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.

Guven, Cahit, Claudia Senik and Holger Stichnoth (2010), You Can't Be Happier than Your Wife: Happiness Gaps and Divorce, ZEW Discussion Paper No. 10-007, Mannheim. Download


Guven, Cahit
Senik, Claudia
Stichnoth, Holger


divorce, happiness, comparisons, panel, households, marriage