Buying new things makes us happy, right? It does invite a quick spurt of what PT blogger Loretta Bruening refers to as our "happy chemicals." That's why we feel good when we acquire new things, and especially if we feel that the new purchases boost our status. But does buying bring us lasting happiness? Or love, which many of us associate with ultimate happiness? Alas, the Beattles' Paul McCartney's song may be all too true: "Can't buy me love...". Can money and more things, in fact, inadvertently bring an increase in marriage problems?
Psychology researchers at Brigham Young University and William Paterson University have just released a striking study of materialism and marriage. The article, written by Caroll, Dean, Call and Busby and published in the Journal of Couple & Relationship Therapy, describes the results of their study of materialistic values in 1700 couples, which is a whoppingly large marriage study. What did the researchers find?
Couples that place a high value on getting and spending find their marriages less satisfying. Those who put least emphasis on materialism tend to enjoy more gratifying marriages.
The study uncovered multiple additional intriguing findings. Here's a list of several that I found especially interesting.
1. The Link With Narcissism
Spouses who scored high on materialism tended to score high also on narcissism, the tendency to be "all about me."
I found this a fascinating potential confirmation of my personal theory that narcissism is the next stop down the spectrum from autism to Aspergers and beyond. Folks on the "autistic spectrum" tend to related more comfortably to things than to people. Look at any computer lab and you'll see many people, primarily male, who prefer interacting with their computer to interacting with friends or family. Narcissists may similarly connect more comfortably with things than with their families. Hence the materialism-narcissism-marriage problems link.
In addition, as quoted by Courtney Hutchinson at abcnews.com, Jason Carroll, a BYU professor of family life in Provo, Utah and the lead author of the study explains, "Our study found that materialism was associated with spouses having lower levels of responsiveness and less emotional maturity."
Low responsivity to the concerns of a partner is characteristic of people with a narcissistic orientation. Folks who are 'all about me' tend to dismiss or argue with their partner's attempts to voice their concerns. Yet responsivity, that is, willingness to listen seriously and take responsive action, to a partner's concerns is one of the best indicators of a lasting marriage.
2. Marriage Skill Deficits
The study indicated that spouses who scored high on Materialism tended to score high on habits like blaming, criticizing or complaining that yield unpleasant conflict and relatively low on effective communication skills, relationship satisfaction, and marriage stability.
That is, with or without narcissism, folks who highly value getting more things and demonstrating their economic success with fancy cars and big houses have fewer of the skills that make marriages successful.
3. In What Percentage of Couples Are Both Spouses Similarly Materialistic?
To measure materialism the researchers used via self-report surveys that asked "To what extent do you agree with these statements?" The statements included sentences like, "I like to own things to impress people" and "Money can buy happiness."
In 14.3% of couples, that's one out of seven, both partners scored themselves as having low levels of materialism. These turn out to be the most fortunate folks in terms of marriage success. Couples in which neither spouse takes all that seriously luxuries that money can buy scored 10 to 15 percent higher in positive marriage communication skills and in enjoying their marriage. In fact, they obtained highest scores in pretty much all of the dimensions of marital quality.
In sharp contrast, in about 20% of the couples, that's one in five couples, both spouses ranked high on statements indicating they placed a high value on materialism. These couples generally showed lower levels of marriage satisfaction.
I was surprised to see that more couples fell into the jointly materialistic category than into the jointly non-materialistic. That's sad for their happiness, but probably good for the economy.
4. What About Half and Half Couples?
The finding that most surprised the researchers was about marriage satisfaction in the one-of-each couples. When one spouse was materialistic and the other significantly less so, the marriage was less successful than those couples where both were non-materialistic. That's no surprise. What was unexpected though was that mixed couples do better in marriage than couples where both scored high on materialism.
A half a couple, that is, a couple that has one spouse with low materialism and high marriage skills, turns out to be better than none.
The researchers had expected the split couples to a have harder time than couples where the values were matched. They assumed that differences on any value, including materialism, would create an area where conflict was likely. Turned out they were wrong.
What matters, it seems, is not so much that there are areas of difference in a marriage. Rather what makes marriages successful are the couples' skills for talking through their differences. When even one spouse has pretty good talking and listening skills, that's far better than if neither has them. The non-materialistic spouses who had better partnering skills lifted the level of the marriage for both spouses.
5. Does Money Matter?
No! The study found no correlation between actual wealth and degree of materialism. Some wealthy folks were high on materialism, others quite low. Some folks with more modest incomes were high on materialism and others similarly low.
Other studies have found similar results regarding the importance of money in marriage happiness. Extreme poverty does put additional stresses on marriage, but once couples have at least more or less enough money to cover their basic living expenses, how much money they have beyond that is basically irrelevant to their happiness.
Looks like it's not how much money a couple has, or even how much they value having lots of fancy things that's a good or a bad sign. What undermines a marriage is insufficient partnership communication skills.
As an advocate of marriage education, I love this study. Problems emerge for couples who are high in materialism if they are low on marriage communication skills. The good news is that upgrading the skills for collaborative talking together that sustain strong marriages is something any couple can decide to go for.
What I'd love to see next is a study of what happens to materialistic couples once they learn how to do partnership more collaboratively. I'd bet my money on them shifting onto the side of marriage happiness!
Susan Heitler, PhD, a Harvard and NYU grad and Denver clinical psychologist, is author of multiple publications including The Power of Two. Dr. Heitler's most recent project is an interactive website, PowerOfTwoMarriage.com, that teaches the skills for marriage success.