Why aren’t marriages getting happier?

Marriage has changed. People’s happiness within marriage hasn’t (much).

You might think, that with all the change in marriage since the 1960s, marriage in the U.S. would have changed more. For example, earnings shares have grown more equal, even among those with children; men are doing more housework while women are doing less. At the same time, marriage has become more selective, with marriage fates falling and divorce rates higher than than they were before the 1970s. And cohabitation has become a more common and acceptable option, providing an alternative for people who don’t want to marry.

You might argue that the increasing equality within marriage would make women happier and men sadder in their marriages. But either way, the increase in divorce and cohabitation should cut down on the proportion of marriages that are unhappy — marriage is effectively more optional than it was 50 years ago.

That’s why I was surprised to read that responses to the General Social Survey since 1973 show no trend toward greater happiness, in response to the question, “Taking all things together, how would you describe your marriage?” (The choices for response were, “very happy” [3], “pretty happy” [2], and “not too happy” [1]). And, even though marriage rates are now much lower for African Americans than for Whites, the race-gender ordering of happiness with marriage has remained close to the same:

Source: My analysis of data from the General Social Survey. The data points are shown as circles, while the lines show five-year moving averages, to reduce noise in the trends.

I say “close to” the same, because of the upward drift in Black women‘s happiness — which would be more clear if not for that very bad data point in 2008. Anyway, the analysis by Mamadi Corra and colleagues, which ended with the 2006 data (I added 2008), confirmed that the race-gender ordering was not accounted for by age, children, income, education or religion.

This reminds me of the recent paper by Sean Lauer and Carrie Yodanis, who argue that much of the change affecting marriage as an institution has involved changes outside the institution — such as cohabitation, homogamy (same-sex couples), and divorce. In fact, they believe, it’s more realistic to describe norms for behavior and relations within marriage as more stable than changing in recent decades. In my opinion, the empirical case is a glass half-full/empty situation, but their theoretical argument is interesting, and maybe evidence like these happiness trends supports it.

4 thoughts on “Why aren’t marriages getting happier?

  1. It is important to add that a revert to more traditional period with more strict gender roles would not increase marriage satisfaction. I am a young, 23 year old, happily married woman. I just celebrated my 4 year wedding anniversary. My husband and I hold no traditional gender roles, we share all responsibility in the household equally. We are fortunate to be so happily married, but I honestly believe that the cause for a lot of divorce is due to high expectations. We are bombarded by a society that tells us that we can, and should, do it all! We are to be successful at home, at work, and to equally manage our time and responsibilities. It is stressful. Personal stress becomes marriage stress and when it only adds up..


  2. My two cents: we have become more equal in statistics but not in society. That is, a husband and wife may be both working, making about the same salary, etc., but because of subconsciously falling into societal pressures and expectations regarding housework, childcare, etc., they are unhappy because they expect equality and don’t receive or participate in it at home (the woman burdening childcare) or at work (a father being judged for wanting parental/paternal leave or to take his kid to the doctor during work hours.)

    It would be interesting to note how happy people are by age, how that changes over time, and the happiness levels of couples with kids.


  3. “very happy” [3], “pretty happy” [2], and “not too happy” [1])

    I am disappointed in these three options. In a way its judging ones marriage on a scale of 1-3. Not a big enough scale in my opinion.

    I am really happy in many ways in my marriage. I have been married for 8 years and am still very much committed to this marriage, and still plan on being committed to it for life.

    I would have a hard time choosing my answer. Pretty or very? I think many people would struggle with what exactly that answer would mean. I personally wish the question(s) were asked differently to help us better understand people’s happiness and contentment levels.


  4. “You might argue that the increasing equality within marriage would make women happier and men sadder in their marriages.” The expectation of happiness is the happiness killer, not equality. Not only an expectation that any emotion, be it sad, happy, angry, calm, or otherwise will be with you, but also that said emotion will stay with you indefinitely is not emotionally intelligent. When you are waiting for, or seeking, happiness you cannot, be definition, be happy.

    “You might think, that with all the change in marriage since the 1960s, marriage in the U.S. would have changed more.” The US has alot of expectation of happiness in relationships. It is more appropriate to realize that, barring emotional or physical violence, that ~you~ are responsible for how you feel.


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