Are Couples Happier in a Bigger Home?

Don’t fall for the hype about people needing more square footage to stay married. Decades of serious sociological research kick this hypothesis to the curb.

In the classic movie, Citizen Kane, home size looms large. In the gigantic, gloomy mansion of Xanadu, marital misery creeps to the foreground. The wife of millionaire (how quaint) Charles Foster Kane begins to hate her palatial home and her overbearing husband:

“You always said you wanted to live in a palace.”

“Well, a person could go crazy in this dump.”

The real problem with this couple, however, isn’t the home. It’s how they see the world. Does anyone really believe that’s no longer true of romantic relations, that domestic bliss is now determined by the size of your pantry?

Are Couples Happier in a Bigger Home

Surveys suggesting that couples need bigger houses to be happy ignore the real reason couples thrive or fail.

You may have caught a recent headline about a study by a lighting company that found that millennial couples (along with other age groups) with homes in the 1810-square-foot range tend to be happier than the poor, cramped counterparts in the 1566-square-foot category.

The survey this company used to “unveil” this secret sauce of relationships is a controversial crowdsourcing tool by Amazon called Mechanical Turk. One of the key criticisms of this online data tool (caveat, I believe that algorithms are the enemy of humankind), is that it should not be generalized to the U.S. public.

Yet here we are.

Big Living Backlash

My problem with this kind of survey overreach is that the results can be mishandled to perpetuate myths that end up becoming memes. Oversized housing in the United States is a trend that I’ve been trying to slow and even reverse for 30 years as part of my research and writing. 

It’s an uphill struggle, not unlike trying to power down the overblown belief in upward mobility here. What results from the housing size myth, despite research showing that most of us only use a tiny fraction of our spacious homes, is a continued expansion of square footage in new homes. That translates into huge resource consumption, both at the construction stage and especially during the lifespan of the home.

This problem is now an existential one, as the Climate Emergency looms over us, and the cost of heating and cooling our “great white whale” homes increases with each season. We need to downsize, not upsize, our CO2 footprints.

According to “The average house size in the US was 225 m2 (2426 ft2) in 2017.  The average house size in the UK is relatively small at 76 m2 (818 ft2) while the average house size in Canada is quite big at 181 m2 (1,948 ft2).  For China the data only reflects urban properties, which now average 60 m2 (646 ft2) and have almost doubled in size in the last 15 years.”

If you interpret this data through the silo of the above mentioned survey, couples in the UK must be miserable, while couples in the US and UK never get out of bed. But what if I step outside the square footage silo, and look at other data, such as divorce rates? About 39% of UK marriages end in divorce. In the US, that figure is 46%.

I’m playing loose with numbers here, to illustrate how focusing on just one stream of data can lead to unsupported conclusions. Maybe people in the United States are just harder to tolerate as mates for the long haul. Or maybe the Brits stick together to uphold religious tradition. Who knows what percent of the 46% of U.S. divorcees live in small versus large homes?

Let me take this example of data silos a bit further. None of the social science research I found even mentions housing size as one of the top five or 10 reasons for conflicts between couples. On the contrary, the biggest disruptors were typically finances, intimacy, careers, kids and chores.

In other words, suggesting that by adding 100 square feet to your new home plan might spare you some couples therapy is stretching a thin hypothesis beyond its design limits.

It’s a fact that American homes tend to be large, frankly much too large to defend with any rational defense. The research shows that our desire to live large probably isn’t rational. It’s emotional based on one of the cardinal sins: envy. We don’t want our neighbors to appear to be more successful than we are.

I’ve researched and written on this topic repeatedly over the years. People (including couples) can live happily in much smaller homes. In fact, research suggests that a person needs about 400 square feet of living space to feel comfortable. That’s 800 square feet per couple.

Let’s not be swept up by misleading data into continuing to believe our homes need to be larger to satisfy the empty spaces inside our relationships.

Publisher’s Note: This content is made possible by our Today’s Homeowner Campaign Sponsors: Whirlpool and Carrier. These companies take sustainability seriously, in both their products and their operations. Learn more about building and buying homes that are more affordable and less resource intensive.