Of all the things you might consider in the aftermath of a breakup, I posit that it’s unlikely you stopped to consider that, had you and your significant other had an extra few hundred square feet of space in the apartment you shared, maybe you’d still be on the couch together watching the latest season of Stranger Things. After all, true love of the fairy-tale variety has nothing to do with how much money you have, and therefore, it’s most definitely not based on how big your house is… right?
According to a study from Sofary.com, a lighting company that surveyed more than 900 people about living with their partners, the more space couples had to share, the more likely they were to feel satisfied with their relationship. “As little as 100 square feet might make up the difference between a happy couple and one on the brink of collapse,” it reports. “For Baby Boomers, people satisfied with their significant other lived in 1,835 square feet of space, compared to 1,733 square feet for unhappy couples. For millennials, the gap was much wider. While millennials happy with their relationship had 1,810 square feet of space to share, on average, those feeling dissatisfied tried to make 1,566 square feet work instead.”
It’s important to note that the average American home has greatly increased in size since the 1970s. “The average size of new homes built in the United States grew 62 percent from 1,660 square feet in 1973 to 2,687 square feet in 2015, an increase of 1,027 square feet, according to the U.S. Census Bureau,” reports NewHomeRescource.com.
Interestingly however, there’s at least one reason to further interrogate the survey’s findings. A recent paper written by Clément Bellet, a postdoctoral fellow at the European business school INSEAD, argues that while homes have been steadily increasing in size, the satisfaction one draws from the size of their house only lasts as long as someone else on the block doesn’t build a bigger house. “By his calculation, if homes in the 90th percentile were 10 percent bigger, the neighbors would be less pleased with their own homes unless those homes grew 10 percent as well,” reports The Atlantic. “Moreover, the homeowners most sensitive to such shifts are the ones whose houses are in the second-biggest tier, not the ones whose houses are median-sized.”
In other words, more space usually correlates with greater happiness, but only as long as you perceive your home to be bigger than your neighbors’. “If I bought a house to feel like I’m ‘the king of my neighborhood,’ but a new king arises, it makes me feel very bad about my house,” Bellet wrote in an email to The Atlantic.
Of course, all this talk of bigger homes and greater space seems to forget all the difficulties that come along with living in a big house. “More space and more stuff also means more cleaning, repairs and a heavier mental load of household chores,” writes Bonnie Kristian for The Week. “This is especially true for women, who continue to do more housework than men, even when they work outside the home or — appallingly — when sharing a home with an unemployed man. A bigger house means more to mow, more to vacuum, more to clean, ad nauseam.”
Speaking more to the issue of why space might elevate happiness levels in a relationship, licensed marriage and family therapist Allen Wagner tells me that while he’s not prescribing that everyone needs a mansion to be happy, he does think that space can help a couple maintain a healthy sexual relationship when they have kids. “If you have 2,000 square feet of space, that means the kids are further away from your bedroom so you can be sexual without worrying,” says Wagner. “It also means kids can go to bed and you can still be downstairs, or have enough space to be able to watch TV without waking them up. When people have space, it helps them quarantine certain areas.”
Additionally, Wagner suggests that more space gives a couple more flexibility to calm down without having to leave the home in the case of an argument. “When I’m doing conflict resolution, I instruct couples not to look each other,” he says. “They need to not be in each other’s eye line so that things don’t escalate.”
So while it’s certainly true that money and mansions can’t help fix a broken relationship, and its further true that a 400-square-foot studio apartment isn’t going to be the primary reason why two people break up, there’s a reason why people move to the suburbs when they’re planning on settling down. In just about every sense of the phrase, they do so because they need more space.