Ah to be rich, living large in the comfortable lap of luxury. Many images come readily to mind of yachting with friends and family, or honeymoons in remote and exotic locations. Suffice it to say that when it comes to those who reach the higher income brackets, success breeds success. Children of the wealthy attend the best schools and therefore hope to secure higher paying jobs. Well heeled contacts and indeed arm-in-arm nepotism ensures opportunities that few can only dream of. But as the Beatles famously said, “money can’t buy you love”, or marital success for that matter. But is this true? Do the affluent have a greater chance of keeping their families together?
We often hear that the family that plays together stays together and few have the ability to play as lavishly or as often as the wealthy. But what do we really know about how these families fare beyond the idle daydreams and the outrageous claims of the tabloids? For argument’s sake lets exclude the problems associated with fame. Anyone would agree that adding the pressures and privileges of fame to the mix creates a false equivalency. We can all relate to money problems but fame by definition is an issue for the few. So how do the wealthy compare to the rest of us when it comes to successful marriages and lasting family bonds? To find the real answer requires more than data mining the available statistical evidence, but let’s start there anyway.
Too much money is probably not the cause of squabbles
The first stat, and it would seem the most cited by publications is that arguments about money just a few times a month is an major predictor of early divorce according to a study published by Dr. Sonya Britt of Kansas State University in 2004. Her study focused on 4,500 couples as part of the National Survey of Families and Households and leaves little doubt that disputes over money are the biggest icebergs in the marital waters. Mulling that tidbit over for a moment immediately skews the evidence in favour of long happy marriages for the rich. Having too much money is probably not a cause of squabbles in any income bracket. Still, it would seem that this is not good news for the working class proletariat. On the surface anyway. But as you look deeper, it seems this study may not tell the whole story.
It may be a bitter pill for the rest of us
Let’s start with what psychological studies have revealed about the money equals happiness equation. In a 2003 study reported in the journal of Psychological Science (Vol. 14, No. 6) it was found that people who started with high aspirations for financial success were least likely to have found happiness when asked two decades later. The study followed 12,000 people over 19 years, all of whom had attended elite colleges. It would not be a stretch to say that most who attend an elite college are probably not underprivileged. So success may breed further success as we all agree, but it may not necessarily include happiness. This would indicate that the Beatles were right, at least if they claimed money bought happiness rather than love. Conversely, the study also found that those who cared less about achieving financial independence reported higher life satisfaction from the get go. Compelling, but it doesn’t end there because the study goes on to say that when the income level of those who aspired to wealth went up, so too did their reported life satisfaction.
This would seem in keeping with many studies and though it may be a bitter pill for the rest of us, indicates that higher and more stable income leads to fewer arguments about money; which as we’ve established, is a higher predictor of divorce. But there is another factor it seems that is cited as a red flag for financial discord between spouses and this one speaks more to human nature than to socioeconomics. It was found in a study of the Swedish Census statistics by Liu & Vikat in 2004 that the probability of divorce increased as the woman began to earn as much or more than their spouse. This is pretty significant when sifting for the elusive answer because it suggests that lack of money may not be the only factor in financial disagreements. Rather it tells us that money in a relationship can also define the role or dominance of one partner over another and depending on how comfortable we are with that role will determine how happy we are in it. That fact can affect even the most well-to-do couple.
Do the poor divorce more often?
So what do national census statistics have to say about divorce among the highest income brackets or among those that the average person would consider to be independently wealthy. Well, strictly speaking there are no statistics of this kind collected by government agencies. Census polls in the G8 nations typically do not calculate household incomes above $250-300,000 per year and while that is enough income to make anyone comfortable it does not indicate accrued wealth. So how do we get our answer? Well, by looking the other way so-to-speak. Do the poor divorce more often? The answer seems to be — sort of? The numbers tell us that if you fall into the lowest income brackets you are more likely to separate, but less likely to divorce. Why? Because they are too poor to afford divorce! That beggars belief, but according to a study conducted by Ohio State University in 2012 many couples remain legally separated for up to 10 years before being able to afford divorce proceedings; especially when children were involved. But here other factors step in to muddy the waters and thwarting a direct answer to the question wealth as an predictor of marital bliss. Contributing factors that swell divorce numbers among the poor include issues of health, addiction and lifestyle problems, so while money is an unbalanced factor, it is not the only one by half. So where does this leave us?
Serious studies do not seem to focus on the marriages of the rich
It may be time to step outside the argument for a moment. It seems that when you go down this rabbit hole the studies, statistics and opinions overlap and reinforce one central fact: Money issues can and do ruin marriages.
While it’s true that divorce occurs more often among the poor, it is also true that serious studies do not seem to focus on the marriages of the rich or even super rich, despite the amount of play they get in the media. That said, if we have to make a call based on available data it looks like wealthy families really do have more success staying together. But why? Does this say more about the nature of marriage as an economic as well as a romantic union, or about money and it’s intrinsic value, or even about the values of our consumerist society? Remember, a key lesson from the aforementioned study in the journal of Psychological Science was that those who valued wealth were, unsurprisingly, most unhappy when they didn’t have it, whereas those who valued the non-monetary reported greater life satisfaction regardless. Could this mean that our central focus may be the problem? As a wealthy friend once quipped, “If you make a million dollars a year, but you owe a million and one then you might as well be poor.” And based on what we now know, there’s a good chance your marriage will suffer as a result — whether you are rich, or poor. One thing is for certain however: A financial planner may be the marriage counselor of the new millennium.