Happiness and Marriage

(Photo: Tela Chhe)

(Photo: Tela Chhe)

Last week’s podcast was “Why Marry, Part 1“; Part 2 will be released tomorrow (well, we usually release new episodes around midnight, so depending on where you live, Part 2 may be released today.) In Part 1, Justin Wolfers explained how marriage has shifted from a model of “production complementarities” to a model of hedonic marriage. Psychology professor Eli J. Finkel writes in The New York Times that we’re also in an age of “all-or-nothing” marriages — where expectations of happiness in marriage are high:

Consider, for example, that while the divorce rate has settled since the early 1980s at around 45 percent, even those marriages that have remained intact have generally become less satisfying. At the same time, consider the findings of a recent analysis, led by the University of Missouri researcher Christine M. Proulx, of 14 longitudinal studies between 1979 and 2002 that concerned marital quality and personal well-being. In addition to showing that marital quality uniformly predicts better personal well-being (unsurprisingly, happier marriages make happier people), the analysis revealed that this effect has become much stronger over time. The gap between the benefits of good and mediocre marriages has increased.

How and why did this divergence occur? In answering this question, I worked with the psychologists Chin Ming Hui, Kathleen L. Carswell and Grace M. Larson to develop a new theory of marriage, which we will publish later this year in a pair of articles in the journal Psychological Inquiry. Our central claim is that Americans today have elevated their expectations of marriage and can in fact achieve an unprecedentedly high level of marital quality — but only if they are able to invest a great deal of time and energy in their partnership. If they are not able to do so, their marriage will likely fall short of these new expectations. Indeed, it will fall further short of people’s expectations than at any time in the past.


The Frank and Claire Underwood theory of marriage....


If you believe that marriage is supposed to be like a business relationship wherein two separate entities work together to achieve some goal, then it's not surprising you will be unsatisfied: in marriage you're not just working together, you're bound together, and then kids come along and complicate the first goal you thought you were working on, which was to have fun and not be lonely and to have a lot of sex.

If you understand that marriage isn't about you or your spouse but about the new single family unit that is formed, then these frustrations are rendered moot.

Religion used to provide a framework and a reminder of what marriage was really about, but as people became less religious (indeed, as religion became less religious!), individualism took over and now everyone thinks a marriage is supposed to be like a business relationship. Thus you get worse-than-useless ideas like "make marriage a 5 year renewable contract."



Or happy people make happy marriages? Possible that those people would have been happy married or single.


Re: In addition to showing that marital quality uniformly predicts better personal well-being (unsurprisingly, happier marriages make happier people), the analysis revealed that this effect has become much stronger over time.

Your parenthetical remark infers causality when none is implied by the predictive value of marital quality. I was reading elsewhere about the likelihood of an alternate explanation: people who have the perspective and skills to be relatively happy are more apt to get married and to stay happily married.

Caleb b

Personal Observation: my marraige is very expensive financially. As a single male, I would never buy "nice" furniture, matching dishes, scented candles, seasonal decorations, or even "quality home meals." I probably wouldn't have bought a house, or maybe even a car.

However, as a married person, I find enormous satisfaction with my relationship and gladly accept the costs of all those items. Married me is happier than single me, despite married me buying and doing things that single me would never buy/do.

So does love change my preferences, my preferences change bc I'm in love, or do I accept the cost of love and trade what I want for what we (read: she) want(s)?


You raise a great question at the end, Caleb. I would love to read a study that attempts to address that question. As in, if you were to get divorced, would you go back to the life of single you or would you continue indulging in the costly activities and items you partook in during marriage?

That is such an interesting question to answer because, ultimately, it would either prove or disprove the common sentiment among lovers: "You make me a better person." Maybe it would make the case that people should starting saying, "You make me accept the costs of being a better person." Haha funny thought.

Thanks for sharing, Caleb.

Shane L

Many romantic comedies now have characters discuss "the one", an idea that each person has one special individual with whom they are destined to be united. I find this a bit troubling since it suggests that a relationship need not require effort or compromise.

In times past I suppose many marriages were the opposite: loveless connections of convenience that were all work. I have heard Ancient Romans found it amusing and ludicrous for a man to love his wife. Many cultures have had arranged marriages. The musical Fiddler on the Roof has a nice lyric based around an unromantic marriage that developed a power of its own, as the husband Tevye demanded to know if his wife, Golde, loved him. She kept putting off the question until finally:

"For twenty-five years I've lived with him
Fought with him, starved with him
Twenty-five years my bed is his
If that's not love, what is?"

"Then you love me!"

"I suppose I do."

"And I suppose I love you, too."

Well! I guess good marriages have a mix of romantic passion, right from the start, and some determination and compromise with realistic expectations.



I'm a single-mother-by-choice who has opted not to marry. Parenthood is a delight to me and I loveloveLOVE being single.

I want someone to study parents like me, to compare against all the studies that say marriage and parenthood make people less happy than when they were single and childless.


You're a very special snowflake. A big gold star for you. Let the millions of dollars in research grants pour in so that we may study your unique enigmatic qualities.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the effects of single-parenthood on the rest of us, all signs point to Please Make It Stop.



A little more rude than necessary, but great link - thanks