VoxEU Column Health Economics

Subjective wellbeing and partnership dynamics: Same-sex relationships are no different

A host of empirical studies have found that people in partnerships tend to be happier than those who are single. This column uses panel data from the Netherlands to explore whether there is a causal effect of partnership on subjective wellbeing. The results suggest that both opposite-sex and same-sex marital partnership improves wellbeing, and the benefits of marriage appear to outweigh those of cohabitation.

A positive association between marriage and wellbeing is well-established in research (Kalmijn 2017). This does not mean that all marriages have a higher wellbeing. The positive effect of marriage on happiness is driven by happy marriages. For couples who are not happily married, marriage has a negative effect on happiness (Chapman and Guven 2016). Furthermore, association does not necessarily imply causality (Stutzer and Frey 2006). Moreover, it is possible that the positive association between marriage and wellbeing is not due to marriage but to partnership. After all, a marriage is just one type of partnership. Recently some work has been done on the relationship between cohabitation and wellbeing (Kohn and Averett 2014). Couples may invest different levels of tangible and intangible capital in marriage and cohabitation (Stanley et al. 2004). Thus, the subjective wellbeing derived from cohabitation and marriage may be different. Another issue is whether the positive association between marriage and wellbeing is exclusively for opposite-sex couples, or whether it also holds for same-sex partnerships. Due to the heterogeneity of partnership formation and stability, the effect of marital partnership on wellbeing may differ between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. The issues of the wellbeing and marital partnership of same-sex couples are largely unexplored in the literature.

Partnership dynamics in the Netherlands

We analysed data on partnership dynamics and subjective wellbeing in the Netherlands (Chen and Van Ours 2017). The data were collected over the period 2008-2013, and allow us to make a distinction between marriage and cohabitation and between opposite-sex and same-sex relationships. In the Netherlands, there have been notable demographic changes in the past decades. In terms of partnership formation, cohabitation has become more popular at the expense of marriage. For example, by age 30, 34% of women born in the 1950s had been or were still cohabiting and 78% had been or were still married. Among women born in the 1970s, by age 30 these percentages switched to 69% for cohabitation and 45% for marriage. In the year 1998, there were about 3.4 million married couples, 0.6 million cohabiting households and 2.2 million single households. In 2016, the number of married couples decreased to 3.3 million, while the numbers of cohabiting couples and single households increased to 1.0 and 2.9 million, respectively. Furthermore, fewer cohabiting couples make a transition into marriage. For instance, for cohabiting women aged 20-24, there is a clear drop in the probability of being married within three years after the beginning of cohabitation. For those starting to cohabit in the period 1970-1974, this probability was 58%, while for those in the period 1980-1984, it reduced to 37%, and for the 1990-1994 cohort, it fell further to 27%. In the meantime, the divorce rates have risen. In 1970 about 0.3% of all marriages dissolved, in 2014 this was about 1% (Statistics Netherlands).


Our research is based on data from the Longitudinal Internet Studies for the Social Sciences (LISS) panel administered by CentERdata. The panel is a random sample of households drawn from the Dutch population consisting of more than 6,500 households and over 10,000 individuals.

Our indicator of wellbeing is based on the question: “On the whole, how happy would you say you are?” The answer is provided on an ordinal scale from zero to ten (from totally unhappy to totally happy). Panel a of Figure 1 illustrates the wellbeing distribution by partnership status. On the happiness scale from zero to ten, hardly anyone reported below five. In the relatively lower score groups of five, six and seven, non-partnered individuals dominate partnered ones in percentage, while in the higher score groups of eight, nine and ten the opposite is observed. Apparently, couples are happier than non-partnered individuals. Panel b of Figure 1 further distinguishes marriage from cohabitation. Cohabitants account for higher proportions in the happiness score groups of five, six, and seven, but lower proportions in the groups of eight, nine, and ten than the marrieds. So, generally speaking, partners are happier if they are married as compared to cohabiting. Nonetheless, the differences between the various types of individuals in Figure 1 are all unconditional and can only be suggestive of a causal effect of partnership on evaluative happiness.

With information of partnered household heads and their wedded or cohabiting partner, we identify the sexual orientation of each individual by comparing their gender with that of their partner. There are 27,779 observations in our sample, where 425 concern individuals who entered a same-sex relationship.

Table 1 gives an overview of average wellbeing distinguished by marital status and sexual orientation. The last column in the table confirms the findings in Figure 1. On the scale from zero to ten, non-partnered individuals on average score 7.12 while partnered individuals have an average score of 7.71. Married couples obtain 7.76 on average but co-habitants only 7.56. Comparing the first two columns of Table 1, it is obvious that irrespective of the marital status, on average individuals in same-sex relationships are happier than those in opposite-sex relationships – although the difference is only substantial for non-partnered individuals.

Table 1 Subjective wellbeing by marital status and sexual orientation; averages (number of observations)

Note: The category “unknown” exists because these individuals have always been single, or their partners did not participate in the survey if they have been ever partnered, therefore their sexual orientation cannot be identified.

Subjective wellbeing and partnership dynamics

To account for time-invariant unobserved personal characteristics influencing subjective wellbeing, we use a linear fixed effects model to investigate the effects of partnership. We also control for covariates that may be correlated to both partnership and wellbeing such as drinking and smoking behaviour and body mass index, as well as demographic and socioeconomic variables.

If we ignore individual fixed effects, happiness is about 0.50 higher (on our scale of 0 to 10) for partnered individuals than it is for singles. Clearly, happier individuals are more likely to form partnerships, but there is still a significant positive effect of partnership formation on wellbeing.

We also find that the positive effect on subjective wellbeing is statistically identical for same-sex and opposite-sex couples.

Reverse causality

The linear fixed effects model does not account for possible reverse causality – that is, that happier people may be more likely to find a partner. A person who becomes happier and more satisfied with his or her life may appear more confident and be more willing to socialise, so he or she is more attractive and approachable in the partnership market.

To investigate whether or not reverse causality is an issue, we study whether single people are more likely to be partnered later on, as their happiness changes over time because of some shock. If reverse causality existed, we would expect that a higher level of happiness makes partnership formation later on more likely. We use different lags for happiness to allow for effects that materialise quickly or more slowly. From the estimates, we conclude that reverse causality from happiness to future partnership dynamics is not an issue.


Partnership formation and partnership disruption may have different effects on subjective wellbeing both in sign and magnitude. We find that there are symmetric and opposite effects on the subjective wellbeing between partnership formation and dissolution for both men (statistically significant) and women (partially statistically significant). The estimation of the partnership dynamics also provides evidence for the short-term crisis model, or adjustment theory. At partnership formation, subjective wellbeing improves quickly; at partnership dissolution, subjective wellbeing is harmed immediately as well.

Age cohort differences

For younger and older individuals, marital partnership may have a different meaning. For instance, among youngsters, cohabitation is usually seen as a trial marriage, while older individuals may think of cohabitation as a long-term substitute for marriage (Vespa 2012). To investigate potential heterogeneity in the effects of partnership on wellbeing, we explore whether there are differences by age. Specifically, we divide the sample into two age cohorts: people born before 1962 (46-year old at the first wave of the survey in 2008) and after 1962. Both men and women in the older cohort obtain larger wellbeing gains from marriage than from cohabitation. Partnership exerts a positive influence in the younger cohort and so do marriage and cohabitation. For the younger cohort, the happiness benefits from marriage are bigger than those from cohabitation but the difference is not statistically significant.


We investigate whether partnership dynamics cause changes in the subjective wellbeing of the individuals involved. We also study potential differences of the subjective wellbeing effects between same-sex and opposite-sex couples. To establish a causal effect from partnership dynamics to wellbeing, we account for selectivity which occurs if happier people are more likely to form partnerships.

We find that there is a causal effect from partnership formation to subjective wellbeing but there is also a selection effect, each of which explains around 50% of the positive association between partnership dynamics and subjective wellbeing. The causal effect on wellbeing is the same for opposite-sex and same-sex couples. Furthermore, we discover positive wellbeing effects of cohabitation although these effects are smaller than those of marriage. Partnership formation and dissolution are likely to exert different influences on couple’s subjective wellbeing. We investigate such symmetries and indeed find opposite effects with similar magnitudes on subjective wellbeing during these two periods. Finally, we analyse whether the wellbeing effect of marital partnership is cohort-specific and detect a difference between birth cohorts. Cohabitation only benefits younger cohorts but not older cohorts.


Chen, S and J C van Ours (2017), “Subjective wellbeing and partnership dynamics: Are same-sex relationships different?” CEPR Discussion Paper 12320.

Chapman, B and C Guven (2016), “Revisiting the relationship between marriage and wellbeing: Does marriage quality matter?” Journal of Happiness Studies 17: 533–551.

Kalmijn, M (2017), “The ambiguous link between marriage and health: A dynamic reanalysis of loss and gain effects”, Social Forces 95(4): 1607–1636.

Kohn, J L and S L Averett (2014a), “Can’t we just live together? New evidence on the effect of relationship status on health”, Journal of Family and Economic Issues 35(3): 295–312.

Stanley, S M, S W Whitton and H J Markman (2004), “Maybe I do: Interpersonal commitment and premarital or nonmarital cohabitation”, Journal of Family Issues 25(4): 496–519.

Stutzer, A and B S Frey (2006), “Does marriage make people happy, or do happy people get married?” Journal of Socio-Economics 35(2): 326–347.

Vespa, J (2012) “Union formation in later life: Economic determinants of cohabitation and remarriage among older adults”, Demography 49(3): 1103–1125.

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