Oct. 13, 2011 -- Focusing too heavily on the "for richer" part of the nuptial vows could spell disaster for a marriage, according to research published today by Brigham Young University and William Paterson University.
In a survey of 1,700 married couples, researchers found that couples in which one or both partners placed a high priority on getting or spending money were much less likely to have satisfying and stable marriages.
"Our study found that materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity. Materialism was also linked to less effective communication, higher levels of negative conflict, lower relationship satisfaction, and less marriage stability," said Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of family life in Provo, Utah, and lead author of the study.
Researchers gauged materialism using self-report surveys that asked questions such as to what extent do you agree with these statements? "I like to own things to impress people" or "money can buy happiness." Spouses were then surveyed on aspects of their marriage.
For one out of every five couples in the study, both partners admitted a strong love of money. These couples were worse off in terms of marriage stability, marriage satisfaction, communications skills and other metrics of healthy matrimony that researchers studied.
The one out of seven couples that reported low-levels of materialism in both partners scored 10 to 15 percent higher in all metrics of marital quality and satisfaction. Interestingly, the correlation between materialism and marital difficulties remained stable regardless of the actual wealth of the couple.
The Things That Money Just Can't Buy
Study authors and marriage experts noted that the findings probably have to do with the personality traits that go along with materialism. They will be published today in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy.
"The finding does not necessarily mean that it is the materialism itself that damages their relationships. ... A materialistic orientation may be associated with other unidentified factors, such as childhood deprivation or neglect, which might play a more pivotal role in adult marital satisfaction," said Don Catherall, professor of clinical psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Northwestern University in Chicago. "Of course, it may also simply mean that people who are more focused on making money have less energy and interest left to invest in their marriages."
Other studies have shown that materialism is correlated with a host of personality traits and interpersonal skills that might hinder a marriage.
"People who are materialistic tend to be narcissistic and concerned with impressing people," said Susan Heitler, a Denver-based clinical psychologist and creator of marriage resource site Poweroftwomarriage.com. "They have a tendency to be anxious, depressed, have relatively poor relationship skills and have low self-esteem. These qualities in turn can cause marital problems."
Heitler recalls one patient who said that whenever she felt empty in her relationship, she would "fill up the hole" by buying lots of things and this would make her feel better. Her husband, who didn't share this love of buying, would then "kindly return all of it because they couldn't afford what she had bought," Heitler recounted, "and the wife was grateful that he would return it because she didn't really want the stuff in the end, but she got satisfaction from the purchasing."
Such a pattern highlights another dynamic researchers found, when one partner is highly materialistic and the other is not.
Relationships usually fair better when partners share priorities and values, but researchers found that the opposite was true in this case. When only one partner was materialistic and the other not, the non-materialistic partners seemed to buoy the marriage, resulting in higher levels of satisfaction, communication and stability in marriages made of mismatched couples when compared to dual-materialistic ones.
"Spouses that are mismatched on materialism may do better in their relationships than spouses with shared materialistic values because at least one spouse may possess more 'other-centeredness' and 'emotional readiness,'" said Laura Frame, clinical psychologist and supervisor of the Supporting Healthy Relationships Program at Montefiore Medical Center in New York City.
The findings will be published today in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy.