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Ivory Towers: Similarity breeds content

WHAT makes a happy marriage? A recent research paper, Correlates of Satisfaction in British Marriages by G E Weisfeld, R J H Russell, C C Weisfeld and P A Wells (Ethology & Sociobiology, Vol 13, 1992,) studied 1,000 couples to find out. Their resulting recipe for a contented marriage is that similarity breeds contentment, that husbands should largely be responsible for the decision-making, and that wives should be a little more attractive than their mates, writes William Hartston.

The research was based on questionnaire responses, with two items in a long list designed to measure whether the respondents regretted their marriage: 'Have you ever thought of divorcing?' and 'Would you marry the same person again?' Two further questions were included to identify whether respondents thought their spouses unpleasant: 'How often do you have a serious row?' and 'Is your husband/wife really nasty to you?'

Together, those questions gave a measure of satisfaction with which other answers could be correlated. The other items covered a range of items including health, wealth, beauty, intelligence and happiness.

The conclusions confirmed earlier studies in the United States that had shown husbands and wives to be generally similar, and the more similar they are, the happier and more stable their relationships. 'Another widespread criterion is male dominance, which females in several primate species seem to find desirable in a mate.'

The British study confirmed the desirability of similarity and male dominance, 'but excessive husband dominance reduced satisfaction'. There was no support for the view that husbands should earn more, be better educated or have wealthier parents than their wives, all of which have been found to make for happy marriages in America. In Britain, however, there was 'qualified support' for the view that dominant men marry attractive women. Also 'husbands tended to regret the marriage significantly less often if their wife was more attractive than they'.