11/17/2010 12:32 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

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.

Cross-posted from the Family Inequality blog.

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