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Why Does Getting Married Make You Fat?

Incentives and
Appearance Maintenance
Uri Gneezy* and Jason Shafrin**

September 17, 2008


Married individuals weight more on average than non-married individuals. We suggest

that exiting the dating market decreases one’s incentive to maintain their appearance and
thus leads to an increase in body weight. The paper uses a 13 year panel data set and
exploits variation in the type of domestic relationship in order to pinpoint how exiting the
dating market affects body weight. We find a positive correlation between the strength of
the domestic relationships in terms of probability of termination and weight gain.

* Rady School of Management, University of California, San Diego

** Department of Economics, University of California, San Diego
Authorship is based on alphabetic order and does not reflect relative contribution

1. Introduction

Married individuals are more likely to be overweight than non-married

individuals (Sobal, Rauschenbach and Frongillo, 1992; Hahn, 1993). We propose and test

one reason for this increase in body weight after entering into marriage: the incentives to

maintain appearance. Maintaining appearance is costly. People in different societies

engage in costly appearance maintenance such as make-up, name-brand clothes or fancy

cars. In modern western societies, an important portion of maintaining appearance

includes having a healthy body weight. In order to have a healthy body weight, many

individuals will engage in costly time-consuming activities such as exercising and

preparing healthy meals at home.

People exert effort to maintain their appearance in order to attract a mate. The

maintaining appearances hypothesis says that upon entering into a monogamist domestic

relationship, one’s incentive to maintain attractive body weight decreases since one

already has a mate and is less active in the dating market. This is an incentive explanation

stating that getting into long term relationship decreases the incentives to maintain


In this paper we test the appearance maintenance hypothesis empirically using a

13 year panel data set from the Netherlands. We exploit variation in the type of domestic

relationships to see whether individuals in domestic relationships with a higher

probability of termination will gain less weight than those who enter into domestic

relationships where the probability the relationship will terminate is lower.

We find that individuals who enter into cohabitation relationships gain less weight

than those who enter into traditional marriage relationships. Further, we observe that

having a child reduces the probability that a relationship terminates. The marginal impact

of having a child decreases the probability a couple separates more for cohabitators and

marriages with a prenuptial agreement than for couples in traditional marriages;

traditional marriages already had a lower separation probability so the marginal effect of

having a child is less than is the case for cohabitators or marriages with prenuptial

agreements. As our theory predicts, married individuals with a prenuptial agreement gain

more weight after having a child than would be the case when an individual in a

traditional marriage has a child. For cohabitators the results are imprecise because fewer

cohabitators have children than married couples. Overall, our results show a correlation

between the probability a domestic relationship will terminate and subsequent weight


2. Background

Married individuals are more likely to be overweight than their non-married

counterparts (Sobal, Rauschenbach and Frongillo, 1992; Hahn, 1993). This result persists

after controlling for age and other covariates. Interpreting this empirical finding,

however, is more difficult. Cross-sectional analyses do not take into account the fact that

marriage and obesity interact through two different mechanisms: marital selection and

marital causation (Sobal, Rauschenbach and Frongillo, 1992). Marital selection describes

the phenomenon that overweight or obese individuals are less likely to date or marry than

their healthy-weighted peers (Averett and Korenman, 1999; Gortmaker et al., 1993;

Cawley, Joyner and Sobal, 2006). As we have noted, however, it has been widely found

that married individuals have higher levels of BMI than non-married individuals. This is

due to the marital causation pathway. Marital causation claims that something about

being married directly affects an individual’s weight. It has been widely reported in the

medical literature that individuals who enter marriage gain weight and those who exit

marriage lose weight (Sobal, Rauschenbach and Frongillo, 1992; Rissanen et al., 1991;

Kahn and Williamson, 1990; Kahn and Williamson, 1991; Kahn, Williamson and

Stevens, 1991). These findings hold despite the fact that married individuals engage in

healthier behaviors and have lower mortality rates than their non-married peers

(Umberson, 1992).

What is it about being married that leads to weight gain? Academics have not

been lacking in explanations. Craig and Truswell (1988) claim that marriage may lead to

higher food intake which will cause more weight gain. Marriage may alter activity levels

as well. Verhoef, Love and Rose (1992) and Myers, Weigel, Holliday (1989) observe that

married individuals are less likely to be active or exercise, but this finding is not universal

(King et al. 1998). On average, marriage decreases smoking rates and smoking cessation

can induce weight gain (Waldron and Lye, 1989; Wee et al., 2001). The closest

explanation to the maintaining appearances hypothesis that we test can be found in Sobal

(1984), who proposes the possibility that marriage may reduce the incentive to maintain

an attractive appearance since mate attraction is not a priority.

Empirically testing this plethora of theories is not trivial. When individuals get

married, a variety of changes happen all at once. Statistically testing a single explanation

is often infeasible with available data. To solve this problem, we utilize variation in the

“types” of marriages or domestic relationships. To be specific, this paper examines three

different domestic relationships. Individuals can either be married under the traditional

common property law, married with a prenuptial agreement, or they can live together but

not be officially married (i.e., cohabitation). It is most difficult for individuals to exit a

traditional marriage, and easiest for individuals to exit if the couple is cohabitating but

not legally married.

Our hypothesis is that individuals who enter a traditional marriage will gain the

most weight after entering into a domestic relationship because there is a lower

probability that their marriage will dissolve. The likelihood that those in a traditional

marriage will re-enter the dating market is low and thus individuals in this type of

domestic relationship will have less motivation to maintain their external appearance or

keep a healthy body weight. On the other hand, those who enter into a cohabitation

arrangement, but are not married will gain the least amount of weight upon entering into

a domestic relationship because the probability that the relationship will dissolve is the

highest among the three institutions. Thus, a higher probability that the relationship will

terminate will compel individuals to maintain their appearance and body weight.

3. Data

We use the DNB Household Survey (DHS) from the CentERdata of the

Netherlands. The data set is panel in nature and has 66,810 observations between 1995

and 2007. The dependent variable of interest is an individual’s body mass index (BMI).

Marriage status in the DHS is defined into one of six categories: 1) married under

traditional, common property law, 2) married with a prenuptial agreement, 3) cohabiting,

4) divorced, 5) widowed, or 6) never married.

The DNB Household Survey consists of 66,810 observations, but not all of the

observations are used in our empirical work. We eliminate 33,746 observations where the

height or weight of the individual is missing. Without these two variables, we cannot

calculate the person's BMI or measure whether or not they are obese. The sample is

limited to individuals who are between 15 and 65 years old in order to eliminate children

and the elderly. The reduced age range leads to 7,430 observations being deleted.

Observations with missing data for marital status (2,111), income or education (2,714)

were dropped although including observations with missing income or education

variables did not materially affect the results. The deletion of extreme value of height,

weight, BMI or income reduced the sample by 73 observations, but this did not affect the

results of the coefficients of interest significantly. Thus, the sample that will be used in

the empirical portion of this paper has 20,736 observations for 8,067 unique individuals.

Table 1 shows the sample means for the variables used in subsequent regressions.

Traditional marriages make up 56.8% of the sample, marriages with prenuptial

agreements make up 9.1% and 9.5% of individuals are cohabitators. Seventy five percent

of the individuals are in one of these three types of domestic relationships. The

remaining individuals can be classified into three other categories. Never married

individuals comprise 19.5% of the sample, 4.5% of the observations are divorced, and

less than 1% are widowed.

In order to test our hypothesis we need to have variation in the type of marriage.

Among Dutch adults in relationships, 75.3% are in a traditional marriage, 12.1% are

married with a prenuptial agreement and 12.6% are cohabitators with no official marriage

license. Further, cohabitation is regarded much more as a reasonable substitute to legal

marriage than in the U.S. Cohabitation acquired virtually equal status with marriage

under Dutch law in the 1980s. For example unlike in the United States, Dutch

cohabitators are able to file joint tax returns.

Figure 1 shows the average BMI levels across marital status. The data on BMI

are qualitatively similar to the data from previous studies. Individuals in traditional

marriages weigh more than individuals in marriages with a prenuptial agreement, but

individuals in either type of marriage weigh more than cohabitators. Single individuals

have the lowest levels of BMI. Figure 1 also examines BMI by age as well. A clear

trend emerges that BMI increases with age. Controlling for age attenuates BMI

differences across marital status categories. Because individuals move in and out of

marital status categories, however, casual inference based on Figure 1 is difficult.

4. Methods: Variables affecting the probability a relationship dissolves

We propose that individuals who enter into traditional marriages will gain more

weight because the probability that they will re-enter the dating market is low. In order

to test this hypothesis, the type of domestic relationship must influence the probability a

couple will dissolve their relationship. Table 2 shows the results of this test. Using a

logit regression, we investigate if the probability of separation is correlated with the type

of relationship. We find that individuals who cohabitate are five times more likely to

terminate their relationship after three years than married individuals. The probability of

separation for married individuals with a prenuptial agreement is not statistically different

from people with a traditional marriage. Thus, we predict that cohabitators will gain less

weight after moving in together than individuals who get married.

Having children should also affect the probability of separation. Couples who

otherwise would separate may stay together for the sake of the children. The degree to

which children alter the probability a couple terminates their relationship depends on the

parent’s relationship. Couples who in more secure relationships have a lower probability

that their relationship will dissolve. For traditional marriages, the marginal effect of

having children on separation probabilities is low because the marriage was already

secure. On the other hand, having children may significantly decrease the separation

probabilities for cohabitators and couples married with a prenuptial agreement.

We do not claim that having children necessarily causes changes in separation

probabilities; couples with stable relationships are more likely to have children. Yet if

having children indicates a reduction in the probability a relationship dissolves, our

hypothesis predicts that having children should affect weight gain through the probability

a relationship terminates.

Columns 2 and 3 of Table 2 show the results of two logit regressions describing

how having children affects the probability a marriage dissolves. Column two shows that

having children reduces the probability that after three years a couple has separated.

Couples with children are half as likely to separate as those without children. Although

not shown in the table, having more than one child has no marginal effect on separation

probabilities after taking into account having had the first child.

Column three examines whether having children affects separation probabilities

similarly across all three types of domestic relationships. Cohabitators are still more

likely to terminate their relationship than other couples. However, the marginal effect of

having children reduces the probability a couple separates significantly more for

cohabitating couples and married couples with prenuptial agreements compared to

couples in a traditional marriage. Having a child reduces the odds of separation about

four times more for cohabitators than for traditional marriages. For marriages with

prenuptial agreements, the effect is even larger. Having a child reduces the odds of

separation almost ten times more for marriages with prenuptial agreements than those


We have now derived two empirically testable hypotheses:

1. Individuals who enter into a cohabitation arrangement should gain less weight

than individuals who enter into a traditional marriage.

2. Having children should lead to a larger weight gain for cohabitators and married

individuals with a prenuptial agreement compared to couples in traditional


The subsequent sections will test these hypotheses.

5. Results: Does the type of domestic relationship affect body weight?

In order to test whether the type of domestic relationship affects body weight, we

utilize a fixed effects regression. Using ordinary least squares would bias the results due

to the fact that healthier people generally select into marriage. The fixed effects

specification isolates how entering a domestic relationship changes body weight.

Identification comes from within-person changes in BMI over time.

(BMIit – ti-1Σ BMIit) = β0 + β1 (Traditional Marriageit – ti-1Σ Traditional Marriageit) + β2(Prenupit

– ti-1Σ Prenupit) + β3 (Cohabitatorsit – ti-1Σ Cohabitatorsit) + β4(Xit – ti-1Σ

Xit) + (εit – ti-1Σ εit)

The fixed effects regression is valid if the change in marital status is uncorrelated

with unobserved changes that also affect weight. This strong condition is unlikely to

hold. Since our major research question is to test how weight changes across domestic

relationships, however, we only need for unobserved changes affecting weight to be

similar for cohabitators, and both groups of married individuals. In other words, we

assume that sharing a residence with your significant other has a similar affect on weight

for all three groups studied. We attribute any additional differences in weight gain across

the three groups to differences in the probability a relationship will dissolve.

Column 1 of Table 3 shows the results of the fixed effects regression. People gain

weight when entering any of the three domestic relationships. BMI increases by 0.51

after individuals become married and by 0.53 after individuals are married with a

prenuptial agreement. When people begin to cohabitate, however, BMI increases by only

0.27. For individuals of average height, these coefficients imply that the average person

gains 1.7 kg (3.7 lb) after they get married, but would only have gained 0.9 kg (1.9 lb.) if

they had decided to cohabitate without being officially married.1 Weight increases are

significantly less than for cohabitators than for married couples (p<.045). Weight gain

after marriage was similar between individuals who had a prenuptial agreement and those

who did not (p<.783). Cohabitators have a significantly higher probability that their

relationship will dissolve than either of the married groups. Thus, cohabitators have a

strong incentive to maintain their weight because the probability they we re-enter the

dating market is high.

BMI = (Weight in kg)/(Height in m)2. Thus, multiplying the regression coefficients by the average height
squared, (1.753)2, recalibrates the coefficients in terms of the change in weight for the average person.

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It is possible that married individuals are more likely to have children and thus

the increased weight gain upon getting married may be caused entirely by pregnancy. In

order to control for this possibility, we examine males and females separately. Columns

2 of Table 3 show the results for males and column 3 shows the results for females.

Entering a domestic relationship seems to have no statistically significant affect on male

BMI. On the other hand, females gain significant weight after settling down. BMI

increases by 1.3 after entering marriage, but only increases by 0.7 when woman enter a

cohabitating relationship. Weight gain for cohabitators is significantly less than for either

traditional marriage (p<.001) or marriages with a prenup (p<.004).

Are increased pregnancy rates during marriage driving the results here? Column

4 looks at the same fixed effects regression for females who did not become pregnant

during the sample. Females who did not become pregnant still gained weight after

entering a domestic relationship, but those who entered into a cohabitation relationship

gained less weight. Cohabitators increased BMI by 0.5 compared to 0.8 for traditional

marriages and 0.9 for marriages with a prenuptial agreement. Non-pregnant women who

entered into cohabitation arrangements gained significantly less weight that those in

traditional marriages (p<.092) or marriages with prenuptial agreements (p<.069).

Marriage dissolution probabilities affect body weight more for females than for males.

6. Results: How does having children affect body weight?

Having children reduces the probability a couple separates more for cohabitators

and married individuals with a prenuptial agreement than for individuals in a traditional

marriage. According to our second hypothesis, greater increases in BMI should follow

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from larger decreases in the probability of separation. Having a child significantly

reduces the separation probabilities of both cohabirators and marriage individuals with a

prenuptial agreement; for individual in a traditional marriage, the chance of returning to

the dating market was already low so the marginal impact of having a child is smaller.

Our empirical strategy is to use a fixed effect regression to see if people who

cohabitate or have prenuptial agreements gain more weight after have a child. Let Δz=(zit

– ti-1Σ zit). Then our second regression specification is:

ΔBMI = β0 + β1 (Δ traditional marriage) + β2 (Δprenup) + β3(ΔCohabitation) + β4

(ΔKids) + β5 (Δ traditional marriage) (Δkids) + β6 (Δprenup)(Δkids) + β7

(Δcohabitation) (Δ kids) + β8(ΔX)+ Δ ε

We would expect the coefficients on (Δprenup)(Δkids) and (Δcohabitation)(Δkids) to be

greater than the coefficient on (Δtraditional marriage)(Δkids). The marginal weight gain

from having kids should be larger for couples in previously less committed relationships.

Column 1 of Table 4 shows the results of this regression. The marginal weight

gain from having kids is indeed larger for individuals whose marriage has a prenuptial

agreement compared to than individuals whose marriage does not contain a prenuptial

agreement (p<.009). Separation probabilities change more after having children for

married couples with a prenuptial agreement than couples in traditional marriages and

thus weight gain after the birth of a child should be larger for married couples who have a

prenuptial agreement compared to those who do not.

Although we find a large change in weight after the birth of a child for couples

with a prenuptial agreement, there is no statistically significant differential effect for

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cohabitators compared to those with traditional marriage (p<.434). We expected that

after the birth of a child, cohabitator’s weight would increase more than if they were in a

traditional marriage. The data does not bear this out. Since cohabitators have fewer

children, however, there is less variation in the right hand side variable. Thus it is not

surprising that the empirical estimates of the marginal impact of having a child for

cohabitators are imprecise.

The second and third columns of table 4 display the same fixed effects regressions

separately for males and females. For both sexes, having a child increases BMI more for

married individuals with a prenuptial agreement than those in a traditional marriage.

Once again the coefficients on the interaction of the cohabitation and kids variables are

imprecisely measured.

7. Conclusion

Many studies have found that married individuals weigh more than their non-

married peers. Our paper attempts to answer why this may be the case. Maintaining a

healthy body weight involves costly activities such as exercise and food preparation and

the payoff to “looking good” is likely higher for individuals on the dating market than

those who have exited through marriage. Our paper looks at variation in the type of

domestic relationship in order to determine if body weight is affected by the probability

you will re-enter the dating market. A high probability that you will return to the dating

market increases one’s incentive to maintain his body weight; a low probability of

returning to the dating market decreases one’s incentive to maintain his body weight.

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Our data provide evidence that the probability of re-entering the dating market

directly effects body weight. Cohabitatiors are the most likely to re-enter the dating

market. We find that individuals who being to cohabitate gain less weight than

individuals who get married. Children also affect the probability a relationship dissolves.

The marginal effect of having kids on relationship dissolution probabilities is larger for

cohabitators and married couples with prenuptial agreements. After a couple with a

prenuptial agreement has a child, they tend to gain more weight than would be the case if

the same couple had a child under a traditional marriage scenario. Since the traditional

marriage was more secure to begin with, having a child does not affect relationship

dissolution probabilities nearly as much as in the case for marriage with prenuptial

agreement. As our theory predicts, weight gain after having a child is higher for married

couples with a prenuptial agreement than for couples in a traditional marriage.

Understanding the mechanisms through which weight gain occurs is important for

policy-makers. We claim that some portion of weight gain in married individuals is

attributed to the probability a domestic relationship dissolves. A naïve policymaker

might fund programs which destabilize marriage in hopes of reducing of obesity. While

obesity rates may drop as a result of these programs, this is not a wise policy to pursue.

Numerous studies have shown that the health benefits from marriage are great and likely

outweigh the cost marriage imposes on society from increased obesity (Hahn 1993,

Umberson 1992). This paper contributes to the understanding of how weight gain occurs.

Extending this paper to find practical policies which could maintain marriage stability

and decrease obesity rates would be fruitful.

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Table 1: Table of Means

Variable Mean S.D. Min Max
BMI 24.8 4.1 10.4 59.5
Single 0.195 0 1

Marriage Status
Traditional Marriage 0.568 0 1
Marriage with a Prenup 0.091 0 1
Cohabitation 0.095 0 1
Divorced 0.045 0 1
Widowed 0.007 0 1
Kids 1.21 1.23 0 7
Smoker 0.316 0.465 0 1
Male 0.515 0 1
Age 41.1 11.1 18 65
Primary 0.102 0 1
Pre-vocational 0.155 0 1

Pre-university 0.120 0 1
Vocational 0.461 0 1
University 0.148 0 1
Other 0.014 0 1
Income (loon) 35.0 39.8 0 850
Year 2000.0 4.1 1995 2007
n 20518

Table 2

Table 2: Breaking up is Hard to Do (with kids):

Marital status effect on separation probabilities
(1) (2) (3)

(Prenup)t-3 0.610 1.949

(0.322) (1.282)
(Cohabitation)t-3 5.623*** 8.594***
(1.514) (3.312)
(Kids)t-3 0.453*** 1.392
(0.110) (0.507)
(Prenup)(Kids)t-3 0.102
(Cohabitation)(Kids)t-3 0.232*
Coefficents displayed as odds ratios
Education, age, income included in the regression, but not shown
***: p<.01; **: p<.05; *: p<.10

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Table 3: Your significant other and Weight Gain
Female -
Total Male Female Pregnant

Traditional Marriage 0.528*** 0.053 1.262*** 0.813***

(0.152) (0.204) (0.232) (0.278)
Divorced -0.197 -0.500* 0.135 -0.669*
(0.208) (0.284) (0.309) (0.362)
Widowed -0.101 -1.105 0.943* 1.294**
(0.395) (0.700) (0.483) (0.601)
Prenup 0.554*** 0.065 1.264*** 0.868***
(0.170) (0.231) (0.255) (0.304)
Cohabitation 0.287** 0.123 0.672*** 0.456**
(0.134) (0.189) (0.194) (0.222)
Kids -0.058 -0.174 0.059 0.181
(0.082) (0.116) (0.115) (0.139)
Smoker -0.456*** -0.442*** -0.485*** -0.710***
(0.074) (0.103) (0.105) (0.119)

P(Prenup=Trad. Marr.) 0.783 0.933 0.985 0.685

P(Cohab.=Trad. Marr.) 0.045 0.677 0.001 0.092
Fixed Effects Regression
Income and year variables included, but not shown
***: p<.01; **: p<.05; *: p<.10

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Table 4: The marginal effect of having kids on BMI
Total Male Female

Traditional Marriage 0.435** 0.450** 0.481*

(0.163) (0.204) (0.262)
Prenup 0.229 0.250 0.220
(0.198) (0.248) (0.315)
Cohabitation 0.235* 0.258 0.244
(0.130) (0.166) (0.204)
(Traditional Marriage)(Kids) 0.578** -0.575 2.570***
(0.286) (0.351) (0.474)
(Prenup)(Kids) 1.028*** -0.161 3.020***
(0.319) (0.395) (0.521)
(Cohabitation)(Kids) 0.417 -0.298 2.132***
(0.307) (0.386) (0.499)
Kids -0.659** 0.135 -2.285***
(0.276) (0.336) (0.464)
Smoker -0.371** -0.317 -0.493***
(0.069) (0.088) (0.108)

P[(Prenup)(kids)=(Trad Marr)(Kids)] 0.009 0.069 0.078

P[(Cohab.)(kids)=(Trad Marr)(Kids)] 0.434 0.282 0.186
Fixed Effects Regression
Widow & Divorce dummies, all regressors from table 3 included but not shown
***: p<.01; **: p<.05; *: p<.10

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Figure 1

Fat and Happy Marriages: BMI by age and marital status



25.0 Traditional Marraige

Married with Prenup.

23.0 Single


Total 15-30 31-40 41-50 51-65

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