Do the Childfree Love Differently? by Shelly Volsche

A Guest Post by Shelly Volsche

Do the childfree love differently? Do we approach romance and our relationships with more cynicism? Are we against love and marriage? These are questions guest writer Shelly Volsche has received from research participants and society at large. To find out, she embarked on a survey. Shelly describes her findings below. This is Shelly’s second post for w{n}hab!; she shared findings from her research on dog parents in an earlier piece.

The Study

In a study recently published in SAGE Open (“A Comparison of Mothers and Childfree Women on the Common Characteristics of Romantic Love”), I utilized an online survey to reach mothers and childfree women in the United States. The questions asked participants to answer whether they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “children complete a marriage;” “I will do anything for the person I love;” and “Love without money is not good.” A total of 541 women responded to the survey, most of whom were married or in relationships for longer than one year.

The survey was based upon previous work that discovered there are two core factors of romantic love – the idealized factors and the pragmatic factors. The idealized factors include romanticizing the perfections of being in love, and intrusive thoughts about one’s lover. The pragmatic factors consider daily “realities” such as the importance of money in a long term commitment and the idea that sex and love are not interchangeable.

The Findings

After analyzing the response, I found these categories remained salient with mothers and childfree women. Holding true to prior research, both groups of women agree with the statements of the idealized factors. This suggests that both mothers and childfree women place value on romance and mutual support in a relationship. Likewise, given the agreement on statements such as “Love is the supreme happiness of life” it is clear that both childfree women and mothers agree that love is a wonderful thing.

However, what was surprising is that childfree women agreed more than mothers with the pragmatic components of love (e.g., “Romantic love needs strong economic support”). To many people, this seems counter intuitive. After all, if the childfree simply don’t want to grow up, as is so often purported, how could there be such a clear understanding of the need for partnership and financial salience in a marriage? And why didn’t the mothers report the same level of agreement?

I suspect something is at play for the mothers who responded. Research abounds that mothers will put their children’s needs before their own. Scholars who study evolutionary psychology translate this into leaving a relationship that is not capable of supporting her children or seeking a partner who is of higher social and financial status. However, this seemingly common sense approach is not reported in my study. Perhaps, the “smart” choice is to idealize the relationship. In a situation where things go wrong between two childfree individuals, it is much easier to part ways (unless there are pets involved, of course). For families with children, legally and emotionally this can be much more challenging.

The results of this survey suggest to me that mothers are romanticizing their situation precisely because it is the maternally pragmatic thing to do. Maintaining a relationship “for the children” may be viewed as a better choice than single motherhood. Meanwhile, childfree women are at more liberty to require equality in the relationship – and freer to leave if they don’t get it.

What about Prioritizing Careers?

There is one last fascinating piece of information from this study, and it highlights the importance that a strong love bond holds for so many. When asked whether they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “Career is more important than love” there was almost no difference between the childfree women and mothers. Both strongly disagreed with this statement (86.3% of mothers, 84.2% of childfree women). If childfree women are all career minded individuals who don’t believe in romantic love (Samantha Jones, anyone?), then how could this statement resonate as true with so many of the respondents? What’s going on here?

Romantic love has been found to be a universal human need. Across cultures, past and present, when romantic love was frowned upon in the name of marriage for family or property, there remained stories of rules being broken in the name of love. (Romeo and Juliet have nothing on the Aka foragers!) Research into these cultures has found that we have a biological and psychological need to bond. Perhaps, as so many of us have stated, childfree women opt to focus our loving energy on our romantic partnerships instead.

The value placed on love just emphasizes one more way in which childfree women and mothers are more alike than we often admit. Feminist progress does not mean we don’t seek and crave someone with whom we can feel supported and share our lives. Childfree women have the same wants, needs, and desires as many other women – equality in the workplace, understanding at home, and the choice to parent or not.

And when we find that person with whom we are ready to share our lives, we will do anything for the person we love.

Shelly Volsche, MA


Shelly Volsche is a PhD student in anthropology, has authored numerous articles, and is presently working on her dissertation that explores the identity, practice, and life choices of childfree women and men. Her research also investigates cross-cultural variations in the practice and definition of family as it changes through time and space. She is a lecturer with the University of Nevada, Las Vegas teaching in the First-Year Seminar program.


Volsche, Shelly. 2017. “A Comparison of Mothers and Childfree Women on the Common Characteristics of Romantic Love.” SAGE Open Jan-Mar: 1-8.

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