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Cross-Cultural Marriage Is Satisfying Only in (Trade) Theory

People choose mates that are very similar to themselves in terms of education and income. They don't tend to select partners who bring vastly different skill sets to the marriage.

I really need a housekeeper. I love to cook, and throw a mean dinner party—but other than that, housework is not exactly my specialty. Of course, if I were married to a man who was more productive than me at home, and less productive than me in the waged workforce, then I wouldn’t need to hire a housekeeper. And, in theory at least, we would both be much happier together than apart.

Think of it as exploiting the gains from trade, but on the household level.

Now, I don’t have a man who loves to do housework—or, as it turns out, a man at all. So in my home there are no gains from trade; just me doing all the earning and all the housework.

Earlier this week we talked about how decision-making power is distributed in homes in which a wife immigrates to a new country to live with her native-born husband. It was argued on another forum (that posted my blog, word for word) that men in these types of relationships are happier than men married to native-born women. The point made was that that foreign-born women are happier than native-born women to take care of the home, and don’t expect their hard-working husbands to help out at the end of the day.

Trade theory agrees, the gains from trade inside the home should be higher in cross-cultural marriages simply because the individuals are so different from each other; the husband is significantly more productive in the workforce (perhaps because his wife cannot speak the local language or because she has no local experience) and/or the wife is more productive in the home because she was raised in a society in which women are trained from an early age to do domestic labor. 

So when individuals bring completely different skills to a marriage, each can specialize in the task they do best and everyone is better off.

So, here is a question: Is there any evidence that native-born people who are married to immigrants more satisfied with their marriages than either couples in which both partners are native-born or couples in which both partners are immigrants?

Well, as it turns out, there is a new paper that asks exactly this question.* Using data collected on over 20,000 individuals in 8,000 Australian households from 2001 to 2007, the paper finds that the level of marital satisfaction (measured on a scale of one to 10) is higher in couples that are either both native-born or both immigrants. In fact, the couples that reported the lowest level of martial satisfaction (on average) are those in which one is an immigrant and other is native born. This is true for both men and women even after controlling for age, education, number of children in the home, income differentials between partners and a bunch of other characteristics that you might think will affect how happy a person is with their spouse.

So the biggest gains from trade are found when the two individuals in a relationship are similar to each other, not different. This is the opposite of what trade theory would predict.

There are other interesting results too. For example, the more educated the husband, the less happy he is with his partner.  Satisfaction with the partner is initially decreasing as an individual ages but then increasing, even after controlling for how long people have been married. And, not surprisingly, people who have children in the home under the age of fourteen are significantly less satisfied with their partners (don’t worry, they will move out eventually).

Advocates for those who seek foreign-born wives argue that feminism is destroying marriage in America. If we look at married couples, though, it doesn’t take very long to recognize that people choose mates that are very similar to themselves in terms of education and income. They don’t choose partners who bring vastly different skill sets to the marriage. This choice may not allow greater specialization of tasks in the home, but it almost certainly makes us happier in our relationships.

* Sinning, Mathias and Shane Worner (November, 2010). “Inter-ethnic Marriage and Partner Satisfaction.” Australian National University Working Paper. 


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