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A recent letter by a Princeton alumni stated:

Men regularly marry women who are younger, less intelligent, less educated. It’s amazing how forgiving men can be about a woman’s lack of erudition, if she is exceptionally pretty. Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal.

This letter has generated a lot of controversy. But I thought it would be interesting to clarify what the scientific literature says about a few of the implicit empirical claims made in the letter.

My broad questions is: What is the relationship between intelligence of marriage partners and marriage satisfaction?

However, given the dyadic nature of the phenomena, this question can be broken down in various ways:

  • Is the degree to which a husband is more intelligent than a wife correlated with marital satisfaction of the wife?
  • Is the effect of partner intelligence on marriage satisfaction more about similarity to one's own intelligence or is it the case that the relationship between partner intelligence and marriage satisfaction is linear and positive regardless of one's own intelligence?
  • Does any observed effect of partner intelligence on marriage satisfaction vary based on whether you are comparing husbands to wives or wives to husbands?
  • To what extent are any effects of intelligence explained in terms of other correlated outcomes (e.g., income, socio-economic status, shared values, similar educational experience, etc.)?
  • What are the theorised mechanisms behind any observed effects?

I'd be particularly interested in any review articles or large sample studies that have measured intelligence and marital satisfaction on both husbands and wives.

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I remember an article that I cannot find at the moment, in which the highest correlation was between female marriage satisfaction and male presence, which in turn negatively correlates with the importance the male partner accords his carreer, all of which resulted in the advice (for women) to marry partners who are not "career-obsessed". This has to do with intelligence only insofar as it shows that intelligence might not be the most important factor. As for intelligence, see my next comment. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 8:11
    
A quote from Bentler & Newcomb (1978). Marital success and failure: "Cattell and Nesselroade (1967), using the 16 PF, found five traits (Intelligence, Dominance, Pretension, Shrewdness, and Self-Concept Control) that significantly differentiated stable from unstable marriages on husband/wife averages." If you look into (more recent) research of marital satisfaction, especially the question of partner similarity versus differences, you'll probably find more. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 8:14
    
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Also, the subjective perception of that woman is based on a subsample of highly intelligent people. If you are one of the most intelligent people on earth, it is highly unlikely that you will find a spouse of similar or higher intelligence, simply because the selection is extremely limited, while there is an abundance of possible but less intelligent partners. The true question here is not, why highly intelligent men marry less intelligent women, but why highly intelligent women find themselves incapable of marrying "below them" and remain fixated on partner status in an age of emancipation. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 9:44
    
@what Thanks for the Lewak reference. I guess the degree to which women are concerned about status in spouse selection is an empirical question. It would be interesting to see how concern for status varies between men and women and whether it has changed over the last 50 years or so. –  Jeromy Anglim Apr 4 '13 at 12:05
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3 Answers 3

In a "traditional" marriage relationship, the man's job is to be a breadwinner and the woman's job is bearing and raising children. Intelligence helps a man do his job as a breadwinner, but is not as critical to a woman in a childbearing role. Beauty is a "signal" of a woman's childbearing abilities (including sexual attractiveness), which is why an intelligent (and high-earning) man might value that in a woman more than reciprocal intelligence.

In this context, "Smart women can’t (shouldn’t) marry men who aren’t at least their intellectual equal." may mean, "high earning women shouldn't marry men who don't earn as much as they do or more."

I know a happily married couple who defies the above stereotypes, while meeting the respective roles. The woman is the more intelligent of the two, and is a high school principal. But the man fulfills the breadwinner role, because he is highly personable and is a real estate salesman. He is also more attractive (better-looking) than the wife. But she is a good mother to their two children (former teacher now school principal).

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Is husband and wife intelligence corelated?

By way of background, Mascie-Taylor (1989) report IQ correlations between husbands and wives in two british samples to be r=.40 and r =.37 respectively. I had a little difficulty discerning the sample size as it's not reported in the 1989 paper. But from another paper I got the sense that each sample might have been in the 100-200 range.

Dufoul et al (2000) measured a range of cognitive measures in 318 couples. The correlation in total cognitive score between husbands and wives was r=0.36.

In reviewing the literature Dufol et al writes

There is a wide but relatively dated literature on concordance for cognitive abilities among couples, which was reviewed by Vanderberg and Jensen [in the 70s]. Studies have shown that spouses were more similar in terms of global intelligence scores than in terms of specific cognitive performances. Indeed, intra-couple correlations were of the order of 0.45 for the global intelligence scores, as compared with 0.10 to 0.20 for the specific cognitive performance scores (Jensen, 1978; Vandenberg, 1972)

Thus, at a basic level it appears that there is a modest correlation between intelligence of husbands and wives. This is thus evidence of assortative matching. The causes of such a correlation are much more complicated. First, there are the many correlates of intelligence which might be an alternative basis for selection (e.g., income, education, values, socio-economic background, etc.). Second, even if intelligence was a directly relevant feature to partner selection, spousal similarity could emerge from multiple mechanisms: (a) economic exchange whereby more (or less) of the trait is sought and those with more to offer are better able to secure more from the partner; (b) explicit valuing of similarity to self. In the case of intelligence, presumably arguments for both mechanisms (and possibly others) could be made to explain the real but modest correlations in spousal intelligence, correlations which would presumably be much lower once other correlates are controlled for.

Nonetheless, this all suggests that intelligence may be relevant to marital satisfaction given that people presumably choose partners who they think will make them happy.

Correlation between intelligence and marital satisfaction

Lewak et al (1985) report the results from 81 couples. They measured intelligence using the WAIS and marriage satisfaction using the Locke-Walace Marital Adjustment Scale.

This is my attempt to represent the relevant correlations taking full scale IQ and marriage satisfaction (MS).

            Male IQ  Female IQ  Male MS  Female MS
Female IQ    0.35      
Male MS      0.06    0.14    
Female MS    0.05    0.13    
Male IQ 
 minus 
 Female IQ                       0.05    0.10
Quadratic of 
 Male minus 
 Female IQ                      -0.08   -0.03

In summary, none of the correlations between marital satisfaction and spouse IQ were statistically significant. There was a slight trend for females and males to have higher marital satisfaction if the female was more intelligent. All the correlations between discrepancies in intelligence (either signed difference operationalised as the degree to which the male was more intelligent than the female) or unsigned difference (operationalised as the squared difference in IQ between males and females) were close to zero.

Thus, on the face of it, this study suggests at least within already married couples, such variation in partner intelligence is somewhat unrelated to marital satisfaction, although interestingly there was a slight trend in the data suggesting that intelligence in females was related to both male and female marriage satisfaction.

Nonetheless, a few words of caution are in order. First, this is a small sample. I'd really like to see some larger sample studies. Second, it may be the case that factors influence marital choice, but then once choice has been made they may be less relevant to the ongoing satisfaction.

References

  • Dufouil, C., & Alpérovitch, A. (2000). Couple similarities for cognitive functions and psychological health. Journal of Clinical Epidemiology, 53(6), 589-593.
  • Jensen AR. Genetic and behavioral effects of nonrandom mating. In: Osbourne RT, Noble CE, Wey N, editors. Human variation: Biopsychology of Age, Race and Sex. New York: Academic Press, 1978. pp. 51–105.
  • Lewak, R. W., Wakefield Jr, J. A., & Briggs, P. F. (1985). Intelligence and personality in mate choice and marital satisfaction. Personality and Individual Differences, 6(4), 471-477.
  • Mascie-Taylor, C. G. N. (1989). Spouse similarity for IQ and personality and convergence. Behavior Genetics, 19(2), 223-227.
  • Vandenberg SG. Assortative mating, or who marries whom? Behav Gen 1972;2:127–57.
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Nice. I don't know why you put forward this question, but to me your last sentence is most relevant: people don't necessarily chose the partners with whom they can have the most satisfying relationships. My current question is how to overcome wrong partner choice (girls falling for the guy with the guitar, men falling for breast size). –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 16:44
    
What would interest me, though, is if and how intelligence correlates with marital satisfaction, i.e. wether more intelligent people have the more satisfying relationships, or if intelligence is an obstacle to romantic happiness. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 16:46
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I wonder what would happen if one controlled for "meeting in college". Assuming people in college are more intelligent by the IQ measure, then a contributing factor may be two intelligent people just being in the same place at the same time, rather than an attraction to intelligence. Just a thought. –  Keegan Keplinger Apr 4 '13 at 17:18
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(this was supposed to be a sub-comment in the answer supplied by Jeromy, but I somehow made it an answer. Keeping it here because @what supplied some further info)

@what: the answer to your question is in the table. Female IQ has a small (.1ish) correlation with both male and female-reported satisfaction. At N=81, this wouldn't be considered a significant correlation though. Also, it's possible that ignoring gender in both IQ and satisfaction (and thereby doubling the N) might yield a different result (possibly driving it to "significance", but also possibly changing the nature of the relationship).

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Just to give some results from the article: female education correlates significantly (.29 and .24) with male and female marital satisfaction (MS); female age correlates strongly but not significantly (-.50) with male MS (negative corr.: older women, less male MS); some female IQ subscales (comprehension, visual IQ, verbal comprehension) correlate significantly (around .20) with female MS, but not with male MS; male age, education and IQ does not significantly correlate with either male or female MS, except for the comprehension IQ subscale, which correlates significantly (.21) with female MS. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 20:42
    
Interpretation: female age (young!) and female education (educated) are important for male MS; for women their own (!) education and their own verbal and comprehensive skills are important to be satisfied in a marriage, as well as their husbands' comprehension. Now, isn't that interesting? Their own intelligence makes women happy in a marriage, while men are happy independent of their own or their spouses IQ. –  user1196 Apr 4 '13 at 20:46
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