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The One Argument that can End your Long-Term Relationship

Which arguments threaten a relationship? Hint: They're not about sex

Over the course of a long-term relationship, couples can argue about almost everything. Even a seemingly insignificant dispute over practically nothing can escalate, in an unhappy couple, into a major blowup. However, one area stands out as particularly detrimental, namely, arguing over money. Why, and how, money disputes factor into relationship quality is the topic of a fascinating new long-term study on relationship satisfaction and predictors of divorce in a large sample of married women.

In an earlier blog posting, I wrote about the results of a longitudinal study of marriage that I called The 12 Ties that Bind Long-term Relationships. I could title this one “The One Tie that Unbinds a Long-term Relationship.” As surprising as it may seem, money trumps unfaithfulness, children, who does what around the house, incompatibility, and sexual problems as a cause of marital distress.

Providing perhaps a new slant on unlocking the secrets of happiness in long-term relationships, Sonya Britt of Kansas State University’s Institute of Personal Financial Planning teamed up with Texas Tech’s Sandra Huston, also a financial planning professor to investigate the role of money arguments in marriage. They had at their disposal a remarkable data set consisting of a long-term follow-up of nearly 1700 women studied over the years of 1988 to 2006, originally tested through the National Longitudinal Study of Youth, begun in 1979.

Not surprisingly, given their expertise in financial planning, Britt and Huston based their theory of money arguments on a social exchange view of relationships. This approach predicts the odds of a couple’s remaining together on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. The theory states, to put it simply, if you believe you will get more out of the relationship by remaining in it than getting out, you will stay. If you feel you will get less, you’ll leave, or never become entangled in a long-term commitment to begin with.

Britt and Huston also looked at the couple’s relationship in terms of what they called “spousal specific investments.” These are the investments of time and energy that each partner makes in the relationship which increase the gains they can get from it that can’t be transferred to any other kind of relationship. According to this view, the more that couples agree about finances in their marriage, the greater the likelihood that they will see a value in remaining together. Partners in a long-term relationship also jointly invest in other areas of life, including children. As with money, couples invest in the time and effort they put into parenting. Overall, however, the best predictor from an economic standpoint of whether a couple will stay together is the length of time they’ve been together so far. The more years you invest in your relationship, the less inclined you are to end it, all other things being equal.

From this economic vantage point, the factors that can keep a marriage together include these investments of time, effort, and emotional energy. In addition, spouses try to maximize the chances of a successful marriage by spending time searching for the right mate. Through “assortive mating” they also tend to choose partners who are more similar than different to them unless they see an advantage to finding a partner who brings other strengths to the relationship.

You might find this approach to be a bit too calculated and bottom-line oriented. After all, how can you put a price tag on romance? However, we are learning that the science of relationships doesn’t necessarily boil down to emotions alone. Partners in a marriage are like partners in a business. Each invests precious capital in the other, hoping to get the most out of the joint venture as individuals and as a team.

Back to the study itself, then. The sample included women only, which admittedly is a limitation that Britt and Huston acknowledge. Therefore, we have to keep in mind that the story the findings tell is from the wife’s point of view. Balancing this limitation, the study is unique in the relationship literature in its large size and follow-up nature. Because of this, we can see what the relationships were like over time and, for the divorced, before the break-up. The in-depth nature of the study also enhances its value. In addition to questions about arguments and relationship quality, the research team had a host of controls they could provide over the key factors of interest, giving them the opportunity to eliminate a number of competing explanations.

The study’s participants rated their satisfaction on a simple 3-point scale of very, fairly, and not-too-happy. This further was pared down to happy vs. unhappy in the set of analyses looking at relationship quality. The second outcome was married or divorced; within the divorced group, Britt and Huston had at their disposal data on the length of marriage prior to divorce. There were a maximum of 9 ratings of money arguments over the course of the study, taken approximately every 2 years. Depending on when participants reported their money woes beginning, they fell into 3 groups based on whether money argument increased, decreased, or remained the same.

As you might imagine, the researchers asked about a range of arguments in other areas as well, allowing them to compare money arguments to arguments in general. These areas included chores, children, affection, religion, leisure time, drinking, own relatives, in-laws, and other women. By the year 2006, there were 717 still married and 966 divorced.

The role of money arguments differed for the still-married and the divorced. Among those still married, money arguments were the chief contributor to low relationship satisfaction. Over time, an increase in money arguments predicted low relationship satisfaction by the end of the study, an effect that was larger than the impact of other types of arguments. Nothing else predicted low relationship satisfaction over the course of the study. The flip side of this is that couples who never argued about money in the marriage’s early years predicted high satisfaction over the course of the relationship. In all

Money arguments also predicted the outcome of divorce. However, the only predictive measure of money arguments leading to divorce was whether or not the couple argued over money in the early years of marriage. The authors concluded that if a couple knows they are divorcing they will invest less in keeping the marriage together by working through their financial problems. This is where that exchange perspective becomes particularly important.

There are definite practical implications to these findings. Couples counseling can benefit by explorating each partner’s attitudes toward money. We normally associate with relationship quality with the quality of a couple’s communication in areas of emotions, sexuality, and intimacy. However, it’s clear that there are long-term consequences to everyday disputes that couples have about money, especially when they are first learning about themselves in the early days of a relationship. Just as you would consult a couples counselor, then, for problems in your relationship, you might consider adding a financial counselor to your appointment schedule. The results, in terms of your personal and relationship fulfillment, will reap rewards for years to come.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013


Britt, S. L., & Huston, S. J. (2012). The role of money arguments in marriage. Journal Of Family And Economic Issues, 33(4), 464-476. doi:10.1007/s10834-012-9304-5

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