Divorce and Vasectomy Regrets

The divorce revolution has fueled a surge in vasectomy reversals as married men whose baby-making days are over suddenly find themselves contemplating remarriage.
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The divorce revolution has fueled a surge in vasectomy reversals as married men whose baby-making days are over suddenly find themselves divorced and contemplating remarriage. Like older workers coming out of a retirement, these men have to get their productive juices flowing again.

In an era of 50 percent divorce rates, the big question is why so many married men sign up for vasectomies that they come to regret after the marriage ends and they meet another woman who wants babies?

One reason is that married people sorely underestimate their risk for divorce. A federally funded study of newlyweds asked them to rate their chances of ever divorcing on a 0-10 scale. Most said they had zero chance, and the overall average was around one chance in ten. To most married people, divorce is something that happens to other people -- so why make decisions about birth control based on the slim chance that you will divorce and marry someone else? We don't make major life decisions based on the threat of being struck by lightning.

But why this denial of the obvious risk for divorce in today's world? The answer lies in everyday psychology and in the special features of marital relationships. The psychology part is that we want to believe we have made good choices about really important things, and we tend to ignore evidence to the contrary. Since marriage is supposed to be once and for life, believing that your marriage is at risk for splitting up is an admission that you messed up in a central life decision.

The marriage part is that it's threatening to our sense of security to contemplate the end of a marriage. So we tend to tell ourselves that our marriages are stable and happy even when they are at risk. This explains the oft reported research finding that the vast majority of married couples say they are above average in marital satisfaction, even couples who then divorce within a few years. We need to believe in our marriage as long as we can, because so much is at stake. Like residents of Lake Wobegon, we are all above average -- until we are not. This is a serious blind spot because not appreciating the risk for divorce means that we are less apt to work on our relationships to keep the risk low and the happiness high.

Another reason for vasectomy regret is that many married men don't see their divorce coming even when it's at their door. Research has consistently shown that wives initiate about 2/3 of divorces, and that many men are surprised when their wives says they're pulling the plug. Sometimes the wife has been keeping her leanings secret, and the husband is truly without signs. Other times she has being bringing up divorce in arguments, but when the arguments blow over, the man thinks the threat has passed. In either case, wives are often surprised that their husbands feel sucker punched by the announcement of divorce.

It's not clear why women initiate divorce more often and why men are more apt to be surprised that their marriage is ending, but we know that men don't monitor the state of their close relationships as much as women do. And they may be more attached to just being married than women are; women often have higher expectations for the quality of the marriage and move on when they give up hope for that quality.

Whatever the reason for this gender difference, an implication is that a lot of men make decisions to end their fertility on the false assumption that their marriage was forever. Men are more vulnerable to misbegotten sterilization.

Of course, some women have tubal ligations they try to reverse after a divorce. But age and medical issues are more powerful factors for women than for men in the decision to end their fertile years. And women are less apt to remarry younger men who have not had children.

What can married men and women do to prevent regrets about sterilization? It's a tough prescription, but they should have an honest conversation about the implications of sterilization for each of them if their marriage were to end and they take up with a new partner. Which of them feels most "done" with child rearing? Who would be more at risk for regretting the impact on a new relationship of not being able to have more children?

One way to make this conversation less threatening is to frame it in terms of the risk of widowhood -- less common than divorce but nevertheless always a possibility. In that way, it's like having a sober conversation about taking on major debt that depends on two incomes, or about who should have more life insurance.

The irony is that the most responsible thing for married couples to do when considering permanent birth control is talk openly about the impermanence of their union.

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