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One Theory of Marriage and Kids: 'Very Cute in the Abstract'

Amherst professor Catherine A. Sanderson on how men and women experience marital satisfaction differently


Whenever I'm walking around D.C. with friends on sunny Saturday afternoons, we inevitably see lots of babies: adorable, fat, charmingly bald babies. It's not uncommon to hear sighs of "oh my gosh, he's so precious!" and "I want one!" from my companions; I, too, have been accused of being a baby stalker from time to time.

But at The Atlantic's One Day University event on Saturday, Amherst psychology professor Catherine A. Sanderson made a convincing case that cute kids (and cute husbands and wives) might seem different when they're yours to keep. She gave a witty lecture on what social science can tell us about happiness, and these were my three biggest take-aways:

First, I will no longer have to worry about being awesome if I get married, because my husband will probably be happier for having taken vows regardless of how great I am. In studies of marital satisfaction over time, Sanderson said, "there is in fact a positive correlation for some people. Guess who those people are? Men. For men, yeah, being married makes you happier, and the good news is, it doesn't matter at all who you're married to. It could be like a mail-order bride from Russia—does not matter at all."

Overall, marriage is a big win for men: "Men who are married are happier than men who are not. They also make more money, they also live longer, they have fewer psychological problems, etc. etc.," Sanderson said.

But unfortunately for me, that doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to be happier than my single friends: For women, happiness fluctuates significantly based on the quality of their marriages.

"Marriage for women increases happiness—if the marriage is good," Sanderson said. "A high-quality marriage for women boosts their happiness above women who are single. But a marriage that is unhappy for women decreases satisfaction below women who are single. For women, the quality of the marriage has a major impact."

And sadly, even adorable children can't rescue me from my potential future unhappiness.

"What else do we think makes us happy but really doesn’t? Children," said Sanderson, the mother of three kids who must have been raised with excellent dinner-table banter.

"Children are very cute in the abstract," she said. "In the abstract, they’re much easier—like, they’re much quieter. The idea of children is very appealing. But the reality is, if you ask people who have children, especially young children, life consists of chores they don’t really like doing."

And they're damned expensive. "Has anyone here looked at their children and said, 'If I didn’t have you, I’d have a vacation home?'" she asked the room.

Sanderson's solution to finding satisfaction as a wife and mother?

"My husband and I have been married 20 years, and the secret to our marriage is as followed: We have three kids, and we have a dog. We decided several years ago that if one person left the other one, the person who left would have to take all three kids, and the person who didn’t leave would get the dog," she said.

"And that has kept our marriage so strong."