We investigate how the marital age gap affects the evolution of marital satisfaction over the duration of marriage using household panel data from Australia. We find that men tend to be more satisfied with younger wives and less satisfied with older wives. Interestingly, women likewise tend to be more satisfied with younger husbands and less satisfied with older husbands. Marital satisfaction declines with marital duration for both men and women in differently aged couples relative to those in similarly aged couples. These relative declines erase the initial higher levels of marital satisfaction experienced by men married to younger wives and women married to younger husbands within 6 to 10 years of marriage. A possible mechanism is that differently aged couples are less resilient to negative shocks compared to similarly aged couples, which we find some supportive evidence for.
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In the discussion below, we assume that individual reports of marital satisfaction are a proxy for the marital gains they experience. It should be noted that we implicitly assume that marital search is costly. If it were the case that individuals search at very low cost in large marriage markets with no gender imbalances, we would expect for competition among prospective mates to compete away any excess marital gains so that all couples begin marriage with equivalent (and zero) gains relative to their outside alternative (Weiss and Willis 1997). Given that even among recently married couples there is considerable variation in marital satisfaction, this seems a reasonable assumption.
Siow (1998) generates a very similar prediction: that older husband-younger wife pairs are generated because financially successful older men prefer younger “fecund” women and compensate their younger partners for marrying them with higher earnings. His model, however, does not result in older wife-younger husband pairings because he assumes that only young women are fecund and all women marry young in order to produce children.
Mansour and McKinnish argue that their empirical results likely reflect the fact that men and women with higher earnings potential spend more time in age-homogenous settings (e.g., postsecondary and graduate education, jobs with career ladders) and therefore are more likely to marry similarly aged spouses.
Hitsch et al. (2010) investigate for evidence of strategic behavior using appearance ratings. They find that for both men and women, regardless of appearance rating, the probability of e-mailing a potential dating partner is monotonically increasing in the attractiveness of the potential partner. There is no evidence, for example, that less attractive individuals strategically avoid contacting the most attractive potential partners. Based on these, Hitsch et al. (2010) conclude that there is little evidence of strategic behavior, although they acknowledge that they are only considering one characteristic: physical appearance.
In other words, if husbands are happier in older husband-younger wife marriages than marriages without an age gap, but wives are less happy in older husband-younger wife marriages than marriages without an age gap, this can average out to no effect of age gap on marital satisfaction if husbands and wives are pooled together.
Another paper which studies the outcomes of older married couples as a function of the marital age gap is Drefahl (2010), who finds that in a sample of Danish individuals over 50, having an older spouse increases the mortality rate for both men and women, and having an older spouse increases the mortality rate for women.
Another form of unanticipated shock to a marriage can be a shock to one’s outside alternatives. If there is a shock that changes a married individual’s perception of the average quality of his or her alternative mates, this will likely also affect their reported satisfaction with their current marriage. We cannot observe these shocks empirically and do not have any a priori reasoning for why the effect of such shocks should differ by marital age gap.
Although the paper does not focus on cohabitating couples, cohabitation is relatively common in Australia and often precedes marriage. In 2010, almost eight in ten (79%) marriages were preceded by a period of cohabitation (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2012). Selection into marriage from cohabitation (or more broadly selection into marriage from dating) does mean that results might differ if we were studying couples from their first date or from the start of cohabitation but should not threaten our interpretation of our results as conditional on entry into marriage.
It is important to note that Fig. 1 does not provide the density of observations, and therefore, it must be remembered that there is sparse data at the edges of the plot, for example, where the marital age gap is above 15 or below −5, or marital duration is above 25.
More specifically, these gender attitude questions are asked only in 2001, 2005, 2008, and 2011. Couples are labeled as (very) traditional in all survey years if the wife reports agreement with (3) 2 of the statements in any survey year. These three statements were chosen from a larger set of questions about gender roles because they were the three questions that generated the largest variance in responses (on a seven point scale).
There is some question as to whether RelSat should be treated as a cardinal or ordinal variable. If it is cardinal (a change from 7 to 8 is of similar magnitude in terms of increased satisfaction as a change from 8 to 9), then linear regression is an appropriate model. If it is ordinal (9 is happier than 8 which is happier than 7, but a change from 7 to 8 is different in magnitude than a change from 8 to 9), a model such as an ordered logit would be preferred to linear regression. Ferrer-i-Carbonell and Frijters (2004) investigate this topic directly for happiness measures and find that the cardinality assumption is reasonable and that empirical results are not sensitive to relaxing it in favor of ordinality.
Sample sizes differ slightly for men and women because there is a relatively modest number of observations for which we only have either the wife’s or the husband’s marital satisfaction report.
One possible explanation for the insensitivity of the age difference estimates in Table 3 to the addition of a large number of individual, couple, and household controls is that different controls act to move the age difference coefficients in different directions, ultimately canceling each other out. We find, however, that is not the case. When we add the controls in small sets, we find the same degree of insensitivity of the age difference coefficient estimates.
We also find that the results are similar if we experiment with stricter definitions of specialization (for example, being in the top quartile for both the mean difference in work hours and mean difference in housework hours), use the traditional gender roles indicator instead of very traditional indicator, or add an interaction of marital duration with an indicator variable that both spouses are immigrants.
Controls for husband’s and wife’s age and age-squared, marital duration and duration-squared, and year fixed-effects are included in the regressions, as well as the additional controls used in Tables 2. 3, and 4, except economic controls (employment, earnings, household income, and house value). It would be inappropriate to include these controls given that they could control for much of the effect of a negative economic shock.
An alternative explanation is that individuals are sufficiently forward looking when selecting spouses to recognize that their initial higher levels of marital satisfaction with a younger spouse will dissipate, as we find. They might then prefer similarly aged spouses, to the extent that they generate the greater net present discounted value of lifetime marital satisfaction. Given it takes about 10 years for the benefit of marrying a younger spouse to dissipate, this would likely, however, require that an individual has both a low discount rate and a low subjective probability of divorce. Additionally, to the extent that the declines in satisfaction we observe are due in part to the larger negative effects of unanticipated shocks, individuals may not be able to anticipate these declines adequately to prefer a similarly aged spouse.
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We are grateful to two anonymous referees for providing very helpful comments and suggestions. This paper uses unit record data from the Household, Income, and Labor Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) Survey. The HILDA Project was initiated and is funded by the Australian Government Department of Social Services (DSS) and is managed by the Melbourne Institute of Applied Economic and Social Research (Melbourne Institute). The findings and views reported in this paper, however, are those of the author and should not be attributed to either DSS or the Melbourne Institute.
Conflict of interest
The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.
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Lee, W., McKinnish, T. The marital satisfaction of differently aged couples. J Popul Econ 31, 337–362 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00148-017-0658-8
- Assortative matching
- Marital age gap
- Marital duration
- Marital satisfaction