Why Diamonds Aren't Forever
A study uncovers the link between pricey weddings and future happiness.
Posted October 24, 2014
My husband and I got hitched this past June, which was one of the happiest, most transcendent experiences of my life. However, we both agree that while the wedding was awesome, the planning process was decidedly not. Navigating the wedding industry can be frustrating, in part because of the relentless pressure to spend fantastic amounts of money on anything and everything involved. As a relationships researcher, I was particularly interested in (and baffled by) the rhetoric many vendors use in order to sell wedding services and products.
Many of their pitches boil down to the idea that couples in love should want expensive weddings. Vendors will argue that if you truly love your partner, you should be willing to go to any lengths (at least monetarily) to properly celebrate that love on your “special day." For example, maybe you want to show your love by getting a gilded guestbook for your guests to sign, or personally monogrammed hand towels for the reception bathroom. Sometimes the pitch goes so far as to suggest that an expensive wedding guarantees your love. With a perfectly straight face, some vendors will tell you that your wedding day will “set the tone” for your marriage, and so you should be willing to do anything it takes to start off “on the right foot." For example, perhaps you should set the right tone by hiring a 20-piece orchestra for your ceremony, or limousines to transport all your guests to the reception.
Examples of this sort of advertising can be traced back to the 1940s, when the De Beers diamond company launched its infamous “Diamonds are forever” campaign. Indeed, many of the social norms around marriage proposals—such as the wholly arbitrary benchmark of two months’ salary that men should spend on an engagement ring—come from De Beers’ marketing efforts. Like the broader wedding industrial complex, the diamond industry relies on the premise that spending a great deal of money shows love for your partner and predicts relationship success. This idea is widespread in our culture, if only because it is a marketer’s dream: Who wouldn’t pay any price to ensure lifelong marital bliss?
What’s less clear is how accurate these notions are. To what extent do high levels of spending actually predict marital bliss?
For decades, the idea that spending a fortune on engagement rings and weddings is good for your relationship went untested and largely unchallenged. But recently, a pair of economists put De Beers and its peers to the test.1 The researchers recruited more than 3,000 "ever-married" participants (people who were either currently married or had been married at some point) to complete an online survey. They asked the subjects a wide range of questions about their marriage—how long they dated before their wedding; their age at marriage; their feelings and attitudes at the time of the wedding proposal; whether they had children; and, critically, the costs of their engagement ring and wedding. (Participants who were unable to remember how much their wedding cost were able to report that, rather than provide an inaccurate figure.) Participants were also asked about several demographic factors (education, income, religion, race, etc.) so researchers could control for these factors in their analyses. Most important, participants were asked about their marital status and marriage duration, so the researchers could see which factors were associated with marital outcomes.
The results did not lend support to the wedding industry’s mantra; in fact, any reliable associations that the researchers found were in the opposite direction from what the marketing would suggest.
For example, people who had spent between $2,000 and $4,000 on an engagement ring had significantly higher rates of divorce compared to people who spent between $500 and $2,000. Similarly, couples that spent less than $1,000 on their weddings had significantly lower rates of divorce even compared to people who spent between $5,000 and $10,000. And people who reported having spent more than $20,000 on their wedding tended to have higher divorce rates than those who spent less. Further, any cases where spending more was associated with better relationship outcomes could be explained through demographic factors such as having a high income.
In other words, it wasn’t spending more that made things better. Other factors were responsible.
But there's more: The researchers found that high levels of wedding-related spending—for example, having a wedding that cost more than $20,000—was associated with stress over wedding-related debt. The researchers posit that this stress may help to account for some of the negative associations between high spending and marital outcomes: When couples spend money on their wedding that they don’t have, it puts a strain on their marriage later, when they have trouble paying off the resulting debt.
These results suggest that if anything, high levels of wedding-related spending have a negative effect on marriage, not a positive one. Of course, this study is cross-sectional, meaning that the researchers did not follow people over time. It would be great to see a longitudinal study in which newlyweds first report on their engagement ring and wedding spending, and are then followed over many years to see who splits up.
However, the researchers did make a commendable effort to rule out alternative explanations for their results. For example, one problem with cross-sectional studies is that people don’t always have a good memory of events that took place years ago. (This is what psychologists call the “retrospective bias.") To account for this, the researchers also tested their effects among only the people who were married after 2008. If biased reporting produced the effects, this subsample of participants, who presumably had a better recollection of how much they actually spent, should have produced weaker findings. Instead, the researchers found the same results. The very large and relatively representative sample also lends credibility to their findings—3,000 people represent a lot of participants.
The takeaway message here is that the wedding industry is not in the business of doling out useful relationship advice. Its primary objective is to make money. So for a couple trying to plan their wedding, it is probably wise to take the industry’s messages with a very large grain of salt. Your chances at marital bliss are not riding on whether or not you get personalized miniature Champagne bottles for your guests to bring home, or whether the bride gets a deluxe skin treatment every month for a year leading up to the wedding. The amount of money you spend on your wedding is not an indication of how much you love your partner, nor is it a way to improve your marriage’s future prospects—no matter what the bridal magazines have to say about it.
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This article was originally written for Science of Relationships, a website about the psychology of relationships that is written by active researchers and professors in the field.
1. Francis, A. M., & Mialon, H. M. (2014). ‘A diamond is forever’ and other fairy tales: The relationship between wedding expenses and marriage duration. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2501480 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2501480.