Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Marriage, No Marriage and Happy Marriage

As a sociologist with an interest in family issues, headlines like “51% of Women Are Now Living Without Spouse” and “Why Are There So Many Single Americans?” are bound to catch my attention. Both of these articles, which appeared in the New York Times earlier this month, address the fact that in 2005, married couples became a minority in American households. A number of factors are shaping contemporary marriage trends: high divorce rates, Americans are waiting longer before they marry or are living with unmarried partners for longer periods of time and, since women outlive men, women are more likely to live longer as widows.

So for those who are married, and those who intend to (re)marry, what factors seem to contribute to partners’ well-being and life satisfaction? A 2004 study by Stutzer and Frey , which focused on the causal relationships between marriage and subjective well-being, found that the more similarities there were between partners, the higher they rated their life satisfaction. Stutzer and Frey found that couples with similar levels of education gain, on average, more satisfaction from marriage than spouses with large differences. This suggests that “similar or homogenous partners are expected to share values and beliefs” and that this homogeneity is likely to facilitate supportive relationships and a sense of companionship that comes from enjoying joint activities.

Stutzer and Frey also found that marriages in which the husband was the sole breadwinner and the wife stayed home, reported on average higher life satisfaction than dual income couples. Interestingly, it is women’s life satisfaction that is driving this distinction between traditional and dual income couples. While men from both kinds of couples report similar levels of life satisfaction, it is women in dual income marriages who report significantly lower levels of life satisfaction than women in traditional marriages. This suggests that in dual income couples, women continue to bear most of the responsibility for childcare and housework, despite sharing economic responsibilities with their husbands. The stress resulting from two jobs – one in the paid labor market and one in the home – might “reduce the subjective well-being most markedly for women with children.”

Although it seems that changing patterns of courtship, marriage, divorce, and labor force participation are among a number of factors that have resulted in the fact that Americans now spend half of their adult lives outside of marriage, it is clear that there are ways for people to “do” marriage better. While the findings of studies like those of Stutzer and Frey can be interpreted in a number of ways, if Americans want to focus on ensuring high levels of life satisfaction for themselves and their partners, one way to do so is to make sure that their partners are not bearing a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for various family tasks and to find ways to increase a sense of companionship that is fulfilling for both partners.


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