The best marriages are win-win propositions, in which both spouses end up happier and healthier than they'd be if they were single.
In many long-married couples, however, husbands seem to be getting the better end of the deal. A study in the latest issue of Social Psychology Quarterly finds that married women over 50 rate the quality of their marriages lower than their husbands do.
That's consistent with other research showing that older men tend to be more satisfied with their marriages than women. The study's biggest contribution is comparing survey responses of husbands directly with those of their wives, helping "assess whether one spouse's marital quality may influence the other's over time," said Miami University sociology professor Jennifer Roebuck Bulanda, who had no role in the study.
It turns out that, while a woman and a man can have significantly different views of the same marriage, they're not completely insensitive to each others' feelings.
"The way one spouse perceives the marriage impacts the way that the other spouse perceives the marriage," said Jeffrey Stokes, a sociology professor at Illinois State University and the study's author. "It's not like it happens through telepathy," he said. "It probably happens consciously or unconsciously in behaviors," such as showing affection, appreciation and emotional support.
Mr. Stokes compared the responses of more than 200 couples over 50 who took part in the 18,000-person Panel Study of Income Dynamics in 2009 and 2013. On a four-point scale, they were asked, effectively, how supportive their spouses are: How much does he or she appreciate you or understand you?
They were asked about their spouse's flaws, too: How much does he or she make you tense or get on your nerves?
The wives gave their marriages an average overall score of 2.99 in the 2013 survey; the husbands rated the very same marriages 3.2. A similar gap was found in the 2009 survey. While that may seem like a narrow difference, "it's pretty much across the board," Mr. Stokes said. No matter what question they're asked, there's a "clear trend of husbands reporting better marital quality than their own wives," he said. Overall, only 29% of wives rated their marriages higher than their husbands did.
Sociologists have a few theories to explain the husband-wife gap. Traditional gender roles can push women to do more of the "emotional labor" in their marriages, Mr. Stokes said. "When marriage is a gender-unequal institution, husbands are going to get more out of it than wives are," he said.
Studies of younger straight couples find less of a gap. That may be a sign that marriages are modernizing and young men and women are taking more equal roles. Or perhaps those gaps will widen as the couples age.
It's possible women are just more willing to see reality. "Wives tend to be more confrontational and direct in acknowledging marital problems, whereas husbands evade or ignore conflict," wrote the authors of a 2014 study on the topic.
About two-thirds of divorces are initiated by women, and the divorce rate for Americans over 50 has doubled in the past three decades. One in four divorces now involve people older than 50. This wave of "gray divorce" is putting a huge financial burden on the baby boomer generation as it approaches retirement. The overall divorce rate, meanwhile, has been holding steady, with about half of marriages ending in divorce.
Older marriages can have problems that younger marriages don't. Retirement may put stress on a marriage, for example. When spouses stop working, they can end up spending a lot more time with each other, for better or for worse.
The average couple in Mr. Stokes's study had been married more than 35 years. Even after decades, those marriages were still in flux, Mr. Stokes found. Comparing the 2009 and 2013 results, he found the participants' views had shifted, with a husband's positive perspective on the marriage, for example, tending to improve his wife's, or a wife's negative view damping her husband's estimation of their union — or vice-versa. (The shift was statistically significant but not great enough to narrow the gender gap overall.)
In other words, if you're not into your marriage, it can be contagious. You're going to show your dissatisfaction, consciously or unconsciously, and that can taint your spouse's view. If you like your marriage, you're likely to show it by being a better mate, the results suggest, and your spouse may gradually come to see your union in a better light.
"Even in these long-term marriages, it's not that everything is set in stone," Mr. Stokes said. "There's still give and take."