Why Materialistic People Are Less Happy in Marriage

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Hot on the heels of a study suggesting that people who have a car, investments or other personal wealth are more likely to marry drops the other shoe: a study that suggests that people who prioritize money are less likely to be satisfied in said marriages.

According to the new study, conducted by researchers at Brigham Young University (BYU) and William Paterson University (WPU), self-reported materialists — those who draw a lot of happiness from money and possessions — do not make for happy spouses, compared with those who get their jollies elsewhere. Couples who say wealth is not that big a deal score about 10% to 15% better on marriage stability and other indicators of relationship quality.

Researchers surveyed a nationwide sample of more than 1,700 couples, asking them, among other questions, to rate how true this statement was: Money and things have never been important to me. Those who disagreed with the statement (i.e., scored high on materialism) tended to score low on questions that tested emotional maturity and responsiveness to their partners. “Materialism was also linked to less effective communication, higher levels of negative conflict, lower relationship satisfaction and less marriage stability,” says lead author Jason Carroll, a social science researcher at BYU.

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So what are we saying here, that people who love money and stuff are horrible partners and should be red-flagged on Or that people who don’t know that it’s impolite to admit to loving money are too socially inept — or too candid — to make very good spouses? (Also, does this explain the trouble those ladies were always having on Sex and the City?) Carroll doesn’t think it’s about social ineptness. “While admitting publicly that one is focused on money is poor form,” he says, “our survey is private so there is less reason to disguise one’s values and motives.”

Fighting over money is one of the four horsemen of the divorcealypse, of course, and very few couples escape disagreement completely. But the common wisdom has been that problems arise when couples have differing attitudes toward money, or, in many cases, when they have a sheer lack of cash.

Carroll’s analysis, which was published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, suggests it’s not the money itself, but the love of money that’s at the heart of the heartache. “Our study found that it is actually the couples who both place a high value on money that struggle the most,” he says. If one spouse places less value on money than the other, his results suggest, the marriage tends to be happier than if two moolah-junkies end up together.

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Simply having money, which means essentially that the materialist is getting what he or she wants, was not a cure-all. Regardless of income — and materialistic couples tend to be better off financially — the negative influence of materialism on marital quality was the same.

How many people are we talking about? According to the survey results, both spouses were highly materialistic in about 20% of marriages, and either the husband or wife was materialistic in 25%. That’s a lot of couples with issues.

So why is the love of money so bad for domestic contentment? Carroll has two suggestions. The desire to have stuff may cause materialists to burn through their marital funds, thus causing tension in the marriage. Secondly, he theorizes, making pots of money and spending it takes a lot of time, effort and focus, leaving less of all of that for the relationship. “[Materialists] seek happiness in possessions, not people,” says Carroll. “This means they put less time and energy into making their marriage a success.”

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Note: This story was updated to reflect that researchers at WPU had also worked on the study.