Friday, June 23, 2006

Will This Marriage Last? – Opposites Attract, But Do They Stay Married?

From Ash:

In yesterday's post on age at first marriage, I briefly touched on how age affects partner choice - how exposure to a larger – or smaller – pool of prospective spouses means you find a spouse who has a more (or less) similar background to your own.

Today, I'm going to address commonalities and differences between couples. In some ways, this is a sociological vocabulary lesson. But it's an important one, that will allow us to delve into more specific issues.

When sociologists are looking at married couples, one of the chief analyses they do is to look at the couple's homogamy versus their heterogamy.

Homogamy basically describes the way in which a person marries someone with common traits.

Heterogamy, then, is marriage to someone who has principal traits are different than those of their spouse.

For the moment, we aren't talking about personal likes and dislikes. Instead, we're talking about a more basic, demographic level – e.g., race, ethnicity, religion, educational attainment. As a general rule, sociologists find that homogamous marriages are more stable than those which are heterogamous. Meaning, opposites may attract, they may even marry, but those relationships are less likely to last.

That does not mean that sociologists (or we) think people shouldn't marry members of another race or ethnicity, religion, etc.

Because ultimately, all marriages are to some extent, both homogamous and heterogamous. So we're talking about a matter of degrees, and we're also addressing when is it more important to be more homogamous, and when is it more important to be heterogamous. Those ideas change as our ideas of marriage, and larger society, change over time.

For example, interracial and inter-ethnic marriages have risen over the past few decades – something inconceivable a few decades ago, since it was just 40 years ago that interracial marriages were still illegal in states across the nation.

And religious heterogamy – marrying someone of a different sect – is on the rise.

On the other hand, we also seem to be increasingly marrying within our social / economic classes. So, notwithstanding my grandmother's claim, no, it is not as easy to marry a rich man as a poor man . . . unless you're already rich to begin with.

We are increasingly marrying spouses with similar educational backgrounds.

So demographic homogamy is an important factor – but some of the classic heterogamous / homogamous traits are switching or disappearing, even as the divorce rate has been stabilizing over time. (I have more on a couple specific factors at the end of this post.)

Now, what about those smaller differences and similarities you share?

What about those books for girls about how to talk to guys about sports? Having the requisite "Girls (Boys) Night Out"? Football widows? Of which, I'll never be one: good USC alum that I am, I love college football, don't care a hoot about basketball, I use the 'SC cheer "Fight on," as words of encouragement. Thus, I don't think I could be seriously involved with a UCLA Bruin.

And I might be right. It turns out that married couples who enjoy doing the same things are happier – no big surprise there. But it also turns out that wives who just do something because their husbands do it? So that they spend more time together? That might work for a while, depending on the activity. If you hate the beach, but your husband goes for walks on the shore, it might still be enjoyable because you get to spend time talking about your day. But if wives are consistently doing things they hate, just because their husband loves them, that can lead to increased unhappiness in the marriage.

Similarly, if husbands are weighted down by a perception that they are spending a lot of time with their wives, that actually can be a bad sign, because it indicates he's spending time with her out of obligation, and sacrificing what he really wants to do. Because it's sort of the married equivalent of the line, "She's too needy."

Wives, by the way, seem to get their husbands to do something they both enjoy, which means that the wives may not do their favorite things as much, but they get to do more things together, which they get pleasure out of. And it's better to mutually enjoy an activity than to trade off on dragging each other to the respective thing the other hates.

And I think this is quite sweet: husbands get more annoyed when they do things by themselves that they know both spouses genuinely enjoy.

In other words, spending time together, sharing activities is an important indicator of marital happiness (and never doing anything together is a bad sign), but participating in our significant other's activities, that you hate, just to be with them isn't the answer.

I think that's particularly resonant when considering a study that determined that the average British married couple is only actually together, interacting, for about two and a half hours a day, if they don't have kids, and just an hour and a quarter if they do have them. (Cohabitating couples spend even less time together.)

And most of that "together time" is spent watching television.

Which brings me to my own little theory about homogamy / heterogamy.

I think that differences in demographics, interests, etc., attract people – they may even marry for them – but couples spend so little time together when they are married, consumed with other obligations (children, jobs, etc.), that married couples don't have time for those differences. It may be fascinating conversation to hear about the way a date describes her family's cultural traditions for food preparation, but when they're married, the husband just wants to know if dinner is on the table or not. A wife doesn't want to always explain why she feels unwelcome in a particular social setting of the husband's: he should just understand and she doesn't have the time or energy to keep explaining it to him, anyway.

The oft-heard axiom is that "marriage is about compromise" – but if you marry someone who agrees with you, then you have less to compromise about. There's less room for conflict when you marry someone who already knows what's going on, will have the same traditions, same way to approach a problem. Less conflict leads to less stress which leads to less instability which leads to less marital instability and / or dissolution. So it's not that these more homogamous relationships are necessarily better, but they're easier. And in our time-crunched world, that just may be what we're looking for. . .

. . . Or, what we're happier with once we've found it . . . .


Here are a couple additional thoughts on age at marriage, education, and religion, just to get the ball rolling as we continue this thread of discussion.


Traditionally, men marry at older ages than women, because they are supposed to have finished their education and secured a "breadwinner" role before they marry, whereas less women were going to school, and they didn't need to establish a career, since they were going to be homemakers. Thus, age is traditionally a somewhat heterogamous factor in marriage: the husband is usually a few years older than the wife.

But as women stay in school and secure careers, the age at first marriage has increased for women, and while it has for men, too, the age difference between a husband and a wife is increasingly narrowing. It used to be about three years; now it's down to about a year, and at least one preeminent sociologist predicts that the gap will gone entirely during the future. In other words, on an age basis, couples are becoming increasingly homogamous.

For those of you who wonder, there's some debate in the scholarship as to how much age difference actually affects marital stability. The general rule seems to be that age homogamy (or lack thereof) doesn't really affect a marriage . . . if the couple's following the traditional pattern where the man is the older spouse or if they are roughly the same age. But studies seem to show that when younger men marry older women, that leads to increased marital instability. Sorry, Girls, wish I could say something different, but that's what I've read.


Educational homogamy -- hasn't traditionally thought of as being crucial to a marriage, with the presumption being that the wife is less educated than her husband. However, educational homogamy seems to be increasing. Women seem to be have more similar educational backgrounds to their spouses. Or, the couple may marry educationally heterogamous, because one of the partners hasn't finished school yet, but they may eventually become educationally homogamous, as that partner finishes school.

How does this play out? If the couple desires a more homogamous relationship, one way to do that is for the less-educated partner to further his/her education -- so that the couple has more in common -- and that's been found to increase marital stability. But, on the other hand, if a couple decides to send one spouse for advanced education, in order to financially better the family, they are creating a new form of heterogamy within the marriage, and that can increase marital instability. So those couples who divorce because one financed the other's education, then they don't know each other any more aren't just mere anecdotes. There's a real issue going on.

I think of any of the transformations in marital relationships, this one may be potentially the most explosive, since women now outnumber the men in college: it could be that educational heterogamy returns, but now it will be the woman who is more educated. And I have no idea how that will play out. Will it mean the women become more of the authorities in the household, earning more than the men, and with more education? Will it mean we see men increasingly further their education once they've begun families, trying to restore that homogamy?


Religious homogamy -- is another indicator of marital stability, but what may matter more than a person's individual denomination, is the spouses' participation in those religious activities, faith observance, etc. But we're not requiring identical behavior: in Catholic traditions, women are usually the churchgoers who drag the men along, if they're able.

But the prevalance of religious heterogamy is on the rise.

Next: Does Living Together Before You Marry Help or Hurt The Marriage?


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