'You can't be happier than your wife'

Carolyn Moynihan
24 May 2010
Reproduced with Permission

Happiness studies -- you can't get away from them, and marital happiness studies seem to be the flavour of the month. The latest shows that a certain kind of happiness gap between spouses increases the likelihood of divorce.

"Is this news?" I hear you groan -- again. "Did a bunch of economists have to crunch buckets of data to find that out?" Fraid so.

But they did find something interesting when they analysed data on tens of thousands of couples in Britain, Germany and Australia: that a happiness gap between spouses was a predictor of divorce -- but only when the husband was feeling better about life than his wife. And in those cases, it was more likely that the unhappy wife would start divorce proceedings.

Hence the name of the report: "You Can't Be Happier Than Your Wife. Happiness Gaps and Divorce".

But why? Under what circumstances are wives less happy than their husbands?

The happiness gap widened when wives were lumbered with most of the housework, if they had different social backgrounds to their husbands, or if they had higher than average incomes.

But the gap was closed when couples were matched in social backgrounds, if they had a common religion [especially if Catholic, the authors note], if the chores were shared or if the woman was a housewife, a student or retired.

The finding about incomes was the most significant thing there, the authors say in their full report: "The most remarkable (but classical) result is that the risk of divorce rises with the wife's individual income and falls with the husband's individual income." This suggests that where husbands are the main breadwinners wives are happier.

One of the researchers, Dr Cahit Guven of Deakin University, points out that "couples who marry with similar levels of schooling, age, country of origin, ethnicity, religion and social background have longer marriages." He calls this marrying within one's "happiness tier".

While this study suggests that wives become unhappier in a marriage as they earn more (though not necessarily more than their husbands), Professor Brad Wilcox says it is husbands who are unhappy when their wives outperform them in the labour market:

My own research indicates that husbands are significantly less happy in their marriages, and more likely to contemplate divorce, when their wives take the lead in breadwinning. On average, men do not have difficulties with working wives, so long as their wives work about the same amount of time or less than they do. But, according to my analysis of the 2000 Survey of Marriage and Family Life, husbands do not like it when they are clearly displaced as the primary breadwinner in their families. For instance, husbands in families with children at home are 61 percent less likely to report that they are "very happy" in their marriages when their wives work more hours than they do.[1]

Prof Wilcox noted on the Family Scholars blog last week that a CNN story about women "marrying down" in terms of education and earning power painted "a largely rose-coloured picture of this phenomenon."

But nowhere does the story provide any evidence that these marriages are (a) typically happy or (b) typically stable. By contrast, my own research, featured in the 2009 State of Our Unions report on money & marriage, indicates that couples are more vulnerable to unhappiness and divorce when the wife outperforms her husband in the labor force. And this trend is likely to rise as more women have to marry down.

Two last things to note from the happiness gap report.

First, the happiness gap was much wider in couples who were cohabiting compared with those who were married: the risk of separation was 10 times greater.

Second, from some recent German data it seems that women expect more from marriage, regard "having a partner" as somewhat less important to happiness than men do, and are more open to divorce if their expectations are not met.

The picture of women as more divorce-prone, despite what this would mean for the children, is disturbing, to say the least.