For years, Jeffrey Dew was told that arguments over finances kill more marriages than anything else. But when he looked for social science studies proving the point, he couldn't find any.
He'd have to test the theory himself. Dew, an assistant professor in the Department of Family, Consumer and Human Development at Utah State University, and colleagues from Kansas and Texas teamed up for research that found money arguments really do predict divorce, trumping the other things couples are most likely to fight about — sex, chores, time spent together and in-laws.
When people feel like they are being treated unfairly, their satisfaction falls, especially true with money issues, said co-author Sonya Britt, assistant professor and program director of personal financial planning at Kansas State University.
The study, "Examining the Relationship Between Financial Issues and Divorce," was published first several months ago online in Family Relations journal. It was based on long-term data from more than 4,500 couples as part of the National Survey of Families and Households.
For women, the hot-button arguments were about money and sex, said Dew, but money was the stronger predictor of marriage failure. For men, money was the only type of argument that predicted divorce.
Dew said he always controls his studies to eliminate the influence of race, education and income. In this study, the researchers also controlled for savings levels and debt as measures of a couple's financial stability.
Fighting about money was a risk factor for divorce across economic situations.
While the study didn't ask couples for the details of their money arguments, "it is my conclusion based on prior work that a lot of money arguments are the result of power differentials or feelings of not being treated fairly," Britt said. "When one partner makes more money than the other partner, the couple has to decide if they each get to spend equal amounts of money on personal preference items."
She said her own research has found couples fight more often when the wife earns more than her husband. "Even today, there appear to be 'standards' that the man should be the breadwinner of the family. If he's not, there could be disagreements on how much he should be contributing to the household work to compensate for the woman contributing more to the financial affairs."
If couples are dissatisfied long enough, she said, they divorce.
Dew sees three possible reasons money fights lead to divorce. Fights often occur because a couple is under great financial stress, possibly from increased expenses or job loss. "Being under financial stress is just never a good thing for couples. It's hard and wearing," he said.
It could also be because of "hidden meanings we associate with money — ideas about how money should be spent, the best use for it. One might think the best use is to gain status, while someone else might value it for security and peace of mind. Differing perspectives can be a problem."
Much of a person's sense of money's purpose is unconscious, related to the familes they grew up in, he said. "It's deeply symbolic."
Money is also sometimes a proxy for deeper problems in a relationship, like trust and power struggles. "They don't get the deeper issues resolved, so relationships fall apart," Dew said.
Couples need to discuss what matters to them financially, such as how much money each will be able to spend without consulting the other, Britt said. How much doesn't matter, as long as they agree on an amount.
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