Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Rules-Based Process of Revealing/concealing the Family Planning Decisions of Voluntarily Child-Free Couples: A Communication Privacy Management Perspective

Academic journal article Communication Studies

The Rules-Based Process of Revealing/concealing the Family Planning Decisions of Voluntarily Child-Free Couples: A Communication Privacy Management Perspective

Article excerpt

Over the last few decades, researchers have started to focus on the incidence (Paul, 2001; Thornton & Young-DeMarco, 2001) and characteristics (Clausen, 2002; Ganong, Coleman, & Mapes, 1990; Heaton & Jacobson, 1999; Morrell, 1993; Park, 2002) of couples who willingly remain child flee. The growing academic interest in voluntary childlessness parallels the growth of this phenomenon within the United States, as the number of those choosing to remain childless has nearly doubled from over 2% in 1982 to almost 5% in 1995 (Paul, 2001). However, within this growing corpus of literature, little has been discovered about how voluntarily child-free (VCF) couples disclose their child-flee decision to members of their social network. Park (2002) claimed that couples perceive their intentional childlessness as a potential point of contention with social network members (e.g., family and friends) because most United States Americans believe that married heterosexual couples should reproduce; an ideology referred to hereafter as pronatalism (Veevers, 1980). Because VCF couples do not adhere to the widely held pronatalistic beliefs of United States culture, they may be stigmatized on both cultural and relational levels if their family-planning decision is revealed.

The purpose of this study is to examine how members of VCF couples reveal or conceal their family-planning status to others in their social network. A communication privacy management (CPM) perspective (Petronio, 2002) is employed to understand and to explain how members of VCF couples engage in disclosures that reveal their family-planning status.CPM has been used as a fruitful theoretical framework for scholars who have studied the revealing and concealing of potentially stigmatizing information (e.g., Petronio, Reeder, Hecht, & Mon't Ros-Mendoza, 1996; Yep, 2000). Bearing in mind that the revelation of a voluntary child-flee decision can often lead to negative and perhaps even stigmatizing reactions from others, CPM represents the most beneficial theoretical backdrop for this study. Therefore, in the present study, I explore how members of VCF couples evaluate the perceived risk involved in making unsolicited revelations of their child-flee decision. In the sections that follow, I first discuss the stigma facing many who choose to remain child free and how this stigma has been characterized in previous research. Second, I discuss how researchers have previously used communication privacy management (Petronio, 2002) to describe and to understand how disclosers reveal information emanating from major life decisions to those in their social network.

The Stigma of the Voluntarily Child Free

VCF couples do not have stigmatized identities because they are childless; instead, they are stigmatized because they "choose" to remain childless. According to Gangong, Coleman, and Mapes (1990), society, in general, does not perceive childfree couples as more negative or positive based on their parental status. Rather, there is a marked difference in how society views VCF couples in comparison with parents and infertile families. Park (2002) claimed, "those who are childless by choice are stigmatized by their blemished characters, while the sterile or infertile are stigmatized by their physical abnormalities" (pp. 30-31). In other words, people are likely to perceive VCF couples as suffering from character flaws, as opposed to pitying or sympathizing with infertile couples (Ganong, Coleman, & Mapes, 1990).

Individuals who choose to remain child free often are labeled with negative and emotionally charged labels by family, friends, clergy, and researchers. According to Somers (1993), "throughout the literature, this group [VCF couples] is viewed negatively and labeled as selfish, maladjusted, unhappy, hedonistic, irresponsible, immature, abnormal, and unnatural" (p. 643). Consequently, VCF couples often must respond to questions that threaten their child-free identities. Park (2002) claimed that of the strategies to reduce stigma and to legitimize their identities the most popular are passing (insinuating that they have not had children yet, but will), identity substitution (claiming to be infertile), condemning the condemners (having children is a selfish enterprise), self-fulfillment (claiming the being child free is liberating), and redefining the situation. These communicative moves either enable VCF couples (a) to avoid the stigma created by their family-planning decisions or (b) to rationalize their decisions in a way that reduces their susceptibility to stigma.

In the section that follows, communication privacy management (Petronio, 2002) is shown to be a fruitful theory for exploring potentially risky or stigmatizing disclosures with regard to the child-free issue.

Communication Privacy Management

According to Petronio (2002), communication privacy management theory deals with how individuals make decisions to disclose private information to others and how this relational process is coordinated. Petronio (2002) argued that "boundaries" serve as a useful metaphor illustrating that, although there may be a flow of private information to others, borders mark ownership lines such that issues of control are clearly understood by the interactants. CPM supposes that both the discloser and the recipient of the disclosure have a degree of agency during the process of revealing private information. Boundaries are coordinated by both parties, and once a successful disclosure is made, the individuals involved coordinate their boundaries so that the private information is co-owned and comanaged appropriately.

When disclosures occur, the discloser is willingly giving up a degree of control and ownership over the private information. Consequently, people make choices to reveal or to conceal private information based on criteria and conditions that they perceive as salient. This supposition of CPM is particularly relevant to VCF couples when they disclose their child-free decision to friends and family members. According to Petronio (2002), individuals use a rule-based system to regulate privacy boundary rules that guide all facets of the disclosure process, including how boundaries are coordinated between individuals.

Disclosure of Major Life Events and Decisions

A corpus of family communication research exists on high-stress, potentially stigmatizing disclosures, most notably HIV infection (e.g., Dindia, 1998, 2000; Greene & Serovich, 1996; Green, Parrott, & Serovich, 1993; Yep, 2000). These researchers have focused on how significant life events affected family members revealing or concealing private information about these events. As Durham (2004) and Park (2002) have discovered, when members of VCF couples disclose their family-planning decision, they risk adverse reactions from close friends and family that could potentially lead to both short-term and long-term relational strain. Consequently, VCF couples should be concerned that revealing their family-planning information could lead to possible stigmatization by certain recipients.

Disclosing to Social Network Members

Although individuals who experience life-altering decisions or events are likely to disclose information pertaining to these events to family members, they also are likely to reveal some information about these events to others in their social network. Important life decisions, such as electing to remain child free, affect the individuals who make these decisions, as well as those with whom they interact. As Park (2002) suggested, family, friends, and colleagues often require an explanation from individuals who have yet to have children by a certain age.

Much communication scholarship exists on high-stress disclosures to social network targets: (a) topic avoidance within friendships (e.g., Afifi & Guerrero, 1998, 2000 Petronio, Jones, & Morr, 2003); (b) disclosure and pregnancy (e.g., Petronio, 2000; Petronio & Jones, 2001); and (c) disclosing incidents of childhood sexual abuse (e.g., Petronio et al., 1996). Petronio (2002) argued that individuals often reveal to close members of their social network due to expected supportive reactions and conceal when the reverse is true. These expectations of positive and negative reactions become even more important when considering the relationships that exist between the discloser and recipient of private information. Because friendships and other types of voluntary relationships possess more malleable disclosure rules than family relationships, individuals will weigh the benefits and risks of disclosing potentially stigmatizing information to others (Caughlin & Golish, 2002; Golish & Caughlin, 2002). Before disclosing potentially stigmatizing information, individuals should consider two important issues: (a) how disclosed private information will affect the discloser and (b) how the disclosure will impact the recipient (Dindia, 2000).

In what follows, I analyze the distinct, yet interrelated processes associated with how individuals reveal and/or conceal their VCF decision. These processes, taken together, represent a complex, rules-driven, and potentially stressful communication phenomenon that affects both the discloser and the recipient(s). The following research questions guided the present study:

RQ1: In what ways do members of VCF couples develop privacy rules dealing with their family-planning decision?

RQ2: How, if at all, do members of VCF couples use the privacy rules they have developed to select confidants or recipients of family-planning information?

RQ3: Under what circumstances, if any, do members of VCF couples choose to conceal their family-planning information from social network members?


I employed interpretive, qualitative methods (Creswell, 1998) to understand the processes that members of VCF couples experience when deciding to reveal their child-free decision to social network members. An interpretive perspective allows researchers to understand the meanings and actions of individual actors by focusing on the communication acts and processes that give rise to human meaning construction (Berger & Luckman, 1967; McCracken, 1998).


Thirty-two individuals participated in this study. Of the 32 participants, four couples participated; however, these 8 participants were interviewed individually. During the participant-recruitment process, both members of each couple were invited to participate in conjoint interviews. However, several members of the VCF couples opted not to participate due to differing experiences, attitudes, and sensitivity levels surrounding the family-planning decision. Consequently, the decision was made to conduct interviews with individuals. The sample consisted of 22 females and 10 males.

A purposeful, homogeneous sampling technique (Creswell, 1998) was used to locate people who: (a) were legally married, (b) had finalized a child-free decision with their spouse, (c) had never reproduced prior to their present relationship, (d) had a spouse who had never reproduced and (e) were, to their knowledge, physically capable of reproducing prior to willingly undergoing surgical sterilization (not infertile). Participants were married from 3 to 30 years to their present spouse (M = 18.3 years) and ranged in age from 30 to 61 years (M = 49.7 years). Theoretical saturation, or the exhaustion of new insight/information, was obtained after the 12th interview; however, 32 interviews were completed to insure that no new themes or insights appeared.

Data Collection

A retrospective interviewing technique (Fitzgerald & Surra, 1981) was used to collect data on the participants' experiences. This technique involved asking questions about the participants' past experiences of revealing and concealing their child-free decision and their reasons for doing so. Other family and relational communication researchers have used this method to elicit data about processes that occur over a long duration of time (e.g., Baxter, Braithwaite, & Nicholson, 1999; Baxter & Bullis, 1986; Olson, 2002). The interviews were conducted in my office or over the telephone based on the amount of physical distance between the participant and me. Each interview was audio taped and transcribed verbatim, with the 32 interviews resulting in 1047 pages of transcribed text.

Data Analysis and Qualitative Verification

The data were analyzed using Charmaz's (1995) three-step analytic technique; however, unlike the true grounded theory analytic technique proposed by Chramaz, CPM concepts were used as sensitizing concepts and drove the stages of data analysis. The transcribed texts first were analyzed line-by-line. During this stage of analysis, words such as "talking," "revealing," and "communicating" were analyzed as preliminary themes, as they inferred disclosure and privacy processes. During the second stage of analysis, these microthemes were collapsed into larger themes or focused codes. At this point of analysis, it became evident that the larger emergent themes reflected the following categories of external privacy boundary coordination (Petronio, 2002): (a) external privacy rule development and (b) external boundary linkages. External privacy rule development refers to the criteria (e.g., culture, gender, the amount of perceived risk) that individuals employ when evaluating the appropriateness of any potential disclosure, and external boundary linkages refer to the circumstances in which private information is disclosed to a recipient based on the assessment of these privacy rules. Following the identification of these particular CPM processes as the major themes within the data analysis, the third stage of analysis consisted of writing analytic memos or preliminary drafts of the findings: these memos are reflected in the current themes of this manuscript.

Two separate data analysis verification procedures were utilized. First, the analysis of the data was subjected to questioning and scrutiny during peer data analysis meetings to approximate investigator triangulation (Maxwell, 1996). During these meetings, I presented the preliminary analyses to three colleagues who questioned and challenged the categories and themes represented in the analysis. Second, member-checks were conducted with 7 participants to insure that the findings presented reflected their experiences (Creswell, 1998). One minor demographic correction was made on the basis of the member-checks, which did not affect the findings.


The External Privacy Rule Development of Voluntarily Child-Free Couples

In respect to the first research question, potential disclosers use the following salient criteria to determine the appropriateness of a disclosure: (a) cultural criteria, (b) gendered criteria, (c) motivational/contextual criteria, and (d) risk criteria (Petronio, 2002). Each type of criteria can affect whether an individual discloses private information.

Cultural criteria

Cultural criteria refer to the general social expectations concerning how much someone is expected to disclose about a certain issue. As a result of violating cultural expectations, VCF couples often experience stress or guilt over their decision not to reproduce (Thornton & DeMarco-Young, 2001). Some participants described feelings of guilt about their family-planning decision due to the negative stereotypes and labels of VCF couples in the United States. In the following excerpt, a 41-year-old female described how cultural forces affect how she reveals and/or conceals her and her husband's child-free status:

   For [others], it's just an either-or kind of thing. The choice not
   to have [children] means you haven't seriously explored it, or you
   two have a misunderstanding about how wonderful kids are. Or,
   three, you don't realize how much you need kids in your life. And
   it's an uncomfortable position. "This person thinks I'm a horrible
   person. This person thinks I'm a selfish person because I've chosen
   not to have kids." (34:386-395; Note: these numbers reflect the
   participant and line numbers from the transcript)

Several participants expressed guilt about their child-free decision due to the cultural expectations that heterosexual, married couples should reproduce. Feelings such as guilt or shame may make revealing that decision to social network members difficult for VCF couples.

Religion was one of the most influential aspects of culture that evoked feelings of guilt and shame for participants about their child-free decision. Twenty-six participants claimed that they and their spouse are religious, and 16 claimed to be practicing Catholics. A 48-year-old female described the stresses that religious values can have on VCF couples when she said, "Lot of Catholic-based guilt I think. We just once in a while, 'Why don't we want to have children? And everybody else does, what's wrong with me?'" (11:129-132). Several participants described needing to keep their child-free status private in religious settings. Moreover, some commented that revealing their status to individuals they perceived to be strongly or stridently religious was extremely difficult. A 48-year-old male described how his wife's mother used religion to apply pressure to them about the child-free decision, "She's got almost resentful, hurtful words that come out of her mouth. Her mom used to go to Mass every Tuesday night and pray for grandchildren. Well, that's pretty clear we were supposed to be pumping out the kids" (10:437-446). Many participants feared receiving negative reactions from others based on cultural norms and religious doctrine and the amount of guilt and shame these participants would experience from those reactions.

Gendered criteria

Gendered criteria refer to the notion that men and women often disclose about different issues in different ways, which lead to gendered patterns of appropriate levels of disclosure depending on the subject (Petronio, 2002). In terms of disclosing about family-planning decisions, the participants claimed the burden to reveal the couple's status was on women because (a) motherhood is perceived as being more central to women than fatherhood is to men and (b) female social network members are more interested in the couples' family-planning issues than males.

The female participants explained that, in U.S. culture, women are expected to want to be mothers, whereas men have not been as identified with parenting issues. In the following excerpt, a 47-year-old female participant described how, because she is female, she receives greater pressure than her husband receives to reproduce and, thus, more pressure to disclose about the child-flee decision:

   One of the most difficult parts of [the discussion] is explaining
   to other people why. They ask, "Well, why don't you? Oh, you don't
   have children. Oh well, you may change your mind, and you're
   missing out on the joys of children, blab, blah, blah." I think it
   more so for women than for men; it's like we have to defend our
   decision not to have children. It all goes with a more traditional
   family of the wife staying home or part-time working, and the
   husband going out and making money and then having several kids and
   that kind of thing, and living not too far away from the parents.
   (30:149-156; 502-504)

Although 28 participants reported that they and their spouse displayed nontraditional attitudes about the term "family," many of their extended family members and close friends did not define family as progressively and did not view their relationship as a legitimate family relationship until they reproduced.

The female participants who claimed to have received pressure to reproduce commented that other women were their harshest critics. A 51-year-old female participant claimed, "I think the female would say, 'Oh, you're really missing out. You're not going to have kids, and they are such a big part of your life"' (3:550-557). Again, because parenting traditionally has been viewed largely as the mother's responsibility and family-planning issues have been perceived as being more important to women than to men, the female participants reported more situations where their child-free status was called into question. A 30-year-old female discussed how she, and not her husband, had to defend the couple's decision to friends:

   I started admitting to our friends, "I am tired of this bull!" I
   feel like I have to come out of the closet on this, and I have to
   tell our friends, who are all married and have several children,
   that I am this woman who doesn't want to take part in this. I had
   more of a risk in it than he did. Male camaraderie! We get together
   for these couple parties, and all the women are in the living room
   talking about breast feeding and putting their children through
   preschool, and I couldn't care less. So, with male camaraderie, I
   understand that men are not looked down upon. The other guys are
   jealous of my husband. Now women, I have a problem, uh, sort of
   "coming out of the closet" because that's what it felt like. I
   don't know what it's like to come out of the closet if you are a
   homosexual, but I perceive it as similar. This is who I am!

Although most of the female participants did not express being severely chastised by child-bearing women, they did identify gender as influencing how often their family-planning decisions were discussed.

Motivational and contextual criteria

According to Petronio (2002), motivational criteria consist of evaluative judgments about how compelled a person is to reveal private information at a given point in time. Participants claimed that they were either more or less inclined to reveal their VCF decision based on two qualities of the recipient: (a) the anticipated reactions of the recipient(s) and (b) the perceived degree of similarity between themselves and. recipient(s).

Not surprisingly, participants were more likely to disclose their VCF decisions to members of their immediate family and close friends if they anticipated a nonjudgmental reaction from those recipients. In the following excerpt, a 45-year-old female described how she revealed her and her husband's VCF decision to her parents:

   The negative or snotty pressure comments like, "Why aren't you
   doing it," they would never phrase the question that way. They
   would say, "Tell me about your choice," and they would listen. It's
   not silence; it's just that they don't make comments that would
   make us feel bad about our choice. (22:468-473)

Because this participant expected a nonjudgmental reaction from her parents about the VCF decision, she revealed the information to them without much concern. Conversely, some participants avoided disclosing their VCF status to their parents on the basis of anticipated negative reactions.

Participants also reported that they were more motivated to disclose their VCF decision if there was a perceived degree of similarity between them and potential recipients. Twelve participants indicated that many of their friends also had remained child free and how this similarity decreased the apprehension about revealing their decision. A 46-year-old male described how the topic of voluntary childlessness was discussed in his circle of friends:

   I guess we've got a fair number of friends who haven't had kids and
   other friends who aren't coupled up. So, we've never really had the
   child conversation with the people that we know, other than,
   "Aren't you glad you don't have them?" I think that now, especially
   when people know how old we are, a lot of our contemporaries just
   kind of figure that, well, if we haven't had kids yet....

Another male participant described how he and his wife's decision to not have children was positively reinforced by her friends:

   If it's brought up, it would just be, "Aren't you glad you don't
   have kids.... Oh, God yes." It would be that fast. And it would be
   just kind of like an interjection in a conversation. Or we might be
   out somewhere and see some little kid screaming, throwing a temper
   tantrum or something, and say, "Well, that's one scene I never
   dealt with," and that person might say, "Aren't you glad?"

Participants who had other VCF friends that claimed discussions about family planning were rather brief, playful, and nondescriptive and frequently dealt with the joys of not having children.

Risk criteria

Risk criteria represent a potential discloser's assessment of adverse or negative reactions prior to revealing private information. In terms of VCF disclosures, participants considered the potential risks associated with receiving negative reactions from recipients. Specifically, participants described two types of negative reactions encountered from recipients that influenced their decisions about disclosing their VCF status: pity and disappointment/anger.

Some participants claimed that they were cautious about revealing their VCF status because they previously had received pity from recipients who had misunderstood the disclosure and thought them to be infertile. In the following excerpt, a 48-year-old female described her experiences with recipients pitying her and her husband's child-free status:

   The hardest thing for me was people, especially when you tell them
   you don't have children, like they felt sorry for you. They were
   like, "Oh," assuming that you had this heart-breaking experience
   and that you weren't able to have children. (11:601-606)

Several participants claimed that they expected reactions such as disappointment and anger to their family-planning decision but were surprised by reactions of pity. However, 7 participants reported that they had revealed their VCF status to a recipient who misunderstood the disclosure and misinterpreted the couple as being involuntarily childless. In each of these cases, participants claimed to have corrected the misunderstanding and did not attempt to pass as infertile.

Many participants predicted that their VCF disclosures would be met with negative reactions, such as disappointment. In cases where participants received negative reactions following a VCF disclosure, they claimed immediate family members and close friends exhibited reactions of disappointment and, at times, anger, whereas acquaintances exhibited milder reactions. In the following quote, a 41-year-old male described the disappointment that his mother felt when his wife disclosed the couple's VCF status:

   [My wife] was having a conversation, and I think she told [my
   mother] that, "If this is what you're asking, if you are asking
   whether we are having children or not, we're not." I don't know,
   and she was very upset, I think she, for several days, was just
   quite upset. (15:305-308)

Immediate family and close friends potentially can react more negatively than other types of social network members to VCF disclosures on the basis of their close relationships with the couple. For instance, close friends may exhibit disappointment or anger because the VCF couple will not experience the same type of life as they do. In the following excerpt, a 30-year-old female explained how close friends can exhibit anger and disappointment after receiving a VCF disclosure:

   We just started getting a hard time from some of our friends and it
   was in a playful manner. Now most of them have one, two, three
   kids. First it was casual, "When you gonna start a family?" And
   then I just decided at that point in my life to just be upfront
   with people and said, "We're not. I'm going to die childless." And
   that's when I started getting a hard time about it. Friends argued
   with me, not in a joking way, or they're shocked, or they can't
   believe it, and why would I choose that point of life. There they
   were, not enjoying themselves at this reunion because their
   children were running around and screaming and throwing their food.
   I'm sorry, but their parents were having a miserable time.
   Moreover, while some of us could stay late and talk and reminisce
   over a beer as late as we wanted, and, if they wanted to ... they
   couldn't because they had to go home with their children! Right?
   So, we just fired back and said, "Hey, look around. You guys are
   having a piss poor time at this reunion. You're not enjoying
   yourself with us because your kids are driving you fucking
   crazy ... and so I'm just not seeing happiness there." (2:389-404)

Adverse reactions, like those presented in the previous excerpts, illustrate the risk of a couple revealing their child-free status to individuals who disagree with their family-planning decision.

The Privacy Rule Enactment and Confidant Selection of Voluntarily Child-Free Couples

Addressing the second research question, participants formed external boundary linkages with recipients on the basis of how they revealed their family-planning decisions. External boundary linkages formed through confidant selection rely on the external privacy rule development criteria described previously (culture, gender, motivation, context, and risk).

As mentioned earlier, participants reported feeling more comfortable disclosing their VCF status to close friends and relatives who they perceived as being accepting of the decision or who were VCF themselves. Acceptance or similarity between the discloser and potential recipient(s) greatly reduces the perceived amount of risk in making a VCF disclosure, according to those in this study. In the following excerpt, a 41-year-old female described how her friends have supported her and her husband's VCF decision:

   It seems like most of our friends have been supportive of our
   decision, and I think that's partially because most of our friends
   don't have children. So, I think that's part of it, is a lot of our
   friends feel quite similar to our perspective about why to have
   kids and not have kids. (34:352-358)

A 55-year-old female expressed similar views about revealing her VCF decision to like-minded close friends:

   Most of our friends are in the same situation. They are kind of
   ambivalent, or if they are not ambivalent, they know that we don't
   care that much. We know a lot of friends who have no kids. They
   would say, "You really should have kids if you really, really want
   them." (27:601-604)

The participants described marked differences in their levels of apprehension when disclosing their status to others based on the anticipated reactions of the recipients. For the most part, participants claimed they perceived revealing their decision to others who had no children to be less risky than revealing their status to members of parental couples, as they predicted that nonparental individuals would be less judgmental.

Concealing the Voluntarily Child-Free Decision

In response to the third research question, only 5 participants claimed that the risks involved in making a VCF disclosure to potential recipients were too great and, consequently, chose to conceal their status from potential recipients. In every case that a participant indicated he or she made a conscious effort to not disclose to a particular potential recipient that recipient was a close relative. The five who concealed their VCF status from certain relatives claimed they did not want to risk relational stress due to negative reactions to a disclosure. In the following example, a 45-year-old male described how he and his wife have avoided telling her parents they are not having children:

   I don't know if we have ever told [my wife's] parents, for example,
   that we are not going to have kids. I don't know if they want to
   know that we made a decision. But I don't think we've ever said,
   "We're not going to have kids." I'm not sure that we ever sat them
   down and told them, so I don't know that they actually know.

Participants who claimed they would not tell certain relatives about their VCF decision proposed two reasons for not doing so. First, by not telling their relatives, the members of the couple did not risk receiving adverse reactions. As a participant explained:

   I guess we've never come out and said, "Hey, guess what, we're not
   going to have children." I think they've just caught on, and, no,
   my dad would never say anything like that to anyone. He would never
   force his opinions or feelings on what we should do. (24:567-570)

As this participant described, she did not believe that her father would react negatively to her and her husband's decision, but she remains apprehensive about disclosing that decision to him. Instead, she and her husband preferred to conceal their VCF status from her father rather than risk an unexpected, negative reaction from him.

Second, participants refused to tell certain relatives about their family-planning decision because they did not believe certain relatives would understand. In the following excerpt, a participant described why she will not tell certain members of her family that she will not reproduce:

   I will say though, in all fairness, there are many people on my
   side of the family who I have not told and will not tell, because I
   don't think that they will get it. So, I let them make their own
   assumptions. When I have told people, one of my aunts, she hasn't
   spoken to me since. Really, she could not understand what I was
   saying. (8:1045-1071)

As this person explained, not only do members of VCF couples risk criticism and judgment from potential recipients when their status is revealed but they also risk potential recipients not understanding why the couple decided not to reproduce. Because these participants realized that members of their social network potentially could react negatively to, or not understand, their VCF status, they made risk assessments about to whom they would reveal their status and from whom they would conceal their VCF decision.


The goal of this study was to examine the privacy rules that guide how members of VCF couples reveal/conceal their family-planning decision. The results showed that the participants used four basic criteria when deciding when, where, and to whom they disclosed their VCF status. The external privacy rule development criteria espoused by the participants reflected the general developmental criteria proposed by Petronio (2002): (a) cultural, (b) gendered, (c) motivational, (d) contextual, and (e) risk criteria.

Participants identified religion as the major cultural consideration when making child-free disclosures to members of their social network. These findings illustrate the role that religion plays in influencing how VCF couples reveal or conceal their family-planning decisions to others. The general claims made by past researchers about the low levels of religiosity experienced by VCF persons do not necessarily reflect the realities of these participants (Geertz, 1973; Grentz, 1988). For instance, half of the participants claimed to be practicing Catholics (n = 16). This finding refutes the claim that members of VCF couples perceive childlessness as a legitimate option due to a low level of religiosity (Grentz, 1988). One of the strengths of the present study was the geographic diversity of the sample, as participants resided in 11 states covering most regions of the United States.

With respect to privacy rule development and gender, few male participants mentioned gender when making child-free disclosures to others, but they remarked that the same was not true for their spouse. Consequently, it appears that the onus of revealing/explicating family planning to others still resides with females. Moreover, it appears that VCF females are confronted more frequently by other women. Thus, according to these data, VCF men have less responsibility to disseminate or to explain their family-planning decision to others, and non-VCF men appear less likely than non-VCF women to solicit family-planning information from VCF couples. This finding illustrates, to some degree, that U.S. culture still values traditional gender roles within marriages and views childbearing and other reproductive issues as largely women's responsibility.

The findings here parallel and support previous research about context, risk assessment, and the revelation of potentially stigmatizing information (Dindia, 1998, 2000; Greene, 2000; Petronio et al., 1996; Yep, 2000). Although attitudes toward remaining child free are slowly changing in U.S. culture, it remains important for members of VCF couples to use discretion when disclosing their family-planning decision. Participants described risk considerations of anticipated adverse reactions to a given child-free disclosure. The findings suggest that members of VCF couples attempted to minimize the risks associated with revealing their status through selecting recipients who they perceived would not respond negatively to the disclosures. As such, participants reported selecting recipients who appeared to hold similar views about remaining child free. Consequently, the more similar a potential recipient appears, the less likely a VCF disclosure would be met with negative/stigmatizing reactions.

Several scholars who have researched VCF couples have claimed that, because of pronatalism, such couples can encounter negative reactions on the basis of "outing" themselves in terms of their reproductive decisions (Connidis & McMullin, 1996; Grentz, 1988; Letherby, 1998; Morrell, 1993; Park, 2002). Unlike Park (2002), who claimed that VCF couples often attempt to pass as infertile (which was not found in the present study), only one primary strategy was used by the participants to avoid disclosing their VCF status--concealment. Because this finding largely refutes that members of VCF couples attempt to pass as infertile (Park, 2002), more research needs to be conducted on the strategies that members of VCF couples use to conceal their status.

Although this study has identified many important aspects of revealing voluntarily child-flee decisions, these findings need to be interpreted in light of some limitations. First, as mentioned earlier, one significant limitation that characterized this research is that the data were derived from individual, rather than conjoint, accounts. In the future, conjoint interviews should be conducted to fully demonstrate the relational nature of family planning and the boundary coordination processes that VCF couples experience. Second, because participants reported varying levels of stress associated with VCF disclosures, a difference may exist between what participants reported and how the family-planning process occurred in actuality. Again, this limitation points to the need to conduct conjoint interviews to achieve a more balanced account. Third, because disclosure is a dialectical process (Petronio, 2002), more research needs to be conducted on recipients of VCF disclosures and how they report reacting to those revelations. The present study focused on the discloser, and his or her insights, during the disclosure situation. However, the role of the recipient in the disclosure process is important, and research is currently in progress dealing with how recipients solicit family-planning information from members of VCF couples. Fourth, the participant sample was unequally divided between females (n = 22) and males (n = 10). Although, the "gendered criteria" section of the results generated similar findings among men and women participants on topics such as motherhood, femininity, and gendered pressures to disclose, a more even sample with regard to sex would help to support the claims.


Revealing the voluntarily child-free decision to others can be a difficult and complicated process. Although the number of couples electing to remain child free is increasing in the United States and pronatalistic attitudes are decreasing, the findings from this study indicate that traditional views of family still are pervasive. Consequently, members of VCF couples still face particular obstacles when revealing their family-planning decision. The rules-based system explained here extends our knowledge of how members of these couples navigate revealing their status to others through the enactment of rule-making processes designed to avoid or to decrease negative reactions from recipients. Through examining how members of VCF couples revealed and/or concealed their family-planning decision to others in their social network, these findings shed light on how members of VCF couples communicatively manage pronatalism and the potentially stigmatizing implications of choosing not to reproduce.


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Wesley T. Durham (Ph.D., University of Nebraska-Lincoln) is an Assistant Professor of Communication Studies at the University of Southern Indiana. This manuscript is adapted from the dissertation of the author. An earlier version of this article was presented at the National Communication Association Conference, Boston, MA, November 2005. The author would like to thank Drs. Dawn Braithwaite, Loreen Olson, Chad McBride, Paige Toller, and Karla Bergen for their insight and assistance with this research. The author gratefully acknowledges the insights of the informants who generously shared their stories. Correspondence to Dr. Wes Durham, 3095 Liberal Arts Bldg., 8600 University Blvd., Evansville, IN 47712, U.S.A. E-mail:

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