Loving money may not be good for your love life, according to new research that finds that materialists have unhappier marriages than couples who don't care much about possessions.
The effect holds true across all levels of income, said study researcher Jason Carroll, a professor of family life at Brigham Young University. And a materialist marrying a like-minded soul may not get off the hook: The least satisfying marriages were those in which both spouses cared strongly about material goods.
"We thought it would be the incongruent or unmatched pattern that would be most problematic, where one's a spender and one's a saver," Carroll told LiveScience. "Our study found that it's the couples where both spouses have high levels of materialism that struggle the most.* [Read: 6 Scientific Tips for a Successful Marriage]
Years of previous research have turned up compelling evidence that materialism isn't great for anybody, Carroll said. Multiple studies have found that people who are materialistic are also more anxious, depressed, and insecure than non-materialistic types. A stronger love of money has also been linked to trouble at home, as these individuals tend not to balance family evenly with work.
Carroll and his colleagues have been studying materialism and marriage because few researchers have examined how attitudes about money affect relationships. More commonly, scientists have studied the financial situation itself to link money troubles to marital strife. But people can be perfectly well-off and still harbor anxieties about money, Carroll said.
"We really wanted to look at the meaning side of it, and the values people bring to this part of marriage and family life," he said.
The researchers collected online questionnaires from 1,734 married couples through the RELATE Institute, a national research non-profit. The institute provides an online, research-based "relationship assessment" questionnaire that is used by marriage counselors, educators and curious couples alike. For people taking the test on their own instead of through a participating professional, results cost $20 per person, but the money goes into the institute and none of the researchers in the consortium profit from the tests, Carroll said.
Couples filling out the questionnaires responded to queries about their marital satisfaction, conflict patterns, marital communication, marriage stability and other factors. They also rated their agreement with the phrase "Having money and lots of things has never been important to me." People who agreed were categorized as non-materialistic, while those who disagreed qualified as materialistic.
Materialism and marriage
Of the marriages studied, 14 percent were matches between two non-materialists. In about 11 percent, the wife was highly materialistic while the husband was not; in another 14 percent, that mismatched pattern was reversed. Twenty percent of couples were made up of two married materialists. The rest of the couples fell into the middle ground of neither particularly materialistic nor money-eschewing.
Across the board, Carroll said, those marriages with at least one materialistic spouse were worse off on all measures than marriages where neither spouse was materialistic. Non-materialistic couples were about 10 percent to 15 percent better off in categories including marital satisfaction, marriage stability and lower levels of conflict, Carroll said. (It didn't matter whether the materialistic spouse was the man or the woman, he added.)
"What we found was a general pattern that materialism seems to be harmful to marriage," Carroll said. "It's probably best described as an erosion effect … What we see is across all of these areas, a notable and significant decrease for couples where one or both of the spouses were materialistic."
It seems reasonable to expect that mismatched marriages would be the unhappiest, given that a marriage between a spendthrift and a saver would seem headed for conflict. But that's not what the study found, Carroll said.
"Even when it's a shared value, [materialism] seems to have an additive effect," he said. "It seems to compound the problem."
The study couldn't test how materialism erodes a marriage, but Carroll and his colleagues have a couple of theories. The first is that materialism causes spouses to make bad financial decisions, spending beyond their means, getting in debt and stressing each other out.
Another possibility, Carroll said, is that people who are materialistic spend less time nurturing their relationships with people in their haste to get things.
"They simply don't give relationships the same priority and attention as non-materialistic spouses," Carroll said.
Although only married couples were studied, Carroll said he'd expect to see similar patterns in long-term couples, or couples who are cohabitating but not married.
So what can be done if you love your spouse but really want that shiny new BMW, too? Carroll said that for most people, materialism isn't black-and-white: People think they can pursue their toys but keep their relationship strong at the same time, and they may not realize how much their ambitions are hurting their loved ones. For most couples, breaking the materialistic thought process should help, Carroll said.
"I think it's about people stepping back and taking an inventory of their values and what really is important to them," Carroll said. "Are we allowing some of our materialistic ambitions to get in the way of things that really, at the core, matter a lot to us?"
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Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.