You Can't Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce

44 Pages Posted: 19 Feb 2010

See all articles by Cahit Guven

Cahit Guven

Deakin University - School of Accounting, Economics and Finance

Claudia Senik

Paris School of Economics (PSE)

Holger Stichnoth

ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research

Date Written: 2010

Abstract

This paper asks whether the gap in subjective happiness between spouses matters per se for a couple's risk of separation. We use three panel databases to explore this question. Controlling for the level of life satisfaction of spouses, we find that a higher satisfaction gap, even in the first year of marriage, increases the probability of a separation. We show that this basic relationship between the gap in satisfaction and the probability of separation is robust to a number of different specifications. Moreover, the relationship holds in all three countries that we study: Germany, the UK, and Australia. Our interpretation is that this higher separation probability results from comparisons of well-being between spouses and from an aversion to an unequal distribution of wellbeing. While a growing number of studies has already underlined that comparisons affect individual well-being, the advantage of the present article is to focus on a plausible and important reference group, namely one's own spouse. Another contribution of the article is to show that subjective variables (here, the gap in life satisfaction) matter for objectively measured outcomes such as a couple's separation. Finally, we believe that our result is interesting for the theoretical literature on the economics of the household, which has so far neglected the consequences that an unequal distribution of well-being may have. We also explore the hypothesis that it is assortative mating with respect to the baseline level of happiness that affects the risk of separation. We find that it is not only this baseline level, but also the current level of happiness that matters. First, our results hold in fixed-effects estimates that take away the effect of the initial quality of the match between spouses: fixed-effects estimates suggest that a widening of the happiness gap over time raises the risk of separation. Second, we uncover an asymmetry in the effect of happiness gaps: couples are more likely to break up when the difference in life satisfaction is unfavourable to the wife. The information available in the Australian survey reveals that divorces are indeed predominantly initiated by women, and importantly, by women who are unhappier than their husband. Hence, happiness gaps seem to matter to spouses, not only because they reflect a mismatch in terms of baseline happiness, but because they matter as such.

Keywords: divorce, happiness, comparisons, panel, households, marriage

JEL Classification: J12, D13, D63, D64, H31, I31, Z13

Suggested Citation

Guven, Cahit and Senik, Claudia and Stichnoth, Holger, You Can't Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce (2010). ZEW - Centre for European Economic Research Discussion Paper No. 10-007, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=1554352 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.1554352

Cahit Guven

Deakin University - School of Accounting, Economics and Finance ( email )

221 Burwood Highway
Burwood, Victoria 3215
Australia

Claudia Senik (Contact Author)

Paris School of Economics (PSE) ( email )

48 Boulevard Jourdan
Paris, 75014 75014
France

Holger Stichnoth

ZEW – Leibniz Centre for European Economic Research ( email )

P.O. Box 10 34 43
L 7,1
D-68034 Mannheim, 68034
Germany

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