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For Your Marriage

Marriage Today covers current trends and research pertaining to marriage and family life in today's world.

How Materialism Harms a Marriage

There is little disagreement today that money is a key factor in a large percentage of marital conflicts. Not always equally clear are the reasons for that.

Some of those who investigate the causes of conflict in marriage have suggested that a real culprit here is materialism – an underlying conviction that money and what it can buy are of utmost importance for couples’ lives, happiness and sense of success.

A common belief about materialism in marriage has been that conflicts erupt when spouses disagree on the basics of money and spending. Perhaps spouses go to bed angry after failing to agree on the amount of money they ought to be saving – even whether they ought to save at all. Perhaps one spouse believes strongly that the couple should formulate a household budget, but the other considers a budget an unneeded hindrance.

According to such assessments, a husband and wife who differ from each other in the basic value they place on money and spending are the kind of couple who suffer the most due to materialism. Indeed, these couples may suffer for that reason, but another group of couples apparently suffers even more.

Jason Carroll at Brigham Young University’s School of Family Life in Provo, Utah, has proposed that the couples at greatest risk of suffering for materialism-related reasons are those who agree with each other that money is of utmost importance – spouses, that is, who both place a high priority on earning money and spending it.

Carroll and his colleagues published a study devoted specifically to materialism and marriage this October in the Journal of Couple and Relationship Therapy. In a culture that encourages people to spend, spend, spend, and informs them that spending is essential to the nation’s financial well-being, the findings of this study seem decidedly countercultural.

Its key finding is that couples who share a materialistic view of life – couples, that is, whose values about money are the same – consistently reported having the most problematic relationships.

By contrast, a couple was better off when both husband and wife ranked low on the materialism scale.

And finally, in terms of harm suffered due to materialism, couples fell in-between those two groups when one spouse was quite materialistic, though the other was not.

Thus, marital problems stemming from materialism were at their worst not when a husband and wife differed in the value they attached to money, but when they agreed that it possesses high value.

Still, wherever it is found in marriage, materialism is detrimental, the study indicated. It said “materialism likely has harmful effects” for a couple “regardless of whether the value is shared” by both husband and wife.

Carroll noted that the study, based on a national sample of 1,734 couples, found that in some 20 percent of marriages both spouses have high levels of materialism, and in some 14 percent of marriages both spouses have low levels of materialism.

Materialism is harmful in marriage for two primary reasons, Carroll believes. “First, materialism may cause spouses to spend money unwisely, thus creating financial stress in the marriage.”

Second, however, Carroll said that “spouses who place a high value on money are often less responsive to their partner and less focused on the relationship.” He thinks these couples “seek happiness in possessions, not people,” and this “means they put less time and energy into making their marriage a success.”

The study said that materialistic couples also “tend to report more problem areas in their relationships – including financial problems – than do other” couples. The degree to which a couple espouses “a materialistic orientation in their marriage may impact how much and how frequently financial matters impact” their marital well-being, according to the study.

It offered several recommendations to marriage educators and therapists. “In today’s consumer culture, it may be particularly important … to help couples to carefully distinguish between their ‘needs’ and their ‘wants’ when it comes to family spending,” it said.

Attention also should be given to couples’ “financial expectations.” The study observed:

“Many people do not see their financial expectations as too high because they compare their spending habits to others who have more. Couples who typically compare up the financial ladder may be more likely to feel a sense of entitlement and resentment, which may contribute to marital stress and conflict.”

When couples already are experiencing financial strain, the study said that “helping them scale-back expectations is often the key to making the changes in spending habits and lifestyle patterns that will allow them to regain financial stability.”

What’s more, the study said that helping couples learn to “manage materialistic attitudes” may be “particularly relevant in the current economic context where financial resources may be lower than many couples’ expectations.”

About the author 
David Gibson served for 37 years on the editorial staff at Catholic News Service, where he was the founding and long-time editor of Origins, CNS Documentary Service. David received a bachelor’s degree from St. John’s University in Minnesota and an M.A. in religious education from The Catholic University of America. Married for 38 years, he and his wife have three adult daughters and six grandchildren.