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August 15, 2013

Ohio State study finds divorce risk lower if you have siblings

The siblings we play, argue and compete with as kids might help us stay married as adults.

A nationwide study released found that growing up with brothers and sisters seems to provide some protection against divorce.

And the more siblings, the better: Each additional sibling a person has (up to about seven) reduces the likelihood of divorce by 2 percent.

That’s not a big practical difference, and other factors — such as whether your parents divorced — probably loom larger. But the Ohio State University researchers say they revealed “a mean-ingful gap” when they compared children from large families with those who had no sibling.

OSU sociology professor Doug Downey, a co-author of the study, said researchers had expected that having siblings would afford useful personal-relationship experience.

“But we found that the real story appears to be how family dynamics change incrementally with the addition of each sibling,” said co-author Donna Bobbitt-Zeher, an assistant professor of sociology at the OSU Marion campus.

“More siblings means more experience dealing with others, and that seems to provide additional help in dealing with a marriage relationship as an adult.”

Bobbitt-Zeher presented the findings yesterday at the annual meeting of the American Sociological Association in New York City. She and Downey conducted the study with Joseph Merry, an OSU graduate student.

They used demographic data and interview information collected from about 57,000 people through the General Social Survey, a national sociological survey, at various points between 1972 and 2012.

The researchers analyzed other variables that could play a role in a future divorce, including education, socioeconomic status, family structure, race, age and religion.

“We tried to measure how religious a family is, how traditional they were,” Downey said, but those and other factors still couldn’t explain away the sibling difference.

The researchers had conducted previous studies looking at the relationship between the number of siblings and a person’s social skills.

In 2004, Downey led a study that found that kindergarten teachers rated students with siblings as having better social skills than students without siblings. But the “onlies” seem to catch up: This year, Downey and Bobbitt-Zeher published a study that said teens without siblings were just as likely to be chosen for a friend as were teens who have brothers and sisters.

Historically, research on the effect of siblings tends to paint a picture of diminishing returns, with kids from larger families receiving less parental attention and faring worse academically.

Downey said the divorce research could be pointing to one way that siblings make a positive and lasting difference.

“Some people might say, ’Should we be having another kid?’” Downey said, noting the trend toward smaller families. “You probably wouldn’t want to do that on the basis of study results.”

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