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The economics of marriage

By Ashwini Dabadge

Marriage is one of the oldest human institutions, with a long history of very clear gains for partners as well as the community at large. The reasons behind it could be any –  love or attachment, or a desire for power, security, progeny or continuing the bloodline. When kingdoms weren’t being annexed through wars, they were being allied through marriage. Not only was marriage an alliance between two people, places or systems, it was a tool through which individuals and institutions in power wielded control over their populace and their sexual behaviour.

However, today, marriage rates have been declining in many parts of the developed world. The implications of this decline for other economic variables, like relative incomes and education levels of men and women, are of great interest to economists. Gary Becker, the Nobel prize winning American economist, was one of the first people to propose an economic theory for marriage through his original and transformative paper ‘A Theory of Marriage: Part I’ in 1973.  Traditionally considered as non-market behaviour, he quantified the advantages of marriage for a household and argued that they depended on absolute and relative incomes of spouses as well as division of labour at home and in the paid labour market.

18k3uqhupmddtjpgFrom then on, there has been a lot of literature on what is now known as ‘Economics of the Households’, which studies the economic decisions made by them. One widely known theory in this field of study is that of assortative mating, where men and women tend to marry partners with similar socio-economic backgrounds, education levels, and physical attributes like age and height.

Marriage is also the primary allocator of gender-defined roles to men and women – men are supposed to be the breadwinners of the house while women the homemakers. As the lines between these traditional roles and the gender identities have begun blurring, women have also started tasting financial and social empowerment. However, there is still a lot of ground to cover when it comes to the income divide between the sexes. Economists have been accounting for cultural and identity related factors while explaining the wide chasm that exists between salaries of men and women (a lot of the developed world has made good progress in bridging this gap). One of these factors is the unwritten aversion to the wife earning more than the husband, even though female labour participation and incomes have been rising. Women too have been postponing their marriages or choosing not to walk down the altar altogether as they become more financially independent.

To study how marriages play a role in perpetuating this pay divide, economists Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan show that when a woman is more likely to earn more than a man in a group with common demographics and education, the marriage rate in the group declines. These groups are formally called marriage markets, as assortative mating is the norm. Simply put, if one were to predict the marriage rate in a particular marriage market, that rate would partly depend on the probability of women drawing higher salaries than men, and the relationship would be negative with that probability. They further find that ‘the couples where the wife earns more than the husband report being less happy, greater strife in their marriage, and are ultimately more likely to get a divorce’. So, women earning more than men not only drives the rate at which marriages are formed, but also raises the rate at which marriages are broken, thus bringing down the overall marriage rate.

Gender identity also influences sharing of housework, and this is especially relevant when it comes to divorce. Cooke (2006) shows that when the wife’s income exceeds her husband’s in the US, the divorce risk is reduced if the wife takes on a greater share of the household chores. This result is in agreement with the phenomenon where working women have to work ‘double shifts’. They have to rise in their professions without compromising on housework, their traditional role in a marriage.

These findings are important not only to economists, but also for promoting equal rights for women. With changing societies, marriages and compositions of households are also changing. On one hand there are couples who are choosing to cohabit instead of tying the knot, on the other there are those whose marital unions are being legally recognised only now. Only time will tell how this institution and these gender dynamics will evolve in the future.

The author, with an education in Economics, is a Research Associate at Prayas Energy Group, a liberal in terms of outlook and a film buff at heart.


  1. Becker, Gary S. 1973. A theory of marriage: Part I. Journal of Political Economy. 81(4): 813-46.
  2. Marianne Bertrand, Emir Kamenica and Jessica Pan. 2013. Gender Identity and Relative Income within Households. National Bureau of Economic Research. NBER Working Paper No. 19023. Pages 1-16.
  3. Cooke, Lynn Prince, Jani Erola ,Marie Evertsson, Michael Gähler, Juho
  4. Härkönen, Belinda Hewitt, Marika Jalovaara, Man-Yee Kan, Torkild Hovde,
  5. Lyngstad, Letizia Mencarini, Jean-Francois Mignot, Dimitri Mortelmans,
  6. Anne-Rigt Poortman, Christian Schmitt and Heike Trappe. 2013. Labor and Love: Wives’ Employment and Divorce Risk in its Socio-Political Context. Social Politics 2013 Volume 20 Number 4: 482–509


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