What to do if you want kids and your partner doesn't

Jenna Birch
·Contributing Writer
John Cena and Nikki Bella ended their engagement weeks before their destination wedding. (Getty Images)
John Cena and Nikki Bella ended their engagement weeks before their destination wedding. (Getty Images)

John Cena was adamant that he didn’t want children, revealing to Rolling Stone in 2016 that he “cannot handle raising” kids. But when his fiancée, Nikki Bella, broke up with him abruptly, reportedly because she wanted a family, the wrestler-turned-actor changed his tune in a hurry.

In a vulnerable reveal on Today, Cena told Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda Kotb that he’d had a change of heart in the days following his split. He admitted to “stubbornness” and “selfishness” in his slightly younger years, holding on to old beliefs about his capabilities as a potential father. “I love her,” he said. “I want to be with her. I want to make her my wife. I want to be the father of her children. I just want us to work.”

We’re often taught to find significant others who are compatible in the major areas, like religion, lifestyle choices, politics, and kids. However, compatibility isn’t simple or clear-cut. In situations like Cena and Bella’s, can it ever work if one partner is yearning for children and the other is reluctant or unsure? Should you make a big compromise?

This situation is a common one, and people can make it work with differing initial opinions on kids, says Karla Ivankovich, PhD, a clinical counselor at OnePatient Global Health. “I think his sentiment on Today is most critical,” she explains. “He said ‘no’ to kids at a time where he was selfish. It’s hard to look into the future to consider children when all you have had to do is concern yourself with you.”

Especially with unmarried singles or millennials, who’ve been encouraged to focus on personal development and not necessarily long-term relationships, it can be important to remind them that people have the capacity for change. “The self you are now is not the same person you will be down the line; interests and desires change,” Ivankovich says.

When it comes to having kids, it really is an unknown; some want them and don’t take to parenthood immediately, others are concerned and fall instantly in love. “I would say to those waffling that you didn’t know pizza was your favorite food until you ate it the first time,” Ivankovich explains. “It’s impossible to know if you love having children until you have a child.”

That said, you do not want to enter into a long-term situation you’ll quickly regret — or force the person you love to give up the life they truly want, says Jane Greer, PhD, a New York-based relationship expert and author of What About Me? Stop Selfishness From Ruining Your Relationship. “Compromise can be really helpful, but it’s not always doable,” she says. “If one partner is absolutely adamant that they don’t want kids, then don’t try to talk them into it.”

The repercussions of pressure, she says, can be far-reaching and relationship-destroying. “They can resent you, or the kid,” Greer says. “They can end up cheating because they aren’t ready or willing to share attention with a child.” So, how do you strike a balance between commitment to both the love and lifestyle you want? Here’s what the experts say about navigating a difference on the topics of kids.

Discuss ideal futures

Before you can understand what your partner doesn’t want, you have to understand what they do want. “I would also ask them the miracle question: If you look into the future, what would define your perfect scenario relative to family?” says Ivankovich. “And then with that, teach them about similarities and look at compromise.” There may be ways to assemble a future you’re both comfortable with. Maybe that’s waiting to have kids for a few years, or compromising in another area — like more travel, perhaps — that would help the reluctant partner still feel fulfilled.

Go to couples counseling

If you need some help getting the conversation moving — or being productive, not argumentative — then sit down with a counselor. Ivankovich says most people go to therapy too late. “This is 100 percent why people need to consider premarital counseling,” she explains. “Most people go into relationships without addressing how you will handle finances, children, and so on. Once you are married, you can’t change it unless you divorce.”

Decide what’s most important to you, but stay open-minded

For singles, if your partner takes a hard line on the topic of no children, you must ask yourself: If I were never to have kids, would I be OK? If I were to have them, would I work it out? If I broke up with my partner, would that be more reasonable to me? “If you are definitely not OK with the idea of never having kids, then you have to decide if calling it quits is the right thing,” says Ivankovich. “Anyone who feels as if their wishes are not being respected will become resentful.”

But maybe your partner is slightly more important — for now, anyway. “Perhaps you love your partner so much that you’re willing to be open to this experience,” Greer says. “Just as you were open to other things that they may have brought into your life, this too can become an opportunity to participate in something that may end up being very enriching, positive, and fulfilling.” You are an evolving, growing person. Especially if you don’t want kids, be clear about your concerns and truly decide if you’re open-minded about children in the future.

Revisit in a year

Step into your partner’s shoes and try to understand their perspective. A dose of empathy can help you navigate the topic and timing of children. “Explore the reasons one partner doesn’t want children, and find out if they would be open to having a conversation about it again in a year or so,” Greer says. “If you can be patient and wait for them to be ready, then it might work out.” Maybe it’s a “too much for now” situation. “Sometimes people are not ready to commit to the whole package of marriage and children at once,” Greer says.

And don’t take everything to heart immediately. “Usually, you hear a pretty firm ‘I don’t want kids,’ but that may mean ‘Right now’ and they just don’t know that yet,” says Greer. “They feel strongly, but don’t know if they might change their minds. That’s why, if you give the relationship time to evolve, sometimes circumstances change.”

The reluctant partner could feel very differently when their best friend has a kid, their friends are starting to have children, or they experience a major life change, says Greer. Keep room for growth apart first, and then together. Hopefully, eventually you’ll get on the same page as a couple, moving closer to mutual goals.

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