Why taller-wife couples are so rare

Originally published on TheAtlantic.com.

It’s not just because women are, on average, shorter than men.

kidman urban.jpg

Keith Urban and his wife Nicole Kidman arrive at the 2009 American Music Awards. (Chris Pizzello/AP Images)

Men are bigger and stronger than women. That generalization, although true, doesn’t adequately describe how sex affects our modern lives. In the first place, men’s and women’s size and strength are distributions. Strong women are stronger than weak men, so sex doesn’t tell you all you need to know. Otherwise, as retired colonel Martha McSally put it with regard to the ban on women in combat positions, “Pee Wee Herman is OK to be in combat but Serena and Venus Williams are not going to meet the standard.”

Second, how we handle that average difference is a matter of social construction: We can ignore it, minimize it, or exaggerate it. In the realm of love and marriage, we so far have chosen exaggeration.

Consider height. The height difference between men and women in the U.S. is about 6 inches on average. But Michael J. Fox, at five feet, five inches, is shorter than almost half of all U.S. women today. On the other hand, at five-foot-ten, Michelle Obama is taller than half of American men. So how do people match up romantically, and why does it matter?

Because everyone knows men are taller on average, straight couples in which the man is shorter raise a problem of gender performance. That is, the man might not be seen as a real man, the woman as a real woman, if they don’t (together) display the normal pattern. To prevent this embarrassment, some couples in which the wife is taller might choose to be photographed with the man standing on a step behind the woman, or they might have their wedding celebrated with a commemorative stamp showing her practically on her knees—as the British royals did with Charles and Diana, who were both the same height: five foot ten.

height1.jpg height2.jpgBut the safer bet is just to match up according to the height norm. A new study from Britain—which I learned of from the blogger Neuroskeptic—measured the height of the parents of about 19,000 babies born in 2000. They found that the woman was taller in 4.1 percent of cases. Then they compared the couples in the data to the pattern found if you scrambled up those same men and women and matched them together at random. In that random set, the woman was taller in 6.5 percent of cases. That means couples are more often man-taller, woman-shorter than would be expected by chance. Is that a big difference? I can explain.

For illustration, and to compare the pattern with the U.S., I downloaded the 2009 Panel Study of Income Dynamics, a U.S. survey that includes height reported for 4,600 married couples.* These are the height distributions for those spouses, showing a median difference of 6 inches.


Clearly, if these people married (and didn’t divorce) at random we would expect the husband to be taller most of the time. And that is what we find. Here is the distribution of height differences from those same couples:


The most common arrangement is the husband five to six inches taller, and a small minority of couples—3.8 percent—are on the left side of the red line, indicating a taller wife.

But does that mean people are seeking out taller-husband-shorter-wife pairings? To answer that, we compare the actual distribution with a randomized outcome. I made 10 copies of all the men and women in the data, scrambled them up, and paired them at random. This is the result:


Most couples are still husband taller, but now 7.8 percent have a taller wife—more than twice as many.

Here are the two distributions superimposed, which allows us to see which arrangements are more or less common in the actual pairings than we would expect by chance:


Now we can see that from same-height up to “man 7 to 8 inches taller”, there are more couples than we would expect by chance. And below same-height—where the wife is taller—we see fewer in the population than we would expect by chance. (There also are relatively few couples at the man-much-taller end of the spectrum—at 9 inches or greater—where the difference apparently becomes awkward, a pattern also seen in the British study.)

Humans could couple up differently, if they wanted to. If it were desirable to have a taller-woman-shorter-man relationship, it could be much more common. In these data, we could find shorter husbands for 28 percent of the wives. Instead, people exaggerate the difference by seeking out taller-man-shorter-woman pairings for marriage (or maybe the odd taller-woman couples are more likely to divorce, which would produce the same result).

What difference does it make? When people—and here I’m thinking especially of children—see men and women together, they form impressions about their relative sizes and abilities. Because people’s current matching process cuts in half the number of woman-taller pairings, our thinking is skewed that much more toward assuming men are bigger.

* I must note that Dalton Conley and Abigail Weitzman have a forthcoming paper for the 2013 Population Association of America conference on height differences, which also uses the PSID data, as well as the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth. I haven’t seen the paper, but the abstract is here.

22 thoughts on “Why taller-wife couples are so rare

  1. “What difference does it make? When people—and here I’m thinking especially of children—see men and women together, they form impressions about their relative sizes and abilities. Because people’s current matching process cuts in half the number of woman-taller pairings, our thinking is skewed that much more toward assuming men are bigger.”

    It cuts in half an already small number, into an even smaller one. 92.2% of couples would have a taller man, with your random pairing, versus 96.2% with our actual pairings. I doubt that children would perceive much difference between 96% and 92%.

    You didn’t discuss why this norm exists. My understanding is that women throughout the world, even in traditional tribal cultures, prefer men a few inches taller than themselves, and stronger than themselves. Isn’t this likely because one of the things women seek in a mate is safety and protection? Since it’s universal, couldn’t it be (horrors!) innate? Couldn’t it be that it became a social norm because women and men who made that kind of pairing were more successful than those that chose the taller woman pairing?


  2. as retired colonel Martha McSally

    Pee Wee Herman wouldn’t qualify for the Army, much less the Marines.

    She was a pilot. What does she know about carrying a full combat load up and down rugged mountains? Even the highly integrated Air Forces knows that women can’t do as much as men, and so they don’t require them to.


    I was a star ice hockey player at Bowdoin College, a small elite college in Maine, with a major in government and law. At 5 feet 3 inches I was squatting 200 pounds and benching 145 pounds when I graduated in 2007. I completed Officer Candidates School (OCS) ranked 4 of 52 candidates, graduated 48 of 261 from TBS, and finished second at MOS school. I also repeatedly scored far above average in all female-based physical fitness tests (for example, earning a 292 out of 300 on the Marine physical fitness test). Five years later, I am physically not the woman I once was and my views have greatly changed on the possibility of women having successful long careers while serving in the infantry. I can say from firsthand experience in Iraq and Afghanistan, and not just emotion, that we haven’t even begun to analyze and comprehend the gender-specific medical issues and overall physical toll continuous combat operations will have on females.


    1. On women in combat, check out contemporary Israel, or WWII and Lyudmilla Pavlichenko. Women have already proved themselves in combat, and the fact that you can find a woman who doesn’t think women belong in combat is useless as it’s not a systematic study of the problem as its relying on self-reporting from a sample size of 1.


    2. Infantry combat ruins PEOPLE physically and mentally. Every Ranger school graduate “brags” at how the the school ruins your feet and makes men with 34 inch waists lose 20 -30lbs. I think on average men can take the damage more than women but if they can complete it they should be allowed to serve. The standard in the military physically is not uniform people over 30 are not held to the same standard as 22 year olds that is because they can not “do as much” and the military knows it.


  3. Great graphs. The superimposed one is especially revealing because of the (for me) unexpected under-representation of marriages with much taller husbands. OK, as you say, that big a height difference may be “awkward” (although you delicately did not specify for what!), but that ends up with two different explanations for the two different under-representations: gender expectations on the left side, awkwardness on the right. Maybe a more parsimonious explanation would be that couples avoid height differences that are far from the average. Are there other kinds of couple differences where we would find under-representations on both sides of the mean difference?


      1. hypothesize people overshoot in their attempts to fit in with the norm

        Could the “deviation from random” be caused by the fact that there’s a much longer tail on the left side of the female height graph than on the right (i.e., there are more short women than tall)?


  4. I’ve heard a lot of women express the opinion that they’re just not attracted to men who are shorter than them.

    From your post I take it you think this under representation of women-taller pairings is just the result of normalizing a broad average? Nothing more, nothing less? Or something that subtly buttresses male privilege?


    1. Nothing more, nothing less? Or something that subtly buttresses male privilege?

      The height differential certainly does buttress male privilege, but there’s nothing you can do about it. (According to CDC growth charts, the males’ 25th percentile height — really short — is the same as the females’ 90th percentile height — really tall.)


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