Should I marry my depressive girlfriend?

13th February, 2010

Dear Economist,
Valentine’s Day is coming, and I am thinking of proposing to my girlfriend. She is beautiful, intelligent and loving, a wonderful person in every respect. I only have one concern, which is that sometimes her sensitivity tips over into anxiety. She can get easily upset or even depressed. Maybe that’s not a problem for our relationship, because I’m a very cheerful person. And opposites attract, right?
Chris, London

Dear Chris,

I am glad to hear you have such a sunny disposition. Perhaps it will rub off on your wife-to-be: James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis demonstrated not long ago that happiness was contagious. This is plausible, although similar methods have been used to demonstrate that height is contagious.

We are then left with the risk that your marriage will live under the shadow of a large happiness gap. This is unusual, because when it comes to happiness, opposites do not attract. Three economists, Cahit Guven, Claudia Senik and Holger Stichnoth, have shown that romantic partners tend to be equally happy when they get together. Worse, the same researchers also show that when one partner is much happier than the other, trouble is often in store. A happiness gap in any given year is correlated with an increased probability of separation in the subsequent year.

One may of course fret about causality: if the husband was having an affair and the wife knew about it, it would be an odd interpretation to blame the divorce on the fact that she was much less happy than him. Yet it is also true that a happiness gap in the first year of marriage is a decent predictor of divorce at any time in the future.

Guven et al point out that when a happiness gap yawns, it is usually the woman who initiates divorce proceedings. Happy Valentine’s Day.

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