenda
Generally speaking, if you’re overly focused on winning someone over to your way of thinking, you’re not going to have a particularly open conversation where everyone feels heard. According to Riemserma, the best way to drop that agenda is to acknowledge and hold space for all the competing parts of you that might be obscuring your ability to remain more neutral.
You might have a part of you that’s anxious your partner will leave you if you can’t reach an agreement; you might have another part worried about your fertility slipping away; you might have another terrified about how you’ll afford children in the first place. “That ability to engage with no agenda is [achieved] by welcoming all the different parts of ourselves and understanding why they've gotten activated in this conversation. That helps them calm down,” she says.
And Riemserma has developed a four-part plan to help you do that.
Step one: Notice. Just like in the example above, take stock of all the swirling feelings and points of view you’re having, and allow them to come forward.
Step two: Validate. While this is challenging to do, Riemserma says, we want to allow ourselves permission to have these feelings, even the ones that feel uncomfortable or embarrassing.
Step three: Speak for those parts of you, not from them. If one part of you gets really angry during a conversation about having children because you don’t feel you’re being heard, you might be tempted to yell something like, “You never listen to me!” That would be speaking from the anger. Speaking for it, Riemserma says, might look like, “I'm noticing there's a part of me that's feeling really angry. That's the part of me that’s trying to help me get you to take my perspective seriously.”
Step four: Listen. Hear what your partner is saying in return, and look for the positive intent in where they’re coming from.
This kind of strategy when engaging in tough talks can make a world of difference. “Now, not only am I representing those parts well, so they calm down and they don't take me over, Riemserma explains, “But my partner can also hear what I'm saying much more dimensionally and much more empathetically because they're not feeling attacked.”
9. Talk To Your Doctor
Even if you’re at odds with your partner, it’s important that you take full charge of your reproductive health. Riemserma notes that this a complex issue, but a visit to your doctor should be one of the first steps you take in navigating this conflict. Some people might be deeply invested in carrying their own child, or using their own sperm. Others may not. Either way, this information is useful to know.
“That may radically change the direction [of the conversation],” she explains. For example, if learning that you can’t conceive changes your desire to be a parent, you may avoid a lot of unnecessary conflict with your partner. If it’s not important to you, you’ll want to focus your negotiations with your partner on other modes of becoming a parent instead.
And remember, a visit to the doctor is not something you owe your partner an explanation for, even if you’re at odds about the reason behind it.
10. Accept That This Might Not Be The Relationship For You
No matter how much work you put into conflict resolution, depending on the individuals in the relationship, you may ultimately realize that you won’t be able to get your needs met in this partnership. Going your separate ways, especially after what was likely a serious relationship, is always tough, but there are tools to manage the pain.
Step one, Riemserma explains, is to get more comfortable with grief. “In our culture, we don’t make space and time to name the losses, and celebrate what was good about the relationship and to grieve what is no longer there. And I think that's an important thing to do. It doesn't happen on a really neat timeline. Grief is a lengthy process, and it tends to hit us at unexpected moments,” she says. If we don’t process those uncomfortable feelings, she says, we may assume we’re fine and jump into another relationship before we’re ready, and the trauma will emerge in other ways.
Unsurprisingly, having support systems around is key. “[It’s important to] have supportive friends who will allow you to have space and be comfortable with your grief and your sad feelings, and not try to set you up with someone too quickly or take you out to bars to drink it away,” Riemserma adds.
Psychologist Nicole Martinez agrees these types of breakups are challenging, but walking away could be for the best. "This is very hard, and one I see in a lot of couples work, and obviously a lot of couples that break up," she tells Bustle. "If one person wants children, and is capable of having children — if they have only pictured their life as happy and fulfilled with a child, then this may not be the relationship for them.”
Jenna Riemersma, licensed professional counselor
Michele Paiva, psychotherapist
Janet Zinn, couples therapist
Tina B. Tessina, PhD, LMFT
Nicole Martinez, psychologist
This article was originally published on